“Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” by Camille Pissaro
Emerging from the gate, her smile was like a seven-year-old kid’s, gone to Six Flags, all adventuresome and free, meeting up with her best buds. Just to have someone to talk to, somewhere to go besides her bedroom, was a great thrill for her, though she always claimed, when asked, that it didn’t bother her to be alone, to lack a reason to get up, while family members were off at work.
I met her at the gate, a gentle surge of mother-love in her eyes, or at least a greatly weathered sweetness. I whisked her away, relieved that we’d avoided some terrific hassle like her getting lost along the way, or a security breech—the plane making an emergent stop to expel a dangerously disoriented old lady. Jaunty and lightweight, she practically skipped down the concourse, tra-la-la-ing past the security station. When we met up with my husband Luke, his face reflected, in his more patient manner, my own apprehension.
“Three weeks?” Luke and I asked each other after we’d brought her back to our temporary and tiny one-bedroom apartment. “How many more days?” we then asked at least once every day of Mom’s visit, our eyes rolling in that oh-my-God manner, neither of us ever even having children to contend with. “What’ll I do if Mom throws up?” I asked. Luke promised to clean it up, though he reminded me that the idea for the visit had been mine. My sister Mary, with whom my mom lived, had greatly welcomed it, agreeing to give me a little money from Mom’s account for my loss of work time.
Despite our efforts to explain otherwise, Mom had it all figured out: we were staying in her apartment—not the other way around. In Mom’s mind, our two cats were hers, which we were graciously feeding. Though she didn’t know precisely who we were, this was of no concern to her; she just kept thanking us for being such nice people in that kind, chipper manner that seemed to have only intensified with the loss of so much else.
“Who is Mary?” Mom asked when I announced I was calling Mary. Exasperated by her relentless questions, which seemed to have become even more ridiculous, I ignored her.
“Why didn’t you warn me of Mom’s deterioration,” I asked Mary on the phone.
“She’ll get better, more oriented as the weeks go by; you’ll see,” Mary answered, ignoring my question.
With Mom having gone to the little girl’s room, I felt free to complain. “If it wasn’t for her neurotic personality, the selfish narcissism she’s always had, she wouldn’t be near so difficult.” Mary agreed heartily. “Have fun dear,” she said with sisterly sarcasm. But I wasn’t laughing—awash as I was with all the old feelings: the guilt, oh yes, but also the anger, resentment, and pain. Why!—why had she never encouraged in me the greatness I’d so desperately wanted to see in myself? Why had she not sent me, as a girl, to therapy after my father left. She’d had to work full-time, and I’d felt she’d neglected me in particular. My father having been out of the picture, I had only her to blame for my teenage depressions, the deadening apathy that completely took hold, leaving me to feel only a few blips of pleasure or happiness over the years. I was sure I’d never felt real love, not even for my lovely and tolerant husband.
“I’ll just go to my room now and be quiet,” Mom said, as I set about to make dinner. Mom had always been a good girl, a daddy’s girl (her own mother dying when she was nine).
“Nooo Mom. That room’s for Luke. He has to get up and work in the morning. We’ll sleep out here in the living room, you on that futon, me on that one.”
“Okay, dear,” she answered, not seeming to mind the cramped quarters—the fact that her futon and mine were almost touching with just a few steps from hers to the bathroom and a few steps from mine to the front door. “We’ll have a good time,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, remembering she snored loudly. Mary also mentioned that Mom talked, muttered, incessantly in her sleep.
Because Mom liked to rearrange things, I’d gone to great lengths to hide things that she might rearrange or mistake for trash or things she might eat. Once, I caught her, gritting her teeth with effort, attempting to pull a rigorously glued-on decoration—a fake piece of peppermint candy—from my antique candy jar. All pills, of course, had to be hidden so she wouldn’t assume they were hers, which, left to her own attempts at dosing, might kill her. Various tapes and bells were placed on drawers, stove knobs, freezer and fridge handles. She giggled, seeming not to understand their purpose, asking if it was Christmas (not a clue it was April). Since she thought our beloved indoor-only cats were hers, there was no telling how she might rearrange them. Triple sets of bells had been placed on windows and doors. I felt, with such armaments, there was no way she’d wander out in the middle of the night, setting our fluffy babies free. “Maybe we should let them out,” mom would say.
“No mom, they never go out.”
Little did I anticipate that all her undiagnosed OCD tendencies of the past had greatly intensified. Before going to bed, she spent hours rearranging the bedding on her futon. Of particular concern to her was the crackly plastic shower curtain underneath the fitted sheet. I’d put it there to protect the futon, though I really had no reason to believe she pee-pee’d in her sleep. I kept it there, feeling it best not to try and explain its purpose, even as she spent hours circling the futon, smoothing out the crackles and wrinkles, clearly confused by their origin. She’d take exasperated breaks, only to start folding and refolding the bedding, deciding and un-deciding on the arrangement of pillows and covers.
Finally, late one night, with Luke and me even more exhausted than the night before, my “interventions” reached that perfect parental pitch. “Stop it. The bed is fine. Pleeease go brush your teeth.” With effort, I pushed the futon frame against the wall, thwarting her circles. “Please put your pajamas on,” I commanded, pleaded.
“Shut up,” she snapped, hands on hips, her tone drippingly sarcastic, uncharacteristic at least in recent memory. With super-human strength, she yanked the futon away from the wall and resumed circling and smoothing.
“Pajamas, pleeease,” I begged.
“Shut up!” she shrieked. She’d amazingly morphed into me as a teenager, yet also with the innocence that her complete obliviousness to time and place afforded. “What’s it to you if I want to fix my bed, stay up late?”
“Pajamas pleeease.” I surged with anger, sure she was waking the neighbors.
“Shut the hell up,” mom ranted. “It’s my house,” she raged. “I can do what I want!”
“No,” Luke intervened, “it’s our house,” his calm authority making Mom stop, something flickering across her face, and then the rage bursting over her again.
“Here!” Spittle flying. “Is THIS want you want?” she screamed, pulling her shirt and her bra up over her head, flashing her fallen breasts.
Luke, in shock, turned away just in time. Miraculously, I managed to sit her down, distract her, and she cheerfully put her PJs on and went to bed. Interestingly enough—although she claimed to not remember the incident even minutes after it—from this night on, she ceased the rearranging whenever I asked, going to bed thereafter as complacently as a lamb.
“The child becomes the mother; the mother becomes the child,” Mom had become fond of saying. “What’s this? What’s that?”
“That’s soap Mom, that’s shampoo.”
“Do I wash my hair with this?”
“No, mom, that’s toothpaste. Get in the shower now.” Although my brusqueness tended to sadden and discourage me, there was nothing I could do to stop its guilty flow.
“It’s too cold, too hot, too cold,” she’d say with a little whine, wanting me to spend a good five minutes adjusting the shower’s temperature.
“Mom…it’s fine,” I’d exclaim. “You’re being ridiculous, like a little child.” (I refrained from saying, like you’re retarded.) I gladly left her to dry herself, a task which took over thirty minutes, instructing herself the entire time, indicating to herself where to dry real good. Coming back to dress her, facing her in her most naked and vulnerable, I’d sometimes try to explain: “Mom, I never asked, never wanted, to be a mom…that’s why I never had kids.” I didn’t come right out and say it sickened me that she wanted me to be her mom, when she’d never been a proper mom to me, never instilled in me the mother-love.
As the weeks passed, I became filled with irritation at her joy as she sat across from Luke and me, hanging on our every word as we talked and ate, apparently her favorite “big folks” in all the world. It was hard to tell with whom she was more captivated. Luke was wonderful with her. He’d talk to her of art and science, eventually coming back to God or the existence of space aliens (her two favorite subjects) proving that, if someone tried enough, a real conversation could still be had. After dinner, they’d settle in front of the Internet, looking up childhood songs that Luke noticed she was always humming: “Rachel, Rachel, Reuben, Reuben” and the one about “giving babies away for a half a pound of tea.”
“I was brilliant, you know,” Mom interjected into many conversations. It dawned on me during this visit that it’d become like a broken record, an obvious badge of self-defense. She’d been telling friends and family about her magnificent brain for as long as I could remember—how she’d skipped grades in school, entered college when she was 15; how she was one of the few women in her era to earn a graduate degree in chemistry, from Vanderbilt no less. Although the details had become lost to her, she continued to speak of her past brilliance. In fact, she seemed to be bringing it up more in recent days, making me realize, in a rare objective moment, that some part of her must’ve known her repetitive questions, her abject helplessness, were aggravating to others.
My objectivity, however, was fleeting, considering my need to confront her yet again: Why hadn’t she motivated her children to be academic successes? Why hadn’t she told us we were brilliant? I cross-examined her as I always had, though it ate me up a little. Why hadn’t she been concerned about my apathy? I pushed on in the manner we’d always jabbed at each other—she, perhaps inadvertently, even when fully cognizant.
“Mom,” I asked, “why is your brilliance the only thing you can remember?”
“I was a great student,” she insisted quite moodily, jauntily, “my children never did well in school. It’s the grades, the grades.” Actually, there was one other thing she persistently remembered. “Men are jerks,” she remained quick to conclude. Although she’d ultimately forgotten who my father was or that she’d been abandoned by him, her jokes and jibes remained full of admonitions regarding men and, more recently, hubbies. “Be nice to him, honey, or he’ll find himself a little chickie,” giggle, giggle.
“Mom, they’re not all like that.” I’d been rather desperately trying to convince her since I was a girl. I gave up, though, by the third week. Any attempt at sustained conversation had just become too much.
By the third week, the world was dropping out from under me. “God dammit! Mom’s pooping in her pants.” I called Luke at work. “I can’t believe it,” I lamented, “a little even got on the futon.” I called big sis. She said it’d never happened at home, and the CNA who’d started helping with mom had never mentioned it. “Ooohhh freakin gross,” I bellowed, but I set about then, with amazing resolve, bleaching the sheets after herding mom off to the shower, scolding her. I resigned myself to the inevitable: Diapers. I made plans to restrict her foods: smaller quantities, less veggies, spice, and grease. I could only pray her sphincter wouldn’t completely give out. Or my last nerve. I was beyond exhaustion. I continued to be woken up several times a night by Mom’s babbling, snippets of which seemed to pertain to longstanding issues between us, making them impossible to ignore.
“I did the best I could,” she’d say, far more convincing than I’d ever heard her in any waking, lucid state. “He tried to come back…,” babble, gurgle, babble, cough.
“Mom, pleeease,” I’d say, turning up the TV; it never seeming to wake her. I wasn’t sure what bothered me more, the genuine remorse in any recognizable statements, or the raw, saliva-filled mutters, the braying of the very old, the demented.
“Mary…Maaary…” By the third week, her sleep babble intensified in the form of calling out for big sis. I’d gotten up early, defeated, a virtual zombie, perhaps long-tired of shouldering my rebellious front, of justifying my reasons for being the selfish daughter as she’d so long-ago implied. “Mary…Mary…where?”
The raw need in her voice was impossible to ignore, even as I turned on my computer, trying to grab some rare work time. I sat there with my coffee, watching her toss and turn, listening to her increasingly bewildered muttering. Her dark turmoil seemed to confirm what I’d sensed we shared in waking hours—the stubborn regret, the mutual disappointment, clouding up the air between us, denser and blacker than ever. I turned back to my computer, fighting tears.
“Mary…MAAAry!” She screamed—“MAAAryyy!”—the sound of it ear-splitting, blood-curdling, the sound of a woman on a precipice, facing death itself. Her terror so lancing, it cut through me, curiously engendering a symbiosis, so rich and pure. “MARY!”
Rushing to her, rousing her from sleep, my words flowed out: “I love you; I love you so much.” I sat her up, hugged her hard.
“I was on a boat,” she said, still trembling, “falling off.”
Three days later, Mom flew home. I called to make sure she’d arrived okay. “Who are you?” she said with her little chuckle, “you know I can’t remember.” “Don’t worry,” I told her. It didn’t really matter so much anymore. I was just glad to hear her voice again. I was still glowing from the night before when she’d been rolling around in her sleep, babbling, still working things out. “I did the best I could.” “Yes mom, I know you did,” I’d responded. Surprisingly, my words stirred her. She’d sleep-moved closer, down to the end of the bed. I did all I knew how,” she said. “You are a wonderful mother,” I’d said, fighting easy tears. She smiled, that peaceful, knowing smile she’d always had in our best moments.
Hanging up the phone, I turned to Luke. “I miss Mom …” that little ache in my voice. “Me, too,” he said emphatically.
Thea Zimmer’s fiction appears in Fringe and Infinity’s Kitchen, both featuring her interactive narrative “Cake it!” Thea’s more “traditional” short stories appears in such publications as New Dead Families, Unlikely Stories of the Third Kind, Hackwriters, Weirdyear, Infective Ink, and Dial Magazine. She was a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars contest. She wrote the libretto for a multimedia opera, funded by a major arts foundation, to be performed in Miami Beach.
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