Most families have some set of stories they tell each other over and over again. Generally people think they are just getting together and sharing a good laugh over a funny story, or a hardship turned into laughter with the passage of time. But repeating these stock fables is a way of telling the story of the family itself, and of binding family members together in shared reminiscences that may also encode a set of shared values.
Sometimes the moralistic family story telling can be limiting and constricting, as when one comes home from the fancy new life with wider horizons carefully built up over a period of years, only to find no! That family story telling puts you right back in your place as “the littlest” who was never listened to, or the one who screwed up all the chances that were offered (never mind whatever success was achieved since those teenage years), or the awkward goofball, even though you are now a CEO of a fortune 500 company.
But sometimes you want to listen a little more carefully. For one, you can learn things about your family from those dusty, creaky old stories. For another, some of those fabulistic morals and values might just be worth hanging onto. Here’s one from my Aunt Betty.
Aunt Betty married outside our Slovak ethnic group. She married an Italian man! (And thus was my diet growing up made all the richer, thanks to the recipes that flowed from Aunt Betty’s kitchen to my mother’s.) Aunt Betty’s husband came along with his mother, who lived basically next door to the young couple. I know that Aunt Betty learned a great deal about cooking from her mother-in-law, who was born in Italy. But she also had to bear a great deal of…shall we say, oversight…in the daily workings of her marriage because of living so close by.
I am not clear on the exact details of how this all came to pass, but at some point, the mother-in-law moved. Whether she moved from her house to the smaller apartment above the store my Aunt Betty ran (and still has open), or whether she was moving out to Ohio to be near her other sons, I am not sure. In any case, a move was taking place. Most things were cleared out of the house. Aunt Betty went through the house and found a tiny little dish, a small bowl, that had been left behind. It was a small thing of little importance, yet still pretty. So she took it with her back to her house, and put it on a windowsill.
The next time the mother-in-law was in Aunt Betty’s house, she spotted the small, tiny dish on the windowsill. The dish she had left behind in her own house, in doing her own packing and moving out. Something that was not really necessary or important for her. Yet, it was hers. She snatched it up and clasped it to her bosom and proclaimed, “That’s a-mine!” Shaking her finger at Aunt Betty, she angrily said, “You no pluck-a da chicken before it’s-a dead!” A bewildered and distraught Aunt Betty tried to explain that she had not meant to steal the dish – she thought it had been left behind – all to no avail.
Aunt Betty has told us all this story maybe a half dozen times. We have all laughed – we knew her mother-in-law, and could imagine this scene. Every time I heard the story, my sympathies were with Aunt Betty. What had she done wrong, to deserve such wrath brought down upon her head? And yet now, it seems to me, in remembering the telling, that Aunt Betty felt she should have taken the dish to her mother-in-law and asked her if she wanted it.
I don’t know what the circumstances of the move were. I don’t know how the mother-in-law felt about it, whether she was happy to move or not. But I have helped my mother relocate from the home she lived in, literally, all her life, to a room in an assisted living facility. She still owns the house, and we take her back to it to spend time there when we are able. I cannot imagine disposing of anything in the house without asking her permission. I grew up in that house, and I have a key to it now, and I even have power of attorney for my mother, so I’d have legal right to dispose of her property. But I just could not do it without her agreeing to it.
It is not my house. It is her house, still. Just because she lives in assisted living and is physically weak, does not mean she should not have any say over her own property.
Quite often, this is an inconvenient fact to keep in mind for family members charged with elder care. It takes so much longer, is so much more difficult and heart-wrenching to involve the elderly person in decisions about how to dispose of certain things, how to clean out or redecorate a room. But if the elder person is not senile, they have the right to make decisions about their own property. Merely having moved to an assisted living facility does not constitute resignation of all rights over one’s own property.
This is true for even the smallest things – bits and pieces of memorabilia. You may be bothered by these bits and pieces of memorabilia, but they are not yours to dispose of – not yet, not till the elderly person is gone. For example, my mother keeps a box that is full of what we call “death cards”. They are the small cards handed out at funeral homes, usually showing a saint or the Blessed Virgin or Joseph or Jesus on one side, and on the other, the name and dates of birth and death of the deceased, along with a short prayer. She has death cards going back to the mid-twentieth century. Some might think this an interesting historical document; some might think it morbid. But no matter what you think, you don’t have the right to take it away or throw it out – because it belongs to Mom, and she wants it there in her house. If you think it’s morbid, and it bothers you, either don’t look at them, or find someone to talk to about why it bothers you so.
If you really, really think some piece of something needs to go, then you need to talk to the elderly person about it and ask them if it is okay to dispose of it. If you cannot bring yourself to do that – and even if you can – you need to ask yourself if that item really does need to go. Or are you just wanting to pluck the chicken before it’s dead, because that’s what works better for you.