“C’mon, c’mon,” my mother said. She grasped my hand and whipped my body in front of her as if she were breaking a horse. A clumsy horse, maybe. I tripped over my running shoes.
“Jean, the Bean. I love it when your mamma’s feisty,” a caregiver said as she walked past my mother and me clogging up the hallway.
Feisty was one word I would use. I had a few more for the woman who now sported a black eye.
I had arrived home after traveling in Spain for ten days, unsurprised by my mother’s mind-altering moods. I visited her the day before my departure, but dreaded—dreaded—my return, as if my absence were a sin and she was the disapproving priest doling out penance after my reappearance.
My sister Beth had been on call while I was traveling and it had been a common occurrence for my parents to have incidents of some greater physical impact while I was traveling. According to Beth and the caregivers, my mother wandered down the halls with her eyes focused on her comfort shoes. My mother’s depth perception was no longer what it was when she caught her kids smirking, using her eyes behind her back.
Without looking up, she bumped into another female resident who often invaded her personal space by speaking in jibber-jabber about topics my mother couldn’t possibly comprehend. The two were found on the floor, my mother’s short legs and arms tangled together with the other woman’s long limbs. That was the story. Yet, I often overheard my mother telling various residents to shut up or stop talking. I had reason to believe she could have shoved someone aside. With brute force.
After four days, the peachy skin cuddling my mother’s right eye had melted into a mix of colors in an Edward Hopper painting.
She continued to yank at my slick winter coat sleeve and yell at the top of her lungs. You stupid…. She used the same tone and insinuation she voiced when she was unable to keep five children in line and the threat of calling my father at work loomed large.
I jerked my arm away from her and my sleeve slipped from of her grasp. “Please, Mom,” I said through clenched teeth. There was a group of residents in the coffee room whose heads popped up from reading the newspaper. I had relinquished my feelings of embarrassment every time she yelled at me, but now, to protect her, I grit my teeth. “You can’t keeping yelling like that.”
But she would.
I stared deep into her eyes. Her irises were like buoys bobbing in murky, gray water. The patch of skin over her injured spread out in yellow blotches. A pool of fluid floated below it.
Suddenly, I burst out laughing.
My mother’s face grew red, overshadowing the yellows and blues.
“Mom, no. I wasn’t laughing at you really. I wasn’t.” Not at her or her black eye.
“Roarrrr,” she breathed in my face.
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” I laughed back in her face as I relived a similar moment that my mother had immortalized on Polaroid paper, a snapshot taken after I fell up the steps when I was two years old. A picture for which my father would have been complicit because my mother always said, “Ette, get the camera.” A photograph with the tagline of a cigarette ad written below it in my mother’s handwriting. I’d rather fight than switch.
In 1963, the Tarleton cigarette makers produced an ad targeted to customer loyalty. Each commercial showed an actor doing something rebellious and rolled out its famous tagline. In one instance, an old woman was shown rocking on her chair on a porch watching over her neighborhood being razed for condos. Shown as defiant, the old woman then uttered the slogan and turned her face, revealing a made-up black eye.
Back then, the tagline made it as an entry into my baby photo album.
I had heard the stories from my mother about the Tarleton cigarette commercials. As a youngster, I never understood the tagline—or the ad. But I understood I was almost two and my mother entertained herself and the family with that photo.
I laughed harder, not at my mother’s present frustration, but at her antics from long ago. In my hazy happiness, I was simply tired.
My body was limp, still living and breathing six time zones away—my spirit and stomach too. I had returned to a sick dog at home, and, after visiting some of the world’s most famous museums and witnessing art come to life, the last place I wanted to be was in a memory care center where life was a study in cold, calculating patience and not warm, embracing hues.
Upon my reentry, the mother and care home I observed was not the mother and care home I left behind. A half-degree had been added to the curve in my mother’s stoop. I passed by rooms of residents and spotted the angel sign on a doorway. I observed a certain resident who I often chatted with about her banker father, one of the most cogent women the center, wilting in a wheelchair.
The outside doors were locked due to chilly springtime temperatures. My mother pressed on the arm of the door. The alarm wailed. That didn’t stop her from wanting to break out, like a jailbird in the old westerns where the key was within reach if the inmate paid attention. I circled her away from the vicinity of the back door and she hollered out a few more obscenities. “Now, damn it, just leave me alone,” she said to no one. And I decided it certainly could have been my mother pushing someone else.
Miss Patty was penciling in answers to an acrostic puzzle. She put a pencil in her snow-white updo and shouted from her rocker. “Better watch out or she’ll give you one of those of too,” she said.
Didn’t I know it?
Fearing another fall for my mother or that she really would take a swing at me, I kept my eyes glued on her face and one arm curved around her waist.
Twelve years ago, my parents accompanied me to Italy. During my recent trip to Spain, I thought a lot about my mother and her first and only European trip. How she bravely boarded a plane mere hours after being released from the hospital for a condition most likely anxiety-induced over an international flight. Still, she radiated with excitement.
Is that why I was pushing my mother, keeping her propped up? The memory of who she once was in Italy? My mother and father sharing one suitcase for ten days. She, chastising him for the wine stains on his shirt. A woman huffing and puffing up the incline, jet lag catching up to her bright eyes, toward the chapel of St. Francis of Assisi. The burnt yellow rays of sun shining a light on her face as she strolled through the the piazzas, greeting everyone who did the same.
Spain reminded me so much of Italy. But also, not. The pastries in Spain never passed the taste test compared to my mother’s cookies, cookies we no longer considered Italian because we just called them Mom’s. The Spanish language did not come easy for me though I had been schooled in it for many years. But a quick audio course in Italian hung on in the recesses of my brain and flowed out faster than Spanish words.
Whenever I had traveled to Italy without my mother, I stretched across time and centuries and terra cotta tile where our shared DNA was etched into every shape of pasta and every type of grape, and there my mother was. But I couldn’t reach my mother from Spain. I couldn’t feel her presence or pain.
All that came from the recollection of a photo album picture and the reflection of a yellowing bruised eye on my mother’s right side and normal left eye.
My mother scrunched up her face and the diamond of skin cells thinned.
I tried to envision a youthful woman amusing herself with a picture of a two-year-old while being scorned by the ninety-year-old version in front of me.
Another caregiver walked past. “Jean, the Bean,” she called out.
My mother gazed at the young caregiver with a fresh application of lipstick. She broke into a wide grin as she and I walked the same hallways we had made tracks down for years. They would replace the carpeting soon because of us. She turned her vitriol back on me.
“You are such a stupid, what, why, hit that over there.”
I love it when your mom is feisty ran through my head again.
My mother crushed my hand with more might than a Ms. World bodybuilder. If she experienced physical pain, she could rip out my hand, my arm or a leg, and keep it. If she was in emotional distress, she already possessed my heart.
I’d rather fight than switch. My mother knew who I was and who I would become when she wrote the tagline across the photo. And she knew who she was, still did.