Grief is a sacred journey

To Forget and To Remember

Virginia Pepitone ~1995

Virginia Pepitone ~1995

The phone rang. That made twenty-two calls from my mother-in-law Virginia that afternoon. I knew because my phone counts how many times a particular number dials my house on a given day. My house phone is the only phone number Virginia remembers. No matter who she wants to call, she dials what was once her only child’s number. It doesn’t matter that he died in 2008.

“Elaine?” Her raspy voice quivers with confusion. She didn’t expect to hear my voice. “Hi, Virginia. Who did you want to call?”

Benny, Vic, & Virginia 1991

Benny, Vic, & Virginia 1991

“Benny. I want him to pick me up and take me home.” Benny, her second husband, died twenty-five years ago. Home is Connecticut where she hasn’t lived for forty years. Sometimes she wants one of her two living sisters, but usually she wants to talk to someone who is dead.

Virginia turns one hundred on January 24, 2016. Last week, I mentioned the upcoming party.

“I’m not 100,” she said with a dismissive twist of her Italian hand.

“What year were you born?” I asked.

“1916,” she answered without hesitating.

“So this is 2016 and that makes you 100.” She frowned and looked the other day. Reason doesn’t convince her—or most of us.

Family birthday party in December

Family birthday party in December, 20015

My sons, daughter-in-law, and I had a family party when they were home before Christmas. I went to Virginia’s apartment that morning to get the grocery list her health aides made for me.

“You know what I want?” Virginia asked. I was surprised since she rarely asks for anything except dead people or home.

“No, what do you want?”

“I want a sfogliatella .”

“A sfogliatella? I remember those,” I said. Sfoglitella (sfo-ia-tel-la) is a shell-shaped flaky pastry with ricotta cheese filling and a touch of citron. Not too sweet. They’re from Naples, Italy where Virginia’s family originated.

“You bought those at an Italian bakery in Connecticut and brought them when you visited. Vic loved them, too. I’ve never seen them in Ithaca.”

“Are we in Ithaca?”

“Yes. Those pastries aren’t available here.” Sfogliatella

“Oh, all right,” she said with an exasperated sigh.

Just in case, I asked at Wegmans Grocery. The baker at the counter hadn’t heard of them, but insisted I talk to the head of the bakery department.

“Have you ever heard of a sfogliatella?” I asked.

“Hmmm… We have some of those frozen. We’ll put them in the oven and you can pick them up in 45 minutes.” Along with Virginia’s request for pizza, salad, chocolate cake, and ice cream (Neopolitan, of course), I took her six pastries. She ate them all in two days.

“You only live to be 100 once,” everyone reminded me. Her health aides and McGraw House staff wanted to celebrate this unusual achievement for a resident. I bowed to social pressure for a second party.

Virginia with her son Vic ~1946

Virginia with her son Vic ~1946

“We’re having a birthday party for you here at McGraw House, Virginia.”

“I don’t want a birthday party.” I’ve known Virginia nearly fifty years. I assure you she loves a party.

“But other people want to celebrate your life, Virginia.”

“How old am I?”


“No, I am not.”

Virginia with her favorite friend Willow

Virginia with her best buddy Willow

“What year were you born?”

“1916.” I do the math.

“No, I am not…”

I ordered a “Happy 100 Years” cake and bought party plates, napkins, and red paper cups. I made a food list including a box of Clementines. Italians love fruit. I hired Virginia’s kind health aide Dawn to dress her, fluff her hair, and help her during the party. I planned to be hostess and take photographs.

There was just one thing left to do. I needed to have a talk with the voice in my head who keeps asking, “Wasn’t there something else you wanted to do with your life?”


Next week, I’ll let you know how the birthday party went. Has anyone in your family turned one hundred? Were they well enough to enjoy the celebration? Do you have other good birthday party stories to tell?

My relationship with Virginia has been complicated from the first time her son brought me home to meet her in 1967. For other stories about Virginia and me, see Mother-in-Law Blues: Lessons in ‘Don’t Bite the Hook and Learning to Forgive.

  1. Bless you, Elaine. I find this SO reassuring and validating:

    “There was just one thing left to do. I needed to have a talk with the voice in my head who keeps asking, “Wasn’t there something else you wanted to do with your life?”

    thanks for always sharing the WHOLE truth! Caregiving, even of a beloved family member, is sometimes so taxing–especially for those family members who suffer from mental issues and/or dementia.

    You have my deep respect–not just for all you give but for your unwavering honesty.

    with love,

    • Thank you, Ava. After 45 years and some truly terrible times since Vic’s death, my mother-in-law has decided I’m not so bad after all. I’ll write about that next week. I knew she blamed me Vic’s death because she had to blame someone, but it was painful to be the scapegoat. Many deep lessons in “Don’t Bite the Hook.”

      Doesn’t everyone have a few voices going on in their head, all with different opinions a given situation? As more people I know need support and as my brother becomes more frail, I do have to remember to nurture my own soul and creative needs. And also the body. Sending love back to you.

  2. My Aunt Cecilia turned 100 last March. She was and still is ambulatory, coherent, and able to enjoy her party fully. My Aunt Ruthie will turn 98 this year and, like Virginia is helpless in the ways that count most. She’ll be baffled by her birthday party.

    I’m not being sarcastic when I ask “Is there a voice in your head telling you Virginia may be the topic of your next memoir, The Caregiver’s Dilemma? Ironic, but not sarcastic.

    You are doing the best you can, Elaine, better than your best actually. By the way, your daughter-in-law is beautiful.

    • Marian, Virginia wasn’t one bit baffled by her birthday party. She rose to the occasion and had a wonderful time. She’s an interesting mix of completely there in the moment and able to remember all sorts of things from the past such as favorite pastries. Yesterday, I watched her take part in a conversation with family members who came to visit this week. She remembered everything and even seems to accept that she’s 100 years ago. We all did the math again. 😉 I could write a book about Virginia. I could have said so much more in ‘Leaning into Love’ but decided it wasn’t the point of the book. At the very last, I’ll write one more blog about the birthday party.

      My daughter-in-law is beautiful and very loving. She and my son (the one with the baseball hat in the photo) are building a wonderful life together. You can just barely see in this photo that there’s a five pound chihuahua nestled between Virginia and Liz. Virginia loves that snuggly dog. We’re lucky in so many ways.

  3. Beautiful Tribute to the Mom of Beloved Vic! Life has ironies and tears and honey,
    mixed together in a fascinating pastry, well worth chewing reflectively….LOVE…

    • Thank you, dear Michael. At some of our hardest moments, people asked why I stuck with her rather than walking away. I could not abandon her. She was Vic’s mom and her body birthed him. I knew I had to stick with her until the end, but I did not expect this glimpse of healing–or the wonderful birthday party which I’m writing about now. There is honey in those pastries–a distant cousin of baklava. And you are a poet.

  4. You’re an outstanding example of compassion, tolerance and wisdom Elaine. You’ve taken your lumps with your mother-in-law and remain her faithful aide because of your compassion, and I’m sure also for respect to Vic. How sad it must be to live to a wonderful ripe old age when your spouse and so many, if not all of your friends have passed on, and most heart-breaking to have surpassed the life of your own child.
    I have no longevity in my lineage, sadly. In fact, only one grandfather lived till 84, This is not inspiring believe me. I’m hoping to break that trend. 🙂

    • Hi Debby, Virginia has had a hard life for sure, beginning with Vic’s father’s desertion soon after they married. She always had friends, but many of them are gone now. The hardest blow, of course, was Vic’s death and her response to that was anger. I knew there were tears underneath. The tears are coming now.

      I don’t aspire to be very old. I don’t see much to recommend about it unless we’re one of the lucky ones who has great health. Until the last year or so, Virginia has had great health and she still does–for her age. No one expects much of 100. So I aspire to stay vital and have a clear mind.

      • I agree Elaine. We strive to keep ourselves healthy to enjoy our older years. I don’t think I’d want to live to 100 in poor health, that’s for sure. But God bless those who still thrive. 🙂

        • The amount of loss someone has to deal with by the time they’re 100 is overwhelming. It doesn’t look like a good idea to me, but then I’m not in charge. That’s a good thing.

  5. Dear Elaine, What a wonderful, fitting tribute to your mother-in-law, Virginia as she prepares to celebrate her incredible 100th birthday.

    ‘To Forget and To Remember’ how deeply poignant your title is. Thank you so much for sharing such deep honesty and truth behind the challenges we face when caring for (as Ava rightly says) even a beloved family member. Very much enjoyed all your photos, especially ‘Mother and son, Vic.’

    ‘She was Vic’s mom and her body birthed him.’ Beautiful, poetic and deeply heartfelt.

    ‘Wasn’t there something else you meant to do with your life?’ Oh wow! What a great question.

    I love your question, it really struck a chord with me. A question that came to me countless times throughout the day as a young mother of two small girls. I desperately wanted to be writing, and studying yet felt for many years that I had to choose between either being a full-time mother or having a career. Luckily for me I eventually found a way to do both.

    I hope the day finds you well. Blessings, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. I had that same question when my sons were young and life was centered around caring for them. I had a sense of expansive endless time then. I feel time is shorter now for good reason. My relationship with Vic’s mom has been difficult since the 1960s. A transformation began taking place last year. As she becomes a little more confused (although she’s not always confused) and needs more help, she’s softening and becoming less defensive and anger. I had a similar experience with my own mother who became accessible as she became demented and expressed pain she had held for forty years. When I felt my mom’s pain, the distance between us melted.

      I have one more piece in the queue about Vic’s mom’s birthday party. There were healing surprises that day. I’m glad the celebration which went on a few days with visits from her family is over. I want to spend more time on mythology and preparing for the workshop with Jean Raffa in March. Before Jean and I had a Skype planning meeting yesterday, I gathered images I’d painted during Vic’s illness and after his death. We’ll use them as illustrations of working with grief through dreams and mythology. This mythological work is leading somewhere, but I have to trust for now, keep working, and see what happens because my conscious mind doesn’t have a clear view or map.

      I send blessings back to you, dear Deborah.

  6. You are a poet also, Elaine. I love how you use pure description without shading and then end with the voice in your head to let us know that this kind of caregiving to one who has caused you pain has cost you twice. Or more.

    And that is why your CHOICE to continue caring will free you.

    Many blessings. Can’t wait for the rest of the story.

    • Thank you, Shirley. Since Vic’s cancer diagnosis, I knew his mom would be my responsibility. He didn’t ask me to take care of her. Not once. But she had no one else, so I moved her from FL to Ithaca during a summer when Vic felt reasonably well. (That was a nightmare. I hope I do better when it’s time for me to leave my house.) I knew I couldn’t help her if she lived in FL and she was already in her 90s then. I’ve often cared for her needs grudgingly. I admired her spunk and vitality but didn’t like her accusations and blame. I admired the way she stuck by her only child when she was deserted by Vic’s dad after their marriage. She did not have an easy life. I knew she disliked me because she would have disliked anyone her son loved.

      The birthday party was moment of transformation for us. I’ve written about it for next week and took photos at the party. Now all I need is a good title.

  7. Thanks Elaine, this is lovely. I love how you say that Virginia is the person who birthed Vic so there is that aspect that features strongly in your choice to care for her as best you can and to help make her time left on earth more memorable in her healing. She will die in peace and you will have played a great part in that. What better gift can one give to another? As you did for Vic and family and as you continue to do.

    • Susan, Virginia has been a shadow figure, the primary shadow figure for me, most of my life. If anyone asked me to do an exercise and imagine the person who was most upsetting or difficult for me (those questions get asked when we go to Jungian workshops), it was Virginia. Always. It’s a long history. I’ve written about it some and have a piece I haven’t made public about the first time I met her (from my perspective, of course). The biggest reward for me is that I no longer project the shadow on her. She became physically fragile and softened psychologically the last year. I stopped resenting her so much and accepted the situation. My reward is feeling there has been some movement toward consciousness in my life.

  8. Funny, the thing I responded to most was included in a comment by Ava Hayes, the very first person to respond. Proof that you so often hit the emotional/intuitive target on the nose. I don’t remember who said it, it may have been Anthony, but “Big students get big lessons”. Well, you are among the biggest students and one of the best teachers! Keep on pushing sister.

    • Thank you, Brother Dennis. My long history with Virginia was filled with animosity and flares. She yelled and ranted. I was an ice cube. She stopped acting out about a year ago and dropped her list of complaints. When she mellowed, I began melting. The change feels mysterious and tucked away in the unconscious. I often look to dreams to clarify what my conscious mind doesn’t get, but dreams haven’t helped me understand this turn around. So I’ll just be grateful.

  9. The things you don’t say about caring for your mother-in-law speak eloquently alongside what you have chosen to relay.

    Almost a year ago, my great-aunt Virginia passed just before her 95th birthday. She had no children of her own, but her nieces, nephews, and their descendants all claimed her as our own. She’d been determined to make it to 100, and at her 94th celebration the year before she said,”They’ve all been good years.”

    However, memory and mobility couldn’t hold out that long. We were blessed to have her with us as long as we did, and we were doubly-blessed that she remained a positive picture of southern grace and manners (even while being quite stubborn at times). Even so, during the last few years her care became more difficult at times.

    • Taking care of Virginia’s needs has been a struggle, Teresa, especially in recent years when she needed help and stubbornly refused it. After a particularly bad fall and because she’s nearly blind, I told her she had to accept health aides or I was turning responsibility for her over to Adult Protection Services. I had power of attorney and was her health proxy and handled finances and did all her shopping, but those things didn’t persuade her. She gave in because I stopped bringing my dog to her house twice a week. She could do without me, but not without Willow.

      Your aunt sounds like a sweetie. I aspire to have my family speak of me in this way. It is not easy aging gracefully I’m finding. Big spiritual lessons in our helplessness and need.

  10. Wonderful story. I just saw Lady in the Van. A wonderful portrayal of eccentric old age. Write that book, Elaine.

    • Wow, Beryl. You must mean a book about Virginia. Do I have to? No matter what I do, stories and lessons about Virginia will sneak in as examples.

  11. 100 years old, huh. I’m sure we don’t get nicer or easier to be with as we reach this point in our lives. If we are lucky enough to live that long. I need to remind myself, as I interact with my own mom and an elderly friend, that even when it gets frustrating (22 phone calls in one afternoon?), treat them like I’d want to be treated. You’re a star, Elaine.

    • Actually, Virginia has gotten much nicer in the last couple of years. We had major battles about her need for help. McGraw House, the senior residence where she lives, threatened to throw her out for cooking and setting off fire alarms. Cooking when blind? That’s Virginia. She had a particularly bad fall and I gave her an ultimatum. She now has help about seven hours a day with women who work for others in the building and look in on her even when they aren’t on duty. This has brought in more friends, so she’s not alone, she’s getting better food, and she feels safer and less defensive. Her birthday party which I will write about this week was beyond expectation for both of us. Change happens if we wait long enough.

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