Memories of the great mulberry project

I remember the first time my dad noticed the mulberry tree in my back yard. It was a few summers ago, and he excitedly picked up a few of the many, many mulberries scattered across the lawn.

“Look at this! Mulberries!” he said, as he popped them in his mouth.

Mulberries hanging from the tree.

Mulberries hanging from the tree.

 

“Um, are you sure, dad?” I asked. I knew nothing about mulberries and was vaguely worried that he might be eating something that looked like a mulberry but was actually poisonous or something. All I knew was that each June the back corner of my yard became a minefield of berries that dropped from the tree, got squished under our shoes, and made messy stains whenever we accidentally tracked them inside the house.

“Oh, they’re mulberries all right,” my dad said. “I used to pick them all the time when I was a kid.” He popped a few more in his mouth and offered some to me. (And for the record, he did not get sick or poisoned, so he was right — mulberries!)

Mulberries cover the ground in the back yard.

The mulberry minefield in the back yard.

 

After a few more seasons of the backyard mulberry minefield went by, my husband decided last summer that it was a shame we were letting all those free mulberries go to waste. He had a plan: we were going to harvest the mulberries and use them for… something. He wasn’t sure what, exactly, but no matter. The first step was to get them. He’d figure out what to do with them later.

So we marched into the back yard as a family — two grownups and a three-year-old — ready to take on our harvesting project. My husband enjoys coming up with creative ways to solve problems, and he had his harvesting plans all worked out.

There’s a shed underneath the tree, and many of the berries had dropped on its roof. My husband got on top of the shed and cleared away the old, rotting berries that were already there. Then he spread a tarp and shook the tree branches above to get a fresh batch onto the roof.

My husband sweeps berries from the top of the shed.

My husband sweeps berries from the top of the shed into the gutter.

 

He swept the freshly fallen berries from the roof into the shed’s rain gutter…

My husband carefully pushes the mulberries into the gutter.

My husband carefully pushes the mulberries into the gutter.

 

…and used the hose to wash them down…

We turn on the hose to flush the mulberries from the gutter into the bucket waiting below.

We turn on the hose to flush the mulberries from the gutter into the bucket waiting below.

 

…into a large bucket he had rigged up at the bottom of the gutter below.

The berries are washed into a waiting bucket.

The berries are washed into a waiting bucket.

 

We also wanted to get some of the berries from the part of the tree that wasn’t hanging over the shed, so the three of us spread out a tarp on the ground…

We spread a tarp on the ground to catch the mulberries as they fell.

We spread a tarp on the ground to catch the mulberries as they fell.

 

…and shook the branches overhead.

The little girl stretches up to help her dad shake the branches of the mulberry tree.

The little girl stretches up to help her dad shake the branches of the mulberry tree.

 

We put the berries from the tarp and the berries from the shed roof together and rinsed them a few times.

Rinsing the mulberry harvest.

Rinsing the mulberry harvest.

 

Then it was time to sort! We explained to the little girl that the green and red berries (unripe) and the soft, squishy berries (overripe) had to be put aside, and the good berries were put in a large bucket.

A handful of mulberries, some ripe and some not.

Sorting the mulberries: the green and red mulberries are set aside, and the ripe ones go into the bucket.

 

She caught on quickly and sat happily by her dad, sorting with us.

The little girl and her dad sort berries together.

The little girl and her dad sort berries together.

 

My husband shows his mulberry-stained hands.

Messy work.

 

And what did we do with the berries? We decided to try to make mulberry wine.

A bottle of homemade mulberry wine.

One of our bottles of mulberry wine, sealed with paraffin and waiting to be tasted (in a year or two?)

Maybe I’ll bring a bottle to share with my dad when I travel to visit him next time. I’m sure the wine won’t give him the same rush of nostalgia that picking them on a hot summer day and popping them into his mouth did, but maybe he’ll also appreciate his childhood treat in a new form.

And if not, then there’s more for me!

The fruits of our labor

“The kiss of the sun for pardon, the song of the birds for mirth. One is nearer God’s heart in a garden, than anywhere else on earth.” –Dorothy Frances Gurney

The backyard garden is really my husband’s project, not mine. He disappears out the back door periodically to tend to all the wonderful things sprouting up from our small patch of earth. Our daughter often goes out with him to help water and harvest.

She loves to take me on tours of “her” plants and is delighted to point to each of them and rattle off their names.

The old-fashioned roses, planted long before we moved here nine years ago. They were blooming in the middle of the wild and overgrown yard when we arrived. The yard has since been tamed, but the roses remain.

Old-fashioned rose

Mint, which I love to collect, chop and infuse into my iced tea. It’s just not summer tea without a dash of mint.

Mint

The shiny, smooth leaves of basil, so good in homemade pasta sauces.

Basil

And — almost gone now — the perfect little rows of bleeding hearts. Another remnant from a gardener who carefully tended this patch of land before we arrived.

Bleeding hearts

Mountains of dill — my husband’s favorite. He loves to make the dill rolls his mother always baked for the holidays, and he also uses it in marinades for fish.

Dill

But on this particular morning, my daughter and I found a treasure in our garden. One perfect, red strawberry, hiding beneath a canopy of leaves.

Strawberry

We plucked it early in the morning, before the squirrels found it. Small toddler hands, holding it carefully so it wouldn’t get squished.

Strawberry from the garden

Washed under the faucet with morning sunlight streaming in the kitchen window.

Washing the strawberry

And it was delicately eaten by a small girl who loves strawberries.

Eating the strawberry

Looking forward to a summer filled with flowers and herbs in my daughter’s (and husband’s) garden.

A story of Mother’s Day, dementia and ukuleles

This Mother’s Day was the first time I wasn’t able to speak to my mom or wish her a happy Mother’s Day.

It was sad for me, and difficult to deal with, and all the other things you’d expect it to be. But it wasn’t anything at all for my mom, since I’m pretty sure she didn’t even know it was Mother’s Day.

My mom is suffering from dementia and was locked away in a hospital this Mother’s Day. I say “locked away” because my family and I have very limited contact with her and aren’t able to get much information about what’s happening with her.

She was admitted on an emergency basis a few weeks ago and seems to be stuck there for now. My dad usually gets voice mail when he tries to talk to her caseworker, and a day or two can go by before anyone gets back to him. He says when someone finally calls him back, they’re always apologetic. I’m sure that the people who work there have a lot on their plates and have many families of many patients to speak with, but it’s still hard to spend long periods of time without knowing what’s going on.

My dad goes to see her each visiting day, but visiting hours are only twice a week for 1.5 hours per day.

Is it just me, or does that seem draconian? My mom has been in nursing homes and hospitals before, but we’ve always been able to visit whenever we wanted. Three hours a week isn’t much.

I called to wish her a happy Mother’s Day, but the nurse who answered said that my mom couldn’t talk because she was asleep. She told me my mom spent most of the day spitting out her food to avoid taking the medications they’re trying to give to her.

Wow. Happy Mother’s Day, mom. Sounds like you had a hell of a day.

But the worst part isn’t that she’s locked away in a hospital. It’s that she’s starting to become locked away in her mind. I haven’t yet made the 10-hour journey to see her (I’m the one person in my family who lives several states away), but my dad and brother give me updates when they see her. They throw around heartbreaking phrases like “paranoid” and “not eating much” and “didn’t recognize us.”

I was home visiting shortly before she went to the hospital. I saw my mom have ups and downs, good days and bad days. She went through periods of anger and lashing out, but she also had periods of relative content and calm.

My trusty ukulele, excellent for singing Elvis songs

My trusty ukulele, excellent for singing Elvis songs

I brought my ukulele, and we spent a few minutes one evening singing some of her favorite Elvis songs together. Her face lit up with joy, and I could see her grin as she swayed in time to the music and sang along. I’m not sure she remembered that I was her daughter, but she remembered every word of the songs we sang.

The hospital is “evaluating” her and adjusting her medications. Apparently they’ll release her when they’re done.

I don’t even know what that means.

Dementia isn’t curable, and I’m terribly afraid that “adjusting her medications” is code for making into her a listless zombie so she doesn’t cause trouble.

I hope “evaluation” means that they’re trying to find a balance of medications that will help her live as normally as possible in spite of what’s happening to her mind. I hope the hospital is full of doctors and nurses who specialize in the care of people with dementia. I hope my mom is surrounded by people who will treat her respectfully, even when she’s angry at them and being stubborn and unreasonable.

I hope these things will all my heart. But I don’t know because most of the time she’s kept away from us. And she’s drastically worse now than she was before she went into that hospital.

She’s never been able to abide being told what to do or where to go, and I think this hospital is full of people telling her exactly that, as well-intentioned as they may be. She’s going to be at her best in an environment in which she has some sense (either real or imagined) of control over her own life. And I’m pretty sure this hospital is the opposite of that.

So here’s the real question: what if what’s causing this extreme, extended decline is her environment and not her medications? How can the hospital accurately evaluate her when it’s likely that her being in the hospital is a huge part of her current decline?

Her “evaluation” has been going on for a few weeks now, and it’s unclear when it will end.

I know this is just one of so many sad stories about dementia. And I’m starting to realize that there’s a serious lack of good options for people suffering from dementia, especially in its advanced stages.

So what can I do?

I’m trying to educate myself. I’m reading books and researching forums for advice and support. I see so many people’s stories about parents, spouses, grandparents. Updates on how their loved ones are doing. Questions on how to deal with doctors and nurses, hospital and nursing home rules, legalities. So many sad stories. So many cries for help.

It’s heartbreaking and disheartening.

I try to have hope, but, honestly, things seem pretty bleak right now. I’m afraid my mom’s stubbornness and fierce independence are not going to serve her well as she goes through this. She doesn’t think anything is wrong with her, and she’s angry that she no longer has control over her life.

Please hang on, mom. I’m coming to visit soon.

And I’ll bring my ukulele.

We can sing some more Elvis together, and maybe I’ll see the smile spread across your face again as you flawlessly remember every word of every song you love so much.

Dusty relics and time warps

Do you know what it’s like to travel back in time? To go to a place and take a giant leap into a part of your life you’re not sure you want to revisit?

I do.

My parents recently moved back into the home our family lived in when I was a child. It’s a little strange to walk back into the old house, but it’s not just the house that’s the same. They’ve moved all their stuff into the house, also.

That’s not unusual, I know. Most people move their stuff into a new house when they move in.

But a lot of my parents’ stuff is the same stuff they had thirty-five years ago when I was a child.

They still use the same cups and dishes.

Corelle cup from the 1970s

And the same glasses. Anyone else remember these from the 1970s?

Drinking glasses from the 1970s

They even have the same plastic soap dish in my old bathroom.

Plastic soap dish

They painted over most of the classic seventies-era kitchen wallpaper, but you can still see a sliver of it next to the refrigerator.

A sliver of 1970s wallpaper

And they have the same silverware organized neatly in the same bright aqua silverware holder.

Silverware from the 1970s

And almost everything I had in my room as a child is still there. Latch hook anyone?

Latch hook owl project

My old ballet shoes, used for exactly one session of ballet classes when I started dancing on toe shoes and discovered how painful they are. They’ve sat on the shelf in my room ever since.

Pink ballet toe shoes

My Raggedy Ann lamp (notice the old Britannica Junior Encyclopedias in the background).

Raggedy Ann lamp from the 1970s

Panda seems sad now.

Panda stuffed animal

Pinocchio still jingles when you shake him.

Pinocchio doll from the 1970s

It’s the strangest thing to walk inside a house that feels a bit like a museum of my childhood.

And it’s even more strange to walk in that house as my present self — a mom — with my young daughter. I stand in the doorway of my old room upstairs and watch her play with some of my old toys. She looks so much like me, and I think about what I must have looked like as a child in that same room, playing with those same things.

I think of my mom and how she probably stood in the same doorway and watched me play.

Mom is still in the house, but she doesn’t come upstairs much anymore. I wish she could stand in that doorway with me and see what I see.

I think she’d like it.

I’ll never travel alone again

A few weeks ago I traveled to New York by myself — my first solo trip since giving birth to my daughter three years ago.

I thought my trip would be like many other solo trips I had taken before I became a mother: exploring wherever my feet led, wandering down whatever road looked interesting, my only concern being to find my way back in the evening to where I was staying.

But I was wrong. It was anything but that.

What I discovered is that it’s impossible for me to ever travel alone again the way I used to.

Because even though I was alone on this trip, I felt anchored to my home hundreds of miles away in a way that I never had before. My mind was often on my daughter and husband back at home, wondering what they were up to without me.

A fleeting kiss for a snowman

A fleeting kiss for a snowman

So instead of traveling alone, I traveled with an almost constant, low-level narrative in my head that was split between thinking about what was happening at home without me and how I would love for my husband and daughter see all the things I was seeing in New York.

Since my daughter was born, we’ve always traveled as a family. There have been occasional trips with just me and my daughter, but most of our traveling has been with the three of us. Until this trip, it was almost inconceivable to me to think about leaving my daughter for a few days.

I think solo travel is going to be an entirely new experience for me now. Whenever I’m away, I’ll always be thinking about the people I’ve left at home and missing them and the important little bits of life happening at home without me.

Because the little bits are mostly what life is made up of, right? The hundreds of tiny moments that happen in a day that we gloss over and take for granted.

Discovering a tiny red spider on a nature walk

Discovering a tiny red spider on a nature walk

Well, as it turns out, I take them for granted until I don’t have them, and then they become pretty much all I think about.

I remember the laughter coming from the back seat of the car when my daughter and I tell silly stories to each other. The quick kiss from my husband as he leaves for work in the morning. The shrieks of joy from my daughter when I watch my husband push her so high on the swings at the playground. My daughter’s tears at the end of a long day when it’s past her bedtime, and she’s exhausted and just can’t keep it together for one second more.

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Yep, the good, the bad — all of it. I don’t want to miss out on a second of my family’s life, which is completely and totally unreasonable, I know. But there it is. I don’t want to miss anything and — at the same time — I dream of somehow finding my way back to a version of my old, independent self who loved being on my own.

So, after a lot of thought, I’ve decided that it’s OK for me to miss out occasionally on moments with my family. Maybe it’s more than OK — maybe it’s even important.

After all, my daughter and I have grown so close because of all the time we’ve spent alone together. Isn’t time alone with her dad just as important? If I’m not there, doesn’t it mean that they have the chance to develop their own ways of doing things? My daughter can share inside jokes and rituals and traditions with her dad, just like she does with me.

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And maybe the best way to let them forge those bonds is to let them figure things out by themselves sometimes.

I’ve always been amazed at the incredible experience of being the person responsible for introducing the world to a child. I get a front row seat to see my daughter figure out all sorts of things about life.

But sometimes I’m going to have to give up that front row seat to go off and do things on my own, and — more importantly — show my daughter that it’s important to take care of yourself sometimes when you’re taking care of others.

I know I’ll miss them like crazy when I’m away, but I comfort myself with knowing that I’ll be home soon to tell them all about my adventures. And my daughter and husband will fill me in on the adventures they shared while I was gone.

It’s not such a bad tradeoff, I suppose. Maybe my mind will always be tethered to home while I’m away. But it’s also nice to know that there are people I love thinking about me, too, and waiting for me to come back.

What about you? Have you ever felt sad or guilty when leaving your loved ones behind while traveling?

Snow day

When it started snowing in D.C. again last night, I could practically hear the loud, collective groan coming from everyone living here. We’ve had a couple of days of warm weather, and I think losing the promise of spring was a disappointment to many.

I’m ready for spring, too. But secretly, I was still excited to see one more big snowstorm before I pack away my daughter’s little snowsuit that she’ll surely grow out of before next winter.

Maybe it’s because I had a snow-deprived childhood in Georgia. Or maybe it’s because there’s nothing more fun than running from a three-year-old chasing you with a snowball.

To see her push through snow that comes up almost to her knees.

The kind of snow that sticks to tree trunks.

And piles up high on all the branches.

An over-abundance of snow to cart around in her wagon.

A snow that covers newly budding leaves, breaking all the promises of springtime-just-around-the-corner brought by the warm weather just a few days ago.

Maybe I didn’t mind the snow so much because I know spring is already in our house. Small plastic containers sit on a sunny window ledge, full of rich, dark soil and seeds. My husband planted an herb garden last weekend in leftover takeout containers. Basil, rosemary and coriander are already on their way to sprouting in our dining room.

Loving the snow, but ready for spring.