By Bob Rinehart

This is a human-interest story about a son who lived most of his life away from home and left most of the caring of his mother to his sister who took care of their mother. There were eventually some hard conversations and decisions to be made regarding their mother’s care and one story stood out for my husband. Here it is…

As I was fumbling for my keys to unlock the door recently, I thought about my mother. She passed away not long ago, spending her last several years in a small eldercare community in northeastern Ohio. I retain vivid memories of my visits there with my older sister to discuss mother’s care levels and needs, with one of the challenges involving keys. One specific issue – car keys – is likely no surprise. Keys now have a habit of triggering these reflections.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of things that bring back memories of mother. My wife and I often find ourselves chuckling at a saying “Mama Della” would have for certain words or situations. Her little lines would pop out predictably and automatically but we never got tired of hearing them. If one of us would mention the need to wait, she would say “Weights what broke the wagon down.” If we were trying to find something and she would spot it in front of us, out would come, “If it were a snake it’d bit you.” She had many more. These were probably common sayings among her generation, the ones who were born in the first part of the last century and spent a lot of time on front porches and around kitchen tables. They talked to each other a lot, told stories, and lived and re-lived their lives in these stories.

I sometimes get angry with myself for the earlier days when I didn’t have a full appreciation of the stories. There were times when I would hear a little inner voice saying “Here it comes again” as the situation and the opening lines would provide a clear signal for the story that was about to be told. I was foolish of course, reacting solely to the lines being spoken out loud rather than listening for the deeper meaning that was coming from their hearts. This was the oral tradition being presented right before my very eyes. They were preserving our family culture.

I miss those stories.

And I miss the two people who told them. Mom tried very hard to keep telling them, but progressive dementia began to take its toll. And that’s where the purse and keys come in. They are really symbolic of the process that set in and signaled the onset of a decline that also meant the end of the stories. Mother loved to drive. It was her primary means to assert her independence. She lived much of the time with my older sister, but for many years retained the place where she and Dad lived, driving there every so often for some made up reason. When my wife and I lived in Pittsburgh, PA, she would drive over and back on her own, doing the 100-mile trip in the daytime. Many signs began to point out that allowing her to drive was no longer a good idea as the risks to her and everyone else on the roads were becoming too great. Getting those keys away from her was not an easy task. The simple truth is, she was not about to give up the keys. They had to be taken away, with gentle but firm persuasion.

The purse was the next major piece of her personal property that had to be gently taken away. I don’t know if we actually do comprehend just how important a purse is to a woman. The number and kinds of things mother kept in her purse could have indicated she was way ahead of her time and would have been a great candidate to have launched the “backpack-as-purse” movement. It was so heavy she must have strained her arm or shoulder at times, even though she would steadfastly deny it. We were occasionally able to cajole her into removing certain items, only to find them right back in the purse a day or two later. In time though, even the purse had to go as she had eventually lost the capacity to discern the uses for its contents, and might have injured herself with some of the items. Getting the purse away was harder than the keys. And to the end, the one thing she would remember to do was get after my sister for “taking away my purse.”

These are the things I think about every so often when I fumble for my keys. While I can still remember which one to use for my front door, I also have to remember to tell stories. I owe this to my children. It was an invaluable gift from my parents and it is one of the most important gifts that we pass on from generation to generation.

Sylvana & Bob Rinehart live in Edmonds and have been involved in the Eldercare field for over two decades.