With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, it turns out you can go home again. When you’re caring for an aging parent, you have to go home – often .
The house I return to, on the southern bank of Trout River in Jacksonville, is the same house that Tupelo Honey Lee inhabits in my novel, Sewing Holes. Loosely based on the people who inhabited the house during the 1970s, and our friends, neighbors, and relatives, the characters have been camouflaged, altered, and combined. Some events I’ve made up out of whole cloth. Unlike Wolfe’s unfortunate George Webber, I’ve received no menacing letters or death threats, but I did have one explosive telephone call from my hysterical mother, during which I had to remind her, repeatedly, “Mama, it’s FICTION.”
It’s so confusing. On her first read, my mother announced that she LOVED the book. I exhaled a sigh of relief, because the mother in the novel is a difficult one, and clearly some of the events paralleled our own experiences. Then one day my stepfather asked his visiting personal caregiver to read the book aloud to him, due to his failing eyesight. Hearing the same words she’d already read silently, now falling from another person’s lips, sent Mama into a rage. “I never knew how much you hated me!” she cried into the phone. After she calmed down, I gently suggested to my stepfather that they abandon the reading. He died without ever hearing the lovely scene of mother-daughter reconciliation at the end.
Mother’s memory is failing enough that her pride in my accomplishments has replaced her fear that someone in her Florida hometown will read the story and decide that she and the mother in the book are one and the same. She now introduces me as, “My baby, the author.” Embarrassing, but, given the alternative, I’ll take it.
What I find fascinating is how entering the doors of that small frame house takes me back to a time when I felt small and powerless. The river is still lovely and timeless; the hill our house rests on still slopes gently to its shore. The rooms inside still form a circle to traverse endlessly, and some of my father’s paintings still grace the walls. Mother is still queen of her domain, forever pruning her flower garden and fishing for compliments on its beauty.
True power has shifted. I have her power of attorney and am her medical surrogate. I pay her bills, and when the time comes, I’ll decide where she spends her last days. We both hope that she’ll go to sleep one night in her bed in this house, and wake up in Heaven. But not for a long time to come. For now, I spend our visits doing her bidding, trying endlessly to please her, and sometimes succeeding. Like little Honey in the book, my fondest wish is her nod of approval. She gives it more freely now than then.
Home, for me, will always be where Mama smiles.
Darlyn Finch Kuhn‘s work has appeared in literary journals, newspapers, magazines and online, in addition to her two poetry collections (Red Wax Rose and Three Houses). Her poems have been featured on Poetic Logic on NPR, and read by Garrison Keillor on the Writers Almanac. She was interviewed on World Radio Paris. Kuhn is the eponymous “Scribbler,” of the Scribbles literary e-newsletter. She produces book trailer videos with her husband at Brad Kuhn & Associates in Orlando, Florida. Her debut novel, Sewing Holes, (available now from Twisted Road Publications) won first prize in the 2015 Royal Palm Awards from the Florida Writers Association.