Angela, one of Mom’s caregivers, spotted Mom and me in the hallway near the hair salon.
“Carol can do your mom’s hair now,” Angela said with excitement.
“Now?” I asked, just to be clear. Just to make certain she hadn’t mixed that up. Just to make certain she meant now, as in right as I was planning to leave.
I toddled into the salon with Mom holding my arm, following behind. Angela trailed in and helped to hoist Mom into the hairdresser’s chair.
“Here, Jean the Bean. You can have these to stay busy,” Angela said and handed my mother a half-eaten bag of Cheetos.
I stood with my mouth agape. Angela wasn’t serious, right? My mother had never eaten Cheetos. Never bought Cheetos. Never looked sideways at a bag of Cheetos.
But quickly, Mom snatched the bag from Angela’s hands and plucked a fat Cheeto from the crinkled bag.
Carol, the hairdresser, smiled and turned to prep her tools and potions.
I took a deep breath, ready to say goodbye.
I had already been visiting for close to two hours, having first attended meeting with the executive director of Mom’s dementia care home for an annual checkup. Mom, er, Arden Courts, had passed with flying colors.
Then, once I had located Mom wondering about in the kitchen, I suggested we walk and she headed directly for the courtyard door. I obliged and followed. Mom led me outside towards the plastic lounge chairs still dripping with drops from the morning’s deluge, which is right where she sat.
We listened to crickets Mom claimed she couldn’t hear. And counted the different species of trees in our view. “We” counted six. She fell asleep a few times with her head on my shoulder, and then I decided it was time for me to go.
When I escorted Mom back inside, Angela had flagged us down.
Now, with Mom settled in the chair, I made an attempt to leave. “Mom, you seem a little busy now, so I’ll just see you later.” I said, nodding at Carol, hoping she would join in the chorus.
A muffled munching sound came from my mother.
But Carol did not help me out. “Are you going to stay?” the hairdresser glanced at me and more or less stated.
If I stayed, then I had to sit and keep Mom calm or listen as she squirmed. “Oh, that’s cold,” she would incorrectly say, as Carol scrubbed Mom’s scalp. “No, don’t do that,” Mom would argue as Carol snipped away a few millimeters of Mom’s lily-white hair.
My shoulders fell. “Sure,” I replied.
I sat back down beneath the hair dryer, prepared for Mom to issue one of her glares or to witness one of her outbursts when she didn’t like what was happening. Instead, I watched as Mom devoured crisp orange tubes of fat she would have never bought at the grocery store.
Everyone who passed by disregarded Mom’s hair, instead, commenting on the Cheetos in Mom’s hands and in her mouth. Mom just smiled with lips that were now smeared with a color of orange Loreal had yet to invent.
“Oh, they all love Cheetos,” the nurse chuckled as Mom sifted through the last of the neon orange crumbs and licking her fingers.
I pictured my mother sneaking up behind unsuspecting residents, as Chester Cheetah might do, deftly lifting Cheetos from their bag of snacks.
“Oh sure, your mom eats Cheetos all the time,” the activities director claimed as she stopped to visit.
Incredulous, I thought. I had learned something new about my mother. But there was more.
Carol finished snipping Mom’s hair. “Do you want me to curl it?”
“No, I think she’s tired and she’ll just head to bed and then wind up with bedhead. Besides, it looks cute just like that.”
I pulled Mom out of the chair while she held a firm grasp on the Cheetos bag. As I thanked Carol, my mother ventured from the salon out into the hallway.
I breathed a sigh of relief. She and I could both relax now.
Mom was still gripping the flattened foil bag. When she turned to hand it to me, I noticed her nails contained bits of orange dust beneath them and then, it dawned on me.
On occasion, I had noticed how Mom’s fingertips appeared discolored, more towards the ochre family of colors and not flesh tones. The nails appeared stained to match the fingertips.
I always suspected Mom’s hands were not scrubbed well enough, or that she was eating her carrots or sweet potatoes with her fingers. But I should have asked myself, how many different orange side dishes could her care home possibly serve?
Finally, I had learned the origin of her dayglo orange fingers. I mentally made a list of all the reasons to “allow” Mom to eat Cheetos. 1. She liked them because they were crunchy, which her diet had been softened over time. 2. “Everyone” was eating them. 3. It’s never too late to change eating habits.
But the real reason had more to do with genetics.
“You liked those Cheetos, right Mom?”
“What’s that honey?”
“Cheetos,” I said and pointed again to the bag.
Mom glanced at the bag and wiped more orange flint from off her black pants. She said nothing as if waiting for a big reveal, thankfully, one she could no longer commit to memory.
“Here’s a secret, Mom,” I whispered. “I like Cheetos too.”