My Mother was and is a difficult woman in many ways. Her emotional unbalance, which today would be easily treated with medication and talk therapy, kept us on our toes. Speaking for myself, I felt responsible for her happiness even at an early age. Dr. Phil would have a field day with my tribe. Yet I know we are not that unique; we were just your average dysfunctional co-dependent family trying to avoid conflict. We never succeeded.
Ma and Dad didn’t belong together as a couple. They were married for nearly 70 years. Need I say more? He is gone now and in spite of her verbalized wish that he disappear, a mantra we listened to our entire lives, when she finally said goodbye to him, the cumulative regrets poured out. He was 92 when he passed away – their unhappy life together was over.
Because their marriage failed them, she turned to her children to fill the space that should have been her husband’s. Thus we became our Mother’s soul mates, pals, buddies, and whipping posts. One spends a long time figuring this all out.
There were good times, too. Honestly, there were. Ma loved to laugh, and we loved to see her happy. She grew up loving the motion picture films. That’s what she called them until the ‘70s. She’d watch all the old black and white movies that were broadcast on TV, teach us the names of the actors, and was one of the first film critics we would know. Her opinions were very strong. She hated Bette Davis, John Wayne, and James Cagney. She loved Sophia Loren, Cary Grant, and Rock Hudson. Gun Smoke, Wagon Train, Perry Mason, and many afternoon soap operas were the staples of her life. These were her social and cultural elements.
Ma loved to read, too. An insomniac her entire adult life, she’d read well into the early morning hours – authors like Frank Yerby, Pearl Buck, Taylor Caldwell and Agatha Christie. I know because we shared a bedroom together most of my childhood.
We lived off and on in Onset. She was actually born in a cottage near Sunset Island. At the age of six, I was the official errand girl. Several times a day I’d be sent to one of the markets that once dotted the main drag. Her neatly written list and money would be tied in a linen handkerchief. I’d give this to the shopkeeper who would then collect the items, bag them, place the change and list back in the handkerchief, and send me on my way. Once I got home, Ma would teach me how to count the change back – lost art today.
I loved cozying up to her at night, feeling her warmth, the smell of talcum powder, touching her lovely dark hair. After a long day of housework, cooking, and laundry, she relished a sit down with a cup of instant coffee and a cigarette. She was peaceful, and I was happy for that. For hours I wouldn’t move, wouldn’t disturb the calm façade.
We had a TV when others in the neighborhood did not, so when Elvis was featured on the Ed Sullivan Show, our living room was the place to be. What excitement! Females of all ages were panting over his image on the tiny screen. Afterwards, they seemed exhausted and glowing. I didn’t understand what they were all talking about, but it seemed so important and thrilling. I was a witness to the power of Elvis.
Early on she taught me the basics of good housekeeping – domestic tranquility ruled her home – and I picked up the importance of keeping a home clean and orderly. I learned to cook simple meals and iron clothing, even with starch. She took pride in a home free from dirt, and I followed her example by putting great emphasis on these tasks.
When Christmas trees were decorated, each ornament had its own special spot. Tinsel was made from aluminum and reused, so it had to be handled gently. She showed us how to place individual pieces at the end of every branch. It was so painstakingly slow, but it resulted in a resplendent finished product.
I have only a gauzy memory of Ma doing her own shopping. By the time I was ten, she stopped leaving her property line, eventually not even smelling a breath of fresh air unless someone left a door open a bit too long. Imprisoned by extreme anxiety and depression, her laughter became harder to induce, her anger so ready.
We drifted apart as I became a teenager. A pretty common thing between parents and children, but for us it became a grand canyon. We stood on opposite sides of a great breach. She felt my departure was treason. I felt it was an escape. She was a mother however, and when I really needed her, she was there in her small, but essential, way.
When my son was born, she taught me how to change diapers, keep him bathed and warm, and how to treat colds and sore throats. Her practical abilities seemed boundless. She knew a little bit about a lot of things. She needed to pass along these wisdoms. It was all she had to give, and they have stood the test of time.
Years later, when she was again able to leave the boundary lines of her tiny home, I took her on numerous day trips and two overnights out of state. These were a really big deal for her. I’d drive until I was exhausted, putting hundreds of miles on my cars to give her views she’d otherwise never see. We traversed miles of forests, coastlines, mountains and went on hundreds of shopping trips. I tried to make up for all she had missed. By then she was in her 70’s.
When I married and moved to Mattapoisett, I continued to spend as much time with her as my schedule would allow. She appreciated every moment without ever saying so. I knew she didn’t take my time for granted, but I also knew she expected it as well.
You never know when the last time for doing something is in fact the last time. So I don’t know the last time I took her out for lunch and shopping, but I do know we would have enjoyed it. We’d laugh, maybe cry, I’d listen to her laments about my Father, well-worn terrain I endured. She never tired of telling me the same anecdotes about her childhood. They were peppered with joy and pain. She had the freedom to roam from morning to night, but she also had the responsibility of caring for her ailing Father while her Mother worked. She recalled the gas explosion in Onset when her Mother spent the entire day searching for her youngest, fearing he had been killed and then the flooding relief when he was found unscathed. So often did she relive her own childhood, I can recite the stories as if they are mine. I’ve spent thousands of hours as my Mother’s companion and confidant.
She is 90 years old. For the past several years, she has been confined to the nursing home where unfamiliar hands attend to her every human need. She can do nothing for herself and is confined to a wheelchair or bed. She spends her days wandering the streets and back alleys of her mind. Strokes and old age, deafness and heart failure, make speaking very difficult for her. She tries, I listen, we manage. Sometimes we share only a few words as I spend the time rubbing her face and hands with lotion. Touching is so critical now.
This will be her last Christmas. There is no doubt in my mind about that reality. It makes it more difficult to be in her presence and so much more necessary. I promise myself I won’t miss her, not in a wanting to be with her way. But the void her departing will make, that space she has filled my entire life, the demands she made both spoken and implicit will be vast.
We haven’t a shared religious belief to comfort us. We won’t be meeting on the other side. For now, we hold hands and she takes me along with her, back to 1930 when she skipped along the streets of Onset free, youthful, and laughing. Sometimes I find it hard to keep up.
By Marilou Newell