A family is a system.

My parents separated in 1980, and my mother, my sister, and I moved, temporarily, from our owner-occupied, 4-bedroom house into a 2-bedroom apartment.

From that point my mother uprooted and relocated every year or two, trying to get settled. The landlord sold the first house without notice. The second house was destroyed by a fire in the attic. The third house is a mystery to me because I was in college. The fourth house, a guest house, was entirely too small. Fifth house: sold to a developer. Sixth house, a brick condominium, began having problems with crime.

The seventh time was the charm.

In the early 1990s my mother landed in a modern-style condominium with a small terrace garden that overlooked a small lake. It was a block away from my office at the time, and, at my mother’s invitation, I used it several days each week to change and shower after my lunch-time run.

This arrangement thrilled her to no end. I had my own key to come and go as I pleased. In the heat of summer I would occasionally run at the end of my work day, and my mother and I would sit by the pool or in her garden, where she tended roses, daisies, self-seeding pink cosmos, bright yellow coreopsis, and a variety of annuals — zinnias and snapdragons and pansies.

When I changed jobs and moved to an office closer to my own apartment, in midtown, my mother told me, tearfully, how sad she was to lose the connection. Puzzled, I pushed back. She rarely saw me when I popped in each day, because she herself was at work. (Twenty-something are such assholes.) “I just like that I could finally give you a home base,” she said, “a place that felt permanent.”

She lived in that same condo until she died, more than a decade later. Even if it was never exactly what she wanted (she wished for a third bedroom), it was her home for the longest continuous time in her adult life.

My daughter took her first steps and had her first birthday in the dining room of that condo. We had moved in with my mother, my tiny children and I, in September because our old house had sold quickly and our new house wasn’t finished. So the children and I set up camp in my mother’s second bedroom, and my husband set up camp in the construction project, driving back and forth between midtown and east Memphis as many nights as he could manage to join us for dinner. After dinner I would bathe the children and we’d all pile onto my mother’s bed to read books.

In mid-October my mother’s oncologist delivered news that the chemo was no longer working and that they’d exhausted all available treatment protocols. He advised her to enter hospice care. She agreed, reluctantly.

After stopping chemotherapy, my mother quickly, if temporarily, regained strength. Her hair grew in; her cheeks pinked up. My sister and her family came to visit, and we went to the zoo, cooked dinner together, rifled through old photo albums. It was as enjoyable a time together as I can remember having.

Construction on the new house dragged on, slowly. Our toddler son had a “camp out with Dad” with flashlights and sleeping bags in the living room, which was the only room untouched by the renovation. We took the children trick-or-treating in the new neighborhood then strapped into the car and drove back to my mother’s to sort candy on her bedspread.

By Thanksgiving we were growing weary of the arrangement, and there was no clear end in sight.

One night, after the children had gone to sleep, I sat on the bed with my mother to watch TV together, as we often did. “I want you to promise me something,” she said. “Don’t do what we did for Myrt.”

When I was in first grade, my sister a year old, our paternal grandmother had a stroke and was bedridden. My father was an only child, so his mother’s care-taking fell to him, which meant it fell to my mother. For four years, in my mother’s version of our narrative, my father’s mother and her illness dominated our lives and debilitated our young family.

“Don’t let me be the burden on your family that she put on ours,” my mother said, sitting up in her bed so she could face me directly. “Put me in a nursing home, and leave me there. Take care of your own family first. Promise me.”

My sister came back to town for Christmas. Our mother’s mental state was changing. Her usually crystal-clear memory was slightly foggy, and she had fits of temper that were entirely uncharacteristic of her.

It could be brain metastasis, the hospice nurse told my sister and me one morning at a coffee shop where we’d met for a private conversation, out of our mother’s hearing. By all other indications, however, her body was strong; our mother was a fighter. We needed to be prepared, the nurse told us, for a long road ahead. She asked if we’d considered a nursing home.

On the fourth night of Christmas, my mother dressed and went to a neighbor’s party. Deciding that the hospice nurse was right, that our mother was strong, my sister flew home the next day. We agreed to research nursing home options, knowing we needed a plan but reluctant to make one.

The following morning, our mother didn’t wake. I called the hospice nurse who assured me it was probably a temporary side effect of increased pain medications. She’d just seen my mother, the nurse said, reminding me that we were probably looking at months, maybe even a year, of care ahead. I called my sister anyway, told her she needed to turn around, come back. She arrived the next night at 8:30. Our mother died a half hour later, with her girls at her side.

We planned the funeral at my mother’s dining table, while our children plunked the keys of her piano. We stood in the tiny kitchen eating slices of ham with friends and relatives from near and far. We fed leftover bread to the ducks in the lake.

Mama kept a hand-written a list detailing who got what, so we made a plan to pack and ship things accordingly. In the garage we found unexpected treasures, including tiny, square, black-and-white photos that our father had taken when he was a boy. It was a series, a story, that began with a photograph of a bicycle high up in a tree and a caption, written in our father’s tidy print, “THE PROBLEM.”

After the funeral, my sister and her family returned home, to Maine. Mama’s landlord of almost 15 years sent a letter with a bill for several months of unpaid rent and a request — “so sorry to add to your troubles” — to be out within 30 days.

I packed boxes every night after the children went to sleep, while Bernard worked furiously to get our house finished enough that we could move in. An army of friends pitched in, painting rooms and nailing floorboards, unloading enough furniture from the storage pod that we would have a mattress to sleep on, a table and chairs in the kitchen.

The house wasn’t finished within 30 days, but we moved in anyway. With boxes stacked floor to ceiling in the living room, no floor in the master bedroom, and nothing but framed openings for closets, we settled in as best we could and started making a home.

This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”

4 thoughts on “A family is a system.

  1. We didn’t, of course know the details, and your telling of this is poignant. Your mother lives in our memories, and we thank you for sharing yours.


  2. What a sweet story! I had no idea what you all were going through. It sounds like your mom was a real fighter. My dad was the same way except he NEVER wanted to
    go to a nursing home. We go through a lot of stressful times in our lives…and somehow we survive.
    Thanks for sharing.


  3. Such grace that your mama knew your children, and that you were absorbed in their young lives when she was ending hers. Thank you for sharing these stories, and that wonderful photo of her with toddler Berent at the cheese souffle dinner table. xoxo

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