When Ma Smiled

            She was standing on a slim wooden bridge in Kennebunkport in the early 1990s, her first ever real vacation. She was about the age I am now, early 70s. She wore one of her best matching outfits with a floral print sweatshirt in pale shades of pink and knit slacks in a darker shade.

            In her kitchen a couple of days before we embarked on this epic journey, I had permed her hair, which still held onto some of that dark, chestnut brown color of her youth. We laughed when she was in the right mood. On that day we laughed a lot.

            Ma had suffered terribly from agoraphobia for decades, but, of course, we never called it that. It was always her bad “nerves.” It would be much later when pop psychologists like Dr. Phil inhabited afternoon TV talk shows that we’d learn Ma’s condition was actually common and treatable. She, however, never received treatment.

            Her return to the world outside the confines of her small home was the result of a family crisis, one in which she felt her presence was needed. So she left her longtime hiding place, flapping her mother hen wings, and flew to the rescue. When I heard what was happening, my first thought was, “How could she ever go back to being stuck in that house?”

            She had faced her inner demons, and in a split second she slayed them. Now we could take car trips, afternoon drives, shopping excursions. Now I could show her more of the life I had built while she was confined. Now we could have fun together.

            The years between Ma’s release and the physical deterioration that would follow were short, but we packed them with many miles of wandering – she called them adventures. Sightseeing back-country roads and coastal views, we took two vacations, one to Maine and one to Vermont.

            Calling them vacations is a bit of overkill. They were really just two-night stayovers. But they were vacations for her and a chance for me to spend time with her away from her everyday life. A time where she could think about something other than the stressors that often prevailed in her world.

            Ma enjoyed those adventures. Shopping trips to the Christmas Tree Shop at holiday times were monumental. Bag upon bag of inexpensive trinkets and do-dads, wrapping paper and ornaments, tins filled with cookies, mixing bowls, bags of candy. You name it, she most likely bought it.

            Grocery shopping was a chore as far as I was concerned, but for Ma it was a day out of the house, with a prelude of lunch before trekking up and down each and every aisle of whichever store she wanted to go to. It was slow, heavy work for me, but seeing Ma happy made me feel good about myself and pleased for her.

            Wanting Ma to be happy was something that I fretted about even as a very small child. Her bitter days filled with tears and long dark moods cast shadows over the home. We were all focused on what condition Ma was in on any given day at any given time. To see her happy was like stepping into the sun after a long, cold winter.

            So I see her there on that bridge, striking what she would consider a cutesy poise for my camara. And I clearly remember her saying that day as I approached her to lend her my arm for stability, “I don’t know why my legs won’t work.”

            Her mobility had never been much of an issue when she was young. She never left her house or her yard, never crossed the street, never went for a walk. Up and down stairs and in and out of a seated position had been about all the exercise she got other than housework. By the time she was ready to use her body, it was tough going. She was slowly being ravished by arthritis, osteoporosis, and lack of muscle tone. A walker and later a wheelchair kept her going for many more years.

            I bought a car that would make it easier for me to pick up her wheelchair and put it in the back for our afternoon sojourns. I kept myself in basically good physical condition by speed walking every day for miles and cycling, but chronic back issues were becoming more difficult to ignore.

            The confluence of Ma’s decrepitude and my own problems would eventually resolve itself when she could no longer manage to care for herself at home. The nursing home years would begin. In many ways they have never left me. There are things I can’t unsee, smells that are burnt into the memory and sounds of last breaths.

            I think about her there on that bridge – happy, traveling, seeing new things, delighted to be like other people, if but a little while, enjoying a vacation with her daughter. Remembering those few precious years she felt some pleasure, some joy remains the gift I want to hold onto.

            Still, I wanted to be forgiven for all the things that made her once say she could never like me, as I had forgiven her. In a way I think we got there without words being said.

            At her bedside on the day she passed away, I told her, “I loved you as best as I could.” If she could have spoken, I believe she would have said the same to me. Maybe we never liked each other but were instead locked in together through blood and, yes, love.

            Love reaches its natural level like water flowing through a forest of regret to emerge in the sunlight of a smile – Ma’s smile.

This Mattapoisett Life

By Marilou Newell

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