FAMILIAR STRANGERS

Invisible. That’s the first word I thought of when I saw my mother glance over at me. Her eyes were blank, her expression impassive. I was just a face in a crowd; I might as well have been invisible. 

She sat in the middle of the music room of the nursing home, fellow residents all around her as they sang old standards from the 1940’s, members of the blissfully unaware chorus. Noticing an empty chair, I sat down beside my mother and began to sing along to those beloved ancestral tunes carved in her now addled brain. My mother turned to look at me, totally unaware of who I was. She smiled and I smiled back, feeling a pang of guilt for I was simply there doing my duty, fulfilling an obligation … just as she had done all her life. 

In the 58 years since my birth, we were never close … just one of those sadly unfulfilled relationships between mother and daughter. If she ever loved me, she didn’t show it. And I did not love her. Yet here I was. Why?  Was I driven by misplaced guilt … compelled to visit … seeking approval? 

So we sat side by side singing Sentimental Journey and when the song was over my mother turned to me and said “You have a lovely voice. Would you like to see my room?” and I surprised myself by cheerfully answering “Yes!”

Prior to moving into the facility, mother lived in a small house next to my sister. If nothing else, it was convenient. I lived far enough away to avoid any interaction but my sister was burdened for quite a few years caring for our mother – a regiment of one following orders. She tended to her until it became unbearable. Sis decorated our mother’s room in the nursing home with many of her personal effects and furnishings and I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole when I entered her room. I remembered her curtains and matching bedspread, the mirrored perfume tray on her dresser, her tortoise shell hairbrush and comb set and numerous photographs in gilded frames. I looked around as if seeing everything for the first time. Perhaps there was more truth in that than I realized. 

“Come, I want to show you something” my mother beckoned, and she led me to a wall on which hung two identical color portraits –  high school graduation paintings of my sister and me. Mother pointed to my portrait and said “That’s my beautiful daughter, Nancy”. Then she pointed to my sister’s portrait and said “I have no idea who that is”, and she walked away unfazed. 

Why did she recognize my portrait – the prodigal daughter who stood right beside her? How could she not remember my sister? Those questions remain unanswered. My mother passed away shortly after our visit. 

Now that I’m older and infinitely wiser, I believe my mother truly tried her best. And in the end isn’t that all we can ask of anyone? 

NAR © 2019

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