I wasn’t expecting the decorated doors. But as I searched for No. 210 while trudging down the narrow hallway, lugging a carton of sheets and towels, the doors slowed me down. Each revealed the personality of the inhabitant behind it — cartoonish paper bunnies in mid-hop at varying angles, a stick-on sign with “Enter at Your Own Risk” printed above a grinning emoji, a bright yellow sun. I examined each one. After all, these would be her neighbors.
It’s a common rite of passage near the end of August, parents helping teens move into freshman dorms on college campuses. But behind these particular doors weren’t students. They were aging parents relocated here with a few furnishings, family photos and knickknacks, bits and pieces reminding them of their previous lives. As a mother and a daughter, I suddenly understood how much these solo ventures into the unknown share, even as they happen at near-opposite ends of the arc of life. And for me, the uneasy feeling of leaving a loved one behind a strange closed door was the same.
A whimsical feather dream catcher had instantly adorned my mother’s front door the day we moved her into the apartment. I gazed at it, wondering if it really held protective powers, as I entered carrying the sheets and towels and tripped over her walker. That thing always takes me by surprise, and I often have to stifle an urge to kick it out of the way, out of her life.
My mother, who is a tad forgetful but still has her wit about her, refers to the walker as her “car.” It helps to have a sense of humor when you’re 86 and have to relocate from the familiarity of your two-bedroom Florida condo of 25 years to a one-bedroom in a New Jersey complex where you don’t know anyone.
She’s in an independent-living facility, which is actually the opposite of living independently. Instead of cooking her own meals, she eats in a communal dining room with large round tables that demand socializing. She relies on a shuttle to transport her to essential places, like the bank and the casino in Atlantic City. The facility sends a housekeeper to dust her furniture and scour her shower once a week. There’s a laundry room down the hall, just steps from her apartment, but she likes hand-washing her flowered muumuus and underwear in the bathroom sink, hanging them on a spindly wooden rack in her shower to dry, as she’s done for years. I’m not sure why this self-imposed chore is preferable to a washer and dryer, but I don’t argue with her if it makes her feel as if she’s in control.
For years, my brother and I tried to talk her into selling her condo, mostly for selfish reasons — she’s there, we’re here. But she’s always been fiercely self-sufficient. You have to be when you’re widowed at 52 and your children are grown up and on their own. So she worked until she couldn’t, and she drove to the supermarket until we told her she couldn’t.
“I lost my wings,” she had said tearfully after she sold her Chevy Malibu to an upstairs neighbor. The Malibu, still parked in what was once her spot in the lot in front of her kitchen window, taunted her loss of freedom every day. Perhaps that was why she finally agreed to move. Before she could change her mind, my brother and sister-in-law rushed to secure an apartment 15 minutes from their house.
As I put her things away in the compact space, I remembered it wasn’t too long ago that I had been unpacking my youngest child’s belongings in a barren dorm room at Ithaca College. My older twins had gone together to college, so I knew they would rely on each other, as they always did, if loneliness and fear set in. Allison, six years their junior, had stayed home with me, a single mom desperate to keep the house alive and bubbly for just the two of us.
On college move-in day, as I worried internally about the challenges ahead for my daughter, externally I feigned excitement and happiness for her. That’s just what I was doing while unpacking my mom’s belongings, my words echoing the same hollow encouragement of a few years ago:
“This will feel like home very soon.”
“You’re going to make new friends in no time.”
“I’ll come and visit often.”
But how would my elderly mother cope? Would she belong? Would she be anxious?
Turns out that at 18 or 86, there’s a capacity to adapt. Although I wept inconsolably on leaving my little girl at college, after a few uneasy months she flourished. She learned film production, took on a campus leadership role and met her heartthrob.
As for my mother, the wingless Florida transplant has morphed into a social butterfly, taking her “car” to the first floor every Monday and Friday to play bingo. She’s gone on organized outings to the shore, the mall and, of course, the slot machines. She joined the knitting and crochet group and enjoys all the scheduled entertainment and speakers.
She recently called to tell me about another new friend — no doubt someone like her, attuned to current politics, the greatest films of all time and music. She said they have breakfast together every morning.
“That’s great, Ma,” I said, relieved. “What’s her name?”
She hesitated, then: “I don’t remember.”
Visiting her recently, I noticed that on the inside of her front door she’d taped a photo of herself with a group of women, snapped on a resident trip to a nearby park. On the hallway side, she’d hung a souvenir from a party in the dining room: a brightly colored lei, right next to the protective dream catcher.
Claudia Gryvatz Copquin is a freelance journalist, author and essayist. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.