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

PILLOW TALK

Other is a word that rhymes with mother, which also happens to rhyme with smother. Which begs the question: Am I a dreadful person for wanting to smother my mother ?”

Mother wasn’t a bad person; there was no physical abuse .. just a major lack of tenderness which can leave greater, more permanent scars. She was a perfectionist who found it very difficult to show warmth or affection, even to her children. She was also “a classic crazy maker”. 

I don’t remember her saying “I love you”, tickling me till I squealed or reading bedtime stories. What I DO remember is proudly showing her a drawing I made in school with the inscription “Skyscrapers scrape the sky while butterflies flutter by”. My teacher called it “highly imaginative”; mother said it was foolishness – butterflies can’t fly that high.

As a teenager I was forbidden to shave my legs but did anyway. Not wanting my secret revealed, I wore jeans all the time .. even to the beach in the middle of summer! I also used a self-tanner which turned my skin orange! Mother watched as I scrubbed in water mixed with bleach .. a humiliating experience. It was at that time she discovered  my shaved legs, causing her to erupt like a gas explosion. I was probably grounded but it was worth it. 

Many days after arriving home from school I would find the contents of my dresser drawers dumped on my bed, simply because mother didn’t approve of how my clothes were folded. If I wanted to sleep that night, I’d have to put all my things away (or push them to the floor, which I often did!) I’d get hell the next day but it was a trip seeing her bulging veins and bugged-out eyes.

Years later when I had kids, mother would pop in unannounced and examine my house like the “White-Glove Lady” checking for dust. If my oven didn’t meet her standards of cleanliness, she would clean it! Well, pardon my mess; I have two little ones who are more important to me than a spotless houseStill, when she did that it drove me crazy. Never once did she play with my kids.

Lately I’ve been having a recurring dream about smothering mother with a pillow. When I wake up, I’m smiling. I guess my earlier question bears repeating: Does that make me a dreadful person?” 

NAR © 2018

THE IVY GARDEN

Out our kitchen window I can see my little girl Nell playing with her new best friend Gina. Since moving to rural Vermont two months ago, the girls have become inseparable. They are both four years old and about the same height but that’s where the physical  similarities end. 

Nell is a green-eyed lanky Irish redhead covered in a profusion of freckles while Gina is a slightly plump Italian beauty with brown doe eyes, smooth tanned skin and lustrous black hair. 

As I stand at the kitchen sink I can see the girls playing in the yard. Their energy is boundless as they dash back and forth from the swings to the trampoline to their bikes. 

Moving around the house doing my chores, I can hear Gina counting, followed by a loud “ready or not…here I come”, then the hysterical giggles as Nell’s secret (but usual!) hiding place is discovered. 

The yard is fenced in and I’m completely conscious of where the girls are and what they’re doing .. most of the time. Occasionally they’ll wander into a concealed corner of the garden to pick wild flowers for me and Gina’s mom. Even though I can’t see them, I can clearly hear their conspiratorial mumblings as they go from one blossom to the other.  

“Buttercups and Lilys of the Valley” whispered Gina.

“And some of this pretty shiny ivy” added Nell. “Mommy likes shiny things.”  

All was quiet and I presumed the girls were waiting for me to come downstairs and present me with a freshly-picked bouquet. But to my amazement on the crisp white linen dining room tablecloth sat a short blue glass vase brimming with buttercups, lilys and ivy. It was breathtaking. I stood there admiring the green, white and golden cluster when suddenly I heard woeful whimpering and sobbing coming from the porch. 

And there, huddled closely under the wicker chair were Nell and Gina, their little bodies covered in itchy red rashes. Only then did I realize the vine in the vase with the flowers was poison ivy! 

“Come with me, my sweet girls. It’s nothing a little calamine lotion won’t fix. Thank you for the  flowers .. the most beautiful I’ve ever seen! Won’t daddy be surprised when he comes home tonight!” I said, smiling and chuckling wistfully to myself. 

And tomorrow we will rid our garden of all the pretty shiny ivy. 

NAR © 2018