At my mother’s seventy-fifth birthday celebration I realized she was getting really tiny. She’d been shrinking bit by bit each year since she was seventy. Arriving at her present height of less than five feet, she was a small-boned woman with thick white hair, enhanced by that permed hairdo that goes with a certain age of older moms.
Emotionally, she was a far different mom than I recalled from my childhood. Then she was perceived as the prime disciplinarian, money manager, and emotionally inaccessible. We did not have a smooth mother-daughter relationship.
In my 30s and 40s I was uneasy looking at the signs in me that were like my mother. My eyes looked like hers in photos; I was getting those dark spots on my hands, and veins were showing where they never had before. I smoothed my hands on the tablecloth and sat up a bit straighter when I had something to say that might be confrontive, a sure sign in my childhood that a lecture was coming.
Years passed and the events of her life and my life changed us both. At times, physical miles and emotional struggles caused a rift that separated our family. My parents’ aging and my father’s disabilities brought us together. We were influenced by people who helped our family when we could not or were not willing to help ourselves. We called them family angels.
There was the “angel” who was a home health aide when my Dad could no longer walk on his own due to Parkinson’s and Mother was anxious about how to care for him. My parents had retired to a lovely home with a hazy view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Tryon, North Carolina. My twin sister, older sister and I, were hundreds of miles away in New Jersey and New York.
Sarah came into their lives to assist with home care. “She’s just an angel,” said Mother in an offhand way. An angel? I wonder.
Another “angel” vacuumed her way in to clean every other week. “She doesn’t clean like I would,” sniffed Mother, who cleaned the floor on her hands and knees and had trained us that furniture wasn’t clean if the underneath and legs weren’t dusted too. But it was also about that time that musical tapes appeared in the house. Dad enjoyed the music along with the hum of the vacuum.
When my Dad had to move to an assisted care home Mother found Ridge Rest, a loving home setting with seven residents. She was anxious about leaving him “alone” for without his spouse of over fifty years he certainly felt alone.
“Look for another angel,” her dutiful daughters counseled.
Lorna was the resident’s manager, cook, and caregiver. She was the one who teased, cajoled, bullied and loved Dad into using his walker and doing the exercises he no longer had the will to do on his own. His illness weakened him physically and emotionally. Lorna modeled the power of prayer to support him and us. Throughout his long illness, Dad was surrounded by angels.
Who would watch over Mother? Angels do not subscribe to the scarcity-thinking concept. There were enough to go around.
Mother’s attempts to do her own landscaping resulted in her tumbling down the hill through the ivy. After calling a classified ad, a rough-around-the-edges man appeared at her door with a hand mower. He helped her for over a year. “You were one of my first customers when I was getting started. You’re here all alone,” he said. “If you need help anytime, day or night, you call. Me or my boy will come over.”
An ethical man? Yes. A family angel? Definitely!
I think angels come because they don’t like to be unemployed. Or some might say Mother needed a guardian angel. She wore a New York Yankee baseball cap and lived in North Carolina. Her style of dress bordered on eclectic. A favorite brown cardigan, flowered handbag was matched with various flowered blouses with striped pants. I used to grind my teeth in exasperation at this supposed lack of style. Today I think, “Ah, what freedom!”
She made the forty-mile trip up the scenic mountain road and through little towns to visit my father as often as she could when he was moved to a nursing home. She sometimes stopped for a solitary dinner on the way back home. She particularly liked Cracker Barrel Restaurant. “I like to watch the families with young children. I ask the waiter to sit me by them so I can see them up close.”
After one such dinner as she went to pay her bill, the cashier said, “The gentleman who left paid your bill.” An act of random kindness? Probably. An angel? You bet!
One spring visit, my earthly priority was to remove the blue tarp and get the leaky roof fixed. A local construction worker/angel came over to check it out. Yes, he could repair it. As we talked, the conversation moved to the difficulty of my mother handling all these things alone with my Dad sick. Our new angel, in his work clothes and with callused hands, told of his experience in dealing with the death of his son who had the same doctor as my father. My last glimpse of the roofer was as he and my mother stood by the front walk, heads bowed as they prayed together.
My father died that July and, of course, the angels were out in full force. We had a gathering at the house “to pay respects to Allan and rejoice in his healing.”
One particular image from that day is of my white-haired mother saying good-bye to a friend. It is a mirror image with another petite silver-haired woman, an artist friend. These two women who have seen almost a century of life are holding hands, facing each other. Together they lean in and touch foreheads, smiling and murmuring. I don’t know the words they say, but I am enveloped in the feeling of love and support.
The last autumn that my mother lived in her Carolina home we were cleaning out her garage. She had a delicious family story for every item that I was trying to tag for a yard sale. She looked up at me and said, “I’m going to start being an angel. I can’t pay for someone’s meal, but if they’re at the counter, I could pay for their coffee.”
My heart went out to this tiny, fragile yet strong woman, who I misunderstood for so many years and who was my beloved mother and friend.
The single light bulb of the garage was shining over her head on that darn Yankee cap. She was leaning on the broom and smiling up at me like a little kid eager to please. She was an angel and had been for years. I just didn’t see it.
So if you see any almost five-foot elderly woman or an older gentleman eating alone or hesitantly walking the aisle at the drug store, or stretching to reach an impossible for them item on a shelf, stop and offer to help. Have coffee together. Be an angel.
The first edition of “The Family Angel”was written in 2003 and appeared in Life and Leisure-NJ. The memories are still strong, the feelings even stronger. ELM
I loved this! What a lovely piece.
Thank you, Jess. Felt very nostalgic around Mother’s Day.
Oh yes, all those angels. Nice to revisit them.
And they still are around, right?