In my mother’s house the handles in the bathroom sink are backwards. I must shut off the hot water tap by rotating the handle 360 degrees before it slows to a reassuring drip drip, then stops and is still. I think: What if she forgets how to turn it off and burns herself? I make a mental note to have someone check the hot water heater.
My mother is 88, and she is beginning to lose her memory. No, that’s denial. She is 88, and she has lost her memory. She still knows who I am, but her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren are hit or miss. When she wants to tell me who has telephoned, we often have to go through seven or eight names before we get to the right one.
“Was it Patti?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “it was Number Four.” She has worked out a number/name system. It seems to be based on birth order, but only loosely.
“Number Four,” I think, and I list the names of family—the aging cousins, the nieces, and the nephews. Then, when I hit on the right one, she is less fretful. The lines in her forehead relax temporarily.
“Oh, honey, what is wrong with my mind?” Her face has contorted again, and she is near tears. “Am I crazy?”
I think about it for a minute before I answer. “You just have a different way of looking at things these days.”
In fact she isn’t crazy. The essence of her is still there. She still smells like vanilla flavoring and has soft, soft skin, the result, she says, of Ivory Soap and Jergens Lotion. She has shrunk in on herself in the way of elderly people, but she is still functional.
She has lived alone since my father’s death in 1989. With an iron will, she gets up each day and tends to her grooming, dresses in clothes that she has washed and ironed herself, then drives herself to the market, where she frequently forgets what she came for. She visits the beauty parlor every two weeks and when she is relaxed and has on a touch of lipstick, she is still pretty: her white teeth (all her own) sparkle against her olive-toned skin. Her lips are still plump and youthful. But she has lost so much weight that she seems to rattle around in her clothes, and her formerly flawless complexion has finally betrayed her.
“What do people do about wrinkles?” she asked me once when I was home to visit.
“They have face lifts or Botox injections.”
She caresses her chin as if she’s considering this, then her forehead furrows.
“You don’t talk plain anymore,” she says. “Not just you. Everybody mumbles.”
She has lost her hearing, of course, and I’m sure her sense of isolation deepens by this handicap. But still she goes on: She has a twice-yearly check-up with her doctor and goes to a stretch class at the Senior Center three days a week. On Tuesdays, she is a stalwart alto with the Sunshine Singers, a group that performs World War II songs for nursing homes and other facilities that house the aging, the dysfunctional, the lonely.
Interestingly, she never forgets the words to these songs. Which is amazing, since there is so much she can’t remember.
The signs of slippage are unmistakable these days. My sister died last year, and since then my mother has been bent under the weight of that grief.
At Christmastime, when I walk into the kitchen after getting off the airplane from Cincinnati, she has not prepared any food. Even the pitcher of iced tea she has made every day for most of my life is missing. And the glass jar she inherited from her mother—the one she has always used to make our family’s Christmas custard—is nowhere to be seen. She has not even been to the grocery.
I put my bags in the bedroom, and I catch sight of a picture of me as a baby. When I was born my father was in the Army getting ready to ship out to Europe to fight in World War II. So it was just Mother and me, and we lived for a while with my father’s family. My mother drove her father-in-law, who was the postmaster, to deliver the mail in the rural community where we lived. No matter how slowly she drove, she once told me, they’d always have to back up to leave some mail at a house they’d missed; Grandaddy got so wrapped up reading everyone’s postcards that he’d forget to tell Mother to stop.
After basic training, my father was sent to the Presidio, the military base in San Francisco. My mother—who was not even 20—decided to take me (I was just 18 months old) and travel by train from Paris, Tennessee, to California to be with him until he was shipped out to fight in Germany. A sense of panic filled my grandparents’ household as our departure grew imminent, because none of us had ever traveled outside Henry County, Tennessee. But we needn’t have feared. The train was filled with troops far from home. They gave us their seats, and every time we stopped, a soldier would get up and run in the station to warm my bottle or get us something to eat.
When we arrived in San Francisco, Mother’s trials were far from over. Daddy was not there to meet us at the depot, and when we got off Mother turned around to look for him and couldn’t remember which side of the train we had gotten off on. The worst had happened; she had no idea where we were. My father was not there—he had been detained by his commanding officer—and she was suddenly as frightened as if we had landed in New York City.
As she tells it, she said a quick prayer for assistance, and when she turned around a woman said, “You look like you could use some help.” The woman took us to her house on Fell Street near the Golden Gate Bridge and made a place for us to take a nap while she looked for my father. She found him. When he arrived to collect us, my mother was so distressed she broke into tears.
Mother has a picture taken of the two of us in San Francisco, and now, while she busies herself in the kitchen, I study it. It is a studio portrait, one of those with the photographer’s name engraved in gold script in the bottom right-hand corner. In the picture, I have on a short, embroidered dress and white high-topped baby shoes, and there’s a Little Iodine curl combed carefully on top of my head. My mother is wearing a nondescript dress, but her hair is swept back in one of those elaborate World War II hair-dos, and her face is lovely and smiling.
Shortly after Mother got her bearings in San Francisco, she decided she needed a job. She found one working in a Chinese restaurant—a Chinese restaurant in the truest sense of the word. Mother could only communicate by sign language; after customers pointed to their selections on the menu, she took the menu to the kitchen and pointed to the items for the cook. If the cook became frustrated, he chased the staff around the kitchen with a butcher knife. Then he took the order. I have often wondered why they hired her at all. What must San Francisco have been like in those days—hectic, overrun with soldiers and their families, short of living space?
When she wasn’t working she took me on walks through Golden Gate Park, past wizened old men with fingernails grown so long they curled over the arms of their peacock chairs. Once she saw a Chinese couple performing their tai chi exercises in the city’s thick, dark fog.
She told me these tales so many times over the years; they became her defining stories, I think. But now she looks at me blankly when I bring up the Chinese men with their long fingernails.
“Where do you come up with these things?” she asks. “I never saw anything like that.”
At such times, I feel a sense of separation from her that is heart-breaking. The loss of our special shared stories is probably the worst loss of all. I try several conversational gambits, but none of them work. She is somewhere I can’t reach.
It’s Christmas Eve, and my mother is working in the kitchen, trying desperately to be cheerful. Her only living child is home to visit and she knows she should enjoy this, but her new self isn’t quite sure how. I can see her making the effort, struggling to push the cobwebs from her thoughts and set aside the sadness, the source of which she can’t really remember.
Tea? Yes, her daughter has requested she make a pitcher of tea and she must put the water on to boil and the teabags to steep. She fills a saucepan because it will be faster than putting on the kettle. But her hands are shaking slightly, and she is close to tears. She doesn’t know why. Taking the teabags out of their paper envelopes and putting them in the pitcher is overwhelming. Her white pitcher—an antique, flecked with blue marks that look like calligraphy. She pours the pan of boiling water into the pitcher, her thin arms shaking with the weight of it.
While she pours, I unpack in my childhood bedroom and shed my own tears. I am shocked at the changes all around me. I had known my mother was ill, but after the long plane flight, the reality of her condition leaves me shaken. When I was younger, and my father and my sister were still alive, these rooms would have been filled with laughter and singing and feasting. My father would have been playing the guitar; his brother and sister would be singing along, harmonizing as only families can do.
“Nobody sings anymore,” my mother says from the kitchen, as if she has been reading my mind.
Of course not. There isn’t anyone left to sing anymore.
I know better than to scold her, but I cannot stop myself. “I think we’re just too sad to sing right now, Mother,” I say when I rejoin her. She looks at me, my mother, and I see depths of wisdom and presence in her brown eyes. She knows me—knows me to be impractical, knows all my secrets, knows my worst self. For a moment we stand and stare.
“I don’t know,” she says slowly. “Seems like it might cheer everybody up a little.”
I put some lemon in my tea and stir it with a long spoon. Bravely, I sing a snatch of one of her favorites: I’m dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know. But my Mother can’t remember the words, and there is a lump the size of a golf ball in my chest. I remember a beautiful but obscure song my sister used to sing every year. No candle was there and no fire, she’d start in her delicate crystal clear voice, while the rest of us stood in back of her and hummed. She’d hit an impossibly high note in the last stanza, then softly she’d sing, And never a candle to burn.
Now, drinking my mother’s iced tea, I begin to relax. The twilight, the melancholy part of day, is done, and outside, if I had the energy to walk out on the back porch, I know I could look up and see a million stars in the chilly dark sky. My mother serves me a tuna salad sandwich just the way I like it, on toast with lettuce and mayonnaise.
“I am ashamed of myself,” I say to her. “I have sat here and let you do all this work, and I haven’t contributed a thing.”
“Well, I’m sorry I didn’t have anything ready,” she says. “We’ll go to the grocery tomorrow.”
We are quiet for a while. I am thinking of the ones who are gone; she is thinking ahead of what meal she has to cook next.
“Have you thought of what we’re going to have for Christmas dinner?” I ask. “Maybe we can just go out.”
“Well, one day at a time,” she says, somewhat cryptically.
“I drove out to Walmart today and lost the car,” she says. “Forgot where I parked. Some woman come along and had to help me. She said she’d had the same thing happen to her.” Mother pauses and her eyes open wide. “I don’t know what’s wrong with my mind.”
“I thought you had quit driving,” I say. “I thought your insurance was canceled.” Almost immediately, I kick myself for my unfeeling response.
She doesn’t say anything, and I hope against hope that my blunt remark will slide past her radar. She has never had an accident in her life. Is she a worse driver than her neighbor? Who knows?
In any case, I know I can’t take the car keys. We’ve had this discussion. “I’ll just drive anyway,” she has told me matter-of-factly. She said she will give up her car keys when she is cold in the grave, and maybe not even then.
After the tuna fish sandwich I find Lawrence Welk on television, and her good mood is restored instantly. “Why don’t they make music like they used to?” she asks, and we watch Lawrence and the Champagne Lady whirl around the dance floor. Bubbles are rising on the screen, and the scene looks festive and familiar.
On an impulse I take my mother in my arms and whirl her around the living room as if we were dancing on the show, fox-trotting on top of the bubbles. She is as light as a feather in my arms, frail but smiling as we dance.
The visit stretches in front of both of us—a holiday full of changes that remind us of all we have lost. My sister’s children aren’t celebrating with the family this year; they’ve gone to ground after their mother’s death, and we will have to accept a new configuration of kinfolks. We may not sing so much anymore, but over in Georgia, I’ve heard, my nephew’s son Mason is already playing the ukulele with great enthusiasm, accompanying his own singing. Who knows where that might lead?
Illustration by Jing Wei
Originally published in the April 2014 issue.