Thursday, October 25, 2012

Speaking of Mothers

When I was a new nurse my first job was working in a long term care facility.  I love older people but much of the time my heart ached for my patients, who were almost all over 90 years old and had some degree of dementia.  If there could be said to be one recurring theme it was this: they all missed their mothers.

One of my patients was 107 years old.  This was in 1992, so she had been born in 1885.  Supposing her mother had been at least 20 when my patient was born, we are talking about a woman who had been born around 1865.  A woman born around the end of our Civil War was still being actively remembered and mourned in 1993.  I found that remarkable.  It really illustrated the power of the mother/child bond.

Many of my patients fretted their days away in terrible anxiety about missed appointments with their long deceased mothers.  Several dear ladies had the exact same scenario: their mother was waiting for them somewhere and they couldn’t find her.  They knew she would be worried and they were so upset!  We had many residents who had emigrated to America from Scotland, so they were always looking for the bus to Glasgow or Edinburgh to meet their mothers.  I would tell them I had called their mum to say they were going to be late, not to worry.  That never failed to calm them for a little while until they got lost in the past again.

Their very real pain often brought me to tears, but I could never see myself having the same longing.  I had no such sentimental feelings about my own mother, a difficult and self-centered woman who had wounded me deeply throughout my life.  On the rare occasions I did think of it, I all but snorted as I dismissed the idea of ever missing my mother.  Until now, more than a year after her death.

Just to put my mother in perspective, consider what my sister remarked when it was first suggested that I had multiple sclerosis.  “Wow” she said solemnly, with no hint of joking, “Mommy is going to be so jealous.”  And she was right.

My mother was in her element when illness was involved.  Her favorite thing was to actually have the illness, injury and/or operation herself.  But the next best, if there was an audience involved, was being at the patient’s elbow.  The audience was essential, because my mother had to be seen, if not as the Helpless Victim, then as the Selfless Handmaiden.

After I broke my shoulder in 2008 I had several surgeries to repair the damage.  Each time she and my father would drive over to ‘help’ me for a few days.  She brought boxes of food with her each time.  Not boxes of food to be prepared, boxes of food she had prepared.  While English was my mother’s first language, she primarily spoke Food.  It was all about food to her.  She cooked constantly and, I have to admit, very well.  When she and my father traveled you would hear not about what they had seen and done but what they had eaten.  Every outing involved eating, whether it was a trip to the hospital or the supermarket.  Columbia Presbyterian, where several of their physicians were based, has an actual restaurant in their facility on West 168th Street and no visit to Wegman’s was complete without a stop in the food court.

Food was the way my mother communicated.  Sometimes the message was loud and clear.  My father loved dessert and they had it for every meal, I swear they even had dessert after breakfast.  She would make at least four different desserts.  These usually consisted of a pudding, a pie, cookies and some sort of cake.  Now mind you, it was just she and my father.  He has a real sweet tooth and would rub his hands together at the prospect of these culinary delights.  The ritual went something like this every single time I was there.

Kay: What do you want Jerry?
My father would pretend to gather all the desserts to him while he looked around in mock surprise at the rest of us. 
Jerry: What are the rest of you having?!?
My mother’s lips would get tight with annoyance.  He would make a big show of not being able to make up his mind.
Jerry (finally): I will have a little bit of each.
My mother would pile his plate with her usual gargantuan portions.  My father would lift the fork to his mouth…
Kay: {snort} You certainly don’t need that!

Every. Single. Time.

Sometimes the message was more mixed.  Such as after my surgeries.  She brought all this wonderful food (pot roast, several vegetables and side dishes, biscuits, macaroni and cheese, chicken salad, bread and, naturally, several desserts) and yet every word out of her mouth would be a criticism, even though the barb might be veiled.

If we were talking about cooking, she would give me little cooking tips, as though I was a new bride, not someone who had been running my own household for 35 years.  Sitting in the sun room, wrapped in bandages, an ice machine, a pain medicine pump and a haze of narcotics I could hear her in the kitchen, loudly sorting through the cabinets.

Kay (calling to me from the kitchen):  Marie, you are out of salt.
Me (yelling back): It’s in the cabinet next to the stove Ma.
Kay: Jerry, she’s out of salt.
Me, under my breath in the sunroom: No, it’s in the cabinet.
Jerry (drinking coffee in the dining room, clearly disinterested): Er…oh really?
Kay (more banging): Yes, she is completely out of salt.
Jerry:  Ohhh.
Me, murmuring in the sunroom: No, it’s in the cabinet.
Kay (bang, bang, bang): I know she doesn’t use a lot of salt…
Jerry:  Ohhh.
Me, calling out from the sunroom: It’s in the cabinet.
Kay (bang, slam, bang): She really could use more salt in her cooking…
Jerry: Ohhhh.
Me: IT’S IN THE &%#@ CABINET NEXT TO THE *&^%$#%  STOVE!!!!  (Of course I would never have really cursed at my mother, I just thought of it, and anyway this is a family blog).

When she so kindly serves lunch (and I mean that, I truly was grateful), I note cold liquid in the coffee mugs next to our plates.   Mystified, I just have to ask.

Me: Ummm, Ma, is this Coke in the coffee mugs?
Kay: Yes, because you have no glasses.

Now please note, this is a LOADED STATEMENT which I am able to translate now after decades of experience.  It doesn’t say I couldn’t find any glasses, it says you have no glasses.  It says not only do you not have any glasses, but you also do not keep salt handy.  It says you are a poorly equipped, disorganized slattern loser whose cooking leaves a lot to be desired.

Me (picturing the more than a dozen William Sonoma Picardie tumblers I have in the kitchen cabinet next to the fridge): But… (then I decide not to bother) this is lovely, I’ll bet the mug keeps the soda nice and cold.  What a treat it is to have my lunch served to me like this!
I smile broadly and take a bite of my chicken salad sandwich.
Kay: You must be so upset about all the weight you’ve gained.

By now my jaw aches from clenching my teeth.  My mother gives a slight, satisfied nod.  My father asks what is for dessert.  If they continue to come every day I am going to rip open my surgical site, pull out the rod holding the bones together and beat her to death with it.  Either that or I am going to fling myself in front of a truck.

But we both survive for her to torture me another day.  When she does die, it is from heart disease, not because I have killed her.  My sister and I continue to be incredulous.  Our mother was bigger than life.  Her every action was like a broad, color-soaked stroke across a canvas.  Even when you didn’t quite know what was going on, you knew something was going on.  It was usually something hurtful, but her creativity in lobbing one of her emotional hand grenades was a true art that I have almost come to grudgingly admire.  She drove me crazy.  But she was there.

However, it is still a shock when a thought pops up last week, unexpected and unbidden.  In the past two months I have been sicker, more scared, and feeling closer to my own mortality than ever before.  Sitting in bed the other day, a sense of foreboding hung over me so thickly that I am certain I do not have long to live.  My lip starts to quiver and I am astonished to find myself whispering, “I want my mother.”  The one thing I cannot have. 

“Ma,” I say with a sob, “I am so sorry.  Please pray for me.”  I close my eyes and just cry for a few minutes.  I cry for all we didn’t share, for all the hard feelings and hurtful words, I cry for not loving her the way she needed to be loved.   When I open my eyes, I can feel my panic starting to subside.  I am able to take a deep breath.  I know she is watching out for me and I will be ok, one way or another. 

Thanks, Ma.  


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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Warm Memories

And I mean literally warm.

I have been really enjoying a newly found blog, Doing Hard Time in Shaker Heights. Cookie, the author, is smart, funny, snarky and has all-around good taste in any number of things. Similar to mine, natch. Only he has more energy and money to indulge in his good taste than I do. Currently he and his hubby are mired in a wonderful/nightmarish /heartbreaking/hilarious move from Ohio to Maryland. Nuff said. He’ll have blog fodder for decades.

At any rate, one recent adventure for them involved the purchase of gas fireplace logs, which rang in at over $1000 dollars. Not exactly chump change I was thinking…and all of a sudden, like in a corny movie where the flashback is preceded by spooky music and the screen swimming, I am transported back through time to my Aunt Lily and Uncle Jack’s front parlor. Being so sick right now has left me feeling very nostalgic. Alright, alright, I am always nostalgic! I am just a little extra emotional right now. Sheesh. Cut a girl a break.

I grew up in New York City, in the same apartment building as my Aunt Lily, who had been my grandmother’s best friend since childhood in Ireland. Aunt Lily had emigrated here after my grandma and subsequently married handsome police officer Jack Costello, a fellow émigré from the Emerald Isle. They had five sons. My Aunt Lily was stick thin and had a fluttery, nervous disposition (Olive Oyl always reminded me of her, but in the nicest way possible). I can only imagine what those boys, all grown men by the time I came along, must have put her through.

When the apartment next door to Lily and Jack became vacant in 1954, my newlywed parents moved in and promptly had me (not too promptly, though, there was a decent interval). I was a roly poly, cheerful little ball of adorableness and Aunt Lily did adore me. The feeling was mutual.

Walking through their front door was like stepping across the ocean into a traditional Irish home, circa 1895. Heavy carpets and drapes kept everything dark and quiet. The furniture was oversized and heavy as well, overstuffed and overflowing each room. The large entrance foyer had a great big oak table in the center, covered with a lace tablecloth. From the foyer one entered the dining room to the right and then the parlor (never the ‘living room’!) was in the front of the apartment. A horsehair suite filled the room and against one wall was a mantel and an electric fire, just like home (Ireland). When turned on, the ‘wood’ glowed as if burning cheerfully on the hearth. It gave off some warmth, but primarily was a visual link to so much that had been left behind in Roscommon, including parents, friends, siblings and, sometimes, even children.

For as an adult I found out (through a family member’s loose lips) that my Aunt Lily had had a little baby boy out of wedlock back in Ireland when she was a teenager. He was put up for adoption and she never saw him again. She was the kindest, most gentle soul. I cannot even imagine the pain she experienced going through an unplanned and scandalous pregnancy and then giving up her baby. If you have seen anything about the Magdalene Laundries of that time, it gives a hint of the horror a girl would face who had made a mistake. Or was taken advantage of, for there was no distinction made. It was always the girl’s fault and she was always the one who paid the price.

As it may have been for her, that electric fire in that dated parlor was a beacon of comfort for me. Being loved that much is irresistible and I was a constant visitor in their apartment. In my own house I could do no right, but here I could do no wrong, and every utterance was pronounced to be sheer brilliance. Including one of my first words. Aged about 18 months, trying to squeeze past my aunt sitting in a dining room chair, I kept saying “Coopen. Coopen peez.” They finally realized I was saying “Excuse me please” and the story was repeated endlessly as evidence of my genius. As opposed to evidence of me repeating something I had heard probably a million times. That is love.

We moved away from that oasis of affection to the back woods of New Jersey when I was twelve. I suppose my parents thought they were doing what was best for us, moving to the ‘country’. But it was like being punished. Where before I had been able to walk to school, friend’s houses, the corner store, the library, here there was nothing within walking distance but cornfields. Worst of all, there was no Aunt Lily. She had sobbed as she hugged me goodbye. But her love had left such an indelible impression that almost fifty years later the memory of those electric logs can stop me in my tracks. I can still feel the scratchy upholstery, hear the murmur of adult voices talking around me, remember the sense of safety as I snuggled up against her leg where I sat on the floor. Her hand stroked my hair and I watched the flickering lights in the fireplace.


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Friday, October 19, 2012

A Bump in the Road

I’ve been pretty sick for the past few weeks with lymphedema and cellulitis in my legs.  The pain is consuming and I haven’t been up to doing much, but to distract myself I have been watching old comedy shows, including Frasier, which I think is the wittiest, funniest show ever.  It never fails to make me laugh.

Here is one person’s compilation of her favorites:


I could probably post another hundred and still keep going.  It is just endlessly funny.

Ironically and unexpectedly, one episode made me cry instead.    Frasier is telling Roz how wonderful it is to be a parent.  He says:

“You don’t just love your children, you fall in love with them.  It’s that same rush, that same overwhelming desire to see them, to hold them, to bore other people to tears with every detail about them…”

That really hit a nerve.  That is the way I feel about being a mother to my children.  I don’t see them nearly as much as I’d like to and that makes me sad.  I miss them so much.   But I think of them all the time.  It is hard not to.  Not only are they in my heart and my memories, but their pictures are everywhere and I even have my son Ryan’s cat, who is curled up next to me on my pillows as I type this.

Miss Perri
So watching these old shows has been a little like life itself – lots of laughing and some crying too.

Fingers crossed the specialist appointment I have next week can help my legs and relieve this pain.


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