Speaking of Mothers

5 years ago

When I was a new nurse my first job was working in a long term care facility.  I love older people but much of the time my heart ached for my patients, who were almost all over 90 years old and had some degree of dementia.  If there could be said to be one recurring theme it was this: they all missed their mothers.

One of my patients was 107 years old.  This was in 1992, so she had been born in 1885.  Supposing her mother had been at least 20 when my patient was born, we are talking about a woman who had been born around 1865.  A woman born around the end of our Civil War was still being actively remembered and mourned in 1993.  I found that remarkable.  It really illustrated the power of the mother/child bond.

Many of my patients fretted their days away in terrible anxiety about missed appointments with their long deceased mothers.  Several dear ladies had the exact same scenario: their mother was waiting for them somewhere and they couldn’t find her.  They knew she would be worried and they were so upset!  We had many residents who had emigrated to America from Scotland, so they were always looking for the bus to Glasgow or Edinburgh to meet their mothers.  I would tell them I had called their mum to say they were going to be late, not to worry.  That never failed to calm them for a little while until they got lost in the past again.

Their very real pain often brought me to tears, but I could never see myself having the same longing.  I had no such sentimental feelings about my own mother, a difficult and self-centered woman who had wounded me deeply throughout my life.  On the rare occasions I did think of it, I all but snorted as I dismissed the idea of ever missing my mother.  Until now, more than a year after her death.

Just to put my mother in perspective, consider what my sister remarked when I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  “Wow” she said solemnly, with no hint of joking, “Mommy is going to be so jealous.”  And she was right.

My mother was in her element when illness was involved.  Her favorite thing was to actually have the illness, injury and/or operation herself.  But the next best, if there was an audience involved, was being at the patient’s elbow.  The audience was essential, because my mother had to be seen, if not as the Helpless Victim, then as the Selfless Handmaiden.

After I broke my shoulder in 2008 I had several surgeries to repair the damage.  Each time she and my father would drive over to ‘help’ me for a few days.  She brought boxes of food with her each time.  Not boxes of food to be prepared, boxes of food she had prepared.  While English was my mother’s first language, she primarily spoke Food.  It was all about food to her.  She cooked constantly and, I have to admit, very well.  When she and my father traveled you would hear not about what they had seen and done but what they had eaten.  Every outing involved eating, whether it was a trip to the hospital or the supermarket.  Columbia Presbyterian, where several of their physicians were based, has an actual restaurant in their facility on West 168th Street and no visit to Wegman’s was complete without a stop in the food court.

Food was the way my mother communicated.  Sometimes the message was loud and clear.  My father loved dessert and they had it for every meal, I swear they even had dessert after breakfast.  She would make at least four different desserts.  These usually consisted of a pudding, a pie, cookies and some sort of cake.  Now mind you, it was just she and my father.  He has a real sweet tooth and would rub his hands together at the prospect of these culinary delights.  The ritual went something like this every single time I was there.

Kay: What do you want Jerry?

My father would pretend to gather all the desserts to him while he looked around in mock surprise at the rest of us. 

Jerry: What are the rest of you having?!?

My mother’s lips would get tight with annoyance.  He would make a big show of not being able to make up his mind.

Jerry (finally): I will have a little bit of each.

My mother would pile his plate with her usual gargantuan portions.  My father would lift the fork to his mouth…

Kay: {snort} You certainly don’t need that!

Every. Single. Time.

Sometimes the message was more mixed.  Such as after my surgeries.  She brought all this wonderful food (pot roast, several vegetables and side dishes, biscuits, macaroni and cheese, chicken salad, bread and, naturally, several desserts) and yet every word out of her mouth would be a criticism, even though the barb might be veiled.

If we were talking about cooking, she would give me little cooking tips, as though I was a new bride, not someone who had been running my own household for 35 years.  Sitting in the sun room, wrapped in bandages, an ice machine, a pain medicine pump and a haze of narcotics I could hear her in the kitchen, loudly sorting through the cabinets.

Kay (calling to me from the kitchen):  Marie, you are out of salt.

Me (yelling back): It’s in the cabinet next to the stove Ma.

Kay: Jerry, she’s out of salt.

Me, under my breath in the sunroom: No, it’s in the cabinet.

Jerry (drinking coffee in the dining room, clearly disinterested): Er…oh really?

Kay (more banging): Yes, she is completely out of salt.

Jerry:  Ohhh.

Me, murmuring in the sunroom: No, it’s in the cabinet.

Kay (bang, bang, bang): I know she doesn’t use a lot of salt…

Jerry:  Ohhh.

Me, calling out from the sunroom: It’s in the cabinet.

Kay (bang, slam, bang): She really could use more salt in her cooking…

Jerry: Ohhhh.

Me: IT’S IN THE &%#@ CABINET NEXT TO THE *&^%$#%  STOVE!!!!  (Of course I would never have really cursed at my mother, I just thought of it, and anyway this is a family blog).

When she so kindly serves lunch (and I mean that, I truly was grateful), I note cold liquid in the coffee mugs next to our plates.   Mystified, I just have to ask.

Me: Ummm, Ma, is this Coke in the coffee mugs?

Kay: Yes, because you have no glasses.

Now please note, this is a LOADED STATEMENT which I am able to translate now after decades of experience.  It doesn’t say I couldn’t find any glasses, it says you have no glasses.  It says not only do you not have any glasses, but you also do not keep salt handy.  It says you are a poorly equipped, disorganized slattern loser whose cooking leaves a lot to be desired.

Me (picturing the more than a dozen William Sonoma Picardie tumblers I have in the kitchen cabinet next to the fridge): But… (then I decide not to bother) this is lovely, I’ll bet the mug keeps the soda nice and cold.  What a treat it is to have my lunch served to me like this!

I smile broadly and take a bite of my chicken salad sandwich.

Kay: You must be so upset about all the weight you’ve gained.

By now my jaw aches from clenching my teeth.  My mother gives a slight, satisfied nod.  My father asks what is for dessert.  If they continue to come every day I am going to rip open my surgical site, pull out the rod holding the bones together and beat her to death with it.  Either that or I am going to fling myself in front of a truck.

But we both survive for her to torture me another day.  When she does die, it is from heart disease, not because I have killed her.  My sister and I continue to be incredulous.  Our mother was bigger than life.  Her every action was like a broad, color-soaked stroke across a canvas.  Even when you didn’t quite know what was going on, you knew something was going on.  It was usually something hurtful, but her creativity in lobbing one of her emotional hand grenades was a true art that I have almost come to grudgingly admire.  She drove me crazy.  But she was there.

However, it is still a shock when a thought pops up last week, unexpected and unbidden.  In the past two months I have been sicker, more scared, and feeling closer to my own mortality than ever before.  Sitting in bed the other day, a sense of foreboding hung over me so thickly that I am certain I do not have long to live.  My lip starts to quiver and I am astonished to find myself whispering, “I want my mother.”  The one thing I cannot have. 

“Ma,” I say with a sob, “I am so sorry.  Please pray for me.”  I close my eyes and just cry for a few minutes.  I cry for all we didn’t share, for all the hard feelings and hurtful words, I cry for not loving her the way she needed to be loved.   When I open my eyes, I can feel my panic starting to subside.  I am able to take a deep breath.  I know she is watching out for me and I will be ok, one way or another. 

Thanks, Ma.  





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