Sometimes, what seems like exile to a desert island can actually be a ticket home. My friend Sylvia’s 82-year-old mother Mabel fought as hard as she could to stay in her suburban house. When poor health finally forced her to leave, she found a new life opening up where she least expected it.
Mabel loved that three bedroom colonial with the red trim, in a middle-class development on a hill south of San Francisco. She had lived there for 45 years, raised two children, cared for her husband there until his death. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
The trouble was that Mabel’s world was folding in, until her house became her universe. Mabel had been a community college instructor before retirement. She had met regularly with students and other faculty on campus, but now she rarely saw anyone. She had kept up with research in education, her field of expertise, but in the last two years had stopped reading anything technical or difficult. She had had to stop driving because of vision problems, and in the suburbs, a senior who can’t drive might as well be in jail. Either way, you’re not going anywhere.
Sylvia would visit Mabel once a week and didn’t like what she saw. “Month by month, it seems like Mom is eating less,” she told me. “The place is more of a wreck. I’m afraid she is becoming confused. I ask her about moving, but she just says, ‘I like it here.’”
Sylvia was 50 years old at the time, living in a cabin near the ocean, which would have been completely inaccessible for Mabel. That was just as well for Sylvia, because she and her Mom didn’t get along. Mabel disapproved of Sylvia’s Bohemian lifestyle, her big earrings and loose-fitting clothes, while Sylvia found her mother opinionated and domineering. “She always thinks she know what I should do,” Sylvia complained. “She never listens to what I think.”
Sometimes I would come with Sylvia, because I seemed to defuse the tension between her and her mother. I would tell Mabel some jokes and ask her advice on whatever I was writing at the time.
Mabel admitted that the idea of moving terrified her. “”I don’t know anybody any more,” she told me. “I don’t want to have to meet all these new people and get used to a new place and new food. And I don’t want to lose my memories,” she said, looking at the pictures of her husband, children, parents and grandparents in their brass frames, distributed on every wall.