Monday, June 14, 2010

They Used to Call it a Hi-Fi (4.22.10)

"So, we're preparing the house for when Phil comes home from Manor Care." My aunt's voice, reedy and faint, nearly drowns under the phone's static.

"Tell me what you're doing with the house," I reply, one hand holding the phone against my ear and because sometimes I am a terrible niece who merely plays at being a dutiful daughter, the other hand clicking my computer mouse. To save Ruth's feelings, I turn the monitor volume down so she can't hear its bright "You've got mail!" With her fading hearing, she probably wouldn't catch the robotic chirp in the background, but if she did, I know with certainty she would not remark on it. She already feels she is an imposition in my 600-mile distant life, enough so to be willing to share my complete attention. She is not an imposition. But I do need a slight fissure in the fortitude required to phone what used to be my home. And some of the sites I click are ones offering advice to primary caregivers.

Ruth answers my question. "Well, we're moving my bureau out of our bedroom so there is more room around the bed. And I'm taking the low chest out of the front hall, in case we need to move his wheelchair or his walker through there."

"Where is the furniture going?" I ask. I grew up in that house so I can picture each piece as she mentions it. The high-backed bureau with the distressed white paint, the chest under which we leave our shoes when I visit with my girls. Ruth's own daughters, Jeanne and Jan, will help Ruth move the heavy pieces.

"Well, the bureau is going downstairs. And Becky said she would take the stereo from the living room, so we could move the low chest into its place."

My finger stops mid-click.

"Do you remember that big stereo from the living room?" Ruth asks.

"Yes, of course! I love that stereo!"

"Becky said she has lots of happy memories listening to Care Bear records at Grandma's house. And now she wants her kids to be able to play records too."

I have little time to register the strange fact that Becky, one of my cousin Jan's daughters, whom I picked up when she was an infant, whom I babysat, now has four children of her own and recalls the stereo from an ancient part of herself.

Fashioned of shiny dark wood with Danishly simple curved legs, the casket-sized stereo could play vinyl records or eight track tapes. The lid lifted to reveal a turntable and a horizontal radio dial, lit with a blue glow and smelling of dusty warmth.

As a child I often sat on the floor next to the stereo listening to an after-school children's show on Ruth's perpetually playing public radio station. My stomach aches now to recall the eerie theme song: "There's a web like a spider's web/Made of silk and light and shadow/Spun by the moon in my room last night/It's a web made to catch a dream/Hold it tight 'til I awaken/As if to tell me that dreaming's alright."

The cabinet has louvered vertical panels in front of the speakers that I loved to slide open and shut to dim the music. When Ruth assigned me the chore of cleaning the front room, I would push the dust cloth into each slot of the wooden panels.

A deep compartment under the lid held cardboard albums sleeves, full of obscure records. I lowered the needle on a few, but only the Peer Gynt Suite by Greig satisfied my child tastes. I could picture the dew during "Morning Mood" and the malevolent gnomes of "Hall of the Mountain King." I sat on the creamy rug traced with vacuum cleaner lines and listened.

The stereo sits in a corner next to the big picture window where Ruth placed the Christmas tree every year. We have years' worth of pictures, both posed and spontaneous, with the tree and the stereo in the background. Pictures with lots of children. Children dressed up for holidays. One photo shows me the morning I left for ten days at Girl Scout camp, my first time so long away from home. The sun hadn't come up yet, but I remember I was so excited I didn't feel tired. Later there would be pictures with lots of grandchildren, a corner of the stereo still visible behind them.

I will remember all of these things later. With Ruth on the phone, there is not time to ruminate on a piece of furniture. Lots of changes are happening. Phil is coming home after hip surgery, not because he is well enough, but because his insurance coverage for rehabilitative therapy ran out. Sentimentality and nostalgia are expensive luxuries now. I'm not sad the stereo will be gone when we return to visit. It's a piece of furniture.

Here are some other things I know with certainty: When we say goodbye, Ruth's tone will be hurried to release me and apologetic for taking my time; she will refuse most of my offers to help; ("There isn't much you can do,") and will rush to assure me that any time we can visit will be just fine.

But now, before we say our goodbyes and "Love you," Ruth and I continue to discuss the house, the changes, Phil's needs. I share some of the pointers from the caregiver website. Let your loved one finish what he needs to do; don't rush him. Walk next to your loved one, with an arm over his shoulder rather than pulling him from the front or pushing him from the back. "Oh, yes," says Ruth, patient with me, letting me finish, allowing me to contribute in a way I think I can.

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