Coming in the Back Door

(October, 2014) The metaphor of doors that open and close, leading to new opportunities in both wanted and unwanted directions hit home for my mother as she approached her ninety sixth birthday. How to negotiate those doors was a challenge she faced in her own way and in her own time. And we, her children, had to go along for the ride.

When thinking about the five different homes of my childhood, I realize the only people who used the front door were company, the postman, hopelessly lost strangers and possibly Jehovah’s Witnesses. Was coming in the back door a working class habit? Or, maybe for us kids, it was just the quickest way to the kitchen. It was also the safest route for my sister, known for sneaking in past curfew. For whatever reason, coming in the back door, depositing boots, hanging up coats just felt right.

When my parents bought their last house in Madison in the late 1960’s, it had an addition at the back, shaped like a rectangle, about four by eight feet. Like a mudroom or shed. Coming in the back door is complicated since there are actually three doors. The challenge begins with an outside door that doesn’t have a door knob or jamb but a latch that’s pulled up. Then there’s the rickety screen door with faded paint and plastic stapled to each partition. Finally there’s the third door, a nicely carved wooden one with an ornate door knob.

Negotiating the varied openings swinging each and every way, it’s a house of cards or an intricate, stretching yoga maneuver to hold each door at just the right angle or they’ll bang against each other and the whole thing falls apart. First timers are perplexed or mesmerized by the Houdini-like balancing act necessary. And I‘d love to have a nickel for each swear word coming from hapless visitors trying to negotiate something as simple as coming in the back door.

After many years of frustration, I now know to put down any bags I’m carrying. This allows me to concentrate fully on the various swinging orifices dangling before me. Add to that the annoying bell that Dad, long ago, attached to the actual door. It tinkles just to let anyone within earshot know that someone is making a fool of themselves trying to come in the back door.

Each time I visit, negotiating the doors is the easy part. It’s what’s waiting inside that creates the real concern. Mom has three walkers strategically placed throughout the house. One on the front porch. Another in the living room. She also stores a walker in the far end of the shed so she can take it out for her walk. She brags about being able to walk the entire block and I’m quite proud of her myself.

She prizes her independence and is hanging on for dear life, I know. But with the exception of the snowiest winter time, my ninety five year old, frail mother is going in and out of the back door, trying to manage her walker and I hope, not being bopped on the head by a swinging door. And that’s’ just one item on our list of concerns. Medication taken regularly and correctly. Proper diet to maintain healthy weight. Ovens left on. You name it.

With Mom, it’s imperative to pick your battles. Safety and frugality seem to be intertwined. She characteristically defends her depression era beliefs. That’s why the living room reading lamp is mysteriously turned off each time I return from a ten minute trip to the bathroom. Same with a five minute trip for a cup of tea. It also explains the cracked dishes and worn utensils throughout her kitchen. Then there’s the worn furniture, the faded rugs and the walls that need painting. Buy something new? Never! Waste not, want not. That’s her motto!

My mother has means, due to my parent’s lifelong frugality. The mortgage was paid off decades ago and she has no debt. When she says she’s lonely, we talk about her options. I ask how about enjoying life to the fullest; or remind her how lucky she is to have the resources to make such choices. She enjoys people and would no doubt thrive in assisted living. But she pushes aside these suggestions like the slamming of a door.

This seems the most classic example of reluctance in the elderly to give up control. We’ve all been there or are on our way there so we understand. I enlist all the metaphors that exist about doors opening and closing, presenting new opportunities and exciting adventures. But, I make no headway. As I leave to return home from my visit, Mom waves good bye and then wheels into the kitchen to whip up a batch of cookies. And I head home feeling much as I do when trying to come in the back door.

Six weeks before her ninety-sixth birthday, with winter coming on, Mom made the decision to go to assisted living. Maybe it was the fact that she’d gone to the facility for a seven day “visit” to see if it was what she wanted. Maybe it was that when she returned from seven days of prepared meals, cordial company and a choice of activities she realized how lonely it was to live alone. Maybe it was the pro and con list my brother and sister spent immeasurable time going over with her. Or, maybe it was just time.

Once the actual decision was made, she seemed calm. There still are occasional tears and times of sadness but anyone would feel that way as they face changes and losses this big. We all know that as life goes along, the number and variety of doors to navigate become fewer. Perhaps going through this door has left her with only one final door remaining and maybe facing that is the hardest part.



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Diana Schramer
    Feb 21, 2015 @ 10:06:13

    What a great post, Karin. You’ve captured the poignancy of your mother’s situation with compassion, insight, and humor, as well as her fighting spirit (which, I must say, I see shades of in you). And I love the “door” metaphor. Perfect!



  2. Judy Douglas
    Feb 26, 2015 @ 12:04:39

    Karin How nice that you simply told the truth lovingly and with humor. Your mother seems to be a very strong, practical person who, having experienced the “letting go” of children as they became adults, of loved ones through death and of life styles through aging has now made the decision to let go of things she felt duty bound to maintain. What a lovely, practical woman she must be. The next door will not be a hindrance to a person with such grace.



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