Happy 95th Birthday to My Mom

Today is my mom’s 95th birthday. She lives with my sister, Mary, in the house that we grew up in in Stillwater. Bethel Lee Goodson grew up on a farm in southeastern Oklahoma near McAlester. The oldest of five children, my mom did the hard work required on a farm – milking cows, picking cotton, and doing all the necessary “women’s work” of the time. I have fond memories of visiting my grandparents on that farm. Even though my dad hated fishing, he would fashion a cane pole with a string and a hook and help us dig up a coffee can full of worms to take to one of the cow ponds. It was a thrill to feel the string jerk and pull up a perch, which we would unhook and throw back. We tromped through the woods, played in the barn, and came back to the house with brown lines of seed ticks running around the elastic waistbands of our underwear. I loved Tippy, my grandfather’s black and white Australian shepherd, who kept his eye on the kids, worrying over us around the bulls.

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My mom with her father and younger sibling

My mom had an adventurous streak that took her away from the farm to Tulsa where she lived and worked with other young women during the war. The Salvation Army had a boarding house for women in one of the mansions at the top of the hill on Denver Ave. Years ago, it was a Designer Showcase House, and I took her to look at it. She told me how much fun it had been to live there, and how they took the trolley downtown to their jobs. I think her dream was to be a flight attendant, probably curious about far-flung locations. She was always looking skyward at the stars and took an astronomy class to learn the constellations. She would point them out to my brother and sister and me when we were kids.

I learned how to cook from my mom. She was a fabulous cook and liked to try new recipes in her very exacting way. Her meals were not haphazard. If she made Swedish meatballs, then she also made the Swedish brown beans from scratch, and the meal had to be served with wide noodles, rye bread and butter, and beets. She learned to make tacos from a Mexican neighbor when we lived in West Texas. Those tacos were childhood favorites, but also became my brother’s main comfort food when he was feeling low in Los Angeles.

My mom had a knack for design. She and my dad had a hip, mid-century split level built on what was once the edge of town in Stillwater. My brother and sister and I, along with the neighborhood kids, had empty lots, a large gully at the edge of the backyard (which was owned by my parents), and miles of fields to play in, staying out all day in the summer until my dad whistled for us to come home. My mom furnished the house with Danish modern furniture, Knoll chairs and a Saarinen Knoll kitchen table.

Now, my mom lives in the bottom level of that same house. It has just been this year that she hasn’t been able to pull herself up and down those stairs. It became too dangerous. Mary has become her caretaker, with some home health help and hospice, which has allowed my mom to stay in her home. I’m so thankful to my sister and the help we have. The downstairs has a living area, a bathroom, laundry room and a bedroom. There’s a sliding glass door where she can look out at the backyard, the trees, the birds and animals. Even though the town has expanded to encircle her neighborhood with businesses and busy streets, deer come up in the yard from the gully in back.

When I go to spend weekends with her, which I often do, she still wants to “fix me something to eat.” Or get my bed ready upstairs. Her instinct even now is to take care of me as she has always done, despite her physical limitations.

My mom has dementia. Right now, she remembers me. She’s extremely loving and sweet. We talk about the weather and the birds and animals. We laugh a lot. She’ll say, “I want to tell you something, but I can’t remember…What is it I want to tell you?” We laugh about that. She asks about my kids because she has always been crazy about them, and I can’t imagine her not remembering them. But I know that time will come. She asks me several times where they live and wants to know over and over what they’re doing.

My sister, who is a musician, sings the old songs with her. They sing Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” when Mary is helping her to the bathroom with the walker. My mom just sings out, remembering all the lyrics.

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I spent last weekend with Mom and made her a coconut cake. My husband came over and we had a little party for her. We got our daughters on the phone and sang “Happy Birthday.” She blew out a candle after several tries, and we had ice cream and cake. It was the kind of party she would have wanted because she was never one who enjoyed lots of people, especially if they were fussing over her. SHE was the one who took care of everyone else. The last one to sit down to eat. The first one to clean up.

These days, I’m happy to cook for her and to spend time with her. She’s beginning to have more and more episodes of “Sundowners” in the evening where her mind is no longer in reality. I can’t reach her. I know that hallucinatory, lost, and fearful parts of dementia will become more common and last for longer periods. I dread that. That will be the time that she forgets me.

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