The New Normal

My mom died. I feel like I have it branded across my face. The enormous fact of it covers me like a cloud. The hole she leaves is somewhat bigger than I expected. Most 30-somethings who lose a parent do not act as primary caregiver, cook, chauffeur, and entertainment for the last months or years of the parent’s life. It is more like losing a child or a spouse, someone who shares your home and your routines and whose absence you feel in a million everyday things. Even when my dad died suddenly, I left my life in Alabama to deal with it and then returned home afterwards, where my routines continued as they always had. His everyday life was not entangled with mine.

Most days, I’m okay. We’re okay. It’s a new normal, but logistically much simpler than the old normal. In the evenings, after we put Hazel to bed, we have a whole hour (or two!) to ourselves. Previously, we’d put Hazel to bed and then start mom’s evening routine, which took all the available time until we went to bed.

Our dog, Boots, died three days before mom. I still cannot muster the bandwidth to properly grieve that loss, but our new normal does not include feeding, medicating, cleaning up after, and letting the dog out.

Basically, I feel like I have so much free time I could seriously address world poverty. And then I feel crushed with guilt for feeling that way. And then I make plans to use my time, and feel better about having some purpose to my life.

And then I pick up the phone to call mom, or start to walk to the guest house to see if she needs anything from the grocery store, or think of something I’d like to ask her. I suddenly have 39834598798456 questions for her.

Oddly, going to church is the hardest thing I have to do every week. Both my church and mom’s church in Jacksonville have been incredibly kind to my family, providing meals and hugs and cards and kind words. My mom loved church, and her faith put mine to shame. I feel her absence most acutely during worship. I can’t get through a hymn – even ones I don’t like – without crying. And then I get embarrassed, and then I get sweaty. It’s awesome.

I have met people since she died, who have no idea about the journey I have just completed. A new woman cut my hair two weeks ago, and I struggled to make small talk without screaming MY MOM JUST DIED AND EVERYTHING IS WEIRD. I went out to lunch with some ladies I only know casually from the gym, and it never came up. I don’t want sympathy, but the fact of her death, and the road we took to get there, are a huge part of my identity right now. I don’t quite know who I am without the role of caregiver.

I am sure this will feel less weird with time. I will fill my time with new activities, or resume activities I have neglected for the last year. But now, in the early days of the new normal, I’m still getting my balance.

 

 

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Eulogy

(Mom’s memorial service was held on Saturday in Jacksonville. She asked me, many years ago, to speak at her service. This is what I said.)

Thank you, all of you, for being here today. Mom is sorry she couldn’t make it, but God promised her a spot as the defensive coordinator in the highly-anticipated Angel Bowl, and that was an offer she could not refuse. She’ll be joined on the sidelines by my father, who is in charge of the tailgate spread, and Sugar the greyhound, who is the team mascot.

I have spent a lot of the last two and a half years cleaning out my parents’ home. I came across many treasures during that process, but none delighted me quite as much as a copy of a speech mom gave at an RPDS event many years ago. At the end, she included a survey taken of her graduating class, where each student shared what they wanted to be when they grew up. My uncle Louie, for example, wanted to build ships for the Navy, and Tom Borland wanted to be an underwater demolition expert.

My mom wanted to be the director of a summer camp for girls. Let’s all take a moment and envision the kind of summer camp my mom would run. I’m pretty sure it would be heavy on archery and horseback riding and waterskiing, and very light on arts and crafts. There would be no camp nurse, just a bottle of aspirin and a few band-aids in a paper bag behind the bar. And oh yes, there would be a bar.

Obviously, she did not fulfill the dream she had when she was 11,  but that bit of information helped me understand her so much better. She lived her whole life like it was summer camp – where you’re encouraged to be active, get dirty, and throw yourself into the world around you.

So instead of playing genteel country club tennis, she played extreme full-contact tennis.  Mom’s enthusiasm for the sport earned her several tennis-related trips to the emergency room. The most notable of these occurred after she laid out for an epic shot and broke her toe, bit through her bottom lip, and punctured her spleen with her thumb knuckle. Eventually, her doctors begged her to take up a less violent hobby.

Instead of breezing through a museum or zoo, she made sure to read every sign in front of every exhibit. I used to think she was just trying to get her money’s worth out of her admission ticket, but she really was interested in everything from the pygmy marmosets to the African elephants.

She had trouble understanding gift-giving, and never knew what to do with gifts she received. Instead, she gave out nicknames. I guess when your own nickname is “Winkie,” you can’t help it.

Raise your hand if you had a Winkie nickname. Me too. My brother and I had about five apiece. Growing up, I thought all my parents’ friends had unusual names like me. It took me way longer than it should have to realize that no one in their right mind would actually be named Mikeman. Or Dirt. Or Yo Ho.

My mother didn’t teach me how to curl my hair, or what colors looked best with my skin tone. She offered no advice on jewelry, clothes, or makeup. We never shared a bottle of wine or a pedicure. Those are not summer camp activities.

Instead, she taught me to be helpful and loyal and brave. She encouraged me to try new things and seek adventure, but always pay cash. She taught me to be a fierce competitor but a good sport.

And she never, ever, ever counseled moderation. When my son Tyler was in elementary school, he spent a whole week in the summer with Mom, just the two of them. She discovered he liked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – and proceeded to make them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all between-meal snacks. Tyler came home oozing peanut butter from his pores.

I would not have made it through the last two and a half years without the support of my husband, Jason, who handled our household during my frequent trips to Jacksonville, and who did not hesitate when we decided to move her in with us. Mom adored Jason – she told me once that if anything happened between us, she was keeping him. For his birthday one year, she bought him a seersucker suit. Well, let’s be honest – she told him to buy a suit, preferably on sale, and turn in a receipt for reimbursement. Anyway. He wore the suit to Riverside one Sunday, and she proudly introduced him to all her friends. “This is Jason Taylor,” she would say, “and this is his birthday suit!”

I had planned to have tiny gin & tonics passed out in the communion trays so that we could all toast my mother together – but I have been informed that is frowned upon, even in the Presbyterian Church. Oh, well. Let us raise an invisible glass to my mother, who lived every day like it was summer camp – and may we find ways to bring that energy and enthusiasm into our own everyday lives.

Thank you.

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Reading Materials: September 2017

Sorry this is late! I barely know what day it is.

44. Ross Poldark, Winston Graham. (Library) A friend recommended the PBS series Poldark to me, and I’ve become mildly obsessed. When I learned that it was based on a very popular series of books from the 1940s, I decided to give the first one a try. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It has aged well, and the writing still feels fresh and sharp. The story is set immediately after the American Revolutionary War, but it takes place in England, in Cornwall. This is a time/place combination which I had not spent much time thinking about, so I was glad for some historical perspective as well as a great story. I’ve already put the second book in this 12-book series on hold at the library.

45. Every Dead Thing, John Connolly. (Library) John Connolly frequently pops up on “authors you may like” lists for me, so I decided to give one a try. It’s set in New York and New Orleans, which appealed to me as well. I liked the book, although I guessed the twist pretty early on, and I got a little tired of Connolly’s insistence on detailing the weight/fitness level/attire of every character. I am not rushing out to the library to get the next book in the series, but I may pick it up later.

46. The Secret Diary of Hendrick Groen, Aged 83 1/4. (Library, book club selection) This was a hard book to read. My mother spent almost two years in an assisted living facility, and it was informational to read about nursing home care in other countries. But I just couldn’t get into this character. The book spends a lot of time discussing the merits of assisted suicide, which cut a little too close for me right now.

47. Phantom Evil, Heather Graham. (Library) I must have some Puritan blood in me, because I have very little tolerance for novels in which attractive-yet-broken people solve all interpersonal drama through mind-blowing sex. Or, worse, when two attractive-yet-broken people are put in mortal peril, and the first thing they do afterwards is…. you guessed it. Other than that, this story was good. It’s another New Orleans story, which you know I’m always down for. It seems to be based in part on the lore surrounding the Lalaurie mansion in the French Quarter, in that it features a big, beautiful mansion that’s haunted/cursed.

48. The Round House, Louise Erdlich. (Library) This has been on my to-read list for a while, so when I espied it on the library shelf I picked it up. It follows the aftermath of a horrific crime perpetrated on a Native American family. The writing was tremendous, the characters well-developed, and the plot was interesting. I enjoyed reading it.

49. Panacea, F. Paul Wilson. (Library) I have been a fan of Wilson’s since a friend lent me the Repairman Jack series, which is outstanding. This book is similarly engaging. It’s got Dan-Brown-style pacing. I read it during a very difficult week, and it managed to distract me for several minutes at a time.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 42
Non-Fiction: 7

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Obituary

Winifred Wootton Booher, 70, passed from this life on September 24. Winkie, along with her twin brother Lucius III, was born in Jacksonville to Winifred Sessoms Wootton and Lucius Bayne Wootton, Jr. on June 5, 1947.

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She attended Riverside Presbyterian Day School, Bartram School for Girls, and Agnes Scott College. After obtaining a degree in psychology and playing countless hours of field hockey, she spent two years working in Atlanta before returning to Jacksonville.

She met David Booher on a blind date in 1972, and said she’d never laughed so much in her life. They were married six months later, on April 14, 1973. They had two children, Winifred (Windy) Booher Taylor and David Henry Booher IV.

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Winkie’s life was devoted to service. She was an active member of Riverside Presbyterian Church, where she taught the confirmation class, served as an Elder, gave her time to various committees, and sang in the choir.

She was involved in the Junior League of Jacksonville, most notably as the editor of the Jacksonville & Company cookbook in 1982. She participated in the Leadership Jacksonville class of 1985, and served as treasurer for the Women’s Board of Wolfson Children’s Hospital until 2015.

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While handling all these leadership and service roles, Winkie worked full time managing David’s law office, and continued to work after his death until she retired in 2013. She also played tennis at the Florida Yacht Club, where she was known as a fierce competitor. She traveled extensively, read voraciously, and cheered enthusiastically for the Gators and the Jaguars.

 Winkie leaves behind her two children, Windy Taylor (Jason) and David Booher, her grandchildren, Hollyn, Tyler, Jensen, and Hazel, and her brother Louie Wootton (Kari-June). She was preceded in death by her parents, Winkie and Lucius Wootton, her husband David Booher III, and her beloved greyhound Sugar.

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A memorial service will be held at Riverside Presbyterian Church on October 7 at 11:00 a.m. In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to Big Bend Hospice of Tallahassee, or Greyhounds as Pets of Northeast Florida.

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No One Is Coming to Save Us

Florida is a weird, weird place. I was born and raised here, and have spent 34 of the last 37 hurricane seasons here. I still have the capacity for astonishment about my home state – each year we seem to find new ways to delight and/or horrify.

Hurricanes are a weird, weird weather phenomenon. Every time I’ve experienced one, I think about how unexpected and awful they must have been for our pre-radar ancestors. The day before a hurricane is almost always beautiful. And then it begins to rain. And it just gets worse and worse and windier and windier. There’s no thunder, no lightning, just the noise of the wind as it screams around the house and through the trees.

It makes a strange sort of sense that hurricanes and Florida go hand-in-hand.

Yesterday was gorgeous. We sat on our porch in the cool evening and watched the kids play soccer in the front yard.

Around lunchtime today, the outer bands of Hurricane Irma began to make their way across the panhandle, even though the hurricane hadn’t made landfall yet. Florida is a huge state, but this is a huge storm. It will get worse and worse, and windier and windier, and then it will be over.

And we will pick up the pieces. We always do.

After Katrina, the city of New Orleans lost over 400,000 residents. By contrast, Miami-Dade County only lost a net of 36,000 residents in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew steamrolled it. We get knocked down again and again, but we just can’t quit our state. Whether this is foolish or fearless, I can’t say.

Floridians seem to share a grim fatalism about our situation. We gather our supplies, make darkly funny jokes with our neighbors, churn out meme after meme, and have hurricane parties. We know how this works.

We’re not morons. (Well, most of us.) We know that these storms are dangerous, and we prepare as best we can. But part of us knows that there’s only so much you can do.

You can’t actually be ready for anything.

Irma is taking a leisurely stroll up the west coast of Florida, so we won’t see the whites of her eye until tomorrow. In 24 hours, the worst should be over.

See you on the flip side.

 

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Reading Materials: August 2017

39. The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman. (Digital Library) I did not love this book. I appreciated that it was a true story, but there were just too many rabbit-holes. The author would introduce a very minor character, and then spend several pages giving that person’s biography. It made the story clunky.

40. Duma Key, Stephen King. (Library, Book Club Selection) I enjoy Stephen King books; I am not a fanatic about them. I read (and loved) The Stand, The Gunslinger series, and Bag of Bones. I have read many others, and liked them plenty, but King is not in my personal pantheon. That said, this is one of the better ones I’ve read. It’s a doorstop of a novel – nearly 800 pages – but it moves quickly and efficiently from one plot point to the next. I may have felt especial empathy for the main character because he searches for words in the same way my mother does. Most of the novel is creepy, but not outright scary – until you get to the last 25% or so. I stayed up late to finish it and then had nightmares. I’m sure Mr. King would consider that a compliment.

41. Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance. (Kindle Purchase) In college, I dated a guy from rural southeastern Ohio. I spent a lot of time there, including a whole summer. Additionally, I lived for three years in rural northwest Alabama. Many of Vance’s observations rang true for me – hollowed-out towns with boarded-up main streets, hollowed-out people whose futures left when the plant closed. I loved Vance’s straightforward storytelling, which eschews flowery language in favor of the unvarnished truth. Sentences like “I watched my mom get loaded into a police cruiser” really don’t need embellishment to be disturbing. This book has been on my to-read list for a long time, since I heard an interview with Vance on a podcast earlier this year. I’m so, so glad I read it.

42. All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders. (Purchased) This was a summer reading selection at our (delightful) independent bookstore, the Midtown Reader. The description – Science vs. Magic! Romance on the brink of global catastrophe! – ticked all my boxes, but the book was not what I expected. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it and have selected it for my own book club to read later this fall. It was funnier than I expected, though I feel its young adult category may be a stretch. It had some very, um, adult portions. I would not be comfortable with my 14-year-old reading it.

43. All Together Dead, Charlaine Harris. (Gift) Palate cleanser. Perfectly entertaining fluff. Great way to end the month.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 36
Non-Fiction: 7

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A Study in Pink

Our house is basically a side-hall farmhouse, but it has a fourth room downstairs that defies logic at every turn. We’ve been befuddled by it since we bought the house, and have finally made some progress in taming it. It’s the green area below:

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Originally, I believe this room was R.A. Gray’s study, as he mentions having a study at home several times in his autobiography, and there’s really no other conceivable purpose for it. This room is 10′ x 13′, and originally opened onto a small porch, but a previous owner enclosed the porch part to make a nursery for his daughter (more on that in a moment).

When we moved in, Hollyn chose this space for her bedroom – partly because she’ll be moving out in two years, and partly because she’d have her own bathroom….ish.

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This is the back wall of the room. The door to the right leads to a half bathroom with the World’s Most Ludicrous Toilet. There is a mere six inch clearance between the rim of the toilet and the toilet paper holder, which means that if you need to use it, you’ll probably want to sit side-saddle. The door to the left formerly led to a closet, and is now a shower. Just. A. Shower.

That was a choice, people.

The first thing we did was rip out that carpet, which had definitely seen better days. We were delighted to find beautiful hardwoods underneath…. but there was a huge patch by the half bath, and no flooring under the enclosed porch part.

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Dagnabbit.

We replaced the carpet with one-inch hexagonal tiles, which fit the time period in which the house was built. We were inspired by all the old hex tile floors we see in Thomasville, Georgia and New Orleans.

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Next we swapped out the old fan for one that operated. Marvelous!

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Then we painted the main part of the room. Hollyn asked for a neutral color, so we went with our old friend Steamed Milk.

Finally it was time to turn our attention to the most frustrating part of the room, which I will call the nook. Remember when I talked about the enclosed porch space that became a nursery? This is it. Hollyn has her bed at one end of the nook and her closet space at the other.

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When I get stressed I find it helpful to make a list. I made a list.

  1. Paint the walls, which were pink.
  2. Paint the trim, which was also pink.
  3. Replace the light fixtures, which were… not good.
  4. Replace the roller shade, which was busted, yo.
  5. Cover cased opening for privacy.

We dug in. As I pointed out above, the doorway wall in the nook is the same cedar-shake siding that is on the rest of the exterior of the house – and it’s a pain in the buns to paint. But you know what else is a pain in the buns to paint? Beadboard. Sweet Fancy Moses. I had to use an artist’s brush to keep the beads clear of paint glops. Both the walls and the trim required three coats of paint. I listened to many hours of podcasts in that nook.

We left the ceiling blue. It’s a nod to the Southern tradition of painting the underside of one’s porch ceiling blue, but honestly I was just d-o-n-e painting.

The light fixtures were an easy swap. They’re on dimmer switches for Maximum Drama.

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Originally, we wanted to hang some salvaged French Doors on barn tracks over the cased opening. But they would have hung at a very awkward height – and not actually done a whole lot for privacy. Instead, I hemmed the curtains from the master bedroom at our old house and hung them on a large dowel rod.

To add visual interest to this sea of cream, I stained the dowel rod dark, and chose a tatami style wooden window shade.

Here’s the nook after:

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Hollyn’s room looks much more pulled-together. All that’s left is to paint her dresser – she’s selected a deep teal – and add more colorful art to the walls.

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Since this room contains the only downstairs bathroom, it gets frequent traffic. But now it’s ready for company!

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