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I came to see my mother in a very different light

THERE have been recent discussions in the press about the legality and advisability of housing segregated by age (for adults, or senior citizens only). They led me to recall the time my mother lived next door. Mother was a senior citizen who might otherwise have chosen to live in such segregated housing. When our daughter was eight months old, her grandmother sold her home on Long Island and moved to Florida to be near us. We were quite apprehensive, for Grandma needed care. She was not very mobile. She had never kept a checkbook or learned to drive. But it seemed right for our family to be together, and caring for Mother would be easier than if she were a long distance away. We hired someone to live with her. Although there were challenging times, those five years gave us some wonderful family memories.

When Mother's belongings first arrived, I placed them around the rented house to make it seem more like home. I discovered a number of old family photos that had been in her attic for years, and hung them on the walls. My husband fixed her grandfather clock so that we all could enjoy its chimes. Mother's possessions were modest, but they represented an era gone by. There were things from England and from where my grandparents had been born and many items from my own childhood. I remembered sitting next to the old radio that stood in the corner of our living room to listen to ``Jack Benny,'' ``Our Miss Brooks,'' and ``Gunsmoke.''

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I had wondered about the influence of Mother's life style, with the television constantly playing, on our daughter, Laurel. We had sold our set when she was a baby to remove what we thought was a predominantly negative influence from our home. There was no need to worry. Grandma never minded when we turned off the TV to talk with her. Television was only company to her, and she much preferred live companions.

One of Grandma's favorite shows was ``Lawrence Welk.'' One evening, much to our delight, Laurel started to dance to the music. We often returned on Saturday nights for a bit of dancing. Laurel frequently performed for Grandma, who loved ballet. After practicing her show at home, Laurel hid behind the sofa, then moved ``on stage'' for her performance. She always received accolades and requests for encores.

Each day when I came home for lunch, Laurel and I walked over to visit Grandma. Our visits became rituals that Laurel planned for. She saved up things to show Grandma. I had never realized how responsive my mother was to young children. She baby-sat after I went away to college and would have been a good nursery-school teacher, had mothers worked in her day. She provided a marvelous, uncritical, and receptive audience to the most childlike antics.

On each visit we talked with Grandma, reviewing what had happened since the last time we had seen her (excellent for a child's memory). She was always interested in Laurel's descriptions of nursery school. She played all of Laurel's games. A favorite was to ``make tea'' on Grandma's miniature cast iron wood stove with tiny copper pots and pans. Tea was served in miniature china cups and Grandma would sip away telling us how delicious the pretend-tea was.

Grandma was a strong influence in helping Laurel learn to read. Each noon we took over a book to read aloud and a song to sing. Gradually, Grandma expressed a desire to read to Laurel. I found short books with large print, and it wasn't long before Laurel was correcting Grandma, then reading aloud to her. When the stories and songs were familiar ones from my youth, our times together were special. Grandma had a lovely voice and sang aloud with us. A favorite at Thanksgiving was ``Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go . . . .''

We moved Grandma's dining table next to a large picture window so she could watch us cavort outside. In the wall along her sidewalk, we planted a little flower garden (she loved flowers), which Laurel watered daily. Holiday times were special because we got to carve two pumpkins and decorate two Christmas trees, with Grandma as an audience. She loved it when the neighborhood children came trick-or-treating at Halloween and caroling at Christmas.

Grandma also enjoyed it when we moved a chair outside so that she could watch me mow the lawn. As I mowed, Laurel picked flowers, gathered pine cones and leaves, and generally brought things for Grandma to admire. She saved everything. Flowers were put in vases. Leaves became centerpieces for her table.

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The two of them built lasting ties of friendship during these times alone together. Laurel remembers her first independent venture away from home -- going all by herself to Grandma's house to borrow an egg.

We remember special events as well. Like the time Grandma's cat got stuck in a tree. It took us two days and a saw to get her down.

Because Grandma's front walk had an uneven crack that made walking difficult, Laurel and her Dad constructed a new concrete walkway. Laurel placed her handprint in the wet cement. To this day she compares her hand with the small print in the cement.

Practically every evening we took Grandma for a ride around the block in her wheelchair. She got to see people, and Laurel snuggled on her lap. Grandma bought dresses for Laurel in department stores. She was thrilled to be there to watch Laurel try them on.

We often wheeled Grandma down a bumpy path to a small creek. It was cool there, so the trips offered a nice respite on hot summer days. She watched Laurel find shells, splash in the water, and pick wildflowers. Grandma carried all of these treasures home.

I think Laurel's most vivid memories of her grandma are from these expeditions. She learned to push the wheelchair. She remembers the first time she ever skipped -- on a walk with Grandma.

One neighbor often picked a rose for Grandma. Several accompanied us on our walks. As we walked, we talked and became better acquainted. It was heartwarming to see a sense of community emerge in the neighborhood. On our block there was hardly a family who didn't ``sit'' with Grandma at one time or another.

The interactions with her grandmother seem to have made our daughter particularly sensitive to the needs of senior citizens. She regularly picks flowers for them, gives them small seasonal gifts, talks with them, and helps them go places. Laurel learned at an early age how satisfying it can be to do things for others.

I came to see my mother in a very different light. No longer was she a burden for whom I needed to provide, a person who made unreasonable demands on me; rather, she was a marvelous example of a responsive adult who enjoyed young children. I enjoyed her delightful sense of humor and gained a deeper insight into and appreciation for my own upbringing.

Now our family often remarks, when seeing wild violets or something pink, ``Wouldn't Grandma love that!'' I'm awfully glad she didn't decide to move into senior-citizen housing.

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