Who Says You’re Getting Older?

There was a turning of the tide this past Sunday. It was a day I realized that trying too hard to be good can be bad.

Dad had overslept and texted to tell me he’d be late picking me up for church but still wanted to try and make it. I could have offered to pick him up which would have saved him some time but since summer had finally arrived, I started putting winter coats away. Todd had left to work on the boat and I suddenly found myself enjoying being home alone with time to organize—something I don’t do much of anymore. I go from week to weekend, to week to weekend with a similar routine, week after week.

Over the past couple years, since Mom died, I have spent a lot of my spare time with Dad, or worrying about Dad—trying to fill an impossible void unnecessarily, similar to the way I did for my son after my divorce.

How did you sleep last night Dad? I always ask and really want to know.

I was up three times.

Did you walk this morning? My way of checking on his breathing.

Not today. I immediately get anxious.

Have you had lunch yet? I like to ask this question. I enjoy hearing about what people eat….but this is different.

No, I just finished breakfast.

I was over-mothering, something I tend to do. Taking care of other people keeps me from taking care of what I need to in myself.

Dad eats dinner at 5:30—usually. When we’re together, I arrange my day around it. My husband comes home from a day of work and often waits an hour or more for me to show up. When I finally do arrive, our conversation goes something like this. He says, I spoiled my appetite on cheese and crackers waiting for you to get home, or I stopped for a latte and ate the whole cookie in the car because I figured you’d be at your dad’s, or I had Pakistani for lunch. All of which mean I won’t have to cook dinner. “….Popcorn?” I ask.

The one who probably wouldn’t mind some over-mothering is my latchkey kid husband but I leave him to fend for himself.

After all these Sundays with Dad, this past Sunday something felt off. I changed my clothes a couple times—my first solution for straightening out my head. Then, as I was carrying up and tripping over the third armload of coats, I realized I was tired—tired of more than deciding on what to wear to church or of hauling weights of wool around.

I texted Dad back and told him to go on without me. This would save him time and me some sanity. He wrote right back, OK.

For a moment I didn’t know what to do with the free time. I could have called Todd to let him know I had stayed home and we could meet up, but I didn’t. Instead, I cleaned and found a piece of peace in me. I let go of worrying about Dad being alone and realized he would have time to be with the many people who love him without my hovering shadow of a presence. He could be himself—an independent, intense, wise, wacky, wonderful 85 year-old with a life of his own to live. And I could get back to mine.

Even so, that evening I couldn’t help myself. I called him to check in.

“I was thinking Dad; maybe we should break up our Sunday ritual a little. There are so many people who would love having more time with you.”

“I think you’re right. It was kind of funny this morning. John and I were there for quite a while after the service and at one point there was one person talking to me on my right, another on my left and a third crawled up on the chair in front of me. I had three conversations going on at once! It’s nice that John comes to church now too. I don’t know if this means I don’t pick you up anymore on Sundays….”

“Oh, I don’t think we have to decide anything definite but I think we can be more flexible. Mom had told me to take a year and just go to church with you on Sundays. It’s been two, hasn’t it?”

“Two and a half!”

Why did I suddenly feel like I had overstayed my welcome….?

“Debbie, I love the time I have now. I love being with you and Todd and John and all the family. I’m reading, writing, getting things in order. Did I tell you I have a new friend named Todd at the bookstore I talk to? He orders my books for me and we get talking about things. I’m just enjoying my life…….you know something? I can’t find my book on George Washington! It’s the one you and Todd gave me. Why I love that book. I write notes in my books then lend them to people and miss them. I was writing a letter and wanted a story from that book.”

“Well, I’m sure we can find another, I mean, I’m sure you can find another one,” I said catching myself. He went into a story then about the Hessians and winning the battle—a story of courage and faith, his favorite. Normally, I would have raced for a pen and started taking notes but this time, my eyes met my husband’s and I was ready to hang up just as Dad was getting another call in.

“Debbie, Mike’s on the phone, do you mind if I get it?”

“No Dad, ‘night.”

“Good night.”

What an unexpected twist….I thought my Dad needed me and as it turned out, I may have needed him more. Never underestimate an aging parent or you may find out that you’re the one who is aging while they’re getting “younger” all the time.

The Belly Turret Gunner

Just past Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin there is a Walgreen’s that comes in handy if you forgot something on your way to Washington Island—like Biotene mouth rinse. Once you pass it, you’re on your home stretch to the Ferry and whatever you don’t pick up there, you might have to do without. We stopped for the Biotene and a case of Ensure for Dad.

After asking the sales clerk for directions, Dad headed to aisle 3 for the mouth rinse and I  headed to aisle 9 for the Ensure. But on my way, I passed another aisle that captured my interest—an entire wall of assorted trail mix. I zoned in on the ones with dark chocolate. I settled on three bags that had different nut assortments but all with dark chocolate and started back to look for my dad. I found him looking for me. His eyes kind of popped when he saw my arms full of the bags. “What’s all that?”

“I couldn’t make up my mind.”

“I thought you were getting the Ensure.”

“Oh, right, I forgot…I’ll go get it,” I turned and he followed along.

At the checkout counter, alongside Star and People, I noticed a Time commemorative D-Day 70th Special Edition magazine and showed it to him, “Look at this, Dad! You’ll love it!”

“How much is it?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said laying it down on the conveyor belt along with my array of ‘healthy’ snacks. “We’re getting it.”

Dad loves stories about war and planes and ships. I think it’s partly because his asthma kept him from being able to serve during the Korean War.

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful but we enjoyed driving through the beautiful small Door County towns with the art galleries, wineries, restaurants, antique shops, cherry picking farms……

We had a special ferry ride on the Robert Noble. There were only three cars. That’s a first. Usually they pack you in like sardines.

We were barely settled in at the cabin when Dad said, “Debbie, I’m so glad you talked me into buying this magazine!” Before long he was telling me how 350,000 troops had been trapped at Dunkirk. “Churchill put out a call to anyone with a boat, any boat, to come help. From motor boats to yachts, can you believe one by one every one of those troops were rescued! That was one of Hitler’s many mistakes.”

I was sitting on a bar stool at the kitchen counter early that evening, organizing my assorted pairs of glasses, pens, books, cords and chargers when Dad walked up with the  magazine open to a double page photo of a B17 bomber.

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“I’ve never seen this kind of detail.” He had my attention. My ex-husband’s father flew in B17s during WWII—Charlie Grimes II, my son’s namesake, was a belly gunner at seventeen years of age.

“See there? That’s where Charlie sat,” Dad said pointing at the center of the underbelly of the plane. We looked at the picture together.

“I never realized how small the turret was.” I said feeling my claustrophobia pressing in on my chest at the thought of it.

“This position was particularly vulnerable during anti-aircraft fire as the plane approached its target. It was also dangerous because it was so hard to get in and out of during an emergency. The gunner had to rotate the turret to align the opening in the top of the turret with the opening in the belly of the plane,” Dad explained. “They had to be lined up in order to enter into it or exit. If there was an electrical shortage, he was stuck.

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“At one point in WWII after a flying crew had completed 20 missions, they would be sent home. As Charlie was approaching his 20th mission, the rule was changed to 25. On one of his last missions, he had a new captain. As they approached the anti-aircraft fire, the captain radioed, Belly turret gunner out!

I’ve always remained in, Captain! Charlie radioed back to him.

Not on my plane you don’t! I order you out.

So it was in response to an order that Charlie exited his turret position to one that was ‘safer’. After his 24th mission, he was sent home because his commander thought he had been through enough. On the crews’ next mission, the plane was shot down and Daddy Grimes’ nine war buddies were killed…………

I remember the time my parents went with Justin and me to visit his parents in Robbins, North Carolina. A lot of war veterans don’t talk about their war experiences but Daddy shared his with my Dad. Afterwards, Dad wanted to respond to Charlie’s heroic efforts and found a picture of a B17 Bomber, had it matted and framed and sent it to him. Daddy Grimes hung it on a wall in their dining room.

I sat and looked at the picture of the plane then, remembering Charlie Grimes II, the soft spoken, kind man–the war hero–my son’s grandfather.

“Debbie, I am so happy you talked me into buying this magazine!” Dad must have said that a dozen times during our past week together on the Island.

Me too, Dad, I’m glad I did too.

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Island Dinner

Roasted vegetables crisp from the oven with fresh herbs, sea salt and olive oil.

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Bread dipped in lavender rich Island vinegar—thick as syrup. Buttery Chardonnay, sipped. Just an evening meal, near the water as the sun is preparing to set. The vibrant colors, textures, layers, warmth around us, are reflected in the food and wine, suggesting the complexity of emotions. Food savored, words unnecessary. Thoughts of the day pondered.

Can I find this peace everywhere please? Can I quiet my spirit in the midst of interruptions…….can I carry home with me the gentle lull of a mood created by my surroundings far north from the city?

It takes time to appreciate the goodness in simple, honest things like vegetables, herbs, oil and vinegar. “A good honest meal,” my mom would say about her mother’s slip-downs and dumplings made from flour she had ground, broth rich from the marrow of bone, served with vegetables she had canned, cream she had drawn from the cow into the bucket herself, and meat butchered from a steer they had raised.

For a long time, I knew as little about the ingredients in the food I ate as what was inside the people I was drawn to.

Food, like people, calls for a sensitivity to its subtleties. An understanding of each ingredient’s unique character, delicacy, power. A respect for all that it took to make its way to the table. From seed to plant, grain to loaf. Birth. Growth. Life.

It’s the sound of the wind off the water that transfixes my thoughts on what matters to me.

A meal prepared for someone you love is a wonderful thing. Tonight I will make Dad pork chops. Yellow squash the way Mom made it—sauteed until golden brown then flipped one slice at a time and sprinkled with lemon pepper. Mashed potatoes. Butter.

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The wind changed direction off the lake and I suddenly have goose bumps, even in my new hoodie. It’s time to go inside for a glass of wine and cook.

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