Our home has become indefinitely multi-generational. I’d like to tell you that having my mother in the house has been a piece of cake for the four of us. Though Mom won’t admit it, I think it’s been an easier transition for her. She’s relieved to have her meals prepared, her appointments kept and her grandchildren's energy that gives her equal parts strength and entertainment. Someone recently asked me who’s taking care of my mother? I was surprised by the question. And then even more surprised when I realized that the answer was me.
According to US Census Bureau, 2.3 million elderly parents were living with their kids in the year 2000. By last year, the number had jumped to 3.6 million. Statistics, however, don’t mean anything until you become one yourself.
I know I’ve plunked my mother down in an alien environment, but through a concerted effort of denial and more denial on her part I had no choice. What do you do with someone who needs to use a walker, but thinks she’s too young to go near it? Anything physical, like going to the movies, becomes a project. Shopping in a department store is like navigating an obstacle course. If we were going to do something together our best bet was to make it cerebral. And then it hit me: We could read “Don Quixote,” Miguel de Cervantes’ doorstopper of a novel. I’d read it in an English translation, and Mom would read it again in Spanish.
Like a lot of women of her generation, my mother returned to school for a graduate degree in the late ’60s. Mom earned a master’s degree in Spanish literature as well as another one in education. And thus a Spanish teacher was created. But before she saw the light of a public school classroom, my mother studied “Don Quixote.” Cervantes wrote a very long book; with three young children, my mother had to be very creative about finishing “Don Quixote.”
My mother is not a great cook, but she desperately needed a cookbook holder to prop up her course reading while she made mediocre beef stew seasoned with ketchup. I liked listening to her read passages out loud. Poor Don Quixote fancied himself as a knight in shining armor when he was little more than a deluded man with a rusting coat of arms. “They’ve just burned his books because he was too influenced by them,” my mother said to me, stirring the stew. I was only 6, but the scene stayed with me as a very sad history lesson.
Don Quixote also starred in my bedtime stories. No “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Three Little Pigs.” We followed our hapless knight on his tired nag, Rocinanate, as he defended his pseudo girlfriend Dulcinea’s honor and convinced himself that Sancho Panza was his dutiful squire.
My mother’s intensive reading of “Don Quixote” made me a reader. Tending to dinner while studying, she also showed me that motherhood is ongoing, consuming. Forty years ago she was juggling her roles as student, mother and reluctant chef. Today we trade up that semi-soft word juggling for the more efficient, steely and onpoint compound phrase multitasking. I multi-task, therefore I am. I am what? Exhausted, sad, angry, wistful?
In one of Don Quixote’s myriad adventures, the wind kicks up a lot of dust on the road, making him certain that a war between two strong armies is in the offing. There’s a lot of dust kicked up in the battle of wills that elderly parents and their befuddled children find themselves locked into. Unlike the reason for Don Quixote’s dust, actual signs have been around us for a while –unsteady gait, momentary confusion and a once pristine house now in shambles. In the spirit of Don Quixote, my mother and I deluded one another that all was well enough, until it wasn’t.
Our living situation is not altogether bleak. My kids have continuous access to Spanish tutoring. My own Spanish hasn’t been this good in years. And I like going on armchair travels with the Man of La Mancha again.
Don Quixote and I are making a difference in my mother’s life, but Anna and Adam are actually leading the way. Last week they didn’t simply invite their friends over for dinner – they transformed a meal into Fajita Night. OK, Fajita Night came with a giant dollop of Spanish lessons, but my children and their friends were cool about Mom’s quirks. Anna and Adam are a generation removed from my mother, which makes their relationship with her mostly delightful.
My mother once studied for tests over a hot stove. I’m getting a fair amount of work done in doctors’ waiting rooms at present. More than ever my car doubles as my office and a taxi. Mom and I circle each other nervously, suspiciously. We’re still at loggerheads over the next steps for her.
But in the meantime there’s another chapter of “Don Quixote” to discuss.