November 12, 2019

Hidden Treasures In A Closet

While going through a closet for our fall declutter project, I stumbled across two interesting items we removed from my  parent's apartment years ago when dad moved to assisted living. 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 started my own list 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 1994 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 with regularity 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  nine 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 of traveling declined along with her strength, mobility and eyesight. The journal entries from 1994-1998 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 get this glimpse into your life all those years ago. Even now, almost nine years after your passing, you are still teaching me lessons.



22 comments:

  1. How fortunate you were to stumble upon this window into your parents' lives, Bob! I remember trading books with my Mom and enjoying that special connection, so I think it's wonderful that you'll be working through your mother's book list.

    My parents never traveled except to see some of my Mom's family members who lived a couple of hours away. Whether it had to do with a lack of funds or the fact that my Dad was a real homebody I don't know. My Mom did travel with senior groups after my Dad passed, so it could have been either. Because I'm a roadtripper at heart (and, thankfully, so is my husband), the fact that you found your mother's travel journals makes me very happy for you- especially since you and Betty are travelers yourselves. I'm sure your Mom had no idea that she'd be sharing her life (and her life lessons!) with you at this stage of yours, but you're a lucky guy to be the recipient of your Mom's well-documented lessons. What a memorable find!

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    1. It really was quite a gift from her, one that she would find very gratifying. It provided a glimpse into parts of their lives I was unaware of when they were both alive.

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  2. As a person who has kept diaries since I was ten and am now contemplating destroying them, I find this post delightful. Few people write travel journals thinking someone else will ever read them but the older they are the more interesting they become, especially the ones that have recorded prices in them. What a wonderful way to connect with your parents again. Now we know were you got your desire to write.

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    1. I wrote journals for several years and found them at the same time I stumbled across mom's. I thought of disposing of them but then realized they may be read by one of my kids at some point in the future. So, into the memento box they went!

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  3. My mom died in a car accident just as she and my dad were launching their post-retirement travel life. Fortunately, he met and married another woman who loved to travel, and they took at least three trips a year, both domestic and overseas. They started off traveling independently, but as they aged tour groups proved more practical. My stepmother constructed elaborate scrapbooks after trips they would periodically take off the shelf to reminisce.

    A tip for "underpacking" -- Invest in some of the new, ultrafine merino wool clothing (shirts, socks, underwear). Aside from its temperature-modulating ability, this just doesn't retain body odor. In Turkey for a week recently, I packed just two merino T-shirts as an experiment. I fully expected to have to hand-wash them nightly but, unlike cotton and synthetics, they stayed entirely, remarkably odor-free. It's pricey, but it seems to be sturdy, and I can travel now with a very light bag.

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    1. Betty and I are moving to a combination of prepacked trips and solo jaunts for some of our trips now. The cruise through the South Pacific and on to New Zealand next fall is mostly cruise ship excursions. But, we are getting off the boat before its final stop so we can explore New Zealand's North island on our own for a week.

      I will check out the clothing line you mention. One simple thing I do on longer trips is take older items, like underwear and socks, and dispose of them instead of laundering. That allows for room for souvenirs on the way home.

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  4. Thats a wonderful find for you and your family Bob. Something tangible to connect you back with your parents again. And a great source of personal information on the ageing process.
    Derek.

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    1. It was like a very nice early Christmas present. And, a reminder that when we die, often there is something of us left behind for others to benefit from.

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  5. What a delightful post! And what a find. It's like you're taking trips with them. And your points of wisdom are well taken, especially packing light and realizing every day won't be nirvana.

    My mom has written a ton of journals over the years, but not about traveling. More working through issues in her life and upbringing. A few years ago, she decided to burn them all and did, which was a relief to me on some level, as she had always said she would leave them to me. She did keep one that she thought I might want to read - the one she kept when my dad was ill and dying. I'm ambivalent, yet I'm sure I'll read it when she goes.

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    1. I am happy these journals were travel-oriented. I think I would have felt like I was snooping (and rather uncomfortable) if the contents were personal and private.

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  6. Wonderful that you found your mother's old journals. You speak of noticing her decline in her journals and, knowing her age at the time, that will give you an indication of what's ahead for us all.

    I think this is why your first bit of advice "Travel whenever and wherever you can while you are healthy enough to enjoy the experience" is so important. One never knows what lies ahead but it is almost certain that the best and most healthy years of retirement are the earliest years. We just returned from a 5 week trip to Australia and New Zealand and it was quite an adventure. I am so glad we didn't put off this trip one more year yet again.

    Since you are heading that way I can recommend the "Bridge Climb" on the Sydney Harbour Bridge (as long as you don't have a fear of heights). The bridge climb is an escorted walk up the steel arches of the Sydney Harbour bridge. It's quite safe, there's good walkways, it's at a leisurely pace, and you tethered the whole time. It's a great experience you get a full unobstructed 360 view of Sydney from the top of the arch. It's well worth doing. Aim for a clear day if you can, we booked our climb at the tourist information center a day ahead.

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    1. We have been dreaming of a trip to the South Pacific forever, it seems. We realized that waiting too much longer really serves no purpose and runs of the risk of having what happened to my parents happen to Betty and me. So, the 27 day trip has been booked and (mostly) paid for.

      The Sydney Bridge Climb sounds awesome, but we are getting off the ship in Wellington and flying home from Auckland..so no Australia, I'm afraid.

      We are also doing a 10 day trip to Montreal and Quebec next spring. Betty has never been and I know she will love the European feel. We will throw in a day trip to Niagara Falls while in Toronto - another sight she has always wanted to check off her list.

      Mom's journals may have been the prod we needed to do what we want while we still can.

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    2. One thing we enjoyed in New Zealand was Hobbiton near Matamata. Personally I was quite neutral about visiting the outdoor set for "The Shire" from The Lord of The Rings, I am not a huge fan of the films or anything and had no particular desire to see it -- we just happened to be passing that way. The set is just on a regular farm in the area but the countryside in the immediate area is gorgeously beautiful. After seeing it I think my wife would move there if it weren't so far from the grandchildren. Worth a stop if it's on your way from Wellington to Auckland.

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    3. Yes, Hobbiton will be one of our must see places. My wife feels the same way...why does it have to be so from family!

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  7. Your mom's journals give you insights into her life and your dad's life and you got some life lessons out of them. Nice to have a list of books she read and to read many of them now.

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    1. The lesson? We can learn life lessons from the most unexpected sources.

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  8. I like how your stories make me think Bob! I turned 65 in October and was going to defer taking my gov't pension CPP up here in Canada vs SS in the US. My calculations showed that I should defer taking payments to age 70 but I decided to take it now while I was healthy enough to enjoy the extra money because who knows what could happen down the road. Like they say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I'm very focused on improving my health so I can enjoy hopefully many more good years and avoid turning into a grumpy old man before my time.

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    1. The decision on when to start government support payments is not a simple one. As you note, since we don't know when our "past due date" is, leaving money on the table may not be the best plan. Then again, if savings and investments may not be enough to see someone through the rest of a long life, delaying payouts until the maximum amount can be secured could be required.

      Nothing in this life is guaranteed, so we just make the best choices based on our best guesses, and move onward.

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  9. An interesting insight via your Mom’s journals about how one’s age and declining health over time impacts travel experiences and the enjoyment of them. Five years ago, Rob and I were doing overnight backpacking trips up into the mountains. Lately, we have not considered doing those kinds of trips, although we’re still not quite ready to give away all our backcountry equipment. (I think maybe Rob is, but I’m still fantasizing about doing more trips). About three years ago, some good friends invited us to join them on a wilderness ski holiday which involved cat skiing and deep powder. Reluctantly, we declined, realizing that we no longer have the physical ability and stamina for such a trip (and I have bad knees). Your point about taking the opportunity to do things while you still can is a poignant one, and reinforced by your Mom’s account.

    Jude

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    1. The decline in physical abilities cannot be stopped. Delayed maybe with proper diet, exercise, and good genes, but still it is going to happen. That gives us two things to focus on: doing what we enjoy while we can, and having the common sense to realize when we can't...wilderness ski holidays are good examples.

      Betty and I used to scuba dive and enjoyed it. Today, we'd have to re-certify to get our certificates. Nether of us could do so. It was tremendous fun 25 years ago, but now those days are just pleasant memories.

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