It was a sad afternoon. Despite the probable necessity of the situation, tears still swelled in my eyes a time or two. First, the back story:
It began the night before when dear friends, Don and Bonnie Sherman, joined us for dinner here at Listening Stones Farm. After a fun dinner of smoked ribs and potato salad, Bonnie sliced a rhubarb cream pie with what would have had a perfect meringue had it not been for a slight accident in transporting. The pie, she said, came from a recipe handed down to her by her mother-in-law.
As a child Don had gone to a Boys Scout camp where the scout master … the father of an artist friend we’ve heard is now in a “nursing home” … brought a pie to the camp. Don came home raving about eating the “greatest pie ever.” So Don’s mother called the mother of our mutual artist friend for the recipe.
After eating Bonnie’s offering with moans of ecstasy, the four of us decided we would dedicate a slice for our friend in the nearby senior care center. (For her privacy she’ll remain unnamed. For her niche in the arts world, her form of a classic Norwegian art form, is considered by many as true as Georgia O’Keeffe’s art was to her homage of the desert.)
That afternoon I left my house that her father and uncle built back in 1912, which is one of our many connections. I passed “the hill” where two years ago she had a small cabin delivered for a getaway, a touch with her roots as a young girl on the hilly slopes of Big Stone Lake, and two miles south of my farm. In the short time I’ve lived here I’ve made several images on and around her “hill.”
After the 30 mile drive to the nearby small town, I entered the nursing home where it was rumored she was living, and was told by a nurse, “No, the name isn’t familiar.” She was a young woman and probably didn’t know the name nor perhaps the significance.
As I left with the bittersweet feelings of both disappointment and relief, I noticed a newer building of the same color of exterior off to the left and down an adjoining street. It was a senior living facility, and, yes, this was her new home, and they gave me the room number.
After a brief hug and greeting, I gave her a print of an image I had made directly in front of the little cabin on the “hill” a few weeks ago and pulled the foil off the slice of pie. “Here, this is a pie made from a recipe your mother gave the mother of a dear mutual friend” as I told her the story. She broke into her beautiful smile, one I’ve seen so many times over the years. I recalled our first meeting many years ago when a “buggy artist” friend and his wife came out to the prairie for the weekend. We had visited a few studios before driving to the arts school where she was attending a glass painting class. When Harland explained that he worked to create buggies and was in search of an artist to paint rosemalling on the buggy seat of a Norwegian styled buggy, she said, “Well, I do a little rosemalling.”
A little rosemalling?
This story has been told numerous times, yet she heard it for the first time on my visit, smiling as she vaguely remembered the moment. That was an afternoon I’ll long remember, for later she led us down the street to her small home and garden to give us a personal and intimate tour. If her house and garden aren’t already on some national historical preservation list, it should be for it is unique and decidedly “old” immigrant Norwegian.
She then asked about the “hill,” her little cabin, and about my house, and she retold the story of how her father and uncle had built several of the houses in this neighborhood. My house is apparently among the old Gustafson enclave.
Then she said, “You know, I don’t want to be in here. I no longer have my driver’s license and car. I can’t go anywhere any longer. I have no way of getting back to my little hill. I don’t know if I will see it again. Did you know they installed windows in the little cabin that won’t open? I’ve asked for replacement windows. How can you have a breeze without windows that open?” That odd mixture of reality and hope.
This is a sad reality that elderly people and their families unfortunately face. My family struggled with my father’s dementia and a need for both his safety and that of others. After several minor accidents including his ramming his pickup into the outside corner of the garage, we made the decision to take away my father’s independence. It is never easy. Not for the loved ones. Not for the elderly person for whom the decisions are made. If we live long enough, perhaps this is a reality many of us will face, myself included. So I have a sense of what went into her family’s decision and realize it wasn’t easy for them.
I also thought of an elderly man who had driven into Montevideo last November to see his insurance agent, and had inadvertently missed the brake and hit the gas, propelling his pickup over the curb and into the front window of a popular coffee house. As workers secured the front of the shop, and a nice police officer talked intermittently with the elderly man, we privately thought of him as he sat alone in his pickup, no doubt in private thought of how the slip of the foot had probably cost him his independence.
I look at myself in my 70s, and wonder how I could possibly survive without being able to drive, of losing what most of us treasure so much, our independence, and I looked at my artist friend across the room. Her engaging and beautiful smiles was now gone, replaced by a look of agony and isolation no one wants to experience, and I suddenly felt the presence of tears.
Her family was coming for Mother’s Day, she said, and she hoped they would consider taking her back to little cabin on the hill just down the road. “I’d like to be on my hill again and again.”
After a moment of silence, she said, “I could die just as easily at home as here. I didn’t have any choice in the decision. I hear rumblings of what is being planned for my house. I don’t know if they’re thinking of making it a museum, a bed and breakfast for the art’s school, or what. And I don’t know if I’ll get back to the hill.”
My heart ached with the sadness and reality of aging.
And, there, next to her laptop, was the slice of pie. She eyed it then and smiled. That big, beautiful engaging smile, one that brightens cloudy days. A slice of a pie from a recipe her mother had shared with Don’s mother some 60 year before, a creamy rhubarb topped with beautiful meringue.
Outside, the new spring has rhubarb ready for stalks to be pulled for more pies, and the lilacs are fishing to bloom. Trees are quickly filling in after a late winter, and on the hill where her little cabin awaits her possible return, wild turkeys fluff and strut, and deer dash across the road into the wild grasses of her untamed yard. Across the fen in the valley between her hill and the hill to the west, the sunsets are just as beautiful as are the sunrises across the road. Small oak savannas on each of the hills offer contrast and definition, things an artist like my friend would note with reverence and understanding. Yes, her hill is a fine location for a homey getaway.
If there is to be one.
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We rage, rage against the dying of the light
John, This is perhaps the most favorite of all of your writings. It hits so close to home. I’ve had to make the decision of no more driving for my Mister, it’s so hard. Dementia is tough, seeing the changes, slowing down and all that comes with it. Thank you for this beautiful blog.