My Mom’s Christmas notebook

By Rosalie Tirella

I have been leafing through my late mom’s “Christmas notepad.” …

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I bought it for her at the Christmas Tree Shop in Shrewsbury, 15 or so years ago, when I learned she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 81 – and had just been diagnosed … She became ill after she had chosen to stay in her little studio apartment by the Holden line during that horrific ice/snow storm that turned all of Worcester County into a white, crystal castle – with no electricity for a third of our residents. Telephone wires dripped with iridescent, five feet long icicles, people snow shoed to their neighbors house down the street. It was all mystical and gorgeous to look at, but treacherous to survive in … brutal to drive through … scores of thick black lines down. And NATIONAL GRID WAS SO SLOW in fixing things. I am convinced they were the cause of many old timers’ deaths …

My mom was probably one of the hundreds of Worcester County folks who got very sick/died because of that ice storm. No power at her complex!! No heat! No hot water! No electricity to run her oven/stove or refrigerator! … All the seniors at my mom’s complex chose to go to shelter with relatives or live, for a few days, in the gym at Doherty High School, the City of Worcester makeshift shelter for West Siders. My mother was the outlier – my strong-willed mother and her two Greek pals. They decided to tough it out. They were the healthiest of the 62 old folks at their seniors housing complex, so they were confidant … Four days later, four days of living in what amounted to a dark, freezing meat locker … the electricity was back on. My boyfriend at the time and I visited her twice a day – we pressed her to go to his house. He had gas heat. She was adamant: NO! THIS IS MY HOME!

… Health complications for the Three Amigos after the storm: Jane got blood clots and died four months later. Maria had to move in with relatives. And I assume my mom had something happen with blood clots, too, because she stopped being the smartest person in the room. She began asking me the same questions over and over again. Annoying! But when I found a chicken carcass in her stove’s broiler and not in the waste can by the kitchen sink, I called her doctor and made an appointment for her for a physical. Ma had a full medical work up: lungs, heart, mammogram, blood, urine, calcium level tests. Her doc told me: Cecelia has the early stages of dementia. Keep her as healthy and strong as you can – and call Elder Services of Worcester for visiting nurses aides, home health aides and MORE SUPPORT SERVICES so she can continue to live in her apartment for as long as possible. I did just that. I’d visit my mother every night to make sure all the cogs in this new machine rolled on …

And they did – for four years! And then Ma went into a nursing home where they over medicated her, killing her. Years later, I consider those four years of caring for Ma my noblest years! Some of my finest hours! It was so HARD – but I did it all: hugs and kisses, new dusters from Building 19, cute nighties for bed, McDonald’s take out coffee, fish and chips, the Turner Classic Movies cable TV channel … and those excellent home health aides and homemakers. Angels. They showered Ma, made her her farmer’s breakfasts, vacuumed her wall to wall carpet and more … My mother grew very attached to one young homemaker – buying her kids birthday, First Holy Communion and Christmas gifts. A beautiful friendship – until Ma’s dementia became MODERATE and she got more and more forgetful and hid her big porcelain dolls – standing on her TV set – in the closets and peed her pants more often than walk to her cute little bathroom to urinate. Even wearing Depends and me doing extra, and the help growing weary I knew it was time. When Ma fell over her cat April and landed in rehab, the docs recommended a nursing home …

So here are some pages from that time, Ma’s notebook, the early years, written in her straight, un-pretty penmanship … list, after mini list … I see so clearly my mother’s hard life in those thin note pages. Ma’s life: a series of to do lists so she, a single mim with three girls, could keep us all on track. Lists so she could get the right groceries to keep her girls healthy and strong. My mother was obsessive about the weather when we were young because we had no car and walked to school, church, work in the rain, snow, sleet, hail. We had to dress appropriately for the weather! I got awards at Lamartine Street School for “perfect attendance”! All seen today, again, in the palm of my hand: My mother a small woman swimming against grinding poverty, saved by her Catholic faith – and a will of steel … ans her daily to do lists, like what I see today:

“Lungs clear, blood pressure perfect … BUY MILK, ORANGE JUICE … Need qts for laundry … Buy eggs, cheese … Pay rent on 3rd … ”

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And at the end of those years, as Ma struggled against dementia and tried to hide it from me and the world, in her little Christmas notebook, she wrote desperate questions to herself: “Do I have money in the bank? … My telephone # [blank]” … or “today is Tuesday.”

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Missing my sweet, strong and loving mother this Christmas Eve!

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