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.

Walking away

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!

It’s hard.

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.

Sit with me

“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