Image of parents on wedding day

The Battle of the Thermostat (Mom, Marriage, and Menopause)

Image of siblings singing Christmas songs in childhood chamrickwriter

“Dad drily commented that she took two hours to buy one jug of milk at ‘the Pig’ (Piggly Wiggly), chatting up church members in the parking lot, in the aisles, and on her way out.”

My parents avoided turning disagreements into feuds, with the capacity to “just let it go.” But they had their moments. Mom loved to talk while my father tended to the taciturn side of the conversation. Dad drily commented that she took two hours to buy one jug of milk at “the Pig” (Piggly Wiggly), chatting up church members in the parking lot, in the aisles, and on her way out. Mom’s lengthiest—and most strategic—stop was a recipe swap with the town’s favorite cashier, Aurelia. They probably traded the equivalent of five cookbooks.

One of dad’s early love letters portended Mom’s chat streak. “Bunny, talking with you every night is so much fun! . . . Even tho’ talking to you does lead to calloused ears, I wouldn’t miss calling you for anything.”

To Mom’s silent consternation, Dad thought he could transfer general surgeon skills to home improvement. Typically, he retired early after dinner—on the sofa after a long day in surgery. But occasionally he fixated on fix-it projects, like the time he and a friend stayed up past midnight on New Year’s Eve, using a broom handle to beat the garbage disposer into functioning (supposedly on a tip from yet another doctor-turned-MacGyver). Just when the household was going to bed one night, Dad started installing ceiling fans in four bedrooms—drilling and buzzing and tapping. Mom rolled her eyes and put the pillow over her head. The fans revolved on a noisy, wobbly tilt, which she politely ignored.

“With the onset of menopause, Mom left the bathroom window cracked open, even during freezing weather, to keep fresh air circulating.”

During the battle of the thermostat (and bladder), small irritations set in. With the onset of menopause, Mom left the bathroom window cracked open, even during freezing weather, to keep fresh air circulating. On his midnight shuffle to the toilet, Dad slammed it shut. On her two o’ clock trek, she cracked it open. This cycle repeated two hours later.

When the manual temperature control broke down, Mom called a repairman and delighted in replacing it with push-button technology. However, the contraption frustrated Dad, who tried to punch it into submission, tapping frenetically at this or that button with his index finger. (Years later, my niece Emily remarked, “This reminds me of teaching Papaw [Dad’s nickname] how to reboot the computer; he promptly started slamming control-alt-delete with a vengeance.” The upshot? Mom always studied manual instructions and followed them step-by-step, whereas he gave how-to directions a once-over and did whatever project whichever way he saw fit.

Did she gain the upper hand with digital controls? Not for long. When Mom went out of town for a few days, Dad smashed the newfangled gizmo with a hammer because he couldn’t adjust the heat. The next time I dropped by, the manual control (turn right to raise the temp, turn left to lower it) was back in place, and the bathroom window was cracked open at one inch. A peaceful stalemate.

“With more glue than glitter, this relationship stuck. . . . they never let the sun go down on their anger.”

With more glue than glitter, this relationship stuck. To borrow phrasing from Marmee in Little Women, they never let the sun go down on their anger. Mom told me that Dad took a pause—first thing in the morning and again at night—to kiss her, even if he rushed through everything else, from speeding on his commute to “inhaling” dinner.

Things slowed down after my mother’s dementia slipped into Alzheimer’s. In the early stages, she kissed Dad good-bye when he left for work, waved until the car disappeared from view, and then rushed to his portrait where she stood a few minutes, beaming. Several times a day, she went to the living room to keep watch for his car, perked up, saying, “I’m waiting for Leon to come home.”

“Music became a miracle—a connecting point.”

Music became a miracle—a connecting point. Mom would wash her hands if you sang the A-B-C song with her two times, which took me back to the tender days when she taught us how to read. If you sang a hymn, she would chime in here or there. Mom loved the repeat of “Come, come, come to the church in the wildwood,” which she once sang on road trips along with toe-tapping tunes like “She’ll Be Coming around the Mountain.”

On a visit home, I saw my parents at the kitchen table, singing snatches of Big Band tunes spinning on a CD. Somehow it was a way to find each other “in all the old, familiar places.”


  1. Suzanne Clements

    Always enjoy reading these beautifully written anecdotes, Catherine. I was blessed to know your dad and only wish I could have met your mama. I have a clear picture of her in my mind through your words. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Karen Lin

    Beautiful as usual. I feel like i’m getting to know your parents, you always find just the right details to tell us the most you can in the fewest words.

  3. Peggy Elliott

    Catherine, I worked many years for your Dad and I can just see him in this story. I even visited your home during a doctor party. He showed me around the house but most excited about the garden out back. I miss him rubbing his forearms. Something he did when he was stopped and wanted to move on. He also had a big laugh. He was a wonderful man and your Mom was a lovely southern lady. Respectfully, Peggy Elliott 15 year Lloyd Noland Hospital associate 1971-1986

  4. drapersmeadow4

    What a beautiful poignantly told story, Catherine. I can hear the wobbly fans. And I can also relate to your mom’s Alzheimer’s story as I’m on the same journey with my mother right now. be well. Karen

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