Downsizing Dad

Discovering the mysteries of family as I help my Dad simplify his life.

Gun Culture

I don’t own a gun now, but guns were a big part of growing up in Wyoming when we were little. My father’s best memories are hunting on Sundays with his father, heading out into the fields to hunt rabbit and pheasant, letting their dog, Mac, run down the game animals. My grandmother came only once — she was an Eastern girl, and it was not her tradition. They didn’t invite her back because she screamed when she was afraid Mac would get hit. But my Dad was never worried. They knew they could tell the difference between Mac and a bird.

Each winter they would  choose a gun from a catalogue. They would pack their own shells, melting metal — lead? — and my grandfather would pack them with gunpowder. They were members of target-shooting clubs, and flint-lock clubs. Not long ago my Dad and I opened  a trunk full of  my grandfather’s hunting clothes — sweaters, jackets, hats, vests — each with a padded shoulder to catch the rebound, and heavy canvas pants with cuffing to fit inside wader boots.

Toy guns were a part of my mother’s life, too,  growing up in Dodge City, Kansas. Oddly, the one toy gun we have that she remembered using with great gusto in her imaginary play with her cousin Lloyd Lee, was this Buck Rodgers in the 21st Century gun. It made a loud pop when you pulled the trigger.  These other toy guns are cowboy guns my brother and I used when we played in Cody, Wyoming, and the red one is a ping-pong ball bun we had great fights with in Pennsylvania.

My father once had a gun collection — guns that had been his father’s, his brother’s and his own that ranged from Revolutionary era muskets to the hunting guns they used on Sundays.  It was all stolen in a burglary decades ago, but going through his books about guns, which he chose to bring with him in his move, he shared the great sadness he felt over the loss of that beautiful connection with his father.

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My brother and sister-in-law came to visit over Thanksgiving, to pack up their items and help my Dad move. At the end of the visit Dad and my brother were off, following the moving van of belongings that headed across the country a few weeks before. In helping my Dad make sure all his ducks were in a row the last few days, we helped him go through his wallet and make sure he had all the documents he needed. Here is a note he has been carrying around from my mother for years. Even now she is watching over him.

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I loved growing up in a big family. As the youngest of four, my sisters, 6 years older, seemed like grown ups to me. img_4160

Here’s a photo of the four of us together. I am the short one. My sisters are twins.

One of my sisters came to visit this week to help with the downsizing process and to pack up her own things. What a ham she is! She was always the one who said, when asked what kind of a person she would marry — “Someone with a good sense of humor,” as number one on her list. She still lives her life with joy and humor. We played dress up — or rather, she did, as she is the only one  tiny enough to fit into my mom’s clothes, and my father’s wrestling sweater circa 1937 when he was wrestling at under 90 lbs. My beautiful sister is as still a lovely ham.

Here is the result, and some photos of my mom in the same clothes.

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The Artist’s Way

While I’ve been going through this process of helping my Dad downsize, I’ve also been in an Artist’s Way group, working through the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, with a group of 5 other women, over the course of 12 months. Normally these groups last 12 weeks, taking on a chapter a week. But we’ve chosen to work through the exercises a chapter a month to give us time to process the ideas.   Every month, as part of the process, we are supposed to take ourselves on an “Artist’s Date,” where we alone do something we have never done, or something that sparks an inner joy and curiosity. We are now on our last chapter. As frequently happens when I read this book, I was slain by a line of truth. The line I read was “Life is meant to be an artist date. That’s why we were created.”  And I wondered, in all their devotion to duty, did my parents have a chance to be creative? Did they get to live a full, rich life?

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Wanting Creativity for My Parents


My parents were both devoted to duty. Work. Housework. Church. Childrearing. Fixing things around the house. Friendships looked like co-work on volunteer projects for my mother, and  cocktail parties — which looked terribly dull – for both parents. Where was the spark?  As a preteen, I remember  dreading growing to adulthood and the creative death that it appeared to entail. My Dad’s life looked terribly duty-bound from the outside. Working in an administrative job in a medical office, wearing a grey suit and stiff, shiny shoes, I didn’t see him working as a hands-on doctor with patients, as he did less of that as he grew older. I only saw the smoking, the American cheese sandwich and coffee for lunch every day, the neat, particle-board-plain desk of a hospital administrator. As for my mother, I could not imagine much worse than the daily duties of housecleaning, meals and teen-taxi-service of motherhood — and the female ordeals of binding bras, girdles and stockings under dresses. I did not want to be a woman.

But here, as I weed through their belongings, on the near-far side of middle age work and motherhood myself, I see evidence that a creative life struggled alongside the burdens of adulthood. Maybe it was ok.

Going through what is in Dad’s house, I came across many examples of my parents’ creativity: endless supplies for my mother’s fiber art and craft — sewing, weaving, knitting, embroidery, beadwork, sequins and other bling, needlepoint,  leather work, paper folding, basket weaving, felt for Christmas stockings. She left behind hundreds of sewing patterns, mostly from the 1970s and 80s –  bell bottoms and big shoulders — and garbage cans full of yarn. I gave away piles of thread, a hefty bag of zippers, a giant box of fabric scraps, yardage of drapery fabric and liners. It took me awhile to realize that it was all evidence of her true joy and LOVE of working with her hands with fabric and fibers. While my grandmother Bounce may have socialized after her housework was done, Mom created. She was artist of useful objects and her medium was fiber.





I also came across evidence of my father’s creativity. Soapstone carvings, and files and saws for working the stone. Hunks of clay solidified into stone with wire clay tools. Old painting sets, and a half a dozen sketch books. Around the house, in many rooms, there were his paintings, done in the 1950s mostly. But most of his creative work is evident in the photo albums:   hiking outings to Joshua Tree, target shooting in the desert, fishing in Wyoming, Dad petting our scruffy dog.  I also see this creativity in the things we made together — the high jump poles we made so we could practice for track meets, the furniture we painted together in crazy 1960s colors.

Memories of parties come back, too, with friendships standing firm as a creative aspect of both my parents’ lives — a giant Christmas party that devolved into German drinking songs for German interns from the hospital. An easter egg hunt for family friends. My father has always loved to just “stop by” and visit family friends, surprise connections that brought him great job. In many ways, “stopping by” worked better in the 70s than it does today, with everyone working and no one home, or too busy to take time out to visit with a  friend.

As adults, we often give up our right to a creative life. As a teen, I remember wanting so badly for my parents to live well, to know that adults did not have to give up being creative and joyful in the hard slog of middle age.  Here, at last,  is evidence that the creative spark flowed, glowed through them throughout their lives, even when the flame was weakest.

Cracked Rib = Broken Heart

I am walking fast down a dark sidewalk  in my neighborhood, talking on the phone with my siblings in our weekly group chat, when I trip. I go down hard, scraping a hand, knee, bending back little fingers, and finally smacking into the concrete chest-first. I feel gob-smacked, the wind is knocked out of me like the hand of God has slapped me hard. I roll over on my back and grab my phone, thankfully encased in an otter box, unbroken. My siblings are continuing to chat, unaware that I am flat on the ground.

“I fell,” I croak into the phone, panting.


“Sorry, I fell.” I want to cry like a baby. “Bawaa! Poor me! I fell!”

Instead, I act cool. “I fell. What did I miss? What are you guys talking about?” I sit up, feel my fingers, my knee, my arm. I take a deep breath. My chest hurts, but I can move. I stand up and continue my walk, listening, talking, planning Dad’s move.

An hour later, I am back at home. I tell my daughter and husband I took a spill, then take a bath with epsom salts. When I read to my daughter I ask her not to lean on my chest as we cuddle. I am sore. It hurts to sit up.

Beware of Falls

Hanging out with my Dad this time around, I have been paranoid about having him fall. I have never before noticed how uneven the ground is everywhere. His big feet graze the sidewalk with a sliding shuffle when he picks them up to take a step. He walks perilously close to curbs. Sidewalks are minefields, planter boxes, planted in the middle like IEDs, ready to knock him to kingdom come. The alley way outside our art class is so uneven it is  like a stream bed we pick our way through. I walk beside him, my arm out around his back, or offered in front like a cane, in a way I hope does not seem obtrusive. Sometimes my solicitous behavior annoys him. “I’m fine,” he says, waving my arm away.

He has a few close calls. Once, he walks too fast down his slanting front walk way and pitches sideways into a bush. He doesn’t go all the way down, but it scares me. Another time, he insists on helping me carry a too big box down his stairs and plops backwards onto his bottom, banging his head into a wall so hard he dents the dry wall. A visit to the emergency room shows no harm done. I wish he would use a cane or a walker, then I could relax. But he’s not interested in my relaxation. He’s interested in his own independence. And mostly, he’s ok.

I, on the other hand, have fallen three times in the past few weeks. Once, jogging along the Coast Walk dirt path on the way to the Cove, I tried to pass a couple and slid sideways down the dirt, scraping my leg so much the black scab took two weeks to clear up. A few days later, looking at the tide pools as the sun set, I slipped off a rock and sat down hard, scraping my arm. And now this, falling in the middle of an ordinary sidewalk. The world feels topsy turvy and hazardous.

When I wake up the morning after the fall, I feel achy.

“You should go get an X-ray,” my sister in law says. “There’s important stuff under your ribs.”

Perhaps she’s right. I decide to wait a few days to see if it feels better, not wanting to pay the deductible. Finally, 5 days later, my chest aching more, I go to Urgent Care.

“Do you want an Xray?” the technician asks.

“Do I WANT one?” I ask. “Aren’t you supposed to tell me that? Do I NEED one?”

“It won’t make a difference in your treatment,” she says. “It’ll be the same whether you’ve cracked a rib or not.”

Treatment, it turns out, is exactly what I’ve been doing. Except that I can’t pick up anything heavy for 2 weeks. The rest of the day I sit with my aching chest, and try to allow myself to feel the vulnerability of that ache — the ache of loss; the very cage protecting my heart cracked open, my childish heart exposed; my hold on the solid earth shaky. In the evening, cold and damp, I go for another long walk — wearing a headlamp this time, so I can see. I walk into the ache, feeling my feet on the earth, breathing into my sadness. My chest loosens up in the open air, and the ache lessens. I breathe deeply, the ache still there, but lighter, cleansed.  Maybe I did break a rib. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe it is just my heart that has been aching, sitting in a cracked cage in the middle of my chest, in a body that has been upended over and over again.




So far, I have logged 256 hours in the process of helping my Dad downsize.

One day he pulled out his wallet. Inside was a check. He started to take it out to give to me, but I held up my hand.

“I just appreciate everything you’re doing,” he said. “And you shouldn’t have to do it for free.”

I glance at the check. It is for $100.00. It’s not the first time he’s tried to give me a check.

“”I’m not doing it for free, Dad.  I know you appreciate what I’ve been doing, and I’m happy to do it,” I said. “But I quit my job so I could take on the job of going through your house and hanging out with you. I can’t afford not to work and not to be paid. It’s work for me. I’m sorry to say that I’m not just doing this to be nice. So I’m keeping track of my hours and in the end, I”ll be paid, whether it is by my siblings or by your estate, or whatever.”

He is silent, considering. He puts the check away. This happened three times over the past four months.

Then two days ago, he said, “You said you were going to give me a bill. Why don’t you go ahead and do that.”

I tally up my hours by the month, and suddenly find myself in a complex calculus with unintended emotional consequences. The question is, when it comes to family care, what counts as work, and what is just the expected contribution of being a family member? If I take him to an art class because I think it will be stimulating for him, and take the class myself — and enjoy it — does that count as work? Or are we just having fun together? If I have him over for dinner because I don’t want to cook his dinner and my own, should I keep track of those hours? When I spend two days flying to pick him up and bring him back here, how many hours of that should I include? Any? All? Half? A quarter? I opt for twelve hours out of the 48.

With every hour, I ask myself, is this right? Is it right to charge for this at all? Am I greedy for wanting to be paid? Throughout the months, I miss work, have to turn down freelance opportunities, miss writing deadlines, have to leave my daughter alone. What does this count for? How many hours am I working? It feels endless. It feels like I never have a break. And I don’t. It’s just as it was when my children were toddlers. I am working 24/7.

And thus I enter into what the AARP calls the emotional danger zone of caregiving. There’s a high emotional cost to this process.

According to the AARP website,

“Most caregiving starts out as a labor of love, but it can quickly grow into an expensive obligation. In these economically insecure times, caregivers are struggling with heavy financial responsibilities, especially if they’ve had to quit their jobs to provide care.”

When I agreed to look after my father, make his meals, keep him entertained and downsize his house all at the same time, my siblings and I agreed that I should be paid for my work. We researched what other local caregivers earned, and set an hourly rate. I told my Dad several times that I would need to be paid for my work, since I had quit my job to do work that needed to be done. The problem was, we never really talked about it with Dad. We never set a rate with him. To him, a good wage is still $1/hour.

I tally up the hours I wrote in my family calendar when I got home from my Dad’s each day and multiply by the hourly wage my siblings and I agreed on, less than I had been paid in my job, but based on the going rate of care in our community, and present it to him.

He stares at it. He looks at me. He is silent. For the next few hours, through dinner and beyond, he says very little, but stares into space. Every so often, he gives me a hard look.


“You are not being paid what you think you are worth, but what your employer thinks you are worth.”

Recently, my Dad has told an old story to several new people. It’s a story we’ve all heard before. After his junior or senior year of high school, my father had a summer job tending the local gas station in his small town in northwestern Kansas. He worked the station all night, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. for one dollar.  His job was to pump gas — literally pump, with a handle! The gas would rise up into a container with gallon marks on it. In this way, he would know exactly how much gas he had pumped. Then gravity would allow the gas to drain into the customer’s car tank.

Throughout the night, Okies would come through, their cars piled high with every belonging they possessed, fleeing the dust storms and poverty of the Depression, on their way to California.  Sometimes they would have no money, but would offer to trade belongings for gas. Once, my father traded a tank of gas for a radio — his first radio. We asked how the station owner got paid, and my Dad said that he paid for the gas. He remembered the price of a gallon of gas being $.80 a gallon, but when we looked it up, it was more like $.11/gallon.

One day, my father complained to his father about his low pay. “I’m worth more than that,” he said to his Dad. “You’re not being paid what you think you’re worth, but what the station owner thinks your work is worth,” his Dad replied.


When we were young, my Dad would often fall into moods. My mother sometimes called him the “dour Dane.” We would chatter together, speculating about what was wrong. “What’s wrong with Dad?” “Why is Dad so mad?” There was a chill to the air. Which one of us had done something that displeased him? When he was mad, he said very little. He sometimes would go for a walk. Or a drive. When he drove when he was mad,  all four of us  crammed in the back of the car, he drove very fast. We were silent, too, the air electric with fear and uncertainty.

I feel that fear echo as he looks hard at me.

The next day, Dad comes over with a check. I look at it. “Dad,” I say. “You’re paying me about $1 an hour.”

“I don’t know what to pay you,” he says. He seems to have lost the invoice I gave him. He writes another check increasing the amount to $2/hour.

I print out my hours, without the fee, as well as the hours and fee for our friend who is working 5 hours/week. “Pay me what you are comfortable with, ” I say, “what you feel my work is worth.” But I think he already did.





Mom’s Dresses

img_2916“I thought you might want this photo,” Dad says, bringing me a tiny black-and-white photo on glossy paper. It is my mother, one of my sisters, my brother and me. We are all sitting on a picnic blanket in a wooded area in Wyoming. My sister and brother, age 8 and 5,  look like they are about ready to jump up and run off. My mother is sitting in profile, neat in a wooly sweater and hairband. I am grubby in boy’s baggy jeans and a white hooded sweatshirt with the hood over my head so that only my little face sticks out. I am probably 3 years old. I am leaning against her back, my arms around her neck, draped over her shoulder as if my body is melting into hers. She is mine. And I am hers.

The most amazing thing about the photo is that even at this moment, I can feel what it feels like to lean into her like that. That beautiful, warm intimacy of her solid back pushing back at me as I lean on her. That she was there, solid and supportive, warm and loving. And suddenly, for the first time in a long time, I really miss her. I ache for her. My chest aches. I go for a long walk, carrying the ache in my chest.

Even as an adult, until she died when I was in my late 20s, I lived near my mom. I didn’t see her often — once a week, perhaps. But I would stop by the house and sit at the table next to her, and hold her hand. She had very soft, knobby, useful hands. I loved holding her hand.

Perhaps this is why it is so hard to give up some of her things — things I do not need and have very little room for in my house. Costume jewelry. Her button box. Slender gloves. A pill box hat. And her dresses. Dozens of dresses I could never possibly fit into.

I can almost feel the crinkle and rustle of a netting petticoat under the broad 1950s skirts as  I hugged her around the waist. I can almost smell her perfume lingering in the dresses she wore when I was a teen as she got ready to go out with my father, sitting at the dressing table to braid her long hair and fold it up into a barrette.

My mother was a small woman. Even when I was in high school, I was taller by at least three inches, and broader than she was. I think my father must have been proud of her impossibly tiny waist when they married — 22 inches at 22 years old! — because he spoke of it and we all knew he had been able to put his hands around her waist. Is that true? Or just a story?  Her beauty was legendary in our family. Her elegance and grace. Her “niceness.”  Next to my mother, I felt like a giant, rough and tumble. Boyish. At 14, I was two or three inches taller than she was,  with the broad shoulders and back of a swimmer and the legs of a runner. Weight training made me strong, but I was not delicate like my mother. Even then, I could not fit in the beautiful clothes she had saved from her own youth. I was sturdy and robust, strong and healthy. But I was not delicate.

I try on a dress she wore when she was about my current age — a day dress she got at a rummage sale. It is a plain gingham dress and it looked nice and friendly on her. I remember her wearing it when she volunteered at the election polls, getting groceries, working at a real estate office. I slip it over my head. While I can zip it up, it is tight — in the shoulders, across the chest and belly. I look like a gingham sausage. I’m not sure what I expected. I haven’t been her size since I was about 10 years old.  But I feel disappointed. I wanted it to fit.img_3891

I take the dress off and hang it back up. And suddenly,  when I look at the dress on the hanger, I realize I didn’t want to wear the dress. I wanted to be my mom. I wanted to look in the mirror and see her again. I want to lean on her back and feel her warmth and smell her perfume.   It is mom I am looking for, not a dress to wear. I want my mom. 24 years after she died, I want my mom.


“I Called It!” and “Can I have that when you die?”

“I called it!”

That’s what we would say as children when everyone wanted the same thing: the last piece of cake. One squirt gun. The last E ticket at Disneyland. All hands would fly forward — slap! Stake your claim!  The person whose hand arrived first would screech, “I called it.” And it would be theirs. My mother would let us work it out.

In my imperfect memory, as the youngest, I can feel the disappointment in my chest of never being able to call fast enough, slap my hand at the lightening speed of my big sisters. Six years younger than my twin sisters, and three younger than my brother (ok — 2 years and 10 months), I remember that what I was given was often the result of my sister Julie’s intercession: “That’s not fair. Give it to her.” Charity. If I got what I wanted, it was through charity. I’m sure my siblings remember it differently. I was the youngest. I got whatever I wanted. “How come you got to have braces?” my sister once asked. “How come you got to go to a dermatologist for your acne?” So much hurt, just below the surface. The problems of the privileged.

Sometimes Julie would intercede for my brother with a social-order logic. “He’s the only boy.  He should have it,” for items that seemed boy-oriented to our 1960s sensibilities. It wasn’t something you fought. It was just a logic you accepted with a  small sinking of the heart, powerless to change the social order.  I had not been born a boy. Boys were special, exceptional, followed in the family footsteps, owned the family name. Our claim even on the name was temporary.

“Can I have that when you die?”

I imagine the first time one of us said this was when my sisters were in elementary school, after my grandmother Bounce died and her belongings were divided up between my mother and her two sisters. We were aware that something has to happen to your stuff after you die. That someone gets it.

I remember Julie saying it most often to my mother — never to Dad. “Can I have that when you die?” She was the one most interested in death. “What music do you want to have played at your funeral?” she would ask. “What kind of service would you like?” Never mind that Julie  was only ten years old, or that my mother was in her 40s. Julie was curious and intense. She needed to know. My mother took it all in stride. “Put your name on the bottom,” my mom would reply to inquiries about items. She picked out music and liturgy, ready for the big day decades before it arrived.

We had all been told the story of one of my grandparent’s family split — either Grandmother Bounce’s parents or Grandfather Joe’s parents.  When they passed away, the children, who had been born in two sets — four  older children, then a split of nearly 8 years, and four more younger children — fought bitterly over the material legacy of the family. It wasn’t an argument over big items — land or property. It was the small items that tore them apart: china and furniture. My mother didn’t want that to happen to us.

So now, as we talk about who gets what, these issues come up again:

Someone put their name on the bottom of an item in 1978. SLAP! “I called it!”

Someone else remembers mom’s words — “Mom wanted us to go in order, oldest to youngest, to choose items.”

Certain items should go to my brother, who, like my father, became a doctor. “Jim should have that. He’s the only boy.”

Certain items should go to my daughter, the only girl cousin, who, like my mother, loves to sew.

“We should have that since we have boys. Pink won’t work for us.”

“We’ve already picked out a spot for that.”

“We only want a few select items.”

“Those come as a set. They shouldn’t be divided.”

“These are my choices, in this order.”

“I don’t want anything.”

“I can’t take anything.”

“Someone needs to take that. It means a lot to Dad.”

“We can’t store it. We have no room for it.”

So much emotion stored in every item. So much emotion, stored  in every word.

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Grandmother Bounce, my mother’s mother, was said to have a buoyant personality. According to my mom, Bounce would finish her house chores by noon so that she could spend the rest of the day visiting. While she died when I was in preschool, my impression is that she was chatty and social, friendly and warm. My father remembers that she welcomed him like a son, but was protective of my mother. She didn’t want them to get married right away after my mother graduated from college because she didn’t want people in town to gossip and say that Norma, who, I believe, was the first in her family to go to college, had just gone to get her “M.R.S.” degree.

After the trials of being a farm wife during the Dust Bowl drought years in Kansas, and simultaneously living through the economic hardships of the Great Depression, Florence “Bounce” Bartlett Lutz was ready for some elegance! I imagine Grandfather Joe Lutz, a farmer and John Deere salesman,  got this mink stole for her sometime in the 1950s. Inside the coat was this wonderful embroidered tag.

What do you do with a fur coat? I don’t remember my mother ever wearing it. Who could use this coat joyfully?

When I saw the vintage-style pinup photos posted by a mother at my children’s school, Atalanta Jackson — aka Coco De Soto — I knew she was just the person to really enjoy this coat. Atalanta is a wedding floral designer, small business owner, vintage car aficionado and creative soul. A perfect match for Grandmother Bounce’s coat! The very embodiment of elegance, surrounded by her flowers!

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