Another family vacation is coming up, which for me means thinking once more about the pre-nostalgia of family photos. While blog posts are ostensibly for visitors, the audience I care more about is actually future me.
Every successive family trip creates a magnitude more data than the one preceding it. I have exactly 10 photos from the first time I visited Walt Disney World, with my then-fiancée in 2001. I have only fuzzy memories of the trip. A year or so later I returned back to Florida (Key West this time) for a honeymoon with her, a trip that has zero photos. I remember maybe a half dozen things we did but few locales visited.
Contrast this with a 2013 Disney World trip, for which we made a whole blog, A Special WDW Family. The focus was traveling Disney with autistic kids. There’s a lot of information in there. We wrote about meals and rides, small victories, and child meltdowns. The bandwidth of memories isn’t just in the number of jpeg files but in the distinct memories I have of the events of that week-plus.
We took many hundreds of photos over our most recent family vacation in December 2015, only a small fraction of which went online. In addition, I have Google Location data for the trip and Foursquare checkins logged in Evernote. I know how many steps I took each day. I know whether I had a good sleep. We didn’t make a public blog but we have a long annotate log of each restaurant and stop, with annotation tips to remind our future selves about how we could do things better in the future. The metadata is in itself not so important, but it’s useful to be able to drop into a day and remember what we did and see the smiles (and tiredness) on faces each day.
We’ve gotten into the habit of visiting Howell’s Living History Farm up in Mercer County, N.J., a few times a year as part of homeschooler group trips. In the past, we’ve cut ice, tapped trees for maple syrup, and seen the sheep shearing and carding. Today we saw the various stages of wheat – from planting, to harvesting, threshing, winnowing, grinding, and baking. I love that there’s such a wide vocabulary of specific language for all this – words I barely know outside of biblical parables (“Oh wheat from chaff!”) and that there’s great vintage machinery (Howell’s operations are set around the turn of the twentieth century).
Grinding the wheat
I just love the lettering on the bottom of the grinder
Gregory on the crank
A horse- or steam-powered thresher had great lettering
Another piece of equipment had a great font.
Detail of the grinder
Stove in the kitchen
In the kitchen we made bread
Fields around the farm.
Wheat. This is a special kind of spiked wheat that discourages deer.
Horses coming back from the freshly plowed field.
Yesterday the family traveled north of Trenton to a living history farm to learn about maple sugaring.The kids collected buckets of sap, practiced drilling a tap, watched the boiling off process in a “sugar shack,” cut firewood, and then — yes! — ate some pancakes with farm-made maple syrup.
My mother died a few days ago. While I’m overwhelmed with the messages of prayers and condolences, at least at some level it feels like cheating to accept them too fully. This isn’t a new condition. This is just the final moment of a slow-motion death.
A little over five years ago my mother was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It was quite brave of her to get the testing done when she did. This had always been her most-feared scenario for aging. Growing up, we had befriended an active elderly neighbor who had gently died in her sleep after a minor slip on some ice. My mom thought that was the best exit ever. She swore Mrs. Goldsmith had come to her in a dream the next night to congratulate herself, saying “See, I told you I was lucky!” For years afterwards, my mother convinced herself that she would go in a similarly elegant way.
My mom, Liz, must have sensed that Alzheimer’s was a possibility when she scheduled that doctor’s visit. The news didn’t come as much of a surprise to us family. I had been joking for years that my mom seemed to have only twenty stories that she kept on rotation. After she read a study that crossword puzzles keep your brain sharp as we age, she became an obsessive crossword puzzler; when the Sudoku craze hit, she was right on top of it. She had bravely bought her first house in her late 60s. How proud she was. At the time she let us all know, repeatedly, that she would be leaving it “in a box.” Caulking trim, replacing windows, and troubleshooting a mud room leak that defied a dozen contractors became her occupation, along with volunteering and watching grandkids. But by 2010, she must have known she wasn’t going to have Mrs. Goldsmith’s luck. It was time to adjust.
When she called to tell me the diagnosis, she couldn’t even use the A-word. She told me her “brain was dying” and that the doctor was putting her on Aricept. A quick Google search confirmed this was an Alzheimer’s drug and a call with the doctor later that afternoon helped map out the road ahead.
Alzheimer’s is a slow-motion death. She’s been disappearing from us for a long while. Regular outings became less frequent till we couldn’t even take her out to a nearby restaurant for her birthday. As words disappeared and speech began faltering, I’d show her recent kid photos on my phone and tell stories to fill the emptying space. Eventually she stopped showing interest even in this. On my last regular visit with her, I brought the kids and we had lots of fun taking pictures. Mom kept pointing out at the phone’s display as if it were a mirror. But conversation was too disjointed and after a few minutes, my kids started wandering in ever widening circles looking for interesting buttons and alarms to touch and pull and I had to round them up to leave.
In the past few weeks her forgetfulness has extended to eating and swallowing. Intervention would only buy a little more time until she forgot how to breathe. Alzheimer’s is a one way trip.
On my last few visits she was mostly sleeping. She’s was calm, preternaturally calm. Lying on her back, pale and peaceful, she looked as if she might already be a body resting in a casket. Only the slight rise of sheets as she breathed gave away the news that she was still with us, if barely. I felt awkward just sitting there. Some people are good in these kinds of situations, but I self-consciously struggle. With little chance of interaction, I struck on the idea of reading from a favorite book of poems that she had read to me on countless nights as a child. “Up into the cherry tree, who should climb but little me?” I don’t know if she heard me or pictured the cherry tree in her haze, but it was a way for us to be together.
The slow-motion nature of Alzheimer’s means she slept a lot until she didn’t. For reasons that go deep into biography, she was a wonderfully friendly person who didn’t have a lot of close friends anymore. It seems peculiar that one can walk upon the earth for so many decades and only have a dozen or so people notice your departure. But then maybe that’s the norm for those who live deep into their eighties. Most of us will leave life with the same kind of quiet ripples with which we entered.
A two-night scouts camping trip with two of my kids to the county facilities at Camp Acagisca nears Mays Landing turned into a one night with one kid affair (my 11yo got way too mouthy when it came time to decide who was going to share a tent with dad and went home immediately; the 9yo ended up in a meltdown mid morning on the second day.)
Camp at dusk
A visitor stops hopping for a moment
Francis stays up to read Curious George stories by flashlight
Cooking eggs in a ziploc bag
The group starts off on a hike down to Great Egg Harbor River
Cool growth on downed trees
A broken down out building from when this was a Girl Scouts camp. thr 2012 Mays Landing derecho came right through here and closed the camp for a long while.
I photographed this mostly to have the emergency number handy if needed.
I played hooky yesterday to join a family field trip to the Atlantic City Aquarium along with a group of homeschool families. Horseshoe crabs, jellyfish, sting rays and.… rocks in the water. All lots of fun. Pictures up on Flickr.