Angry Karagözis: Debating the ideal limits of family caregiving


Angry Karagozis - image from John Sanidopoulos' blog post on the debate about whether Greece or Turkey can claim the puppets as their own (click on picture for link)

Yesterday, I wrote to you about making lemonade out of lemons, looking for “silver linings in the cloud” and so on.  I also wrote about the comfort of a glass of çay or a cup of chai during tough times. We are struggling, this week, with how to address the care of a disabled family member.  While the immediate crisis has been addressed, our discussions on our views about family caregiving in Turkey and in the United States continue – with each other, with friends on both sides of the big old pond.  All of the guidebooks and websites on Turkish-American cultural relations websites talk about how Turks are so very loyal – fiercely so – to their family.  Family comes above all.  To some extent, we saw this with the whole “Sicilian message” thing in M.’s family.  In my head, I think I can feel the Turkish family judging me for having my younger family member in out-of-home care, not understanding, thinking it is a betrayal -and what does this mean for how she will care for M. when he is old?  Who knows if my head is the reality. 

Most of all, the discussion about the limits of family caregiving is raging in my head – in the form of a band of now angry Karagöz shadow puppets, while they often seem to collectively strike a balance between Turkish and American values and views, their Turkish roots are showing on the present issue, for the most part.  Karagöz himself is showing a set of different colors, and I don’t much like the palette. While always the agent provocateur, twisting and turning in gleeful silliness, Karagöz is showing a slightly mean, sour side.  Today, in the midst of my Skype call with a dear Turkish friend to whom I was trying to explain the situation, he started jumping up and down on my shoulder, taunting me with a phrase that went something like this “what a big mess, she’s in such distress, you must confess, this you didn’t address…you could have known, you should have known, if you had, you’d have flown, their cover totally blown.”  I dissolved into tears at this. 

While the chorus of little dancing ladies have been just super supportive about it all this week, delivering round upon round of tiny çay glasses with extra lemon and sugar, even they are looking a bit askance at me.  I heard one of them whisper in sotto voce, so I would hear it,  “well, why didn’t you notice what was going on? If she was in your house, this never, ever, ever would have happened, after all.  Maybe you should consider that.”  Ever the grounded one, Hacivad remarked on this too – quickly moving to chide the bravado-filled dancing lady by saying “it is not wise, to do this, the needs of this person are too much for this marriage to manage, a happy medium must be struck, she must remain in the care of the state, but the watching must be more vigilant, the planning different.”    Hacivad’s voice is the one that M. agrees with…he worries that without the affordability of home-based care for people with disabilities in Turkey, we would be divorced in a hot minute if we took care of this young person ourselves.

For our Turkish friends and family, it has been hard to explain why our family member is not in our home.  It is pretty much just-not-done to have a family member with a disability in an institutional setting somewhere.  I do think this is largely driven by market realities that allow for staffing that can assist people round-the-clock.  Of course, there are exceptions – and reports about institutional care in Turkey are horrific and this has made the International news.  I hope that this report (in the hotlink to the left) is focused on outlier places – but you never know. 

I hope that the bid to enter the EU causes different standards to be implemented.  The spectre of these placements that have hit the news in recent years are not discussed outright in our conversations with Turkish family and friends, but I feel them there.  I have noticed how very ashamed I feel when my Turkish family and friends ask – “but why didn’t you see it?” or “why isn’t she home with you – in Turkey we would not let her out of the family house.”  Deep-seated beliefs about someone’s care make understanding another culture’s approach pretty hard.  I find that just accepting that for what it is, is the most helpful thing.  We-just-think-differently-on-this.  Of course, it helps that M.’s family had a history of one person needing so much care that an out-of-home placement was needed, and accepted – long ago.  Perhaps this makes it easier for him to accept from the baseline.

As for me, having been raised in a home that valued our own efforts to care for elders and younger folks with disabilities – it wasn’t until things got really bad that we turned outside for help.  After living 2 hours away on her own for years, my Granny had a bad fall, and needed so much medical care that she came to live in a nursing home nearby.  She quickly receded into the fantasy of her memory, speaking Castilian Spanish and worrying about General Franco’s revolutionaries taking over the nursing home.  My mother encouraged her to speak Spanish with the range of workers from Latin America there, but she turned up her nose at this inferior form of Spanish.  It was mortifying.  You can’t make this stuff up. 

On my father’s side,  I can remember a parade of housekeeper/personal care attendants that came in and out of my paternal grandparents’ home whilst both were in the throes of senility and/or Alzheimer’s disease.  It was tough going.  I have one particular memory of my Grandfather, who was sure to wear a new shirt every day, just without taking the former day’s shirt off.  My Dad, no doubt feeling the tug of guilt and need to get Grandpa clean, basically wrestled him into the shower – peeling off shirts as best he could in between curses and physical protest. 

As for Grandma, she was primarily over-medicating herself as a result of memory loss – it was perpetually morning, or lunch, or dinner, and she just kept taking her medications – and kept cooking.  Even if our lovely breakfast had ended just 15 minutes before, there was stretch of time when she was cooking it again, or starting on lunch right away.  Time had lost meaning.  My Dad was over at their home constantly managing a melee of confusion.  It was nuts.  Add to this a young person with a disability back at home – and a wife with cancer – and we had a crisis.  It was longer than it should have been before my folks decided to place both grandparents in a nursing home down the street from the house. 

I think that the shame about having to do this – strangely coupled with the relief of having to do this propelled my mother into uber-daugher-in-law mode.  We visited our grandparents every single day after school, getting to know the nurses, the orderlies, the administrators.  I can remember my father telling me “you have to make sure that they know that we are a loving family, and that we are watching them.”  These early experiences taught me our family’s strong value on doing as much as you could yourself, but knowing when too much was just that, too much.  However, these experiences also taught me the importance of watching, observing, making one’s presence known.  It is perhaps for this reason that I feel as badly as I do about what happened to our younger family member, who was neglected in a facility responsible for her care – it is that I didn’t see it, didn’t catch it myself.  I know better than to be angry with myself, but I am still furious at myself. 

So, we continue to muddle and puddle through, and somehow, our different cultural orientations to family caregiving, our different family experiences with out-of-home care  and our different views about how to respond to a situation synch up just enough in a way that makes sense for now, although the conversation is by no means over.  I just hope the Karagöz puppets will ease up on me a bit, so M. and I can move on with our lives a bit…

Lemon and limon, çay and chai: Getting through tough times in a cross-cultural household


It’s been a tough week here at slowly-by-slowly on the extended family front.  I haven’t had a moment to queue or post one of my carefully-written stock posts crafted last summer about the progression of summer 2004 in Turkey with the traveling band of Karagöz puppets that decided to personify the internal messages in my head…so I thought I would take a moment to write about what cross-cultural coping looks like in this house of ours here in New England.

Burning a lime on the stove - to cleanse the air

Without getting into details, we are very concerned about an horrific incident observed in the care a younger family member with a disability is getting in her shared living setting nearby.  On top of trying to address the situation, facing this challenge has meant some big conversations between the American (me) and the Turk (M.) in this marriage.  What are the limits of family caregiving?  How should one think about family responsibilities?  How does one balance family needs with the needs of a marriage?  What is selfishness and what is selflessness?  What would happen in Turkey in this situation – and why this wouldn’t happen in Turkey….and on and on.  The Turk, over the past week, has engaged in the gnashing of teeth, the raising of arms and the yelling at the world in response to the incident.  And he felt alot better after letting it out, too.  The American, over the past week, cried and cried and cried and felt powerless and upset except for writing long and overly-strategized letters of complaint and protest.  All social work advocacy training and experience appeared to be straight out the window.  The Turk became very worried, and consulted the American mother in law in a somewhat unusual show of unity to support the American and pull her resistant self into a better place bootstraps and all.  It’s been, as the old time Yankees up in northern Maine say, “wearing.”

Despite these mini-clashes of culture and moments of figuring out shared together, I have felt totally depressed and powerless.  I have also seen M. step up and do just about all of (vs. more than half) the dog walking, house cleaning, dish washing, food cooking, bill paying, house dealing possible.  This week, the Karagöz puppets have been a bit bewildered by all of this, and have been pretty silent, not knowing what to make of challenges we face at the hands of the social welfare system designed to support our family member with a disability.  M. has been equally confused.  We have been muddling and muddling and occasionally puddling.  The little chorus of dancing ladies has offered me numerous glasses of çayover the week, most of which remain untouched on my dresser and desk.  They are trying to get me to take care of myself.  Karagöz did a few flips and twists and tried out some new rhymes to get me to laugh, but I really was having none of it.  So, little puppet people in my head, sorry about that, please come back and let’s re-engage?

Turkish Tea

A Turkish tea moment such as those the little chorus of dancing ladies have offered this week - Image by dimi via Flickr

As I woke up today in the sun, I realized just how much the Turkish side of this marriage has carried this week, especially in the area of lemonade-making.
There is an old cliché in American culture that seems to be getting a run for its money as of late – make lemonades out of lemons.  I love the sentiment.  We obviously hit a big lemon in the proverbial road trip of life this past weekend regarding our family member’s care, and have been frantically searching for lemonade recipes since then. Yesterday, we had a good dose of lemonade – the best possible kind of lemonade – with respect to the care of our family member, so I suppose lemons are on my mind.  So, as I got up, I tried to do something nice.  Our good friend, a Turkish woman who I respect deeply, taught me how to cleanse the air in the house after cooking a fish.  She places a raw lemon half right on the gas burner flame – and the scent around the house – well – it’s just lovely.

Having only a lime in the house, and an old, crusty dry one at that, I figured citrus was citrus, and hacked away at halving it.  As the lime oil began to swirl around the house, I felt a bit enlivened.  I hauled out the slow cooker, made a “pantry sauce” from whatever was left in the pantry (canned tomato, pumpkin seed oil, garlic, bay leaves, thyme and half a bottle of syrah from last weekend) that is now home to four defrosted and seared chicken legs.  I hope to surprise M. with a nice dinner.  Of course, before the domestic bliss could blossom into its best self, I realized the lime was burning…and now our house was filled with the smell of burnt lime.  As this is a cross-cultural home, I decided to clear the air with a fresh batch of chai – not çay but chai.  Not the kind you buy at Starbucks, either.

Being part of a blended step family, I am lucky enough to have been exposed to the art and craft of making East African-style Chai.  My step siblings spent some of their growing up years in Kenya, and my step brother has perfected the art of chai-making, learned during a camping trip with the Masai on the Masai Mara.  It’s simple, you fill up your saucepan with about 1/2 water and a handful of Kenyan chai and an equal-sized handful of sugar.  Once it is boiling, you add in milk so that the liquid is 1/2 milk and 1/2 water.  Bring it just to the boiling point – but don’t let it boil.  Boiled over chai makes your house smell like a pot-smoking party so beware.  Of course, my stepbro tells me that the Masai often add a bit of fresh cow’s blood into the mix, which thickens it up some, but we don’t go that far. We love chai in our house – even though it is sometimes affectionately known as “colon blaster.”

Postmodern Chai

However, the chai story does not end there.  In graduate school, I had the great good fortune to make a wonderful set of friends, one Austrian and one Southeast Asian.  When this couple had a baby, I was lucky enough to spend some time with the baby’s Southeast Asian grandmother – who always made the most wonderful spiced chai.  So, the chai made today in my house, to ward off the burnt lime smell and week of challenge, involved 1/2 a saucepan of water, a handful of Assam tea leaves with rose petals, crushed bay leaves, a sliver of fresh ginger, ground cardamom, cloves and nutmeg and a shredded stick of soft cinnamon).  So, the house smells fantastic, the sun is shining and the Karagöz puppets are starting to awaken again.  I think I see Karagöz himself doing back flips over in the corner of the living room.  As for me?  I am taking a break as soon as I can, and plan to finish up the lemon-infused week with a good re-read of one of my favorite expat books – Driving over Lemons.

So, whether it is lemon or limon, çay or chai, be well, muddle through whatever you face, take care of eachother…and see you soon for more highlights on the road from Selcuk to Bozcaada coming soon.

An easy cross-cultural culinary compromise (with recipe)


What could be more Turkish than a tomato? What could sing New England summer as well as a vine ripened tomato? What about adding some organic garlic? What about adding some downeast Maine applewood smoked sea salt? What about adding some Turkish olive oil? And some kekik (thyme) harvested by the teyzes on the sloping Bozcaada hills by the Aegean? What about adding some heat, to the tune of 250 degrees F for about 3 hours? Now that is an easy compromise in this Turkish-American kitchen. After all the talk of cigars and Sicilian messages (see previous post) here is a welcome respite!

Recipe for roasted tomato deliciousness:

1: make crosses on the tops, bottoms of the tomato

2: place the tomato in boiling water for a minute – no longer

3: strain the tomato out of the water & peel the skin off. Take out seeds and liquid with your hand after quartering it.

4: place slivers if garlic, a shake of salt, a pinch of dried thyme and olive oil on each bit (I am using muffin pan, non-stick

5: bake for 3 or so hours in a 250 F oven – let cool & freeze in Tupperware for a cold day in the future when you need some sunshine.

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