by Beth Burrell
I listened to my mother’s message twice that morning, first on my cell and then on my home phone. I quickly realized nothing was seriously wrong though something was missing: my parents’ instruction manual for their old George Foreman Grill.
Had I moved it during my recent visit, she wondered? And what about their blender instructions? I had no idea but knew I easily could have tossed both. My dad turned 84 during my visit, my mom will soon. When I visit, I try to help clear things out to make their lives easier or so I tell myself. But I’m compulsive. I know it. Why not throw away now instead of leaving like so much else, to sort through after they are gone?
I was shocked to hear they actually still use the grill and without the manual, wound up ruining their dinner the previous weekend. I thought back to my visit with them: in my mind’s eye, I am rummaging in their kitchen, finding what I see as the manual to a grill they no longer use, maybe don’t even have. I don’t think twice.
I toss it.
I’ve had a little of my own experience with losing things over the past year by way of my son, who moved home for a bit. It’s tricky sharing space with a young adult still finding his footing, calling our home his and assuming equal voting rights. What’s more, he and I are both pretty obsessive about our surroundings, wanting things our way, or no way. He tossed out and moved things around in my kitchen, occasionally rearranged pieces of furniture, and offered ways our house would look and work better, which started to feel like a smokescreen for making us better. Or more specifically, me better.
I remembered myself at 20-something, suggesting to my parents they do things differently. While visiting one time, I reprimanded my dad for not stepping up and helping my mom more in the kitchen. Why did he get off so easy? Bristling, my dad said he and my mom had a good thing going and were managing just fine, thanks (and didn’t I have somewhere to go?).
As time evolved with my son, I realized my ruffled feathers had less to do with his annoying me and more to do with realizing how alike we were. Nothing profound here but startling just the same.
When I called my mother back about the missing grill manual, I kind-of confessed: I might be responsible, but I didn’t really remember. It was true. In my compulsive frenzies I lose track. “There are so many people in that kitchen now, there’s no way of knowing,” she said. “We just wondered where on earth those things went when they’ve been in that same cabinet forever.”
With the help of the model number from my dad, I found the manual online. I emailed it to him and prayed he could print it out. He did, and on a later visit I spied the new manual back in its old place.
My parents continue living in their house of 36 years. It’s been a turbulent year trying to round up help for them – help they’ve sometimes desperately needed and just as desperately resisted. At their worst moments, I forget how they were before they were old. It’s as if all they ever were is old. I forget the people they still are, with their own ideas and longings. How could I blame them for wanting their lives and home to stay familiar, their belongings unmoved?
Is that what had rattled me so while my son lived with us? I envisioned my own declining time ahead – my children throwing away my life, erasing me from the room. Would they count me out before I was ready to go?
It finally dawned on me: if I see my parents as nothing but old and ailing, I’m always a step ahead, younger, knowing better what to do – much as I’d felt from my son. And that’s the thing. I am older. I surely need more help remembering things, keeping up with plans, and god knows, technology. And while I also want the freedom to do things my own stubborn, even slower way in my own house, must I remain stubborn just for the sake of it?
For my parents, it wasn’t so much the George Foreman Grill manual, it was the losing track of things, the memory of what was: If I don’t know my own home and what’s here, who am I?
My parents and I may be at different stages but strangely over the last year, we were in the same place – learning from our children how to press ahead, updating our instruction manuals as we go.