Plays Well With Others
It’s almost summer, and my desk is piled with brochures and flyers for science camp, circus camp, photography camp, and rowing camp. I’ve got my checkbook out and my pen ready. Since my two daughters were toddlers, I’ve enrolled them in gymnastics, drawing, violin classes, guitar lessons, ice skating, horseback riding (until my allergies got the better of me), unicycle lessons, ceramics, choir, taiko drumming, soccer, youth theater and other things I can’t even remember anymore. We’re a busy family.
When my mother moved in with us, she spent days sitting stolidly in her chair like it was the eye of the tornado. We whirled around her, touching down then taking off again. In the evenings, we’d ask her, “How was your day?” “Terrible.” My shoulders sank. “What did you do?” “Sat here.” She was disgruntled and lost; she didn’t know a soul. I realized that I needed to help her find meaningful activities, and new friends, if she was to ever be content out here. When we plucked her out of New Jersey, her entire lifetime’s worth of social connections vanished.
She no longer had her Japanese church in New York, which she’d attended for seventy years, meeting friends she’d known since kindergarten, eating a lunch of udon noodles in the basement after services. Finding her a local Japanese church was not hard; getting her to actually attend and feel comfortable was another thing. For my mother, it was a sea of new, unfamiliar faces and names that were impossible to memorize or distinguish. We dropped her off on Sunday mornings and picked her up two hours later. She trundled in grimly, and always came out alone.
Weekdays were worse. My mother and I sat in the house; I tried to write and she grumbled about being bored. I guiltily offered to take her to lunch or shopping, but then I got no work done. I was drowning in the role of being my mother’s only friend, and I use the term “friend” in the loosest possible interpretation. We were slowly driving each other nuts; one day she “ran away” from home, and I drove around the neighborhood for hours until I found her. “I’m moving back to New York,” she muttered constantly. She felt so untethered, so without community other than the tiny island of our family.
I was desperate. I posted an ad in Craigslist, the online bulletin board, seeking a “senior companion.” Carrie showed up: a sweet, calm Buddhist with a buzz cut. Her dream, she said, was to do hospice work. My mother was not dying, but she was dying inside. Carrie suggested walks; my mother said no. She offered a lunch out and was brusquely refused. My mother hated the idea of paying someone to essentially babysit her, even though Carrie was kind and warm and had the patience of Job. We had to let her go.
Next, I signed her up for a Japanese quilting class at the church. First she balked, then she reluctantly agreed. The teacher seemed welcoming. But week after week, we’d inquire at the dinner table, “How was quilting?” “Boring.” “What did you do?” “Nothing” (or rather, in her Brooklyn accent, “Nuttin'”). After six months the quilting teacher called me. “If she benefits in a social way, she’s more than welcome to continue joining us. But she can’t really follow the directions. It’s too hard.” My heart plummeted. It was like hearing that your child can’t read, or jump, or do what all the other kids do. “But does she have friends?” I said, a little desperately. A long pause. “Not really.”
I went back to Craigslist. Seeking private quilting tutor. Ann showed up, and she patiently worked my mother through the steps of putting together her own quilt. It was a major victory, but then Ann disappeared. First she was sick, then her car died, then she stopped returning my calls. Every Monday my mother set up her sewing machine on the kitchen table, expectant. By ten o’clock, she sighed heavily and packed up the machine in its zippered bag.
After months of being stood up we gave up on Ann; now we have Louise on Mondays and Thursdays. She is genuinely enthusiastic, and she and my mom have made over a dozen quilts together. They have fun, sewing and cutting and chattering a mile a minute. And now my mom loves showing off her work to anyone who stops by, the green and orange one for one granddaughter’s crew team, and a peace and love quilt for the other granddaughter’s hippie school.
One day I read an article about the “go-go bowlers” – an over-55 Japanese Nisei league two towns over. My mother has been a zealous bowler her whole adult life. When I brought up the idea, her first response was “Nah,” but then I put her in the car and in the end she couldn’t resist the sound of the ball on the wooden alley, speeding toward the triangle of pins. Gorogorogorogoro … pachin! This was the Japanese onomatopoeia that she’d taught me when I was a little girl. She nudged my arm, “Remember?” It took over a year, but eventually she started joining the bowling ladies for lunch after the Friday games. Another year, and she began slowly learning their names.
We had a barbecue party over Memorial Day weekend; my husband and I invited an assortment of friends and so did our teenaged daughters. My mother usually puts up with our social events but I sense that they are lonely times for her, a reminder of her own friends thousands of miles away. This time, I printed out invitations decorated with little hot dogs and hamburgers. “Pass these out at bowling,” I told her, and to my surprise, she did. The afternoon of the barbecue, I paced the front deck, glancing up at the street for arriving cars. What if nobody came?
But they did come: nearly a dozen senior Japanese bowlers, bearing platters of Spam sushi and multi-colored Jell-O treats. They surrounded her in the family room and chatted the afternoon away. I was so happy. After they left, she jerked her chin at the now-empty couch where they’d all sat. “Nice bunch, huh?” Yeah. Nice bunch.
Now she looks at the calendar. What day is it? Sunday is church day, Monday quilting. Tuesdays she comes to my office with me and helps with the mailings; Wednesday she volunteers at my daughter’s school and gets paid in pizza lunches. Thursday she quilts again, Friday she bowls and goes out to lunch with her buddies. She has friends now. Saturdays she rests and watches the rest of us buzz and bustle around her. She doesn’t talk about going back to New York anymore. She’s stopped running away.
12 replies on “Plays Well With Others”
Susan, I wish I had your insight when my father lived with us. You have written a beautiful, thoughtful, insightful anecdote which I thoroughly enjoyed. Much love, Kiera
Saturday I stopped by a local nursing home to visit a church friend, and as always, was touched by the lonely cocoon of senility some of the residents suffer.
So it was uplifting to read about a happy experience! You are such a dedicated, loving daughter, and I enjoyed learning a bit more about your mom! She sounds like a spunky lady!
I always look forward to reading your column — it’s one of my LM favorites!
This was great! Your mom sounds really admirable. I love reading your columns. But it does make me miss you!
I am in that beginning phase with my FIL, who has come to stay with us (“indefinitely,” said my husband, when I asked how long he’d be with us). He just sits in his chair upstairs, all day long, watching CNN, and reading The Economist. We come home, and nothing in the refrigerator has been touched (has he been eating? He says he has, but we suspect he has barely eaten, if at all).
He is a quiet non-sociable person, made even more so since being uprooted from where he spent most of his life. We urge him to go out, and he never does. We give him “assignments” and ‘errands” to run–and only 10% of the time do they get done (and they are not drudgery assignments either).
I am so glad you have gotten to a good equilibrium–it makes me hopeful for our future, too!
Susan, this is such a nice piece. I can so relate to the whirlwind of brochures, trying to make sure the kids aren’t bored in the summer… You are such a saint. Your mother is lucky to have a daughter like you. I am struggling with some of the same issues with my own mother. I always enjoy reading your column.
Oh Susan, you always write the most beautiful stories and never fail to make me teary!
Every one of your columns has brought such varied emotions but this one topped them all. I’m guessing it is mainly the thoughtful and heart warming way you betray your experience but nothing could have prepared me for the unexpected tears of joy when I read about your mother’s friends showing up with spam sushi. What a vision.
Susan, another beautiful column. It speaks so well of you that in such a difficult situation, you made such an effort to get your mother re-situated. And what a truly happy ending, that all your hard work paid off so well. I felt like cheering at the end!
Another beautiful column. Too full of feeling to say anything else, except thank you, as always.
Wow, great story. For someone who is often bitchy and impatient with her own mother (that would be me), you are an inspiration. And I am going to start shouting “Gorogorogoro…pachin!” when I go bowling. Maybe I will have better luck.
I totally heart Grandma Ito. I think she could give bowling lessons (didn’t I read on your blog that she bowled 5 strikes in a row or something? WOW.)
I love this. Your mother reminds me so much of my grandfather–98 years old and still golfing!