Our Aging Parents


No Farewell Words Were Spoken...

by Christine

If tears could build a stairway, 
And memories were a lane,
We would walk right up to heaven
To bring you down again.
No farewell words were spoken,
No time to say good-bye.
You were gone before we knew it,
And only God knows why.
Our hearts still ache in sadness 
And secret tears still flow,
What it meant to lose you,
No one will ever know.
When we are sad and lonely,
And everything goes wrong,
We seem to hear you whisper
"Cheer up and carry on."
Each time we look at your pictures, 
You seem to smile and say,
"Don't cry, I'm only sleeping,
We'll meet again someday."


Decorating With Mom's Christmas Ornaments

by Christine

{Matthew, my son, and me shopping for a Christmas tree}

Unlike the multitude of retail stores in the mall, I don't decorate for Christmas until after Thanksgiving. I want to experience and rejoice in one holiday at a time. The colors of Thanksgiving are the warm shades of autumn. Decorating with burgundy, yellow and orange mums along with the traditional and not so traditional pumpkins evokes a cherished atmosphere. I wouldn't want to miss it by rushing the season.

Now that the last of the Thanksgiving turkey is simmering in the stock pot and my mums have started to fade, it is time to climb into the attic and pull out the Christmas decorations. Trimming my tree is not just about decorating my home but it is also a time to remember. Now keep in mind that my memory in general is spotty. Marty is forever asking me to recall various life events and I just go blank. On ocassion I wonder if he has me confused with someone else because I got nothing, a clean slate when it comes to certain events. But as I unpack and place each ornament on my tree, I can give you its entire history. I know where I purchased it, what city I lived in when I found it, who came for Christmas dinner and other assorted facts like the color of my hair that particular Christmas.

Decorating this year will be no different from the past except that now I have my mother's decorations.  Of all her belongings that I inherited, her Christmas decoration hold the most memories.  Each Christmas as part of my gift to Mom, I would give her a Christmas ornament. She received a dozen or so lovely artisan crafted decorations. The blue hand-blown glass tear drop triggers memories of Christmas 1977. That was the year that my daughter Kathryn was born and the first time she met my parents and sister. We drove in from Alabama to spend the holiday with my parents. My mother and sister rushed up to us as we parked the car, took Kathryn from my arms and swept back into my parent's home. They barely acknowledged us. I smile today thinking of their excitement over meeting Kathryn and their total indifference to her parents. 

Some of Mom's ornaments are old; they are my age. One of my favorites is the aluminum Christmas bells. I am sure many families of my generation owned these mass produced muted gold and silver bells with the tinny sound. The fact they were made of aluminum symbolized the strength of the times as families moved into the suburbs. 

I love the addition of Mom's ornaments to my own and while there is a little sadness mixed with the joy of decorating this  year, I know I will cherish the memories. I would love to hear about your decorations. Do you have the same sentimental attachment to your decorations? Or do you change the "look" each year?  


Honoring Those Who Came Before Us

by Christine

Tomorrow I am beginning a new tradition in our family. As we gather together, we will take a moment to acknowledge those who came before us and are now no longer with us. Nothing overly dramatic or maudlin, just a gentle reminder that who we are today was built on the foundation of our parents and grandparents. Whatever your Thanksgiving traditions, take a moment to remember those who made you who you are today. 

Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours. 



Do You Have a Thankful Heart?

by Christine

My mother's premier Thanksgiving dish was her mashed potatoes. They are legendary in our family. She attempted to teach my sister and me how to prepare them just as she had but it never quite came out the same. Maybe it is because we were impatient or maybe it was because food always taste better when someone else prepares it. Sadly, this will be our first Thanksgiving without her. 

The memories of my family holidays are warm and wonderful. Laughter, good food and the kid's table were standard fare at our Thanksgiving gatherings. Keeping traditions alive takes work and commitment and I am grateful that my mother and father valued our family rituals.

So many around us proclaim what we don't have instead of highlighting what we do. The constant barrage of negative chatter and the buy, buy narrative conspires to take the joy out of what is real. I know differently. I live in a bountiful country. I have loving family and friends. I have a job. I have a roof over my head. I have the opportunity and means to help those around me that need help. In short I am blessed.

This year my children and grandchildren will gather at my home to celebrate Thanksgiving. My signature dish will not be mashed potatoes; I am known for my macaroni and cheese. But just as my parents worked to create family traditions that bound us together I will do the same. Furthermore as I prepare for our family time together, I will do so with a thankful heart. My life has not been without struggle; I am human. But this Thanksgiving I will consciously take time to count my blessings with a thankful heart.


Three Simple Steps To Avoid Clutter

by Christine

I was standing in the middle of my mother’s living room faced with the task of deciding which of my parent’s possessions I wanted to keep. My mother’s style of decorating was eclectic but leaned towards the traditional. I am a fan of Mid-Century Modern. Mom collected many lovely antiques as well as indigenous and folk art. I gravitate towards watercolors, glass and graphic designs. She had good taste and I appreciated each piece individually but they weren't necessarily my style.

I knew walking into the house the decisions were going to be emotional but I did not want the result of my feelings to be clutter in my home. I developed a list of criteria that would help me kept those items which fit into my life.

Here is my list:

1.    The article must be beautiful or useful or both.
2.    It must fit with the style of my home.
3.    It cannot be damaged or broken.

I tested each item I thought I wanted against my criteria and found that the decisions became easier. Yes, it was sad to say goodbye to some objects but today I am okay with my choices. The things I did take fit into our life and I do smile when I use them. I have no guilt or second thoughts about what I let go. As I went through the process I reminded myself that the belongings in my parent’s house represented their life and while I would take some things, I needed to craft my own home.

Let me know what criteria you used when saying goodbye to the possessions in your parent’s home. What would you add to this list of criteria when deciding on what items you wanted to keep?



Guidelines that Work When Closing Down the Family Home

by Christine

We sat at the dining room table looking at all the jewelry my mother had collected over her lifetime. Several pieces evoked special memories that we shared with one another. Unbeknownst to us, Mom had saved our infant wristbands, blue for Ed and pink for Julia and me that we wore home from the hospital when we were born. It was a bittersweet afternoon as we decided what pieces each of us would keep. We were closing Mom’s house and this was part of the process.

Closing down the family home can be a minefield of emotional and financial tension. For most people their home is the most valuable asset in their “portfolio”; it can become a battleground if families allow that to happen. I know of one family of siblings who split into factions. One group changed the locks on the family home so that the other group could not get into the house. Even though each sibling is legally entitled to a “share” of the home, several have walked away. They do not want to engage in a battle but they also no longer talk to their sisters and brothers.  Three years later that house still stands, as it was when their mother died.

I am sure you can tell by now that I am a process person. So when we started to discuss how to handle Mom’s house and personal property, I had a plan. I cannot claim credit for the plan; I learned of it from my ex-husband’s family. They brought in a company that appraises everything, runs an estate/garage sale and arranges for anything not sold to be picked up by a charity such as the Salvation Army or Goodwill. This process was particularly helpful to Julia and me since we lived out of town and Mom had not moved or downsized in over 40 years. It was a big job and the professional were better equipped to handle it.

Our family added a couple of additional guidelines to this process. First, if we wanted anything that belonged to our parents, we had to put it on our list and “buy” it from the estate. That may strike you as odd at first, given that we were the sole heirs to our parent’s estate and that it was only a paper transaction. What this process avoids is the U-Haul effect. That is when one family member backs up a rental truck and clears out the house while others stand around in stunned disbelief. No one was allowed to take anything out of the house until it was agreed upon by all three of us.

When my brother declared he did not want any of the china, Julia and I paid him for it. We ended up at financial parity when the sorting process was complete and this procedure clearly revealed that fact. No one felt taken advantage of during what was a particularly difficult time to make decisions. Since we had already decided to bring in professionals to cost everything, this guideline was easy to implement.

It also helped us keep check on what we were taking home with us. We had furnished homes that had limited room for new “stuff”. While each of us had an emotional response to closing down Mom’s house, we needed to resist the urge to take her 1970’s macramé owl. Somehow knowing that we would have to “pay” $3.00 for it squelched the need to hang on to it.

I tease about the owl but I was surprised at my own response to letting go of my parent’s things. As I was walking out of the house the last time before the garage sale, I reached over and took a fruit platter off the wall. I was not particularly fond of the platter or even needed the platter but took it anyway. My sister has an identical story but she took a table. Thank goodness, I had no more room in car. I could see me shoving in the sofa in now.

The other guideline was no spouse or grandchildren were to be involved in the process. If they wanted something from the house, they were to discuss it with their spouse or parent who would then put the item on their list. Our goal was to avoid enlarging the group of potential negotiators. Plus we did not want comments such as “My husband thinks I should have this because I am the oldest, youngest, handsomest or smartest” to enter into the discussion. Those would be fighting words.

You and your family need a plan. I understand how ridged this sounds on the surface. Your first response is probably, “my family would never behave badly”.  But I have personally heard multiple people say their family would never fight over money or personal property only to end up in a bitter battle when closing down the family home. Siblings that were thought to be easy going became intractable over mom’s quilt or dad’s ratchet set. Others were surprised to find that things just “disappeared “ from the family home. Sisters stopped talking to one another because they couldn't’t agree on whom got mom’s wedding rings. This can be avoided with a little forethought and planning.

Intentional living means taking the time to think about a situation and plan to maximize the opportunity for a positive outcome. I would love to hear about your personal experience with closing down the family home; also about how you handled the emotion behind doing so.




Inheritance: Your Place in the Family

by Christine

{the view from our lakehouse}

My father's philosophy was clear, inheritance was all about your place in the family. So it was no surprise that my parent's estate was split evenly between my brother, sister and me. My sister and I did joke that if my mother had her way all their worldly goods would go to the dog, her favorite in the family. But in the end, we knew that my parents were sending a message that we were all equally valuable to them. My parents could have taken one of several paths when it came to the final distribution of their property. They could have left it all to my brother, the only male in our family, left it to the oldest, me or included their grandchildren in the inheritance. They did not because dad believed it was our responsibility to take care of our children.

Dad had given this a lot of thought because of his experience with his own family. He was the oldest and was responsible for executing his parent's will. The added twist to my grandfather's will was that he had remarried late in life after my grandmother's death and he left the use of his home to his second wife. She could legally remain in the property until she chose to vacate or her death. Pretty standard stuff and my father and his siblings had no problem with this arrangement. They liked her and did not want to cause her any discomfort. They were surprised and more than a little annoyed that when she chose to vacate the property she took my grandmother's furniture. My father was the first to admit that the furniture was not wanted by any of the sibling but it felt like a stranger had come in and taken family property that did not belong to her. As my father stated, their response was solely emotional, without logic. But it reinforced that Blanche had unknowingly taken a place in the family that was not her to take. 

I have listened as many of my friends have shared their sadness and anger over the decisions their parents made about property distribution after their death. One friend listened as her parents explained that all their money was going to her brother and his grown children because she owns her home and has a good income and they do not. Her parents made her executor of their will so she will spend her time making sure that their last wishes will be carried out; wishes that exclude her. Another acquaintance's father started selling off valuable items even after he told his father how much he treasured the family grandfather clock. His father's response was clear, it belongs to me and I can do with it what I wish. Still another friend's parents shared with the family that they were leaving the bulk of their estate to the two younger boys because they were not as competent as the older two siblings. Even though all the money and property was gone by the time the will was executed, the intent of their parents remain a bone of contention between the siblings today.  

I recognize and honor the reality that each of us has the freedom and right to give our estate to whomever we wish at our death. But to avoid pain and contention between family members after your death, I encourage the following:

1. Don't punish competence. Doing so has multiple repercussions. It can cause dissension in the family as well as negatively label family members. The younger brothers I mentioned earlier, each reacted differently to their parents reasoning that they weren't as competent as their older siblings. The youngest laughed it off and built a million dollar business, the other brother who is also financially secure only has bitter words for his parents as he mentally defends his life choices against their vision of him. As for the older two, they have trapped both their brothers in a mental paradigm of incompetence that their parents created. 

2. Don't try to manage from the grave. Unless your wealth is along the lines of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett and you are trying to avoid your major heir being the state and federal government, give freely and without strings. I would even suggest give before your death particularly those items boxed up in the attic and closets. I am now lovingly using dishes and other household items that mom had packed away years old and forgotten. I would love to tell her how much pleasure her things are adding to my life and how they make me think of her.

3. Do take time to think about what your gift is saying to others. This goes along with the concept of unintended consequences.  As my father said, this is about each individual's place in the family. If you choose to single out one person over the other, remember others may assign their own reasoning for your actions. This could cause dissension in the family that you did not intend to create. Think about what you are trying to accomplish.

4. Do talk to your heirs. Once you are clear on your goals, share what you are thinking with others. The idea that the reading of the will is a Perry Mason moment where competing family members sit around in a conference room glaring at one another is a TV writer's fantasy. Keep in mind that your children may resist a serious conversation. My father tried to talk to me after his first heart attack and I couldn't bear to think about him dying. Candidly, it has all worked out fine but I wish I had given him the opportunity to share with me his thoughts. 

This is about taking time to think about your goals, putting in place your plans and sharing your vision with your heirs. I would love to hear your ideas on inheritance and what to do and what not to do. Let me know what you think.






Life's Paperwork: Living Will, Power of Attorney and Last Will & Testament

by Christine

In a previous post, I listed the legal documents everyone should have in place but since Mom's death I have real world reasons why these legal tools are necessary. Yeah, I know, nobody wants to think about illness and death and putting these documents in place acknowledges that we have an expiration date and nobody wants to think about that. But as I said before, if you get your paperwork in order those left behind will thank you plus you can take on an air of superiority. Very few Americans have a Living Will and only 45% have a Last Will and Testament.  

My father and mother were very good about getting their paperwork in order. They never spoke of what motivated them but I believe control was a big issue as well as avoiding conflict. I am grateful because for the most part, they accomplished what they set out to accomplish. The Living Will was the first document that went into effect when both Mom and Dad became ill. It spelled out clearly their wishes in the event of a major medical occurrence  and the medical profession welcomed the document. It guides thinking when emotions are high and decisions are difficult. But I am going to restate what many in the legal and the medical professionals say all the time. Once you put a Living Will in place, talk to the people involved about your wishes. 

I encourage this for two reasons. First, you want everyone to follow your plan. We ran into a snag not with family but with one of the paid full time caregivers. When Mom had what turned out to be her final stroke, key family members were out of town. Once we realized the seriousness of mom's condition, we instructed the caregiver to call in hospice. She refused. She had become emotionally attached to mom and could not bring herself to admit this was the end. It made for some tense times as we sat at the gate at the airport making multiple phone calls to hospice to get the help mom needed. 

The second reason is to help family members avoid guilt in the future. My father suffered a fatal stroke that put him into a coma. After three days in a coma, the doctors at the Mayo Clinic patiently explained to my mother the medical realities of my father's condition. They gently explained that my father was gone and that machines were keeping his heart pumping. For years afterwards, she would occasionally say that maybe we should have waited a "few" more days before taking dad off the machines. We reminded her that dad was very specific in his instructions about the end of life and that she had done the right thing in following his wishes. That gave her some peace. 

The Power of Attorney is a powerful tool. Bluntly it states that your designate can do anything you can do. They can sell or buy property, enter into agreements and make legal and financial decisions on your behalf. This document turned out to be a helpful tool to our mom and family. Once mom started stroking she could not balance her check book or remember to pay the light bill. It became necessary for someone to step in and help her. She had already put in place a Power of Attorney and chosen her designate. That was really the key. She chose my son, Matthew, because she trusted him, he lived locally and he had an MBA. An MBA is really not necessary but she was proud of her grandson and it gave her comfort to know he was balancing her checkbook.  Additionally the rest of the family trusted him and recognized that he would work to fulfill mom's wishes. The challenge here is choosing the right person at the right time. 

Lastly, the Last Will and Testament. I am so glad that Mom and Dad had this document in place. For the people left behind, death is not only an emotional time but requires a legal response. Everything from turning off mom's cell phone to selling her house required legal authority and documentation to do so. Yes, if you fail to put a will in place, the state will come in and dictate to your family and/or friends how to get this done. But it is cumbersome and slow going. Your will offers a framework for others to work under. It states who will be your executor, who will care for minor children and how to distribute property. It is not like in the old Perry Mason movies where family members come together for the reading of the will. Though I guess if you were into the drama of it all you could require that. It is more about creating a document that will help your family maneuver the legal process once you are gone. 

I am grateful to my parents for taking care of life's paperwork because losing your parents is difficult enough without the added burden of dealing with government bureaucracy without it. I had my paperwork put in place years ago. Yes there was some anxiety during the process but today, I rarely think about it. And do know my children will thank me once the time comes. When I talk about living an intentional life, this is an area that needs intentionality. It does require taking the time to think through what you believe and what you want from life even at the end, how you want to treat others and then putting a plan in place. Plus it means you could join the 45% and enjoy feeling just a little superior to the remaining 55%.



The Decision is Yours to Make

by Christine

When she put her head on the dinning room table, the entire family just stared at my mom. Finally, my son, Matthew said, “Grandmother are you okay?” No she wasn’t. My father had died three months earlier and this was her first holiday without him in over 50 years. She was struggling; we were all struggling. Dad’s funeral had been emotionally charged and strained my relationship with my brother and sister to the point of breaking. We all went home angry and unable to speak to one another for months. It was a sad and disappointing time.

I made the decision that when mom died it would be different. I know that sounds odd but it was absolutely necessary for me to think through what happened and consciously decide what my sister and brother meant to me. I guess that sounds even stranger. My father was the anchor of the family and held us together through sheer will. Even though we lived in different cities, lead different lives and at times didn’t have much in common, my father expected us to act as though we were still the same family unit we were growing.

I don’t agree with that philosophy. I believe family can have a special place but I also believe there has to be a mutual desire for a relationship and that relationship should be respectful. I have heard more than one of my friends long for a closer relationship with a sibling but just can’t get the other person to respond. That is unfortunate but both people need to be willing to engage.

With time I came to see that I did want a relationship with my sister and brother outside of my parents. I had to decide what I was willing to do to have the kind of relationship I wanted with them. I started with my sister. As adults, Julia and I have been closer than Ed and I. I shared with Julia my desire to maintain a positive relationship with her and my disappointment over what had happened at dad’s funeral. She too felt bad about the family breakdown and was eager to discuss some issues that could help us avoid another meltdown. It has been slower with my brother because we had a further distance to travel. But since mom’s death, I committed to calling him at least once a week and have been pleasantly surprised to receive chatty calls from him in return.

As we work to be intentional about our lives, our relationship with our family is a key element. We can craft unique and healthy relationships that bring out the best in one another. It is our choice. That is not say my sister is anymore organized than she was growing up or my brother will stick to the facts of a story just because he is an adult or that I will be any less bossy than I was when I was 10. It just means that we have chosen to honor our differences while finding common ground.



Getting the Answers Before It's Too Late

by Christine

Her response to my email was disappointing but not completely unexpected. In the oodles and oodles of photographs that I have been scanning, I found three 8 ½ by 11 black and white wedding photographs. It was not my parents wedding or anyone else in the family. Candidly, my family has a history of eloping so I was pretty certain these must have been friends of the family. My father was part of the wedding party and in one picture my mother is sitting in a pew. I had hoped my Aunt would have some answers. Unfortunately, she didn’t know either one of the two brides or bridegrooms in the photo or the dozen or so in attendance kneeling before the brides. It was a fancy wedding!

Of course, since my mom’s passing, there is no one to answer my questions. That is not to say mom was forthcoming with a lot of information before she died. She never was one to talk about her family or her life before she met my dad. But in retrospect I have come to understand that her lack of answers in the last few years of her life had more to do with the dementia that was overtaking her than her unwillingness to fill in the blanks. She would bark, “I don’t know why you want to talk about that” and we would all back off.

I am a political scientist/historian at heart so I want the facts- documented and correct. My brother on the other hand never let’s a fact get in the way of a good story. He just fills in the blanks to his satisfaction. I know he is less stressed than I am about getting the “right” answer. I have learned from others that what I am experiencing is not uncommon. It seems that questions bubble up after the death of a parent or even a spouse. The questions can be as mundane as “What happened to the little Christmas houses that we had as kids?” to the serious, “Is there any history of autism in the family?” to the scandalous, “Who is that women in these pictures of Granddaddy”? But all the questions go unanswered now.

My Aunt Carolyn shared with me that she had numerous questions for her parents after their death that went unanswered. So she is keeping an ever-expanding letter that answers questions she thinks her daughters may have after she is gone. I know that there will be questions that will go unanswered but my Aunt Carolyn’s time is well spent. Her daughters will appreciate her thoughtfulness.

I would love to read her letter today and it has made me think. I cannot spend my time documenting my past; I want to live in the present. But I want to be thoughtful of my children and grandchildren.  I was a hospice volunteer for many years and they have a document called The Time of My Life. It has hundreds of questions that start with “Did you know either of your Grandfathers” and ends with “Is there something you always wanted people to know about you”? It is a wonderful tool for sharing personal and family history particularly with children.

I am reminded of the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The play is popular with high school theater directors and seems to be performed continually. I assume that is because the performance rights are cheap and the main characters are young people. I also think the concepts are well beyond most high schoolers. Emily, the main character, comes back from the grave where she pleads with her mother to “look at me one minute as though you really saw me”. What she asks is impossible but a longing that all of us feel once those we love are gone. We want just one more minute to fill in the blanks. Today is the day to take just one minute to really look at the people you love.