Fixer Upper

The boys and I were forced ourselves past the façade of Auntie’s independent senior living and into a routine that would deem us useful during our month long visit. Although Auntie’s role was that of cook in the St. Louis household, she never fixed a meal or washed a dish for herself or Jaque the whole time we were there. Both aunties ate healthfully and well. A lot of thought went into food prep for the Aunties and I must give kudos to my young son, Alex, for taking his job so seriously. With his brother as sous chef, the two could rival any culinary master on TV or in print. Brunch usually consisted of something “carb-y,” like baked bread with cheese, or a hash brown, lightly seasoned, something “protein-y,” like an egg scrambled or over easy, or a slice of turkey bacon, and something fruity, like a slice of cantaloupe, or ramekin of fresh berries with crème brulee. Kitchen duty was something both boys could handle because like small children, seniors ate petite portions, the difference being they didn’t pick over food. Well sort-of…

The fact that Alex’s dishes showed an extreme amount of care and creativity and that he and Adam presented meals on trays communicated a respectful deference to their elders. This, I think, proved more than Auntie’s ego and modest country cook mentality could handle. There were dinners with warm naan bread aside creamy mutter paneer and vegetable samosas, dishes with savory three bean chili and cornbread, the occasional meal with aldente pasta seasoned with light, lemony caper sauce, shaved parmesan and freshly chopped cilantro served alongside crispy garlic bread. These were the types of meals Aunt Gene would see on TV shows, salivate over, and then talk about in her weekly phone calls with us. However in all honesty she neither had the energy nor aptitude to prepare meals like these on a daily basis for herself and Jaque. She was transfixed by the talent and skills both her young nephews possessed and in an attempt to suppress her pride she mumbled with a signature St. Louis drawl, “When ya’ll gonna cook us some reeeaaal food.” The manner in which she said this was so flat, country, and devilishly cheeky, that we knew in an instant that it was a veiled compliment of the highest nature. Yes, a compliment, from an old, country cook that had been bested by her kin, a twelve year old and his baby brother.

In an effort to stay out of Aunt Genevieve’s way a bit I picked away at the attic floor. Coming down to enjoy what the boys had prepared was always a welcomed respite from the heat and solitude of pastering and painting. We’d all park ourselves in Aunt Jaqueline’s sunny sitting-room that was part of her bedroom suite, within the pseudo boundary Aunt Gene had let Jaque set with Alzheimer’s. Removing Jaque beyond this boundary without a direct command from Gene, sent Jaque into a fit of fretful confusion. The weeks passed, and we saw less of Aunt Genevieve as she preferred spending her days caregiving at her friend April’s house. So the sitting room brunch crowd included Auntie Jaquey, Alex, Adam, our dog, Cece, and myself.

This was the summer that Cece learned to beg. I was so proud of how I’d trained her to be a well behaved pet, never seen or heard from at our human mealtimes, but I let it go. Cece had proven to be so effective at drawing Aunt Jaque out of her Alzheimer’s world and into some sort of interaction with us, that I released my poor dog from her beautifully trained mealtime manners. With Cece’s company, some sweetness from the boys and silliness from me, we’d get Aunt Jaque to talk and eat a well-balanced meal.

Jaque was never a big eater, even in healthy times. She was always the skinniest of the three sisters and the pickiest of them. Perhaps some of this was because of indulgences she’d been given as a child, but a lot of it was a bonafide, physiological sensitivity to foods. She was prone to stomach aches and irregularity. Without Gene there, which she now called, “Mom,” Aunt Jacque felt no pressure to eat. Gene was an authority figure to her now. She’d speak like a child when Gene was not there, whispering about how “Mom would make her eat it.” Everything about the Alzheimer’s ravaged Jaque was bizarre to me, so it was no surprise that hearing her babble like a two year old was bizarre too. Aunt Jaque was thoroughly dependent on Aunt Gene, so in Gene’s absence I had to establish a new rapport with Aunt Jaque.

After each meal, the boys would cart the dishes and trays back down the steps and into the kitchen for cleaning. They would put away the left-over food and wipe down the kitchen counters. There were usually several things going on at once, for instance, the laundry was in the basement washing machine and clothes were simultaneously drying. I’d pull something out of the freezer for our dinner later while I was down there, all while making mental notes of what needed to be added to our grocery list. At the same time, I’d set the houseplants in the mud sink to be watered and fed. Oh yeah, and outside the whirly-bird attachment was connected to the hose. I had one third of the yard yet to water—nothing was automatic. Working in the attic allowed me to concentrate on what needed to be done. Everything I’d seen up until now simply affirmed that Gene should not be in this big, old house caring for Jaque by herself. I was blown away by the fact that she’d made it thus far, and completely understood when she ditched us at every available opportunity.

I framed my conversation about leaving the big, old house around this too. I was taking a break one day in one of the rooms rarely frequented–the dining room, downstairs. I was half-way into a good book about different families and their eldercare experiences. It was an opportune moment because Gene happened to pass through. There would never be a good time, so I picked this time to open THE conversation. Since both my boys were totally immersed in the kitchen baking cookies and what-not, Gene and I had time for a serious, raw exchange. I told her frankly that the house was too big, three stories of stuff with a basement and garage, along with all the maintenance inherent in a hundred year old house, then there was Jaque’s care and even caring for herself. Sadly I could see that it was catching up with her. Having been there a little over a week already, I’d seen the incredible amount of work, things broken that had gone unfixed, and the poorly stocked supply cabinet and freezer in the basement. These things pointed to another problem—money. I thought this too much to bring up at the moment, but it stood there like an elephant in the room.

That summer Aunt Genevieve had taken me to meet the friends for which she so generously gave care and with which she expended energy she no longer possessed. One friend, the husband of a long-time schoolmate that died and of course April and her husband that lived a few blocks over. She picked-up, washed and returned laundry for the former friend and again did a little nursing for the latter friends. Naturally, while I was there I helped Gene by finishing the laundry she’d collected from her friend, but when it was time to return it, it begged the question; why with all of her burdens did she take this on too. Knowing my tenacity, she sidestepped what would have come from me next by admitting that both arrangements involved money. It was as if light had been directed upon a roach’s nest. Instantly she was laid bear with her vulnerabilities illuminated. I wanted to slash the so called friends that fed off her and at the same time scold her for hiding this symbiotic, selling of herself under her dark shadow of pride. My words were simple, “You cannot continue. We’ll figure this out together, but you must understand that it means me convincing you to leave St. Louis.” “You can’t do this by yourself—hell, I can’t either!” She pursed her lips and blinked her big, limpet eyes shortly before they welled with tears.

All our interactions had been superficial until now. This was the first of many conversations that we had needed all along. How do you tell your beloved senior that the tables have turned? How do you tell an independent adult, a parental figure, to allow the child to do a little parenting? I reached out to give her a hug and to tell her that I loved her but she stood there, defeated, arms straight by her sides. This was a beginning. I would be there to get her back, but she like the big house was a grande dame, crumbling under the weight of its burden and the many years behind a beautiful façade that finally revealed it to be a fixer upper.