When I look into her soft, blue eyes I don’t see her inside. Not anymore.
She looks like my mom. An older version, a version who wears grey washed-out tee shirts now instead of the beautiful clothes that she used to wear.
Her voice is the same, only she doesn’t have much to say anymore. What she does say, she repeats. A lot. The stilted conversation is peppered with a nervous laughter. Is she embarrassed? Or is it just part of her confusion?
She loves her dog. She loves her big, fat, bushy red dog. He keeps her company all the time and I think he is what keeps her going.
My mom was always a little discombobulated. She was one of those people who can never find their keys, their glasses, their wallet. But eventually she always did find them. She was famous for losing a telephone. Not a cellphone but an old-fashioned house phone. My father would always buy her expensive cameras, computers, cell phones and she was constantly struggling to figure out how to use them. All this stuff was normal and part of who she was.
In thinking of her, as I do often these days it comes to me that her biggest talent was to make whomever she was speaking to seem interesting. It was why she was so successful as a corporate wife of a CEO. My mom could talk to anyone. She was a good listener and knew how to find the route to another person’s ego. My father’s clients adored her. My friends adored her, my children and their friends adored her.
Yes, she brought little presents to my kids when they were young. And many larger ones that they didn’t know about, such as paying for music lessons and such. Their favorite thing about her though, was just simply hanging out with her. She was the best audience ever. When Grandma was with them, they were the most talented pianist, singer, artist and certainly the most interesting people. It’s not that she treated them like adults. She treated them like people. Young people who had something to say that was important.
My mom and I could talk for hours on the phone. My ups and downs, divorce, falling in love, finding my way through a complicated career were always discussed. She was a friend, not just my mother.
Many lazy summer days were spent, floating on blue rubber rafts in her swimming pool. Cicadas would be buzzing their long, whining song along with the little cement elephant fountain spurting water out of its’ trunk. My mom was always one of the first to put on her bathing suit on her strong, healthy body. She was a beauty, always looking far younger than her years. She was a grandma that never minded going into the water with the kids. She wasn’t one of those grownups who sat by the side of the pool, dreading having to get wet. She relished her time with them. I think that’s part of what kept her young.
Somewhere an invisible line was crossed. Stealthily, insidiously, something inside of her head began to go…away.
My mom was from the generation that was on the cusp between going to college to get your M.R.S. and going to college to get an education. She got the first one, and was married to my father when she was eighteen years old. My mother had the occasional job, but never had a career. She raised three kids. She and my father socialized but I do not recall my mother ever really spending time with girlfriends. She had no hobbies, no goals or aspirations that I ever knew of. Pretty much everything revolved around my brothers, me and my father. The only thing that she was really passionate about was movies and theater. My now grown daughter attributes her with instilling her love and later on, pursuit of becoming a singer.She did go back to college in her 40’s and got her diploma. She tried her hand at some writing for her classes. She mainly wrote about our family. Sometimes I wonder if her lack of drive for anything outside of us is partly responsible for what is happening to her.
When my father started to make some serious money, they were in their 50’s and she perfected her game as his wife. She was groomed and dressed by personal shoppers at Bergdorf’s and hair stylists at Frederic Fekkai. My mother loved being able to write checks and help her sister out when she was struggling. Or to take me and my kids shopping. We would exit the mall pushing a stroller with my little son, the rest of us carrying giant blue bags from the Gap. I think her heyday was when she would pack all of the kids, including my nieces and nephew into her huge silver SUV and just be grandma. We called her big, beautiful house full of toys and magical gardens to stroll in- Camp Patsy.
I think I first noticed it at family gatherings. We are a loud, funny bunch. We joke, we laugh, we drink and cook great food. You need to be witty and quick to keep up.
Somewhere along the line, my mom started to become a little invisible in these get togethers. While she may not have always participated in the sarcastic banter that is the specialty of me, my brothers and father, she would have engaged more with one of my sisters-in-law. Or some of the kids. Instead I have noticed her sitting quietly with a drink in her hand. Watching but her eyes were just a slightly blank looking.
When she would speak, it was increasingly to talk about something she had already told us. The same stories were repeated more and more. She was overshadowed by a bunch of loudmouths. It hurts me to say it now, that she was kind of dismissed.
Then her increasingly difficult ability to find words. Most of us have what we call “senior moments” when we space out on a word that we cannot remember. Her frustration grew as she would have more and more trouble expressing her thoughts. With this has come general confusion. Her calendar is loaded with scribbled notes, including my daughter’s boyfriend’s name because after five years she still cannot remember it.
I moved away from the family, so I see everyone a little less often than before. My kids are grown and don’t need a babysitter. My father is retired, they sold the house and moved to a senior living community. Life moved on.
Seeing her less often is what has made me look at her in a new light. On the phone, we have very little to talk about. She tells me that I sound great and that she is happy for me. When I ask her about herself, she talks about her dog and complains about my father. When I try to make plans to see her, she uses him as an excuse. At one point, she had me so concerned about him that I went up there to check things out for myself. Other than a painful hip, he was doing fine. Sharp as a tack, current, learning new things and engaged. It dawned on me that he was her excuse for never going anywhere. If it isn’t on “campus” as I call the place where they live, she doesn’t go.
Last year, her sister was dying. I spoke with my cousin, her daughter, every day. When she told me it was apparent that it was the end, I was the one who had to explain the gravity of the situation to my mother. I don’t believe that she knew how bad it was. I offered to make the arrangements and travel with her from Connecticut to North Carolina to say goodbye. Or at least to be with the family.
Mom decided that it wasn’t really necessary for her to go.
She twisted a tale about how wonderful her brother and my cousin were being and that they told her not to come. She seemed to think that if she went, she would be expected to write checks and she was in the position to do that any longer now that she and my father were being more conservative with money. And of course, my father. He wasn’t doing very well. Not true. She was becoming a true artist of deflection.
She justified it, and went on. Not too long ago, my mother would have been the first person to get on a plane to go there. This was not my mother anymore.
I have started to re-frame my relationship with her. I feel more a caretaker than a daughter. We don’t have much to say to one another. We walk our dogs on the perfectly manicured grounds and have stilted conversations. Those long talks of yesteryear are gone now. When I go to visit, I check out the refrigerator, clean it up a bit. I remember when I was younger and would go visit my grandparents and the drinking glasses were kind of schmutzy looking. Sadly, I am starting to find the same thing in the cabinets in my parents’ kitchen.
I think the hardest part is that she is somewhat cognizant of what is happening to her. She will start a conversation with a thought, lose it somewhere along the line and exclaim, “Ugh! My brain just stops when I’m talking! I hate this!”
She is snippier with me now too. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism but at times she will be a little harsh with me. My daughter noticed it too. It’s only with me and my dad. Perhaps she is most comfortable with us. Or maybe it’s because she knows we are watching, observing something that she is powerless over.
Recently, my father had a hip replacement. He sailed right through it and at the age of 82, he is making a swift and excellent recovery. My brother was there with her at the hospital to lend support and to get the follow-up from the doctor.
Later on, I got it out of my father that my mother never went back to the hospital while he was still there for three more days.
She did not pick up the mail for two weeks.
When I talked to her on the phone, she barely spoke about him. It was all about how tired she was and how happy she was to get a break. Her conversation with me now is basically telling me that I look wonderful. Or that I sound wonderful. Or about her dog, or that my father exhausts her. With that nervous laugh, she says she is ready for a drink!
I have one wall in my New York City apartment that is devoted to family pictures. Generations of us. Some are in color, the older ones in black and white. There are my grandparents, my kids as babies and as young adults, myself, my brothers, nieces, my nephew at all ages and stages of life.
It is the photos of my mother now that speak to me especially when I look at them. There is the one from the early 60’s of her with a Jackie Kennedy hair-do, taken with little me, both of us wearing stylish overcoats holding hands strolling on the Upper East Side.
Another one is of her with her dark hair in a flip, arms around my baby brother and I shielding us from the wind on Jones Beach. It is very intimate in nature.
Another place in time, at Camp Patsy. A day when we played dress-up from her wardrobe in Grandma’s attic. My daughter is eight in the picture and is wearing an old prom dress of mine, My sister-in-law is wearing an 80’s outfit with sprawling palazzo pants and shoulder pads, holding my baby niece. Mine was the best- lime green bell bottoms and matching top with a groovy fringed scarf a la early Jackson 5. In the middle is my mother, smiling widely not in a silly costume. She is beaming at sharing her old stuff with us.
Then there is a family portrait taken on the beach on Martha’s Vineyard about ten years ago. It is all 13 of us, my original nuclear family, brothers’ spouses and our collective five kids at various stages. Happy faces, at magic hour right before sunset. I remember it so well, how afterwards the kids ran around in the sand and we adults opened a bottle of champagne, toasting and laughing.
There she is, in the center of us. Her red hair gleaming, her blue eyes bright. Her beautiful smile. She was there, she was in the moment.
I miss my friend. I miss my mom. Though she’s still with us, she’s gone.