Friday, January 05, 2007

Dinner With My Mother

It’s six-thirty in the morning and I am alone in my office staring at my mother’s photo in her online obituary. She’s all dolled up in a pretty dress with perfectly coiffed hair, nice glasses and jewelry. Her smile is wide, sweet even, but I feel no sense of recognition. Who is this old lady masquerading as my mother? And what did they do with the real one?

My mother left us six years ago when my father had to be admitted to a nursing home. I begged her not to, but she went anyway because living with her sister was preferable to taking her chances with her daughters. Her fear that we might put her in a nursing home trumped any desire to see us again. The loss of us – my sister and me, my two daughters, and the great grandchild she never knew – was a price I guess she was willing to pay. I’ve often wondered whether it was worth it and truly hope it was because, frankly, it would have given me sticker shock

I knew when she left I’d never see her again and that’s just about the way it worked out. My aunt is an all or nothing, black or white, love them or hate them sort of woman. With her there are no gradations and certainly no mercy. She took our mother away, slammed the door behind her, and left us with our father until he died three years later. In my mother’s family the tradition is to fight like hell with your relatives until they die and then canonize them the day after. I refuse to carry it on. The bold, flat, honest-to-God truth is my mother was a holy terror when we were children, controlling and hard to get along with when we were adults, and absolutely delightful just before she left, thanks to a strange, unnamed psychosis.

During that period she screamed at imaginary people out the side door. Saw Clark Gable in the trees beyond the living room picture window. Giggled like a school girl to think he was making eyes at her. Cowered at the sight of imaginary bugs crawling out of the ceiling. And clawed at her arms to scratch their imaginary bites. But for the first time in her life she seemed to actually like me. I’d bring her dinner at night – scalloped potatoes and ham, chicken and noodles, mac and cheese, comfort foods that made her clap her hands with delight.

“Here she comes!” she’d crow as I came through the side door laden down with casseroles and salads. “We’ll have fun now!”

Once when I was sitting with her while she ate, she laid down her fork, looked at me intently, and said, “You’re so pretty.” I think the thought had never occurred to her before.

When I’d help her to bed she’d apologize for being so much trouble. And sometimes she’d show me her little stuffed dog and tell me what he’d had to say to her that day. My mother was charmed with me and I with her. Of course I knew it was some chemical imbalance in the brain, some hardwiring run amok. But I like to think that maybe by falling down the rabbit hole of mental illness she had a tea party with the little girl she must have been once upon a time

I’ll never know though because she left soon after and almost immediately I became embroiled in a legal battle with my aunt to make sure my father’s rights were protected. When I prevailed she had my mother sign a paper which legally separated her from her husband of 51 years. I never saw either woman again until three years later when they came to my father’s funeral. By then the psychosis was gone, or the right combination of drugs had finally been achieved. Either way, any charm I’d developed in her eyes seemed to have leeched away. She talked pleasantly enough to my sister and me, but clearly wasn’t too interested in either of us. And so, that was that.

Now its three years later and we found out that she died on Monday, New Year’s Day. The obituary doesn’t say where, or of what ailment. It does say she had two daughers, but it doesn’t list our names. And it never mentions that she was grandmother to my two daughters and great-grandmother to our beloved Tyler. Though my mother would never have won the Grandmother of the Year Award, in her way she liked my children and would never have excluded them. She could be mean, but she was not calculating. She didn’t plan to hurt people, she just did it. Not so her sister. But it doesn't really matter anymore, as we won’t be going to the funeral. I will close the screen on the offending obituary and remember my mother in my own way. Maybe I’ll make her some macaroni and cheese.

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