I think of long summer days spent swimming in my parents’ pool. I was with my daughter, about 9 years old. We played silly games together. Sometimes I would pretend that I was Koko the gorilla and she was my pet kitty-cat. I’d pull her through the water dragging her under my arm shouting, “Koko love her baby!” in what I imagined to be a gorilla voice and we would laugh together. Our other favorite activity would be to play the soundtrack from “Saturday Night Fever” (already 20 years old by then) on the outdoor speakers. I’d teach her my disco moves from the 70’s. Though she was still a bit young to watch the movie, we played roles. In the song “More Than A Woman”, I was Tony Manero and she was Stephanie Mangano. At one point we’d hold hands and circle around and around making waves as we acted out what we called “looking like we were in love”, our mouths agape in a parody of love-struck dancers.
On the other end of the pool was my mother with my five year old son. He would have a life vest on, his head popping out above with his long dark hair in bangs leading to his very large and almost black, brown eyes. You could see my mom’s strong and tanned shoulders as she led him around. Her hair was curly and a bright red. She was about 60, but looked a good 10 years younger than that. She would pull Paul along, holding his little hands while he kicked, squinting from the water that would splash in his face. “Wooooooooooo! Good job, good job!” She would say to him.
As a single mom finding my way through life, I don’t know what I would have done without that pool and my mom. Parents of grown up kids always say how that time of life goes so fast. Now that I am at that point, I get it. But you never realize it when you are in the middle of those long days.
I’ve often said that my mom was my partner when my kids were growing up. When Madeline was a newborn and my husband went to work, I will never forget the relief when my mom showed up at my house with fresh-baked muffins from our favorite bakery. I sat in the rocking chair nursing the baby, and could smell the scent of Tide detergent coming up from the basement along with the comforting sound of the dryer going. Clean clothes would be folded and ready soon. I could finally take a shower, when I handed the bundle of baby to her. Her help was a bit of heaven during that incredibly exhausting period.
By the time I had two very young kids, my husband and I made the decision to divorce. Never an easy choice and always hard on the family. Both my father and my mother did everything they could to help me from drowning. They helped me get back on my feet financially, while I went to school at night, and lovingly took care of the kids from time to time. My mom devoted one day a week to come over and hang out with them. That was my day for myself, as well as some time to just talk with my mom.
She used to greet my daughter with, “Hiya Toots!”. She introduced her to Broadway shows and encouraged her love of musical theater. With my son Paul it was, “Can I have a sniff?”, because for some reason he seemed to retain that divine baby-head smell well beyond his infancy. He would fake exasperation as he tilted his head to her and she would give a great inhale of his thick hair. “MMMmmmmmm! Thank you, Mr. P” and she would finish it with a kiss.
We would take the kids shopping at the mall. First we would go to Sbarro and have pizza. The strategy was to buy a little toy for Paul after that to keep him interested in and stay in the stroller while we women would get down to business. Madeline would try on clothes and when she would model outfits for us, my mom and I would serenade her with the Elvis song, “You’re so Young and Beautiful”. I must add here that my mom was always a huge fan of Elvis and so my kids were thoroughly educated on his music and legend.
When the sun finally would set on those summer days, after the waterlogged kids were fed and in their nightclothes, we would settle down in front of the tv and watch a silly Elvis movie as they each nodded off. My mom and I would have a glass of wine and talk. We would laugh sometimes, we would vent about my father, my ex-husband, relatives. Our conversation was easy. If we were sleeping over, we would each take a kid and escort them to the yellow bedroom with the twin beds and tuck them in. I would sleep in the bedroom next to it. After we said goodnight, I would hear my mom puttering around, turning off the lights, perhaps finishing up some dishes that we’d left in the sink. The sounds were very comforting as I would drift off to sleep.
It is now 20 years later. My parents sold that lovely home and moved into a senior living center nearby. My kids grew up and have their own lives.
I think that once they moved into that place, my mother’s tragic secret that she had been successfully hiding from most people was revealed. The repetition of stories, loss of words and confusion had been brewing for the last couple of years.
She has now reached the phase in dementia of not being aware that it is happening. Once she got there it was a blessing as well as a tragedy. Before this she was angry and terrified. Now she just doesn’t say much and when she does she stops mid-sentence or says something that does not relate to the conversation. And she remembers nothing.
A couple of months before my daughter’s wedding we took my mom shopping at the mall to help her find an outfit to wear. She walked slowly, a little overwhelmed. She didn’t really like anything but we got her to try on a few things. It was as we helped stabilize her to step in and out of dresses, I first noticed the disposable underwear. My mother of the silk, expensive lingerie was wearing beige, paper adult diapers.
She showed no interest in the food court, we could barely get her to eat or drink. We pointed out the carousel in the mall where we used to spend many days taking the kids on. She gave it a blank stare.
We gave up after a little while. She was visibly tired and we were not getting anywhere. I went to bring the car around while Madeline took her to the bathroom before leaving.
My father no longer has a wife. Married over 60 years, they were best friends who argued, laughed, talked and shared a great life together. Not long ago I overheard him telling her about a trip they had taken to Venice. An incredibly elegant and romantic story. I so admired his bravery as he shared this story and didn’t cry as she repeatedly said, “was I there?”.
“Yes, Patsy. You were there and are still just as beautiful”.
Instead of a wife, he has a child. There are signs taped up in the bathroom by an aide that comes in daily to help my mother bathe and dress.
“Patricia, don’t forget to brush your teeth”
“Please put pads in the wastebasket and don’t flush them down the toilet”
“Patricia, remember to wash your hands”
I haven’t had a mother in years. I try to remember her, how she was before. I smiled recently as I thought about when we were kids and she would hide a large Hershey bar in the freezer for herself to nibble on. She would wrap it in foil and label it with masking tape, “Liver”. Nobody would touch it. That was the mind that is gone.
My daughter asked me to do a special dance with her at her wedding. Of course it would be from the now 40 year old “Saturday Night Fever”, which she finally watched just that year. We choreographed our moves right from the dance contest scene, her fiance counting off the steps with us.
It was on a long, summer day that my daughter married the love of her life in an outdoor wedding at my brother’s house, on property reminiscent of my parent’s old place. My father had helped my mother buy a lovely outfit that was much better than anything we had seen at the mall. Her aide had helped her get dressed and she was stunning. She faked conversation with people that knew her, but she didn’t really know them any more. My father held on to her and stayed by her side.
As the first bars to “More Than a Woman” started, I strutted across the dance floor to my partner. I was Tony Manero and she was Stephanie Mangano. We brought the house down with our moves, including the “look like we’re in love” with hands clasped, circling around. It was a magical and humorous moment enjoyed by all.
My grown son stood nearby, a handsome man now who still has thick dark hair and the eyes that are so brown that they are almost black. My mother sat next to my father, watching us. She smiled too, though her eyes did not seem to understand the full relevance and meaning of this dance, and of the summer days years ago when we laughed and played with those children in the pool.