No time like the present

Cori Barash has started to gray, but she is still largely the blond that inspired her name. Her full name is Coreopsis, and she was named for the yellow flower that was in full bloom the day she was born. She’s 11 now, a yellow Lab who has managed to retain the buoyancy of a puppy while behaving, most of the time, with the dignity that befits her years. She is scared to death of thunderstorms, but otherwise she is better in many social situations than some of my friends.

The other day I spent an hour with Cori, her owner Phoebe Barash, and some of their friends: A dozen residents of the Long Term Care wing of Wake Robin, the continuing care retirement community in Shelburne. Among the group who lives in the wing is Elise Barash, Phoebe’s mother, who was in the Navy WAVES in the Second World War. (WAVES stood for “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.”) Cori is a trained therapy dog, and once a week, Phoebe brings her to Wake Robin where the dog does what she does best: Have hers ears scratched and eat dog treats.

In my next life, I wouldn’t mind coming back as a therapy dog.

In all fairness, Cori actually worked pretty hard at Wake Robin. While I was there, she carefully wound her way among the walkers and wheelchairs and sat serenely beside whoever wanted to have a moment of her time. She would rest her head in people’s laps, she would wag her tail with an enthusiasm that suggested she had never before felt human fingers massaging her fur.

Cori visits Wake Robin on Tuesday afternoons and it is as much a part of the schedule as that evening’s movie or the group assault on the daily crossword puzzle.

“I love coming here,” Phoebe says, and not merely because it’s a chance to spend time with her mother. “It’s such a present moment. It’s living in the here-and-now: There’s no past, no future.”

Most of the people who spend that Tuesday afternoon with Cori have memory loss to one degree or another — including Phoebe’s mother, Elise. Elise is 93 and has done a lot with her life. When she was in the WAVES, she ran cockpit simulators for aspiring naval aviators in Miami, Fla. She was a copy editor for the Trenton Times newspaper — and the first female staffer to be allowed access into the male sanctum known as the print room. And she was an editor at Town & Country magazine.

<!–Saxotech Paragraph Count: 5
–>Her maiden name was Ludeke (pronounced “Lew-do-key”), and a photo of her in her WAVES uniform sits on her bureau at Wake Robin and she is showing a good amount of shin for 1943. The caption on the photo? “Legs Ludeke.” 
But Elise, like some of her neighbors in the Long Term Care wing, recalls these parts of her life largely with prompts. She is charming and gracious to talk to, but when her daughter reminds her of her accomplishments, she will nod and smile and look at the photo album in her lap and remark — her voice crisp and clear — “I did all that? Well. I’m going to have to look carefully at this book.”

Meanwhile, Cori sits beside her and savors the feel of Elise’s hand on her coat, while outside Elise’s window the sun begins its slow descent over Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains across the water.

“My mother lives entirely in the present now,” Phoebe says, “and so when we talk on the phone, we’ll talk about that view. We’ll talk about the clouds over the lake. It’s always the present — and maybe that’s right where you want to be.”

Beside the photo of Legs Ludeke is one of Phoebe and her three siblings when they were small children. And while Elise might not recall perfectly all the work she did caring for the four of them, Phoebe certainly does. Now she watches her mother and Cori, and the three of them sit for a moment, content in a world in which the here-and-now are all that matter.

Happy Mother’s Day.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 10, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.