The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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A woman with brown hair whose name I do not know wheels Mom toward the lobby of the nursing home, where I sit. Mom looks crumpled. Someone’s hung a necklace of wooden beads around her neck: that’s nice. She doesn’t see me until I rise and walk right up to her.
“Oh!” she says, astonished. “It’s my daughter! My daughter, my baby.” Her eyes fill with tears. “Can I kiss you?” she asks.
“Of course,” I say, bending down. She kisses me very hard on the cheek. I kiss her back.
“Can I kiss you some more?” she asks.
“Of course,” I say, although sometimes it feels as if she’s sucking the life out of me.
Then I start to cry. “Let’s go somewhere private,” I say, and wheel her into an empty conference room. There are lots of windows, and I can see the snow piled up outside. Mom never wants to go outside anymore. I situate her at one end of the huge, gleaming, mahogany table. A vast chandelier hangs above us: our sky. We sit face to face. Someone could chase us out of here any minute, but for now we’re alone.
“Well,” I say, “we might as well cry, since that’s what we’re doing.”
I hold her one good hand; it’s cold. The other is curled into a fist by arthritis. “Mom,” I ask, “why are you crying?”
She thinks for a few moments. “Because I don’t know my ass from my elbow.”
“But that’s OK,” I say. “You are old, and sick. You don’t need to know anything now, not really. You gave so much to your community, to so many people in your life. You were a great mother, and now it’s time for other people to take care of you.”
“But,” she says, “see over there.” She’s staring out the window. “Stuff to do, all those things . . .”
“Do you mean going out in the car and running errands, getting things done? Do you feel you should be doing that now?” I’m trying to find a brain wave I can ride to shore with her. She was always such a strong swimmer. I remember her arms especially, how they’d slice through the blue water at the pool when I was a kid.
“Stuff,” she says. “Stuff . . .”
“Mom,” I say, “what’s the matter?”
She looks sad and confused. Her thick hair sticks up on the left side of her head. The mustache hairs she used to pluck are now long and dark. (I must remember to bring tweezers next time.) Her skin is so pale, yet so smooth and beautiful.
“I’m Ruth Zeiger, right?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“I’m Ruth Zeiger, but I’m not Ruth Zeiger,” she says, staring straight ahead.
“Mom?” I bring my face right up to hers. “Do you want to die?”
“Oh, no,” she says immediately. “Oh, no.”
I press on — I don’t know why. “Maybe you’ll see Daddy and your mama and papa when you do.”
She smiles: a wry, unconvinced smile.
“It would be fun; you could have a party.”
“Mom, I have to go now.” I don’t know what else to say, and sitting in this conference room has begun to feel like being at a terrible business meeting. “I have things to do,” I say. “Meet a friend, go to the bank, xerox some papers. . . .” The sorts of things she can no longer do, and feels guilty for not doing.
I rush her back to her room because I want to do all my goddamn errands and I want to enjoy them, and get them over with. And I want to get out of here.
On the road, tears flowing again, I open the window and gulp big breaths, inhale deeply, breathe and breathe. I speed down Laurel Street and take a left onto Route 2, going as fast as I can without risking my life.
Mom is strapped into her wheelchair. After the initial surprise of seeing me — “Oh, it’s my daughter!” — she has run out of things to say. So she starts making loud popping sounds with her mouth, like reverse kisses. She seems to enjoy this for some reason. Eyes wide open, she moves her mouth very intently, as if talking to someone who’s almost deaf. She’s good at this. This, at least, is something she can do well.
I want to communicate with her, be with her, so I try popping back once or twice, but I feel like an idiot and stop. She keeps going. It’s odd to watch the stern mother who used to command such obedience now sitting in front of me, popping. She looks like washed-out fabric, pale and crinkled. On her right shoulder is a stain the color of mustard. She’s eating only soft foods now, because of her new habit of “pocketing” — stuffing half-chewed food in her cheek rather than swallowing it. Chris, a nurse, explained that very demented people often forget to swallow.
“Hey, Mom, let’s sing,” I say. “Do you want to sing?”
She looks up and nods vigorously.
“What do you want to sing?”
I know her repertoire. The last memories to go are the ones that hold songs.
“Why don’t we sing ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’?” I suggest.
She sang this recently with her physical therapist, Aggie, in the nursing-home talent show. I missed the show because I was on vacation. Aggie told me that after the first chorus, everyone joined in, and there was some weeping.
“Show me the way to go home,” we sing. “I’m tired and I want to go to bed.”
Mom does look wiped out. I wonder how she sleeps at night. I wonder what she dreams. I wonder so much about this woman who was — who is — my mother.
“I had a little drink about an hour ago . . .”
On Mom’s tray is a glass of prune juice. With no fiber in her diet, she gets constipated. There is also a glass of cranberry juice. They seem to treat her well here; I trust they treat her well here.
“ . . . and it went right to my head.”
I recently told Chris how my mother had been the head of numerous community organizations, how she had gotten her bachelor’s degree at forty-eight, her master’s at fifty-one. “Oh, really?” Chris said.
Mom is beautiful and full of spirit. She is a dumb ball of love. She kisses the hands of the staff, and tells even the most homely people how beautiful they are. She is all right; I know this with the part of my brain that does not think but knows. Yet my rational self, the part of me she cultivated so well, is appalled, confused, and grieving. The rational me cannot reconcile this fool before me with the idea of my mother. This self is afraid for her own life, too. She has no idea how this will all end, or when.
I bring my ex-husband to visit. Mom hasn’t seen him in years. “You remember Charles,” I say, knowing she does not.
She looks up at him. He is holding a small bouquet of wildflowers and lilacs, which I gathered.
“I love you,” she says.
He bends and kisses her. “And I love you, too,” he says. “We’re good friends from way back.” This is not exactly true, but I keep my mouth shut.
Mom, having run out of thoughts, begins her popping sounds. Perched across from her on the end of her bed, Charles responds in kind: Pop, pop, pop. She keeps at it, like a new baby still hooked up to the love source of the cosmos. So many people are trying to find God, seeking God’s love, and here is my demented mother, her body stiff, her mind emptied of the past, still in touch with that source.
And here I am with so many memories still alive in me: Mom throwing a fistful of pennies at me because I told her to shut up. Mom, radiant in her mink stole, about to go out with Dad on a Saturday night. Mom placing her wide gold wedding band on the cut-glass sugar bowl by the kitchen door. Mom cradling a dead blue parakeet on a folded pink tissue in her lap. Mom unconsciously holding her breast as she sits on the couch. Mom doing the twist with me to Fats Domino after dinner. Mom raising money on the phone for Hadassah. Mom holding her own mother’s hand as Grandma, old, widowed, and confused, asks, “Where’s Papa?”
I say to Charles as we leave, “I wish I felt as comfortable doing that popping thing with my mother as you do.”
“It was fun,” he says.
“She’s not your mother.”
The year is 1956. I’m thirteen years old and watching TV from the itchy rug in my family’s small New York apartment, my heart pounding. It’s a school day, but I’ve gotten permission to stay home to see my parents on The Arlene Francis Home Show. On the screen, being broadcast nationwide, are my mother and father. Mom looks terribly serious in her black dress with short sleeves, no jewelry, her dark hair in a neat pompadour. Dad looks a bit like Woody Allen — the same black-rimmed glasses, prominent nose, tense smile. I can’t believe it! They’re really on television!
Arlene Francis introduces my parents to the viewing audience. Hundreds of thousands of people across America are staring at them, though none are feeling the embarrassment that I feel. They look so strange, so stiff and big. Their voices are high-pitched and tense. My mother sits up even straighter than usual. My dad is a talking corpse.
Arlene Francis explains that a contest was held to determine which woman in the whole United States has done the most for her community, and, out of thousands of entrants, my mother has won. Her friend Elsa Rael wrote Arlene Francis about her. Now Elsa has a new hi-fi, and my mother has won a trip to Paris for her and my father.
Next, Jules Munchen, a comedian, pretends to be French. He wears a beret and speaks with an exaggerated accent: “And zo, my frrriends, we go to Paree!” His Rs are so guttural he sounds as if he’s about to spit. Arlene Francis laughs elegantly. She is wearing a light-colored suit fitted to her slim waist. She is bright and breezy, and beside her my mother looks like an immigrant from a small village in Eastern Europe. Mom decided to wear a dark dress because someone at NBC told her that dark colors made you look more slender on TV.
Elsa Rael makes a brief appearance, too. She has a harelip that was sewn together crookedly. It looks worse on camera. How did all this happen — my parents and Elsa on TV? It must be some kind of miracle. I knew Elsa was a writer, but now I know she’s a really good writer because her essay won the contest. She explains to the audience why she wrote about my mother. She says that, at Passover, Jews thank God for helping us get out of Egypt and escape slavery. She tells all of America that at Passover we say, “If God had only brought locusts to the Egyptians, dayenu; it would have been enough. If God had only brought frogs, dayenu; it would have been enough.” Then she picks up the essay that won the contest and, with her funny, sewed-up mouth, reads: “If Ruth Zeiger had only been president of Hadassah, dayenu; it would have been enough. If she had only been a Girl Scout leader, dayenu; it would have been enough. If she had only been president of the PTA, dayenu. . . .” Elsa goes on and on.
When Elsa is done, Arlene Francis congratulates my mom. “I understand you were a chiropractor,” she says.
My mom nods authoritatively.
“You must be very strong,” Arlene Francis says.
My mother shrugs a little, smiles, and says, “Not really.”
Then, in front of a million people, Arlene Francis asks my father what he does.
Dad says he’s the manager of Keg-O, an electrical-fixture business. He says my mother couldn’t remain a chiropractor because she got married.
Arlene Francis asks my dad if Mom works on him as a chiropractor.
He nods. “She’s very good.”
I don’t remember ever seeing her so much as crack his neck.
Next, a man dances with a French poodle, and then they show a picture of an airplane taking off for Paris. My parents stand up and shake hands with Arlene Francis. They remind me of little children. Remembering the analogies I learned in school — “Door is to house as mouth is to body”; that kind of thing — I think: Arlene Francis is to my parents as they are to me.
How submissive they seemed, diminished by all the lights and cameras, yet oddly dignified: my mother sitting so straight, my father with his rigid mouth and those glasses. I remember the wonder of their being on the screen, which until then had shown only the exotic, the unknown. Anything can happen in this world, I realized in a flash. Anything can happen.
My grandmother was smiling beside me, her hair in its usual crown of braids, her thick black shoes, her apron. Two years before, my grandfather had disappeared, and no one had spoken of it. Eventually I learned that he’d been hospitalized because senility had made him uncontrollably angry and intractable. Anything can happen. Whenever we drove past Creedmore Hospital, large and gray beside the highway, with bars over the windows, I’d think, He’s in there. I’d imagine him in a bed like the bunks on Stalag 17. Anything can happen. He had been a kind, gentle, religious man, but then he’d become mean and crazy. He’d held the Bible over his head like an angry Moses coming down off Sinai. He’d yelled at me and my sister as if we were the bad people dancing around the golden calf. Anything can happen. Seeing his decline, my mother vowed to stand on her head daily to increase the circulation in her brain: she wasn’t going to grow senile. She was always healthy; never a cold, never a flu, never a headache.
Now, forty years after watching The Arlene Francis Home Show, I am visiting Mom in the nursing home. “Hi, Mom,” I say.
“I love you,” she says, kissing me. “I love you so much.”
“And I love you,” I say. “You know what? I brought a videotape of when you and Dad were on TV.”
She looks blankly at me.
“Do you want to watch it?”
I put the tape in the VCR and sit down on the bed. “That’s you,” I say when she appears on the screen.
She smiles weakly.
“And there’s Daddy.”
“Yes,” she says. And when Jules Munchen does his Frenchman imitation, she laughs.
Unlike her father at the end, my mother is sweet. It is enough. She is well liked at the nursing home, a favorite of the aides. It is enough. She has pictures of her family on the walls of her sunny room. It is enough. She readily says, “I love you,” and means it; you can tell by her eyes. It is enough. I hold her one good hand. It is enough. The screen flickers, and voices from the past fill the air.
A portion of this essay originally appeared in Peregrine: The Journal of Amherst Writers and Artists.