31 May 2012

Tidying up – on a large scale

Candle banksia flower goes
from yellow to brown with age
I'm using Ms Gillard's carbon-tax top-up for age pensioners to hire someone to help me with the heavier work of reversing too many months of neglect in the garden. (Sorry, my US readers. It's too hard to explain at length what that phrase means. Let's just say we Social Security types are being reimbursed for some of charges that are likely to be heaped onto various good and services, under the pretext that our incoming Carbon Tax warrants these extra costs.) We haven't even received the Prime Minister's donation into our bank account yet and already I've spent it!

Anyway, for the past three weeks I've had 'my guy' in to do 4 or 5 hours of heavier garden tasks. One week he totally weeded and trimmed the hilly bank on the bottom side of the swimming pool terrace, then sprayed the remaining stalks of this very invasive climbing vine with a strong weedkiller. This is what a badly weed-covered section of garden looks like beforehand. The head of a 6ft tall pony tail palm had totally disappeared under these sticky vines, which had climbed up into surrounding palms too. Anyone know the name of this nasty weed? Anyway, for the moment we are rid of it, but I'll have to keep at it as new weed shoots sprout in the spring. We aren't likely to have caught every piece of this vine and its little beans, so some seeds will have been dispersed anew to start another year's crop.

Anyway, the following week Nev spread a thick layer of sugar cane mulch over that entire poolside hill, and also on the hill above the house and carport (picture below), where a few weeks ago neighbour Robbi had kindly trimmed back a half dozen lanky trees – mainly lilly pilly –  which had been overhanging the house's gutters. These are already showing sprouts of the lovely reddish-tinged new foliage that is such an appealing feature of this family of evergreen natives. But unfortunately for the possums, this year they won't be able to race through the boughs and leap onto the roof on this side.

It's just great to see that my agapanthus, which started out as just a few scattered bulbs, have now spread to line the outside edge of the pool fence thickly. These plants are soft enough not to be considered a violation of pool safety, as they can't provide a foothold for curious children trying to climb the fence. And the palms which Allen and I planted about 10 years ago are big enough to provide summer shade on this side of the pool – but they're positioned within the regulation distance from the top of the pool fence.

This week among other things Nev has cut right back all of the messy growth on another sloping terrace - this one between the house's back verandah and the poolside pump-house. That area's more stubborn weed stems have also been spot-sprayed. But there's more work to be done here. I haven't decided whether to keep the spiky mother-in-law's tongue (in the red oval) – I may move them to a large pot, as they look great clustered together that way. The mother-of-millions, however, is a weed (in the yellow oval) and definitely has to go. Next this area will be resprayed and mulched heavily prior to planting a collection of low-growing native shrubs (grevilleas mainly, to attract more birds).

I'm not usually a big sprayer, at least not in garden beds. I usually do the driveway, paths and fenceline a few times a year. But this year too many beds got away from me during Allen's illness, when I went months without having time or energy for any substantial gardening. Added to that we've just had the wettest spring, summer and autumn in a long, long time. And winter isn't proving as dry as usual either. In this climate weeds can grow six feet while your back is turned, and for me at least, there's no alternative to spraying for some persistent problem weeds.

While Nev has been tackling the big jobs, I've been doing my bit on smaller areas like this little triangular patch near the pool gate, where a pair of orange hibiscus gives a dazzling display all summer long. The third shrub here behind the hibiscus is not very evident in this photo, but it's a Brazilian cherry (Eugenia uniflora). I had planted one on the terrace above in the hope of doubling my supply of this wonderful jam-making fruit. Unfortunately, the new bush has borne very little fruit, unlike the original bush down in the paddock, which bears heavily for a long period every year (see the last two photos in this post from November 2010.) But it has spread a number of seedlings in the vicinity, including one in this triangular patch, behind the hibiscus. I've cut that right back and will probably take it out completely, as I strongly suspect this is a very invasive shrub in our environment. However, the reddish-brown tinge on its leaves are also very appealing, as you can see in that 2010 post.

Yesterday evening I finished up by repotting half a dozen bromeliads, and sinking these into the mulch on the little garden bed that borders the path to the studio. I hadn't yet done that when this photo was taken the day before, so I'll show those in a later post. What this photo celebrates, though, is the fact that all of the 'dirty palms' along this path are now tall enough so that the dead fronds are above eye-level! I would never have planted this variety of palm (Alexander palms). They were here when we bought the house in 1996 and by the time I realised I would like to be rid of them, their removal would have cost thousands. So I live with them and have tried to create a little rainforest beneath them. For those who aren't familiar with tropical greenery, the bottom fronds of all palms die off as new fronds form at the top of the growing plant. In so-called dirty palms, however, the dead fronds remain attached for a very long time until eventually they will come crashing down. Clean palms, however, such as those we planted around the pool, drop their dead fronds immediately. Hence they never have the messy look of dirty palms. But though I deplore the long dead fronds that dangle around the trunks of the Alexander palms for months, at least these palms are now tall enough so that the dead fronds are out of sight as you walk down the path. And I must admit, a wonderful collection of wildlife comes to feed on the palm flowers and fruit throughout the year. So I've come to accept this little ecosystem as one of the untidier by-products of a green living space.

27 May 2012

To socialise or not!

Yesterday we went to a neighbourhood party. The occasion was the 87th birthday of a lovely man who is something of a local icon. Like many around here, we are genuinely fond of Dudley, who is a friend to everyone and who spends his mornings eradicating weeds from surrounding bushland, as his contribution to maintaining an environment that he loves. In the afternoon he usually calls in to one or another of our houses for a bit modest socialising. He never stays long, but likes to keep in touch with us all. But the point of my post today is not how deserving Dudley is of being feted by neighbours, for he certainly is and I'm only too happy to acknowledge that. No, my point is that even though we have the highest regard for our friend, I don't think I will subject Allen, or me, to any more such parties with casual acquaintances.

Before we left home yesterday, Allen went through his various 'I have aphasia' cards and selected the one that he thought contained the best message for the occasion. He put this card in his pocket so it would be handy. And he promised me he would produce it when trying to talk to anyone, to help explain his difficulty in communicating and show that he wanted to keep trying.

We live in a friendly neighbourhood, but each house sits on one or more acres of land. This is a hinterland location and there are no footpaths. The meandering road goes up and down hills. People don't walk along our road very much, except to exercise their dog if they don't have a fenced area around their house. So we don't regularly see our neighbours, except when checking the mail or passing each other in cars. We know most of them by sight or from occasional short conversations near a mailbox. Dudley, who visits us all regularly, is something like our town crier, passing on news from house to house. But we've been here since 1996 so by now most of our neighbours know something about the fact that Allen isn't capable of independent living, that he has had a long hospitalisation and that I'm now his carer. I think a few assume he's got dementia or Alzheimer's. We aren't close enough for me to disabuse them of such ideas, but I do try to provide appropriate information whenever the opportunity arises. And for many years until her death, Dudley cared for his own spouse, who did have Alzheimer's. So he, at least, is no stranger to our situation.

Ours is probably the most modest house in the area. Houses across the street sit atop a kind of ridge which offers fabulous views up and down the coast, about 10km away. In the last 10 years most of those properties have been expanded or redeveloped and have sold for between one and three million dollars. So we aren't exactly in the same financial situation as many of our neighbours. We don't belong to local golf or tennis clubs, and we don't regularly travel interstate or internationally as many of them do. All of these things probably contribute to there being a bit of a gulf between 'us' and 'them'. But I doubt if anything contributes more to that gulf than Allen's inability to talk and socialise, and other people's inability, or unwillingness, to try and bridge that gulf.

Allen spent most of the afternoon party sitting by himself, or with me. Most guests said hello to him, and a few asked 'How are you?'. But that's as far as these conversations ever got before people moved away. Allen certainly never got the chance to show his aphasia card, explaining why he was having trouble communicating. I've never been much of a party-goer myself, but Allen was always a very sociable person and would once have been right in his element in any group of this sort. Now it's just too painful for me to watch as conversations pass him by. He can't even get pleasure from listening, because unless people take the trouble to speak slowly and clearly, he won't be able to follow the discussion. I'm not sure it's as difficult for him as it is for me to see that happen. He may be a bit more oblivious and happy to just observe the flow. I tried to question him about this afterwards, but of often happens I couldn't get a clear picture of how he felt.

We have another lunchtime party coming up in a few weeks. These midday affairs are the only kind of parties I would subject Allen to, as noisier night-time gatherings fuelled by alcohol are definitely beyond both us now. But lately even daytime gatherings can be awkward. Any talk in an environment in which several conversations are going on at once is impossible for Allen to comprehend. But this next party is a very dear old friend's family event, celebrating her daughter's impending motherhood. Our girls were born at about the same time, and we've known each other since before their births. Besides, we have a lot more in common with this family and their friends, so there's more chance of 'connecting' in incidental conversation. (I had to laugh yesterday when I heard one guest ask another: "So, you still own that shopping centre?") There may also be more willingness to be inclusive, and to try and help Allen contribute in some way.

I don't want us to end up as hermits up here on our lovely little hilltop. But sometimes one can feel lonelier in a group of people than by oneself.

24 May 2012

(Not) tasting the difference

This moussaka tasted a lot better than it looks here. When I saw lamb mince at the supermarket this week, I suddenly remembered making this dish quite often years ago. So I thought I'd give it another go. It's time-consuming: first cooking the meat sauce, next sprinkling the sliced eggplant with salt and draining it for an hour (though some newer recipes say not to bother with this) followed by quickly grilling (i.e. broiling) the slices, then thickening a white sauce and adding grated cheese and egg – and finally assembling the lot and baking for an hour.

Lately Allen and I have been eating very simple meals. Several times a week, I don't even cook but just grab something like a frozen chicken pie, baked beans or even porridge with trimmings on colder evenings. Allen seems unconcerned as long as there's something on his plate around tea-time. Though he used to enjoy good food as much as I do, now he just doesn't seem to care what he eats. And certain textures give him trouble (e.g. some cuts of meat, stringy vegetables like spinach). So easily managed foods hold more appeal than tasty dishes that are a challenge to handle or chew. Where he once appreciated and welcomed new flavours and spicy foods, now I have to give him much blander meals and add any interesting flavours to my portion only (anything hot, anything spicy etc.) The result is that I'm losing interest in cooking.

Allen couldn't remember ever eating moussaka, but he ate this whole portion. I had to cut up the slightly crusty top, as he's forgotten that knives are best used for cutting, not for pulling things apart with. I couldn't blame him too much for that, though, because my super-efficient oven does crisp up things a bit more than should happen at this temperature. However, the flavour, I thought, was exquisite: hints of nutmeg coming through the custardy topping and the eggplant and lamb such a wonderful combination. Allen's verdict, though, was less enthusiastic: "Different", was all he said when prompted for a reaction. And 'different' now is a polite way of saying 'can we not have it too often?' It's such a sad thing, this loss of good taste in food. Baked beans on toast would please him just as much, I'm sure. Maybe even more, as beans can easily be scooped up with a spoon. 

The gerontologist told me at Allen's annual check-up this year that the same part of the brain that governs speech also controls a good part of the chewing and swallowing functions. So whenever Allen has any health problems (a cold, his recent pneumonia etc.), we must immediately thicken all liquids as he's likely to ingest fluid into the lungs while trying to drink or eat. The swallowing and breathing functions are getting mixed up, it seems. I wonder if somehow this partly accounts for Allen's diminished interest in new and 'different' flavours. After all, if he's mainly concerned with 'Can I eat it OK?', he can't be too bothered about 'How does it taste?' Like so much else about this dreadful condition, the loss of good taste in food is a cruel blow.

22 May 2012

You can't take it with you

Honestly, I would like to write deeper, more meaningful blogs. But then I'd have to lie about the pleasure I have found these past four days in emptying out, reorganising and refilling all my cupboards, wardrobes and storage chests!

The excuse was the need to get out our winter woollies. (We may live in the subtropics but the temp does get down to 10 degrees Centigrade on some nights!). Changing seasonal clothes requires me to pack away some of our summer shorts and Ts. Our small house doesn't have enough closet space to allow everything to be out at once. So even though we both have modest wardrobes – and like many stay-at-home retirees we usually only wear a fraction of what we own anyway – I have to pack and unpack a suitcase or two of off-season things twice a year to make room in our closets for all the current season's dags.

Poor Walle gets nervous whenever the cases come out, though. I don't know why because we've never left him home on our weekends away. But he had three years with his previous owners before we adopted him, so maybe his anxiety goes back to some earlier experiences with that former family. We adopted Walle from his original breeder after Walle's first owners returned him to her. (Part of the breeder's standard contract requires all dogs' first owners to let the breeder find a new home for any dog that an owner can't keep for any reason.) And the breeder did say the couple who'd owned Walle had split up in a difficult way. Maybe that entailed someone filling up suitcases and then leaving and not coming back? One can only speculate. Whatever the reason, Walle was taking no chances this time. So he spent much of the past few days occupying whatever open suitcase I left lying around.

My ulterior motive this week, while cleaning and reorganising closets, was simultaneously to prune and/or find new homes for some of the excess possessions I seem to have acquired over the years. I say 'I' because Allen long ago did this type of post-retirement pruning. Indeed, when he began discarding and giving away things, I remember being a bit miffed. I guess I was still in acquisition mode myself. And I felt he was somehow taking value away from our home. Not monetary value, but some other kind of value – sentimental value, perhaps. Now that I've reached that stage myself, with just a few exceptions (my first wedding veil, the nightie I wore when delivering my daughter, the outfit I made for taking her home from hospital and a few of her very favourite first toys) I don't find sentiment to be a suitable reason for retaining things. Sooner or later we are going to have to move from this 'acreage' to a more easily maintained environment. And our next (maybe final) home will probably be a two-bedroom unit or townhouse somewhere, with even less storage space. So every time I unpack and pack away a season's clothes and clean out closets and drawers, I keep an eye out for things I no longer need. (Truth be told, often these are things I never really needed in the first place, but at the time didn't realise that.)

I now get more pleasure from a sparsely stocked fridge or freezer than I once got from a laden pantry. I was about to buy a super-sized container of ketchup at the supermarket today, thinking how I could fill and refill my current bottle. But something stopped me. That would have made sense when we had one or two teenagers living at home still and ketchup was poured onto all sorts of meals in great dollops. But now the few cents I'd save by buying in bulk is nowhere near enough consolation for cluttering up my pantry with large containers that take months to use up. 'Less is best.' That's my new motto in shopping as in storage. (Olive oil is an exception, of course! We do use enough of that to warrant bulk buying.)

Last week I cleaned out my gardening bench and threw away all sorts of bits and pieces I'd been hording 'just in case' they could be useful. Out went the previous set of pruning and trimming utensils, not used for years since they were replaced with new ones. Out went assorted handles and even crooked old forks whose handles had broken off. I have two good forks and a few good shovels left. I don't need to keep the broken pieces of misshapen old ones, 'just in case'. I've got at least four broken wheelbarrows that need to go, too. Past attempts to grow flowers or plants in them have never been successful, as regular hand-watering no longer holds any appeal.

Buying just enough for us two (and knowing I'll use it all) – that gives me more pleasure now than bringing home mounds of extra foodstuff (and probably seeing 20 per cent or more go bad in the fridge). It's all quite a revolution in my thinking and acting. I was a pretty full-on consumer in my past lives. I still sometimes spend my fortnightly half-day-off-caring in a shopping centre. But now it's more for entertainment than anything else, except when I'm shopping for my new little grand-daughter (e.g. a one-metre toddlers' sleeping bag and several warm fleecy sleeping suits at Kathmandu last week, reduced by something like 75 per cent). But I rarely see things I'd like to buy for myself. And I don't look forward to receiving gifts any more either, as these are too likely to upset the balance in my plan for discarding frills and paring down to essentials. 

Hardest of all to prune are books! Allen got the ball rolling years ago by donating all his theatre books and his play collection to various individuals whom he thought would enjoy them. Now we are always on the look-out for similar opportunities. Knowing a book you've enjoyed will give someone else pleasure makes it easier to relinquish it. But as far as I'm concerned now, the only reasons that justify holding on to books are (1) you haven't found the right person to pass on an especially well-loved book to, (2) you think you might enjoy reading the book again – this holds for most of our small quality fiction collection (see photo), or (3) the book is too valuable to give away, so you feel you should sell it but you haven't found a buyer yet (or a really deserving fellow reader – back to (1) above!). Everything else is going OUT eventually. All the education books I kept from university days are right now sitting in a big bag in my car, about to be donated to the op-shop nearest the local teacher-training college. Or I might just drop them off in the college's entrance, with a sign saying: "Help youself to free books!" But are today's pragmatic teacher-trainees interested in reading Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, John Holt, Frank Smith, Jerome Bruner, Denys Thompson et al.? I doubt it.

Even more amazing than letting go the education books I read and studied, I'm about to donate 1.5 shelf-metres of educational publications I either edited or supervised as manager of this state's education department publishing unit for 10 years. The local university library has said they'd welcome this collection, as it represents a decade of syllabi, teachers' guides and other publications issued to our state's primary and secondary schools over a tumultuous period during which the curricula for most subjects were totally revised. I once thought it would be hard to let these go. But beautiful as many of the publications are – and our unit was probably the country's best and most prolific state educational publishing unit at that time – the fact is few of these books have any meaning for me any more. A couple of exceptions I'll keep, either because the content or the experience of developing and producing them was somehow out of the ordinary. But so much in education changes so fast, even if you're still interested in the subject (which, frankly, I'm not), publications from the 80s and 90s are now mainly of historical interest.

My mother (r.) says goodbye to her sister Viola
the day before Mum came to Australia.
The sisters never saw each other again.
Well, there you are. I think I always felt in some ways that my possessions told the story of my life. That feeling is gone now. Maybe my time as a volunteer in a nursing home had something to do with making me realise what few things we'll bother with once life gets reduced to the limits of a small room, as most of our lives probably will. I remember, too, my aged mother walking out of her apartment in America to come to Australia with me, taking only two suitcases and leaving my brother and sister to dispose of everything else. She knew she'd never see any of her things again, no matter what happened, as she could no longer live alone. I found that hard at the time to witness, but she said she no longer cared about 'things', and only cared about being with family. I am only now beginning to understand what she meant. "You can't take it with you" may sound trite. The fact is, we probably won't want to take it, or much of it, with us anyway. I'm pretty sure I won't.

20 May 2012

Winter blooms

It's been so long since my last post that the blogger program has been totally revamped and I'm struggling to master the changes. So I'll keep this simple.

I'm just back from a quick tour of the garden, planning tomorrow's continued attack on two seasons of weed growth. But before my man Nev wades into the poolside vegetation to try and restore some order down there (and even perhaps a partial compliance with the laws re pool surrounds), I had to have a photo of this profusion of ixora that has taken over one section of pool fence. These will have to be cut back, of course, to prevent unsupervised toddlers from climbing up the branches and over the fence, thus gaining access to deep water while we careless adults guzzle white wine somewhere out of sight! But for the moment, the two plants are just a riot of rosey-orange balls. A yellow-flowering ixora nearby has no blooms right now, though it flowered well this summer.

And on the other side of the house, a small bougainvillea is likewise erupting in a riot of orange. This is a potted plant sitting with others on top of an inground water tank that doubles as a late afternoon platform for viewing sunsets. And like most bougainvillea, the more I neglect it, the better the flowers.

About me

My photo
I started this blog in 2009 when I became a full-time caregiver. My husband had been diagnosed a few years earlier with primary progressive aphasia. Over the next four years until his death in 2013, we went on a journey of discovery about this rare condition. My blog is about what I learned, how we both coped and how the journey deepened our love and appreciation of each other. Allen’s journey is over, but mine goes on.