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My Mother and I Hear Her Death Approaching

ISSUE:  Summer 2002

“I won a ticket for a dream house,” my mother tells me on the phone. “It cost a hundred dollars to buy. It’s a gorgeous house. Brand new and big big. If I win, I’ll give it to you. Then you and Allen can move here and live in it.”

“What about our jobs? We can’t just quit; we have to work.”

“You could come in the summers. Until you retire. Then you could move here permanently. I’d love to have you here during my last years!”

It’s an old refrain between us. My mother, 84, has been telling me for years how much she wishes I lived in Halifax, where she lives, instead of 1500 miles away, in Virginia. In the last few years that wish has become more fervent.

“There are so many interesting things to see and do here,” she says, coaxing. “But I don’t like to go alone. If you lived here, we could go together.”

“Why don’t you call one of your friends?” I suggest.

“Oh I can always find someone to go with,” she says, irritated that I might think she is other than very popular. But it’s not the same. She wants me.

“You’re the only one who really cares about me,” my mother says. “You, of all my children.”

“That’s not true,” I say. “All your children love you.”

“Well you’d never know it,” she says. “They hardly ever call. They hardly ever visit me or invite me over.”

“Everyone’s busy, Mum. I’m sure they’re doing the best they can.”

I know that my sister and brother who live nearby call and visit and invite much more than “hardly ever.” And I know why they don’t call and visit and invite as often as she’d like them to. Because I live so far away, and because I have always been the “golden girl,” my mother has the illusion that things would be different with me.

The truth is, I don’t wish to be there year round, or even for more than a few weeks at a time. Even now I often feel suffocated when I make my annual visit, balancing my mother’s desire for my attention and company with my own needs for privacy and space.

I’m on the phone talking to a friend. I hear my mother on the extension.

“Mum, would you please hang up?”

“How did you know I was listening?” she asks, without a trace of shame.

“I can hear you breathing.”

“It’s not polite to listen in on other people’s phone calls,” Stirling tells her. Stirling, a long-time roomer, lives in my old bedroom.

“We don’t have any secrets,” she says.

“If you don’t have any secrets,” he says, “why do you listen to her calls?”

I’m on the phone with a book store manager arranging a reading. I hear my mother on the other end, trying to breathe softly this time.

“Mother, it’s hard for me to hear when you’re on the extension.”

“Oh,” she says, and hangs up.

It began a long time ago: I would come home from a date to the sleeping house, only the stove light left on, and creep up the stairs. At the top, a pause in the breathing darkness: Are you awake? It was always Yes, and I would go into my mother’s room to sit on her bed and tell her where we went, what we ate, and whether the boy was “fresh.” I withheld the more private details if I cared about the boy, but was lavish in my descriptions of dresses, antics, foolish conversations. I was aware, even then, of framing and editing—a storyteller already—presenting myself as an important actor in a web of interesting experiences. All this, for my mother’s entertainment and approval. All this, to see myself, thrillingly, through her eyes.

It was then, I suppose, that my mother began confusing my life with hers. My sister, before me, had hurried to her room, shut the door.

For the 36 years I have lived away from my mother, I have been writing her letters, serving up my life in little packets. I write on the first of every month; she on the 15th. I tell her about the parts of my life I know will entertain her, please her, just as I used to, long ago.

The last time my mother visited my house, she spent part of an afternoon looking through my photo albums of the last 20 years. She took off her glasses and squinted at our pictures of Greece and Turkey, of parties, of friends, of anniversary celebrations. Midway through she looked up with a stricken face. “So much of your life that I haven’t shared!”

Afterward, she followed me into the kitchen and said, “Oh, how I wish you lived in Halifax!”

My mother has the illusion that if I lived in Halifax, my life would become her life. My friends her friends. My travels, her travels. My marriage her marriage.

My mother has given us her room with the big double bed; she sleeps downstairs in her dressing room on the single bed. I am putting on my underwear when I hear her coming up the stairs.

“just a minute” I say. “I’m dressing.”

“Oh that doesn’t matter,” she says. “I’m your mother. I changed your diapers, remember?”

I throw on my clothes as she comes into the room.

“Do you need something?” I ask.

She stands at the foot of the bed, examining it. “Which side do you sleep on?” she asks.

“What difference does it make?”

“I’d like to picture you there.”

“I sleep on the left” I tell her reluctantly.

“That’s the same side I sleep on,” she says. “And Allen sleeps on that side.” She stares at the bed and I know what she is imagining. I hurry her out of the room and downstairs as soon as possible.

These last few years I’ve been calling my mother every few weeks as well as writing. Not long calls, but long enough to keep the thread strong, to share some bit of news, to let her know I’m thinking of her. She calls me sometimes, too, though after three minutes, I feel her getting nervous, wanting the conversation to end.

“Mum, you can afford to stay on the phone as long as you like. You’re not poor anymore. Besides, these calls aren’t so expensive.”

“I know,” she says, and relaxes a little. Old habits die hard, and part of her cannot forget the long years of scrimping when my father was ill and her teaching supported the family. There was never enough money. She would show me the bills, weep over them sometimes. No one else ever knew.

“You’re my favorite person in the whole world,” she whispers into the phone. “I would rather be with you than any one else in the whole wide world.”

Once, when I was telling a friend about my mother, he asked, “Were you your mother’s favorite because you were the most beautiful of her children?” “No,” I replied. “All her children were beautiful. I’m my mother’s favorite because I was able to accept her gifts. And I wanted for myself what she wanted for me. It’s so much easier that way.”

My mother’s gift: To think of myself as a special person.

My mother’s example: How to pursue what you want. How to reinvent yourself when you need to.

My mother was 50 when my father died. She enrolled in night classes at the university and received her B.A. four years after I received mine. At 59 she began spending part of her summers studying in France, realizing a life-long dream. She did this for four years in a row.

Long before that, my mother had begun remaking herself. I remember the Sunday afternoons I found her sprawled on her bed, surrounded by books and scribblers, pouring over assignments for the journalism correspondence course she took from some Institute in New York. All week she taught school; Saturdays she cleaned the house, baked pies, and fed mountains of wash through the old wringer washer. Sundays she struggled with reporter’s questions:

what, when, where; how to grab a reader’s attention. Sometimes she read aloud what she had written, asked what I thought. I was 12 or 13.She was her unvarnished self then, in an old pair of slacks and a nubby sweater, her lipstick worn off. The shine came from her fervor. I remember the palpable feel of it, her dreams hovering in clouds, there, just above her bed.

I write at my desk on a laptop computer; the fervor is the same.

When my mother was the same age as I am now, 54, she made her first overseas trip—to Greece. Part of her purpose was to retrace a path I had taken four years earlier, at 21.My mother wanted to find the house in Crete I had lived in and from which I had written her long, colorful letters. She wanted to see for herself the narrow streets, the ancient Venetian houses, the harbor with the fishermen bringing in their catch. She wanted to experience what I had experienced. She wanted to become the subject of my life.

“She’s a new and improved version of me,” my mother has begun saying when she introduces me to people. She says this not only because I am a writer like she is, but because I have achieved many of her own dreams: travel, a large, beautiful home, a good marriage, a respectable body of publications. There are many things in my life that my mother would not wish to have experienced—a broken former marriage, losing custody of my son to his father during his teenage years—but those dark things have been edited out of my mother’s picture of my life. Instead, she sees what she wants to see.

Still, there is no one on earth, not my husband, not my son, not my closest friends, who celebrates me and my accomplishments as intensely as my mother does. My accomplishments have become her accomplishments.

The illusion that somehow my mother and I are the same is not an illusion I share, however, and I am careful to note our differences, at least to myself. And yet, I recognize this impulse to see yourself in your child, this feeling that you inhabit your child’s life somehow, that part of you looks out at the world through his or her eyes. As my mother ages, however, the borders between us become more and more blurred for her.

“He’s so adorable,” my mother says of Allen, smiling flirtatiously at him. “I wish I could find a guy just like him.”

“He’s already taken, Mum,” I say.

“I know,” she says. “If he weren’t, I might go after him.” Twinkle twinkle. Coy smile in his direction.

He pretends not to notice.

A day or so later, Mother and I are at the breakfast table in our bathrobes. Allen comes down wearing his nightshirt.

“Isn’t that cute,” my mother says. The nightshirt is cream colored, flannel, and comes down to his knees.

“What do you wear under there?” she says, lifting up the edge of the nightshirt. “Peek peek.”

Allen brushes her hand away, laughing. But he is careful to pull on his jeans before coming downstairs the next morning.

She still has boyfriends. Lots of them. Sometimes when we talk she recites the list of her beaus, like Scarlet O’Hara. Dennis took her for a ride along the South Shore and they stopped somewhere for dinner. Carl took her to a dance at the Legion. Doug and she went to see the Buskers down at Historic Properties. It’s a reversal of our old roles, my mother embellishing her love-life for my entertainment and approval.

“Last Sunday afternoon I had three offers,” she chirps into the phone.

“My mother and her wild social life,” I say, amused.

She likes this. She likes the image of herself as still a “Belle” in both senses of the word—beautiful, and sought after by men—at 84. There have always been men in my mother’s life, though she has never found what she calls “true love,” something she regrets deeply. She has always been beautiful, always looked years younger than her age. When she turned 80 and was without boyfriends for a while, she aged visibly. Since then, her need for beaus has become more frantic.

My mother and I are in the Halifax, market. I am negotiating the price of some smoked salmon with a middle-aged stall-keeper who looks Mediterranean.

“Calle spera,” my mother says. He doesn’t respond, so she adds, “That was Greek. Do you speak Greek?”

“No,” he says.

“Parlez-vous Francais?”

“I used to speak French when I came to this country from Portugal,” he says, pausing to wipe his hands on his big white apron. “But I never had a chance to use it, so I forgot it.”

“If you’d been around me, you wouldn’t have forgotten,” my mother says, smiling coyly.

Something passes over the man’s face and he stares at her. “Well maybe it’s not too late,” he says.

I grab my mother’s arm and yank her down the aisle.

“Why did you do that?” she says, annoyed.

“Mother, you don’t have to flirt with every single man you meet!”

“I wasn’t flirting, I was just being friendly.”

“You need to settle down and stop chasing after men!”

“I don’t chase after them; they chase after me,” she says primly.

“Well you must give off a scent. Like a female dog in heat. And they all come running after you.”

She smiles and looks away.

My mother’s father died when she was four. There were no uncles to tussle with the five children, though the hired man sometimes played “horse” with the little girls and let them ride on his back. My mother’s mother seldom touched her children except to comb their hair or wash their faces. “The only time I remember my mother ever hugging me was when I was 18 and leaving for Normal School,” my mother once told me. “I suppose she thought she might never see me again.”

My father was 51 when my mother married him. She was 27. Marrying a father. Most of her boyfriends have been 10 to 20 years younger than she. So many boyfriends.

Sometimes my mother’s letters contain a listing of every event she attended in the last month: meetings of the retired teachers, senior advocacy groups, the poetry society, Canadian authors, lunch with this person and that, or dinners (they’re always “big big” dinners). She likes seeing it all on paper. It makes a good impression. It shows that she is busy, important, not lonely.

A few years ago my mother sent me a two-page biography of herself. Along with the usual birth and education information, it listed her publications (poems, plays, articles, her book), named her degrees, the exact number of summers she spent studying in France and where, and the exact number of provinces, states, and countries she has visited. It also mentioned her passion for cooking and writing, neither of which she has done much of in the last few years. It’s a romantic picture of her life. It’s how she wants the world to see her. It tells nothing of the sufferings, the struggles she endured and, mostly, triumphed over. It tells nothing of her unsatisfied longings.

What do I think of her biography? she asks the next time we talk.

“It’s very impressive,” I tell her.

“You can use it for my obituary,” she says.

“I hope I won’t need it for a long, long time,” I say.

“I don’t plan on dying soon,” she says. “Not until years and years from now.”

Last year my mother bought a burial plot. She also had her tombstone made, with her name carved neatly on the granite, along with the date of her birth and a blank space for the date of death. Under her name and birth date are the words “Teacher and Writer.”

“I thought I’d save you children all the trouble,” she says, but I suspect she didn’t trust that we would present her to the world in death the way she wants to be presented. She is eager to have me see her tombstone and burial plot, so when I visit next time, we go to the graveyard. We have to hunt a while to find the spot (she has forgotten exactly where it is), but finally we do.

“This is where I’ll be,” my mother says.

I have no idea what she is imagining as she looks at the grassy area stretching out from the tombstone, but I find it difficult to think of her there, slowly decomposing, returning to the earth. She believes in Heaven and goes to Mass every week. “I’m not stopping now,” she says, twinkling. “You don’t let your insurance policy lapse right when you are about to collect.” She’s read this somewhere, and likes it. She repeats it whenever the subject of church or religion comes up. I don’t believe in heaven, or hell for that matter, but we stopped discussing that a long time ago. Whenever I visit, I go to Mass with my mother because it’s the easiest thing to do. “I pray for you,” she says. “I want you to be with me in Heaven.”

“What do you think of my tombstone?” she asks.

“It’s very nice,” I say, and take a photo of her standing next to it.

She seems so small, suddenly, standing by her stone, smiling at me bravely, her blue nylon jacket flapping open like a child’s. Her hair curls around her face, a bit of dark still there, among the gray. She reminds me of a proud child with funny teeth, hair sticking out, who smiles into the camera for a school picture. I think of her 30 years ago, in a certain black and white dress with a matching coat and hat, and bright red lipstick. How strong and powerful she had seemed! I hold that image in my mind.

My mother’s gravesite is in the same graveyard as my father’s, and in the same general area, though they are not side by side. This is fitting. Though they stayed together until my father’s death, during a good part of their married life they lived in separate parts of the house, in pockets of resentful silence. Now he is over there and she will be here. “Close to that tree,” she says. “For some shade.”

In the 30+ years since my father’s death, my mother has rarely visited his grave. Now that she visits her own grave-to-be periodically, she also visits his, since she’s in the neighborhood, so to speak. We stop by and pay our respects.

As we walk back to the car, my mother holds my arm.

“How I wish you were here to share my last years!” she says.

“I know,” I say. There is no one else with whom she has shared so many of her secrets.

My mother is not much interested in other people’s deaths. Her sister died last winter. The sister she had feuded with most of her life. My mother did not attend the funeral; it was winter, hard to get around, and her sister lived in another province. A favorite cousin of hers, a priest, died a few months later. She didn’t go to his funeral either. Now she calls to tell me that her other sister’s husband, my uncle, has died.

“It’ll be hard on Elizabeth, I imagine,” my mother says. “They’ve been together for 55 years. Now she’ll be alone.”

“Are you going to the funeral?” I ask. Her sister lives about three hours away, in the small community where my mother grew up.

“I don’t think so. I asked your brother if he would drive me but he has some appointments. He says.”

I ask about another relative.

“They wanted to leave this evening around suppertime, and I couldn’t get ready that fast. Besides, Stirling and I had a nice chicken dinner planned. And I have my facial tomorrow. I don’t want to miss that.”

“You could reschedule it.”

“I’ve already waited a long time for it.” She pauses. “If they had the funeral on Friday, I could go.”

The truth is, my mother doesn’t want to go to the funeral.

“He was 85,” she says, sounding suddenly tired. “I’m 84.”

“But you’re in good health,” “You have a very good chance of living to a ripe old age.”

“Oh, how I wish you lived here! she says. “I won’t live forever.”

I picture her sitting in the easy chair by the phone, her body getting smaller and frailer every year. Part of me wants to rush to the airport and fly there immediately. Move into the spare room.

“But I don’t plan on dying until years and years from now,” she says, pulling herself together and twinkling again.

I try not to imagine the event that waits for us “years and years” from now. But it’s beginning to dog us both. No one will ever again love me the way my mother does. No one will ever amuse and amaze me in quite the same way, either. And how will I see myself, when I am no longer reflected in my mother’s eyes?


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