For the first time in our lives our mother’s house on Hillendale Drive is dirty. She’s been on a walker for years and can’t bend at the hip but still won’t allow my sisters and me to bring someone in. We do it anyway.
There are four daughters. I was born first, then Nina who’s eighteen months younger. And then fifteen years later, Gianna was born, and then eighteen months later, Gigi came along. The two sets of sisters are almost a generation apart. I live in New Orleans, and Gianna and Gigi are in Mandeville and Jackson, Mississippi, an easy enough drive to and from Hopedale. Nina moved to California after college.
Gigi hires a senior-care company, and they send a woman named Crystal over to do light cleaning, take Mom to run errands because the car is now off-limits. One day Mom talks Crystal into letting her drive—“just to get a brake inspection sticker”—and she takes the woman on a joyride, running stop signs, speeding, and side-tripping over to Walmart for strawberry muscle milk, red-leaf lettuce, English table water crackers. Crystal reports that she begged our mother the whole time to stop the car, but our mother just laughed, meanly. “I have insurance,” our mother said, when we say she could’ve hurt or killed someone. Our mother threatens to call the police if Crystal shows up again. “Stay out of my way,” she tells us. Crystal quits.
Our mother is seventy-eight and she’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles choke her neurons, while atrophy shrinks her frontal lobe. My sisters and I haven’t had this much contact with her since we were teenagers. We left home for college and hardly ever went back. Our mother has been fine with seeing us on holidays, at our kids’ first holy communions and graduations. But with this diagnosis there’s been more contact, which makes my sisters and me antsy, and which our mother considers intrusive. She needs someone with her at doctors’ appointments to remember what’s said. On the last visit, her internist told our mother she could no longer drive, and that she needed to move into assisted living. He said, “It’s not if but when she falls.”
My sister Gianna makes an emergency trip to Hopedale to secure the car keys— both sets!—but they are in a faded khaki canvas purse our mother hangs from her neck. Gianna puts her in the car to run an errand, and in the driveway, while our mother painstakingly exits the passenger seat, grabbing the handgrip above her, reaching for the door frame, Gianna locks the Club to the steering wheel. Our duped mother glares at Gianna, burning her with silence, then goes into the house without saying goodbye.
We daughters decide on the Carrington. We bring our mother to see it and the visit is a success. She looks safer already walking through these public halls. She signs a one-year lease for a studio apartment. And then she goes home and reads the brochure and changes her mind. “Didn’t you notice the décor?” she says. “It’s tacky. The room you girls talked me into is a prison cell. I called them and canceled the lease.” She says she will sue us to get her life back. She’s been building a case, phoning long-ago friends, and reuniting with her gambler brother, Raymond, who’s in assisted living himself and urging her to move back home to Detroit. She was a child prodigy, a violinist, and she left there when she was fifteen to attend a conservatory in Philadelphia. She never went home again.
“Detroit?” we ask. “Go for it.”
“No one I talk to believes I have dementia,” she says. “Except for you.”
“It’s like she thinks we wished this disease on her,” Nina says later.
“And on ourselves?” Gigi asks.
Gianna and an estate attorney have run through the steps to declare our mother incompetent, but she’s still pretty shrewd. Her neurologist says she’s an oddball. She can’t count backward from one hundred by sevens, but her synapses fire away, running on rote anger. In her defiance we see replays of how she and our father used to fight. She’d pick and pick at him, insisting; he’d tell her to shut up, call her stupid, overpower her with the reasons why, and then she’d retreat and punish us all with days of silence. I wish her synapses would put her into a cab and walk her miraculously through the airport terminal to board a plane for Detroit to live with Raymond, who used to call her for loans after he’d had a bad day at the track. Now it’s her daughters she suspects of stealing. Most recently, it’s a wooden box of raw gray jade she’s certain Nina took back to California the last time she visited in 2013.
“What would I want with a box of stones?” Nina asks, on a four-way sister call. Our mother hates it when we talk behind her back, and hates it even more when we call her “she.” “She” is the cat’s mother, is what we’ve heard from her all our lives.
“The lease starts next month,” Gianna says. “She can’t just break it. We need help. Sister power.”
Nina flies into Hopedale. She asks our mother for a tour of the Carrington. They walk the halls, check out the courtyard, the smoothie machine, the fireplace, the library where a coiffed lady in a pink silk blouse naps.
“People dress nicely here,” Nina says.
In the dining room they bump into Gianna and Gigi’s orthodontist in his wheelchair.
“He’s not aging well,” our mother says.
Nina guides her to the sales office, and our mother signs a lease for a one-bedroom this time. The extra money has been worked out, but not if she lives ten years. With the bigger unit she can afford seven years. We daughters each have our own guess about how long she lasts. She refuses all Alzheimer’s drugs—“I’ll get better myself”—but when Matt, the handsome, bearded maintenance man for the Carrington, pokes his head into the sales office to introduce himself, our mother brightens, her wily charms back in play. “I’ve got things for you to do,” she says in the singsong voice we miss hearing. And he says, “Anytime.” And we guess again.
In our parents’ houses, music was not allowed to be background. When it was on, you listened. Our father would put a recording by Sergei Prokofiev or Paul Hindemith on the turntable and expect us to take a seat and stay through the end. If the phone rang, it didn’t get answered.
After they divorced, our mother kept a shortwave radio our father bought her on the kitchen counter. She’d stare into the yard while she smoked a long cigarette, deep inside a Schubert string quartet or Bach’s Double Concerto in D Minor. This respect for music was something my mother and I had in common. In her violin playing, I could find her. She preferred Yehudi Menuhin over Jascha Heifetz, whom she considered overly technical. She loved first movements, their speed, and also last movements, the big finish, all eyes on her final up-bow, the pregnant pause, the applause. She knew second movements were my favorite because they were slow and lyrical, sad, and in the middle.
It’s been years since we walked into the kitchen and found our mother listening to music. The shortwave radio is in a closet. Did she stop because she no longer plays her violin? If music can’t give our mother joy, does it cause her pain? What music didn’t do to our parents was numb them, and maybe this is why our mother no longer turns it on.
After our father stopped loving her, she stopped loving this Hillendale house. It is still sleek and spacious, filled with the artifacts of a thirty-five-year peripatetic marriage. Our mother’s taste is easy to admire. My sisters and I also own sofas and chairs in calm whites and ivories, to create a backdrop for the colorful pottery, vases, and artwork we collect. Our mother used to use every room, but now she eats her sandwiches on a yellow foldaway tray in front of the TV. The dining-room table is there only for the unsorted clippings from when she was a prodigy; the living room is the elegant, unlit museum exhibit of a broken family.
We used to come to Hillendale for Christmas and Easter. My sisters and I would gather on the side patio and sit in heavy black iron chairs. Our mother lined the low brick wall with clay pots of neon-red geraniums, dangling ivy, delicate white baby’s breath, blue-purple delphiniums. A collection of clay rabbits once kept watch, their ears at rest and folded against their bodies. Our father’s nickname was “Rabbit.” His sister, our Aunt Bernie, says she called him that because he always had two and three jobs to pay for the way our mother wanted to live; our mother says his pals called him “Rabbit” because he’d ring their doorbell and be up flights of stairs in seconds.
We will never again sit outside on the patio with our mother on a pleasant day.
The sun has chased her into the dark center of the house. The boxwood hedge in front is eight feet high. She won’t let her yardman touch it, and he’s dismayed. So our mother put him to use as her handyman. He installed a Kwikset lock on her bedroom door; she had him tape a blue bedsheet over her mirror because she believes that people on the street watch her sleep.
When is the last time she saw herself from top to bottom? She used to pirouette in front of mirrors, catching angles, her shapely calf, her pretty heel exposed in a sling back. Now she wears bulbous, genderless shoes for balance.
Tonight our mother will sleep in her new room at the Carrington, and then my sisters and I will come back to clear the house out to sell.
No one knows what to touch first. Our mother’s been “saving” for fifty years. When we still lived at home, we’d suggest what to toss—a pile of magazines, or road maps from the seventies—and our mother would say she needed to go through them. Her closets are stuffed with Christmas decorations; old tax returns; the packing boxes from our father’s stereo equipment, which she refuses to use; the old box from the Mr. Coffee even though she drinks instant; empty boxes from the computer, from the red wall phone and the iron and the vacuum cleaner. She must’ve thought this move to Mississippi with our father wouldn’t be their last.
We are in a closet unzipping garment bags, and our mother is enjoying our dismay over a full-length flapper-worthy fur coat—“How many rabbits did this take?” Nina asks—that will be dropped off at a costume shop. There are vintage pieces to deal with: a simply cut reversible red wool/black-and-white houndstooth coat with giant two-way buttons; a slim, floor-length turtleneck dress scattered with graphic flowers that’s in style again; a sumptuous hand-beaded black silk dress she wore as a soloist. “The sleeves were cut wide for my bow arm,” she explains. She is pleased that we are fighting over an elegant Pauline Trigère black wool coat from the sixties. “Turn it inside out,” our mother says. “The workmanship is like the couture.” It fits only Gianna, the smallest of us.
We discover tortoiseshell sunglasses in a dresser drawer and our mother models them. They’re tinted turquoise and goggle half her face and she looks like Joan Didion. I come upon a silk pouch with ties that used to hold her Pucci silk negligee and slippers. I was nine when we lived in Rome and she wore this ensemble. Our father didn’t know what to do with her beauty. He always seemed embarrassed to touch her. I was, too. There was a necessary distance between my mother and me when she was playing her violin, or when she was made-up—space enough to be an admirer, the lucky daughter of this creature in a holiday dress with a black cinch belt, stockings with a seam, stiletto pumps. Her beauty was private and needed room.
The pouch is mod paisley and still bright: purple, turquoise, and blue. “Do you want this?” she asks me. I have no idea what to keep in this pouch; I sleep in sweats, but, yes.
Our mother walks around in circles. The dining-room table is a mess. There are newspaper clippings and reviews and programs. And publicity stills of her at four and six and ten, the violin under her chin, her bow raised in the air like she was going to slice the fiddle in half. The sheet music she’d meant to cull sits in tall, sloppy piles. She can’t decide what clothes to bring to the Carrington, even though almost nothing fits. Over the last year she’s lost thirty pounds. We assure her that baggy will always be in style. “I need another day,” she says. But we’re making progress; free hangers rattle on the rod. The towers of shoes in shoeboxes will be donated to a women’s shelter. Our mother will never again wear heels, and none of us wear her shoe size. She wants to take her orchestra blacks and her three violins to the Carrington because she intends to play again for the residents. “If I can find a good pianist,” she says.
We find our names on Post-its. Since the diagnosis, her house bristles with them. Yellow for friends; pink for daughters; blue for Goodwill. She trails us, making sure we only take what’s ours. But the house is full of things unassigned. After she moves, we will rush back in and plunder, but not today. Today we play recipients. Nina: framed modernist covers of Polska magazines; Gianna: heavy-bottomed Polish crystal water glasses; Gigi: midcentury flat teak serving trays. Me: two mohair blankets—sage green and the sweetest uncloying pink—in a rectangular plastic bag with a three-sided zipper.
The Steinway upright where our father composed his music is a millstone. “I’d like to get back what he paid for this,” our mother says. It’s too expensive to donate. I wish we could sell it back to him. Our mother would never know, but what a giant betrayal this would be, a peace offering that’s not our business. He left thinking he was the one who’d been done wrong. He never forgave her for an affair she had when they were newlyweds. He never forgave her for the letter he found asking her lover to run away with her, not even though she chose to stay with him, not even years later after she forgave him for his ten-year affair with the mistress who eventually became his wife.
Our mother panics because she remembers the piano is out of tune. She quickly tracks down a piano tuner in her address book who within hours makes an emergency call. My sisters and I pack boxes while he pings through thirds, fifths, octaves. When he’s finished our mother has him play something, anything, for her. He chooses an étude by Frédéric Chopin that Barry Manilow hijacked into a hit song. Come, come, come into my arms. My sisters and I sit four in a row on the living-room sofa we’ll soon be lugging over to Edwards Street Thrift Shop. “We know the words,” we say. “There are no words,” our mother says. We watch her delight at this sudden performance, the piano tuner’s hands gliding over the keys, live music banging again through the Hillendale house.
There’s an orchid on the kitchen counter from the four of us, a foil welcome! balloon attached to a gift basket of cookies and jams from the Carrington, but she won’t be bought. She phones us: “This isn’t the right place for me. Do you know it has bylaws? They look in on me twice a day. The cook is Ukrainian and over-salts.” Our mother is Polish, a competing country, and fanatically low-sodium.
We take turns checking on her, but every daughter hears the same furious, panicked litany:
You evicted me. I wasn’t ready. Where is the bay-leaf Christmas wreath? Bring me the wool caps I knitted, in the bottom of the yellow wardrobe bag, the rib-stitched pink one, the one with the tiny orange pom-pom. Bring me The Divine Comedy on the bottom shelf in Gigi’s bedroom. I need the recording of Pines of Rome that Respighi’s widow signed for your father. Where did you put my navy Pappagallo pumps with the grosgrain bow?
Every item we didn’t move into her apartment is on a Polaroid in her brain, and she’s catching us, right and left, because those things are gone, handled. We could’ve filled a dumpster with the broken, unusable, and expired. Edwards Street Thrift Shop is a bonanza of our mother’s furniture, dishes, clothing, tchotchkes. On one of our drop-offs, we saw a price tag on her living-room sofa, and Nina snapped a photo of the sisters testing it out, sitting up straight and proper. The next day it sold. Our mother’s sofa will be in a stranger’s house, her Pappagallo pumps on some other woman’s feet.
She is fired up, irrational, yelling and accusing. Is this the same state we put her in when we were teenagers? We’d argue with her about missed curfews, about tying up the phone line, and she’d hit our arms with our hairbrushes. She saw hickeys and called us sluts. “How would you know?” Nina asked, and our mother ripped the red phone out of the wall and wrapped the curly black cord around my sister’s neck.
“My possessions are spread all over Hopedale. I need to know where everything went.” She is imperious, a general with no command.
Our mother resented our teenage chatter, our vanity and swagger. She didn’t have time to hear about our crushes, when we wanted to share them with her. “I’m your mother, not your friend,” she said, like a slogan. I wonder where she picked up the idea of a mother being an adversary? From her own mother? When we couldn’t get her on our side, we did what we needed to do.
“Why can’t I visit my own house? Take me to my house!”
We stop calling. She can leave messages all day long; what’s gone isn’t coming back. The roles reverse. Like the kid you drop off at summer camp, she needs to follow the rules, get used to the counselors, the Ukrainian cook, the new clicking/groaning night sounds, and make friends with the other campers who might also be homesick. She leaves another stern message on my cell phone: “Bring me my light-blue watermarked stationery and a fresh book of Forever stamps.” She’ll be writing letters to her long-ago friends, and to Raymond, the ones who believe she can’t possibly have dementia. She calls back: “Also, I’m noticing the turnover at the Carrington is high.”
It’s uncomfortable to treat your mother like a needy child when she’s seventy-eight years old. It’s not uncomfortable to boss her around for a change, or to ignore her because she’s impossible.
She tries, but she can’t divide the sisters. We’ve made a promise to ourselves to not be alone with her, to visit her in twos, because her erratica needs a witness, but also because speedy decisions are being made now in this business of handling our mother’s life. We know what’s best: She’s safe in the Carrington. But there’s nothing we can do to soothe her. We aren’t parents, we are tricksters; she’s not coming home from camp.
There’s a for sale sign in the front yard. Soon my key won’t work.
On one of my last visits to the Hillendale house, my husband, Malcolm, and I load two steamer trunks and a teak record cabinet into the back of the SUV. I don’t even own a record player, but I’ve already grabbed the LPs. They’re stacked on my dining-room table: monster works by Igor Stravinsky, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, who was my father’s teacher; the storied violinists my mother idolized: David Oistrakh, Fritz Kreisler, Isaac Stern; rare recordings of the understated lyric-Romantic pianist Dinu Lipatti; comedy albums by Bob Newhart, Elaine May, and Mike Nichols. These comedians made my father laugh until he cried. These violinists made my mother weep.
My mother’s house is now emptied but for the sentinel Steinway, the dining-room table, two heavy sideboards, and a brass bed. She’s insisting we bring her back to see what we’ve done, but that won’t happen until every stick of furniture and that piano are gone. Vacuum rows have been steamed into the gray carpet, and her yardman came by to unclog a sink. There are two maids with earbuds giving the house a deep cleaning, and I cringe as they swing open my mother’s cabinets, yank open sticky drawers, sponge away crumbs and dried bugs.
Cleaning out the drawers of a tall oak chest, Nina happened on the raw gray jade in a pouch in a jewelry box duct-taped to another jewelry box with save written on the tape. Nina couldn’t resist calling our mother to rub it in, but our mother didn’t care. She said, “You snuck them back from California.”
We aren’t visiting our mother, so all we can do is picture her in the Carrington on her walker in the middle of the hall on an errand to check her mail, hopefully saying hello to the neighbors. Being out in public used to be natural for her. She loved to be photographed and admired, but over the last years she put herself away. The light that floods her new apartment is unavoidable. The last time we were there she had the venetian blinds snapped down. She’s been sponge-bathing for years, daunted by the deep tub, but the new shower is wheelchair accessible, and how nice that she can get her hair and her body wet at the same time. She’d like an area rug but they’re prohibited because she might trip. Her kitchen has no stove because the Carrington doesn’t allow appliances that can cause fires. The dining room serves three squares, but she fixes her own breakfast because she dislikes the smell of bacon. Lunch, she attends, requesting a baked potato, or a baked sweet potato. She’s been having supper delivered for five dollars a day, like room service. “That’s thirty-five dollars a week, Mom,” we say. “I’ll use my cash,” she says, and we wonder where she kept that stash hidden. An older lady with a snack cart knocks on her door twice a day.
Our mother tells us she needs more privacy. “You girls glorified this place. It’s nothing but a nursing home,” she says. But Ruby, the staff nurse, is her favorite and they enjoy an afternoon cup of tea, curiously the same smoky Lapsang souchong our father drank alone because our mother only liked instant coffee. During the packing stages of the move, Gigi spent the night at the Hillendale house in her old bedroom, and our mother burst in at 3 in a fury. “You packed my Folgers! I need my Folgers!” And Gigi cowered in the bed, thinking our mother was going to strike her. Shaken, Gigi got up to see that it had indeed been packed. “But can’t you make yourself a cup of tea, Mom, if you need caffeine in the middle of the night?” No she could not. Gigi put clothes on to run out and buy a jar of coffee, but our mother stopped her, afraid Gigi would be raped or carjacked.
When I was young I missed her constantly. She gave birth to me and left me in New Jersey with my Italian grandparents and my Aunt Bernie while she and my father went on tour with a musical revue made up of talented musicians, vocalists, and dancers. They traveled the country, hitting forty-eight of the fifty states, and only returned for Christmas and the summer. My father wrote arrangements and my mother was a featured soloist. She had an affair with the bandleader and got pregnant on tour. Nina also got left in New Jersey. Nina is my father’s; they have the same feet.
Our parents stayed on the road for three years.
It’s been five decades since I felt the relief of having my mother with me in the same house. And even then I worried she wasn’t sold on me. She’s always looked like she preferred her life before children. I don’t know what I am losing. The mother I never quite had? I fear the Alzheimer’s won’t soften her toward us, but down the road she will forget us and think we’re other people. Except for the Ukrainian cook, she treats the staff at the Carrington with interest. Around her daughters, she’s like her restless, doubtful pre-dementia self. She doesn’t believe that we are taking care of her because we want to. Our father told Nina that once our mother loses her memory he’d like to come by to visit her.
Our mother signs herself out at the front desk. Her yardman is waiting in his silver truck under the portico. He drives her back to the Hillendale house to pick up what her daughters won’t bring her.
What does she find? Her cedar-paneled house is as open and empty as the day she and our father bought it. Is she whiplashed by how efficiently we handled her affairs? After only a week on the market, the real-estate agent received a good offer, and we hadn’t told our mother until the contract had been signed. She was furious. “That price is too low,” she said. “I won’t allow the sale.” She won’t be at the closing.
Our father’s shed outside is the limbo where we stowed what we were uncomfortable donating: his orchestral scores; my sisters’ paintings from when they were art majors; our mother’s handmade velvet and rhinestone Christmas ornaments; the needlepoint cushions she stitched when she had tuberculosis. She had to be quarantined for four months. Her mother didn’t come from Detroit to take care of her. Aunt Bernie was dispatched from New Jersey, while Nina and I again went to live with our Italian grandmother.
Under our mother’s direction, the yardman lets himself in with her key. He hauls things from the shed back to the Carrington: books, stacks of piano music, and shoeboxes filled with hundreds of photographs my sisters and I hoped to go through ourselves. Because our mother would only let us look at them while she hovered, narrating an enviable life we want to believe.
A few days later, the Carrington calls. They are worried our mother’s new apartment is a firetrap. But I imagine her happy, clever, buried under books and music and photos, and thirty bucks lighter.
Our mother hired a trial attorney to slow down the sale of the house. We are ten days from closing. We look him up; he has a website bannered with big green words: resourceful. astute. bold.
Gigi phones a friend who runs the other nursing home in town. He knows the guy. “He tried to prospect clients in here who need VA benefits.”
Our mother stays on high alert to senior-citizen scams, identity stealers. She bought a cheap shredder and for weeks she fed it old tax returns, but only after she redacted her Social Security number with a black Sharpie.
Will her attorney file an injunction? We have our own counsel waiting in the wings. He says the law right now is on her side. We could argue her case up to the Supreme Court, but her attorney would insist that she called him during something called a “lucid interval,” and he’d win.
She believes she will move back into her house. But in ten days, the buyer will live there, a divorced woman with two sons whom our mother looked up on the internet.
On a sister conference call, we imagine disasters big and small.
Gigi says, “Bet you ten dollars she phones the woman and tells her about the old wiring, the mold in the bricks, the dust puppies, the feral cat.”
We’d been certain the cat was a figment, but while we emptied the house, it slunk around, a mix of black and brown with a white face, zipping into the middle of an azalea bush after making eye contact. It thought it could wear our mother down for a bowl of milk. We are all dumb cats.
Gianna talked her out of her attorney. “He’ll take your money and you’ll end up— boom—in a state-run nursing home.” This is how we deal with our mother now, both sides advancing threats, taking turns. And now it’s Gianna’s. “What did you pay him?”
“I don’t remember,” our mother said.
The next day Gianna moves the money in our mother’s checking account into a shadow account.
The grass seed we had her yardman spread over a bald patch has sprouted. Her lawn used to be an emerald carpet. He seemed relieved, even if he’s losing a client. We’ve warned him away from future pickups from the Carrington, and it feels crummy to roadblock the two of them.
We’ve asked her neurologist for the affidavit that begins the conservatorship, where doctors and daughters and the courts gang up and declare her incompetent. It may be too early, but by the time it’s time it will be too late.
We have to and we hate to. Every decision we make is an end of an aspect: the lady of the house, the car driver, the balancer of the checkbook, the private mother. We daughters are acting like thugs.
Malcolm and I travel north to New Jersey. We take the Raritan Valley train to see my Aunt Bernie. She is seventy-five now—three years younger than my mother. She let her hair go gray, and it’s cut short, cute. She’s wearing dangly earrings and red loafers. “Oh, honey,” she says. We give each other a long hug. She still smells like White Shoulders, like I hoped she would.
“You look the same,” I say, and “let me see your hands.” She shows me her fingers, her tapered silvery nails. “They’re younger than mine,” I say, displaying my fingers, my unpolished short nails. I have hands like my mother’s. I say, “You don’t have sun spots.”
It’s been four years. When my sisters and I stopped talking to our father, she stopped talking to us. Lately, though, she’s been picking up the phone to see how our mother is doing with the new living arrangement. The info is being piped to her brother, but I don’t care anymore. She and my mother never got along, and my sisters and I had to be on our mother’s side, often the wrong side. Now the dementia is its own side. I want my aunt in my corner.
She drives down the main street of Raritan, a town populated by Italian immigrants. Many had come for jobs in the Woolen Mill, which made uniforms for soldiers, or in the Fur Works, where animal pelts were fashioned into stoles for women who could afford them.
We walk into the second-floor apartment on a dead end where she lived for more than forty years with my grandparents. Even with them gone, the place is a time capsule. My Nonno’s recliner is in the corner, my Nonna’s flowered chair has the same tatted doilies on the arms, and the bookshelf is filled with delicate, unusable teacups. Sepia photographs of ancient relatives sit on every surface. My aunt still lives like her parents’ daughter, too loyal to call the place her own.
The fridge door is collaged with outdated photos of my son and my sisters’ kids. My half-brother’s photo is recent, and front and center. He doesn’t look a bit Italian, and I don’t see my father in his features either. He takes after his mother, who’s willowy, tall, and blond. “He’s almost six feet,” my aunt says. “Even at fourteen.”
We take our seats at the kitchen table to drink coffee and dunk giant blueberry muffins. “I’m constructing a timeline,” I explain. “And my mother’s spotty with dates and certain details.”
This visit isn’t for small talk. Malcolm sits quietly, my wingman. I ask and she answers, filling in what I knew with info I can finally hear, because it was my mother’s good health and presumed longevity that protected her. Her alcoholism and self-absorption went unchecked. With dementia clouding the picture, my aunt and I feel safer comparing notes.
“When your father would bring your mother home for the weekend, she slept in my bed, while I took the sofa.
“One time I moved your mother’s violin off my bedspread and she slapped me across my face. She told me, ‘Don’t you ever touch my fiddle.’”
“How old were you?” I asked.
My mother was nineteen, and also a teenager. My aunt had gone to tell my Nonna but she did nothing, because sons had more rights than daughters in Italian families.
Yes, my mother married my father at nineteen. Her parents didn’t want her to marry an Italian. They expected her, the prodigy, to be the golden goose. They waited until the last minute to come to the wedding.
“From the minute your mother met your Nonno she called him Daddy. He wasn’t her Daddy,” Aunt Bernie says. “He was mine.
“After they married, your mother went off in my powder-blue suit. I never saw it again.”
“And the affair?” I ask.
“You have to ask me this?” Aunt Bernie asks.
She tells us that when my parents came off the road and settled in Pennsylvania, the bandleader used to visit my mother. She’d been shipped over from New Jersey to babysit because my mother couldn’t handle two kids. She’d seen them touch. “That’s when I suspected. The letter is when I knew. He was thirty years older, and he gave it to his wife to handle, because your mother was Flavor of the Tour.” I flinch, not ready for this, or quite believing it. “His wife gave the letter to your dad, and your dad moved all of you across the ocean to Rome.”
“Her heart must’ve been broken,” I say.
“I’m sure,” my aunt says.
“And why did we move suddenly from Rome to New Jersey?”
“Your father had hepatitis and needed American medical care.”
“And from New Jersey to Canada?”
“I’m not sure. A job opportunity?”
“And from Canada to Hopedale?”
“You sure you want to know?” my aunt asks, looking at Malcolm, and he nods yes. “Your mother’s drinking was really bad and your dad got her out of there.”
“To Mississippi?” I asked. “She drank more down South.”
I go back because there’s more I want to know: “When my mother asked the bandleader to run off, did she mean to take Nina and me?”
My aunt looks at Malcolm. “She’s okay hearing this?”
Malcolm says, “She’s been preparing.”
My aunt looks at me and her eyes fill with tears. My eyes fill with tears. She shakes her head quickly, no. No, my mother did not mean to take Nina and me. “It’s okay,” I say, finally. “I’m good with the clarity.”
We take a drive to visit the graves of my grandparents. The day’s cool and blue and we stop at the river to sit on a bench and watch kids walk around in the shallows.
We grab an early dinner. Fried artichokes, calamari, ravioli, and roasted chicken. I miss my Nonna’s Italian cooking. Nina and I were almost raised by Raritan and we could’ve done worse. But there’d be no parents to mull over, and no Gianna and Gigi.
My aunt gets hiccups and I show her how to tilt the glass and drink from the opposite edge, but the waiter asks her what her middle name is. She stops to think, and the hiccups are gone. “I fooled your esophagus,” he says.
The closing on the Hillendale house is Thursday.
Our mother leaves us frantic messages. She is missing books: Arnold Steinhardt’s memoir about his years with the Guarneri String Quartet, David Dubal’s Evenings with Horowitz, the Georgia O’Keeffe coffee-table book, Roloff Beny’s To Every Thing There Is A Season.
Also, there’s a page missing from her wedding album, the photo where she’s sitting on the bed with her bridesmaid, wearing the pearl ring she’d borrowed from her. She worries she never gave it back —did we find it?
I ache for certain things of my mother’s. My sisters and I had to act so quickly. She needed the money, not the drain of utility bills, property taxes, homeowners’ insurance. Our efficiency, looking back, seems punishing, chilly, but how long should you take to vacate your mother’s house? Should our movements have been more sacramental? Did we glimpse when we should have stared?
Nina wanted to make good use of her visit from California, and she worked at a torrid pace. I kept up, tossing old books into our mother’s city-issued garbage can. I wish I’d written down the titles of what I threw out. The pages were dry, the spines powdery. I console myself with knowing that my mother doesn’t read, she never really did. She started books, quoted from them, and left them. I console myself with knowing I can re-buy anything I want to read, and the paper will be fresh. There’ll be no dried silverfish falling into my lap.
But the inscriptions. I should have taken pictures of them with my phone to record who’d given my parents these books and on what occasions—their good wishes captured in spidery handwriting. My mother, I’m sure, remembers, but how dear to have proof.
Everything she owned meant more than she could take. And now she suffers, her life pared down to just daughters.
My sisters and I stop by the Carrington. It’s now been four weeks since she moved out of the Hillendale house.
There’s a long hall with bordered carpet and framed pictures of lakes, woods, and meadows. Our mother’s door says the z residence, so people walking by don’t know her first name or that she’s alone.
“Come in,” we hear her say. It’s a sunny day but her room is as dark as a cave. She’s done it again. The apartment is a new hoard of boxes and Tupperware bins. There’s a narrow path from the front door to the patio door. The furniture we moved over from Hillendale looks like it’s fighting to breathe.
She doesn’t get up from the computer in her bedroom. “Let me finish,” she calls out to us, her voice flat. “Are all of you here again?”
My sisters and I find places to sit on her new cream-colored love seat and in the fragile teak chairs from the old living room. “Don’t scrape the floor,” our mother says, entering with her walker. She doesn’t wear a bra anymore, and her breasts hang low. She’s got on a faded sweatshirt, soft cotton pants. Her butt is flat. From the side she’s as thin as an ironing board.
“How about some light?” Gigi asks.
“I don’t want the glare,” she says.
On top of the kitchen cabinets sit the clay rabbits from the patio.
Gianna holds up a Xerox of the check from the sale of the house. “We cleared $124,000, Mom.”
“And sold the Steinway,” Gigi says, waving another check. “For $3,000.”
Our mother asks, “To whom did you sell the piano?”
“A pediatrician,” Gigi says, which is the right answer.
From a spiral notebook, our mother reads aloud the phone messages she’s been leaving.
“I kept some of the music books,” I answer. “And the wedding photo? We didn’t touch it.”
She goes to the bedroom and brings out her wedding album. The cover’s torn off because, she says, bugs ate into the binding. There are no pages missing, just eight-by-tens of our mother walking down the aisle at nineteen, in the ivory silk crepe de chine wedding dress she insisted we throw away. We couldn’t do it. We brought it to Edwards Street for some lucky, petite bride-to-be. It occurs to me it isn’t just the photo our mother wants. She’s searching for that pearl ring.
We daughters move on, checking and chiding: “You’ve trashed your cute apartment. How can you live in this?” Gigi asks.
“As long as there’s a path in case of fire,” she says.
“Are you eating? What do you weigh?” Nina asks.
“I hate the food,” she says. “The Ukrainian cook doesn’t know what a sweet potato is.”
“We’ve heard this already, Mom.” Gigi checks the fridge. Sandwiches made with bagel thins have been cut in half and placed in Ziploc bags. These are her suppers. In the cabinet are six boxes of Frosted Cheerios for breakfast and sometimes for dinner. She still takes only lunch in the dining room.
“You’re paying for three meals,” Gigi says.
“They make you eat dinner at five,” our mother says, again. “Your father and I always sat down to dinner at eight-thirty.”
“Between five and six-thirty,” Gianna says, again. “Also, it’s five dollars a pop to have your food delivered, Mom. What is five dollars times thirty days?”
“Seventy-five,” she says.
“Oh, Mom,” I say. “Do you even know that’s the wrong answer?” But she just smiles at me, satisfied.
Gianna says, “You need to be careful with your money.”
“I finally realized how this happened,” our mother says. She lowers her head, puts her hand to her face. If this scene had a soundtrack, there’d be a minor key change. We wait for her to pat the top of her head because this is the laying down of blame. “Your father,” she says.
“He hit you?” Nina asks, even though she knows the answer.
“Not directly. We had a terrible argument and he slammed a heavy glass door on top of my head. I still have the bump.”
But it’s the top of her head she’s patting, not her forehead or her face. And why did she let a heavy door hit her? Had she been drinking?
“An odd angle,” I say.
“Also, in our small foreign cars, he would hit bumps.” She pats the top of her head. Bump bump bump. This bit isn’t rote. It’s new and impossible. She’s bruising the happiness we all felt on those weekend drives in the Fiats and Alfa Romeos and Triumphs, through New Jersey farmland, around the Colosseum in Rome, into the Canadian prairies, with our heads wrapped in bright scarves, the top down.
My sisters and I only talk a few times a week now. We’ve been tangled up in a common purpose—to move our mother out, to put her somewhere safe—but we need some privacy to separate our pain.
Gigi, the youngest and the family romantic, worries she may never love our mother the same way again. She pours herself into teaching college, and into raising her teenagers with manic concern, thinking she can do a better job than our parents did, but I tell her they did a fine job with her, and maybe take it easy on her kids.
Gianna has been clear-eyed, on task, checking online statements, intercepting banking mistakes. She is exhausted. Her spine is wrenched; the same lumbar disks that got inflamed after our parents divorced. Still, she plans a diving trip to Mexico with her family. As a little girl she was afraid to walk on snow, afraid to wear blue jeans, but underwater in a wetsuit, she will swim with barracuda, night-dive around the teeming, creepy rigs off Chandeleur Island.
For thirty years Nina has been über fit, hiking through the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, going on forever runs, soothed by the endorphin highs. She sends pictures from New Mexico, the back of her hiking up a steep orange mesa, finding finger holds and toe holds, and I know the front of her is satisfied.
She’s always been the quickest to move on. She’s phoning our mother weekly, piping in West Coast cheer, and reports the bleakness to us when we’d prefer not to know. There’s nothing we can do but wait for her to need us differently.
Digging in my father’s shed, I found reel-to-reels of my mother’s debut recital in 1951 with the Detroit Symphony. She is fourteen. The program includes the requisite “Devil’s Trill” by Giuseppe Tartini–Kreisler; the expansive Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor; a Mozart sonata; a Bach–Kreisler prelude; two flashy Henryk Wieniawski pieces; and, to conclude, the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Camille Saint-Saëns. My mother’s intonation wobbles in places, but her vibrato never betrays her pounding heart. It is only in the exposed places, in the fragile harmonics, that I sense her fear. She is applauded loudly back on stage for two encores.
If I had one more chance to travel with my mother I would whoosh her up to Carnegie Hall to hear a superb, unyielding violinist, and we’d delight in the hummingbird trills and steep glissandos, the spiccato bowing, the muscular double-stops, and suffer the gorgeous yearn of the legato. We’d not say a word, only touch arms and fill up with music.