Aging Parents

QDEP Mom and Dad – April 5, 2015

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Wendy welcoming all the guests.

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The three of us.

We gathered old photos of them for everyone to peruse, setting them out on Wendy's coffee table.

We gathered old photos of them for everyone to peruse, setting them out on Wendy’s coffee table.


Well, I guess I am back to writing – true confessions, I just got too wrapped up in other things for awhile. But people seem to have missed my posts, as rare as they have been, so I have been convinced that I should sit back down at the computer and try to be little more prolific. I mean, let’s try to not have months and months go by without saying anything at all, I told myself. Even Arnold, who is the soul of discretion when it comes to urging me to do anything — I am eternally grateful that he never has hassled me about my weight, for example, no matter how much I was tormenting myself about it over the years – implied every so subtly, in about five well-chosen words, that he thought I might be well served (somehow) to get back to my blog.

Actually, a few significant things have happened – we did go up to Los Angeles for ten days, and scattered my parents’ ashes (Ava’s were scattered on Lake Chapala) back in April. We had a memorial service for both of them in under the big trees in Wendy’s back yard and we were surprised that well over thirty people remembered them enough to want to attend, even after a couple of years since their respective departures.

Wendy found a very nice, very Reform, rabbi to officiate so we actually sent them off – even if a bit late – with Kaddish and the 23rd Psalm and a few other ceremonial niceties in a quite lovely afternoon gathering, followed by an enormous feast procured from what everyone told us was the best Jewish deli in the San Fernando Valley. We figured the “nosh” part they would have loved, especially my dad. We ordered a platter of whitefish in his honor. Arnold made up a collection of music they both loved to be played – some Mahler, some Joshua Bell, and of course a pastiche of some of Dad’s music. But the rest of it — they were both so anti-religion, both so totally secular all their lives, that up till the end we had some misgivings about whether this was what they would have actually “wanted”. But Wendy wanted it and some of our older relatives found it very moving and appropriate. And Wendy still insists that our dad once confided to her that he wished he had had a bar mitzvah and certainly as he grew older – well, both of them, really – more Yiddish crept into their speech. Ultimately, being Jewish was certainly a big part of who they were, no matter how you slice it.

We had gone back and forth – for a couple of years, really – about where to scatter their ashes – here, in Lake Chapala or somewhere nearby? back in L.A.? Venice? We had always joked with Mother about scattering her ashes in the Beverly Hills Saks. But at the end of the day we decided that Mexico wasn’t right, a memorial park (even a nice Jewish one in the Valley somewhere) wasn’t right, the ocean or a forest somewhere wasn’t right either. Actually, other than gathering for cocktail-hour drinks around their pool in Encino they were the least outdoors-y people you would ever meet. Thus, for a long time, and maybe that was just adjusting to the finality of the whole thing, nothing seemed quite right, so they stayed in my bedroom closet in their nice Mexican urns on a high shelf for a couple of years while life went on and unconsciously, I suppose, we sorted it out in our minds. For Mom, hanging out in my closet with all my (and some of her) clothes and Ferragamo shoes seemed perfectly comfortable, at least for the time being. Dad probably would have wanted to be near her (though inevitably they would have hissed at each other and fought) so that part seemed all right as well, at least for the time being.

But we all felt we had to do something more with their ashes, and WHAT to do with them was always in the back of our minds. As horrible as it was, the thought of US dying with them still stashed in my closet was not something we wanted to contemplate. So we mulled it all over and invariably talked about it when the three of us were together, around their – now our – dining room table here at our house in Mexico.

At the end of this process we felt that Encino was, in a weird way, where they had perhaps been happiest – young and glamorous, with the replaced-every-few-years red Jaguars and the restored-every-few-years MG in the carport, and family outings to various restaurants and concerts at the L.A. Opera or the Philharmonic. So the Encino hills felt right and Wendy discovered that since much of the mountain range behind their old house has since been made into a state park, that you could actually drive up into the park and look out over the San Fernando Valley and have their old house pretty much directly below you. The trees had long grown up too tall to see the house itself, but we knew exactly where it was from various landmarks – the water tank on top of the hill at the end of the road, where we had often taken walks, their street itself, the neighboring houses and empty lots where both of us had hiked and wandered around as kids.

A few days before the memorial service we went over to the deli and asked to speak with the catering manager to put in our order. Of course he wasn’t in any way Jewish – he was a Mexican from Jalisco and before we even got down to talking about the food for the event we spent a half hour chattering away with him both in English and Spanish about Mexico and his life as an immigrant in Los Angeles, and how he had started as a dishwasher in the deli but now had worked his way up to being the catering manager. He knew more about Jewish food in his pinkie than I ever will. He so enjoyed meeting us that he sent us back to Wendy’s with (gratis) bags of rugulach and hamentaschen, apart from our catering order. We knew we were probably ordering way too much food but we figured we’d share it with everyone in doggie bags – they even gave us a stack of takeaway containers because “this always happens” – and in the spirit of Mom and Dad, we sort of didn’t care, we just wanted it to be a great spread reminiscent of their own great parties. One thing we knew for sure was that they both would have approved of a fiesta.

Early the morning of the memorial service Arnold, Wendy and I drove up to the park with a discreet bag containing both sets of ashes and we hiked up the main trail. Other people had similar-looking bags, so we figured we were weren’t the only ones with this idea. It was very nice up there, actually, and since it was a Sunday, there were all sorts of folks walking around up there, riding bikes, hiking up or down the more difficult trails. Wendy carefully opened the bags and scattered their ashes – some together, some apart – on a promontory right where they would be overlooking their old, much loved, home on Gable Drive – with the valley spread out below them. It was a slightly foggy morning – but we knew there would be those clear days when you can see every detail even of the mountains ten miles across the Valley where Wendy lives now – and at night, of course, it is a carpet of glittering lights – très Hollywood – and on smog-free evenings, we used to enjoy that view all the time from our living room windows when we lived up there.

We all felt better that evening, after the last guest had gone. I guess there had indeed been some “closure”, and for Arnold and me, who never get deli food down here, the reception after the memorial service was a highlight. It was good to see so many friends and family members there. We tried hard to do whatever would have been appropriate and “what they would have wanted” but as we all know now, with 20-20 hindsight, they were increasingly incapable of dealing with even the most important details of their future lives as they aged. Having any kind of conversation about them about their inevitable ends proved to be impossible (though every once in a while, in financial planner mode, I would take a doomed stab at it), so we ultimately just had to wing it. We did the best we could. Que En Paz Descansan.

Hither and Yon

From this.....

From this…..

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to this, in just a couple of easy months!

Finally, we have come to the end of the tales of my mother’s violin, and all the follies surrounding its place in our family’s lore. Over the years we admittedly rolled our eyes but also tried to sympathize with the mythic status it held for her (she always referred to it as “the Guarnerius” even though my father would chide her as he knew there was a virtual certainty that the label inside it was a fake and that it was no Guarnerius, but rather something else entirely, though no one knew quite WHAT it actually was. The sad thing is that he, with a doctorate in musicology, would have so enjoyed the process of figuring out the mystery of its true provenance, but even he couldn’t handle the idea of separating mother from her beloved fiddle and the family legends that surrounded it, even years after she was no longer capable of playing it. So there it sat for a decade, and like their enormous house, the whole issue fell to us to resolve. Once the decision had been made to sell it, the process of determining what it in fact was, and doing what we needed to do to get it out of our rather sad clutches and off to a new life somewhere, took on a life of its own.

Finally, after having been flown hither and yon, cleaned and examined, scrutinized and evaluated by both Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York and London, and lastly Ingles and Hayday, the new firm started by the former stringed instrument experts at Sotheby’s, the violin was accepted for auction in London on October 29. “Let’s go”, said Arnold, always eager for a travel adventure and thinking it would be appropriate for him, me and Wendy to all be present for the final step in our family’s caring for this iconic heirloom. Kind of like those Piaget watch ads where the mother is wearing the Piaget watch in a domestic scene with her little girl, and the ad says “you don’t own this, you just take care of it for the next generation”. The wood in the violin was dated to 1681 and thus that violin has been around a long, long time. So maybe close to a hundred years in our family and then, on to its next stop.

Wendy was dying to go to London anyway, and we all agreed it would be fun to jump on the Eurostar and include Paris in the visit (why not…it is SO close….we all said). So we cashed in a bunch of miles so we could go Business Class as a treat and respite from all the dust and chaos of remodeling, and off we went. The timing was perfect because Arquitecto Roberto suggested that as the guys were going to be taking out the massive (beautiful but leaky, dangerous, and damaged) skylight in our living room and replacing it with far safer and more practical glass block, the next couple of weeks would be a really convenient time for us to be GONE. How could we resist? We knew the removal of the skylight was going to be a nightmare of noise, falling glass, possibly perilous for us and the pets, and Rosa insisted that she was happy to stay in the house, and take care of everything while we were away.

So on October 16 we got on a plane for Atlanta, thence nonstop to Paris where we spent a delightful ten days or so. We all just loved it, had some wonderful food and shopping, spent hours in various museums, saw my young cousin Katie who lives there with her family. We all drank in the civilization, the quality of everything – and yes, the expense. The elegance of the Parisian women, the interesting way London has become a truly global metropolis. It was interesting to sit in restaurants next to Muslim women with headscarves and contrary to our perception of them as oppressed and miserable, they were chatting, laughing, and at least outwardly seeming to be having a great time out and about in the city. We saw great art, wonderful shops, and admired the smoothly functioning and readily accessible public transport in both cities. I prowled around Westminster Abbey for old times’ sake (back in the day, it was a major grantee of the Skaggs Foundation and part of my honeymoon in England was spent on a memorable site visit there). We took tour buses and gaped at Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, saw the Crown Jewels, had fish and chips in pubs, ate all the Poilâne bread we could cram into ourselves, and walked both cities for hours on end.

However, shortly before it was time for us to head for London, I knew I was coming down with some awful cold thing. Horribly sore throat, fever, chills, coughing, sneezing, the whole nine yards. I knew that the stress of the last few days at home getting ready to leave, combined with the noise and dust and chaos of the house, had gotten to me at last. I had a big list of things I wanted to do in both cities but I just felt too awful to press on after awhile, with fever and chills and aches and all that. I soldiered on as best I could but by the time we got to London I was too sick to even contemplate getting out of bed, so I thought I’d just take a couple of days off and try to lick the bloody bug.

It helped, but sadly, I was just too sick to go to the violin auction itself. Wendy and Arnold went, off on the red double-decker bus down to Oxford Circus and Sotheby’s, where the auction was held and I stayed back in our rented flat trying to get some rest. When they came back later that day, they reported that it had all been rather perfunctory and that in fact I hadn’t really missed much, though they were very glad they had gone. My mother’s violin was Violin #8 in their beautiful printed catalog. The theory of the Sotheby’s folks was that rather than having been a Guarnerius it was a Venetian maker, late 18th century, and that was pretty much that. A dealer had expressed an interest in it when the violins (and there were some in the auction that sold for six figures) were available for inspection and playing, and he ended up purchasing it for the reserve price of £11,000, about $17,000 USD. There were no other bidders. We were both relieved that it had sold relatively painlessly but of course, our secret hopes for a last-minute Antiques Roadshow moment where we found ourselves in possession of a half a million bucks were forever dashed.

We would have liked to have met the buyer and told him all about the violin’s history with our family, sentimental types that we are. We thought for sure someone would be interested in its coming to the U.S. from Hungary close to a century ago with my grandfather, its having been a wedding gift to my mom, its life with our very musical family, the hours it played chamber music in my parents’ living room, and so forth. But, apparently not. He picked up the fiddle and the two bows that were sold with it, wrote out a check, paid for it and was gone. The funds are to be wired to our bank account, after they deduct the auction house’s costs – commissions, the back and forth to London for study, cleaning and so forth. We split it with my sister and that was to be the end of that.

Well, sort of.  For many years when my niece Saida was a young girl and later an art student, my mother promised her a trip to Venice when she graduated from college. Saida of course took this promise seriously but when she did graduate years later my mother had become too sick and frail to go, aside from which we honestly think she had forgotten all about it. So we decided to hit the reset button on that one and both in honor of my mom and to make good on her old promise- especially since my mother loved Venice more than anything in the world and the violin is now thought to have been Venetian – the three of us decided that if the violin sold for anything reasonable at all, we would use  some of the proceeds to take Saida and her husband to Venice finally after all these years. Now, a couple of weeks after our return, a very thrilled and excited Saida and Eric are now figuring out child care and such for next year and we are planning yet another European jaunt with them. It will be a lot of fun and we can only hope that if Mamá is looking down from that Great Saks Fifth Avenue in the Sky, that she would approve.

Meanwhile we are still slogging through the construction here, though we actually are contemplating the end of it, or at least the end of the worst of it. My office is done and I have moved what I can into it, with an odd assemblage of boards-and-bricks, folding card tables and baskets, and cartons still unpacked serving as tables to set things down on. Soon we will bring over some real furniture from the other house, which of course still hasn’t sold, and it will be a little more civilized in here. But I love the space…it is everything I wanted, light, bright and airy with a filtered view of the lake and a spectacular view of the mountains behind Ajijic. All mine to enjoy through enormous glass pane windows until the lot next door gets sold off for a condo complex or something equally dreadful and the wonderful, open vista toward the cerro (hill) is blocked.

But at least right now there is no sign of that happening and it is really beautiful to see the mist and sun alternating on the tops of the hills as we move into the winter here. The snowbirds are back; it is impossible to park in town, but it’s all part of the great circle of life, I guess. I am pretty much over the horrid bronchitis and sinus infection my cold had become, thanks to some killer antibiotics and cough medicine from the doctor. I gave it to Arnold and Wendy for which I feel very guilty but they seem to be surviving, though coughing, hacking and dripping along with me, as well. With any luck in a couple of weeks we will all be over this wretched thing and we can carry on without having to have boxes of Kleenex at our sides.

A Calm Few Minutes

Day One

Day One

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My Future Laundry Room!

Arnold calls it "the new wing"...somehow it started as a little room for my desk and just grew!

Arnold calls it “the new wing”…somehow it started as a little room for my desk and just grew!

With everything that has gone on, this is the first moment I have had to sit down and write something. It’s been a while, I know – we did manage to get ourselves moved into the new house, which of course meant I was distracted for awhile with all sorts of things ranging from a much-loved houseguest, travel that just couldn’t be rescheduled, and finding the carton where the coffeepot had ended up. We did go for a week to Puerto Vallarta for our long-planned Mirkin Cousins’ Reunion, which was great fun and actually went off, more or less, without a hitch. I had hoped that all the young cousins would get to know one another, some never having met, and by the week’s end they were pretty much inseparable after hours playing together on the beach and in the pool, so mission accomplished there, thankfully.

Meanwhile back at the (new) ranch, it certainly is true when they say that moving is one of the most stressful things you can do, even if the house you are moving into is one you know you are going to love, and you were more than ready to leave the old one behind. With all the uncertainties of the visa situation, the scheduling of the movers, our crazy travel plans right in the middle of all of it, we have just had to hang on and hope for the best. Like Rosa says about the rattly bus that lurches up and down the main highway here, “agarrate como puedas….” (Hang on as best you can!”)

We are a bit overwhelmed at this point with everything that has to be done, and getting settled and unpacked we now can see will take us months – maybe by the end of the year we will be able to see daylight. And of course, since we are crazy, we launched into the new construction – an upstairs office for me and a new laundry/utility room – the first week we were in the new house. Why not just dive in and get it over with? we thought. So on top of the move we signed up for a good three or four months of building madness. All complicated to some extent by being in a foreign country, where no matter how much you feel you’ve adapted, there are weird little surprises everywhere that leave you scratching your head.

I remain convinced that the “let’s get it over with” approach is best, at least for us, but as a practical matter we face months still living with boxes and piles of stuff all over the place and incessant clatter from the guys out there working. And they start promptly at 8 a.m. and work till 6. Since in Mexico virtually all the construction is masonry, there is a constant din of chisels and hammers and concrete nails being pounded in. There are huge delivery trucks with loads of bricks, long steel girders, conduit, bags of concrete and other materials, a huge yellow bulldozer thing that comes every few days to clear away the current six-foot-high pile of debris (Reina barks at it every time), and so it goes. It will be a long time till we are able to easily find whatever we are looking for and there isn’t space yet for many of my clothes or my books, files, and boxes of other items, till my office is done. I know it will be wonderful – but getting from here to there is harder this time for some reason…maybe just because I’m older and I’ve done the remodeling gig so many times, who knows. I joke and say “this is it, no more moves for me, they’re gonna carry me out of here feet first! ” and I am laughing but there is this flickering, somber sense in the background that it might just be true this time.

The outlines of the new addition now are starting to take shape – while it’s still basically just bricks, I can now walk out into the space that will be my office and I can tell that when it’s done I will love my new aerie with its beautiful view, through the rooftops and trees, of Lake Chapala. But meanwhile, we both feel like we’re in one of those first-act curtain-closer Rossini ensembles where everyone is holding their heads from the chaos and confusion. There are probably eight or ten guys working out there, Monday through Friday and a half day Saturday. In addition to the electrician and plumber and their assistants, there is the usual Maestro who supervises the actual construction guys, several “peones” who fetch and carry water, cement, bricks, whatever is needed day in and day out, up and down ladders and across boards perilously placed across various trenches. They are unbelievably cheerful all day long. Maybe it is because they are in such good physical condition, who knows? They have an amazing way of accepting their lot, it seems to me, from my admittedly privileged perch as “La Señora”. A couple of them have taken quite a liking to Reina, who manages to show up right when they are about to take their one-hour “comida” break – she’s gone through enough construction projects in our other house so that she knows the right time to wander outside looking cute, tail wagging at half mast (just the right degree of pathos) and scam tortillas, bread, tacos, whatever she can get, from their lunches. They play with her before they start their day, and if she wanders outside the open gate to the street they call her to get her back inside the garden….”Reinita, ven”…

It seems so counterproductive to us but they build the whole room or house or whatever out of bricks and cement and then afterward they go in and chip out all the channels for the electrical and plumbing conduits with chisels and mallets. Bang, bang, bang, all the live-long day, now, for every single electrical outlet and light switch. You end up at six p.m. with spirals in your eyes just from hearing it everywhere, even out in the street. There is no escape from it other than putting on your noise-cancelling headphones (Thank You For These, O Great Bose Gods) but then you can’t hear them if they are looking for you to ask you a question or something, so one uses these judiciously.

And somehow, In the middle of all this chaos, life trundles forward. Miraculously, last week our visas came, so we now are permanent residents and we can leave Mexico and come back into the country whenever and however we wish. With these new visas, we can even work (heaven forfend!) if we file the necessary paperwork. The cuatro gatos, amazingly enough, had their little kitty motherboards reset when we brought them over here. We ferried all four of them over at once in an assortment of carriers, and Rosie, who had been utterly terrified of the two newcomers for the past year, has amazed us by coming out of hiding here, striding around the new digs, claiming her territory, perching on high places she likes, eating with the others in the kitchen. That has been really gratifying. Though there are still occasional hissing matches, it is much, much better with all of them. When they arrived, they were all so busy being disoriented that they apparently forgot that they were supposed to be fighting.

Yesterday afternoon, a Saturday, the guys all worked their usual half day. I realized as the whole crew walked, chattering and laughing, out the gate and into the street to begin their own weekend, or what was left of it, that at least for a day and a half no one else was coming over, no workers, no friends, no maids, no gardeners, and I could actually just BE here quietly and listen to some music (Fauré, as it turned out). A good moment to unwind a bit from the constant invasion and racket. While I battled guilt for daring to stop unpacking boxes and organizing things, I thought I’d bake some cookies and enjoy the relative tranquility (notwithstanding a huge, till 3 a.m. party down the block last night) at least till Monday morning when it all starts up again. Well, the cookies I baked burned to a crisp in the completely useless oven I have inherited, and then while I was angrily throwing them all out, there was a mighty crash from upstairs when Arnold overloaded a shelf with too many books and it broke and came thundering down to the floor. Probably wisely, we both decided it was time to break for the cocktail hour. I fixed dinner on the aforementioned wretched stove (soon to be replaced, of course), and I am looking forward to my first hopefully peaceful Sunday here.

Several times over the past couple of weeks I have had this flash that my parents, each for different reasons and in different ways, probably would have liked this house a lot and enjoyed watching us remodel it and settle down here. If my mother is looking down on all this, she is loving the fact that I have inherited her proclivity for remodeling (though she is probably annoyed that I have a bunch of her furniture now); my dad the Depression baby, I feel, would have been particularly proud that we could have afforded it; we know he felt that way about his ownership of their big, rambling house back in Santa Fe. But these would have been the “my parents” of fifteen years ago, though, before their various ailments and psychological issues overtook them. It is those parents of so long ago that I miss, and it is still rough knowing how both of them met their respective endings, even as we press forward with our lives, toward our own inevitable exits, undeterred.

Million Dollar Deal

Arnold has become completely addicted to a TV reality show about young real estate brokers making million (well, read two million, five million, nine million) dollar real estate deals, buying and selling apartments in New York. Since in a perfect world, he would love to have one of these places as he adores it there, it is only logical that once he discovered this show he would need to sit in his study and watch every single episode he could find and download online. Occasionally I hear whoops of glee floating up the stairs, when one of the young turks either closes a sale or (in the case of a few apparently horrid clients) the nasty people are turned away by co-op boards. Or something else happens which he must immediately report to me on a TV break standing in the kitchen. I guess I’ll have to break down and watch these episodes myself; he is having so much fun with them!.

I have stood over his shoulder and looked at his computer screen at some of these exceedingly wealthy people, being shown these apartments, just long enough so that it reminds me of some of the really awful people I met in my former life as a financial advisor. Obsessed by the money game, they only wanted to keep making as much as they could, oblivious to any long-term risk. Anything I said to these folks, even to hint at the idea that the market might not go up forever, and that they maybe needed to be a little less greedy and a little more protective of the assets they had accumulated, fell on completely deaf ears. These were the people who shopped for financial advisors like the newest and fanciest cars; searching for people who would reinforce their own desire to buy a bunch of the then-current strange derivative concoctions being sold like hotcakes everywhere in the country. They wanted someone to agree with their beliefs and reassure them that their investments were sure-fire winners as they wrote up the orders to buy. I would always only have one, relatively brief appointment with people like this, before they went elsewhere.

But I was not liking what was being presented to me by young wholesalers coming into the office and though it cost me a lot of money in commissions and trailers, I refused to have anything to do with it.  For the most part, these whiz kids couldn’t even begin to explain how these investments were really constructed. And I was in turn becoming more and more conservative in my allocations for clients as I felt increasingly worried about what was going on in the U.S. economy. Nothing – in spite of wanting and needing the income  and the new clients in my book –  could make me comfortable with where it seemed to me that the markets were going. I kept saying to Arnold, even as early as 2004., “we need to go to all cash, get rid of our fancy Santa Fe house on five acres, ditch this lifestyle, and get out of here while we can…” I could see, through the tunnel, the distant headlight of the 2008 locomotive coming down the track, and I sensed that when it roared through that tunnel and crossed paths with all of us innocents, it was going to be lambs to the slaughter. With us in starring roles as the lambs.

By the time the excrement, as they say, hit the ventilator, we had achieved our goal and gotten “outta Dodge” with our assets pretty much intact, a nearly full-price offer on our house, and we had bought the house we now inhabit in Mexico for cash. In turn we tried and tried to convince my parents to sell their house and downsize while they could, but old age, illness, fear, and rigidity all took their toll and it was impossible to get them to even address what I sensed was a looming financial crisis. They really didn’t understand the urgency of it, so we finally decided to just take off ourselves in 2006, and leave them where they were, sort of frozen in place with round-the-clock care in their beautiful, huge house, which ultimately drained almost every penny they had. All very sad.

But now they are both gone, and following their deaths we are more determined than ever to enjoy whatever time we have left and to make the right decisions. We found this new house we liked a lot, put ours on the market, and sat back to wait for Mexican immigration to clear the decks for our seller so that she might be able to evade some of the horrific taxes on property sales they foist upon foreigners without permanent resident status. We both had become used to the idea that this was going to take several more weeks at the least and settled into a mode of just waiting, when the phone rang a couple of days ago and it was our brokers saying “Your seller just got her visa, and we are closing on your new house tomorrow; be at the Notario’s office at noon with your passports!” So we went flying to his office in Chapala, documents in hand and sat there for two and a half hours while the Notario and his assistants rushed around like crazy people trying to get the documents in order. They were completely unprepared, and we decided that the brokers had just decided they had had enough of us and our seller and her visa problems and us squawking about it, and they were going to get this deal done and get their commissions already, no matter what.

In Mexico, a Notario is far more powerful than a U.S. “Notary Public”. Notarios are specially trained lawyers who are almost like judges in the U.S. system. They can make decisions about charges due or waived, taxes due or not, what deductions can be accepted, a whole host of things. There are only so many Notario “slots” available in each part of the country and you can see pretty quickly that they are able to make a whole lot of money and have a certain amount of power. In our case, it seemed like our file was just tossed on his desk a few minutes before we got there, and it was pretty chaotic as our broker, the seller’s broker, and the Notario’s two assistants plus the great man himself reviewed all the papers literally seconds after they had emerged wet from the printer. But we got it done, all signed, sealed and delivered, we got the keys, hugs and kisses and bouquets of flowers were given to the seller with many “¡felicidades!” – a Mexican tradition – and before we knew it we were out on the street with a cottage-cheese container filled with keys and two garage door openers, a manila folder with our escritura (deed) in it, and quite a bit poorer than we had been a couple of hours previous.

Of course we HAD to go over to the new house and walk around and see it for the first time empty of the seller’s furniture and belongings. We realized both how much we like the place and at the same time how much work we will have to do over the next couple of years to make it truly “ours”. Nowhere even close to a million dollar deal, but we think we will be happy there. I thought it might be festive to go out to dinner to celebrate but we were both so completely exhausted at the end of the day that I threw something together and we both just crashed. We figured tomorrow is another day, we’ll go over there and take a load of stuff over and slowly begin moving things in. We are still in a bit of a state of shock! So typical of the way things happen here – you wait and you wait and just when you think you’ve made your peace with the idea that this is Mexico and everything moves at a snail’s pace, whatever legal process you are in makes it to the top of someone’s pile and you have to be in their office in ten minutes ready to rock and roll. Oh well!

The other big real estate news of the week was that the sale of my parents’ house in Santa Fe was finally concluded, so that is another huge chapter in our lives that has closed. We have our house now, and thanks to the favor of the real estate gods, had the funds comfortably in hand to pay for it. We will move in over the next couple of weeks, and then hopefully sometime within the next millennium we will get our present house sold, and we’ll be done with all these real estate transactions, and get on with it, whatever “it” might happen to be. Hopefully I have a while to figure it all out.

Perseverance Furthers

I remember waaay back when I was in college there was a huge rage for the I Ching – my first husband, Bay Area music writer Jeff Kaliss, who is still a very dear friend, was then my boyfriend and he introduced me to the mysteries of the I Ching. He would toss the coins whenever the need to make some sort of decision confronted us. He got really good at it after a time, and I of course never figured out how to do it, being convinced it was all hokum and one was better off to just rely on good sense and one’s instincts to decide where to go next. I used to humor him by letting him toss the coins and drag out the tattered old gray-covered I Ching book and tell me what it was I was supposed to do, but it was more young girlfriend elevating young boyfriend’s ego than a genuine belief in what the spirits might be telling us to do. Nowadays, I would be much more inclined to take the coins’ messages seriously. Maybe I should even find a good used copy of the book; I can use all the guidance I can get these days, in fact.

I do remember one coin toss that resulted in the answer “Perseverance Furthers” and that keeps popping up in my head these days. Here we are, just waiting for the stars to finally align, or do whatever it is they do, so that we can get on with our lives and begin to shape this last third age, our own “tercer edad”. I am now officially an adult orphan, with both my infuriating, complicated, and much-loved parents forever gone. Now we are eager to get through the slogging of estate-settling paperwork and communication with attorneys, brokerages, insurance companies, realtors, and such as soon as we can, and just have some fun after all the years that both of us spent dealing with their maladies, their situation, their dwindling assets, their increasing need for care, the whole nine yards. But we can’t go there quite yet, we have to persevere, stick to the program, until we get untangled from all of it – which may still be quite a long time.

We are a little bit more optimistic, however, about our immediate future. We did see a house we both liked a lot at a good price, and we are both enthusiastic about putting a deal together with the owner if we can. Behind the Wizard-Of-Oz screen, the financial services bureaucracy is grinding away retitling accounts and sending lots of paperwork our way but the stream of forms to fill out is diminishing ever so slightly as we begin to see results, things set up now as ours that were theirs and required our unending explanations and proof that we had both their health care powers of attorney as my parents were completely incapacitated mentally for several years before their respective deaths. We still haven’t had more than a handful of showings of our house but we are ever-hopeful that we will still luck out and that one person for whom it’s the perfect place will emerge out of the gloom. And we’ll be able to make the big switch to a new house and a fresh start one of these days. I keep telling myself “hang in there, this period of adjustment and reorganization really cannot last forever”, and hope that I’m right, that it will turn out to be true.

Q.E.P.D.

My impossibly compromised and frail mother finally died last Sunday. No matter how you try to soften it; she “passed away”, “made her transition”, “left us”, “crossed the rainbow bridge” (though I think that’s reserved for Wagnerian gods or pets) or whatever, the bottom line is that she died. And to tell the truth, her demise was horrible to watch. Thank god she was pretty much unconscious for the last twenty-four hours of her life for she was in pretty bad shape. The doctor examined her, and pronounced that she wasn’t going to last too much longer; her lungs were perforated from the emphysema, and everything else was starting to fail, too. She was, after all, 90, and had been in the process of dying slowly for at least eighteen months; and in failing health for a good ten years before that, so none of this came as a big surprise.

When it was becoming apparent that this was probably going to be it, (no more amusing revivals where after two comatose days she abruptly woke up in her hospital bed to ask for chocolate milk), Arnold and I felt that we should just stay there, with her, in her little room at the home, until the very end. Which is what we did. I will never know whether she knew I was there or not though I tried to comfort and reassure her through her last night. Although actually watching her die was heartbreaking, since there was nothing more anyone could do, perhaps when my own time comes having seen it will make me a little less frightened. At least now I sort of know the stages one goes through, from my dad’s death as well. Who knows, maybe it isn’t so final after all; now all these books are coming out even written by formerly disbelieving, atheistic, humanist scientists, that have gone through near-death experiences for one reason or another, and they’re starting to say “Gee, there really IS something out there, many people are reporting the same thing and now I’ve seen it for myself….”

Well, however the end comes or whatever follows it, I sat with her till hers came, dealt with the doctor and the funeral home and the people who run the convalescent home where she spent her last days, then came home and collapsed, exhausted emotionally and physically, into bed. A week later, I feel a little bit like an animal that has been down in a cave hibernating for years, and is just coming out into the bright sunlight, sort of blinking and stretching. It has been a long slog with poor Mother,  and both for her sake and mine I am very glad that it is over. 

Over the past couple of days I have been thinking I about what best to do to memorialize her, since at least for the moment, we don’t have plans yet finalized for a memorial service, although we are thinking about doing something for both my mother and father back in Los Angeles, the closest thing there is to a “homeland” for both of them. Even though Wendy and I had divided up all her jewelry a long time ago, I never felt comfortable wearing any of it while she was alive, even though there was obviously no way she was ever going to be getting dressed again. Yesterday one of her favorite silver chokers caught my eye in my jewelry box, and I glanced past it looking for something else of mine, as I always did, until I suddenly remembered that she was gone now. I figured “Well, it’s mine now, for better or worse, I’m gonna put it on and wear it.” Then I decided that to incorporate her things into mine, I would try to wear one piece of her jewelry every day for a month. Sort of like the cats, let the various pieces, mine and hers, all get used to each other in the drawers.

I made a couple of trips back to the home to empty out her room, and I was struck by how sad it was that my mom, who painstakingly remodeled and decorated several wonderful houses throughout her lifetime, was reduced to having just a pitiful handful of her things around her when she died. Just to make the room feel more like “her” place, Wendy and I brought over some of her Japanese prints, a couple of her tables and lamps, put some fine old Mexican textiles on the bed and dresser, and tried to make the place look a little less spartan. She did manage to barely whisper, on several occasions, that she really liked her room and was happy to have ended up there, which made us feel good. Having inherited her decorating genes, I know we did make the place look much nicer for her. But now the time had come to clear all that out and make way for the next poor ancianito who will spend his or her last days there; I brought all the stuff home in a couple of carloads and with some help from Rosa’s son-in-law, who has a pickup truck, and that was the end of that.

The next day I stopped by to see Maria, the wonderful lady who really took physical care of Mother, changing her diapers, feeding her chocolate milk with a spoon, pulverizing all her food because she could no longer swallow, turning and bathing her. I wanted to thank her and I gave her a photo of Mom as a beautiful younger woman, which I had promised her. We chatted for awhile and Maria said “You know, Señora, the strangest thing happened….I was down on my hands and knees cleaning in the bathroom after you left the other day, and I missed your mother so much that I was crying, But I felt this soft hand, almost a caress, running down my back to console me, and no one else was in the room…I just KNOW it was her”. I told her that I bet it probably was her, that I have read and heard about such things happening. “Maybe she was trying to tell you that she is okay now, that she is at peace”, I added. Maria thought that was true, that she was with my dad now, and all that. It helps a lot to be religious, I guess. But there might just be something to it, one cannot know from this perspective, maybe it will become evident from the top of the Rainbow Bridge when one arrives there.

In any event, with this chapter over, I am one step closer to my own death as I move up a notch into the slot of “probably-the-next-generation-to-start-dying-off” in my family but I also feel that in a weird way, now that I have indeed discharged my filial obligations to the best of my abilities, I’m about to be reborn somehow. The “Third Age”, tercer edad, the Mexicans call it. If I’m lucky, I’ll have another twenty years or maybe even a bit more, si dios quiere,  so I think my task over the next few weeks and months as I mourn my mother, however that turns out, is to think about what I want to do with the time I have left and then get busy doing it. Listening to a lot of Bach these days, ageless, timeless perfection. Tempus really does fugit.

Q.E.P.D

(Que En Paz Descanse)

Happy Birthday, Mom

Prior to my surgical adventure, in full Princess mode, I had planned several weeks lying abed in frothy negligees being waited upon hand and foot by everyone around here, time to read stupid magazines, do my nails, feigning agonizing discomfort so I could string it out a bit longer. Well, as they say, not so much! I sort of HAD to call a halt to all that after a couple of days enjoying the obligatory painkillers, and get out of bed and resume my life. Oh well, next time.

The saga with my mother goes on and unfortunately it requires, to some extent, that I be on my feet and functioning. Both my parents – as my sister so aptly put it – somehow managed to be fifty years old until one day they woke up at 85 and were completely bewildered as to how to respond to what was happening to them both physically and mentally. We both theorize that because in both their cases – family members on the East coast had done all the “elder care” for their failing parents and in addition to those responsibilities, had seen the other members of the family age and die ‘up close and personal’.

Gradually, after my father’s passing, my mother’s world has shrunk from the beautiful houses she shared with him over the years, to a hospital bed in a convalescent home here in Ajijic, where she lies week in and week out, bedridden and blind, not even really able to speak any more. Her care is wonderful, the Mexican ladies who work there dote on the patients; she and her airy room, which has a sliding glass door opening on to a pretty garden, are kept immaculate. It’s as good as it could possibly be for her given that she is growing weaker month by month and losing what little she has left of her faculties. She’s not in any pain, though, and seems to be happy “wherever” she is mentally – and that is a blessing for all of us.

The only good thing you can say about me, Arnold and my sister having to deal with this situation ourselves is that we have learned a great deal about aging and planning for it, the hard way. After watching both their decline (and my father’s death) over the past ten or fifteen years, we are big into carpe diem these days, whatever that might mean to us at the moment. But it is terribly sad and it has just been, truthfully, a colossal burden for all of us. The taking apart of their much-loved house in Santa Fe was horrible; for years before he retreated into whatever shell he constructed for himself, my dad kept saying “one of these days we will have to move to a smaller place” but never could or would take any concrete steps to move in that direction.  So in spite of insisting  that he didn’t want to leave that enormous undertaking to the three of us, as a practical matter, as both of them faded away, there the house was, intact, staring us in the face.

We finally had to at least get them both out of Santa Fe, for a whole variety of reasons. I tell friends it was like some opera where conflict and confusion dominate the plot and then there’s an intermission where you mull over the fates of these characters, until whatever the final act’s resolution might be. In Rossini, those closing ensembles where everyone is completely at their wits’ end can be hilarious, but in our case it was no fun. We had the neurologist telling us my father had some form of dementia resulting from mini-strokes and a brain hematoma, and the worst possible thing for him would be to remove him from his familiar surroundings.

Then my mother’s doctors, seeing her suffer from (in addition to diabetes) COPD and emphysema, insisted that we needed to get her to a lower altitude than Santa Fe’s 7,000 feet, and someplace warmer for her crippling arthritis.  She was on oxygen 24/7, and the machine was cranked up to the highest output a home machine was capable of – next stop for more oxygen was in a hospital. My father retreated further into himself and only wanted to sleep on the couch all day, stopped listening to music, stopped reading, stopped talking for the most part. My father who spoke several languages, rather well.

We spent a couple of years going back and forth trying to figure out what on earth to do, during which they only declined further. We tried desperately to get them to think about coming to be nearer either me or my sister, but by then neither of them were capable of planning such a giant move, nor did either of them want to leave the house they loved. The financial stress on them and on us only made it worse. Finally, we got them down – with their two cats (now ours, see earlier posts) to Mexico “just for the winter” (they bought the ruse), where at the very least, they were a ten minute drive away from us and it was sunny pretty much all the time. We knew they were never going back to Santa Fe, but they didn’t. Indeed that winter, there was a major break in a gas distribution line somewhere in Texas, and much of New Mexico was without gas to heat their homes as the temperatures plummeted to below freezing and stayed there for several days. When the house caretaker finally made it up there, she found my dad’s piano in four inches of water because the pipes in the living room had frozen and burst. Meanwhile my parents, happily enough, were sitting in shirtsleeves on the terrace of the house we had rented for them, watching the hummingbirds zip around the little garden, and gazing out at the view of Lake Chapala below, glittering in the sun.

Once we got their new care arrangements in place, full of dread, the three of us trooped back up to Santa Fe to deal with the house and its contents.  I was not really surprised to discover that my parents indeed left the whole joint – including zillions of dollars of deferred maintenance- kind of frozen in place like Pompeii. There were dried-out toothbrushes by the sinks, clothes still in the laundry hampers, with more dead toothbrushes and the like scattered in all the bathrooms, and it went on from there.  Like so many “adult children” who find themselves in this situation, dealing with the house was de facto left to us because the house was big, crammed with two lifetimes’ worth of possessions, and as my parents aged and failed physically and mentally, they totally lost control of it.

It took a couple of months out of our lives to be up in Santa Fe working twelve hours a day to figure out what to do with every pillow, pan, item of clothing, piece of furniture, book, CD, DVD, music score, piece of art, along with the plethora of balls of string and rusty coffee cans every Depression-era senior citizen seems to save. Our wonderful friend Sylvia came to help, as did others, thankfully. We filled a couple of moving vans and Goodwill trucks, and closed the house up. Their house is STILL sitting on the market, price reduced ad absurdum, but still no one wants it because it is now such a white elephant. Very sad for us, who have wonderful memories of family dinners and parties in that wonderful spacious living and dining room.

Of course we are certain that if we do something impulsive to give ourselves a break from all of this, like try to nip off to Europe for a couple of weeks, that will be the moment she chooses to make her exit, and we’d have to turn around and come right back, so for several years now we haven’t gone anywhere terribly far, though we are (pun sort of intended) dying to. This week Arnold wants to go to Cordoba. Not happening right now, alas.

Now that Mother is pretty well settled in at the convalescent home, where, barring something really unforeseen, she will remain till the end, as things have stabilized, however, we are ever-so-cautiously asking ourselves what WE want to do next for ourselves. Thank god she is here in Mexico where things are so much more affordable and she could live on indefinitely and it won’t break the bank. Having of course inherited my mother’s love of buying, remodeling and decorating houses, in thinking about our future, my first impulse has been to start looking for a new and in all likelihood, a bigger house.  Some people never learn.

Well, since yesterday was her 90th birthday, Arnold and I brought her some flowers, and set the arrangement by her bed in the home. I’d asked the lady at the flower shop to pick bright colors she could see, so she put together some enormous orange and yellow lilies, and hot Mexican pink Gerbera daisies, one of her favorites.  A couple of people she knows also brought her flowers and those were by her bed too. But when we brought ours over, she didn’t open her eyes, didn’t even really try to talk. Maybe after we left she was able (or chose to) see them, but we couldn’t tell. We just said “Happy Birthday, Mom, you made it to 90!” To which there was no response whatsoever , not even the blink of an eye trying to open, and after sitting with her awhile in silence, she nodded off, so we came back home.