A Watched Pot Never Boils…
Many years ago, I wrote of my parents’ decline. I was with them for their final years; I was watching them lose new memories, or words, or daily routines. It was like watching human development in reverse. They had been such strong adults, handling life’s challenges together, finding strength in their partnership and answers in their shared questions. I learned a great deal more about them in those last years than I’d ever learned in the preceding decades. As the middle child of nine, I was never anything special … not the oldest, not the youngest, nor the tallest, or shortest … I don’t have early memories of ‘me’ time with either of them. But toward the end, there was a lot of ‘we’ time. I heard their recollections of old stories, and learned to fit the names into the generations when they would confuse a mother for a daughter, a sister for an aunt. In time, I learned that the generations and names didn’t matter in the scheme of things. The stories could stand without clarification. The oldest memories were the most firmly embedded and the most easily told.
I came up with an analogy while writing about them. I remembered the old pressure cooker in the kitchen, sitting on the stove, with the blue gas flames underneath it, and the little ‘jiggler’ that sat on top of the sealed cover. I knew that the potatoes within would cook more rapidly than they could in a regular sauce pan, because the cover was sealed shut with a rubber gasket. The steam from the heat of the water was trapped within the pot, and hastened the softening of the potatoes. They were always cooked over a medium heat. I knew, too, that while the jiggler would release bits of pressure at a time, there was another valve that would “pop” out to release a greater quantity of steam caused by too high a heat; by popping out, it would avoid enough pressure building up to blow off the lid despite the rubber gasket and handle’s latch. That little safety valve was made of a metal that was strong when cold or reasonably warm, but soft when heated to a dangerous level. It was made of lead.
When the pressure of the steam was just high enough to wiggle the jiggler, we turned off the heat below the pot, opened the cover carefully to release the steam away from our hands, and then enjoyed the potatoes. If we ignored the jiggler, or weren’t close enough in the house to be aware of it, the steam would gradually escape the pot until the potatoes were sitting in a dry, very hot pot. Then, the potatoes, possibly the pot itself, would have been ruined. That’s why one of us always stayed near enough to hear the pot when it would begin jiggling. I don’t remember the safety valve popping off the pressure cooker more than once in all the years I’d been nearby.
That little safety valve, made of lead, may have leached some small particles of lead into the food we ate. The aluminum sauce pans that cooked the other vegetables (peas, green and wax beans, corn niblets, carrot slices, turnip, squash) may also have leached danger into our food. We didn’t know then that the lead paint on our homes was dangerous as well. There was a lot we didn’t know.
And so I theorized, that like that little safety valve that may have caused some damage to our brains while protecting our pressure cooker from exploding, so, too, were the lost recent memories of our elders perhaps protecting them from the pressures of growing older and realizing their accumulating losses. My parents aged gracefully despite the pressure of raising nine children in an always-tight economy … despite the changing city neighborhood while the first five children grew up and went to high school … and despite the stress relocation to a small town with no public transportation must have caused our mother, who was used to independently walking to pay the bills in person, and to shop for birthdays while our father was working multiple jobs to feed and clothes all of us. It’s the old memories that were steadfast … of the early years, in the city with multi-generational family and friends for years and years. Those later memories were the first to disappear … the more recent friendships were the first to slip away … like the jiggler on the pressure cooker, it was easiest to let them go bit by bit.
It is not true, of course, that a watched pot never boils. As a child, though, I thought it took a very long time to get the jiggler jiggling. I imagine that I’ll think it may take a long time before my recent memories begin to fail me. Word finding is already a new challenge. Things that were once automatic for me, like remembering a friends’ telephone number, have begun to slip away (though modern telephones with memories might be partly to blame for that.) Zip Codes are harder to remember, when people don’t need them to send an email. And Area Codes for phone service keep changing as the number of telephones grows exponentially.
It will be a while yet before I hear the results of the genetic testing done last week. There is no sense in watching the phone, waiting for it to ring. Even watching a pot waiting for it to boil has a greater probability of being fulfilled. I’ll hear in just a few days about the ultrasounds I had done today, looking for answers as to why daily routines are changing. Maybe my age … maybe the effects of MS on my nervous system’s transmission of information to my muscles … maybe a little of both … those are smaller issues, and the answer may well be uncertain, as most of my medical questions through the years have been answered that way. Or maybe I’ll forget I’m waiting for results before they actually come to me. Recent memories are not always the most important to hold on to… the older memories are easy to retrieve. Maybe there are just too many bytes of memory for one aging, damaged, shrinking brain to recall.