I arrived excited. I found all the books! Laforet, Cela, Delibes, Martín Gaite, Goytisolo…
This is going to be a great semester!
I love novels and these novelists would take me back to a place in time, my Spain.
Our professor stopped to admire my stack of novels at the end of class.
“I was able to find all but one used!”
That’s exciting for a grad student squeezing all her pennies.
“And in these all the important passages are already highlighted!” I bubbled as I opened one of the books to show her the streaks of florescent yellow.
“Careful with that,” she said. “We don’t all read for the same reasons.”
“Oh? But the important parts… ”
“Are not the same for everyone.”
She took my novel and flipped through it.
“She might highlight the cleverly camouflaged references to the Civil War. He underscored the metaphors about gay communities. Maybe what’s significant to you are the alliterations… the ones that make the passages roll off the tongue like poetry.”
I do enjoy well-placed poetry in prose.
Life is a used book. We’re not the first to fall in love, we’re not the first to shatter on the rocks of heartbreak. We’re not the first to raise a child, to find a friend, to lose a loved one.
We live used stories. But we make our used books our own, stopping to mark and chew on the words that resonate within us.
After class, I stopped at the coop again to buy an orange highlighter.
I wish I could let that professor know, find her and tell her how much she taught me about life that sunny afternoon in Prescott Hall.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021
I began documenting this uncertain journey four years ago next month. My words are often reminders, a big fat note to self, because I mostly write for myself. I also write to honor my parents, to lift them on the journey. My hope is to connect with other caregivers and empathetic readers through my words. To lift them.
Note to self: This is damn difficult.
A few days ago, a friend who was also an Alzheimer’s caregiver for her mom, wrote to me:
Been reading your blogs —tough times. Brings back memories, it can be so damn difficult & exhausting. Your mom is so lucky to have you, makes me wish I would have done more for my mom. Can’t dwell on that.
The makes me wish… sentence made me sad. I never want my journey notes to inspire regrets. It’s the opposite of why I write about anything. Down the road, I may have a similar struggle with regrets, so this is me writing to my friend and a note to myself: We do our best.
Another friend who is a facilitator for the Caregivers of Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients Support Group offered this to one of the group members who was struggling with the I-wish-I-could’ve/would’ve thought pattern:
You did the best you could with the tools you had at the moment.
Note to self: Do your best with what you have.
My friend’s words have stayed with me as I move through this journey with my parents. I offer them back to my dad when he struggles with mom, to myself when I’m not happy with my choices. I offer them here, now, to any other caregiver, past or present.
This journey plays out differently for every family because the range in behavior and condition of Alzheimer’s patients is dramatic. I have two friends whose moms became violent. Of course their families needed memory care. One of my grandmothers ran all of the sitters off and nearly burned her house down more than once. Of course my uncle thought she’d be safer in a nursing home. My other grandmother, the one with a switch bush just outside her back door for spanking her grandchildren, became docile, a lost puppy following and calling after the only shred of her life that hadn’t faded: Norman, my grandfather.
My grandfather patiently cared for her until “she passed out.” He kept her home because he could. Patience may have been his nature, but I imagine he never thought of it as a choice. He was just doing the best he could.
Note to self: I see you.
My dad once told me that he told mom, “I’m no Norman.” I’m not sure the exact context, but it involved Alzheimer’s. Mom’s been watching this bull snort at her for at least six years. Dad knew my grandfather’s model wouldn’t work for him.
You don’t have to be a Norman, Dad!
Dad isn’t Norman and he’s doing his best. I know because I see him.
And my friend who wrote to me last week? I know she did her best. She kept a sense of humor I envy, and she did some beautiful things for her mom and dad that I wish I could do.
I see you!
The things I do for my mom won’t work for other caregivers. The choices other caregivers make won’t work for my family. Our journeys are different and caregivers can’t all respond in the same way. We don’t need to be the same. What we need is to be seen. This is a damn difficult journey.
Note to self: Pity parties and guilting don’t work.
I mostly write about the best moments, that moment we managed to crawl out of a hole that swallowed us or that moment we found a joyful activity. The simple moments that offer a little hope and light.
I don’t always walk in the light.
Restless my mom kept asking where dad was. I had sent him to Sunday evening church without her so I could spend a little time with mom before I left for two weeks.
“He was supposed to take me!”
“I asked dad to let you stay with me because I’m leaving tonight. You said you wanted to stay with me. Don’t you?”
She was agitated. “If people would just do what they say!”
I’m not sure if I was truly sad or if I thought I could guilt her into relaxing. “I’m sad. I thought you’d want to spend the evening with me.”
When I didn’t get far the first time, I used the same tactic a second. Maybe a third. Devolving the conversation.
“I guess I’m the bad one now,” she said, staring hard into the other room, away from me.
Note to self: The ALZ bubble is always on the verge of bursting.
The words that follow might sound like in-my-defense statements (and it’s not untrue), but I write them as notes to self for caregivers.
Outside of the ALZ bubble it can be easy to ideate the perfect things you’ll do and the exemplary demeanor you’ll exhibit (or would have done and would have exhibited) through the difficult moments.
I have the luxury of removing myself two weeks at a time when I go home. Dad doesn’t. Many caregivers don’t. They’re in the ALZ bubble 24-7.
The ALZ bubble is pressurized, about to pop with hard moments. Sure you have tools —an excellent box of tools— but under pressure you struggle to locate them. Not to mention that you’re stuck in that pressurized bubble with your own baggage and, let’s face it, your own garbage.
It makes me sad that you don’t want to be with me.
What a load of garbage! What was I thinking? I clearly wasn’t.
Note to self: There is no pause button.
Life doesn’t pause for the miracle of patience. You have to find patience in spite of the life tasks that pull and weigh on you, and some days the patience is not there.
I needed to pack, take out the garbage, the compost, close the blinds, pack the computer, prepare the house for a 2-week absence. Patience wasn’t in my tool box.
Your scramble for tools is exacerbated by the prickly gasses of emotions that fill the ALZ bubble: sadness, disappointment, fear, impatience, anger —oh the anger!—, frustration, and grief. Pressurized, tangled, hot, urgent. It’s a miracle you can breathe in there, let alone rise to a task.
Dad recently reported a new development. He didn’t say so, but I’m sure the new development injected the gas of embarrassment into his ALZ bubble. Sitting in their pew at church, he saw something on mom’s neck.
“Oh my, is that toothpaste on your neck? Here, let me wipe it off. Why did you put… ? Never mind.”
We can’t side-step or mitigate all the developments. We can’t shake off the emotional toll and we have precious little recovery time because it’s all we can do to manage this wagon, barreling down the mountain with no brakes. There is no pause button, so we strategize, make promises to ourselves, face the next day.
To help mom with where to put what, we’ll simplify and organize toiletries, outfits in the closet, and underwear in the drawers. That’s the best we can do.
Note to self: Make the best of the journey, it ends in disaster.
This journey is hard. You care for someone you love knowing all the while you’ll both lose. Embrace the grace you’re given in any moment.
If you said something that made her smile, congratulate yourself. If you were able to sit still with him in the afternoon even though the house needed tending, give yourself credit. By the same token, give yourself a break for those moments when you left his side impatiently and for that thing you said that made her agitation escalate.
The balance is hard, the journey unkind.
For me, the journey is all I have left with mom. She’s going to lose this battle. I’m losing her bit by bit. Dad’s losing his love. I know where we’re headed and I don’t like it. The best I can do is make the best I can of the journey.
Note to self: This is so damn difficult. I’ll do the best I can today. And that’s enough.
If you’re on an Alzheimer’s journey, remember to take care of yourself along the way, give yourself a break, accept the help of others. If you’re not but you know someone who is, see them and let them know you see them.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021.
“What are we going to do about this mess?”
I know it’s her when I see the caller ID. She used to know all the numbers by heart, but her mind is a mess now. She keeps my number by the kitchen phone.
“What mess?” I ask.
- Did you drop a plate?
- Lose your purse?
- Are you trying to find dad?
- Is the sitter annoying you, sticking too close to your every move?
- Or is it the big mess? The mess in your head?
We’re in a mess.
Words come with great effort, and she’s tired, she can’t always explain. But sometimes, “I just sit in the chair all dad-blamed day!”
What are we going to do? She won’t like any of the answers.
I’m sad. But I don’t want the sadness or the mess to define me, so I keep looking for the answer of the moment.
The storm before the storm
Some days her frustration defines her, a hovering Pig-Pen cloud that, like the sitter, sticks too close.
A couple of weeks ago, I could tell she was undone by the pre-hurricane commotion. Unfamiliar faces of evacuees, organizing groceries, preparing food ahead of the expected outage.
“What are we doing?”
“We’re getting ready for a hurricane.”
It was time for me to leave, but I couldn’t leave her alone like this, in a cloud of confusion and frustration, her jaw set hard, muscles stiff. She was angry.
“I’m just this, this old woman!”
She had washed my dishes, helped me in the flower beds, with some laundry, but in all the commotion, she didn’t remember doing things. She felt idle in a sea of busy people.
“Yeah, we’re both old, Mom,” I tried to inject some light into the moment.
“No!” She pounded her fist on the counter. Angry. “They don’t care about me! I’m just an old woman!”
The hurricane evacuees greeted her, gave her hugs, had small conversations, but the commotion was too much. Everyone was busy. Chit chat and hug, then scurry along to prepare hurricane food, settle pets, organize the fridge. She was just an old woman.
“They care,” I protested.
It’s never a good idea to protest.
I pulled her in for a long hug. She stayed stiff as a board. It was too much.
We have to do something.
Dad would call me a few days later.
“We have to do something about this mess!”
“What mess?” Again, honest question.
“Well, if you don’t know, there’s no point in me telling you.”
Oh, the big mess.
It’s a big mess. Most days it defines us. I don’t know what to say, what to do.
What are we going to do about it? All of the answers are unsatisfactory. We have to do something, but what?
I take me arms away from mom. Her fist is still clenched on the counter.
Lunch! I forgot about lunch. In all the commotion, I didn’t think to make lunch.
“Can I make you a sandwich?”
She stared dismissively into the back fields. A sandwich might not lure her off the ledge, but it couldn’t hurt.
“What are you doing?” She heard me pull a pan from the cabinet.
“Making you a grilled cheese. It’s already three and you haven’t had lunch. Will you forgive me?”
Still stiff, she walked around and picked up the spatula to move the butter. Something to do…
I let go of my urge to get on the highway. The storm wouldn’t be here for at least 24 hours.
“Rectangles or triangles?”
“Triangle,” she motioned with her hand. Sometimes she knows what she wants.
“Where’s your dad?”
“He’s getting the generator ready for the storm.”
“Yes, there’s going to be a hurricane.”
“Oh no,” she washes the cheese and bread with her water. “This is a mess.”
“It is. But we’ll be okay. You won’t be alone.”
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021.
What are pattern interrupts?
Pattern interrupts come in many shapes and sizes.
- Vacation / War
- Newborn / Newly deceased
- House in flames / House under construction
- Debilitating / Empowering
- Fresh spring breeze / Fierce hurricane winds
Pattern interrupts heal or batter our emotional, physical, and financial well-being. They can be the cure or the hard stop. Or both. They can feel good, bad, or in between, but they’re almost always uncomfortable.
An intentional well-timed pattern interrupt is great for untethering from a habit or dull pattern. I’ve used them for overcoming writer’s block, developing healthier routines, and exploring new things.
My current pattern interrupt is Ida. I never love a hurricane, but I don’t always hate them because a pattern interrupt can be interesting, if uncomfortable.
This time I wasn’t in the mood.
Collectively, we have not yet emerged from the giant pattern interrupt of 2020, the pandemic. My family is in a pattern interrupt as my mom is slowly swallowed by Alzheimer’s. I’m in a personal pattern interrupt as I seek balance in the author vs. editor routines.
I wasn’t in the mood because I’m tired from all the interruptions, imposed and intentional.
I’m tired but I’m one of the lucky ones.
The big limbs fell next to my house, not on it. The rains bathed my home, they didn’t fill it. We have a generator and gas for it and we have a gas stove and water heater.
We are the lucky ones.
What is interrupted then? Some of same things we experienced in 2020. Empty shelves or closed groceries. Lines for gas and food. Inconvenience. The hurricane brings extra. Extra inconvenience, extra discomfort. Hot uncomfortable homes with damp surfaces and thick air. Spotty or broken phone and internet services. The morning breeze offers a little peace, but that peace is tempered by the 100dB hum of the 100 generators in earshot.
We’re lucky, but we’re tired.
Things we carry
For hurricane interruptions, most of the things we cling to require a generator.
Here, one cord leads from the generator to the kitchen, where I power the refrigerator and coffeemaker. I have coffee in the morning, salads for lunch, and a cool glass of wine when the sun goes down.
Another cord leads to our office, where I power the computers, a lamp, and my phone charger. I write and work, look up synonyms and post to social media. I wanted to stay connected and I am, because the generator powers our devices, and my phone sits full time on the charger to keep up with hot spot duties.
Things we create
Sometimes we develop a new routine to blast the interruption. During Covid, I devised my own pattern interrupt against the pattern interrupt, a new daily routine to prioritize my writer. This routine was my 2020 takeaway: morning pages, morning readings, and soul before soup, that is, creative writing before clocking in for work.
One week before Ida hit, I embarked on a new weekly routine designed to interrupt some blasé patterns and a daily exercise routine to interrupt… well, the spread of thighs. I worried Ida would smash it, but here I am today, blogging because its B-day. Yesterday I queried. It was Q-day. And I’ve biked or walked every day.
Pattern interrupts —intentional or imposed— can teach us a lot about ourselves. Harnessed they can be empowering. When I look back on some of my interruptions —new house, marriage, graduations, children, divorce, moves, vacations, illness, deaths—, I didn’t always go through them with my mind wide open. I wasn’t mindful about what I carried through them and mostly I didn’t create a intentional pattern interrupts of my own in answer to the situation.
I’d like to believe we come out on the other side with something we carried through, something we created, whether we are aware or not.
I’m better at mindful choices now.
- What do I pack in that little bag to carry through the pattern interrupt?
- What will I take away, learn or change about myself?
I wasn’t in the mood for Ida, but I paid attention.
- What did I carry through Ida? Coffee, empowering routines, and connections.
- What did I take away? I’m not sure yet, but as I pull on my biking shorts, I think the takeaway might be “I can do anything I set my mind to.”
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021
That’s the first thing I noticed.
Her every gesture is in sync with the seasons, waning seed, waxing bulb. She shakes the morning dew from her harvest, disturbs the evening dew as she prunes. Opens her windows to welcome the first sighs of spring, then closes them against the fist of summer heat.
The fist is relaxed in the cool breath of fall, yet her windows are closed, blocking these gentle breezes.
I see the droopy heads of the flowers as I approach, sad pleas, a slouching pity party for anyone who bothers to look.
She had spoiled them.
What do we do now? Trapped in beds. And the weeds! They’re coming for us!
I give them an empathetic nod, poor souls at the mercy of the whims of the weather and approaching winter.
I had noticed the long whiskers of the lawn, bearded in places. Today look up. Did an impatient neighbor shear the wild growth, leaving irregular skeins of blades and weeds?
Soon enough, I suppose, winter will set in, the nap of nature, relief from the rambunctious growth of leaf, limb, and stalk.
She needs her rest.
I see the driveway littered with tangled tufts, fallen needles and leaves. Everything is falling, spent at the end dog days, preparing for the big sleep.
Is she ill?
No one knows.
We would wave at her when she looked up from her flowers. We would nod as she turned her mower in our direction.
Does she have family?
We all shrug.
My muscles, energized by the fresh October air, tighten as I approach the depressed beds at the end of her drive. A floral dirge.
We shouldn’t be here anymore! Where are the autumn mums? Has she forgotten?
I had stopped here for years of mornings to smile at the flowers. A bed of blooms for each season. This morning I stare at the windows.
I bend to pull a weed.
I kick a brown cluster of grass into the ditch.
Was she forgotten?
The gate is closed. I’m not sure it matters, not sure I would go to the door and knock.
I’m moved by curiosity, concern, grief for the garden, but not moved enough to break through.
I don’t even know her name.
I stare a few moments, gripped by the world inside her gate, its response to the closed windows.
Philosopher outside her world, I till the emotions, drive my spade into the dry soil of decline. They say “the world goes on,” but that’s not the whole story, is it? The world unravels with us, at least for a moment.
I continue my walk, leaving the wake of decline.
I’ll return tomorrow, maybe I’ll squeeze through the gate.
Today, I’ll visit the nursery after my walk, buy some yellow mums, maybe orange as well. But first, I’ll open my windows.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021
Want more stories?
Challenge from fellow-blogger Adela Durkee.
Here’s my 50-word story. It’s a little meta too.
For a Challenge
I like a challenge.
Oof, look at her.
She’ll never make it.
Why is she doing that?
Thanks! Your doubts are the fuel I need. Enjoy your view from the sidelines! I may not know how this will turn out, but here I go!
Wow! She did it.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021.
I don’t care.
The dishes. You have to watch her. She forgets to use soap. Or sometimes, she doesn’t rinse it off.
I don’t care.
Are you sure about that? She’ll probably pull up the flowers too.
I don’t care.
I’d be careful about that. What if she paints the wrong thing?
You know what? She did. And I.don’t.care.
She did it wrong. We looked up, and the floor and railing close to the column were yellow. She had painted beyond the column.
I don’t care.
I checked on her in the flower bed where she was busily pulling weeds, and sure enough, some flowers had come up with the weeds.
I don’t care.
And my dishes. So what!?
If I can create for her even the tiniest opening into a world of doing, contributing, helping, if going there brings her a moment of joy —a fraction of a moment!—, I don’t care if she can’t do the thing perfectly. I don’t care if she gets it all wrong.
The tiny inconveniences of re-rinsing dishes, rescuing flowers, removing errant paint? I don’t care. These are the biggest ways to love her now.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021.
For more stories about mom’s journey with Alzheimer’s explore my website.
This is my house! but she’s walking away.
I popped in for a short visit last Saturday.
“How you doin’?” I asked mom.
Without looking at me, she answered, “It’s bad.”
“Your… ?” I pointed at my head. She looked at me and nodded.
It’s getting bad.
A few weeks ago, I received reports of drama in the house.
“This is my house!” mom told the sitter, and the sitter’s tender efforts to help mom manage the house were thwarted.
Was she sweeping the kitchen? Maybe starting lunch? Clearing the dining room?
This is my house!
The dining room furniture is a set that mom and dad bought the year we lived in San José, before we went to Spain for three. The great big before, when mom could buy furniture in stores in California that she wouldn’t use until she moved to Spain, into a house she had yet to see.
The dining room set has been with mom and dad for fifty three years and counting. The set is modest, but solid. Real wood. Well-traveled, from California to Spain, then to Alabama, from Alabama to Tennessee, then into storage in Mississippi, and finally to Louisiana, where it took its place in the center of the home mom helped dad build.
They don’t make them like this anymore.
After the chairs came out of storage, mom reupholstered the cushions, repaired the wicker backs. She painted the dining room where they currently stand at attention around the table, ready for the next family gathering. Mom painted all the rooms of the house, not just this house, many rooms of many houses. Mom is the best at painting, the one we count on to spackle, paint perfect lines around trim, even coats… She is the expert…
Mom is… She was the best painter.
I struggle with verb tense. She isn’t as she was.
This is my house, she reminds the sitter. She reminds us.
It still is, mom.
I struggle with seeing her skills in past tense. She not only painted her houses, she helped dad with many stages of the build. She wove wires and PVC through frames for light and water. How many of us can say that about the houses we claim?
And she was extra. When they poured walkways, she collected leftover concrete in plastic planters from the nursery to make hundreds of stepping stones that we still use, that our friends use in their yards. People I don’t know walk on her stepping stones at my church.
It’s hard to let go of the person she has been.
I visited from college one year when mom and dad were building their home in Tennessee.
“I’m not learning anything new!” she told me. “The more you know how to do, the more you have to do.”
I was an eager college student, and her words confused me, their wisdom twisted around the exasperation of a 40-something weary woman.
In her early 30s, mom was in college, attending school as she raised children. She interrupted my homework one afternoon to tell me, “I wish we didn’t need sleep! I could get so much more done if I didn’t have to sleep.” Exasperation.
She’s exasperated now.
This is my house!
She won’t say it but I can hear the exclamatory dammit at the end.
Mom is not and never was a quitter. She kept learning new things beyond her 40s. After she was done with building her own home for the third time, she read Mother Earth News for gardening hacks, Southern Living for Christmas cookie recipes, Reader’s Digest for something new and different. Stacks of magazines on all the end tables, night stands, and in the kitchen and bathrooms.
I wish I had paid more attention. Most of what she learned, knew, did, and was, is no longer.
I needed her last year when I tried to make buckeyes for my brother and son. She was right there with me, but she wasn’t. I made a tub of buckeye badness that no one could eat.
This week dad called to let me know she walked out. He came out of the bathroom to go to bed, and she was gone.
When he didn’t find her in the kitchen or living room, he looked for her outside. He looked in the back. Not there, and thank god! not in the pool. Then to the front where, through the darkness, he spotted her walking down the long driveway towards the highway.
She’s been walking away from us for a long time. It’s hard. It’s scary. Some days it’s exasperating.
This is our present tense, where she is now: she is walking away.
Even knowing she isn’t what she was, we cling to the pieces. We’re trying to hold the pieces together, sitters to keep her safe and keep her company, housemaid to help her keep a tidy house.
This is my house!
I can’t imagine the memories and questions that swirl in dad’s head as he meets mom where she is day after day, less and less of her there. I struggle with deep questions, but most of the tangle in my head is about the small things, moments I didn’t hold well, skills I didn’t master.
How do I make your buckeyes? When will I have time to revive your garden?
I miss mom. I want her back.
I don’t want to learn anything new!
What can we do? She’s tired.
“It’s bad,” she was looking at the floor as she told me. I wondered what images were going through her mind, but I knew what she meant.
For that fragile moment, she stood on top of the disease, talking about it, not from beneath it. I knew if I dug in with questions, she’d slip back under.
The exasperation was mutual.
She’s walking away from all that was hers, her home, her husband, her children, and grandchildren. Yet in these moments, she clings to what’s left.
I wish I could do something to fix this for her. I reached for her hand, “I’m so sorry,” and we sat for a spell.
They don’t make them like this anymore.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021
Yesterday I received a message from a former colleague that reminded me: #SpreadLight now.
“I didn’t know if you knew about Carmen. She passed away Friday.”
The light you bring
Carmen was both a mentor and a colleague. When I was writing my Master’s thesis, she gave me one of the most pivotal nudges of my life.
“Apply to the UT doctoral program.”
The next fall semester, I was learning my way around Austin and Batts Hall. I lived in Austin for six years, formed lifelong friendships, married, bought my first house, gave birth to my first child.
When I returned to Louisiana, back to the city I had left six years prior, Carmen reached out again.
“Come teach with us.”
For four years, I did and they were some of the most rewarding years of my teaching career.
After I left the classroom to freelance from home, Carmen and I were in touch less and less. Over the next twenty five years, I sent Christmas cards, and we had the occasional call. In 2019, after a long spell of not communicating, I met up with Carmen and two other dear colleagues for lunch.
“We should do this more often!”
With a history of years between visits and calls, I wasn’t alarmed that we didn’t meet up for lunch again right away. We should have.
My first thought when I read “Carmen passed away” was Covid. But it wasn’t. Carmen fell ill about a year after I last saw her. My second thought was, did she get my card?
This year I started my #SpreadLight campaign, postcard missives to let people in my life know what they have meant to me. Some cards arrive as expected, some never do. A few cards arrive damaged, torn in half even. Other cards arrive months after being sent. I’ve heard back from recipients, and some tell me how impeccable the timing of the card is.
“I really needed this today.”
I’d like to take credit, but I can’t. I’m not in charge of the timing. Once I surrender my tiny missives of light, the timing and journey depend on forces outside of my control.
I sent Carmen a card. Based on what my colleague told me, I’m pretty sure I was too late.
“She has been seriously ill since last fall… I visited her a couple of times but she didn’t recognize me.”
I was late, and also, maybe not too late. Maybe someone along the card’s journey turned it over and read the light. Maybe one of the someones who read it also knew Carmen, had experienced the light she brings.
I don’t know exactly what I wrote, but it would have gone something like this.
“Thanks for the light you bring. You probably don’t realize how deeply impacted my life. I’m grateful for your friendship, for your guidance, for the strength and leadership you modeled for me.”
Anyone tempted by the metaphorical quip Her light went out would be wrong.
Carmen’s light shines on. In the lives of thousands of colleagues and students, in the lives of the battered and imprisoned women she sat with, in my little life.
I’m sad that she suffered, sad we didn’t have another lunch or phone call. But I am grateful to have stood in a Carmen’s light. Today, I honor her in the way I know best: through words of remembrance and gratitude.
Thanks, Carmen, for the light you bring. Shine on.
©Pennie Nichols 2021 All Rights Reserved More open letters to lost friends:
I grew up knowing that left-handed women in my family go mad in their fortieth year. I’m not sure anyone explained this to me. The madness of the left-handed McKennedy women was a fact that settled into our knowing. The sun rises in the east, dogs bark, rain is wet, left-handed McKennedy women go mad after forty.
The last mad McKennedy woman was sent away the year I was born. I have no memories of her, yet Agnes feels like mine. She went mad my year. 1961.
Was it because of me? Did her madness begin on the day I was born?
These questions bloomed in my head before I learned to write, during those years when family forced crayons, chalk, and my toothbrush into my right hand, mumbling prayers about left hands, madness, and aunt Agnes.
The other “fact” I grew up knowing was that I should not use my left hand to eat, draw, or write.
“What’s the point in having two hands?” I protested once at dinner. I was six or seven and already burning to use my left hand because they told me I shouldn’t.
“Why?!” I insisted.
Mom and dad stared at each other across the creamed corn and smothered snap beans. Then my brother blurted out, “She’s already gone mad! She’s probably a lefty. You should send her away!”
They grounded Ronald, whose left hand was never restricted, for a week, but “lefty” became his whispered taunt, as I know you’re a lefty threats and See ya lefty! greetings.
I went through school using my right hand in public, especially around family, but in the secret corners of my days, I practiced spelling words in cursive, drawing trees, and brushing my teeth with my left hand. Through those years I asked myself Why do left-handed women in my family go mad? and Will I go mad?
The madness was on my mom’s side of the family: the McKennedy line. Mom’s not a McKennedy and her mom wasn’t either, but by blood they spring from the mad McKennedy women. As do I.
I grew up listening to old people debating how far back the madness goes.
Who knows how many women went mad before Lulie and Cora?
Someone should research our family history.
But no one came forward.
Our Family History
The mad history that was passed down to us began in 1905, with two sisters and a cousin: Lulie Dee, Hattie Jo, and Cora Rue. They were born within eighteen months of each other, lived on the same block, and grew up as a unit, running between houses. Here comes the gaggle of girls! Some of my great-great uncles called them The Triad.
A Note from the Teacher
Cora, the cousin, and the older sister, Lulie, were one year ahead of Hattie in school. Their first-grade teacher sent a disturbing note home to the mothers. In one sweep of her right hand, she admonished the parents for allowing this left-hand deviation and expressed sympathy to them for being parents of left-hand deviants.
What happened next depends on who tells the story. The news wasn’t received equally by the McKennedy sisters, the moms of Lulie and Cora.
Evangeline, Lulie’s mom, protested. “There’s nothing wrong with Lulie! She was born this way, and I won’t allow her to be tortured and retrained.”
Her husband disagreed, and Lulie arrived at school with Cora, where the cousins were instructed to wait at the door until the instructor tied their left hands behind their backs.
Unlike Evangeline, Cora’s mom Kathleen was apologetic. Her parenting anxiety spiked when she read the teacher’s note. To compensate, she greeted Cora at the door after school with the homework/dinner rope.
The spin off stories about The Triad are numerous and contradictory. One constant is Hattie. On the one hand, she’s remembered for her heroic efforts to heal The Triad. On the other, about thirty four years later, she would serve as the catalyst for the left-handed madness theory:
The Triad ate the same things, played in the same spaces, slept in the same beds. Since Hattie is right-handed, it stands to reason that Lulie and Cora went mad because they are the left-handed.
Cora dropped out of school after ninth grade. At sixteen she married Woodrow, a man whose indifference to the debate about the dominant hand allowed Cora to live her left-handed life without judgment inside the walls of her home, just two blocks down from her childhood home.
Lulie finished high school then left for college. Her mother coddled her privately, whispering damnations about the schools, society, and retraining measures.
“They have no business shaming anyone for their nature!”
I can only imagine Lulie’s stupor when in the next breath Evangeline encouraged her to keep up the right-hand ruse at school, around relatives, and especially at church.
They say Hattie knew. Surely that would give Lulie comfort, having a safe space to share her secret and small victories of resistance.
Judging from the consistency of the stories about the shock that shook the community, Lulie’s secret was well-kept for most of her teen years. The stories go something like this: Tommy, from around the corner, was at college with Lulie. He came home for summer break and spilled Lulie’s lefty beans.
Maybe there’s more to Tommy, but I don’t like him. He’s a traitor, especially since he witnessed the torment Cora and Lulie suffered from first grade on. He had to know his words would hurt Lulie.
The beans spilled at the dinner table, where he told his parents he saw Lulie taking notes with her left hand in biology class. His mom Bet told her sister Louise, who told her friend Lucile, who told the preacher’s wife… By Sunday church, the whole congregation knew: Lulie’s a lefty! This was before anyone strung together the notion that the left-handed McKennedy women would go mad.
The shockwave in the community pushed The Triad back together.
The threesome against the world!
Hattie started college the year after Tommy spilled Lulie’s secret. When Lulie and Hattie visited home from college, they spent most of their time at Cora’s. Lulie’s father barely looked at or acknowledged Lulie. He threatened to discontinue payments for her university courses. Somehow Evangeline managed to stop that nonsense.
Lulie and Hattie graduated, then moved away to take jobs and marry (it’s unclear which came first).
Cora bore Woody four children and worked as his bookkeeper for the family lumber business. Although Cora was shamed out of school, she was sharp as a tack, good at math. With her left hand! When Woody was called to serve in the Second World War, he left Cora with a fifth baby in her belly and a business to manage.
Woody didn’t return from the war.
The Madness of the Left-Handed Cousins
Cora’s madness was reported first. The news about Woody was hard on the whole family, especially Cora. Winona, Cora’s first-born, and Cora’s mom, Kathleen, made arrangements for Cora at a sanatorium.
I think Winny knew better. You don’t raise your baby brother as your own son if you expect your mom will return. Winny took over the lumber business.
The news of Lulie came a few months later, in September of 1946. Lulie and her husband had no children. Some blame Lulie, but who really knows? Maybe Cal was sterile. Maybe they didn’t want children. Cal returned from the war and after two months (and two days shy of her forty-first birthday) he had Lulie committed to an asylum.
The year of the cousins’ madness coincided with Abram Blau’s maddening publication, The Master Hand, which warned that left-handed children would suffer severe and life-long mental problems.
I doubt any of the women or men of the town read the treatise, but when they got wind of the theories, they stood, shaking their heads, forming a W with their arms, palms to the sky, whispering Cora and Lulie’s names.
And Hattie’s just fine, don’t you know.
In a family of Irish and Scottish blood, thick with legends and folklore, the story of Lulie and Cora sufficed to put the narrative of the mad McKennedy legend on the loom.
In 1956, Winona, Cora and Woody’s first-born, went mad. Like her mom, Winny suffered retraining in the schools. She went mad days after her fortieth birthday. Indisputable, was a word used after her breakdown at a church gathering, where she accused her cousin Fanny of making moves on her husband, Ed. Most blamed Cora for allowing Winny to use her left hand, and all of the family leaves out the part where Ed divorced Winny less than a year later. Winny’s family business and Ed’s attentions went to Fanny.
The next reported case was a year or two later, still in the fifties. We don’t know much about her history, except that she was a lefty, descended from McKennedys through Geraldine, mother of Margaret, mother of Bernice, mother of Harriet, mother of Suzanne. Susan? Her name varies depending on who’s telling it. Her birth year is also foggy. Some say Suzanne went mad in her fortieth year, others say she made it to forty five. Her family didn’t send her away at first, but then she nearly burned down the house.
It’s not safe to keep her.
Finally, in 1961, the year I was born, aunt Agnes.
My Left Hand
As I listened to these stories growing up, I would massage and stretch my left hand. I wanted to champion the left hand, to protect my hand —all the left hands!— from this family lore. I wondered if there were fewer left-handed McKennedy women now because they truly weren’t or because they trained themselves not to be. The matter-of-factness of the voices that told stories to perpetuate the legend incensed me.
I came out as a lefty after my first year of college. My mom’s sisters accused me of being a lefty on purpose.
“You’re not really left-handed. You’re just rebelling!”
My mom was clearly annoyed with me, a fearful You’ll go mad! stitched on her face. My brother made snarky remarks openly, and my dad had a permanent smirk on his face. Was he proud of me? After I came out, I understood that dad never embraced the family legend, and that mom’s family lore had probably driven a wedge between my parents. Were they taking bets on my impending madness?
I needed to escape. I remembered the graduation card from my mom’s aunt Deidre. She was always prompt with cards and gifts for special occasions. At the bottom, she wrote, “Come visit me anytime.”
“Does she mean it?”
Mom shrugged, still annoyed, then looked up her phone number. “Ask her yourself.”
Great Aunt Deidre
Three days later, I drove ten hours to aunt Deidre’s house on the bay.
I arrived as the sun was setting. My great aunt Deidre was on point.
“Drop your bags here,” she said pointing at a spot in the foyer as she hurried me through the house to her deck where two glasses and a bottle of wine waited for us. Surely she heard I came out, but we finished our wine and the sunset without talking about left hands.
Dinner was ready and waiting in the oven. Baked oysters, creamy shrimp casserole, and broccoli. I realized as I saw dinner come out of the oven aunt Deidre was my most exotic relative. That truth persists.
I honestly never suspected a thing. She hid it well. I may have never known if I hadn’t asked Deidre for her shrimp recipe after dinner.
The Shrimp Recipe
“Sure. Go fetch a tablet and a pen from my study.”
When I returned with the tablet and pen, she had refilled our wine glasses and was holding up the card from her recipe box.
“Is this OK?” I asked, offering her the pen and tablet.
“Perfect,” she said, pushing my glass to me and swaying around her stool to sit with the card and tablet.
I was taking a sip when through my goblet I saw her pick up the pen with her left hand! She started writing.
I paused a bit too long with the sip because she saw me see her. An amused look spread across her face, not unlike the smirk dad couldn’t wipe from his face when I came out. She brought the pen to her lips with her left hand.
“But how?” was all I could manage.
“I have my ways,” she answered with a hint that she might share her secrets. Then the business of writing the recipe occupied her. I stared as words spilled with natural ease from her left hand.
“Well, why then?” I asked, sensing she might never spill her secret hows.
“Oh darling, who wouldn’t? They would have driven me to madness long ago with their fear of me going mad.” My eyes were on her hand as she wrote more. “That’s how it happens, you know. You… they say you manufacture… no, that’s not the word… you make it happen…”
“Yes! Manifest! They’re madness manifesters! All their retraining and prejudices.”
“So you write with both hands,” I was in a state of thrill and awe.
“Not if I can help it. Honestly, you don’t write much in front of other people after you’re done with school. Checks. I practiced my signature a lot, but ‘practiced,’ isn’t what you think. It was to get my left hand to sign like my right hand.”
I needed more than a stool, so I staggered to the table and collapsed in a chair, calculating Deidre’s age and thumbing through my memories of her, not a single memory of her writing.
“But eating!” I exclaimed.
“If anyone called me out, I told them I favored European table manners, which isn’t untrue.”
I sat with this news: Deidre, also my most-traveled relative, was a closet lefty. How did she live so many days hiding her dominant hand from her family, especially from her meddling aunts, sisters, and female cousins? How many days? I began calculating her age.
Hearing my thoughts, Deidre announced, “I’m seventy one.” She handed me the recipe. “It’ll be easier for you.”
So they did tell her I came out. “Mom told me that she ‘just didn’t want me to live through…'”
“‘… all those hardships.’ Yeah, yeah. I told myself that for years. I hid my hand for years to avoid the ‘hardships.’ But you know what? That was a hardship. Maybe harder.”
I stared at the recipe without reading it, soaking in Deidre, her story, her grace, what later that evening she would call her grave error when comparing herself to me.
The recipe shook in my left hand, which tingled with something like fear. “I think I made a mistake.”
“Oh, honey, coming out was the right thing to do.”
“No!” The sting in my eyes pulled at my jaws. “I’m not!”
“You’re not what?”
“I’m not left-handed.”
“Because the stories made me so angry! I wanted to prove they were wrong, be left-handed and never go mad.”
Deidre joined me at the table and reached across with both hands.
“And this is how I failed you, isn’t it?”
I looked up, my cheeks wet now. I looked at her realizing she was right. If I had known, maybe forcing my hand wouldn’t have felt necessary.
“I just wanted to help,” I moaned.
Aunt Deidre came out as a lefty on her seventy-forth birthday.
“See, I’m not mad!” she exclaimed as part of her announcement.
This didn’t stop the meddlesome aunts from whispering otherwise. I wanted to tell them you drive us mad! I also wondered if mine wasn’t the madness, pretending to be left-handed to prove them wrong.
Deidre had another secret: her dedication to our genealogical history. She approached the project with a single-minded effort to refute the McKennedy madness, through personal correspondence, medical and school records, and news clippings. The year she came out, she published this family book, naming all of the left-handed McKennedy women she unearthed, the mad and the not so mad, proving that the left-handed madness lore was unfounded.
Predictably, the McKennedy legend lives on in some families, mostly as a weapon. One hissy fit from a left-handed forty-something wife and the husband exclaims, “See? She’s mad!” Or, should a forty-year-old mother who writes with her left hand get too heated in an argument, her son insists, “She’s got the madness.”
Yesterday I celebrated my seventieth birthday. I never undid my coming out. Some family members still think I’m left-handed, especially when recalling that day some thirty years ago at a family reunion when I had a fight with aunt Gladys.
We laid Deidre’s body to rest shy of her ninety-fifth birthday, her only madness the time and money she threw at refuting a family fable that won’t die. I have a collection of letters and notes from relatives about left-handed women now, because I inherited Deidre’s legacy: the copyright of her book. Many are petitions to update the book, which I disregard. The book is perfect as it is. I ponder the fates of Lulie and Cora. Winny and Suzanne. Agnes.
Did the retraining drive Lulie and Cora mad?
Maybe Lulie went mad because Cal couldn’t give her children? Maybe Cora went mad because Woody left her alone with five? By the time Winny, Suzanne, and Agnes came along, they were expected to go mad. What if they just had one bad day beyond their fortieth year and were hauled away because madness was expected?
I wonder especially about Agnes. I know my birth had no bearing on her lot. Deidre couldn’t prove she didn’t go mad, but there were circumstances to consider.
Did anyone consider her broken heart after her fiancé of eleven years bailed? Maybe she needed a friendly ear and a good cry, not a padded room.
I went back to visit Deidre several times before she died. We didn’t speak it or write it, but we forgave each other for whatever might be considered shortcomings. We understood we were on different paths to a common goal: to demystify our mad family history.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021 For more fiction (stories and poems), go to Stories and Poems.