Home again but this time different again. It’s been a year of many differences, many changes.
I just completed 2080 miles driving up and down the east coast from Georgia to New York and back, and now I’m returning to start a new life.
In June 2017, I was up in New York too and took a short bike ride from Baldwin over to Freeport on Long Island and returned to Silver Lake Place with enough bike riding endorphins that I suggested to my mother that she come down to Athens and that we live together. She had been sick once again and was very slowly recovering from a UTI. Illness, days of sleeping, old age were becoming too much for her – she had run out of the strength needed for living independently in the house we three siblings had all grown up in.
Fast forward to late September, and I was in Baldwin again, this time gathering the energy for packing up my mom’s house. Before I left for Morocco and Anne’s wedding in August, my mother had resisted even culling rows of books. “Later,” she would say. “We need to get Anne’s wedding done first.” She also needed time to let the idea of leaving New York and Baldwin sink in. It seemed pretty impossible from my perspective to pack up, move almost a thousand miles south to Athens, Georgia, and start a new life at ninety, even if it was a place you’d visited many times to see your granddaughters.
We moved slowly in late September, but in October, we got busy. I would empty out a cabinet and put things on the dining room table. A pile of things I thought worth taking, a pile to get rid of, and another pile for my mom to figure out. She’d shift things around, I’d pack things up for travel, giving away, or disposal, and then the next day we’d do it again. Mom had started letting people know about the move in August, but now it was time for some goodbyes, last lunches, a chat on the porch. Marilyn, our realtor, would come over to help make house-prep decisions before putting the house on the market. Donald helped me carry furniture to the curb and boxes of books down from the attic to the garage. Mary Chris and I worked together packing crystal and china. Nearly every day I drove over to Rockville Center for a spin class. At five, I’d walk through the park to my cousin Clare’s for happy hour on her screened porch.
Long Island life was feeling comfortable. I was back in my NY element. Marilyn was a Menching, a family of six, all of whom attended St. Christopher’s with Rosemary, Charlie, and me. Peter Menching and Charlie are still good friends; Marilyn was in Rosemary’s class. Donald, a retired NYC cop, was at Maria Regina High School with Charlie. Mary Chris and I have been friends since grammar school. Cousin Clare was always a bunch older than me but now that age difference disappeared. My cousins Nancy and Barbara visited on the porch with me and my mom. George would drop off his copy of Newsday each morning after reading it. Deacon Charles came by with communion for my mom. It was a new life in Baldwin, and just as I was moving my mom down South, I was becoming comfortable in New York again. I was hesitant to return to the South. A Yankee is never a Southerner, something that might sound strange to a Northerner but is not questioned if said down here. My people were Long Island Catholics and darked-haired New York Jewish kids, not blond Southern Baptists.
Still we left. There wasn’t a choice. And by the time that last Tuesday in October came and we pulled out on to Merrick Road and the Belt Parkway, we were ready to start our Southern adventure.
The most incredible thing was my mother. By the time we were crossing the Verrazano bridge, there was no more sadness. We were on a road trip. Going west toward Scranton, she looked out the windows at the sky and fields and loved it all. At the two hotels we stayed at, we had glasses of wine each night. We stopped to explore downtown Roanoke for lunch on day two. On day three, we meandered off the interstate for a few hours, and my mother had her first biscuit of the trip. That would become her thing – the search for another biscuit. By the time we got to the Georgia Welcome Center, I was grabbing brochures for ideas of trip to take my mom on, to the coast, to the mountains, over to Calloway Gardens.
My mother turned 91 in Athens two weeks after we arrived. She was a transformed woman – relaxed and happy. And we ended up being the best roommates. Easy-going and comfortable. I’d get her a coffee in the morning, bring in the New York Times, and help with breakfast. She had her chores to get down, things to unpack, bills to pay, letters to write. I’d go off into town and report back on the coffee I had with a friend, my meetings, or some music I’d go hear. My bike rides with friends were her chance to see the countryside though my photos and hear about the latest bike gossip. At night, we’d watch a little tv together – Vera, a British detective or the Great British Bake Off. Rosemary would come over for dinner or to just catch us up on her day. Every week or so, we’d take a ride in the country, adventures through my bike riding routes, or Rosie would take her out for a special treat.
Christmas came, and Clare and Alessandro were here from Paris, and Anne from Morocco. Charlie and Julianna drove down from Maine. We were creating new memories, new traditions. In January, it was time for a little recovery from the holidays and our big move. I took off at the end of the month for a New York visit on my own, and Rosemary stayed with mom. This was our new life.
And then poof, it all changed. One day Mom was just having another UTI and another slow recovery, and then days later, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and we knew this meant a quick end. My father had died of pancreatic cancer twenty years before, two months after diagnosed. February and March became about my mother dying. She was so accepting and fairly content until that last week. She wanted a Catholic “happy death”. She got that, almost. She was happy in having led a good life, having so many people she cared for, interests she’s pursued, causes and ideas that were important to her, and small pleasures that filled her days.
I was able to help her a lot this past year, and she helped me an awful lot, more than I ever imagined she would be able to. What I have not mentioned is that Richard and I split up this past year after many, many years of marriage. It is amicable; we are on friendly terms. But this past year was transformative and often traumatic.
I would never have said that my mom was my best friend. I didn’t share everything with her. But this year, I shared a tremendous amount with her. It wasn’t just words; in fact, it was mostly just being there for each other.
And now here I am, just ten months after I suggested to my mom that she move down here. I have come back once again to Georgia, and now she is not here. I am in a new home that she and I created together. It is a warm, homey place, full of sunshine and bird song, and now it is place full of some of the best memories I have of my mother. My friend Steve suggested that it was now a holy place because my mom died here. I think he is correct.