This vintage postcard is a great help in visualizing the topography and geography of the San Francisco Bay Area. At center left is the city of San Francisco (aka "The City" to locals). Look south from San Francisco and you can see San Mateo, Belmont, Palo Alto and Mountain View. My hometown of Los Altos lies between Palo Alto, home of Stanford University, and Mountain View, home of Google. Between the Pacific and the Bay you can see the mountains of the Coast Range, sheltering the Santa Clara Valley from the wind and cool of the Pacific Ocean. San Francisco, near the mouth of the Bay, can be very cold in the summer, but down the sunny peninsula where I grew up and to which I return, it is always mild and pleasant. Well, nearly always.
Los Altos, California The fog and clouds rolled back out into the Pacific, leaving my hometown in California’s Santa Clara Valley, at the edge of San Francisco Bay, sunny, clear and cold. The thermometer didn’t rise above 48 degrees (F) yesterday and the low last night was 27 degrees. That's a might nippy for someone who has spent the last twenty years in Florida.
But I keep looking up Echo Drive—my hometown street—at the foothills of the Coast Range. These are the hills between the San Francisco peninsula and the Pacific Ocean. Nothing unusual about them, except that they look so beautiful to me after the flat, sandy topography of Florida.
My father has been mostly fun to be with on this visit, though he is often very confused. I think any break in the routine of a dementia patient is cause for confusion. When my sister is here and I am not, my father can’t figure out why we are not here together and forgets my name. When I’m here and my sister is not, the same thing happens. He has asked me my sister’s name several times this week, her age, where she lives, what she looks like, what she is doing with herself, and most surprisingly, who her mother is!
I know he knows these things, but I patiently answer each time. I show him pictures of her and of the two of them together just a few weeks ago, and he is temporarily satisfied. Until he starts asking me again a few hours later. In between, I take him for ice cream and for pancakes, his two favorite things to eat in the world, and that makes him happy. It is always rewarding to be with him, except when he is agitated, and that hasn’t happened so far on this visit. When he woke up this morning and saw me walking into breakfast he said, “Oh Robin, I’m so happy to see you. Please don’t ever leave me.” Do you wonder I decided to move back here—in spite of everything?
I’ve been working hard at avoiding conflict with my mother. Everyone in our family has done that all of our lives, so it isn’t a new task. I realized it so clearly one day when I was reading playwright Moss Hart’s wonderful autobiography, Act One. In it he wrote about his own mother and said he believed each family tends to revolve around its most dysfunctional member. I hadn’t thought about it before, but it is one of those statements that is so true, it seems to open up the heavens for a moment and gives you what I believe is known as an epiphany. Voila, as the French say. Eureka—as we say in California (it’s the California state motto).
In order to help me, I’ve been reading Christine Ann Lawson’s book, Understanding the Borderline Mother and it has been especially helpful. I’ve been trying to follow her advice: a) don’t enable her but don’t try to control her—let your mother control herself and you control yourself; b) avoid getting drawn into discussions of controversial subjects, since these discussions will go nowhere that is positive; c) do no harm; d) disengage and leave the scene when you see the onset of troubling or abusive behavior.
This is all very good advice. The difficulty comes when someone as close to you as your mother presses old and wounded buttons: bad habits click in. I am not worthy, you say to yourself, and you are a child again. As Lawson puts it: “Degradation by someone who claims to love you is qualitatively different than degradation by a stranger.” Keep a safe emotional and physical distance from a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, she tells her readers. Hard to do for a houseguest, but I’m hoping it won’t be quite so hard when I am living a bike ride away.
And I’ve found a lovely place to live (with a fireplace that I could make good use of at this very moment) in a neighborhood less than a mile from my parents’ house. I’ve always liked this neighborhood: it is one of the older parts of town and is filled with small, sunny, adobe cottages and now, some duplexes and condominiums. On warm summer days when I was a child, I used to cut through this neighborhood on my way to the library, walking streets named Gabilan and Tyndall and Lassen, imagining myself living in a little bungalow there. Odd, isn’t it, how the circle goes ‘round?
Perhaps the mountains of the Coast Range, visible out my window today, are a symbol of the mountains I have to climb as I face this challenging time in my own and my parents’ lives. Children helping parents who don’t want to need you. Families are challenging enough and mine seems more challenging than most. Then, uprooting and moving across America: no easy task. But perhaps the mountains that so intrigue me now are also a symbol of the opportunities ahead—opportunities to reach the places I used to dream about so long ago in childhood on those warm summer days.