About nine years ago—the summer I turned 35—I realized that my mother was losing her mind. It was finally time to get over our differences. I knew then that I’d never be the daughter she wanted. I got pregnant in college and kept my own name when I married, which embarrassed her. I sent my son to public school, which made her afraid for his soul and embarrassed her. I separated from my husband and moved out of the house where my nine-year-old son lived, which embarrassed her and maybe more than anything—I came to see years later—almost broke her heart.
For the first two years after I separated from my son’s father, I believed that my mother had just two faces for me: manic and angry. I saw her so infrequently, that whenever I visited she had saved up a litany of insults. What kind of mother leaves her son for a week to go to California? The kind with a career and a liberated husband, I couldn’t say. Why not just stay with him and have separate bedrooms? I could only shake my head.
Alzheimer’s stole her memory, but it also allowed us to repair our relationship. She simply forgot that she was so disappointed with me; I realized that more than ever she needed me, and I put out of my mind all of the nasty things she said to me out of that disappointment. This entry describes the beginning stages of not only our family realizing something was wrong with Mom but the start of our new relationship with me in the role of caretaker.
Today I call my mom an hour before she’s supposed to be at a local supper club for my niece’s wedding photos. Candice is the oldest of my parent’s sixteen grandchildren and the first to marry. Though it’s not a Catholic wedding—something my mother has pointed out to me a number of times—this is still a big deal.
“Want to see how pretty I look?” she asks me.
“Sure,” I answer. “You want me to come over?”
She says, “Only if you have time.” My mother has a talent for making you feel guilty for choosing wrong.
For two years I’ve been afraid to be alone with her, since she’s most vocal about my “situation” when it’s just the two of us. I’m the youngest, for years the child who could do no wrong. But when I moved away from my husband, my parents criticized me as a wife and mother. My reaction was to limit my interaction with them, but still keep grandparents for my son. My mother told my sister who told me, “No one’s as sad about Patti’s divorce as I am.”
I’m a change-of-life baby, a surprise years after my siblings were grown, what my mother saw as her treasure. We have albums of me as a permanent fixture on her, so much that my dad called me her “wood tick.” Photographs show poses of me at different ages: sitting on her lap and then on the armrest of her chair—even when my legs were longer than hers—or draping my body across hers. In each picture of the two of us together some part of me enfolds some part of her.
This June morning when I get to her place she’s standing in her kitchen in her flower print dress—the one she pulled from the hall closet three times last month to show me—two different colored sandals, three necklaces, and one dangling gold earring. Her lipstick is a jagged line around her upper lip.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she says. “I can’t decide.”
“I brought my tools,” I tell her. I hold up my backpack. She has no idea what I’m talking about. I say, “It’s just some hair stuff and a little make-up.”
“I have my own,” she says and leads me to her bedroom.
When I was a child, my parent’s room was a haven for me. I lost hours in the mystery of my mother’s drawers: plaid and polka dotted girdles, earrings and tangled necklaces, panty hose a pile of snakes, sanitary napkins the length of my arm, two hidden pairs of pink silk underwear. My father constructed the room himself with built-in closets and drawers on either side of the bed. Dad’s side: a narrow closet and two small drawers, smell of shoe polish and a hint of sweat; Mother’s side: deep drawers and a counter top, a large closet with bars and hooks where everything held the scent of Avon rose-petal talcum powder.
Most mornings I waited for my father to leave for work so I could climb into his spot in bed. My mother didn’t stir even as one warm body left and another replaced him. Those mornings, I buried myself in her, and she sleepily folded her arms around me.
Now her bed is covered in remnants of clothing: three girdles and nylons in four shades of cream and nude.
Two weeks ago I helped her pick out nylons and jewelry for the wedding. She forgot what we decided, though I’d like to think she simply changed her mind.
I tell her, “These aren’t going to work.” I undo the clasp on one necklace around her neck.
“I wasn’t going to wear all of them,” she says. “I just couldn’t choose.”
“No,” I say. “None of these. Wear your wedding necklace. The one from your wedding. Remember?”
She says, “Someone else told me that.” It could have been me two weeks ago. In my mother’s mind that’s another person.
I find the gold and diamond necklace where I hung it the last time. I put it around her neck.
“This is what you want.”
“I don’t like all this bare neck,” she tells me. She points to the scoop of her dress.
“It looks good,” I say. We had exactly this conversation the last time I visited.
She walks to the hallway toward the only full-length mirror and the best light. My father comes up from the basement den. “That’s what I told you to wear,” he says gruffly.
My mother and I go to the dining room. She stands in front of the big window. “Let me just touch up your lipstick,” I tell her. “You must have rubbed a little off.”
“Impossible,” she says. “I bought the twelve hour kind. It seals in your lips with wax. I got it in Florida.”
She raises her face to me. I’ve been taller than my mom since I was twelve. She’s in her heels, but I still have to reach down to work on her lips. Her whole face goes slack, and I gently rub my lip pencil over her top lip. My hand shakes. She stares at my face.
I think I have to say something. “We haven’t been this close for a long time,” I say.
“You have really blue eyes,” she says. I was just thinking the same about her.
If we were another mother and daughter I would embrace her. Instead I say, “Go like this.” I rub my top and bottom lips together. I take a tissue from my pocket and dab at the lipstick I’ve applied.
“Beautiful,” I say. I run my hand through her hair. “But we’ve got to do something with this mop.” She smiles. When I was a girl she always called my thick, curly hair a “mop.”
We walk to the bathroom and my mother plants herself in front of the mirror. I stand behind her and fluff out some of her larger curls with my hands. I look at our reflections and work my pomade-covered hands through her poofy hair. Though it looks coarse, her hair is amazingly soft. I scrunch my hands all over her head until loopy curls form.
Her contented eyes close and then open, a look of pleasure I try to blink away every time my regular hair stylist massages my neck. My mother would say that she is putty in my hands.
It occurs to me, watching my mother’s face in the mirror while I massage her scalp, that perhaps only strangers touch her now. A beautician at the strip mall near her house, a different girl each time. Her doctor who feels for her imaginary lump in her throat. (A sister teased me, “It’s your divorce she’s trying to swallow.”) I don’t recall the last time I touched her.
My sister the nurse calls my mother’s state a cognitive decline. No one has talked about this with Mom. Our family has always thrived on the don’t ask, don’t tell approach to conflict. Perhaps we know that she’d deny her condition. I can hear her, defensive and then accusatory: Don’t you think your father forgets things too!!
Most of us at one point or another have tried to tell our mother something she boldly opposed. A single woman can adopt a child. Living together before marriage is sometimes a good option. Frozen peas taste almost as good as fresh.
She would not understand that her behavior is more than just forgetfulness. She won’t believe it when we describe her blank stare in front of the TV, a dull expression sometimes noticeable now even in photographs. She forgets what day it is, which grandchild is at what college, where she put her extra bedding, who she invited for lunch. When I talk to her for more than twenty minutes she tells me the same story—like a drunk telling a joke over and over—about her neighbor who died and left a house full of junk, about the jackpot she won, or the doctor’s appointment where no one seemed to listen to her.
My sisters and I talk among ourselves. “She’s gotten worse since Christmas,” says the one who lives furthest away and sees our mother four times a year.
“Worse in the last few months,” says the one who lives two blocks away from our mother.
“Just leave her alone,” both brothers say. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”
Whatever it is, my sharp-tongued, overbearing mother is mellowing as she “declines.” For the first time in years I want to spend time with her. I feel guilty about this, but she is sweet and goofy as I remember her when I was a kid, and she was my entire world.
Now I stand behind her in the mirror and run my hands through her hair one last time. I say, “This is really all you have to do after your bath. Your hair will curl up naturally if you just leave it alone.”
“I like pin curls,” she says. “Last night I used a plastic curler. I could only find one so I waited for one patch of hair to dry, and then I wet down another patch and put the curler in.”
I laugh. “How long did that take you?”
“Good for you,” I say.
She takes out her compact mirror and positions it so she can see the back of her head in the vanity mirror.
“That looks good,” she says. “What did you put on my hair?”
“It’s pomade,” I tell her. “I get it in the ethnic hair section of Target.”
“It’s what black people use. It works good for curly hair like ours.”
She says, “I have a black girl’s comb. Let me show you.”
She goes off to her room. “I know just where it is,” she calls to me. She returns with a turquoise, jagged comb. “I bought it from a black girl at a thrift sale in Florida. She used it to make braids.” She hands it to me.
“It’s nice,” I say. “Have you used it?”
“No, my hair is too short for braids,” she says, as if I’ve just asked if she’s ever considered getting dread locks.
“I wonder who is doing the wedding party’s hair,” she says to me. “You could have.” She smiles.
I’ve contemplated how our relationship might have turned out these past few years if I’d have gone to beauty school and become a hair stylist like I said I wanted to do in eighth grade. College and graduate school made me see that I wanted a “life of the mind,” and as a young, naïve woman, I stopped valuing what my mother appreciated most: babies and family time. I once told a group of first-year college students that the only way my mother and I would have anything in common is if I sucked out half my brain, quit my job, and had three more babies. I realize now how nasty that was, not to mention indicative of what a terrible daughter I was (AND a prime example of my lack of imagination concerning who and what my mother stood for—forgive me, I was very young). What I never say is that since we’ve drifted apart—starting when I was twelve and I realized surviving in an adult’s world meant hiding things about yourself—I’ve been afraid that I have to be someone else for my mom to love me.
My mom asks me, “Who is getting married again?”
“Candice,” I say.
“Right. Candi,” she says. “She has wispy hair. She could never use this comb.”
My dad’s in the car, blowing the horn, as he’s done for almost fifty-five years now.
I walk my mom to the driveway. “You look great,” I say again. “Beautiful.”
She smiles and rubs her lipsticked lips together.
“Don’t you want your purse?” I ask her. My mother always carried a purse like a suitcase. She had everything anyone ever needed.
She looks at me, surprised. “What would I need that for?”
During my niece’s wedding ceremony, my father clears his throat and blows his nose. My mother wears an empty stare in the direction of the happy couple.
I don’t tell anyone that I’m wearing my father’s pinstriped double-breasted wedding suit. Today I could easily pass it off as a second hand, vintage suit that fits my frame surprisingly well. I’m not going butch but rather trying for swanky with my ruffled pink shirt and open toed pumps.
After my mom comments on how familiar the suit looks, I confess where it came from. “No!” she squeals and touches the suit coat arm.
“Joe, look at this,” she yells to my father. “Come and see this!”
My dad says, “Well look at that.” He touches the same arm. He says to me, “We should get our picture taken together.” He clears his throat. It’s been an emotional day for a guy who doesn’t say much. A sister appears with a camera and snaps our picture.
Word of my father’s suit spreads quickly throughout the family table. I’m seated next to a brother for dinner. I say to him quietly, “I wore Mom’s wedding dress when I got married and didn’t have such good luck with marriage, so I thought I’d try Dad’s suit for this wedding. It’s got to turn out better.” He shakes his head and laughs.
After dinner, my mother’s girlfriends—all in their late seventies—related to the couple in the small town way we’re all connected, come over to our table to touch my suit.
“I don’t believe Joe was this little!” one says loud enough for my father to hear. She cackles.
The other is more interested in the craftsmanship of the coat.
“Look at these seams,” she coos. She tugs at the inside pocket of my open jacket. She says, “This could easily survive another fifty some years.”
The other says, “Someone should get a picture of this.”
I move closer to my mom. All day I’ve wanted someone to take a picture of us together. In my heels, I hulk over her. I throw one arm over her shoulders while her friends continue to poke at the suit I’m wearing.
Me in this suit, my mom in her wedding necklace. I want to laugh until I cry. No one takes our picture.
In the midst of our nowhere pose I tell her, “Your necklace looks lovely.” I lean in close to her and give her shoulder a squeeze.
“Someone told me to wear it,” she says.