Thursday, December 15, 2011

Party Like It's 1949

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.


Kerry said...

The party was all that and more. Great tome indeed! And at 97, your Mama dances up a storm. Woo hoo!

Vicki Doudera said...

Deb, my daughter and I went caroling Sunday night with the church to a facility that sounds very much like your Mom's. What a difference it makes when people are happy where they work! When pets are permitted, artwork encouraged, smiles abundant... The party sounds lovely and I'm sure your sunny smile livened it up, not just for your mother, but for the other residents and their families as well.

Lee Ann Ropes said...

Your story brought tears to my eyes, Deb. My parents are long gone, but that 'letting go' feeling never goes away.

'Her party' sounded like great fun and I'm sure your presence there was the icing on the cake.

I miss my mother's voice the most. You can always look at a photograph but its nearly impossible to remember their voices if you don't have it on recording. I'm sure that Kerry Sanders guy has your mom on tape many times!I hope so.

Thank you again for your beautifully written story. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Brenda Buchanan said...

Thanks for this lovely post. My siblings and I are in the process of moving my 90-year-old mother into an assisted living facility. It is a very nice, well-managed place, and she is actually looking forward to it, but it will be sad for her to leave the independent senior housing place that has been her home for the past 13 years.

I understand your feeling of relief to find a place where your mother is safe, secure and happy. I'm crossing fingers my mom will adjust well to her new home.

Happy holidays to you and your family!


Unknown said...

Wonderful post, Deb. I never had to make the decision myself, but I visited nursing homes for many years with my therapy dogs, and you're right - atmospheres vary wildly and make all the difference. My protagonist does have to put her mom in a nursing home, and I think you and she would agree on what makes a good one. Thank you - and I hope your mom keeps on partying!

Dru said...

I had a smile on my face after reading about the your mom's *party*.

Robin Allen said...

This could be a Seinfeld episode, but more sweet. So glad you and your mom are in a happy place. I'm sending up prayers for those poor people living in that first dungeon you visited.

Darrell James said...

Deb- thanks for the very touching post. I can identify. My mother lived to be 98 years old. We (the children) went through the same agonizing decision. It's never an easy one to make. Best wishes to her, and you and Kerry.

Kathleen Ernst said...

What a lovely story. Perfect for the season. I'm glad you and your mom could both enjoy!

Deborah Sharp said...

Thanks all for the comments. I know those of you with a similar situation, like Brenda and Darrell, can relate.
Vicki and Sheila: Bless you for visiting and caroling at facilities when so many older folks are lonely.
Lee Ann: I'm grateful every day that Mom's still around so I can continue to hear her voice.
Thanks to Kathleen for the kind words, Dru for the smile, and Robin for the prayers.
Have a great Christmas and or holiday season, y'all ....

Linda Hull said...

Such a lovely touching story. My husband's grandmother died at 100 after having lived at a similar sounding place for many years. She loved her life there and everyone loved her. It changed my opinion about assisted living. So great your mom is enjoying her experience there.

Victoria Allman said...

Deb, you know how I hate to show emotion--I just had to wipe a tear off my keyboard after reading this.
I'm so glad you and your mama have found such a fitting home.
This is a great holiday story.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Oh... that's an amazing story! I'm so glad you found the right place for your mom. That other place sounds horrible! The poor people in there...

Keith Raffel said...

Any photos of your mom partying in 1949? Thanks for the post. Warm and inspiring. Happy holidays, Deb.

Deborah Sharp said...

Thanks, all ... it means a lot to know that other people ''get'' this little piece. Linda: Your hubby's family and mine hit the lottery with our elders. Sadly, Lisa, there are many more of the awful places than the good. Victoria, my mission in life is to make you more overtly emotional ;-) Keith: Next time I write about Mom, I'll find a fun pix. I remember one of her dressed in cowgirl regalia, riding a bull! And, happy holidays back at ya.

Beth Groundwater said...

Lovely story of your mom's party, Deb! Thanks for sharing it with us.