I’ve heard all the old stories again and again. Some are really interesting, but I take them all for granted – part of my identity. My mother has always been a good story teller and still is. Now I'm hearing those stories all the time; the year she turned 90, she moved into my house in the mountains of North Carolina.
She had been living in Galveston Texas with my younger brother and his wife. When their house was badly damaged by Hurricane Ike in 2007 she was homeless for six weeks; lived in a motel for a month and then was hospitalized with a serious case of pneumonia. When she was finally able to return home, she was terrified another hurricane would strike. She’s safe now in the Blue Ridge Mountains not far from where she was born and where her family has lived for about 300 years. No natural disasters strike our part of the country. It’s beautiful, temperate and uncrowded. It’s a good place to live – and to die.
I was divorced seven years ago and eventually decided to leave the Bay Area – home for most of my adult life. When I was offered a professorship in the art department at Appalachian State University, I accepted it eagerly. It was understood that my mother would come and live with me, instead of living in Texas. I purchased a house in the mountains, with an apartment on the ground floor specifically designed for a disabled or elderly person. I live on the first floor and paint in a studio on the top floor.
We talk. I do my mother’s shopping and help her with some of the mundane tasks of living. She can’t drive anymore and sometimes gets confused. She jokes that she misses her brain. According to our family doctor, my mother is in better health for her age than I am. Neither of us feels our age. My mother is very independent and takes care of herself – cleaning, cooking and personal hygiene. She pays her bills and is mindful of sending birthday cards and thank-you notes. She watches Fox News and old TV shows from the 50’s and 60’s. Sometimes she surfs the Internet. She tells endless stories about her life – her childhood, her marriage, her days as a young actress in New York and the little adventures she’s had. My mother’s life seems to be flashing before her eyes very slowly.
Ruth Morrison wanted to be an actress. She graduated from high school at 16, and went to a North Carolina Baptist college. She landed a two year scholarship to attend a dramatic school in New York, the following year – 1936. After school, she did summer stock, and succeeded as an actress for a few years. She worked with many actors who went on to stardom. She didn’t try to maintain contact with most of them after she married my father a few years later, during the war. He was jealous of her life as an actress and the famous actors with whom she had been close. I was always impressed when I saw one of my mother’s friends doing a bit part on TV or in a movie. Now, she watches old TV re-runs on Cable, hoping to see someone she used to know – sometimes she does. Most of them died long ago.
Nearly a hundred years ago, my mother and father were both born and raised about a hundred miles west of where we now live. They moved away long ago and never returned except to visit on summer vacations each year. Part of the reason my mother has moved in with me is that she wants to be buried beside her mother and her grandmother back in her home town. The burial plot was purchased in 1913, years before my mother was born. It’s a two hour drive away. When my mother dies, it will be easy to transport her body to the cemetery. There will be a very small memorial service.
My father died many years ago after losing his retirement savings in a failed business venture. He left my mother with little money and substantial debt. Characteristically optimistic, she responded to the difficult situation by deciding to write a book – a novel which she referred to as a ‘metaphysical soap opera’. It would sell a million copies and provide the financial support she needed. The book became the central focus of her life for two decades. For years she worked at writing and re-writing. She never thought it was quite ready to publish.
Her novel is about a beautiful photo-journalist from South Carolina, with a no-good husband from whom she is estranged for several good reasons. Their son meets and falls in love with the daughter of an international tycoon whose dear friend, an elderly and distinguished English gentleman, introduces himself to the protagonist. She recognizes him as the man she first saw in dream just after her parents were killed in a tornado years before – a man she has referred to as ‘Mr. God’ since her childhood. – a man who has actually been her spiritual teacher, visiting her only in dreams her entire life. Now, as his own life on Earth nears its conclusion, he calls on her to document his transition to the next world. She will use her photographic skills to document the miraculous transformation, as his body turns to pure light and entirely vanishes from this dimension. Along the way, there is torrid sex, attempted rape, a kidnapping by Russian mobsters, out-of-body experiences, psychic phenomena, and lots of luxurious living described in great detail. My mother was still re-writing the book when she moved in downstairs. Last year, as a birthday present, I had the book published on-line and presented her with a dozen hard bound copies which she has inscribed and given out as gifts. The final edition still has a couple of minor errors she ruminates about. It is entitled ‘The Last Enemy’ – a reference from the Bible that refers to death itself (Corinthians, Chapter 15, verse 26). We rarely talk anymore about publishers or making any money from writing books. The book is my mother’s gift to those she loves.
Our lives have become a steady and reassuring series of mundane rituals of survival. We have come to know each other differently than before. There’s a new kind of closeness. We argue gently about politics and sometimes discuss economics, religion, art or philosophy. She politely pretends to see my point of view. My mother values politeness above almost everything.
Like many of her generation, my mother’s view of the world was formed by the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, World War II, the McCarthy Hearings, the Cold War and the Assassination of JFK. My mother was raised as a strict Southern Baptist, though she long ago gave up attending church or believing in a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. She sees the world as basically hostile and combative. Although she agrees with me on some liberal ideas – a women’s ‘right to choose’, fair taxation for rich and middle class alike, and that we should close our military bases around the world, but she also believes Barak Obama hates America and is unconsciously trying to destroy it. She thinks he is a Socialist, but admires his speeches. My mother has voted Republican ever since Wendell Willkie ran for President.
She is constantly worried she is a burden on me. She is not. While I am careful to maintain a certain distance to preserve our mutual privacy, we’ve grown closer in many ways since she’s moved in. I’ve come to appreciate her grace, intelligence and kindness in new ways. My mother suffers from arthritis and vertigo and can sometimes only walk a few yards at a time. And yet, sometimes she slowly and carefully climbs the inside stairs to my part of the house, triumphant and exhausted by the accomplishment. It’s always a surprise to see her standing at the top of the stairs, but I shudder with fear that she might fall in the attempt without my ever knowing. She sees it as her daily exercise – a chance to get out of ‘the basement’.
I’m grateful my mother still has most of her marbles. It’s a pleasure simply spending time with her each day. I listen to her stories, learn about the news of the day and enjoy the familiar flow of witnessing the change of seasons together and chatting in our beautiful mountain locale. She finds endless projects to keep herself occupied. I teach at the university and make art – big, drippy, acrylic paintings that are influenced by classical Chinese landscape art, British Romanticism and American Abstract Expressionism. I sell paintings now and then, but my mother is disappointed I have not made a fortune as an artist. My art work is about the interaction of mountains and clouds, and about freedom, and about living and dying. It’s about the paradox of time and stillness. My mother and I have both come to deeply appreciate the passing of time and the anticipation of stillness.
Taking care of my mother has forced me to face the imminence of death – the inevitability of my own old age and infirmity. But listening to her stories gives me a comforting sense of connection. Sometimes it’s annoying to hear the same story for the hundredth time, but each time the story is told, my mother comes alive with a charming sense of purpose and seems not to understand that I’ve heard the story before – even when I tell her so. Some of the stories are about me – some happened long before I was born, or after I grew up and moved away. Stories of a North Carolina girl in New York in the 1930’s; cute baby stories about my brothers and me; heroic and mysterious occurrences having to do with ancestors and relatives; war stories my father used to tell, all become the fabric of my own family culture and my own sense of self.
Maybe taking care of our parents makes the changes we experience in life more understandable, easier to deal with somehow. We’re re-assured that everything flows as it should. Birth, life, love and death... transition is the sublime dance we all must do. The music changes, but the dance goes on. I guess it’s just an awareness we come to as we grow older... one of the perks, actually.
Mike Grady is an accomplished painter and professor. Currently the Chair of the Art Department of Apple State University in North Carolina, he has lectured widely on the symbiosis of creativity, identity and health. Here's his website.