Sunday, February 3, 2013

Softly and Tenderly

   They usually came at the end of their shift. Sometimes we only knew them by their first name but we stopped trying to remember that during those long days and nights. It didn't really matter anymore because we knew we would probably never see them again.  Life is funny that way. People come and go. They can be a vital part of your life for a certain period of time and then something changes and they disappear......forever. We knew their faces well.  They had compassionate and kind faces. Their actions were loving and strong. How do they do this for a living especially when they are surrounded by death? Individually they came. Softly and tenderly they knelt and held her hand. Softly and tenderly they prayed for her. Softly and tenderly they kissed her goodbye. We watched this and quietly wept as our mother slipped away from us.  

   We were surrounded by the act of dying; a process that took hours and hours.....and days and days. It was torturous to watch yet baffling when we looked at the peace and beauty on our mother's face.  We were trapped in the strangeness of surrealism. We floated through the mornings, we floated through the days, we floated through the nights and then we started it all over again. When we asked the time or looked at the clock it didn't really mean anything to us. Our lives were on hold as we waited and watched, cried and laughed, sang and hummed, prayed and wept...and wept some more.  We shared memories....oh the memories.  How sweet it was to look back and remember. How sweet it was to spend one last time together as a whole family........and then softly and tenderly, He called her home.
        "Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet at last."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Complete Sentences

"No, the coffee has no flavor," she announces. I am constantly stunned when Mom produces such clear and appropriate sentences. I shouldn't be so stunned. After all, I did ask her if she was enjoying the coffee. I just never expected to get an answer, or rather, an answer in the form of a complete sentence. Ohhhh thank God she is still in there even though she is locked behind the glassy stare. Now she is looking at me intently and I know she wants to say more to me but her brain will not let her. I wait hoping that she will say more, but it just doesn't come. That's okay! I'm happy to hear her at all. I heard her slight southern twang when she spoke! I've missed that. It's ever-so slight, but it's there and if you knew my Mom back in the day, you would know what I'm talking about.

Then suddenly she exclaims, "Those are beautiful flowers!" Wow! I look where she is looking and sure enough, the hydrangeas are beautiful. I agree with her and then ask her if she knows what kind of flowers they are. I know I am pushing my luck but I thought...just maybe....she would tell me. She looks at me and says, "Yes", but she goes blank and looks away. That's okay. I don't care if she can't say the word but I know that she knows what it is and that's good enough for me. What a day! We're talking to each other...sort of. It's so nice to talk with her again. When I dream about her, she can talk, she can walk, and she is wearing flip-flops. It is cruel to awaken and discover the truth.

I am blessed to hear one more complete sentence before I leave. She says, "He has a cute head." Mom is referring to Chase. She has always loved the mini-dachshund breed because those cute heads have adorable floppy ears, big curious eyes, and a long, cold, and wet nose. How wonderful it is to hear her speak again!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


I park the car, get out and go around to open the passenger side. His feet hit the ground running and so I am running too. No matter how much I tell him to slow down, he ignores me. He has one thing on his mind: seeing Mom. I pause to sign the guest book but my arm is being tugged. Donna, the front-desk receptionist, leans over and comments on how big he has grown but there is no time to respond because he has taken off down the hallway and I have to frantically follow. It is strange that at his young age he knows where he is and he knows who he is going to see. How can that be? He is only one. Why can't I keep up with a one year old? I run. I pant. He runs and runs. We are a flurry of activity down the hall but the residents know us well and chuckle when they see us whizzing by. I always tell them that I will come back and say a proper hello once we have seen Mom. Whizzing by the nurses station, they say a quick "hi" to us but know not to bother asking us to stop until we have achieved our goal.

Finally, we find her. How does he know which wheelchair is hers? It is remarkable, really. So young and so smart. I wish I could take credit for that. With my help, he climbs up into her lap and lays a huge, wet kiss on her mouth. Mom does not like this at all but she is so happy to see him that I hate to pull him off. After he has kissed her as much as possible, he finally settles down and sits on her lap. He fits perfectly up there and Mom loves to rest her hand on his back. I push them both down the hall and we enter her bedroom. I close the door and Chase hops down. He loves this part. There is a stuffed animal on the window by her bed. It's his favorite. I give it to him and he happily plays with it while I give Mom and hug and announce that it's nail-cutting day. I hate nail-cutting day but Chase loves it. I bring over the pink bucket filled with soapy, warm water and I put it on the floor. This is always a big mistake but I really have no choice because Mom's bare feet have to soak in it before I can tackle the awkward nail-cutting thing. I quickly put her feet in the water with one hand while I am holding back the one-year-old maniac with the other hand. He loves water! If I am not careful, he will jump right in. The last time we did this he tipped the entire bucket over with his clumsy little feet. It is usually at this point that I wonder why I bring him on nail-cutting day. Okay, the feet are done. Now on to the hands. This is always difficult because when I cut the nails on her hand they usually go flying off of the table and I have to scurry and get them before you-know-who picks them up.

We are finally done and cleaned up. We have to hurry upstairs now because floral arranging is taking place and we need to get a spot at the table. I put Chase on Mom's lap and he balances himself on the edge of her knees while I push them. The ladies upstairs love to see Chase. He is a bit of a distraction at first but once we get settled, I allow him to walk around the room by himself and greet everyone. He is so friendly and sweet. They love his little wet kisses.

It is already lunchtime and Mom needs to get to her table and we need to say our goodbyes. Chase kisses Mom on her mouth again. He always does that before I can stop him. I kiss Mom and tell her that we will be back. She is always glad that we came and tells us to come back soon. We scurry down the hall again and get to the car. I open the passenger door and lift Chase up into the seat. He climbs in without a struggle, I give him a biscuit and he collapses before I can shut his crate door. He is already sound asleep. It was a good day at Barclay.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


She opens her mouth forming a perfect oval so that her lips are stretched over her teeth in order not to let them show. I lean in close and steady my hand as I apply the first sweep of lip color. Her lips are pale and dry but the shape of them are surprisingly perfect looking. It is strange why I have never noticed this perfection before.

I am running barefoot down the hallway to her bathroom. I stop short at her left hip and gaze up at her just in time to see her apply lipstick. This is our daily ritual. I wait until I hear her open the medicine cabinet and then I flee to her side like a puppy running to retrieve a biscuit simply because he hears the biscuit jar open. I marvel at how well she stays in the lines of her lips and wonder why I am unable to stay in the lines of the figures in my current coloring books. Within moments her pale dry lips are transformed. There is an art to her application. She never applies the lipstick to her bottom lip. Instead, she only applies it to the top lip. She carefully but swiftly colors in the shapely contour of the upper lip and then she lifts her right pinky finger to repeat the contour-tracing-action in order to smooth out the color. Then she closes her mouth and rubs her lips back and forth so that the bottom lip gets the color too. She grabs a tissue and rubs the leftover color off of her pinky and then closes the lipstick into the medicine chest where it will sit until tomorrow's ritual. All of this is done in one swift, effortless motion. In fact, all of her motions are multi-tasked, swift, efficient, and effortless.....always. Her daily tasks are met head on with one purpose only: to be swiftly completed.

The lipstick ritual that we shared eventually faded into my childhood past as I grew up and filled my selfish youthful life with seemingly more important things to do. However, her lipstick clad lips became an indicator for me for I could always tell when she was tired or feeling poorly by the lack of lipstick on her lips. No child likes to see their parent ill or tired because in our minds they are invincible. Perhaps this is why I obsessively apply it to her lips when I come for my visits. Now I know that she is not invincible and now I know that we both feel better with our lips colored in.

I step back to admire my lipstick-application-handiness and frown. "Darn it, Mom! I've made you look like a hooker again!" She chuckles as she rubs her lips together. I grab a tissue and clean off my pinky while telling her that applying lipstick for someone else is an art in itself.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Aqua Velva

Aqua Velva is not the gyrating noun as described in the Urban Dictionary:
  1. A human male, usually bar-dwelling, who seems to use the trendiest cologne as a body lotion, and thinks that he is the reason every lady in the place came out on any particular evening. Sometimes known to wear shiny clothing, lip gloss, eyeliner, and enough hair gel to make his head bullet proof. Can also be identified by his Justin Timberlake "Sexy Back" ring-tone.
  2. That guy at the bar in the tight shirt with the slicked back hair and the big muscles who thinks he looks good. He may also be dancing like an idiot.
Nor is it the Caribbean blue vodka-based cocktail that contains:
  • 1 oz vodka
  • 1 oz gin
  • 1 oz Blue Curacao

topped with sprite and ice that is mixed together and served with an attractive nano-umbrella.

It is, however, a line of men's grooming products, including a widely advertised aftershave. In 1929 it was originally introduced as an alcohol-based mouthwash for men. NO WAY?!

To me Aqua Velva means one and only one thing: My Dad. He was, and still is for the most part, a well groomed and hygienically clean person. He always had his nails clipped and he was always clean shaven. His hair, although a little scraggly now, was always neatly cut and smoothly combed. He had a way of gently running his hand over the top of his hair just to make sure that there were no irregular pieces sticking out. The best part of his cleanliness was the way that he smelled: Wonderful. Crisp, clean, fresh and spicy. I can smell it now, although it has been years since I have actually caught a whiff of this fragrance. I laugh when I hear all of the tacky descriptions and frankly I am a little embarrassed to say that I really only like that men's fragrance. I find all of the other ones way too annoying. Besides, it obviously has multiple uses. I had no idea about the mouthwash one but I do know first hand that it was wonderful for fixing little boo-boos and unsightly preteen blemishes.

"Marfs," he would say as I walked into the room (it astonished at how he could spot my blemishes from across the room which meant they must have been hunaucious in size), "come over here and let me take a look at that on your forehead." He was kind to never actually come out and say what that really was which was a: Big.....Ugly......Festering....... ZIT! Instead, he would look at it and then beckon me to the bathroom where he would produce the Caribbean Blue bottle of magic. He would dab a little on his finger and then gently dab it on my big,ugly, festering that. I felt better already. I knew it was working its charm and now I could go out and greet the day! Plus I had the added benefit of smelling a hint of Dad all day long.

When the movie My Big, Fat Greek Wedding came out and the patriarch of the family repeatedly used Windex as a cure-all for life's blemishes and unsightly problems, I nearly wet my pants with laughter because that is exactly what Dad did with his bottle of Caribbean Blue magic. He would dab it on here, and dab it on there and I would feel so much better! It was the kind of private care that a child received from a parent that had a way of making me feel more special than anyone else in the family. That is until our little dachshund had a slight boo-boo on his ear and I spotted Dad dabbing a little magic on our Bloody German Beast! Hey, that was for me not the "Wretched-Rotten-Worthless-No good-Stink-Breath" dog (this is what he nicknamed our dog)!

Oh well. I was special for a moment.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Ring

I am thinking that it was because I had my sunglasses on and because I was not wearing my sapphire ring. The salon sapphire ring, that is now mine, was given to me by Mom. She wore this beauty on her right hand for years until she handed it down to me. I adore that ring. Not only is it exquisite to look at and to wear but it reminds me of her. She never took the ring off. She stuffed turkeys with it, gardened with it, talked with it, administered enemas with it (a family favorite event. Not.), polished silver with it, spanked us with it, swam with it, coached softball with it, made crab soup and herb bread with it, took our temperatures with it, raised four children with it, suffered breast cancer and treatments with it, and suffered brain cancer and treatments with it all while wearing that sapphire ring. Surely this is why she does not know who I am today? I am not wearing it now. I take it off in the summer months because I am afraid that I will ruin it with all of my own activities.

"I'll give you a hint," I say. "I am your favorite child" (my siblings still think that each one of them is her favorite, but they are mistaken. I am. Why else would she name me after her?). Still no recognition. "I share your name. What's your name?", I coax. "Martha," she says. "Yes Mom! Great! Now what do you call me?" We are outside at the Barclay enjoying the beautiful sunshine. I take off my sunglasses and look into her soft blue eyes but still not a flicker of recognition. Determined I say, "My nickname rhymes with Barfie." A slow smile appears and then she laughs. "Marfie!", she says. Relieved I say, "Yes! Excellent! I knew you would remember!" Her smile fades and we sit looking at each other for a moment. I marvel at her memory and how all she needs is just a little coaxing. She knows me. I know she knows me. Of course she does. How does a mother forget her own child?

We sit silently for a moment and then I ask her what she is thinking about. She gets annoyed and says, "Why are you asking me so many questions? Who are you?"

Next time I will wear the ring. She will know me then. I know she will.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Havana, Cuba and Panama

Havana, Cuba
I am told that Havana, Cuba is still one of the most attractive cities in Latin America. Havana was one of the first cities founded by the Spanish in the New World and had one of the most magnificent natural harbors. Despite periods of great instability and a turbulent history, Havana grew substantially since it was the stopping point for most of those traveling to the New World a unique exchange of ideas existed. In 1868 the Cuban War of Independence brought a halt to the modernization of the city but the war ended in 1898 when the US intervened and a change from European influence to American influence began. In 1902, the republic was established and Havana started to blossom again. In 1940 Havana became a desirable tourist destination for Americans who were looking to escape the winter and enjoy the warm Cuban climate. The revolution in 1959 brought about tremendous social changes for the country. Although Cuba is one of the last bastions for Communism in the world, it should really be admired for its natural beauty, its rich history, and its unique urban architecture. (summarized from Llilian Llanes' book Havana Then and Now)
The Republic of Panama

The southernmost of the Central American nations, Panama is south of Costa Rica and north of Colombia. The Panama Canal bisects the isthmus at its narrowest and lowest point, allowing passage from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Panama is slightly smaller than South Carolina and is marked by a chain of mountains in the west, moderate hills in the interior, and a low range on the east coast. There are extensive forests in the fertile Caribbean area.

By August 15, 1914 the Panama Canal was officially opened by the passing of the SS Ancon. At the time, no single effort in American history had exacted such a price in dollars or in human life. The American expenditures from 1904 to 1914 totaled $352, 000,000, far more than the cost of anything built by the US Government up to that time. Together the French and American expenditures totaled $639,000,000. It took 34 years from the initial effort in 1880 to actually open the Canal in 1914. It is estimated that over 80,000 persons took part in the construction and that over 30,000 lives were lost in both French and American efforts.

To read more about the Panama Canal see this website:

White Family History
Somewhere around 1923/24 my maternal grandfather, Harold Somerset White, was in Tela Honduras working for the United Fruit Company when he was invited to a friend's house party. My grandmother, Martha Bell lived in Atlanta, GA but had gone to Tela to attend the same house party. The two met and carried on a long distance courtship for five years until finally marrying in Atlanta, GA in 1928 and moved to Honduras so grandad could continue his job with the UFC. Here is the time line as best as I can remember from my interview with my parents:
  • 1930/31, the White family was transferred from Honduras to Colon, Panama.
  • 1932 on January 1, my mother Martha Bell White was born. Martha Bell, or MB for short, had dual citizenship in both the US and Panama/Cuba.
  • 1942 they moved to Havana, Cuba in a suburb called Miramar
  • 1946 mom's brother, Chiefie ( Harold Somerset White, Jr)
  • 1949-1953 Mom attended Wesleyan College in Macon, GA but came home to Havana in the summers and then to Panama after the transfer.
  • 1949 Dad arrived from Hartford, CN to Havana to spend his summer after prep school and before entering college. He and his brother Ted lived in a fully furnished rented apartment that their dad was keeping while he worked the 3 years for the Cuban/Venezuelan Oil Co. The first apartment was in a very exclusive neighborhood called El Vedado and the second one was in Miramar. Both Dad and Ted attended summer school at the University of Havana.
  • 1949, June/July Mom and Dad met at a beach party at the exclusive Biltmore Beach Club in Havana given by Joan Condon Bear.
  • 1950 the White family was transferred back to Panama to a place called Cristobal, a port city that resides at the entrance of Limon Bay that leads to the entrance to the eastern side of the Panama Canal, and the Barnett family move back to Hartford. Mom and Dad spent the summer of 1950 dating seriously while attending summer school in the morning and sailing and attending beach parties in their free time. During the winter, Mom and Dad wrote each other and carried on a long distance relationship.
  • 1952 Dad went back to Panama for the summer and stayed one month in order to visit the White family and continue courting Mom.
  • 1953 Dad graduated from Trinity College and asked Mom to marry him.
  • 1953, September 9, Mom and Dad were married in Colon, Panama in an Episcopalian Church. Ted could not be there due to his military commitments, so grandad Barnett was Dad's best man.
Mom's first house in Colon, Panama was a wood house on stilts and was very close to the water.
The house in suburban Miramar was a little, white suburban house. They had hired help: a laundress named Beatrice and a cook named Gladys. The second house located in Cristobal, Panama was a very nice house with a back yard that backed up to the jungle much like our houses back up to woods. The jungle contained an assortment of wild animals like iguanas, black panthers, monkeys, land crabs, exotic birds, boas, and poisonous snakes. Grandmom and Grandad White owned a beautiful fresh water aquarium and raised budgies(parakeets). The jungle is where my grandmother gathered orchids and propagated them in order to sell them to local florists as well as making an exhibit out of them. They also owned a pet parrot named Lorita. She spoke Spanish and mastered the neighbors' high pitched laugh and was constantly cackling and shouting "fuego, fuego (fire, fire)!"

To me, Havana and Panama have always seemed like the home away from home. Although I have never physically visited these places, I vicariously enter these countries through my parents' stories. I hope to visit Havana as soon as Americans will be allowed to enter the country. I know I will visit Panama one of these days and trace the steps of my parents. I have read many articles explaining that it is a great place to retire. We'll see what becomes of this for me and my husband.