The most delightful day I spent with my mom during eight months of hospital and skilled nursing visits in the year of her passing was a Sunday afternoon at Harmarville Rehabilitation Center in May, 2007. On that day I brought a prop—Daisy Jean’s jewelry box—that would take us to places we might not have expected.
One of my challenges that year was to keep track of her belongings through all the moves. Some of her clothing and personal effects were still at Nor-Ridge Assisted Living. Because I had been arranging to move her to a new facility, due to deteriorating conditions at the ‘Ridge, I warehoused some clothing at my house until the room was ready at the new facility, Independence Court in Monroeville.
With all of her health concerns at the time, I never felt as though Daisy Jean took the move I was planning all that seriously, or perhaps she wasn’t as animated as usual due to her failing health. Nonetheless, I tried to keep her abreast of what was happening as I felt it was still important to maintain our partnership in decision making. Because I had become so disenchanted with the new ownership at Nor-Ridge—slashing the cook’s food budget and pressuring to move my mother to a semi-private room—it pleasured me to describe the climate of Independence Court and how much nicer the surroundings and the level of care would be for her.
With any move it is wise to take inventory of possessions to see if there are items that can be donated or discarded. Looking back, that may have been the reason why I decided to bring the jewelry box that day. Or perhaps I sensed that jewelry represents whimsy, adornment—just what we needed to escape the stranglehold of illness and confinement.
Actually Daisy Jean owned several jewelry boxes—one large one, pock marked with cigarette burns—that dates all the way back to the Willow Street days. Then there were two smaller ones that had been gifts over the years, one of which was a teak-wood box with a picture frame lid top. The picture she chose for the lid top was of her and me sitting side by side in lawn chairs on Jay’s back patio. Daisy Jean is holding Belle, Jay’s precious miniature Dachshund, who left us just a year before Daisy Jean’s passing. In this picture Daisy Jean is wearing one of her favorite knit pants suits—solid pants and a deep lavender top with multi-colored beaded designs lain vertically across the shoulders and bosom like suspended chains, giving her a Native American flair. The other small box for overflow jewelry, a beach vacation souvenir, was round with seashells covering the lid.
I believe I made an “executive decision” to retire the large jewelry box that had been spoiled by telltale burns from my mother’s smoking days. In its place I found a small plastic file container—14 X 8 X 10”—at a discount store. It had three small drawers in the top half and a deeper drawer at the bottom. I loaded most of her costume jewelry into that container, and that is what I brought to Harmarville that afternoon . . .
. . .
I carry the new jewelry box into the eerily empty ward where Daisy Jean has been housed in her first week at Harmarville. The ward is large—curtained stations for six patients. She is the only one there. This assures our privacy for this encounter.
The faint smile of affirmation on my mother’s face assures me that she likes the idea of examining the contents of the crate to help us determine what to keep and what to discard or donate. Most women probably have possession of far more jewelry than they need and, though Daisy Jean was about as far removed from “hoarder” designation as it gets, the same was true for her.
A red necklace with earrings catches my attention first. As I hold them up, Daisy Jean remembers how hard she had shopped around for something to match her red pumps. I remember the family album with a picture of her and Nippy at a dressy banquet at the legendary Vogue Terrace. This event occurred before my time in the mid 1940’s. Daisy Jean makes certain that I understand that what I had called a “necklace” was more precisely known as a “choker” because it wrapped tightly around the neck with no drooping. Daisy Jean was a stickler for detail. I am thankful for having inherited that trait from her.
Before long I uncover souvenirs from my travels—a bracelet and earrings from Wimbledon, England, from my two-week visit to London in the summer of 1993 with the Institute for Readers Theater. I never did locate the fabled tennis courts where my hero, Bjorn Borg, had commanded so much attention for his masterful game. The day I took the train to Wimbledon, I was pressed for time, as I had a date with two fellow work-shoppers for the Royal Albert Hall that evening and had to allow sufficient time for the return of the train to London.
Now I grasp the turquoise, black, and pewter Mayan earrings and necklace from my trip with Jay to Cancun in the summer of 2001. She rarely wore the Mayan jewelry, perhaps because we kept it in a brown envelope hidden away from her jewelry boxes that sat on her dresser. Occasional theft of resident belongings was not uncommon at Nor-Ridge.
I always made a habit of remembering my mother on trips, even daytrips, by bringing her something that I figured she would not have the opportunity to buy for herself. One such outfit still hangs with a few other clothing artifacts in the closet of my den. I am fairly certain that she only wore the raspberry sweatpants suit with the glittery carousel horses a couple of times. Daisy Jean was with Jay and me when I bought it for her at Fall Foliage Days in Bedford, Pa. I guess she realized that frequent laundering would cause deterioration of the decorative top. Perhaps she was preserving it to come back to me . . .
Reflecting on these relics from memorable travels brings to mind one of my deepest regrets. Over roughly a decade from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s, Daisy Jean had tossed me frequent hints that she would be thrilled to take a trip to Nashville with me. Watching country music shows on television, hailing from the Grand Ole Opry and Opryland, had much to do with whetting her appetite for such a trip. I had already been to Nashville and other parts of Tennessee with an old school chum in the early 70’s, so I was not especially motivated to take her there. I was more interested in traveling to places like Key West and Puerto Rico to treat myself following a draining school year.
There she was, still in reasonably good health, travel-ready, and I allowed the opportunity to slip away. I did, however, accompany her to another destination on her wish list. Not only did she experience jet travel for the first time on our trip to Orlando in the summer of 1988, but we took the commuter plane, a little prop jet, from Latrobe to Pittsburgh International. A picture I cherish of her in red slacks and white blouse with red stripes and broad-brimmed straw hat, blowing smoke rings in the rotunda of the Orlando airport, reveals no sign of Nashville blues. We also had a blast at the New Jersey shore in the 1980’s while time sharing a house for a week with a group of my friends. Nonetheless, I regret not having made Nashville a priority . . .
How I make Daisy Jean laugh when I pull out a squiggly bracelet, thick with little blue beads and silvery chained loops. This piece is too much fun to part with. I am entertaining my cats with it now as I write, stretching it onto my wrist and going shake-shake-shake. Daisy Jean did have the opportunity to meet my cats on an overnight stay just a few months before her seven-month journey into the River Styx.
I hold up a set of black earrings with matching necklace to which Daisy Jean exclaims, “Oh, they go with the black and white dress I bought for Michelle’s wedding!” Michelle was a distant relative through marriage, in-laws of my dad’s youngest sister, Aunt Donna. During my schoolboy years we were included in a number of big events involving that side of the extended family. It strikes me how immediate Daisy Jean’s connection is made between the costume jewelry I hold in my hand and the wedding of distant Michelle. I feel a wave of sadness, knowing that I will never provide those memories for her . . .
There had been occasions through my 30’s and 40’s where Daisy Jean probed regarding the marriage question. “Do you think you’ll be married some day? Have you decided not to get married?” Always catching me off guard, I uttered only vague and illusive mumbo jumbo. Then, too, during her cold war years with Nippy through the 1970’s, when I was busy establishing my teaching career, Daisy Jean liked to tattle tale on Nippy on occasions when she had telephoned for me to pick her up on a “rescue mission.” When I took her out for dinner, and sometimes for an overnight at my place, she told me that Nippy had referenced me as a ‘playboy’ who would never give him grandchildren. That still tickles my funny bone.
Finally, on one of our Sunday outings, I was more prepared for my mother’s inquisition about marriage possibilities. I answered what I truly believe, “Not everyone is cut out for marriage, you know. I think I fall into that category.” Perceptive as she was, I am sure that my mother was also aware that the model of marriage that I had witnessed in my childhood would receive mixed reviews at best. She never broached the topic again . . .
My longtime friend, Bob O., was famous for his storage boxes full of plush and resin collectibles. Bob was fond of surprising his friends with a collectible for gift occasions. Daisy Jean had accumulated a modest collection of Boyds Bears pins, one of which I hold in my hand. I tell her how nice they look when she pins them on a dressy sweatshirt.
I know for sure that the pin I pull out next will remain in the keeper pile. The burnt gold pin, about an inch and a half in diameter, with pearl-like center is suggestive of a marigold. We marvel at how often my mother has selected this pin to decorate a plain blouse. This is one of those old dependable mainstays of her accessory wardrobe.
We do weed out a few dated and broken pieces too. I’m not sure what is funnier—some of the costume pieces themselves or the manner in which I dangle them for our entertainment this afternoon. We have brought gaiety to this sterile rehab ward . . .
. . .
Daisy Jean convalesced another few weeks at Harmarville, making just enough progress to release her to the new assisted living home. Joyful and full of hope as we pull up to the unloading circle at the front entrance of Independence Court, I was proud that I had taken charge of a situation in decline. I felt in control of our destiny, at least to some degree. Alas, Daisy Jean spent only three days at the Court. Generally rundown and feeble, she could not keep her food down due to a condition called Zenker diverticulum in combination with poor esophageal muscle contractions from Parkinson’s syndrome. As the Fourth of July loomed upon us, it was back to the ER and then on to Latrobe Hospital where the insertion of a feeding tube would bring us to new adventures.