January 4, 2013

Mom's Travel Journals

While going through a closet I stumbled across two interesting items we removed from my parent's apartment when dad moved to assisted living last fall. One was an envelope stuffed with index cards. On both sides of each mom had listed every book she had read from the mid 1990's until her eyesight started to fail in 2004.

Included was either a star for a good book, or a emphatic "No" for the ones that didn't please her. Fiction was her favorite, especially crime  mysteries and historical romance novels.

I found it fascinating to look at her choices. I made a list of all the non-romance books she liked and have begun to read through them. It will be nice to know she and I are sharing some of the same experiences.

I also found a complete set of travel journals. Mom and dad loved to take road trips - everything from a few days away to 45 day marathons. Mom recorded her reaction to every day of every trip, even to the point of listing the cost of the meals and gas fill ups. As I reviewed each journal I was reminded how often they were on the road. Beginning in 1996 and continuing until early 2002, I was hard-pressed to find more than two months between entries. Even if it was just a quick overnight trip to Tucson, mom and dad were most happy driving somewhere. 

During that period they went to Europe twice. Just like the road trips, mom recorded her reactions to everything, both good and bad. While I think they enjoyed their time overseas, I sensed both were happiest inside the Toyota putting miles between them and home and then back again. 

As I read each journal mom's health decline was quite obvious. Toward the end of the 1990s she began referring to the use of a wheelchair or walker. Trips to an emergency room happened as she battled chronic knee and back pain, or her congestive heart failure symptoms became more apparent. I was unaware of dad's various fainting episodes on these trips until I read about them. My parents never wanted to worry Betty or me, so most of their medical issues during these years were their private secret.

As I progressed through the seven years of trips I became aware of a few important messages I was receiving from mom a decade later. Obviously, that wasn't her intent, but that is what has happened. 

1) Certainly, of primary importance is one's health. It was very clear that her enjoyment from traveling declined along with her strength, mobility and eyesight. The journal entries from 1996-1998 contain very few references to health problems. That began to change during a trip to Europe. Her limitations and their impact on my dad were obvious. As I read through the next few journals, there were:

...more references to her wheelchair or walker and how tough it made enjoying a trip

...memory lapses meant forgetting to bring essential items on a trip. 

...becoming tired and irritated at things that earlier she would have joked about

...trips being canceled at the last moment due to her health

...several trips to the emergency room and hospital stays while away from home along with a desire to get home to her regular doctor.

...dad's fainting episodes.

2) Their long driving trips were recorded honestly as a mixture of boredom and joy, mundane activities and beautiful sights, bad meals and hard beds, or a good steak dinner and pleasant room at the end of a long day of driving.

In fact, as I started to make notes of what she had written it became clear that a good bed, a nice meal, a pretty sunset, a simple card game at the end of the day or sunshine after rain were enough to interrupt a gloomy narrative. Travel is no different than home life. It is a blend of good and bad, exciting and boring, uplifting and depressing. The trick is to notice life's small joys and blessings and dwell on them. 

3) Mom always over-packed. It was a rare trip that she didn't mention she had brought too many clothes for both of them. They did occasionally use the laundry facility in a hotel, but apparently were afraid of running out of clean clothes. So, they dragged around (or, rather dad dragged around) much more than they needed.

4) As she became more physically challenged, mom became more easily irritated and angry. To her credit, she didn't shy away from venting on these journal pages, though I doubt she considered that anyone else would ever see them. I would guess that her various limitations were increasingly frustrating to her. Never one to ask for help until she simply couldn't manage on her own, the closing in of her world made her more prone to lash out at things.

Besides seeing some sides of mom I wasn't aware existed, I did take away a reinforcement of a few important life lessons:

  • Travel whenever and wherever you can while you are healthy enough to enjoy the experience. Soon enough, physical ailments will make trips more difficult and, eventually, unpleasant.

  • Especially on longer trips don't expect every day to be great. Travel is just home life but in a different place. Accept the bad as part of the journey and relish the small stuff that can brighten an otherwise rotten day.

  • Under-pack. No one cares (or will even notice) that you wore the same sweater and jeans three days this week. Don't spend time and energy lugging excessive belongings around. And, there are virtually no places you can't find a laundromat if needed.

  • Fight the natural tendency to become an angry, crabby, old person. Not only doesn't anyone else want to be around you, but it brings you down, too. Getting angry at your declining health is pointless. Instead, get even: do all you want before that happens!

Thanks, mom. I found it fascinating to see into your life 10-15 years ago. Even now, two years after your passing, you are still teaching me lessons.




34 comments:

  1. I love reading history and your Mom's accounts are exactly that. Wish I had the same with my parents, but Dad passed away before they had a chance to do much in retirement, and Mom never felt like traveling much anyways. When my mother passed away later last year, a few of my siblings basically threw everything out that was in her assisted-living apartment before I could make it in. In their haste to avoid any more costs coming out of her estate, I lost the chance to look through things from a historical standpoint that I would have likely enjoyed. Can't ever get those memories and moments back, which I will regret.

    I am glad that you had the chance to see the world through your parents eyes, Bob. Many of us will never get that opportunity, and for that you are blessed.

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    1. Yes, I am so glad I found those notebooks. I learned things I had never known about their travels, both the good and bad.

      I can relate to the throwing away situation. For reasons I don't understand, dad threw away all sorts of things of mom's and their life together right after her passing. I guess it was his way of coping by removing from sight reminders of their life together.

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  2. A journal is a great idea. I think I will try one. And I understand your dad more and more. If travel became difficult-but he pushed through for your mom- sitting and thinking about it might be a peaceful enjoyment.

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    1. He did spend the last several years caring for her 24/7. His entire life was taking her to doctor appointments, the hospital, back and forth to their apartment, and pushing her wheelchair. Actually, it was probably good exercises for him. Since she died he has put on at least 15 pounds.

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  3. I've always said it is best to travel while you are young AND working (bringing in an income). I've never liked seeing a group of white haired, creaky elders touring Italy or Washington DC on a bus. Most had difficulty walking or enjoying the sights. For most, IMHO, it was too late for them. Why did they have to wait so long to enjoy life?

    As I get older, I want to stay home more. I'm glad I toured most of Europe and visited almost every single Carribbean Island and Hawaii while I was young. Now, in my 60's I do enjoy staying close to home more BUT, am getting a smallish RV and spending my 60's touring America for this last decade of my life. Want to see the Grand Canyon, spend winters in Key West, go to Montreal and Vancouver and do the cross-country thing.

    My mom took her first vacation at 58, went to Italy, felt ill, came home only to be told she had terminal cancer and was given three months to live. BIG LESSON. Get out NOW and enjoy life, travel and do things. We don't have forever.

    Good post, Bob.

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    1. This reality is why we bought our RV late last year. I don't want to be driving a 30 foot monster when I shouldn't be driving even a small car. The time to do it is now!

      IMHO I will question one of your statements: you're doing some traveling for the last decade of your life?...You are only in your 60s'. You probably have several decades to enjoy!

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    2. Well, I can't see RVing in my 70's BUT that may change. I see my 60's as my lst decade for traveling. Not living. My dad and granny lived till their late 90's, so I have a good chance of doing the same.

      As I said, I do enjoy staying home a bit more than before.

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    3. Well, good!

      I hope to travel well into my 70's. The only major problem I have is I hate airplane travel. Part of that is how crappy it has become. Airlines seem to hate us.

      The other reason is I flew 1.4 million miles during my career, If I never see the inside of another airport that will be OK with me.

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  4. It is interesting isn't it to look back through another eyes? My husband and I were just discussing travel yesterday and trying to decide how much we want to do in retirement and what form it should take. We are also watching my 83 year old dad as he globe trots and is getting in all the sights and experiences that he can while he can.
    Things to ponder for sure.

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    1. Now is the time to do more than ponder...just do it. Good for your dad. I can't wait to hit in the road in R.T.

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  5. "Fight the natural tendency to become an angry, crabby, old person. Not only doesn't anyone else want to be around you, but it brings you down, too. Getting angry at your declining health is pointless. Instead, get even: do all you want before that happens!"

    I laughed out loud at this! This is great advice.

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    1. I should do some research on why so many older people turn into grouches. Is it something that happens in the brain, or just a resistance to change? An interesting question.

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    2. Did your mother have diabetes, Bob? That and dealing with chronic pain can make for a very cranky person.

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    3. That is one problem she did not have, Denise. She suffered through breast cancer and a double mastectomy, two knee replacements, a painful back condition, macular degeneration, and congestive heart failure. Considering all these ailments it is remarkable she stayed active as long as she did. That was do to a very strong will.

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    4. I would suggest the book "The Wisdom Paradox," by Elkhonon Goldberg. This neuroscientist makes a solid case for the relationship between the aging brain, the "wisdom" that older people seem to exhibit and the general behavior changes we see in the older population. As an example, he talks about the shift from a right brain centered life in our youth (seeking novelty, new experience, feeling boredom, etc.) to the left brain centered elderly (resistant to change, location, new people in their lives, food, etc.) I certainly saw this in my parents, especially in my dad since my mom has passed. A small world is where he feels in control and safe. I resisted that for awhile, trying to get him out in the world, but now I respect it and facilitate his wishes.

      Rick in Oregon

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    5. Excellent insight. That helps explain some of my dad's behavior. I will check out the book.

      Thanks, Rick.

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    6. I was very interested to see the reference to this book. I had read about it but forgotten the title. The "wisdom" factor in aging fascinates me. I think the reference I saw was in a Scandinavian journal and now seeing the name of the author it makes good sense. Thank you for sharing.

      b+

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    7. I also will have to pick up a copy of this book. Very interesting.

      My wife who is seven years older than me is currently displaying many of the things your mom did. Old and cranky also thoroughly described my mom in the years before she died. Then of course, Mark Twain became a bitter skeptic before his death. I personally feel that I am going the wisdom route as I now look back at life to learn lessons for today.

      Nice post Bob, Thanks for putting you and your family out there. It lets the rest of us know that we are not as weird as we think.. or maybe it shows us that at least you guys are weirder than us. :)

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    8. We are definitely weirder than most!

      I should have the book in the next day or two. After I read it I might put together a post on the author's key points, or at the very least put together some type of mini review.

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  6. My mother kept a journal during her month long hospital stay in 1963 (when I was 19). My sister never opened it up until Mom passed away forty years later. We read the 20 pages with laughter and delight just after her funeral. There were several pointed remarks about me and my father that left us laughting. (She called me a skinny kid who eats like a fat man, my father). She also wrote about the Kennedy assasination which happened during her hospital stay.

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    1. Journals can give you an intimate look at another's life from a very different perspective. It can be a great reminder of your own childhood, too. I read about a trip Betty and I made to meet with the rest of the family in Branson in the late 1990s. I had forgotten some of what happened until I read mom's account.

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  7. About your mom’s list of books – I think that might make an interesting blog – at least to those of us who read a lot. I would love to know what she read, what she liked and did not like, etc. Just an idea for you from a fellow book lover.


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    1. That is a great idea. I'll go through the cards and see if there is a way to organize the material.

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    2. I've always intended to keep a list of books I've read but somehow never do it. I'd like to hear how others manage book lists.

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  8. hi Bob - I like the idea of sharing your Mom's reading list as well. What a treasure you found! Also so much wisdom Mom's passing on - if blogging was an available platform back then, I'm sure she would have been a blogger:) so she could have shared her journey with others, like you've been doing.

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  9. Great post Bob. For Denise: I use one of those blank lined books, the first page has a big 'A' in the upper right corner. I put in each letter of the alphabet, and those authors that have become favorites get their own page after the alphabet. I've had the same book for 15 years, and it's fun to see how my tastes have changed over the years.

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  10. I've been journaling since 1995. I started after reading Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. She wrote about keeping a gratitude journal, listing 5 things you're grateful for every day. I put it on my nightstand and have never stopped writing.

    The concept of the gratitude journal is to focus on what's good in your life. When things aren't so good and you rack your brain to come up with 5 things you're grateful for it starts to change your perspective.

    Over time it's become more than just a gratitude journal, but being grateful is still a large part of it. I rarely go longer than a few days between writing in it. My kids will have lots to ponder! Some they may not like, but it's all truth from my perspective.
    b

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    1. I kept a gratitude journal for several months but found I was listing the same events or items each day.

      Question for you, Barbara, how do you keep it fresh and different? Maybe I just wasn't looking hard enough!

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    2. I'm sure if I looked at the early ones I would see a LOT of repetition. Things like, my dogs...a warm home...that sort of thing. In the beginning there were days I would add, just breathing!

      After a while I started to pay more attention to my day to day and actually look for the good things instead of dwelling on the bad. That's when it starts to change.

      Now I have days I rant about in my journal, but it always ends with how blessed I feel and how grateful I am.
      Did that help?
      b

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    3. Yes. I have to become more attuned to the smaller stuff in my day, like the warm puppy in my lap as I type this.

      Thanks, Barb.

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  11. I just spent some time catching up on your last posts. Very funny about the retirement coaching.

    This post was poignant. I had some wonderful and open talks with my mom before she died, but she left nothing behind like your mom's journals. You got a double benefit from these journals. You got to know more about your mom, and you got some good lessons for your own life (which you have generously shared with us).

    I was especially struck by the anger accompanying her deteriorating health. We hear about growing old gracefully, but not many of us manage to do it.

    Like some others, I would be interested in her starred list. I like both of her favored categories, so I might find some new books to read!

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    1. I have plans to pull together her reading cards sometime over the next few weeks.

      I am interested to read the "wisdom" book mentioned by a few readers. I have put it on hold at the library and should have it sometime this week. Avoiding the "crankies" as I age is certainly a goal.

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  12. Your mother offers some good advice! I started keep a reading journal in 2009 and have kept it going. I find it helpful, especially since my memory isn't as good as it once was (not that it was EVER much to brag about.) Anyway ... at some point you'll share her stars and her nos? Would love to see that list.

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    1. Yes, Tom, I have added that post to my January schedule. It will take some time to put the list together in a logical way (probably alphabetical) but look for it in the next few weeks.

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