Christmas Boxes of Boxes

S.A.Leys Photo

I’m sitting here looking at the snow thinking… (I know – never a good thing right?) Years ago, around this time (probably a few weeks sooner..) the dreaded day would come when the truck arrived outside of my dad’s clothing store with our delivery of Christmas boxes. The doorbell to the stockroom would ring and parked outside would be an 18 wheeler truck filled with 108 (the most I remember) boxes of boxes.

We’d (my dad, brother and I) would have to find enough room in the stockroom to put them all – so they’d go upstairs and anywhere else we could fit them until they could be unpacked, folded together, ribbons and tissue added and then delivered to each department. It was the most anxiety-provoking of days – worse than black Friday or the day after Christmas when we had the perfect storm of store returns and sales.

Yesterday I was on the phone (for over an hour) with a woman who does grief and eldercare consulting nationally. She told me about the importance of storytelling and playing the stories of the people we love who have died – completely through from beginning to end because they always have good, funny parts in them. She told me that sometimes when we experience grief, we get to the tough part and just stop at (or get stuck with) the sadness instead of going all the way through the story to the end.

The anxiety-provoking truck of boxes filled with boxes is the worst of the Christmas box story.

The funniest was the year we decided to pull a joke on my dad and wrap all of his Christmas gifts in boxes from other stores – we had Talbots boxes, Macy’s boxes, Cherry and Webb boxes, Wilsons of Wickford, Narragansett, and JC Penny. It was funny to watch him as he became more frustrated upon opening each box – “why didn’t you just stay on the island?” he asked. We continued laughing as all of the boxes stacked up on the floor. It was at that point he stopped and looked at us – and then looked at the labels on the clothes. He realized that the majority of the labels (except for the ski clothes) were from his store.

Fast forward to several years later when we were unwrapping gifts one Christmas in Florida. He unwrapped a gift from friends of ours to see it in a Leys box. We all started laughing as the store had been closed for years – “are those things still around?” he asked.

After mom died, I was packing up her apartment at Blenheim and was at the post office sending something to my brother. The man behind the counter saw the name on my card and asked “are you THAT Leys?”. I said, “no, not the red-haired ones, we’re the other side of the family”. “I sure miss that store,” he said “I can’t find a Barracuta jacket anywhere!” – When he said it, I realized I missed all of those fun times; even the boxes of boxes. But I’m glad the stories and great memories are still with me.

“They’re On The Boat”

S.A.Leys Photo / http://www.SALeys.photo

Mom’s vascular dementia came on quickly – within two weeks of my Dad’s death.

It took us all a bit of time to adjust. Initially, it was hard even to figure out which end was up, and we just went day by day trying to figure everything out. After a few months, however, we settled into figuring out a routine that would work for us to get mom to all of her appointments while also keeping track of shopping and meal prep and everything that needed maintenance around the house.

It was a scrappy start, but we slowly got to the point where we could figure everything out. One of the biggest (and probably the most heart-wrenching) challenges was mom realizing that her memory was going, and then trying to navigate that with her. Eventually, we settled on the idea that “this is what happens when you get old” and not calling it something more clinical that no one was ready to hear.

It was the “elephant in the middle of the room” that we just referred to as “it’s what happens when you get old” instead of “vascular dementia.”

One day mom dropped a full glass of Merlot on the white carpet next to her chair. When it happened, she was overwhelmed, and so we had her move to the couch so we could move the chair and clean the area around it quickly. She then forgot about it.

A few days went by, and then one morning, she sat with her coffee and read the paper. As she reached for her coffee, she noticed the faint stain (which my brother and I had unsuccessfully tried to clean multiple times).
“What’s this?” she asked. “Ah, I was klutzy,” I said. “Susan Ann!” – her response. It was a lot better to take responsibility for the spill than it was to see the immensely sad look on her face that accompanied her realization that her memory was fading very fast.

I don’t know that you ever realize how intense caregiving is when you’re “in it” – only when it’s behind you, and you have time to reflect and adjust and yes, grieve and remember. For the most part, I am incredibly grateful for the time we had together. It was nice to step off the treadmill of working like a nut and calling Mom and Dad every few days to check how things were going to spending time with them in person. We enjoyed being together even if a huge chunk of that time involved driving to appointments, buying groceries, or meeting with healthcare providers and the hospice team.

Whenever we fell into the “doughnut hole” with her medications, we talked about the doctors that she didn’t want to see anymore and the medications she didn’t want to take because of how they made her feel.

Thankfully, the doctor who ended up treating her was the one she loved the most. A very compassionate man who agreed to care for her while we remained in their home – helping us and supporting us through each difficult decision as it arrived.

We laughed a lot, thoroughly enjoyed going on picnics in our golf cart, and loved watching the dolphins and manatees swimming out in Sarasota Bay (the video above was filmed during one of those picnics). My other favorite part was listening to her critique of the houses in our neighborhood, especially as it related to color choice, texture, and design.

Probably one of the things that made me the most anxious during that time was when mom couldn’t find her glasses. We had an abundance of “cheater readers” around the house, so the challenge was navigating around the cheaters to find her prescription glasses so she could read or sign whatever was in front of her. “Here, they are!” I would say while handing her the glasses I had in my hand. “No, those are magnifiers,” she’d say. It was frustrating, as many of them had the same shape frames.

Mom and Dad (who together battled autoimmune illnesses for 25 of the 60 year they were married) both have been watching over us from heaven for a few years now. A few weeks ago, in searching for my glasses, I ran across Mom’s. I thought “here they are!” – half expecting her to be sitting on the sofa in my place saying, “Oh good, you found them!”. But this wasn’t the case, and as I held them in my hand, I found myself relieved of that same anxiety I felt whenever I would be searching for them.

I decided to put them where I know I would be able to find them easily if needed – they’re on the boat.

“I’ve Got The Cat!”

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It’s a little nutty when you think about it.

It wasn’t easy for me to leave New England to start a new job for a few reasons, but the one that was most bothersome for me was not being able to see the flowers at mom and dad’s grave site.

I’m not really sure what started this idea, but I think it was the fact that I wasn’t ready for mom to go when she died.  And I know that the time of anyone’s death is not anything you can ever control; but mom’s death just took the wind out of my sails for a bit.

So after their burial service, when everyone had gone and my brother had flown out and I was on my way back home to New Hampshire, I stopped into the cemetery to say good bye and take one last look at the flowers we had left knowing they would be gone the next time I was there. As I stood looking at the tombstone I thought “nope, can’t do it”.

I felt like I needed to leave something a little more “in line” with our family so I got back in the car and drove down to Chaves where I found this little cat who has been “guarding”… okay maybe “watching over” mom and dad since their burial service. 

In a way that I really can’t explain, there’s something reassuring about this teeny little kitten just hanging out with mom and dad that always makes me feel a little bit better and more reassured. This is especially true now that I am now in Maryland and can’t stop in to see the flowers or speak with them as much as I had when I lived in New Hampshire. 

As mom had always loved planting flowers in the cemetery, we left a few bulbs thinking no one would really notice and when they came up, they would help shade the kitten that was watching over them. It was the perfect plan. And yes, I thought of leaving a Christmas tree with blinking lights but even I know that there needs to be a little dash of tact when dealing with the “things to leave at the cemetery” issue. 

So this week, my brother went to meet with our accountant and stopped into the cemetery to check on things (as instructed by me, his neurotic sister, who wanted to make sure the cat was okay and the box of greens left at Christmas had been moved so the flowers could come up in time for Spring). 

But today, he called me to say there was a huge sign posted at the entrance to the cemetery that said that on April 10th they were going to remove everything from the cemetery except for flags for veterans. This news made me a little apoplectic – not only because of our guardian kitten but because I still haven’t heard from the person responsible for making sure there is a flag in the cemetery for dad on veterans day and Memorial Day.

Anyhoo – Luckily my brother noticed the sign and called me with his report.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got the cat!!” he said.

It was funny in that he also realized the importance and significance of its presence at the cemetery. It’s like “if anyone in our family is anywhere, there must always be a cat”. “I’m taking it with me to Florida” he said “its not like it’s going to take up a lot of extra room in my luggage”. 

“You should probably give it a little bath” I told him.

“Already did” he said. We both were reassured our little guardian kitten would stay with us instead of being absconded by someone removing everything from the cemetery.


Sometimes when I go to the cemetery I can almost hear mom: “you know we’re not here right?” – which I understand. But there’s something about having an access point that’s a little more tangible than a prayer or a quiet walk on a beach. 

Maybe that was the point of it all – to get families out of the cemetery and talking to each other instead of standing in a cold, quiet New England church yard staring at a slate tombstone.  Now if I want to see the cat I have to go to Florida to see Scott and Trey (his Maine Coon cat). 

But there’s something about the transition of our “watch cat” that has disrupted my true north.