by Jean Ryan
I used to open my lunchbox and find notes from my mother. “Don’t swap this for a flutter-nutter,” she’d write, or “Snoopy says eat the apple last.” At that point she was making lunches for three of us—my younger sister came later—and she gave each meal the same consideration: a Wonder Bread sandwich, a package of chips, fresh cut fruit, and a couple of Oreos or Vanilla Wafers. Sometimes there’d be celery sticks filled with peanut butter, sometimes a cupcake instead of cookies.
This is the mother I recall most often now, the one I’d find at the ironing board when I came home from school, her face flushed from the steam created by a water-filled coke bottle with a metal sprinkler top. Always she would be humming, happy for reasons I cannot guess. Or maybe the humming had nothing to do with happiness; maybe it was involuntary, a sort of self-soothing. I will never know—my mother has moved too far from that question, too far from so many of the questions I want to ask.
My mother is eighty-three. For the last several months she has not been able to walk, her legs thwarted by poor circulation and recalcitrant shin wounds, for which she receives daily and painful dressing changes. She is further hampered by macular degeneration, lupus flares, shoulder impingement, and limited dexterity—remnants of the surgery she had a few years ago when she broke her hip and hand. Despite all this, she still lives in her home, with the help of four aides who are there, on a revolving basis, twenty-one out of twenty-four hours each day.
If I did not work full-time, if my mother lived closer to me—she is two plane trips and one long drive away—I could manage much of her care myself; the fact that I cannot do this for her distresses me more than she will ever know or believe. I could cook for her and take care of the chores and shopping. I could handle her bill pay and other business matters. I could help with her personal hygiene.
I could not lift her out of her wheelchair, not with my lower back issues, nor do I have the training, or sufficient fortitude, to attend to her wounds, either present or emergent.
All this is beside the point as my mother insists on staying in her house. Considering the cost of home health care, a nursing facility might be cheaper, but my mother will not consider this option, and I can’t say I blame her—I’ve heard the stories, too. These places are where you go to die, where you will die, and it’s no use pretending otherwise. Living with one of her children is also off the table, for various reasons, particularly now that my mother’s needs have outpaced our abilities.
But beyond all the practical considerations, there is this. My mother, who used to give funny voices to our pets, who once put underwear on the cocker spaniel for our amusement, is no longer pleasant to be around. Disappointment, I assume, has depleted her, washed away the soil of charity. At least once a year I make the journey to see her, and the only gratification I feel is knowing I was of some help.
How many of us wind up with the mother we had in mind? How many mothers give birth to the children they envisioned? It’s a draw.
A common language. That’s what we lack at the time we need it most. The frailer my mother becomes, the more I want to connect with her, to learn what will soon be gone forever.
Frightened by a recent hospitalization, my sisters and I visited her in April, intent on sharing our feelings and hearing something tender and revelatory from her. This didn’t happen. Instead of basking in the glow of togetherness, I was hurt and miserable, stunned by a revelation I had not counted on, one that only widened the chasm between us. In typical family fashion, this information came secondhand: my younger sister, observing our pact of transparency, reluctantly divulged my mother’s meanness.
As usual, I didn’t confront her. I lowered my standards another notch and counted down the hours until my departure. In her waning, pain-soaked years, I pardon my mother everything. She’d clam up anyway, refuse to explain herself. Even if I did get an apology from her, I wouldn’t trust it. My sisters and I have caught my mother in so many lies that we are no longer sure she knows fact from fiction or cares about the difference. The secrets of her life are slipping away.
I have not lived near my mother since college, and so I am familiar with only the bare facts of her life after that. She was married three times, divorced twice, and finally widowed. I know she worked as a medical transcriber and lived in a stylish condo in La Jolla before relinquishing that stability for her last husband, who led her from one godawful place to the next. I recall that she favored biographies and history books, especially accounts of World War II, that she loathed Red Skelton and loved Johnathan Winters, that she was frugal and tidy.
I cannot reconcile what I remember of my mother to what is visible now. Walking around her house I am mystified. When did she trade The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for How to Talk to a Liberal? What use does she have for eight bottles of shampoo, or the legions of canned goods exploding from (and occasionally in) her kitchen cabinets? Why do so many of her clothes still have price tags? How can she abide these stained carpets, this bleak town? What happened between here and La Jolla?
And what of her youth? The first three of her four children were born less than a year apart. How did she manage the diapers in those pre-Pampers days? When did she find the time to make our clothes? My mother was a consummate seamstress. I remember those trips to the fabric store, the long tables, the endless bolts of cloth, my nearly unbearable boredom. How, with stairstep children, did she accomplish the shopping and errands, the holiday preparations, the pristine home my father demanded? He was no help. That she bore his cruelty for fourteen years is yet another mystery.
If I were asked to account for my twenties, I could offer nothing more than a rough timeline. Why should I expect my mother to recall her own twenties with any clarity, especially now that her days are simply something to survive, when memories are of no use to her?
A few years ago I asked her if I smiled easily when I was a child. She squinted through her cigarette smoke and said, “I don’t think so. I’m not sure. Jane did. I think.” Then she laughed. “Hell there were four of you.”
They are the same things I want to know to about her. Were you happy? Did you smile a lot? Were you quick to hug? What scared you? And later, after we all moved away, what happened then?