As my mother-in-law ages, we treat every visit like like a holiday — full of her favorite meals, magazines and television shows.
by Jim Dodson | illustration by Gerry O’ Neill
As she eats her Sunday morning breakfast, Miss Jan looks across the table at me and cheerfully remarks, “You look very nice. Why are you so dressed up?”
As usual, I have a silly answer ready.
“Actually, Jan, I’m planning to address Congress today. I’m proposing a constitutional amendment promoting universal kindness, a four-day work week and the importance of using proper turn signals in traffic. Thought I should look my best.”
She laughs. “Good for you! What a great idea. I hope they listen to you!”
In fact, my wife, Wendy, and I are just heading off to church. But this is a kind of game I play when Miss Jan — Wendy’s mother — comes to our house on weekends. She loves a good joke or a silly story that makes her laugh.
During the week, a lovely caregiver named Waletta looks after her needs at the independent senior living facility where Miss Jan lives, while my busy wife brings her groceries and takes her mom out to lunch at least once a week. She’s incredibly chatty with the waiters and a bit of a flirt. Miss Jan is, too.
Every day is like Christmas when Miss Jan — as her art students called her — is at our house. She eats her favorite foods, drinks a little wine, plays with Gracie the dog, clips beautiful things out of magazines for her scrapbooks, watches Love It or List It and enjoys long afternoon naps. As her world narrows down, the past features more and more in her conversations. She takes genuine pleasure in the smallest of things.
“I love bacon,” she declares that same Sunday morning. “And eggs, too. They are my favorite foods.”
I know what’s coming next. She tells me how, when she was a little girl growing up on a farm in rural Connecticut, her mother would make bacon and eggs gathered from the farm’s henhouse every Sunday morning. How Jack, the hired man, would sit at one end of the table as her father, the architect, sat at the other with Mike the dog between them, waiting for scraps to fall. She even slips into the stern Irish voice of her mother, admonishing her daughters not to feed Mike. For it is a sin in the eyes of the Almighty to waste food.
I’ve heard this sweet story probably a hundred times over the past five or six years.
“I like that tie you’re wearing,” she declares next, buttering her biscuit. “Where did you get that?”
It came from a clothing shop in Edinburgh, Scotland, I explain, a Sinclair hunting tartan necktie I purchased for my daughter Maggie’s recent wedding, in honor of our Scottish heritage.
Miss Jan beams, speaking in exclamation points. “That’s wonderful news! When did she get married?”
“Two weeks ago yesterday. Up in Maine.”
“Oh,” she sighs, “I love Maine. It’s my favorite place. We lived on the water.”
“I know. You and Bill had a very nice life there.”
This prompts her to tell me about their cottage on the water in Harpswell, where they watched boats come and go all day and the harbor lights at night; about the little kids she taught about the importance of art; about the clear starry nights of winter. This opens the door to other memories. She tells me about the trips to Europe she took with Bill — to England, Germany and Switzerland; her favorite sights; the colorful characters they met.
“Switzerland was my favorite place. I loved the mountains and the people.”
“How about Swiss chocolate?”
“Oh, I love Swiss chocolate. It’s my favorite!” She says this with an impish grin, like a little Irish girl sneaking a piece from the cupboard.
She tells me more about Bill, who I knew for more than two decades. “He was quite a dancer, you know, in his day. He played the accordion beautifully. The girls loved hearing him play.”
I never tire of hearing Jan’s stories again and again. Memories are like summer’s fireflies. They carry us through the darkness, but vanish too soon.
“I love biscuits,” she suddenly exclaims brightly. “Don’t you? They’re my favorite food. What’s yours?”
Before I can answer, she chuckles like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.
“I like you. You’re a really good guy. You make me laugh.”
“Just doing my job, ma’am.”
Not long ago, Miss Jan asked her daughter, “So who’s that funny man who stays in your house?” Perhaps she thought I was Jack, the hired man.
“That’s Jim, mom. We’ve been married 21 years.”
“Oh, right,” she said with a good Irish laugh. “I forgot. I really like him. He makes me laugh.”
According to the CDC, in 2020 about 5.8 million people in the United States had Alzheimer’s disease or some form of related dementia, most of whom are aged 65 and older. Miss Jan is 84. She jokes that she might live to be 100 — or just pass on “next year.”
“Don’t do that,” I say. “Who will laugh at my stupid jokes?”
Save for when she grumbles about having to take a shower and wash her hair — my wife’s weekly ordeal — she seems remarkably happy, even a bit of a cheerful con artist. At dinner parties, for instance, she will listen intently before nimbly joining the table’s flow of conversation, for the moment sounding like the wise, compassionate, opinionated and highly intelligent mother and social activist she was most of her life.
When she Zooms with her younger sister, Alice, every other weekend or so, you’ll hear the two of them cutting up and gabbing away about people, things, places and memories that only a shared lifetime can provide.
True, every year her boat seems to drift a little farther from the shore. But for now, at least, she seems to be holding her own, defying the outgoing tide, happy as a kid on Christmas morning on days when she’s with us.
Perhaps I cherish such days because they remind me how fleeting this life is, how short the time we are given. Miss Jan also reminds me of my own sweet Southern mother and her cheerful dance with this silent, insidious disease. She, too, was what I call a “happy forgetter.”
After my dad’s passing in 1996, I brought her and her half-blind yellow lab, Molly, to live with us in Maine. She delighted in the fiery leaves of autumn and the deep snows of winter. She loved our big, crackling fire and the sight of the herd of white-tail deer I faithfully fed at the edge of the forest on frigid nights.
When her memory began to fail, we moved her to a fine independent living facility where she became the belle of the ball in the evening dining room, squired around by a celebrated Episcopal bishop who’d marched across the bridge in Selma with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They were quite the talk of the place for a while.
One summer afternoon I drove her out to the seaside restaurant where she and my father always ate when they came to Maine to see their grandbabies. It featured a 10-mile view of the rocky coast that looked like a living postcard.
As we sat drinking wine, she told me about the day she met my father, remembered their first date and commented that I laughed just like him.
“I sure miss him,” I admitted. “I bet you do, too.” He’d been gone for five years.
She sipped her wine and smiled. “You have no idea, sugar. But don’t worry. I’ll see him very soon.”
She sounded so sure. Two days later, she suffered a stroke and peacefully slipped away.
I have no idea how long Miss Jan will be with us. With our four kids grown up and scattered to the winds, it will probably just be the three of us again this Christmas. Five, counting the dog and cat whose names she can’t remember.
But having Miss Jan for Christmas will be perfect. She says it’s her favorite holiday ever. We have that in common.
Plus, I can always make her laugh.
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.