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For Seniors : LINDA FELDMAN : Mother, Daughter Learn to Trust Each Other Again

August 21, 1994|LINDA FELDMAN

One of the problems of raising children is that they often turn out exactly as you wanted them. In Michel Jones' case, she was brought up to be creative, caring and fiercely independent. Her mother, Edith, just didn't know that one day those traits, from her perspective, would lead to a betrayal.

And Michel didn't know how far she would go to get back her mother's trust.

Michel Jones was born in Toronto 40 years ago, the eldest of two siblings. Her father, Roy, died two years ago and her mother, Edith, stayed on in their spacious townhouse.

Neighbors never really sought to keep up with these Joneses. They were pretty much in a category by themselves. Edith, the gregarious one, was a drama teacher and an actress in the local community theater. Roy was an architect and an armchair philosopher. They belonged to House Church--a multidenominational group made up of independent thinkers.

When Michel was 18, her parents gave her a train ticket to tour Canada. Instead, she cashed it in and hitchhiked across the country with a girlfriend. It proved to be an experience that would eventually come back at her.

"They didn't want to tell me how to run my life but I found out later that they were in a constant state of torment, thinking of where I was and what I was doing," Michel, a film editor, said from her hillside house in Brentwood.

Michel remembers getting really close to her mother after those rebellious years. They enjoyed hiking together. Edith was always an active person. She walked three miles a day, maintained a heavy acting schedule all of her life, had the same circle of friends for close to 50 years and never complained about aches or pains even as she neared her 74th birthday.

"She is a completely optimistic person. She swims, does yoga, participates in book clubs. I hope I'm like her when I'm her age," Michel said.

Ever since her father died, though, Michel has felt protective of her mother--a new feeling.

She had read that sometimes when one spouse dies, the other follows not too long afterward. So she was being watchful. But she was not at all prepared for what happened.

"My mother had a stroke while driving her car. She managed to get home but her brain couldn't figure out how to use the garage-door opener. She went to her neighbor's house and, because of her speech and walk, they thought she was drunk and left her at her house, where she collapsed and must have laid on the floor for at least a day before the police were called. It was awful and I remember thinking that she can't be alone any more," she said.

Michel flew to Toronto. When she arrived at her mother's bedside, she saw someone who couldn't possibly be the woman who raised her--she was so incapacitated she couldn't remember how to swallow. "I was grieving. I thought she died and what was left was a living, breathing corpse. She did recognize me but she couldn't speak," Michel said.

Michel began reading about strokes and the remarkable recoveries some people have made. Edith began to make progress, and Michel and her sister, Wendy, started looking at independent living arrangements--without their mother's consent.

"We went to her with these suggestions, but we were hard-nosed. I said to her: 'Mom, here are the facts. You can't live alone. You'll be in danger. I don't want to worry about you night and day.' I used a lot of 'have-to' phrases--'You have to do this; you have to do that,' " she said.

Edith retaliated. She brought up how, even though it could have been dangerous, she had let Michel hitchhike because it was her life and she trusted her. Still, Michel felt responsible for her mother's well-being. Edith responded that she, too, was responsible for her own life. But Michel raised another issue: At what point does an older parent give over her independence?

"My mother stared at us dumbfounded. She said, 'It's my life and I'll decide when I go to a home, and it's not now. I have a right to live where I want. And if it's a choice between living in a home or living on my own I'll face those dangers.'

"She felt betrayed," Michel said.

Michel felt bad. She thought she was acting out of love and concern, following the advice of the doctors and nurses who suggested that she make the arrangements. A frost developed between them.

When Edith came to Brentwood to visit Michel six months later, things still weren't right between them.

"I realized I had to do something about getting rid of the anger, and we talked. I suggested we write a play together about it. We came up with a story and I wrote the play for her and her friends. It worked. It was the way to reach her. They have been rehearsing since June and the play ("The Afternoon Group") will be performed at the Richmond Hill Curtain Club in Toronto on Oct. 2," she said.

Edith said from Toronto that she and her friends are having a lot of fun, although it's tough remembering their lines. They're going to do this, she said, even if it kills them.

Michel has taken it many steps further. She decided to do a documentary on the women who are acting in the play, asking them to discuss their fears and concerns.

She is filming the rehearsals as well as telling her own story along with her mother's. Most of the money is coming from her own pocket and she's counting on technicians to defer their fees. She's trying to raise $200,000. Everyone she talks to thinks it's a wonderful idea but no one wants to be first to give funds.

In her spare time, Michel volunteers for the Ken Edwards Center in Santa Monica to help elderly people manage their lives.

"This experience with my mother has taught me that we must find a way to talk to our parents and listen to how they feel about aging. I want to go with as much grace, dignity, exuberance as possible and I can't if I live in denial."

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