Your Story Here: Family Time

One thing’s for certain: Mawrters have a lot to say. This issue features four alumnae/i voices from the ’60s to the present decade.

I am standing in the dank basement facing  down a water filter contraption that needs repair and wishing for my mother.

My mother was always the one with practical skills and the one who knew how to fix things. Always good with her hands, she was willing to plunge into repair jobs around the house and usually figured things out pretty well. She followed behind any carpenter or plumber who came in for special jobs, and somehow they never seemed to mind her questions—probably because her respect for their work was so genuine.

When I was in fourth grade, Mom took a job as an industrial welder. She loved the concentration it required and the satisfaction of a steady bead of molten metal. When the metal dust irritated her lungs, she found a new job as a secretary and stayed long enough to earn a small retirement package—which she promptly invested and turned into a small fortune. Why did I never listen when she tried to tell me about “drip funds” and how to read a company’s annual report? Why didn’t I follow her around asking questions when she repaired the leaking toilet or constructed the fort in the backyard? Because now I am in a huge house with three toilets, one of which sprang a major leak a few months ago, and basically I have no idea what I am doing. There is no longer any stock portfolio, just taxes due and car payments.

And I have discovered that although the Internet does have instruction manuals for almost everything, they are maddening in their gaps. Case in point: directions for changing our water filter that say to remove the cover but fail to clarify which part is the actual cover.  

My mother has Alzheimer’s. It is too late now for her to teach me about household repairs and investment strategies. Nevertheless, she is teaching me every day about what really matters: Being present. Paying attention.   

Almost five years ago now, my parents moved into a house with an “in-law apartment” so that my young daughter and I could share the house with them and we could all look out for each other. I was completing the process of divorce and needed to find shelter and stability. My mother’s cognitive processing was deteriorating enough that my parents needed backup support. It made sense to create a shared household.  

After six months, I found myself looking for an escape hatch. There was the day I was nearly sobbing as I hacked away at the caulk sealing up my bedroom until I broke the window. I was trapped—sealed in—to a house and a life that were no longer mine. I had flung myself out of a painful marriage and into the “protection” of my parents’ home. By my own choice I had become a child again, subject to the decisions of the adults in charge. But eventually I began to create a role for myself that is both child and parent, both giving and accepting care.

Now the little rituals of our family time together are sacred. Saturday mornings are mother-daughter time with toaster waffles and stories in the big red chair. Friday night is family movie time. My eight-year-old daughter navigates around the Internet streaming sites to find her show, then watches from a nearly upside-down position partly on my lap with her legs flung over the back of the couch. My mother sits on my other side and rubs my back. My father sits in the chair opposite with his eyes closed (the better to hear the story, he claims).

“We don’t remember days. We remember moments,” says Cesare Pavese on my coffee mug. When you are living with Alzheimer’s, memory and moments are everything. I don’t know how much clear-headed time I have if this disease is at work in my brain already. I tell myself that what matters most is to be present now. Despite distractions and worries, I want my mother and my daughter to know I am paying attention; I am here in this moment we are creating and may someday remember—or forget.

Thara Fuller ’90 is the director of afterschool and extended-learning opportunities for seven schools in southeastern Vermont. She is raising her daughter in a house shared with her parents, two guinea pigs, and a cat.

All alumnae/i—undergraduate and graduate alike—are invited to submit essays to Being Bryn Mawr, a column that will reflect the broad range of experiences typical of a Mawrter’s life. Check out the submission guidelines.

More Stories:

Your Story Here: Smoker Journals

Your Story Here: Friday Morning at the P.O.

Your Story Here: Turning 50