“C’mon, c’mon.” Mom gripped my hand and whipped my flailing body in front of her.
“Jean, The Bean. I love it when your mamma’s feisty,” a caregiver said to me as she squeezed past Mom and me in the hallway.
Feisty. That was one word I would use. I had a few more.
I had just arrived from traveling in Spain for ten days. The day before my departure, I visited Mom, but always dreaded – DREADED – my return, as if my absence were a sin and Mom the disapproving priest doling out penance after my reappearance in the confessional.
In the interim, Mom had experienced an issue while I was out of the country. Mom’s depth perception was no longer what it was when she caught her kids smirking or mimicking her out the corner of her eye. With her peripheral vision now on the wane, Mom followed her Velcro comfort shoes-clad feet clad without looking up and bumped into Miss M. in the hallway. The two were found in a tangle on the floor. That was the story, though I had often overheard my mother commanding various residents to “shut up or stop your talking.”
After four days, the peachy skin cuddling Mom’s right eye had turned to a mix of colors in an Edward Hopper’s painting.
Mom pulled at my slick winter coat sleeve and yelled again. I yanked on my arm and the sleeve slipped from her grasp. “Please, Mom. Stop.”
I stared deep into my mother’s graying eyes swimming with water. A yellow patch of skin spread above her injured eye and an inflatable pool of fluid floated below.
And I burst out laughing.
Mom’s face grew red. She roared back.
She didn’t know or understand my private joke.
I wasn’t laughing at Mom, or at her black eye, but reliving a similar moment that technically, I only knew on Polaroid paper, a snapshot taken after a fall. A picture for which my father would have been complicit because Mom always said, “Ette, get the camera,” as opposed to doing it herself.
In 1963, the Tarleyton cigarette makers produced an ad targeted to customer loyalty. Each commercial showed an actor doing something rebellious and rolled out the tagline I’d rather fight than switch. In one instance, an old woman is shown rocking on her chair on a porch watching over her neighborhood being razed for condos. Shown as defiant, the old woman then utters the slogan and turns her face, revealing a made up black eye.
For reasons now obvious, this commercial would never appear in today’s ads. Back then, the tagline easily made itself at home in 115 Ridgeland Drive.
I had always heard the stories from my mother about a generic cigarette commercial. As a youngster, I never understood the ad. But I understood this. I was nearly two and my mother – it was clearly her handwriting – was making fun of me.
Now, I laughed harder.
I was tired. My body was 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 was to be in a memory care home where life was a study in patience and not hues.
In returning, what I witnessed, was not the mother I left behind. Not just because of her black eye. But because of her stoop that I could measure had added a half-degree more to its curve. Or I passed by rooms of residents and spotted the “angel” sign on the a doorway or I observed a certain resident, who I used to chat with about her father owning a bank, one of the most cogent women the center, now slumped in a wheelchair.
The outside doors were locked due to chilly springtime temperatures. The alarm didn’t stop Mom from pressing the arm in an attempt to break out. I circled her away from the vicinity of the back door.
A long-time resident, Betty, looked up from her acrostic puzzle pad, put a pencil in her white updo, and called to me from her rocker. “Better watch out or she’ll give you one of those of too.”
Didn’t I know it.
Fearing another fall for Mom or that she would take a swing at me, I kept my eyes glued on her. Twelve years ago, my parents accompanied me to Italy. My recent vacation in Spain had reminded me of my mother on her first and only European trip, youthful and brave, getting on a plane mere hours after being released from the hospital for a condition most likely anxiety induced.
I saw her and my father sharing one suitcase for ten days, while now, I had my own stuffed with blouses I didn’t wear because of unusually cold weather.
I glimpsed a mother relishing in her four daughters seated around the Trevi Fountain.
The problem with Spain was that the country had reminded me so much of Italy. The other problem was that it was not.
The pastries in Spain never passed the taste test compared to Mom’s sweets, ones that were probably no longer Italian, but they were hers and they were ours.
The Spanish language, though I had been schooled in it for many years, did not come easy for me, but a quick audio course in Italian hung on for years and emerged easier than my Spanish while in Spain.
I just couldn’t reach my mother from Spain, whereas in Italy, when I had traveled there without her, I could stretch across time and centuries and terracotta tile. And there, there Mom would be.
All this I caught in a reflection of in the yellowing, bruised eye on Mom’s right eye and the normal eye on the her left side. A face now scrunched up, the diamond of skin cells thinning, shrinking.
I was trying to envision that youthful woman while I was scorned by the ninety-year-old version over the laugh track of a Golden Girls rerun.
Another caregiver walked past. “Jean, the Bean,” she called out.
Mom gazed at the cocoa skin of the young caregiver and broke into a smile.
It was okay, I thought, just keep Mom moving, traversing the same hallways we had made tracks in for years, so much that I swear they’ll replace the carpet soon because of us.
But it was not.
“You are such a stupid, what, why, hit that over there.”
That day, Mom was not okay.
I love it when your mom is feisty ran through my head again. The notion of practicing yoga later that evening returned my breath to me.
Mom squeezed my hand with more might than a Ms. World bodybuilder. If Mom was in physical pain, she could have my hand, my arm, and a leg. If she was in emotional distress, well, she already had my heart.
I’d rather fight too. That’s what’s kept Mom and me going all these years.
And for Mom, sometimes, I’ll switch to her side.