My mother calls me on the telephone when she awakens. Her message is the first words I hear, the sound of her voice our morning ritual. She reports how she slept and what her plans are for the day, how her health is, and whatever else expresses the domestic connection she longs for and has only with me. It’s three hours later on the east coast where she lives, so each morning when I approach my desk, there is the reassuring and welcoming blink of the machine, containing her voice.
“Good morning dear,” she always begins.
I relax then, knowing I have my mother for another day.
My father never imagined she would stay in their home after his death.
“After I’m gone,” he instructed her, “The best thing would be to use Tim Hines to sell the house. He’ll do the best by you. No need for you to rattle around in so many rooms by yourself.”
It was a phrase she was to hear many times in the next eleven years. From her grandchildren, her friends, her niece.
“What are you doing rattling around in such a big place? What do you need it for?
But she stayed, the routines of her life comforting and reassuring. Friday, the garbage was put out. Tuesday the gardeners came to rake or shovel, plant or sweep. Summer morning she had her coffee on the porch, looking out at the garden that still held so many memories. She was only seventy-three when he died and wasn’t ready to leave her life in their home behind.
My mother didn’t cry when my father died. During the first months, she drove to the cemetery several times a week. In the trunk of her car were a rubber mat, a small brush and some stones. On the occasional times I would accompany her, going to see Daddy, it was called, she would kneel down on the carefully positioned mat, sweep off the stone and place a rock upon it. When she began to move her lips, I discretely moved away to stand beside the birch tree at the edge of the Temple Ohabai Shalom section of the cemetery. She would talk to Daddy and tell him about her life without him.
“I want him to know what I am doing now. I don’t really believe that anything happens after you’re gone but I know he hears me. I need to believe that he does,” she whispered to me as she walked across the grass studded with names engraved into stone. Then her eyes would fill with tears that she would hastily brush away before they threatened to spill over and lubricate the dry skin of her cheeks.
After the Shiva period, I returned to my life three thousand miles away, calling every several days to check up on her. But within just a few months, my mother began to take bridge lessons and started playing twice a day. She left her now empty house at ten a.m. and often didn’t return until midnight. She threw herself into this new world with the frenzy of grief and the relief, I imagine now, of being finally, alone. It was an unfamiliar environment for her, one of women, of intrigues, of jealousies, of competition, of new friendships, of unfamiliar skills. She entered this world with a passion I had never seen in her before.
Now, my mother forgets to go to the cemetery for months at a time. Now her life is filled with herself. Now, at the end of her life, she has the turn her life had never before allowed. When she was finally ready to leave their home eleven years later, my mother had become an old woman and didn’t want to rattle around in so many rooms.
She began to look at condominiums, accompanied by eager friends, delighted at the possibility that she would move into their building and become a part of the daily social worlds they created. Worlds of care and attention masked as bridge, grocery shopping, walks. She called me to ask for help in the moving assuring me that the movers were already hired and would pack everything. There was really very little to be done, she promised, but she would feel more comfortable if I were there. She didn’t want to intrude in my life. Of course I went. Of course.
My mother peered out the front window smiling eagerly at the sight of me as I climbed the stone steps. We embraced but as I drew back and looked around the expanse of living and dining room, I saw that nothing had been done. Nothing. The movers were coming in the morning and everything was precisely the way it had been for the past thirty-six years.
“Ma,” I said.” How come nothing is prepared for the move?”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart. They’re going to pack everything.” she smiled nervously as thought caught in a mistake.
“But Ma, the toilet articles. The papers. What about the food? The furniture you won’t need in the new place?”
Her face fell and she began to look frightened and confused. My voice became more shrill.
“And what about the clothes and the collection of straw hats. The checkbooks? The goddamn garden equipment you won’t need any more?”
My mother started to cry, “I guess I didn’t think about it. When the movers said they would pack everything up, I felt relieved and just put it out of my mind.”
I put my arms around her; apologetic and overwhelmed with the task she had left me. Closing the home she had shared with my father for twenty-five years and lived in alone for another eleven, was left for me to complete. She looked at me imploring, ashamed, and I patted her back and murmured something reassuring, straightened up and went into the kitchen to begin the first of hundreds of lists, engaged the task of gathering up the artifacts of her life.
Each vase, every necklace, all the paintings had a story. Each anecdote had to be told as the item was being packed. Where she and Daddy were when they bought it. Why the artist was singular, how they spotted his potential years before anyone else, why this piece of amber or that bolt of silk captured precisely the essence of their adventure. It wasn’t the packing my mother was waiting to do, it was telling me the stories.
I gathered up each object and she told me their histories throughout the night and the next morning until the movers came. She supervised them as they went about their work and I hastily completed the sorting and packing. As we drove away from the house, she didn’t look back, not even once. She sat quietly beside me, as I drove her car to the new apartment. I was unwilling to interrupt her thoughts, and we remained silently together in the car until the moving van pulled up in front of her new awninged entrance.
Returning home, five days later, I called my mother, pressing the volume button on high in order to be able to hear her thin voice in the cacophonous sterile corridors of the airport.
“Hi, Ma. I’m at the airport. Just wanted to say good-bye once more.”
“I know you’re at the airport. I just went into your room looking for you. There was something I forgot to say but you weren’t there,” her poignant reply.
I can see her wobbling across the living room, wearing house clothes, her “going out” clothes neatly folded and returned to their sachet lined drawers the moment she returns home. She is wearing no skid sneakers, cotton drawstring pants and a cotton tee. Braless, she cannot bear anything pressing against her body, nothing containing or binding her. Finally, she has loosened all the constraints that shaped her body and her life. My mother’s skin is filled with purple bruises, a new one blossoming each day. Thin skin, she diagnoses.
“I bump into something and before you know it, I’m black and blue.”
The same thing happens to me now. I look down at my body during my morning shower and see new bruises I don’t remember getting. My mother and I are thin-skinned women.
Now my mother calls me from the small very modern kitchen in her new home. The telephone wires our point of contact.
“Good morning dear. I listened to an interview with a reverend at Harvard. He spoke so beautifully he reminded me of Abba Eban. Remember how he spoke? This Reverend, he is Black, sounded just like him. He also spoke very highly of the Jews. It was very interesting. Sometimes I think you are the only one in my life that I learn anything from. The women at the bridge club talk about television and clothes. I get so bored I have to leave. But when I watch a good interview on channel two, I want to discuss it with you. Also, Carl Sagan died today. He’s the man who did everything in the cosmos. The replayed an interview with him and he talked about the cosmos like a loving child.”
I call my mother every two or three days, being sure to focus on the Harvard reverend, the death of Sagan. We have lengthy conversations where she “learns” something. Often she sends clippings about current events that she hopes I will find interesting. I save them by the phone, so we can refer to them when we speak. But, increasingly now, she forgets words, frequently returning to the start of the sentence and beginning again quickly, hoping, perhaps, to rush up to the missing word before she loses it again. She becomes embarrassed, frustrated, impatient with herself and I try to find the word that is lost, offer it to her, like lobbing a ball into an empty net.
“Good morning dear. First of all I’ll give you the weather report. It’s too slippery to go out. I’m just afraid of falling. I get up, make the bed, have my breakfast and clean up the kitchen, and then I have to rest. The whole day goes that way. I’m just slowing down. Yesterday, I didn’t even make the bed. I had palpitations and felt funny. I feel out of breath. I’m going to call the woman who checks my pacemaker and tell her that. Last night I had a dream that a young girl came to me and said here’s your mail. Can you imagine such a thing? What would make me dream something like that? I don’t even know a female mailman. Furthermore, I had another dream where a pretty reddish brown dog was in my bedroom. He came very close to me and was smiling. The door to the rest of the apartment was closed but I knew there were a young man and woman outside the door wanting me to feed the dog. ‘I can’t keep a dog here,’ I called out to them. ‘They don’t allow dogs in here.’ I got up out of bed and walked around the house imagining they were feeding him in my kitchen.”
I try to explain the idea of dreams to my mother, try to help her understand the unconscious, manifest content, free associations. But she becomes bewildered and literal. For her, the dream is about what she is reporting. Nothing else makes sense to her. I stop trying to explain and begin instead to simply listen carefully to her dreams.
My mother’s message is halting this morning. I call her as the water drips through the paper cone, through the coffee grounds of my other necessary morning ritual.
“What’s the matter, ma?”
“Nothing. I just get low once in a while. Then it passes.”
“What are you feeling low about?”
“My life,” she whispers.” My life. I think and think about everything. I go over and over it in my mind. What did I do? Exactly what did I do? I ran a house, took care of my husband. Took care of my children. And it all seems so plain. Such a plain life. I never did anything.”
Unable to think of what to say, I remain silent and wait.
“When I was a young woman, I used to go downtown after you and your brother were in school. I signed up for speech lessons, so I wouldn’t make any mistakes when I talked. I used to go to the department stores and walk around the housewares department and the furniture department to see how they arranged rooms, set tables and made centerpieces. I wanted so much to learn how to do things the right way. And look what happened. You know I lie in bed and can’t stop myself from funny thoughts. Now that’s it’s winter, it gets dark early. I get into bed earlier than usual and I have alot of time to think, just lying there.
“What do you think about, Ma?”
“All the funny twists and turns in a life. The time you made one decision and not another. And how you never know how it will change things.”
My mother’s younger dreams gone. As are most of mine. I thought the world would change before I had grandchildren. Was certain that the political organizing, activist demonstrations, feminist psychology would begin to bridge the chasms between peoples. But the world hasn’t changed and I have no grandchildren.
“Good morning dear. I slept a little later this morning that usual. I just feel slow today so I’ll stay in and catch up on my reading. You know how I enjoy being home. It doesn’t bother me, not being able to go out, it really doesn’t. I like to sit in the den and read. You know my friend Bev, who lives downstairs. She’s a real run around. Of course she has a daughter who comes to take her. But she is always going. I’m not restless that way. I enjoy my own company. Bev is always inviting me to go places with her but I guess I’m just cynical because I’m just not interested in all those revivals and movies with the “f” word in them. I’d rather stay home and read. Besides my legs aren’t working so well and I don’t want to have to take my walking stick. Nobody needs to see that I use one.”
Today my mother had a driving accident and calls to demand my allegiance about the injustice of it.
“All those cops are crooks. I’m telling you they all stick together and you can’t do a thing.”
” What do you mean, Ma?”
” First of all, he was driving a dented, rusted shitcan. I don’t even know why he was so upset. It wasn’t even my fault.”
“Did you hit a car, Ma?”
“You couldn’t even call it a hit. Like a little bump, that’s all.”
“Are you ok?”
“Of course, I’m ok. I told you it was only a little bump. It was the cop that was so unpleasant.”
“The cop? Did you hit a cop, Ma?”
“Not the cop. His car.”
There is a long silence that I don’t attempt to fill. She and I both know what this will mean.
“I may even sue,” she finishes in a small defeated voice.
The expected letter arrives within the week, informing her officially that her driving days are over. I am grateful that she won’t eventually cause an accident, hurting either herself or someone else. I also know that this is a terrifying loss of autonomy and freedom for her. She describes wandering around the apartment and weeping all that week, emptying out the trunk of the car with the mat, the brush, and the stones no longer needed. Her rain hat, gloves and Kleenex resignedly thrown in the trash.
Each day her messages are filled with frustrated proclamations.
“If I can’t drive, I’m selling my house and going someplace. I just can’t be without my car. Bev drives and she banged right into the garage door. Alma can’t even see in front of her and she still drives although her daughter is trying to convince her to stop. And my driving is better than both of them put together. I’m so upset I’m beside myself.”
But by the end of the week, she reports, ” I’ve been doing alot of thinking. Even though the cop is a big liar, it is true that I’m not good at backing up when there are too many cars around. They said I needed a note from my doctor saying he felt I could drive. Then I could come downtown and take a test. I could never pass a test and I know it. So I’ll just have to do without a car. After all, it’s not the end of the world. You know sweetheart, I’ve been doing alot of soul searching. When I evaluate myself I’m really nobody special. I know I can’t do what I used to do any more. I get up in the morning and I’m grateful I can move my legs and see through my eyes. There are so many things I can do. So, I’m ready now to give up the car. And I will say it only to you, I’m almost relieved. There were two other altercations I didn’t tell you about. Twice when I was at the market, cars parked too close to me and I had to wait for the drivers to come out and drive off before I could get out of my parking space. So, it’s a blessing to stop worrying about all of it. I used to go out very early in the morning when everything wasn’t so crowded. To hell with all of them. I don’t have to run every day. I even used to make up things to do so I would have a reason to go out.”
After the car is sold, she calls to tell me,
“Good morning dear. I think I’m going to stop using that salve on my eyes because they get red and I look like I’m crying. Well, I guess maybe I am crying a little bit. It’s hard to tell myself I can’t drive anymore. But maybe it’s a good thing in disguise. I know I shouldn’t have been driving but it’s still a sad day when I can’t even get out of the house under my own steam. But on the other hand, yesterday I took a walk around the building and the geese started to follow me and they were talking to each other. They seemed so sweet and friendly to one another.”
I encourage her to find out if there is a bus that takes seniors on errands.
“Don’t call me a senior,” she replies scornfully. “I am an elderly and I’m not going on that thing with the old ladies. And that’s final.”
“Good morning dear. Call me when you get a minute. I want to talk something over.”
It has only been a few weeks since the car has been sold, since she can no longer take a drive or get out under her own steam. I make coffee and call her.
“You know I have alot of time now that I am not driving. So I’ve been thinking things over. First of all, I don’t want a pine coffin. I know that’s what you picked for your brother, but I don’t want it. I want a dark wood and a liner. So the ants don’t get to me too fast. And furthermore, I don’t want anyone throwing sand on me. I’m just not ready to go. There are so many things that I’ll miss. I know I’m different from other women. You don’t have to tell me. I’ve always been different. I’m just an oddball and I can’t help it. And to tell you the truth, I don’t want to help it. I like myself just the way I am. Of course I’m lonely sometimes and wish I could talk to other women the way you do. To tell my feelings and so on. But, it’s not my way. I’m a very private person and at this age, I’m not going to change.”
Now that she has said the words, we are able to talk about plans for her funeral. There is something surreal about sitting at my desk on a sunny California morning, holding the phone to my ear, chipmunks racing across the branches outside my window, while my mother tells me how her funeral is to be conducted. She wants to have a graveside service, I am instructed. No flowery speeches, no fake rabbi who never even met the deceased, she commands. My mother will be the deceased, I remember and lower my head to the computer screen to feel its comforting steadying coolness.
“Whoever wants to come will just have to drive out to the cemetery and stand there while the appropriate prayers are read. Do I understand what she is telling me?”
“Yes,” I say. “I understand.” I am left to imagine inhabiting a world without my mother in it, without the sound of her voice. It is unbearable but I will have to mange to bear it. It is in the natural order of things for daughters to grieve their mothers. One day, if death remains orderly, my daughters will have to do the same.
“Good morning dear. Here it is the first day of another year. I want to wish you a Happy New Year for this year and all the rest of the years whether I’m here or not. You know I’ll be watching and listening from wherever I am to be sure you’re all right.”
Then I hear the schedule of dinners and bridge. The one who can drive determines how the outing is planned. Some of the younger ones (women in their late 70’s and early 80’s) still drive at night. Others are more confident in the daytime, although the dented fenders on their cars suggest the folly of such assurance.
“Good morning dear. I went with Bev to see Shine and it was so exciting with the music and everything that I had to take a Tylenol when I got home. It’s about how a father ruined his son’s life in the name of love. It was wonderful.”
We talk about the love of parents for their children, the ambitions of mothers for their daughters more pointedly, and the conversation ends with the importance of letting children find their own way. Something she learned only recently. It was not easy for my mother to accept that my hungers were not an extension of her own. They were not for success and acceptability but more akin to those of her working class socialist father.
My mother comes to visit me to celebrate her eighty-eighth birthday. I give her my bedroom so she can lie in bed and watch her two favorites, Jeopardy and McNeill-Lehrer. I sleep on the sofa bed in the living room, restlessly listening to her padding in and out of the bathroom every few hours. She usually awakens at five thirty, but had been instructed that she needs to lie in bed and listen to National Public Radio until seven o’clock when she can come and get me. So each morning at exactly seven, she stands beside my sofa bed, teasingly making ‘ahem ahem’ sounds. I rise, filled with the pleasure of seeing her face, and we feast on coffee, cottage cheese, rye bread and prune juice.
I bathe my mother’s body when she visits. My bathtub is small and it is difficult for her to get in and out. She sits on a chair in the tub, her body spindly, nipples unexpectedly pink, body as hairless as a child. Ten years ago, I had a partner who died of breast cancer. One of the side effects of her chemotherapy was that her pudendum became hairless like my mothers is now. My mother’s skin is falling off her bones and her pudendum is that of a child’s. I remember the vulnerable bodies of my own babies; the years spent washing them, rocking them through fevers and bandaging open wounds and broken bones. After my mother leaves to return to her own home, I brush my teeth with her toothbrush.
Once, after a tense phone call where we disagreed about what decision my youngest daughter should make, (neither of us were asked to assist her), she called back after only a few minutes.
“Sandy, It’s me again. I made a mistake I think. I said you’re crazy. It’s not so. I’m talking about myself. Sometimes I think Sandy that you’re my mother. Isn’t that funny? I must have said the wrong thing. You’re not crazy at all. You’re very smart. I’m sorry.”
Last week my mother had bad dreams. Shadow figures were wandering through the rooms calling her name.
” From now on, I am going to sleep on the other side of the bed. Anyhow, I think it will be better for the mattress. Don’t you think so? In addition, I want to tell you that I bought a Saul Bellow book but it was disappointing. It was only a novelli”, not even a complete book. That’s probably why I couldn’t get into it.”
Often I suggest books I imagine she will enjoy. I am always wrong. Her attention span is abbreviated now, and she needs a very plot driven book. Thrillers mostly. She doesn’t know the books I read now, nor do I know hers. We shift to the news, avoiding the Middle East because she identifies herself as a hawk and me as a dove. So we stick to social programs in the United States about which we agree. Agreement has always been important. It keeps us feeling close and connected to one another.
“Good morning dear. Today I’m not going to the reservoir to try to walk around it. Yesterday I had to go slowly. But I think its alright if I don’t go so fast. I still get the exercise, don’t I? I’m going to start with the weather report. I’m not going to walk today because I heard on the radio that they advise the elderly not to go out. I think that means me. But yesterday I had palpitations,”
I sink into my chair, afraid of what comes next. I’m nearly always afraid of what comes next.
“But I called the doctor and I’m fine. It’s a pulled muscle or something. I’m just telling you because I don’t want you to worry.”
My mother is increasingly frail and I open a tentative conversation about the possibility of her moving to an apartment where there are social services, nursing care and transportation on the grounds. But, she digs in her paper-thin heels and in response sends determinedly cheerful morning messages in her attempt to reassure herself and me.
“Good morning dear. I feel terrific this morning. I went for a walk outside the building and only had to sit on the bench twice. Gloria and Eve called to see how I was feeling and Alma brought a Kosher chicken from the good place on Harvard street. I’ll make soup later. It’s important that you understand that I have so many friends here who care about me. Not that you don’t care about me. I don’t mean that. It’s just that I don’t think you understand what it’s like to live someplace for more than sixty years and have people know you when you go someplace. If I left here, I would be an also. I would only be your mother. The phone would never ring. I just can’t do it. I know you worry about me and I’m grateful. I really am. But this is my home. And I’m staying here. I’m going to go sooner or later and I want to be where I have lived my entire life.”
I am increasingly frightened, not sure my mother is eating properly, having enough exercise, taking her medication regularly. Carefully I suggest this time that she move across the country to be near me, perhaps in an assisted living facility.
“I’m not going into a nursing home. You promised that you would never put me in one of those places. I’m surprised at you for even saying such a thing.”
“Ma, it’s not a nursing home. Things have changed. This is a place where you have your own apartment, your own kitchen but there are additional services that are available to you if you need them.”
“Services? What do you mean services? Like what?”
“You know, things like a van to take you to the doctors, linen service once a week…”
“It sounds like some hotel for old people. I don’t want to be with old people.”
“Ma, you are an old person.”
“I don’t care. I’m not going to a place like that. I’m staying in my own place where I belong.”
“Ma, God forbid if you fall, the rest of your life will be terrible.”
“I won’t fall. I promise you. I walk very carefully and I use the walking stick, even in the apartment when I’m wobbly. You’ll see. Everything will be fine.”
I hear my tone of voice, anxious and parental, and hers, that of a placating child. Yet, nothing has really changed. I am the sixty-year-old child; she is the eighty-eight year old mother, the one who must decide about her own life. At least as long as she can. It’s almost a shift in roles, but not quite. We have made the legal agreement that if there is an emergency, I have both medical and legal power of attorney. But I don’t want it to be that way. I want us to talk it over, and for her to agree that she will either move into assisted living where she is or move to a facility near me. But, I don’t think that will ever happen, and I am left three thousand miles away to reach for the phone when I awaken, relieved again to hear the robotic electronic voice say,
“You have one new message. To retrieve, please press the pound key.”
Then I relax, knowing I still have my mother for another day.
Dutiful Daughters: Caring For Our Parents as They Grow Old (ed.) Jean Gould Seal Press 1999.