(photo: tanakawho/flickr)

Little Momma was a familiar character at Late Late Night and Caturdays.  Regulars at those threads know of my weekend drives to Los Alamos where I was the primary family caregiver for my mother the last couple of years.  Mom became Little Momma to me (LM in my comments here) as osteo-arthritis and congestive heart failure consumed her, flesh and bone.  From one of the original multi-taskers, Dementia stole most of what else remained.  I preferred not to measure the losses, but they were hard to ignore.  After washing her hair, I stared at her scalp and tried not to count the thin white hairs that accumulated in the comb that would formerly have been inadequate to style her once-abundant waves.  I cringed as her hip bones emerged from her always ample sides, and I did not like the image of thin horses this brought to my mind.  My Momma lost almost everything, but not her sweetness, and her determination remained to the very, very last.

My mother was a career woman who traveled and married late.  She lived in Hawaii after college and moved to Los Alamos to work as the first dietitian at the hospital that became the Los Alamos Medical Center.  She and my father met at the bridge table there.  They must have stood out in the mountain-desert, each in colorful rayon clothing they bought in The Islands before they knew each other.  They each also had, beside their religion in common,  a car and a typewriter.  They married, and Momma continued to work until her OB at the hospital told her he would admit her if she came to work one more day.  There were five children born, and Momma had a fine second career as a mother, equally devoted to toddlers, kindergarten, catechism, scouts, homework, and the liberation (and terror) of driver’s ed, while she added a variety of volunteer activities and competed at bridge, eventually accumulating enough points to become a “Life Master” of the game.  She loved bird-watching, and as she inventoried lots of other aspects of our lives, kept lists of the birds she saw.

By the time I was in high school, my father’s political activities against the Vietnam War caused friction at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory where he had been employed for 20 years.  His letters to the editor of every paper from the local rags to the NYT, The Catholic Messenger and I.F. Stone eventually led to his departure from the lab, and for at least 30 years, Momma put her typewriter to good use writing weekly letters to her children (first using carbon paper and then xerox), pages long and single spaced.

Following his exit from the Lab, my parents became the owners of an established gift store, The Shalako Shop, selling Native American jewelry, rugs, books, and other “nice things,” as he called them.  Times were good, and the store expanded sufficiently to fund our college educations.  They both enjoyed the opportunity to shop for inventory, as buying anything but what the family needed long-supplanted the self-indulgences they so enjoyed as young workers.  They relished the broad range of social connections that proliferated from a store full of beautiful hand-crafted things that gave everyone pleasure.  They enjoyed the traders and the artists who came with their wares, they enjoyed their customers and employees.  The book selection grew by leaps and bounds as my father added to his own education.

Little Momma did the bookkeeping for the shop, as she had minded the finances at home for 20 years.  Eventually the store became her primary (third) occupation as my father began to bury himself in his personal enterprise–a long-time habit of purchasing and reselling cast-offs from the Laboratory.  With the kids in college and then jobs, they continued to work and prosper.

The two of them were satisfied with the wonderful home they built, the first adobe in Los Alamos.  They had what they needed and while my father continued to accumulate inventory and work at his business until he died at 86 in 2009, my mother was ever-thrifty and neither found it necessary to have new cars, furniture or clothing that so many in that generation used to demonstrate social status and financial security.

She lived in the shadow of his spotlight, but it required a thick skin to deflect the arrows that came with his published opinions and increasing notoriety.  Eventually, the town developed some immunity to his anti-nuclear diatribes, and the angry phone calls and personal attacks that were so difficult for her did not come as often.  His views did eventually effect the sales at the shop, and her health issues had begun to take their toll, so the store was closed, and she retired at 72 to do the payroll for his business, play bridge, read mysteries and swim laps for her health. She was swimming 4 days a week until 2 years ago when she had some health problems that kept her away from the pool.  Not long after that, she began to use a wheelchair.

After thinking she would die any time in the last 2 years and managing her care 24/7, I thought it might be in her interest to move to a place where she would have more opportunity for social interaction, bridge and swimming, all elements of her unconfined life that had fallen by the wayside during the isolation of being cared for.  Like every other change that had come, she accepted this, and she looked forward to the promise of these activities.

For the first 2 weeks at her new “home,” I continued to have someone, either a care giver or my sister or me, with her 24/7.  Then I hired the facility to take her to meals and activities, and to check on her every 2 hours.  It was touch and go on their part.  I continued to visit her every evening and tuck her safely into bed.

She told me how tired she was, but she finally played bridge two days in a row, and she was thrilled.  Despite her dementia, the ladies told me she played “beautifully.”  They had been intimidated by her “Life Master” status, and though she was extremely pleased to be at the table again, she told me later that they were really (as they suspected) “not very good.”  Still, she looked forward to playing again.

On Tuesday night, I arrived a little past my normal time, and she was “so tired.”  She had some edema, and this concerned me, but she assured me she was not in any pain.  She was not able to describe her discomfort, and I sat near her chair as the evening progressed in a long-familiar routine.  She talked on the phone with my brother and my sister, alert enough but typically confused.  Suddenly, she had a brief seizure, and she was gone.  I knew it was over, and we had a DNR, so I told the 911 operator that I would not subject her to chest compressions.

I do not know how the universe gave me the opportunity to be there at that minute.  I cannot overstate my gratitude that I know how she left: that she was not in pain, it was fast and her suffering was familiar: discomfort and confusion.  Best of all, she was not alone.

When it came time in the process to select her casket, I had no strong feelings.  My sister got her choice in this matter.  Until.  I noticed the logo on the computer page.  “Um, what is that pink ribbon about?  Because if we have to make a donation to SGK, we are not getting this casket.”  My SIL agreed that it is “a terrible charity.  Could we re-direct the contribution to Planned Parenthood?”  The hapless individual who had been assigned to us had never heard about the problems with SGK.  He had to consult with his higher ups to learn whether we could refuse the donation, and when he told us we did not have to make the contribution, we paid the costs and left to buy orchids, something we all agreed would be required for LM’s services.

As I drove home, I was consumed with doubts.  Did they just say what we wanted to hear?  The next day, the funeral home called for another reason, and I said, “I’m sorry, but I am still riven with concern about the donation.  Are you sure we have not made a contribution to SGK?”  He assured me that he had followed up with a call to the casket company, and they have a card that must be filled out to make the donation.  So while SGK has covered every base in their quest to pick our pockets clean at each turn, we can still fight back.

Momma was a Republican, until the Nixon years.  My father was a union man and a Democrat, and after the “Saturday Night Massacre,” she changed her voter registration.  She was always close lipped–a trait of her mid-western Minnesota (Swedish) roots.  In these times, I was not really sure how much she absorbed about current events, though she faithfully watched the news every night before bed.   Around the time of the most recent “primary Tuesday,” I made a comment to her about the “Republican clown car.”  Momma still had a sense of humor, and she “got” that.

I think she would like that we stood together as women for women.  Long before we all began to hyphenate our names in a cavalcade of complexity as one hyphenated name joined another, LM used her last name for her middle name.  She said, “There may be another Mrs. Edward Grothus, but there will never be another Margaret Turnquist Grothus.”  She was right about that.  RIP, Little Momma.  You were the best.