By Deborah Sharp
Despite what it says about my social life, I must confess that the rockin'-est holiday party I've been to this year was at my elderly mother's retirement home.
No kidding. Great food. Open bar. Groovin' tunes -- providing your taste in pop music, like mine, can stretch back to the 1940s and peak in about 1989. Hey, Sinatra's not too shabby. Neither is the Miami Sound Machine. ''Rhythm is Gonna Get You'' indeed.
My mom, confused at age 97 but still spry, seemed to believe the whole event had been planned just for her. What do you think of my party? she asked my sisters and me, somehow overlooking the 25-or-so other Royal Palm residents also enjoying the festivities with invited family members.
She danced. She ate. She knocked back three glasses of wine. They were short glasses, but still. My husband added a sugar cube or two to each one so that the classy Chardonnay they were pouring would taste more like the super-sweet pink wine she used to adore. (The party picture shows my hubby, Kerry Sanders, and me flanking my mom, Marion Sharp)
If you've read my books, you may recognize sweet pink wine as something the fictional ''Mama'' enjoys. It's not the only trait I stole from my real mom for my character. The fictional mama is central to each of my books' plots, and is known for driving her three grown girls crazy. Lovingly, of course. I'll just say that in real life, my mother hasn't driven me that crazy. We've always been close.
Earlier this year, I agonized over moving her into assisted living. It's an awful, hard choice faced by countless adult children. Taking control of a failing parent's life. Making complicated, painful decisions. It doesn't feel any easier to know you're trying to make those decisions in the best interest of your loved one.
Ask me sometime about facilities I rejected. Long, dark corridors. An overwhelming smell of urine. A staff member who answered my doorbell summons as a cold, unfriendly voice over an intercom.
I was wondering if I could come in to talk to someone about a possible room for my mom.
Long pause. Some scratchy, electronic squawks. Thinking maybe I was being buzzed in, I rattled the steel gate. Nope. Still locked tight. I stood there, waiting on a baking asphalt parking lot in South Florida in July, so hot the heat rose in shimmery waves off the blacktop.
I rang again. Perhaps drawn by the sound, an unkempt, ancient man shuffled toward the entryway, on the inside of the gate. I could see him through the metal bars. His zipper was open, and he was playing with himself.
Finally, the intercom echoed again with the disembodied voice: You'll have to come back later, when the owner's here.
Sure. When hell freezes over.
By contrast, the first time I stood at the front gate of my mom's retirement home, I looked into an outdoor courtyard. Parakeets chattered in a birdcage. Flowers bloomed. A fountain burbled. When I rang the doorbell, a smiling nurse's aide popped her head out the door of a resident's room: Hi! I'm Sue. How can I help you?
That cheerful, caring attitude has surfaced over and over in the months since Mom moved in. No, it's not home. But they try to make it like a home. For the holiday party, members of the multicultural staff each brought favorite dishes from their homelands: Haiti, the Caribbean, the Philippines, Latin America. Guests included some family members of former residents. Even though their loved ones passed away, they came back for the holiday party.
My mother's short term memory is spotty, at best. But when I visited this week, several days after the party, she was still talking about it. She didn't remember exactly who'd come, but she did remember the music, the food, and festivities.
We sat in the courtyard. Lights from a decorated Christmas tree shone in her eyes. That was the best party I ever had! she said.
Me, too, Mom.