Artistry of the Wind

Artistry of the Wind

Today’s autumn wind blew in gusts,1024px-Maple_leaf_on_a_fence
lifting piles of golden leaves,
depositing them in patterns
along the thirty-foot chain link fence,
now a painted canvas,
leaves lodged between wire frames–
gold leaf filigree.

This art won’t last,
its beauty ephemeral like all things beautiful.
Tomorrow it will be just a fence,
visual art gone,
the memory enough.

by Barbara Flass

Photo by Siddharth Mallya (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
(, via Wikimedia Commons

The Gift of Motherhood

On this Mother’s Day I feel especially grateful for my family. My mother is still alive at age 92. Both of my daughters are now mothers themselves, and when they ask me what I want for Mother’s Day, I can’t think of anything I don’t already have. They have given me the best gift of all, my three granddaughters.

Looking back over the years, I know I had many failures as a mother. But I loved my daughters from the first moments I held them, and my love for them has just grown stronger over the years. I don’t know how they learned to be such incredible mothers themselves, but I am not giving myself any credit for preparing them for motherhood. They have trusted their instincts over and over, and those instincts have yet to fail them.

My youngest daughter was the first to have children. My granddaughters are now ages five and nine, and they are wonderful girls. My daughter is a stay-at-home mom who volunteers at numerous school activities, has offered her children opportunities to play sports, take dance, gymnastics, and swimming lessons, and learn to play an instrument. She has protected them, taught them, played with them, and kept them healthy. She cooks nutritious, organic meals, limits snacks and television time, encourages reading and activity, and loves them with all her heart. It hasn’t been easy. Her husband travels a lot, both in this country and out, and spends several evenings a week at dinner meetings. He works hard and is a great dad, but she has had to cope alone many times when his presence would have made things easier. Even though motherhood for her is often overwhelming, that is really because she takes it very seriously and puts everything she can into it. Her daughters are very lucky to have her as their mother.

My oldest daughter is new to motherhood. Single by choice after some very painful failed relationships, she has concentrated on her career. But in recent years, she has been talking about her need to have a child. I admire the work she has done to prepare herself for adoption. She took weekly classes, read numerous books, joined support groups, and hoped. Single mothers are often not the first choice for child placement. She knew this. She expected a wait of three or four years or maybe more. But the week she got her certification to adopt a child, she met the seven-year-old girl who would become her daughter. They were a perfect match. Maria and her siblings were taken from their parents, separated, and placed in foster care. They had been abused and neglected, children of drug-addicted parents. Maria was put in a separate foster home, later taken from that home and placed in a shelter for months, waiting for someone to love her. That person was my daughter.

Figuring out how to mother a seven-year-old without the previous six years of experience was not easy. I guess it’s like walking through a mine field, and when the child has a history of abuse, there is just no telling when an explosion might occur. However, despite Maria’s many nights of crying, despite frequent meltdowns over seemingly insignificant things, my daughter has loved Maria, held her, comforted her, talked to her, guided her, and provided her with opportunities she never had before. She now has access to food, she has had her first birthday party, her first real Christmas, her first Easter basket and Easter egg hunt, her first art and music experiences, her first swimming and gymnastics lessons, her first bicycle, her first dog. The list is endless. She has new clothes, shoes that fit, hair cut and styled in a salon, friends in school, and a new family who loves her unconditionally. She is not with her siblings but she has seen them. She will never be with her parents again, but she has a life like other children have now. Within a few days of meeting my daughter, she held her hand and called her “mommy,” a word I suspect was the most wonderful word my daughter has ever heard.

I am so proud of both of my daughters. They call me frequently just to share, although I sometimes probably offer too much advice. I was both at times a stay-at-home mom and a working mom. I know the challenges. Parenting in this crazy, often dangerous world today is not easy, but my daughters are succeeding at it in wonderful ways. I am so lucky to have been given the gifts of my daughters and my granddaughters. Even though they live far away and I don’t see them enough, I carry them always in my heart, and so today I celebrate motherhood for us all.

Another Mother’s Day in the Nursing Home

My mother was admitted to the nursing home three years ago after spending a year in and out of the hospital. She is in fairly good health this year in spite of advancing dementia. At 92, she goes to activities, enjoys the music programs, has made a few friends, and is well cared for in spite of daily complaints. Now that spring has arrived, we sit outside during my daily visits and enjoy the sunshine and the beauty of blossoming trees and flowers.

My husband and I spent two months in Arizona this year visiting my daughter and her newly adopted daughter. While we were there, my mother’s behavior radically changed, most likely to an untreated urinary tract infection. She never did like her roommate, delusions getting the best of their relationship, but one day she got upset with her and kicked her. The Department of Health was notified and laws required her to be removed from her room and put in a private room. She went to pieces. She believed I had abandoned her and she had done nothing wrong to deserve this. She was angry at everyone, especially me. I considered coming home, but a psychologist was called in and she worked with her to calm her down and reassure her that I was coming home, giving her a specific date. The staff at the nursing home had given me some poor advice. They recommended at first that I not tell her I was gong away and then I should not tell her how long I was going to be gone. That was bad advice. When I returned, she had settled into her room. I decorated it for her, she made friends with the woman across the hall, and she is now content.

This Mother’s Day I will bring her lunch since I can no longer safely take her out to eat. She needs only soft foods, so I will make her favorite potato salad and strawberry shortcake and sit outside with her for a while. I know I am lucky to still have a mother on this Mother’s Day, even though in some ways, she is not the mother I used to know. Times change as we age and maybe sadness is an emotion that just increases as years pass. I don’t know how many more years I will be able to spend with my mother on Mother’s Day. She is still strong and physically healthier than many of the other residents in the nursing home but not as strong mentally as many others. Words elude her and delusions continue. This Mother’s Day is also the date my father died. She won’t remember that and I won’t mention it. After I visit with her, I’ll go visit my father in the cemetery. I’ll tell him how well she is doing. I’ll tell him I feel lucky to still have her. I’ll tell him how much I miss him every day. I’ll put some roses on his grave, my parents’ favorite flowers, and say good-by once again.

You’re Not the Only One

You’re Not the Only One

It has been at least six months since I have written a poem or even something with any substance. Writer’s block happens to every writer. There are always articles in the writing magazines I read that offer suggestions to writers who are stuck in a void. So I can tell myself that I am not the only one, but I understand how those words have very little meaning to someone struggling with loss.

I have used the phrase countless times. I tell my daughters that they are not the only ones struggling with motherhood. I tell my mother with dementia that she is not the only one in a wheelchair (although she believes she is). She always replies the same way. She says, “I don’t care about others. I’m my own person. I’m the one who has lost everything I used to have.” I know she is right. We can’t really find solace by comparing our difficulties with others, although we can find empathy for them.

I studied in college to be a journalist. I was assistant editor of my high school newspaper, rewrite and feature editor of my college newspaper, and after graduation wrote many articles for local magazines and newspapers. I had to stop when I felt like I was intruding on the privacy of people I was sent to interview. And I didn’t like the need for brevity since one of my major problems as a writer is overwriting. When I think about the situation in France, I think about the power of the pen. Right now I feel powerless because words won’t come. There are no phrases or lines that come to me in the early morning hours that I can turn into a poem that could touch others.

I have been to my computer countless times to write about a very emotional event in my life. In November my oldest daughter adopted a seven-year–old child with a tragic and horrifying past. I need to protect her privacy and keep her safe, so I have not been able to write about her. But she has changed my life in ways I can’t even explain. My daughter has rescued her. She is growing and changing and is a sweet, lovable child who is so traumatized by the past that she is unable to share it with anyone.

I have a book waiting to be self-published, but it’s held back by a cover design. I have a young adult novel partly written about a teenage basketball player whose father walks out the front door the day of his son’s basketball tournament and never returns. I started a story about an older woman with Alzheimer’s who finds herself in the park on a cold, snowy night. She does not know who she is or where to go but is transformed when a homeless dog approaches and rests his chin upon her leg. All are incomplete pieces halted by writer’s block.

It’s the absence of poetry that has me saddened the most. It’s a new kind of grief for me, blending in with all the old ones. If I can’t write, who am I? I have never stopped writing since I was a young child writing my first story about a family of bears. I have grown afraid of my own words. I commend the staff of Charlie Hebdo who certainly have reason to fear the effect of their words and their cartoons but find strength in the power and freedom of speech. I can tell myself that I’m not the only one struggling with writing. I can find strength in the struggles of others. But in those moments before dawn when no words come, when I feel bereft and alone, I wonder if the passage of time in my later years will only be filled with absence instead of meaning.

Cruel Words Spoken in a Nursing Home

When I was a child, music was always a part of my life. My sister and I were given piano lessons, my father played the violin, and my mother played both the piano and the violin. On Sundays we would all gather around the piano, my sister beside me on the piano bench and my parents standing side by side near us playing their violins.

One of my favorite songs was “Beyond the Sunset,” actually a rather sad song about dying but supported by an element of faith in God and the belief that there is something beyond this life.

Today I played the song when I returned from a visit with my mother in the nursing home. She has been in a depressed, feeling-sorry-for- herself mood for several days, complaining that no one talks to her or takes care of her or believes that she is important. I do my best with daily visits but it’s never enough. We have had bad moments before when she is like this, but today she broke my heart.

She accused me first of being late to visit her (I was finishing up with a load of laundry and arrived ten minutes after my usual time) and then blamed me for her bad mood and her refusal to participate in activities there. Then she told me (in what words she could gather) that it was my fault she was in there. I put her there, she accused me. I didn’t help her when she had her stroke, in fact it was my fault she had the stroke, and I wasn’t taking her out anywhere for rides. (She is not capable of getting into and out of a car without the strong possibility of a fall and I’m not strong enough to hold her. ) She actually told me she wanted me to suffer as much as she is suffering. The words were harsh and kept coming on stronger and stronger. I tried to leave and she grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go, the cruel words continuing. I broke free and left the room in sobs.

I know she has dementia. I know the staff will explain to me that she can’t help it. But this is a mother I have sacrificed everything for, including time I want to spend with my children and grandchildren in California and Arizona. I don’t think my mother ever loved me. I don’t remember being held or praised or made to feel that I mattered to her. And so now that she has dementia, her mental filter has been removed and she is free to say to me whatever she has wanted to say for years.

I hope I never tell my children that I want them to suffer. I hope I never accuse my children of not loving me. I hope I never make my children feel like they aren’t doing enough for me. I hope if I am ever in a nursing home, I try to make the most of it and let my children live their lives to the fullest because life is far too fragile and too short to spend being mean to another human being, especially to someone who loves you beyond words.

The piano is my refuge. The piano is my saving grace. When I got home and found the sheet music to “Beyond the Sunset,” I remembered those moments when I was a child and I had my sister and my father and my mother with me and we were a family. The song is a sad song for sure, but it makes me want to believe that somewhere above me in some other realm, my father and my sister understand the pain I am going through and will try to help me be strong enough to face whatever comes next for me and for my mother.

Another Mother’s Day in the Nursing Home

I know I am lucky to still have my mother. I am lucky to be able to spend Mother’s Day with her again this year. I plan to bring her some of her favorite foods—potato salad and strawberry shortcake, using her recipes to make them. It’s a warm day, so we’ll be able to sit outside for a while, watching spring arrive, listening for the songs of birds she loves and no longer gets to hear very often.

For her 85th birthday, I threw her a large family party in the community room of the senior housing complex where she used to live. We had a great buffet, played her favorite music, gave her gifts, and enjoyed being together as a family, a rare event lately.  The day after the party, we took her to Ogunquit, Maine, a favorite place for both of my parents years ago. She enjoyed everything, and in late afternoon, she would take a glass of wine, sit in a lounge chair on the knoll at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, and totally relax. I am so glad we had that time together before all memories began to leave her, like leaves falling from the trees in October.

Today at age 91, she no longer has memories of family or the life she had with my father in Florida. She confuses her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She doesn’t remember her nieces, one of whom she took in along with her small child to save her from an abusive husband.  Her niece remembers her kindness, and many others do also. But now she is angry and at times mean-spirited due to her dementia. She can’t help it, but it is in strong contrast to the mother I used to have, the one who always thought of others, baking for them, helping them when they needed it, consoling and supporting her daughters during their fight against breast cancer. Today the mother I knew is gone. The love she had for others has been replaced by anger, fear, and delusions.

I’ve been thinking today about the three people who died in the hot air balloon when it caught fire in Virginia. I heard the stories from bystanders who told how they heard screams and cries of those who suddenly knew they were about to die. How awful it must be to know death is coming unexpectedly. Is that really different, I wonder, from the slow, agonizing, painful death from cancer, knowing it is coming but unable to hurry it up to end the suffering? Is it really different from the slow death from dementia, the loss of memory and function as the brain slowly dies. Is that different from another kind of death where hopes and dreams are gone, leaving one with a struggle each day for mere existence, a death where it’s not the brain that’s dying. It’s the heart.

Loving a Mother with Dementia

Today I left the nursing home again in tears.  It seems to be happening more and more lately.  My daily hourly visit with my mother was once again filled with a constant tirade about how awful her life is.  She talked about the friends she used to have, what her life used to be like, and how everything is now changed.  She believes some of the residents think they are special and she is not, so they get everything they want but she doesn’t. She especially hates her roommate.  She swears at her using language I never heard her say before.  The anger in her voice is new to me in the last few years. When she talks nonstop about all the terrible things in the nursing home, my stomach begins to churn, something inside of me changes, and I want to flee. This is not the mother I know.

I read a lot of articles about dementia and Alzheimer’s.  I read how some women just let go of the mother they used to know and accept this new version.  But this new version of my mother is angry.  She is not making the most of her days and is not willing to.  She is wrong about nearly everything that is happening around her, but I can’t tell her that.  I used to.  She would get furious with me and call me names, tell me what a terrible daughter I am, and I would flee from the room in tears.

Today when I wheeled her into the community room to hear her favorite pianist play for the residents, she created a scene about where she would sit, claiming she couldn’t sit in certain places because the special ones were there.  One of her former roommates, a woman she had been particularly vicious to, offered to move so she could sit in her place.  It touched me so, I patted her softly on the shoulder in appreciation before leaving the room in tears.

If someone were to become acquainted with my mother the way she is now, they would consider her an angry, mean-spirited woman and would not have anything to do with her.  The nurses and aides in the nursing home see her at her worst and still they comfort her and treat her well.  I don’t know if I could do the same.

After I left today, I came home to play the piano, something that used to calm me when I was upset, but that, like other previous activities, was too much of a challenge.  The keys refused to cooperate.  I don’t write much anymore.  I don’t make greeting cards for cancer survivors like I used to.  I sometimes wonder at those times when I can’t do the things I used to do if I am becoming like my mother who used to be able to cook and read and knit and sew and play the organ.  Could I be in the early stages of dementia?  Will I soon find myself in a nursing home sitting in a wheelchair staring out the window lost in the past?

My husband assures me it’s not so.  I am just distraught today, he claims.  I keep struggling with the piano keys.  I find some sheet music that was my mother’s.  I begin to play her favorite tunes and my fingers begin to strike most of the correct keys.  I find “Could I Have This Dance?”, my parents’ favorite song, and once again I am crying for what is no more.  The mother I knew is gone, but the mother I love is still there, in spite of the anger and the delusions.  On her better days, we talk about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  I share news with her of the silly things her great-granddaughters do every day.  I keep talking about family members, realizing that most of the time she does not know for sure who I am talking about.

My mother has lost a lot.  It scares me to think that I may have lost my ability to write or to play music or to be creative, the part of me that is the very essence of my being.  Without it, I am afraid that I will be just a shell of a person moving through my days doing inconsequential things until I reach the point where there won’t even be inconsequential things any more.

Winter Art


Winter Art

Some time in the stealth of the night
or maybe it was just after dusk or before the light of dawn,
something moved across the depth of the new-fallen snow.

Art appeared on the white canvas,
patterns of prints—wild and free–
swirls, curves, circles intertwined,
some intent unknown to man.

While I slept, artistry was created.
When I woke, surprise and wonder,
the artist unknown,
the art nevertheless a winter miracle.

© Barbara Flass 2014

Photo credit: Richard Dorrell [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Keeping Dreams Alive

Maybe it’s just coincidence, but I woke up this morning, the morning of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, thinking about dreams.  There is a difference between making life plans and dreams, especially in one’s later years.  My father taught me about both.

 My father was a high school dropout with an extraordinary talent for art.  His abilities were a strange mixture.  He was a carpenter, a gardener, a violinist, and a painter.  He built my childhood home almost entirely by himself, room by room over time.  He had a flair for growing vegetables and flowers.  He and my mother played the violin together while my sister and I played a duet on the piano.  His job was at a stone crushing plant, very difficult, cold, and exhausting work that caused him excruciating back pain, but his dream was to be an artist.

 While I was still quite young, he signed up with the Famous Artists School, taking the correspondence course and working his way through the lessons.  His talent grew.  I remember how he set up his easel in an unfinished room in the house that later became his bedroom and set to work sketching on paper, then on canvas, and then using oil paints to create landscapes.  Covered bridges appeared, snowy scenes with farmhouses, brooks flowing softly in winter, water wheels and buildings, summer scenes in Vermont, ocean scenes in Cape Cod.  Eventually, he participated in art shows, listening carefully to comments from people he hoped would buy his art.  He didn’t sell many paintings, but he never quit.

 When he moved into the farmhouse where his great-grandparents once lived, he remodeled the kitchen, created a large vegetable garden, and painted a mural on the dining room wall.  He set an example for me, teaching me to have a life plan but keep my dream.  As a child, I wrote my stories in my room while he painted in his.  He knew I wanted to teach, but writing was my love.  “Do both,” he said.  “You need to make money, and writing will not be enough.”  He was certainly right there.  Even though I have written since I was first able to hold a pen (and before that I made up stories to tell my sister at night), I never made much money at writing.  I have written two books and countless poems.  Teaching enabled me to have an income, but writing enabled me to pursue a dream.

Everyone should have a dream.  Even though the obstacles might be great, as in my father’s case, one should never give up on them.  I have long periods of drought, where I simply cannot write.  Maybe it’s that grief gets in the way.  Maybe it’s the fatigue or daily pain that sends me away from the computer or causes me to put down my pen and notebook.  But I know if I hang in there, like my dad did, I will come back to it.  I have to.  Hopefully, my dream will take me into my later years until I reach a point where I may not be able to write at all.  Until then, I will wake up early in the morning, like this morning, and begin to write even if no one ever reads my words.  My father’s love of painting was not diminished by his lack of sales.  I will treasure always my father’s lesson to me–keep your dreams alive.

Carolers on Horseback

carolersonhorseback2 carolersonhorseback1

Many moments bring on sadness at Christmas time, but carolers on horseback should not be one of them.  Saturday morning twelve or more horses decorated in their Christmas finery—Christmas hats over their ears, garlands wrapped around their reins, ribbons braided into their tails—lined up in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the nursing home.  Behind the windows twenty or more of the residents sat in their wheelchairs to watch and listen.  Some wore Santa hats, some held on to rings of jingle bells, and some just held in their hands songbooks they couldn’t read or understand.  My mother was one of them.  She sat locked into her angry delusions, quiet and unmoving.  One resident cried softly.  Another slept in her chair the entire time.  Others stared out at the horses.  A few sang along with the singer outside the windows who was accompanied by the pianist inside.

The event was the same as the previous year except for more horses participating and the freezing  eight degree weather.  But it was not the same for my mother or for me.  The carols made me cry. The array of wheelchairs made me sad as I imagined the kinds of lives once lived by their occupants.  My loving, generous mother who baked cookies and breads for Christmas, who knitted and crocheted blankets for the needy, who laughed and played the organ, and shopped with me for gifts, was gone, replaced by someone I don’t really know any more, someone capable of unspeakably hurtful accusations that cut to the center of my heart and remain there for days.

As I get older, I find myself reminiscing often about the Christmases of my past—both my childhood and young adulthood when my daughters were small and magic existed.  Gifts were simple, often handmade.  There was cocoa and cookies and carols.  The family gathered at my grandparents’ house where we sat in the living room in a circle and laughed at our crazy gifts.  One year my sister crocheted Rudolph noses for all of us.  We put them on and wore them through gift giving and the light supper of sandwiches and salads my grandmother made.  Another year my sister crocheted Santa hats and wrote funny nicknames on them with glitter glue.  We all wore them, my grandfather dancing around the room while we all laughed.  My grandparents are gone.  My father is gone.  My sister is gone.  The noses and hats are tucked in between tissue paper in a box of ornaments I can’t bear to look at.

This Christmas for the first time in over forty years, my husband and I will be alone on Christmas Eve and Christmas day.  We will go to church Christmas Eve and visit my mother.  On Christmas Day we will take her some gifts and then go out to dinner without her.  I’m not feeling sorry for myself because I know how lucky I really am to have her and my daughters and granddaughters.  So many people have lost loved ones this past year.  There has been so much tragedy and violence that it is more essential than ever to find joy in some way during the holidays.  Otherwise, grief would win out over happiness.

My youngest daughter was sad recently, remembering those Christmases when we were all together doing crazy things.  Her task now is to create her own joyous times with her children so they have those same happy memories.  I was lucky to have her, her husband, and my granddaughters with me on Thanksgiving.  My oldest daughter, now living in Arizona, will visit this coming weekend, but she too will be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone.  Still, I put up the tree and decorated it.  I am baking cookies and Christmas breads using my mother’s recipes.  And I will find a way to feel some sense of peace this year.

During those quiet, dark moments in the night when sleep refuses to come, I try to replace that image of the carolers on horseback singing to nursing home residents with dementia, my mother among them, with those Christmas Eves in my grandparents’ living room when my sister handed out the Rudolph noses or the Santa hats and we laughed together, and Christmas was still magical for both the young and the old.