Lou Gydesen can recall the day, more than 70 years ago, that he met Darlene. They were working together at Patsy Motors, and Darlene came in during a meeting looking for a seat at the table.
“Sit next to me,” Lou said. He smiles. “I haven’t been able to get rid of her since.”
But when Darlene mentioned that Lou’s creeping dementia caused him to fail a driving test, he looked startled.
“I can’t drive?” he said. “If I can’t drive, bury me.”
“He thinks he drove last week, but it’s been a year,” said his daughter, Terry.
She and brother Scott have been leading their parents through tough times. Lou’s memory is slipping away. Darlene’s stroke has slowed her down. They both use walkers to get around the house.
They recently sold the family house in Inver Grove Heights where they had lived for 31 years. It was a painful moment, especially for Darlene, who had to give up decades of collecting, decades of memories.
Terry, a freelance photographer whose body of work includes emotional coverage of Paul Wellstone’s campaign, has combined her caregiving and her journalism. She has chronicled the touching and haunting moments in the family’s lives as her parents moved from the home they loved into an assisted living facility.
Two weeks ago, Terry drove her mother to the house while they set up the family’s estate sale.
“It’s going to be hard,” Terry told Darlene.
“I know,” Darlene said.
Inside the home, all the possessions Darlene and Louie had collected during 67 years of marriage were arranged on tables or displayed in laundry baskets. The china and crystal were arranged neatly on shelves. There were purses and tea cups and Christmas decorations and Hummel figurines. Each contained a memory of a long life lived well.
There was the pair of black high heels with rhinestones. Darlene told Terry it was the first really good pair of shoes she’d bought, right around the time she met Lou. Even though they didn’t fit her anymore, she’d kept them.
“It’s clear where the sentimental sap side of me comes from,” Terry said.
The shoes had not yet been priced, but both Terry and Darlene knew they were priceless.
On her website, Terry wrote: “As we got into the car to pull out of the driveway I looked over at [Mom] and could see the tears streaming down her face. I took her hand and she said this was the hardest day of her life. I squeezed her hand and said I know it is. It was the most significant moment I’ve ever had with my mother. We are both learning about letting go.”
The Gydesens seem to be settling in at the assisted-living condos, the third they’ve tried since moving out of the house. Darlene was an amateur painter, so the kids brought most of her works and put them in the same rooms as they were in the old house to add familiarity.
Sitting in their new apartment, Darlene talked about their lives. How they traveled around the country in a 34-foot Winnebago, making friends that they kept for years. Terry documented part of those trips for a project she did on “snowbirds” for the Minnesota History Center.
“It was like carrying our own condo with us,” said Darlene. “If it was raining we could just pull into a Wal-Mart parking lot and make lunch.”
Lou began to experience memory loss nearly 20 years ago, around the time Darlene had a stroke. They had traveled the country for years, but as their health waned, their world got smaller and smaller.
They continued to go to Naples every winter, until a year ago, when her father looked at Terry and said, “We’re not coming back down here, are we?”
As Darlene talked about their trips, there was a long pause. “I guess our traveling days are not meant to be anymore,” she said.
“What was the name of your restaurant in Bayport, Dad?” Terry asked.
“Damned if I know,” Lou said.
Lou’s memory loss baffles and angers him, Terry said. When they went to Target, he asked when they put the big red circle on the building.
“He’s kind of like a little kid,” she said. “Everything is new to him.”
Lou owned restaurants and a chain of Orange Julius shops, and before that he had been a traveling salesman. When he was on the road he wrote Darlene letters on the hotel stationery in each town. She kept those.
Asked about the toughest part of moving into assisted living, Darlene said: “I didn’t know I had so many things, and it’s sad parting with them. They were just little things, but they meant a lot to me.”
The old house was on a golf course, the new place is on a busy street in Edina.
“We used to sit on the deck and watch the golfers,” Darlene said. “Now, we watch the traffic. Lots of traffic.”
The hardest part, though, has been watching Lou’s memory slip away.
“It’s when Lou doesn’t answer things right. I feel bad. I hope people here understand,” Darlene said. “The people here seem very nice though.”
Terry went to the house the first day of the sale. A couple entered and asked about the vintage baby clothes, most of which had belonged to Terry.
“They swept up all the baby clothes,” said Terry. “That’s when I had to leave.”
The night before the sale, though Terry had gone back to the house. The black high heels her mother wore when she dated Lou were finally marked with a price, $12.75.
Terry bought the shoes.
For more of Terry’s photos and story: http://terrygydesen.com/louie-and-darlene-gydesen-story/letting-go.
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