Approaching the not-so golden years

Well, I see that five people have viewed my blog today already, perhaps thinking I might post something on my birthday, and I thank those five loyal people, whoever you are, first, for giving me the benefit of the doubt, and secondly, for inspiring me to actually post something.

It is my birthday, and I am spending it in Colorado in the company of my son and his family, which includes a new grandchild, Timothy, only two-and-a-half weeks old and his big brother, two-year-old Willie. They are handsome, healthy, active little sleep-bandits, and I am delighted to be spending my birthday with them and their parents, sleep deprivation or no. Nothing beats the unrestrained hugs and kisses of a two-year-old, the foot races down the sidewalk, or nosing a newborn’s soft head and watching him surrender to sleep in your arms. These are the experiences whose remembrance I hope will sweeten my “golden” years, a subject that is often on my mind these days, especially after I have visited my parents. Because, frankly, based on my observations of them, the golden years appear to suck big-time.

Dad has yet to come to terms emotionally with the fact that Mom can’t live at home with him, let alone cook his meals, do his laundry and be the foil for his acerbic wit. This has made him even more morose and negative than usual. And, as he has always said about his own mother, “you can tell her [him] from a mile away, but you can’t tell her [him] much.” Every time I see my dad he tells me how much it breaks his heart when he visits Mom at the assisted-living home and sees that she can’t carry on a conversation or understand much of what he tells her. (“Poor Mom, she’s just kind of out in space. I told her about her brother dying, but that just bounced off of her.  It just tears me up. But, what are you going to do? At least she’s comfortable.”) She has been there for 15 months now, and she has dementia (a word Dad can hardly bring himself to pronounce). What does he expect? I gently suggest that accepting her reality and trying to meet her there could make it less painful for him. Yet, he continues to try to interact with her the way he always has and ask her to respond to questions that involve remembering (how she slept, what she ate, etc.) He also tells me how depressing the place is (it is quite cheery, actually) and how much he admires the ladies that work there (“that’s tough duty; I couldn’t do it–it would drive me nuts”). I point out that Mom is doing well there, she’s well taken care of, she’s content–that’s all we can hope for at this point. He agrees, and then tells me again how awful it makes him feel. He’s a broken record, and the needle has worn a groove so deep it can’t be jolted out. I’m afraid the only fix will come when the record player winds down completely, and he seems to be readying himself for that moment, if not courting it.

“There are worse things than dying,” Dad told my mom’s doctor the other day, after she suggested we might want to start getting Hospice involved with my mom’s care. Not sure if he was referring to his own agony, Mom’s impaired state, both, or the recent sad demise of friends and family members. Living long enough to witness the decline of and bury the people you love is certainly one of the least appealing aspects of aging.

On the other hand, my dad does take delight in his great-grandchildren and relishes receiving news and photos of them, although visits are few and far between, and he’s never even met the Colorado kids. My mom responds almost lucidly and coherently to photos of “those very cute little kids,” but has no idea who they are or who they belong to. Seeing their photos and hearing me talk about them (as if she understood) seems to relax her and release natural and appropriate verbal responses in her. I’m not at all sure she even knows who I am anymore (another notion that sends my dad into the depths of sadness and denial whenever I honestly answer his post-visit inquiry, “But, she knew who you were, didn’t she?”). But, she likes me, and happily rode in my car to her doctor’s appointment, chatting nonsensically the whole way. When I told her my name is Lynn, she perked up as if that name actually rang a bell somewhere in the recesses of her fractured memory. I take solace in that glimmer of recognition, while for Dad it’s just another reason to despair.

So, on my birthday, I’m thankful to turn 61 instead of 84 or 85 (Dad and Mom’s next respective birthdays) and still be able to cope with life’s vicissitudes fairly well and thoroughly enjoy its gifts in the form of dear friends, healthy grandchildren, loving and successful children, siblings that are also my best friends, a spouse that is still the love of my life and my rock, and (knock on wood) my own good health. The so-called golden years can take their sweet time, thank you very much.


“F**k Donald Trump”

Disclaimer: This is not a political post. Sorry to disappoint those that are searching for yet more anti-Trump vitriol on the Internet. This blog is still about language.

The other night I was watching the documentary “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” on PBS. ( I had tuned in just by chance about half-way through the program and am so glad I caught at least some of it. I had read and very much enjoyed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings many years ago, so I knew something about Angelou’s childhood and adolescence. And, I knew that she had written and recited a poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration, but that was about it. Turns out that in addition to her many artistic and intellectual accomplishments and awards, she had kind of a wild
and colorful life–some of it rather on the unsavory side. Nonetheless, she put her great talent, insight and love of language to use to rise above much adversity and succeed on many fronts. In interviews she came across as a very wise, dignified yet fun-loving lady with an immense curiosity and appetite for challenge.

What struck me, especially, in light of a few recent events, which I will describe shortly, was her admonition to other blacks about the use of the n-word and other vulgarities. In an interview, perhaps her last before her death in 2014, Angelou recounts how she took Tupac Shakur aside, not knowing or caring who he was, on the set of a movie she was making to have a little chat with him about why he was so angry and stomping around yelling a blue streak of obscenities. As Angelou put it, the n-word was coined to demean people, and therefore, no matter who uses it or why, it is unacceptable. In addition, she said about bad language in general, vulgarity is vulgarity, and you know it’s wrong.

Her words struck a chord with me because lately I’ve been feeling somewhat besieged by linguistic vulgarity. All right, those of you who know me know that I am not above swearing like a sailor myself on occasion. I grew up hearing some pretty salty language from my dad everyday, although my mom tried hard to keep it clean and on more than one occasion washed out my mouth with green Palmolive soap. Maybe that’s why I do still try to follow certain conventions of “polite” society when I use vulgar language. For example,  using such language mainly in private among adult friends and lowering one’s voice if in public so as not to offend others, using vulgar words for humorous effect or as intensifiers, not merely gratuitously. Does that make me a hypocrite at worst or just a prudish old woman at best, or are others reacting the same way and just not saying anything?

I work in the court system, so I’m exposed on a regular basis to people that are upset, angry, outraged, hysterical, crazy and just plain rough. I hear the f-bomb all the time in the hallways outside of courtroom, from people talking loudly into their cell phones about the injustice they have just experienced, or adults talking to each other while their kids run around at their feet, and sometimes from lawyers speaking with their clients–maybe they think it lends them street cred to be vulgar. I’ve noticed over the last 10 years or so a decided slackening of the tabu around the use of the f-bomb. I use it more, my peers use it more, even my dad has now used it in when talking to me, something I never heard out of his potty mouth in 58 years. And, of course, rap music is laced with it and probably has been for longer than I know since I don’t listen to rap if I can help it.

That leads me to the first of the recent incidents that got me to thinking more about this topic. For Christmas last year, we were guests at the Santa Cruz, CA home of my stepson’s partner’s family, most of whom we had met before and who had graciously included us in Christmas festivities two years prior in Los Angeles. It was the end of a lovely Christmas Day filled with good food and drink, good cheer, present-exchange, football in the yard, etc. Music had been playing for much of the day, some of it Christmasy, some not, but mostly “classics” that everyone could enjoy, from the 75-year-olds to the 14 year-old. Everyone had supped aplenty, the dishes were done, the hostess could finally unwind, the cook was asleep on the couch, others were watching T.V. or occupying themselves with their new gifts–you get the picture. The music turned up-tempo, the dining table was moved aside, and some of us started to dance and sing. The host and hostess danced beautifully together. The rest of us did the best we could. It was fun.

After a half-hour or so of that revelry, the 20-somethings got hold of the music source and opted for a more “contemporary” sound–so I sat down to rest. It was still fun to watch them. That is, until the rap song “Fuck Donald Trump” by YG and Nipsey Hussle (all heretofore unknown to me, would that they had remained so, and I leave it to you to Google the lyrics if you haven’t had the “pleasure” as I do not wish to afford them one more hit than necessary), whereupon the eight or so family members that were still dancing, still ranging in age from 75 to 14, formed a sort of mosh pit in the dining room and commenced jumping around with fists pumping in the air and gleefully shouting the refrain “Fuck Donald Trump.” I was left speechless and still am–almost–although Maya Angelou helped me find my voice.

The next time I felt a little unexpected f-bomb explosion was upon our return to Wisconsin from California. I get a weekly email about entertainment events happening around the Madison area for the upcoming weekend and following week. In this particular email, perhaps over New Year’s weekend, there were two events the titles of which each contained the word “fuck.” Really? I showed my husband. Still somewhat dumbfounded by our CA Christmas experience, we asked ourselves when it became okay to use that word so cavalierly and in a public forum. Are we just fossils, or do we have reason to question this new linguistic license?

The last incident I want to report on occurred at Copper Mountain Resort in Colorado in early February. I was skiing with my sister and friends of hers, a married couple. We were getting on the chair lift when I heard my sister’s friend, Michele, tell the lift operator she didn’t think the music he was playing was appropriate. I perked up my ears. Guess what aforementioned rap song he was playing over the loud speakers? The liftie’s response was something like, “Well, we don’t have any policy against it, so too bad.” With that, the chair whacked us in the knees, we sat down and were whisked up the mountain. Unfortunately, the ride lasted long enough for us and hundreds of other lift-ticket-buying guests to hear FDT all the way up from loud speakers attached to the top of each tower. Michele was steamed, and though her husband encouraged her to “let it go,” I agreed with her that that not only was the playing of that song completely inappropriate, but so was the young man’s response. Michele and I each filed complaints with the resort independently. I don’t know what response she got, but I received an email and a phone call from Lift Operations. At least, their representative agreed with me and assured me that the lift operator had been identified and “re-educated” as to what’s appropriate for a family resort and what’s not. While I might lament that such “re-education” is even necessary, I was glad that someone, apparently, took the time and interest to teach the young lift operator something about societal norms regarding vulgar language. And, I really hope it’s the last time I hear that damn song.

I’ve considered carrying around packets of Palmolive liquid soap to dispense as needed when the public f-bombs start to fly, but probably Maya Angelou’s approach is better. Don’t lower your standards and speak up (politely, but firmly) when the forces of vulgarity rear their ugly heads.

The rest of the story

So, I alluded to there being a “rest of the story” in my last post, so I don’t want to keep all two of my readers hanging.

The rest of the story is that Dad’s fears about taking the trip were not unfounded. After arriving at Liz’s house, Dad fell almost immediately on the one step down into the living room. He simply didn’t see it, missed it, and fell into a wire basket full of magazines. Ben was right there watching him, as he is fascinated by everything Grandpa Bill does, and couldn’t understand why he had fallen or that it was an accident. Dad tore a fingernail and banged up an elbow. Since he takes blood thinners, he bleeds easily, so there was blood and Band Aids were provided. Dad wasn’t hurt badly, but his pride was hurt, and he soon disappeared into the guest room for a long overdue nap. To his credit, he rallied and enjoyed the cocktail hour sitting out on the patio, watching his great-grandsons run around the backyard and talking politics with Liz’s husband, nicknamed “The Emperor Justinian,” whom Dad later declared a “hell of a nice kid.” So, the evening ended well with no further mishaps; everyone slept through the night, except me–I stayed awake worrying about Dad getting up in the middle of the night to smoke outside, which would involve navigating several sets of steps. In the morning, Dad was chomping at the bit to get going for home, which was no surprise. I remember my mother-in-law being that way whenever she would come from Iowa to visit us–drive five hours to get there, spend the night, and be anxious to head home first thing in the morning. At the time I didn’t understand that for the elderly, being away from home can be extremely stressful, and in Dad’s case, dangerous, as it turns out.

We ate a simple breakfast, and Dad went out the front door to sit on the bench and have a smoke before getting in the car. Son-of-a-gun if he didn’t miss the step from the front stoop down to the sidewalk and fall down again. This time he fell on both knees and  onto concrete. More blood, more embarrassment, more ministrations with Band Aids–to the knees this time. Finally, we got Grandpa Bill and his two great-grandsons, Ben and Jamie, situated on the bench on front of the house for a final photo, said our good-byes and hit the road.


Dad and I didn’t talk much on the way home. He muttered several times about being “a clumsy old fart,” and was clearly disgusted with himself and embarrassed. There wasn’t much I could say to make him feel better, so we were both relieved when I delivered him home in one piece, minus a little skin. The next day he was pretty stiff and sore, but we agreed that it had been a successful trip, and we were both glad we had undertaken it. Again, I felt relieved and that I had helped him fulfill a wish that he had been harboring for a long time.

Now, two months later, I realize that the reason Dad finally agreed to take the trip in July is because his health is failing and he knew it might be his last chance. His feet and ankles are so swollen now that most days that he can hardly get his shoes on, and he shuffles around in his slippers. His balance is terrible, just standing up from his chair makes him huff and puff, and where before he had very little “umph,” now his umph has completely deserted him. I’m worried about how he will make it through the winter in northern Wisconsin all on his own, but I think he’s not at all sure he will even see the winter. As Dad would say, “It’s hell to get old and have the shits besides.” But, he has his affairs in order, and he’s adamant about how he wants my sibs and me to continue to see to Mom’s care and not fight over their stuff. Even though he has always said that if he couldn’t take it with him, he wasn’t going, we do our best to assure him that we will do that for him.

The cemetery tour

Dad and I finally took the cemetery tour as planned the second weekend of July. We talked several times during the week leading up to our Saturday departure to finalize the logistics and our itinerary. Dad took his car to be detailed and to get the tires fluffed up in preparation for the 400 mile drive, very considerate of him given that the inside of the windshield was so coated with tar and nicotine one could hardly see out. At least there was no overflowing ashtray to contend with, newer cars no longer having such features, and which (thank God) necessitated Dad lowering the window every time he smoked a cigarette.

At dinner Friday evening Dad allowed as how he wasn’t too keen on taking this trip, even though he did want to visit the cemeteries and see his old haunts one more time. It seemed the physical and mental preparation of getting ready and actually making it happen were almost more than he could deal with, even though about all he took was a change of underwear, a toothbrush and a carton of cigarettes packed into his well-beaten  leather duffel bag that he and Mom had bought in Mexico many moons ago. Additionally, I was planning to do all the driving, my daughter Liz and son-in-law Justin would feed us dinner and put us up for the night in very comfortable accommodations, so all Dad really had to do was ride along and navigate.

Despite our apprehensions, (not unfounded, as it turned out), we set out on a glorious Wisconsin summer morning in Dad’s sweet-riding although much-maligned Cadillac, heading for the coulee region of western Wisconsin from whence my parents hail. I had thrown in a hiking pole (not a cane!) just in case Dad would acquiesce to using such an assistive device while stumbling around on uneven ground in cemeteries. He did not acquiesce, nor did he fall at any cemeteries. We drove along companionably, commenting on the beautiful weather, the lovely rolling countryside, the farms, the traffic, the good road, politics, Mom, the family–that is, our usual topics of conversation. Almost every town we passed sparked some memory in Dad about various shirttail relations, where he bought his first dental chair, high school football games, etc.

Menomonie was our first destination. Dad was born in Menomonie on December 17, 1933 in what I had been told was a nursing home. The building is still there, a large Victorian house that appears to be very well maintained or restored, and according to the sign out front, still serves women’s health in some fashion. We rolled through Menomonie past the UW-Stout campus where both my grandfather and my sister Kate had gone to school. I learned that Grandpa had never graduated from high school, but eventually went to Stout to become an Industrial Arts teacher. He taught in different towns around Wisconsin (Sheboygan and Wausau come to mind) and taught welding at a naval base in North Carolina for a couple of summers during World War II. Dad remembers sorely missing his father, whom he loved and respected greatly, during those summers when he was working out of state. As we drove through downtown Menomonie, Dad gleefully recounted how in high school he and his buddies would sometimes drive from Elmwood to Menomonie to drink beer illegally at The Flame. On at least one occasion they had even done so right before a Spring Valley vs. Menomonie football game, and despite being pretty blitzed, the Spring Valley boys had won, and no consequences for the drinking ensued. “Can you even imagine that happening today?” he laughed. Of course not. Today such behavior would be met with underage drinking tickets, court appearances, fines, suspension from the team and maybe from school, community outrage, parental dismay and embarrassment, possibly community service and AODA evaluations–all a huge overreaction to normal adolescent acting out and to no real avail, in Dad’s opinion.

We continued our journey on to Elmwood, a sleepy little burg of some 800 souls located in the coulees about 12 miles from Menonomie. Dad lived in Elmwood while attending high school in neighboring Spring Valley, and it is where my grandparents still lived when I was a child. I fondly remember visiting their home in the summers and at least once for Christmas. It has not changed much.

Elmwood house

Grandma and Grandpa Pence’s Elmwood house today

As we drove through the streets of Elmwood, Dad pointed out his grandparents’ and parents’ homes, the storefronts downtown and the establishments they had housed, the Catholic church, and he regaled me with tales of his youth. Especially memorable was the time he and a couple other lads had “borrowed” someone’s big wagon, pushed it all the way to the top of the big hill that descends into town on the road overlooking Butternut Park, whereupon they decided, as only 12-year-olds would, that riding it down the hill into town would be a grand idea. They hopped on and pointed the wagon downhill. They soon picked up speed and lost control, ending up “ass over tea kettle” in someone’s vegetable garden, unharmed but in deep trouble with the lady of the house over the ruined vegetables.

We drove up that hill and out of town to the mission church that stood high on a ridge overlooking the town. To my surprise, Dad remembered the kind priest that had served that rural parish and his own time as an altar boy there. That was the first time I can recall him having anything good to say about the Catholic church and its impact on his youth. That was our first cemetery stop at the Farm Hill Catholic Cemetery, where my maternal grandparents, Irene Katherine and Homer Orville Pence, and my uncle, Richard Homer Pence, are buried. We looked and looked for Dad’s maternal grandparents, James and Katherine Golden, who he figured had to be buried there, but we never found their graves. I remember visiting the Farm Hill cemetery before, probably with my grandmother to see her parents’ graves, and then again when we buried my uncle’s ashes about eight years ago.

farm-hillYou can see what a glorious day it was.

The next stop was not far away–another rural cemetery, this one for the Methodists. That is where Dad’s paternal grandparents are buried. This cemetery sparked no memory in me, and the gravesite is much older.

pence-gravesOrpha Alice and Cassius Webster Pence–those are names you don’t hear anymore.

From the Methodist cemetery we continued on to the town of Spring Valley, where my parents’ long journey together began. Dad showed me the corner by the bank where he saw my mom for the first time, his paternal grandparents’ home, which perches along with other old homes that are so overgrown now as to be almost invisible from the street on a steep hillside overlooking the downtown. Dad and his parents lived in that home for four years while his mom (Irene) took care of her father-in-law (Cassius), who became paralyzed after suffering a stroke. Seeing his grandfather lying helpless in a bed in the dining room for four years and watching his mother care for him left a lasting impression on my dad. We saw the high school that Dad graduated from. As far as I can piece together, he was on some kind of work and learn program at the end, where he worked at a lumber mill (?) in the morning and attended school in the afternoon. The principal, after some escapade that my dad and his friend “Punky Bud” had pulled, told Dad he “would never get a job except with a pick and a shovel.” Dad delights in telling that story and employs a thick, Norwegian accent when imitating the principal. Having grown up around a lot of “towheads” in the Spring Valley area, Dad developed a deep appreciation for Ole and Lena jokes and is a skilled ethnic joke teller.

Spring Valley experienced many devastating floods of the Eau Galle River during its history, the worst of which occurred in 1942 when my dad would have been eight years old. Although he didn’t live there at the time, the disastrous flood really shaped the town’s identity. When construction of a huge earthen dam was completed in 1968, thus ending the threat of further flooding and destruction and creating the Eau Galle Recreational Area, some wit remarked that the only problem with the dam was that they built it on the wrong end of town. Dad tended to agree, but nonetheless, now on this trip 65 years later, he waxed nostalgic about his years spent there .

pence-autoThe Pence Auto building where my grandpa Homer and his brother, Lyle Pence, owned a Ford dealership still stands on the main drag.

From Spring Valley we wound our way north on some back roads toward River Falls, where Dad attended college for two years before going to dental school at the University of Minnesota. The roads have all changed, so we just followed our noses and eventually drove into River Falls, which also bore no resemblance to the place Dad remembers. He finally recognized North and South Halls, the only two old buildings he remembers being there, which now squat among many newer ones. His old boarding house was gone. The growth and transformation of River Falls amazed Dad, as did the traffic on the Interstate as we approached Hudson, Wisconsin and then the Twin Cities across the St. Croix River.

By the time we got to my daughter Liz’s house in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, Dad had had quite enough for one day, and it was only about 3:15 in the afternoon! We had had a lovely drive, reminisced much and enjoyed a beautiful day together. For this, the two of us are thankful and relieved. Mission accomplished. The great-grandsons greeted Grandpa Bill enthusiastically as we drove into their driveway.

What happened next is the subject of another post–I know, that’s a cheap trick, but this one has gone on way too long already and it’s overdue for publishing.

Great-grandkids to the rescue

Dad hasn’t been giving me much new material lately. Most of our conversations re-hash already well-worn territory: how Mom is doing (content, but not making much sense–“about all we can hope for”), how he’s doing (anywhere from “if I were any better, I’d be sick” to not doing much due to a bad case of “the black ass”–depression in Dadspeak), what’s happening around the lake (new neighbors from Illinois were up, old neighbors had a big gang over the Fourth, mowed the lawn, made some cigarettes, didn’t go to see Mom yesterday, but going today, gotta buy some groceries and visit the poisoners, Paco rolled in dead fish, when are you coming up next?), etc.  I’m hopeful that our upcoming “cemetery tour” will lift his spirits, and provide plenty of opportunity for him to reminisce and for me to register more of his vernacular.

We did provide him recently with some “jollification,” to borrow a word from my sister Mary. My husband and I gathered at the lake with our two kids, their spouses and children for a few days of fun, northern Wisconsin style.

Some of the family

Some of the family

Dad absolutely loved seeing his three great-grandsons and found them highly entertaining, if a bit too loud at times. Of course, he has given them nicknames: Bouncing Benny (4) and his brother Jumping Jimmy (15 months) and Wild Willie (18 months).

3 Williams

The three Williams: Great-grandpa Bill, Grandson Bill “Buster”Pence, Great-grandson Willie Leazer

Four-year-old Ben especially amused him with all his activity–“busy as a one-armed paper hanger,”or more salty, “a two-peckered goat in a sheep pasture.” Ben was fascinated by Great-grandpa’s collection of meticulously built radio-controlled airplanes, which are all now moth-balled and suspended from the garage ceiling in special hanging brackets. Ben declared that he would like to fly them and was pretty sure he was up to the task, completely dismissing my admonition that it’s “very tricky.” “Why is it tricky, Grandma?” Great-grandpa Bill managed to satisfy Ben’s curiosity by taking him to the RC-flying club’s flying field to watch some of the members fly their planes. Ben loved watching the acrobatics, clapped with glee and cheered as Mr. Wally brought his plane in for a successful landing. On the other hand, when Mr. Rusty crashed his plane in the tall grass and brought it back to the staging area in three pieces, Ben couldn’t understand why he had done that, still not believing that it really is very tricky.

RC-flying field

The gang at the flying field

So, for a few days Dad had something to think about other than how bad he feels about Mom not being at home anymore, his best friend dying in June (that contributed greatly to the black ass) and life just generally not holding much allure anymore. The cemetery tour was Dad’s idea and is something he has been wanting to do for a while. He wants to pay his respects to his ancestors, visit their graves, take a nostalgia tour of the places he lived as a youngster. We had planned to do it a couple of times over the past year or so, but he reneged both times. Originally, he wanted Mom to go with us, and postponed once with the hope that she would be able to go at some point. He finally accepted that that was impossible. The second time he backed out, he said he just couldn’t go (anywhere) without Mom. I think this time we will go because he really wants to do this before he dies, and I think he is getting ready to die. Part of the cemetery tour includes another quick dose of Bouncing Benny and Jumping Jimmy, which I hope will provide Dad another respite from the black ass.

The language falters…

There’s a lot of linguistic stuff happening in my family lately. Some of it is good, fantastic even, like the other day when my three and a half year old grandson’s eyes opened wide upon spying my cleaning lady swiping at cobwebs with a telescoping duster, and he said, “Wow. She doesn’t even need to use an arterial handler to reach up high.” Arterial handler, material handler–whatever. I love listening to him create and use language. New words stick to him as lint to Velcro. He rolls them around in his mouth, chews them up, savors them and digests them to nourish his rapidly expanding vocabulary. At times, words tumble out of him faster than his tongue can handle, and he stutters as he struggles to order his thoughts and put them into words. And, the marvelous part is that he is able to do just that with every-increasing proficiency and complexity. His one-year-old brother is developing his oral language skills mostly by shrieking so far, but also yelling his big brother Ben’s name (“Ba!”) as he crawls around after him or whenever he hears Ben in another room. Likewise, his 15-month-old cousin gleefully points out and declares, “Da!” at every sighting of a dog, large or small. I’m sure they will soon be wowing their grandma with their linguistic prowess as well.


Then, there’s my mom. An Alzheimer’s type dementia has been slowly but surely robbing her of her linguistic proficiency for the last eight years or so, and the decline has been particularly striking and heart-wrenching in the last six months. The first thing I noticed about eight years ago was that the sentence structure in her annual Christmas letter was much simpler than it used to be; there were virtually no complex or compound sentences. And, Mom was no slouch in the language department either. She prided herself on her precise enunciation and command of English grammar and corrected her children’s grammar at every opportunity. I clearly remember learning several fancy words from her as a kid:  inclement (written in an excuse to a teacher as to why we had been delayed returning from a trip to my grandparents’ house), obstreperous (used to describe my brother) and loquacious (said about my sister Mary). As time went by, Mom started to have trouble retrieving common words and telling an organized story, much to her own frustration. Eventually, she forgot the names of many everyday items and had trouble expressing her thoughts, needs and wants. Nonetheless, she would amaze (and fool) us with her ability to utter appropriate cliches in response to certain conversation prompts or social situations. For example, up until recently, when asked how she was, she would invariably reply, “Well, I’m able to be up and about.” Or, whenever she would see me again after an absence, she would say, “Well, you’re sure looking good.” She should have been a politician! By last year at this time, Mom had pretty much lost her ability to carry on a conversation, but she still seemed to enjoy listening to the talk around her and could respond more or less appropriately to a direct question. But, over the course of last summer, she seemed more and more lost in her own world, largely unable to communicate any but the most basic thoughts and sometimes speaking incoherently. She was resorting more and more to gesturing, making faces, and laughing. Thank God for the laughter. She could still enjoy a joke and some silly fun. Just about the time when I thought her speech was no longer was making much sense at all, this past autumn Dad asked her at breakfast one morning, “Well, Ma, what are you going to do to piss me off today?”  Without hesitating, she replied, “I don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll think of something.” Cracked all three of us up. Then Dad told me they had the same “conversation” every morning.

That was last fall. Mom fell at Thanksgiving time, and after a short hospital stay and a six-week stint in a nursing home, we moved her into an assisted living home in January. Physically, she has recovered from the fall, but being institutionalized did not do her cognition any good. With every transition she seemed to lose more linguistic ability to the point where now she carries on conversations mostly with herself. What she is able to articulate in words often doesn’t make any sense to those of us that adhere to more accepted linguistic norms, but she carries on as if she is making sense  or reverts to laughter to smooth over the gaps in understanding. I guess that’s an old conversational trick we all use at times and another one that dies hard.

For my dad, of course, this process of watching and trying to deal with Mom’s mental decline has been devastating. It would be for any spouse. But, I can’t help feeling that for him it is especially hard because his way of interacting with people, including her, has always been about the B.S.– the banter, the debate, the verbal give-and-take, the expounding, the pontificating, the lecturing, the ranting, and always with the ear tuned for a smart rejoinder, a witty comeback, a new joke–something to incorporate into his own vernacular. Mom was his foil and (mostly) appreciative audience for over 60 years–laughing at his oft-repeated jokes and stories in spite of herself and sharing in the fun, even when it was at her expense. It was part of  their public and private dialogue, their dialect, their dance. Now the dialogue has become a monologue, the dialect is becoming extinct, and the dance is coming to an end.

There is much research being done into Alzheimer’s dementia and how to relate to patients and understand their needs and the reasons for some of their bizarre behavior. Familiar music, old photos, and coloring all seem to help calm my mom and trigger some memories, but so far I cannot decipher this new language that her diseased brain produces and that she tries mightily to use. I can only cling to the moments when we share a laugh over something silly, she acknowledges that I’m her daughter, or at the end of a largely unintelligible visit, she hugs me and says as plain as day, “You can leave now, but you come back to see me.” And, I will go back, always hoping for a glimpse of the woman I used to know and whose advice and easy company I miss so much. I would give anything to discuss a book with her or to have her know her great-grandchildren, to marvel at their intelligence, teach them fancy words, and even correct their grammar.

Nature’s call

In looking over some notes that I have been jotting down ever since the idea for this blog sprouted in my brain, I realize that I have been avoiding writing about the most common topic that runs throughout my dad’s vernacular; hence, the title of this post. You’ve been warned.

Where to start? Maybe with finger-pulling, a little joke Dad has been pulling  on kids for as long as I can remember. Now that he has great-grandchildren, I’m sure this practice will continue. Of course, we thought it was hilarious when we were little, and we learned that farts are funny, despite my mother’s tongue-clucking and scolding. She didn’t fool us; she would smile in spite of herself, and it just spiraled out of control from there. If you fart audibly in front of Dad, he might tell you, “That’s the smartest thing you’ve said all day,” or declare, “If they don’t pay the rent, kick them out.” And then there’s the one about the talking horse that, when asked if he wanted any oats, lifted up his tail and said, “A-phew.” Obviously, some farts are more noteworthy than others. There’s the 40-yard fart and the best sound ever to come out of a one-inch speaker. But, the piece de resistance when it comes to flatulence humor is undoubtedly “The Crepitation Contest.” For those of you that have never heard it and who are not already completely offended and have stopped reading this, you can listen to it here: Just the mention of Lord Windesmear or Paul Boomer sends my family into fits of laughter.

I’d say my family is pretty much obsessed with the scatological. Maybe all families are the same in this regard, and you just never see it, because people tend to clean up their act when there are “outsiders” present. Inevitably, at our family gatherings (yes, even at the dinner table) the conversation turns to favorite old stories of family lore, such as the time when somebody crapped his/her pants in an elevator, took a dump between two parked cars in downtown Duluth while waiting for a red light, be-shat him/herself while out for a walk or while watching his/her kids play in the park (and then shook the turd out of his/her pants leg onto the sidewalk and walked away), occasions when the extra undies carried in the glove box/purse/backpack just in case came in handy, where the best trees and large rocks are located on familiar driving routes, etc. To my dad, there’s nothing funnier than someone (else) shitting their pants and how they deal with the situation. He firmly believes that, whether they admit it or not,  everybody does it, because, face it, the urge to purge is “the most powerful thing on Earth–not even an elephant can hold it back.”

Granted, there are times when one must be a bit more polite and less graphic about Nature’s call. At those times, my dad might excuse himself to “go do something I really understand” because “a big fire makes a lot of ashes.” So refined. Dad used to be a pretty big “fire,” 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighing 225 lbs. or so in his heyday. He was a big man with big appetites and spent a fair amount of time every morning “driving the porcelain bus” or “feeding the white rabbit.”  And, that was just normal. Not normal is when your “bowels get locked–locked in the open position,” also known as “slippery bowels.” At such times, you want to be sure to have an adequate supply of “corn cobs” on hand. The opposite problem, bowels locked in the closed position, can necessitate the administration of “stump-blower” or “dynamite” to unlock them.

For some reason, urination is not as funny. While there are many funny expressions referencing piss in one way or another, (sounds like the topic of another post), the actual act of peeing in one’s pants does not seem to provoke humor, but rather pity or disgust. The only funny comment I know of that Dad makes regarding good old number one has to do with diuretics, an unfortunate reality at his stage of life, about which he states, “If I keep taking those, I’m going to have to change my name to Pee-air.”

I’m hoping this post stimulates some memories of other funny expressions about our favorite topic from my siblings, so I can catalog them here. And, maybe someone else will confirm my contention that most families talk about this shit, and the ones that don’t are the weirdos. Please.