I walked, my mom shuffled. That’s what she does now. Her face grim, she abandoned her walker, one of those crappy gray ones with yellow tennis balls stuck onto the front prongs, the final insult in such a long train of insults that nobody questions why they can’t just design the thing not to require those stupid-looking tennis balls.
It wasn’t lost on me that she had the presence of mind to remember that this walker was the one she keeps at my sister’s house. I check for these things, a running list, as if I’ll be able to use it as evidence. See, she’s still cognizant. See how she remembered? Maybe it’s only because she can’t hear that she appears so dim.
Or have her lights really started to burn out? I collect facts.
I was in front of her, wrapped in a long wool sweater, hardly protection against the driving pellets that rained down on us. Behind me my almost-ninety year old mother was wrapped in multiple layers: sweaters, scarves, gloves, a long down coat, heavy tights, boots, but the hat on her head was a Shabbas hat, a perky woolen cap meant to be worn at a jaunty angle. But all it was doing was sliding across her now thinly covered scalp, her formerly thick head of hair no longer there to secure the hat in place. Behind us was my niece, her oldest grandchild, herself a mother, the child I’d held a mature woman. We nodded over my mother’s head, there to help the grandmother who mothered and grandmothered us all with controlling indifference.
That my mother is almost deaf is sad, but somehow correct. She never listened much anyway. Her love for us was all consuming, but all controlling. She ruled by her internal sense of right and wrong, and though as an adult I find I agree with most, not all, of her leanings, her firm belief in her own judgement was maddening. Our relationship wasn’t hostile. If she ruled with controlling indifference, we reacted with respectful disregard. One didn’t argue with my mother, there was no such level of give and take. She commanded and we didn’t obey. We pretended to, years later my husband is still perplexed by the Shabbas rules I lay down before we visit from California. We can do this, but we can’t do that? But surely she knows, and doesn’t care.
Does she know? She’s a highly intelligent person. But to know is to condone. Or condemn. We lived by the don’t ask don’t tell rule for so long that I never understood what the fuss was all about. Was there any other way to be around authority figures? Your private life is exactly that, private. It has no bearing on your public persona.
And it’s worked. All these years we collect at the Shabbat table as a family, and whatever our differences we join in the Kiddush, the washing for Ha’Motzi, the singing, eating, and Birchat HaMazon. This is not a falsehood, this is family. After my father, a gentle, listening, caring man, died almost ten years ago my mother lost her anchor, the man she’d nursed through a decade of ever increasing dementia. But she never lost her core.
And she remained ours.
So this night, this awful icy dark night, on that landing, I wrapped my arms around my mother’s diminished frame and step by step we negotiated the wet brick steps down to the driveway where my niece’s husband waited in the warmed up car. She was sandwiched between me and my niece, we weren’t going to let her fall. There was no vagueness in her face, no sense of loss, she wasn’t leaning forward, frustrated, trying to follow a conversation beyond her reach. This was a task she had to perform and she is the consummate survivor.
She survived early childhood in Germany and adolescence with kind strangers, relatives who’d become her family, in New York City. She learned the ways of her new country; I’ve seen pictures of her with her hair pulled back and puffed up ala Jane Russel, her look-alike among actresses, poodle skirted, bobby-socked and saddle-shoed. There’s one of her, in a tight fitting sweater, laughing, leaning against a chimney on the roof of the tenement building in which she lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn. That laugh, that wide, red lipsticked mouth, the clever eyes staring out at a world that she’d conquer.
She always had the angle, the smarts, the wherewithal to figure out what needed figuring. She admonished us constantly, “Don’t be a creepo. Get out there, you have a mouth, use it. You’re supposed to be a smart girl, prove it.” Stupidity and timidity were the worst possible offenses. She demanded, by example, a fierce loyalty to family. She was the one who would schlep to some obscure relative, Mrs. Fischel, or Mrs. Morgenstern, who were these shriveled old-world ladies, bringing them food, helping them out, ala Mrs. March in Little Women, a woman my mother did not resemble in any way whatsoever. These were not acts of kindness, it was simply what needed to be done. This was what family did, what people do. This was why we collected at her table, why we gather around her now, why my sister who lives in New York is devoting her recent retirement to my mother’s care. We’re not a family lavish with demonstrations of love. We do what needs doing.
And my mother needed to get down those steps. She took them one at a time. Slowly, carefully, but accurately. She never slipped, though if she had we’d have caught her. But she was not going to give us that opportunity. She never, not once, leaned on us and she wasn’t going to start now. She rested on each landing, assessing the remaining terrain, processing the moves she’d have to make, lifting one leg, lowering it, determining her stability, following with the other. Rest and repeat.
When we reached the long awaited bottom step she held the railing with both hands. The car, perhaps two feet away, might as well have been on the other side of an ice covered lake. She had no strategy for getting from where she was to its welcoming warmth. Holding her, I felt her body trembling. I opened my wool sweater and wrapping her within it I was transported to a cold street corner on a dark morning. I was four or five years old, my mother the biggest, strongest, brassiest woman on earth. We’d stand on the corner of our street, waiting for the school bus that would deliver me to the miracle that was kindergarten, a pink and blue room full of children and toys and another annoying adult who understood nothing. On especially cold mornings, my mother, never an affectionate woman, would wrap me inside her coat where I’d cling to her waist, my cheek pressed against her ample belly, luxuriating in the soft furry lining of her coat closing around me. It’s still the closest to perfect comfort that I’ve ever known. That night I wrapped my coat around my mother, pulling her against my warm body, pressing my face to hers, whispering, “Remember Mommy, remember?” My mommy. My warmth.
Did she hear me? I have no idea. She muttered, “This is not a life. This is not who I am.”
My sister’s husband approached with her wheelchair, which she understood was to be used as a handrail. She left one hand on the step railing, advanced one step leaning on the supporting chair, rested, another step with her hand resting on the opened window frame of the car, an odd but effective hand over hand rappelling, and finally was able to l into the warm upholstered car seat. We exhaled, myself, my sister still on the upstairs landing, my niece now at my side, my brother in law behind the wheel chair and my nephew in the driver’s seat. My mother, uncharacteristically, sat in the back.
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