Last week, I mentioned that I came from a “yours, mine, and ours” family. Both of my parents had been married before, and I have a half-sister and a half-brother from those previous marriages. And then there’s me, and my younger brother.
We are spread out chronologically, partially because of those various marriages. My half-sister is 11 years older than I am, my half-brother eight years older, and my younger brother is 10 years younger than I am (my younger brother has a nephew one month older than he is).
We are spread out geographically as well, with only my half-brother still living in the New Orleans metropolitan area. We see each other usually once a year, but in May we three sons were together at my mother’s house. My half-sister has physical problems that don’t allow her to travel.
What we were there for was the beginning of breaking up my mother’s home. Our childhood home. The house where we grew up. My mother had lived there for 58 years, and the time had come for her to move to a retirement home.
My younger brother and I flew in on a Thursday night from different cities, met at the airport, and drove to my mother’s house. My half brother and sister-in-law arrived on Saturday.
In one sense, the difficult conversation had already happened. My mother had agreed that she could no longer live alone. She had had hip surgery the previous year and was maneuvering around the house okay, and had some wonderful neighbors who helped her tremendously. But about a month before, she had fallen and didn’t have the strength to pick herself back up. And she couldn’t reach a telephone. Hours passed before a worried sister called my sister-in-law, who finally reached a neighbor.
The difficult conversation we faced wasn’t to convince her to move. She already had a new apartment lined up. The difficult part was invading every bit of privacy she had left and sort through the contents of the house, decide what she needed and wanted to bring with her, and what to do with everything that remained.
My younger brother and I did most of the sorting that weekend. My sister-in-law has been the real champion, though, taking care of my mother, helping her find a new place, handling arrangements, talking with doctors, and hundreds of other things that can only be done by someone on the scene.
In a real sense, we were sorting lives, and personal histories: photographs, letters, personal effects, books, souvenirs from old vacations, scrapbooks both of my parents had kept when they were much younger, old income tax forms. Deciding who would get what furniture, and how to divide photo albums.
And there was my mother, sitting in the middle of all of it. We found things she had forgotten she had.
I was three years old when we moved into the house. Every time we’ve gone to New Orleans, that’s where we stayed. It’s the house my two sons know as “Grandma’s house.” And it’s the same for all of my nephews (we only have nephews in my family, and one great-niece).
In The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler describes his own experiences with aging parents: his father with Parkinson’s disease, his mother hurt after a fall, and he and his siblings living nowhere close. He lists four critical elements of a difficult conversation, based on the idea that such a conversation is part of a larger narrative.
Be curious about the other side’s story.
Tell your own story second.
Create a third story together.
Remember this is not the last story you’ll tell together.
I hadn’t read Feiler’s book until months after that “sorting” weekend. But we actually followed those four steps. We spent a considerable amount of time talking with my mother about the house and various effects. Listening to her tell her stories. And then we told our own. We all went to visit the new apartment and retirement home, and thus started the third story. And there is still some time for making and telling new stories – we were not telling our last story.
Over at The High Calling, we’re discussing The Secrets of Happy Families. This week’s discussion covers three chapters: “Fight Smart,” “The Buck Starts Here,” and “Talk about the Marshmallows” (difficult conversations).
Photograph: My mother’s house, and the house where we grew up in suburban New Orleans.