Switched at Midlife by Sharon Carmack

memorable-jan-2012 ribbonI wasn’t expecting another daughter. I was expecting a mother. But there comes a point when mothers and daughters switch roles.

Her voice on the phone: “Hello, Sharon? This is your daughter.”

I smile. “No,” I say. “I’m your daughter. You’re my mother.”

She went into the nursing home after open-heart surgery and a triple bypass. She’s an old 72, but she was always old for her age. Decades of smoking aged her. Life with my father aged her. Life without my father aged her. Life with me aged her.

My mother used to walk upright, like other hominids. Now she shuffles hunched inside a walker. She used to stand as tall as I do. I don’t know how tall she is now. How do you uncurl a boiled shrimp?

“Mary Sunshine” the staff calls her. “Who?” I ask. That’s not the mother I know. The mother I know has seven dwarfs inside her: Grouchy, Negative, Unhappy, Angry, Mopey, Disagreeable, and Gloomy. “She enjoys the other residents and tries to help them.” “Who?” I ask. Had the hospital done a lobotomy on her too?

rotary phone and cell phone

Her voice on the phone: “Hello, Sharon? This is your daughter.” I smile. “No,” I say. “I’m your daughter. You’re my mother.”

Finally, the anesthesia wears off. I’m called into the office of the nursing home director, like a parent called to the principal’s office. I’m told she now picks fights. Ah, this is the mother I know.

My mother wants to laugh, likes to laugh, tries to laugh, but it doesn’t come naturally. I mark her name on all of her clothing, even underwear, like a kid going to summer camp. “Can’t we just change your name to Fruit of the Loom?” I ask. She laughs.

A week passes. Her voice on the phone: “Hello, Sharon? This is your daughter.”

“No, I’m your daughter.” It’s always me who answers; why is it a surprise for her?

“I need more underwear. My underwear’s not coming back from the laundry.”

I nip this problem in the bud. I arrive the next day with new underwear that stands out. Gold lamé thongs. With black, indelible marker, I etch her name across the front. Because, where else can you put it? I tack a pair up on the wall of her room. She laughs.

Some days later: “Hello, Sharon?” After fifty years, shouldn’t she recognize my voice? “This is your daughter.” I do recognize hers. “You need to bring me more pants. My pants aren’t coming back from the laundry.”

“Put on your thong, grab your walker, and stroll down the hall. I promise they’ll get you your pants back!” She laughs.

During a visit I ask, “Has anyone said anything about your thong?” The one on the wall still on display. She smiles and nods. “Yeah. The nurses aides.”

“What do you tell them?”

“I tell them I used to be a pole dancer.”

I laugh.

I wasn’t expecting a pole dancer. I was expecting a mother. But there comes a point when you appreciate the unexpected.

Sharon CarmackSharon DeBartolo Carmack is a Certified Genealogist with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing who specializes in writing and helping others write their family histories and memoirs. The author of sixteen books and hundreds of articles, columns, and reviews that have appeared in nearly every national genealogical journal and publication, some of Sharon’s books include You Can Write Your Family History, Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers and Researchers, and Your Guide to Cemetery Research. Her work has also appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Steinbeck Review (forthcoming), Writer’s Digest, and Personal Journaling. She is an assistant editor for Brevity and a contributing editor for Family Tree Magazine. Sharon teaches online nonfiction writing classes for Writer’s Digest University and online genealogical research classes for Family Tree University. Visit Sharon online at www.sharoncarmack.com.
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  • Ellie Stites Swanger

    Great;s great Sharon!  You always come up with the unusual!  Bravo for that!  

    I have been thinking about you and would love a looonnnggg lunch with you sometime when in the area!   I like to write also but finding the time is an issue in my household!  Stay in touch!   Hugs, your friend, Ellie Swanger

  • Desmond Walls Allen

    This one twanged my heart strings…

  • Betty

    Sharon, this is funny, clever and wonderful.  I laughed out loud and have a big smile on my face – thanks for putting it there.   You are so talented!

  • Hank Jones

    Wonderful, Karen (sorry folks, inside joke). I smiled then laughed out loud. All of us who have had aging parents (and are rapidly aging ourselves) can identify with this story. Great pay off at the finish – however, I always thought YOU were the pole-dancer in your family. That’s what Jim always said …

  • Your mom sounds exactly like mom, except my mom hasn’t resorted to picking fights yet.  When one of the aides called my mother “delightful”, I choked.  If at all interested, I write about life with Mom and eldercare issues at http://www.hereisakiss.wordpress.com.  Happy and Peaceful New Year wishes…Elizabeth

  • Lindagartz

    Congratulations! Clever and poignant together, Sharon. The lighthearted comes through, but the dark side lurks. You’ll have to tell me how many drafts it took to come up with this tightly focused, funny and important essay for anyone dealing with aging parents. Reminds me a little of E.B. White’s “To the Lake” with the role reversal. 

  • Bratlym

    As a Gerontologist I love your sharing of this story. I had a good laugh. Aging brings higher risk of diseases that cause cognitive dysfunction. In going forward we smile and enjoy the fantasy while making sure we safeguard our love ones. [I work with caregivers on behalf of the Alzheimer’s Association, their stories have enhanced my appreciation of family caregivers.]  

  • Helen Ann

    What a great story!  Thanks for sharing with us.

  • Frank Duggan

    Marvelous story, Sharon. Happy New Year.

  • Susan

    Outstanding piece! Poignant, most definitely funny, a little heartbreaking. A real story about real people, and how we deal with life’s adventures. Bravo!

  • Laura J

    Such a poignant piece, showing how parents and children reverse roles at some point.  While the child is questioning the change, she deals with it with such humor and kindness, and the mother with grace.  A real joy to read!

  • Suzanne Farrell Smith

    Read this one aloud to my husband, because it just wanted to be read aloud! 

  • Beautiful story, with just the right tone of humor!

  • celeste

    Ahhh.  so on the mark.  Age creep.  finding my self not remembering things I want too, and remembering what I wish I could forget. often referred to my daughter in the morning as one of the seven dwarfs.  Now I can also attach same to my mother. Never would have thought of that.  Embrace all of it! Lifes milestones. Thanks for a well written nudge.

  • I love your flawless blend of the heartache and the humor. Beautiful.

  • I’m still smiling,  A lovely essay, Sharon.

  • Melinda Kashuba

    Great job Sharon! You captured the bittersweet nature of a nursing home environment spot on.

  • What a great sense of humor you have, and how fortunate your mother is that you do! I have a 97 year old grandmother in an “independent living” home, and my visits there always feel a bit surreal…like pre-school but for old people.

  • Olivia

    Sharon, Thanks for sharing your always potent family history. My mother died when I was 13, but had she lived, perhaps I would have experienced such scenes. Your writing inspires.

  • Martine Brennan

    Dear Sharon, you made me laugh and cry. My mother lived with acquired brain damage after surgery and | had many such moments with her before she died. Thank you for writing about it so beautifully. Martine

  • Cbsoper

    Thank you for writing this wonderful story, which made me laugh and cry at the same time. My mother had Alzheimer’s and I care for her in our home for 5 years. Some of my best memories are from this time period!

  • I admire your ability to deal with the situation with humor…..touching
    story.  Thank you for sharing.

  • Janice Wilborn

    I knew Sharon’s Mother and this short tribute to her Mother is right on and beautifully written!  
    Sharon captured, in her Mother, the seven dwarfs perfectly. She also had times of kindness and genuinely worried about others and this did not go unnoticed by some.  I loved her Mother’s sense of humor.  It always came at a time that you would least expect it.  I never knew the real story behind the thong on the wall as I got an entirely different impression. I’m not sure why I had the understanding that they had something to do with a wild night in Las Vegas.  The unexpected!! Then she told me to ask the others.  She was building her own mystery around them.  
    I hope Sharon continues writing as she has the gift.   Janice Wilborn RN               

  • Lisa Louise Cooke

    Sharon, how did you make me laugh and cry in the span of a minute or two?! Thanks for a much needed and enjoyable break.

  • Wonderful piece, it reminded me of when my grandmother lived with us while I was in High School.  Thank you for the laugh, and the cry.

  • Elane

    Sharon, Sharon, Sharon. That was BRILLIANT. Where’s the LOVE button, dadgummit??

  • Glade Nelson

    Hi Sharon & Jim,
    GOOD JOB Sharon.  Toooooo close for comfort for many out there – but delightful reading.

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  • Touchingly reminded me of my grandmother. Quite an accomplished story in very few words!

  • Peri

    Beautiful!  Thank you for sharing your experience in such a touching way.

  • sandra mathisen

    I am happy you still have your mother around, mine past  2005.  I miss her very much and I know she would be very supportive of me returning to collge.

  • Melody Taylor


    This is an awesome essay.  So happy to say you are my Comp II professor!  I still have tears running down my cheeks and smile on my face as I comment on this wonderful writing.  I am so happy for you that you have your mother still alive and being humorous. My mother passed away in the 1980’s when she was 54 and I was only 33 yrs old.  Good job is not enough to say about this essay. Your awesome and have the gift indeed 🙂

  • This is not what I expected when I went to read a personal or
    memoir essay sample from your article on The Armchair Genealogist. I have a style and never thought to write the family history this way. This is truly a wonderful story. I will tell my family that if I end up like your mother, I want gold lame thongs too. What’s not said in the piece speaks louder than the words here.

  • Amelia

    Clever piece. A neat way to capture the concept of “getting old.” I especially like the recurring dialogue with the mother/daughter banter.

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  • Tina Lujan

    Thanks for sharing this Prof. Carmack. It was a great read! I can definitely see your technique, voice, and incorporating the “threes.” I’ll be sharing with my mother.

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