top of page

Subscribe to Epiloguer • Don’t miss out!

Thanks for subscribing!

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Bright yellow egg-shaped shakers, it appears, are highly prized items in senior song settings. We discovered this quite by accident while playing music in a small adult family home.

One of the residents, who recently celebrated her 98th birthday, expressed frustration every time we came because she could not sing, though she loved music. One day I found at the bottom of my purse a leftover shaker from band practice, which I handed to her.

Throughout the hour, she experimented with the sound. Basic shaking came first. Then as her confidence grew, so did her repertoire of sounds until she soon could do not only the first beat, but the subtleties in between the measures as well. As we were saying our goodbyes, she remarked, “I can’t sing, but I loved doing this. I was able to participate.”

Because of this reaction, we began to bring other eggs shakers to pass out before performances. And we noticed something unexpected. Sometimes, like our 98 year-old friend, making rhythm came naturally. However, other times, the shakers would sit unused until between songs. Watching from the front I would see listeners pick up the egg and roll it around in their hands, as if examining it under some kind of microscope. Then experiments would begin in the pause between songs. A shake here, a roll there…like explorers in uncharted territory.

For some,however, the shakers became an invitation to boldness. One senior, notable for a sometimes surly response to the world, became the lead shaker in a large group setting.

From her chair at a table, her shaking of the egg became more complex and rhythmic until it seemed the very movement itself compelled her out of the chair and across the room to where we stood. Leaning on a support post beside me, nearly blind and hard of hearing, she stood and sang full volume, her feet, moving in time to the shaking of the egg in her hand.

The shaker moved her from discontent to bold leadership. When an old favorite tune ended, she stood, marched up to us again, and started a new chorus of the song, leading the room in an acapella reprise of one of her favorite songs. In the end, when we went to greet after the music was done, she announced,

This was the best day of my life.

But these best days come ”at a cost.”. Though we arrive at our senior sing-a-longs with a certain number, and though we always say we are collecting them, new "owners" are reluctant to give them up. They get slipped under napkins on the table or into pockets or into purses. We know this is true because as we wander, we hear the telltale signs of the rattlesnake-like rhythm punctuating the air. A little like a game of hide and seek, when we are near, quiet reigns. But as we move away, we hear the quiet rattling dares of captive eggs in the hands of their kidnappers.

After seeing this pattern develop, it occurred to me that apparently, that egg-shaped shaker is not just a noise maker. It is a symbol of what happens when people gather to relive memories through music and create new ones through participation. It is a symbol of curiosity about things that are new. And it is a symbol of what a person can still do well when other abilities are gone.

Someday, good Lord willing, it will be me sitting in that dining room while someone is singing the songs of my youth… Crosby Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and, yes, Arrowsmith. And I hope when they do, that someone hands me a shaker. Something small that fits in the palm of my hand and is brightly colored so I don’t lose it through blurred vision.

Something that gives me permission to be part of the music and not just a silent subject.

And when they do, I want to shake it with every fiber of what’s left of my body. I want to shake it as my primal victory cry to the world that I made it…

I sang my song…I lived my life.

And no matter what lies ahead, I want to shake with all of my being to announce to the world that I will live, to my last breath, not on the sidelines of life, but celebrating the life song I was given with a joyful noise.

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Over five decades ago, my mother took my brother and I to meet our grandfather and aunt for the first time in her hometown of Frankfurt, Germany.

Having heard stories of her war time experiences and of her father’s resistance to the policies of Hitler, the trip to this “exotic” place during our high school years held the promise of finding a piece of ourselves there in her homeland and our heritage.

She and her little sister had a complex relationship, which we only knew through mom’s stories. My mom left everything behind to start a new life in America as a military wife and became a card carrying member member of the lower middle class. Her sister remained in Frankfurt to continue a path towards wealth and social status.

Aunt Charlotte, for whom I am named, greeted me warmly that first day and, holding my hand, walked me upstairs to her bedroom which had one wall of mirrors. She put her arm around my shoulder and looking into our reflections in the mirrored wall, announced in broken English, “We look like each other…”

It was meant as a compliment, but for the remainder of our stay, I took note of her poor treatment of my mom, bordering on distain, it seemed. Mom seemed destined to be thought of as “the poor relation,” lacking manners and class, however that was decided in Aunt Charlotte’s world.

And so I didn’t want to “look like her.”

But secretly, I think Aunt Charlotte admired her older sister Irene. Irene was the adventurer who literally sailed the seas as she followed my dad to various military assignments. She was the one who traveled the globe, four children in tow. She was the one always conquering new challenges in a foreign land with vigor and with joy.

Over time, mom stopped communicating altogether with Aunt Charlotte, feeling acutely the sting of her critical spirit. Often she would regale me with tales of all of the slights, and an unforgiving spirit settled into her.

One day, exasperated, I just tried to set her right.

Someday you will both be gone, and you will have lived all this time without the one person who shares a history with you.

She took the counsel reluctantly to heart and reached out, a gesture which reunited them after a long absence and kept them in communication until my mom’s death at 95.

Towards the end of her life, mom would often recount how she and her sister had talked about their reunification in heaven, a thought that seemed to give her great joy.

Today, my brother let me know that Aunt Charlotte had passed at the age of almost 98. Though she and I never had a relationship, she was our last connection to my mother’s homeland…our last living relative of that generation, and it filled me with deep sadness at the loss.

When I called one of my daughters to let her know, after expressing her sympathy, she said,

You are the matriarch of the family now.

And that is a statement that will take awhile to assimilate.

In time I will perhaps grasp the significance of that mantle and assume it gracefully, but at the moment, it comes wrapped with some uncertainty for me.

But also in this moment, I am certain of this one thing: for years, my mom looked forward to spending eternity with her sister, Charlotte, and today she is doing just that.

And someday, so will I.

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Someday I will no longer have to worry about how the dishwasher is loaded. Being just a tad bit OCD, loading it up in "perfect order" has been one of the few joys of housekeeping.

Like a master puzzle maker, everything sorted according to its size and shape, the goal has always been to use every square inch of space, in an orderly fashion of course.

I tell myself that it is to "save water" and the planet in the process, but really, in a world spinning out of control, it is one of the few tasks that brings peace and order to a chaotic world.

I lost that job when my 95 year old mom moved in. I did not lose it right away, but in tiny increments as her dementia deepened. Though it was her decision to move in, for the first four months she "raged against the machine", which in this case was me. Hurtful things came out of her mouth, reminiscent of the less than affectionate barbs slipped into conversation throughout my life.

But in those hard times, I made a conscious choice to just love her, regardless of the emotional climate. Whether it was that determination or the progress of her disease, something in her turned, and she began a transformation into a loving, gracious person…someone I had not experienced most of my life.

I think, though, that probably it was the dishes that turned the tide. Your see, she wanted to be helpful, and washing dishes was a joy from her childhood, so I agreed she could "pre-wash" them. She would get up from our shared table each morning after breakfast and totter as though intoxicated, carrying our dishes to the sink. Like a new mom, I would hover to make sure things did not get dropped.

Then I remembered that broken dishes can be replaced, but stolen dignity could not. It was a lesson I would have to learn over and again.

What started out as a quick rinse, as she progressed in her decline, became a ritual that grew each day. "I am going to do the dishes now," she would announce, and I would remove myself to let her do it all by herself. Many mornings, I sat and watched her stare out the window lost in thought, and I would wait for inspiration to return for the task at hand. Then an inner light would switch on and she would shuffle over to the sink, dishes shaking like small buildings in an earthquake, her slow almost crablike walk creating an arrhythmic thump on the tile floor.

Then the water would be turned on and I would hear the dishes being washed one at a time and set on the sink floor. A few moments would pass, and then she would turn the water on and wash them again, not out of cleanliness but forgetfulness. Over time, my teeth would no longer grind as I listened.

It is just water. And she is happy.

Every day when finished, she would come in and proudly announce the dishes were done. Often she would take my hand and lead me into the kitchen, unaware that I had been surveying her work from a distance, watching her glide like a manta ray on the ocean floor over the counters looking for things to wash and organize.

"I don't know what we would do without you,” I would tell her every time. Her face would shine like a schoolgirl who had just passed an important exam. Doing the dishes had given meaning to her life.

The newest wrinkle developed over time. A towel would get placed on the counter, and she would create a little pocket to put the silverware in and then place the washed dishes on the remaining towel. One day I opened up the cupboard and found the "washed dishes" - traces of breakfast still intact on the sides, neatly stacked.

I thought to myself, "It is time to teach her how to load the dishwasher."

We all worry so much about legacy, or maybe it is just me, wanting it to be something deep and meaningful. But this, after 95 years, was hers: She washed dishes....with great tenderness and great love. It was her act of sacrifice, done for me, the daughter she has come to love openly as we wander through this journey to the end of her life.

Someday, I will be efficient and save water and do my little organizing task with great planning and orderliness, and the sound of her shuffling across the floor and the rattle of dishes will be only a memory that haunts this house. But today, I will teach her how to load the dishwasher. It will be messy and chaotic and will, in all likelihood, turn a five minute task into an hour long ordeal. But in the end, what we will have together is something better than order...

We will have love made visible in the chaos... (Note: My mom died two days after I wrote this draft. On her last day on earth, she loaded the dishwasher and raked leaves...what she would have called a perfect day

Subscribe to the blog• Don’t miss out!

Thanks for subscribing!

bottom of page