Retirement and the Golden Years
Already into the middle stage of Alzheimer’s disease, blank eyes, expressionless faces, and painfully thin bodies, describes the residents that I take care of at the care center. With only the bits and pieces I pick up from the family members and the pictures of them in healthier days that I see on the walls, I sometimes look at the residents and wonder what they were like before they became sick. So maybe I should begin by giving you some background about my parents so you have an idea what they were like in their younger days and up to the present time before Alzheimer’s disease became the focal point in their lives.
The Indians would have called my father a dreamkeeper. I’m sure he’d have liked that better than the adjectives I’d used such as honorable, unasumming, a good father and a loving husband. Of course, I’m basus. Not that Bill Bullock’s stories came from dreams and visions, but tales from earlier life experiences when he was energetic and adventuresome. He liked to relive the happy times in his life and as he was telling a story you’d swear that was what he was doing. In his mind, he was right in the middle of days long gone. The listeners were on the outside, looking into a time warp to the past unfolding in my father’s head.
For instance, take the morning in the late eighties when I dropped by my parents for our usual coffee break. Since I lived on the same acreage with my husband and son, I had grown accustomed to stopping in every morning. But sometimes, Mom thought of something for me to help her with. Usually it was a task she didn’t want to tackle herself.
In an off handed way with her back to me as she washed breakfast dishes, she mentioned that she’d like to have the pictures in one of the small drawers of the old buffet behind me put in photo albums. She had picked up a bunch of scrap books at yard sales last summer to use for this very perpus. Was I busy at the moment? She knew I wasn’t when she asked.
I tried to open the drawer and had to slip my hand in to press down the pictures so I could bring the drawer all the way out. What a mess! Years of school, birthday, wedding and holiday photos added up. I could say one thing for this family. We sure do take a lot of pictures, but then we have a fair amount of relatives on both sides that contributed to the drawer.
Looked to me like one of those forever jobs that I wouldn’t get done in a day I groaned to myself. First off, I started to pile each picture according to year so there'd be an orderly sequince to the albums. Even that might not have been such a time consuming project if each of the pictures had names and a date on them, but most of the older black and white ones didn't. I’m talking about people that had died before I was born or shortly right after. Mom had to stop doing dishes several times to tell me what to write on a pictures.
Next in the pile was a 8 x 10 brown folder, a bit scuffed around the edges. Inside, the picture was a brown and white, young, happy version of Bill and Sylvia Bullock, my parents.
"When was this taken?" I asked, studying Mom’s soft smile and Dad’s sleepy eyed look and mischievous grin.
Mom looked over her shoulder from the kitchen sink where she was finishing up the breakfast dishes. "That's our wedding picture."
"Good grief! Why isn’t it in a frame instead of mashed between all these other pictures?"
"Never seen the need I guess."
Not exactly a tradional wedding picture. Mom had on a dress with little squidly designs running helter skelter. Dad wore a suit jacket over his shirt, but no tie. He must have felt it a special occason since he never ever liked to wear a suit. I peeked under the edge of the picture. The back was blank. "I should put your wedding date on the back. What is it, Dad?"
He looked up from his coffee cup at the end of the table, snorted then replied causulally, "Dang if I remember. Seems like it was November in the early thirties."
"Pretty close," Mom said and laughed. "November 23, 1935. It was your brother, Max's birthday. Remember?"
"If you say so," he agreed.
"What is this book?" A gray scrap book lay next in the pile, tied with a nylon string looking like a small, round shoestring.
"That's my first scrapbook," Mom replied.
I sat down at the table next to Dad and opened it up. Some of the first pictures were of grinning young men and women in black and white glued to the black sheets.
"That one was your ma's boyfriend," said Dad, tapping a young man’s face.
"That was before you came along. You should tell her that," chidded Mom.
"Here’s some people I recognize, Mom. I think. Looks like Grandma and Grandpa Bright and some of your brothers and sisters standing in front of an old truck." I turned the picture over. Nothing on the back so I wrote John and Veder Bright, and family with 1930’s and a question mark.
"That’s the truck we drove from Montevallo, Missouri to Arizona to pick cotton back in the 30’s," shared Dad, with a far away smile at Mom as she sat down on the other side of me with a cup of coffee.
Oh, oh, he’s getting wound up for a story,
I’m thinking. That meant putting pictures in order would be at a stand still while I politely listened.
"Times were hard during the Great Depression. Your Ma’s folks had a big family to feed, and at the time we and your brother Billie were living with them, too. John and I decided to take off for Arizona to pick cotton to get a nest egg. We figured to bring the money we’d make back to Missouri to live on for awhile."
"That old truck made it all the way to Arizona?"
"Sure did. We fitted canvas to the sides and put a bunk all the way across on each side and one on the end so everyone would have a place to sit. We had two tents, one for us and the other for John’s family to use at night on the side of the road to sleep in.
John, and I took turns driving. Once we got the truck started. It had to be pushed to get it going, and the brakes were faulty. But it was the only transportation we had large enough to carry all of us. John didn’t want to leave Veder and the family behind. The kids weren’t old enough to fend for themselves yet and we expected to be gone several months.
Never thought much about how bad the brakes were on that old truck until John stopped just before we started into the Arizona Mountains," Dad said and laughed. "I reckon John knew what would happen when I got to driving on narrow, winding, mountain roads. Not having been more than a few miles from home, I didn’t know what mountain driving was like. Sometimes the road looked like it was going to end at the sky. Then at the top, we’d start a downhill rush. At first, I tried to ride the brakes but then they got to smelling and weren’t much good after awhile. Yep, John knew what he was doing all right. He wanted someone besides him driving that old truck with its bad brakes, because he knew how treacherous driving over the mountains would be."
"You must have made it. You’re here," I teased.
"Wasn’t easy, but I did er."
"The front bench is where we packed a hundred quart of peaches, I canned that summer.," Mom shared.
"You canned a hundred quart of peaches?"
"Yep. That old tree was loaded the summer before and I couldn’t let them go to waste. With all of us in that truck, it took several jars for a meal."
"Besides," Dad added, "If we had left them at the house, the peaches would have been gone just like everything else was when we came back."
"Someone stole your things while you were in arizona?"
"Yep, but times were hard. What we had didn’t amount to much, but we’d put all we could in an old underground cellar. Sure enough when we came back the cellar was empty."
"Good thing we took what we could. Such as bedding and the peaches."
"This book too must have been in there somewhere."
"Oh, I had a small box full of things that were special to me under one seat," said Mom.
I like to think of these people as my family’s version of the pioneers who headed west in the wagon trains except they did it in the 1930’s. The difference was they weren’t looking for gold, thinking about getting rich, or homesteading like the pioneers of the 1800’s for they didn’t intend to stay out west very long. They just needed a nest egg so they could get by back home in Missouri, waiting for better times. As soon as they could, they went home.
A few years later, there was a second trip west to California to pick oranges and grapefruit. This time it was more like the Beverly Hillbillies when they started home. An elderly, neighbor lady who had been visiting relatives in California needed a ride back to Missouri. When she found out that my family was ready to go home, she asked if she could travel with them in their truck. Dad didn’t have the heart to tell the lady that there wasn’t a place for her to sit so he put her rocking chair in the back of the truck, and she rode just like Granny Clampett, sitting in her rocker all the way home. I can picture this determined, older lady, somebody’s grandma, holding on to the arms of her rocker with her bony, white knuckled hands to keep from getting pitched out while Dad drove up and down the steep mountain passes, hitting one pothole after another.
My family returned to Montevallo, Missouri for a time than made another trip back west to California to work in the fruit groves again. After that, Dad farmed for a few years on his mother’s farm and then came World War 2. Once again, Dad packed his family up and with his brother, Max, his wife and child, they went to Kansas where Dad and Max worked in an airplane plant, making and repairing bombers for the war.
Dad saved enough money from that job to buy an 80 acre farm near Schell City, Missouri not far from where he grew up. That farm was where Dad’s heart remained long after he left it to move to Iowa. My younger brother, John, and I were born on that Missouri farm, and those years for us were a Tom Sawyer existence, but it wasn't an easy life for my parents. Farming that small farm was hard work with cows to milk, chores to do, field work and repairs to be made. There was never an income big enough to lay away money for later, only survival.
In 1960, Grandpa John decided to retire from the Standard gas station he operated on highway 30 south of Keystone, Iowa. He asked Dad if he’d like to take over the gas station. That meant moving his family 800 miles away from his farm. It wasn’t what Dad wanted to do. He was giving up a farm that had been his dream. He'd worked very hard to buy and to hang onto that little piece of land, but Mom convinced him that it was for the good of the family. She knew she could count on Dad to always put the family first, and Mom hoped this would be a move that would afford them more income and an easier way to make a living.
They rented a U-haul trailer to hook up behind the 49 Chevy Dad bought for the move. He gave Mom’s brother, Buck, the 35 Chevy we drove at the time. It had originally belonged to my mother’s grandpa, Luther Bright, until he died in 1954. My Uncle Buck had that old Chevy for years. A few years back when I had a chance to look at it, sticking out behind the piles of lumber and other things stored in his garage that old car looked much smaller to me then it seemed when I was a child.
With the U-haul trailer packed with as many of our meager belongings as it would hold, we headed north. We each wanted to take something with us that held memories of home. Mom held a Christmas cactus on her lap. She still has that plant today -- 40 years later. John and I put our two dogs in the back of the car at our feet -- Ginger and Rastus. We were nervous about being uprooted, and the one demand we made was that our pets could go with us. My parents didn’t have the heart to refuse even though they dreaded the 8 hour trip with two, medium size, outdoor dogs in the car. I still don’t know why Mom and Dad grumbled about taking the dogs. It was our feet that got tromped on for 8 hours, and we didn't mind the smell.
By this time, my older brother, Bill, was married and lived near Keystone so we looked forward to seeing more of him and his family with this move. He was 11 years older than me and had been gone from home for a long time.
At first, Dad rented the farm, then he decided to sell it. Of course, his timing was bad. Dad sold it for $100 an acre just before land prices began to rise, but then a small amount of money seemed to go farther in those days than a larger amount does today. He used some of the money to buy his first new car -- a 66 Ford. The rest of the farm money paid for the 5 acres the gas station and house set on. Now Dad realized there was no going back to Missouri, but he’d always miss his farm. When his memory was failing that was the home he was always trying to get back to when he didn’t recognize the house in Iowa that my parents had lived in for 40 years.
Running a gas station turned out to be as hard an occupation as farming, the way my parents worked at it. They kept the station open from daylight until 10 P. M or later. Dad pumped gas, fixed tires and did minor repairs on cars. He was a good mechanic. When he first started farming, he built his first tractor from parts off junked tractors, and he always kept our old cars in running order. One time at the station, Dad used the spring out of a ball point pen to fix something on a customer’s car motor and sent the traveler on his way. It’s just as well I don’t remember what the spring fixed, because I imagine it wouldn’t work in the motor of a computerized car today.
Mom stayed busy inside the gas station; selling groceries, sandwiches, homemade pies, souvenirs, pop, candy and ice cream. Also, she did the bookkeeping. They turned that Mom and Pop station into a small, quick stop, convenient store long before Caseys existed.
For 28 years, Bullock’s gas station was a popular, neighborhood hangout for all the farmers. They'd drop by for an early morning coffee break after their chores were done and stay for a couple hours, discussing area news and farming. Behind the long, wooden counter that looked like a throw away from an old west saloon, Dad perched his five foot eight inch frame on a red metal stool in the front corner of the room near the cash register, listening to the conversations between running outside to put gas in a customer’s car. He passed the area news he had heard on to any customer who drove in later and happened to asked, "What’s news around here?"
Patiently, Dad waited for the farmers conversations to slow down, and when he saw an opportunity, he took his turn. He’d push up the bill of his blue cap with the Amoco torch on the front, and remove from his mouth his old pipe with the crooked stem that he puffed on continually (the one that had the stem held together with a piece of wire). With a twinkle of good humor in his hazel eyes, he relived in his head what he was about to tell and begin to speak in his warm, mellow, baritone voice, "That reminds me of the time ........ ." Heads would turn toward Dad, and he was off on one of his humorous, adventure tales that captivated his audiences. Dad had a wonderful sense of humor and a way of livening up his early life escapades that kept the customers listening and laughing. They enjoyed Dad’s stories. One friend recently told me he didn’t mind hearing the stories over again and again since they got better with the telling when Dad embellished on the tales as he retold them which happened often since after years of storytelling, Dad didn’t remember to whom he had told what story.
One customer said he liked to stop at the station for gas because it was like going back in time to enter that old building, and he enjoyed visiting with Dad. I, on the other hand, was so used to hearing Dad tell stories from my earliest memories through growing up that I tuned him out. I remember as a child thinking to myself, ‘Oh no, here he goes again.’ Now I wish I had listened and remembered more of those stories, because the time came that Dad didn’t have enough memory left to repeat his stories. We’d never hear them from him again. Too late, I realized that hearing them repeated from anyone else just wouldn’t be the same as listening to the way my dad livened up the tales about his early life.
I did sneak in a tape recorder at one of the family get-togethers and recorded Dad telling one of his stories. I’ll always treasure that tape as much for the fact that it brings back the comforting sound of his voice as well as it being a sample of Dad’s storytelling. That time, Dad told about when he was a kid, his brother, Uldric, and he had decided to take a stick of dynamite over to the creek near their house and toss it in the water to kill the fish so they could bring a mess home for a quick supper. After arguing who would get the pleasure of throwing the lit stick in the water, Uldric won out with the argument that he was the older brother so he should do it. Dad gave in. Uldric, who’s aim was bad, wound up his arm, and threw the dynamite. It lit in the top of a tree near the creek. The dynamite exploded, and the tree became toothpicks. The boys only had the one stick so there went the idea of a quick meal.
Dad declared he knew he had been right. He should have been the one to throw the dynamite, because his aim was better.
If you get a chance to tape your loved one or take pictures of that person, capture the characteristics that make that person who he or she is and endears them to you, because later on like a thief in the night, Alzheimer’s disease will steal that person’s personality. Believe me, you will be too busy being a caregiver to notice in time to say good bye.
In the late 80’s, the Environmental Protection Agency sent my parents a letter to tell them in two years they’d have to dig up the underground gas supply tanks that had been there for years and replace them with above ground tanks. Dad rented the pumps and tank from another dealer who couldn’t afford to put thousands of dollars into a failing operation. The dealer realized because of Dad’s age and the emergence of new self serve pumps that could afford to sell gas cheaper, it was time for him to retire. Dad was bitter about being forced to stop work, and underneath it all, he may have been worried about getting older with nothing to do. This was a big change in his life so he had to blame something for his being forced into retirement so he often said it was the "government" that forced him to quit before he was ready. At that point, Dad was a spry 75 year old man, full of energy. He didn’t want a change in his life while he thought he was still able to work.
This forced retirement happened to Bill and Sylvia in October 1988. Frankly, their family and friends felt it was about time they took life easier. After all, they had worked hard their whole life from the time they were children growing up in large families.
The Belle Plaine Union came out to the gas station to take pictures and write a story about my parents retirement. The paper related how the station had been a neighborhood fixture ever since highway 30 had been called the Lincoln highway back when the road was dirt. When they saw the big picture of themselves in the paper, my parents joked about making the front page of a newspaper for the first time in their life. They were pleased with the story.
The neighbors helped my family give my parents a super retirement party at the Keystone Legion Hall. We had a potluck supper complete with a decorated cake. There was a picture on the cake of an elderly couple sitting in their rocking chairs. Mom’s dark brown hair, though streaked with gray, wasn’t as gray as the lady on the cake, but she held a rug on her lap to symbolize her rug weaving hobby, and the man, like Dad, was wearing a blue cap and smoking his pipe. Clouds of smoke rose above his head.
The gas station, their house and several outbuildings are on my parents acreage. This place had been a working farm at one time. Being able to walk to work was a plus for my parents especially in winter months, but there weren’t as many customers then as in the summer when tourists were traveling through the state so their income in the winter was much lower.
Also near the house was an empty mobile home, Mom’s mother, Veder Bright, had lived in for a short time. After my husband took a different job, we moved into the mobile home, and lived there for 18 years. My husband and I like country living, and we felt it was a good way to raise children. We have one son, Duane. So while Harold went to work for the Department of Transportation each day and Duane was at school, I made use of my parents farm buildings by keeping a menagerie of animals in them. Harold and Duane helped me take care of all the animals in their spare time.
Raising our own food had been part of our rural upbringing so besides raising our own meat that consisted of pigs, sheep, milk goats, bottle calves, and rabbits, we had 3 gardens, and I had flocks of chicken, ducks, turkeys, a few geese, quail and 3 guineas.
The first few years we lived there, Harold kept the gardens tilled, and Dad helped when he could. Mom and I pulled weeds and picked the vegetables, but running the gas station kept them tied down so it was hard for my parents to find much spare time.
When retirement came about they had plenty of time on their hands. It wasn’t hard for Mom to fill the spaces. She loved raising flowers and reading, plus she had a hobby -- weaving rugs. All Dad had done for twenty eight years was operate the gas station. He did like to read paperback westerns, and he watched the educational and news shows on television which usually bored Mom. She’d rather watch soap operas. Dad was always trying to educate himself, and it seemed to me that he knew a little about almost every subject, but he needed more than reading and watching television to keep him busy. He didn’t like to sit still too long.
After Dad retired, he took over Harold’s job of tilling the garden, and he enjoyed working in the soil. After all, that was as close as he was ever going to get to farming again. He liked a clean garden and a well tilled one. In fact, he tilled and tilled until Mom’s and my feet sank ankle deep in the soft soil when we picked vegetables. We mentioned to him that he was tilling the moisture out of the soil, but that didn’t deter Dad. He hooked up the garden hose, and watered the garden until he came close to running the well dry. A few times, he did just that. However, the shallow well always recovered by morning, and we’d have plenty of water again.
Each year in the fall, I had a part time job for two months at the local tree nursery, helping make pine wreaths for Christmas. I enjoyed getting out to do something different with my day for that short time. Also, the job made me spending money for Christmas. I worked with the same ladies for a long time and looked forward to joining them, because we visited as much as we worked. Then as I acquired more livestock and in turn more chores I found it hard to get up early enough to get the chores done before I left for work.
One morning, I asked Dad if he'd mind feeding the chickens for me so I wouldn’t be late. He not only wanted to, but that was the last time that flock of chickens was known as mine. Even after my part time job was over, he'd have the chicken chores done before I could get to it. Those chickens never had it as good before Dad took over their care. In the winter, he gave them warm mash and oats to eat and kept the water warmed for them to drink. I teased him that the hens were going to be too fat to lay eggs, because they ate so well. Several times a day, Dad went to the hen house to gather the eggs as they were laid, and he left the hen house light was on 24 hours a day. When I mentioned the cost of electricity, Dad said the hens needed to think it was daylight all the time so they’d eat more and lay more eggs. As much as I missed taking care of the chickens, I knew that it gave Dad something to do and that was a good thing, especially for the chickens.
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