Party of Four


I don’t know what I’m going to do about my mother.

My father turned eighty over Thanksgiving weekend and my mother will reach that milestone in March.  My mother called me yesterday (twice) — mostly to complain about my sister — and it didn’t take a whole lot of discernment on my part to realize where we were headed.

When I encouraged her to talk about her concerns, we ended up overtly discussing a topic that has been a not-so-subtle undertone running beneath our relationship for a while.  Like so many Baby Boomers, it is just a matter of time before the care of aging parents has to be addressed.  It is a difficult subject, not only because of the nature of the alternatives, but also due to the emotional subtext.

It is a blessing that, at her age, my mother remains relatively healthy and very active.  She has always been an avid gardener and, since her retirement nearly twenty years ago, she has taken advantage of the California sunshine to tend her fruit trees out back, grow vegetables and build brick and stone paths.  She’s either planting something or pulling something up, messing with irrigation or hauling a truckload of peat moss.

My father plays along to the minimum extent he can get away with.  He mows the very large lawn and, upon request of my mother, will dig a hole or take a chain saw to a tree.  Most of the time, he prefers to putter with his Model A Ford, surf the Net, watch movies or just sit outdoors for hours.

“I wonder what he thinks about when he’s sitting there,” my mother pondered during our recent Thanksgiving visit.

My parents’ house and property is large enough that upkeep would be a burden for any octogenarian.  Despite my mother’s love of digging in the dirt, it has become a lot more difficult for the two of them to handle.  The orange trees bordering the property on three sides are all dead now; the constant supply of water that they require in the blazing heat of the central California summer became too much for my parents.

In the past, my parents have discussed the possibility of eventually selling the house and purchasing a condominium in south Florida.  However, it’s been a few years since I last heard them mention this option.

I say whatever makes them happy is fine with me.  I hope they both live to be happy and healthy centenarians.

I can’t predict the future.  But the future is a funny thing.  Once a haze off in the distance, it now looms larger and larger as it approaches at an accelerating rate like some Δx / Δy problem from physics or calculus class. The statistics indicate that the husband is much more likely to go before the wife, so I can’t help thinking in terms of my mother being the one who is left alone.

For the first time, we actually talked about that scenario yesterday.

My sister has had a decidedly passive-aggressive relationship with my mother for years now.  Since my sister, who had been a stay-at-home mom, decided to divorce her husband a decade ago, she has struggled with career, financial and emotional issues, all of which she freely unloads on my mother in teary late-night phone calls that have increased in frequency and intensity.

And now Sis wants to move in with my parents for four months.  She had quit her job in Idaho, took a six-week temporary job in New Mexico and now finds herself out of work and trying to limit expenses.  My mother sought to consult with me on how much we pay my mother-in-law to live here as a guide to how much she should charge my sister.

The real issue is not money, however.  The issue that my sister yells at my mother, insults her, argues with her and refuses to honor my parents’ rules when visiting.  But still, she is my parents’ daughter, and they don’t feel comfortable telling her that she can’t come and stay while she’s looking for a job.

What my mother and I agreed on during our phone calls yesterday is that, if left alone without my father, there is no way she could go live with my sister.  Both of them would be emotional wrecks.  They’d tear each other to pieces.  Scenes from Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor come to mind.

Nor do I expect my mother to live alone.  That’s a miserable existence, and it’s just not fair.

Well, where does that leave us?  I do have another sister (who currently lives in Texas and is considering moving back east now that she and her husband are empty nesters), and then there is me and my wife.

I think about the parents of my Texas sister’s husband.  They sold their home in New York and moved in with one of their daughters in Pennsylvania.  They lived in their own mother-in-law quarters and got to see the grandkids every day.  They had a condo in Florida for the winter.  Then he died, and she is not alone.

Except for the grandkids part (my sisters’ children are grown), the story could end up being my mother’s as well.  And indeed, she stated yesterday that she’d probably move in with one of us.  “I’d pay my way,” she said, adding that her retirement income and savings are more than sufficient to last for the rest of her life.

But again, it’s not about the money.  My mother is not the easiest person to get along with.  She can be quite opinionated and has no qualms about commenting bluntly about anything and everything.  It’s not a function of growing older; she has always been like this.  Acerbic barbs are standard fare.  I ignore it as much as possible, a coping mechanism I have nurtured since childhood.  But it is no surprise that my wife and my mother do not get along very well.

It’s not as if my wife hasn’t given my mother every chance.  My wife says she keeps hoping my mother will “be nicer.”  I will tell you right now that this is not going to happen.  Unfortunately, my mother doesn’t comprehend that some types of comments are simply inappropriate, regardless of how deeply felt they may be.

Except for once or twice, my wife has always bitten her tongue, knowing we will be on our way home in a day or two.  I don’t blame her at all for being upset with the way I “just take it.”

So I understand that my wife is totally earnest in her assertion that there is no way my mother could ever come live with us.  It’s certainly not worth placing undue stress on our marriage.  And, who knows?  With my multiple health issues, it is quite possible that my mother will end up outliving me anyway.

I have no idea how my sister in Texas feels about all this.  Prior to Thanksgiving, we hadn’t been in contact for six years or so.  I hope she has room for one more, but I have a feeling that her husband wouldn’t be too pleased with the prospect.

As for my mother, I’m sure that living with a son or daughter and spouse is not exactly her idea of paradise.  But still, it’s better than living alone.

And then there is the matter of my mother-in-law, who (God bless her) is a very easygoing person.  She is getting older too, and I foresee us living together for the long term.

Care to make this a party of four?


4 thoughts on “Party of Four

  1. Ugh, I can’t imagine having to deal with that. My parents are still in their fifties though, so hopefully I won’t have to for a long time. It sounds like you should call your siblings together and have a family meeting to talk about what to do about your mom and dad when the time comes.. Sorry you are going through this.

    • I like your idea, although I have a feeling such a meeting would break down into a lot of yelling and accusations. And we’d probably have to do it via conference call due to the distances involved.

      By the way, my wife read this post and was not at all pleased. She reiterated that there is no way in hell that she will allow my mother to come live with us. This probably deserves a follow-up post, but I will have to mull awhile on the proper approach.

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I very much appreciate having you as a reader.

  2. CORRECTION: My wife tells me that she did NOT say that there is no way in hell that she will allow my mother to come live with us. (She also points out, correctly, that we don’t even have a home of our own at the moment, as we live with her mother in the parsonage of a church).

    This is a graphic demonstration of me “hearing” what I expect to hear rather than what was actually said. The classic example of this is the car dealership or furniture store that posts a huge sign stating GOING OUT FOR BUSINESS SALE, which attracts large numbers of customers who expect bargains, thinking that the business is closing.

    Certainly an area in which I need to improve.

  3. Pingback: I’m a Neutral Party | A Map of California

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