“You’re such a squeam,” my mother snarls.
I can’t help but laugh at this, and her anger deflates a little. As it should. She is angry because I won’t buy her two cheese bagels.
She can’t eat solid food. She will choke on it. I’ve already been reprimanded by the staff for letting her use a straw, it being a hazard for someone who’s had the kind of stroke that impairs swallowing.
Her eyes narrow. She wants to lash out, but her verbal skills aren’t up to the task.
Finally, she comes up with this: “Your brother would buy them for me.”
Only recently have my brother and I come to understand how much and for how long she’s played us off of each other. I am the obedient, rule-abiding daughter. I am useful in some circumstances, but not so much in others. My brother is the one who can get things done, and who doesn’t care about the proper channels. He is useful in some circumstances, but not so much in others.
Neither portrayal is anything but a caricature of who we are. Yet for so many years we bought compliantly enough into the roles that our mother wanted us to fill.
No more. My brother will not be buying her bagels. Her manipulations are, finally, transparent to us. And in the harsh light of day, they are more pathetic than anything else.
I know — I didn’t tell you how I responded to her when she played the brother card. I shook my head no. “He won’t be bringing you bagels, Mom,” I said. “You know, I think you’d better understand that I may be a squeam, but I’m the only squeam you’ve got.”
And I walked away, towards the elevator that would take me from this place, this bizarre place where squeam is a noun, where as I thread my way between wheelchairs I avert my eyes from men who listlessly play with themselves and women who silently, or not so silently, scream for release.
To leave a nursing home under one’s own steam is power incarnate. The residents know it, and each time those elevator doors open and close, they fall silent, awed and a little frightened by what they cannot have.
My mother’s eyes bored into my own as the elevator doors closed. I felt sure that she would be staring at the elevator long after I’d left the nursing home.
(written in October, 2008)
Lately I’ve immersed myself in writings about mothers — mothers present, mothers absent, mothers journeying from present to absent. As I read Varda’s poignant posts about the long, slow, brutal decline of her mother, I am flabbergasted to find myself in her words. Her path is not after all so different from my own — surprising, given how much healthier a relationship she has with her mom than I ever had with mine. The process of losing a parent is as tough as it gets, I think, and Varda’s experience has me reliving my own. I wish her and her mother strength and peace.
At the same time, having just read Emily Rosenbaum‘s memoir Behind the Woodpile, I am considering anew my life with my mother. She was mentally ill. She was incapable of real parenting. But she was present, in the most basic sense: she fed me, clothed me, kept me from the elements. Not much, I know, but something. And as I cried my way through Emily’s beautifully written reminiscence of enduring a real, live wicked stepmother, a woman who failed to feed her, clothe her, or keep her from the elements, I am chastened. I keep returning to this thought: My mother did the best she could.
Read Emily’s memoir. Read Varda’s blog. Emily and Varda are both compelling writers who deserve your time and attention, not only for the quality of their writing but for their outsized hearts and souls.