For instance, one recent morning I had dropped Sam off at a friend’s for a few hours, promising that I’d be back by noon, as they had to leave for the city. Then it occurred to me that Mom would probably love to go shopping spur of the moment. It only takes me half an hour to get to her house, so I figured we’d have close to two hours to do errands and then maybe even something fun. I called her, and she was very excited, because she needed to go to the used furniture store at the far end of her town and buy a little wooden dresser.
I drove to her house literally filled with joy at getting to be there for her. She is in her mid-70s now, but seems older, as she has profound problems with memory and balance. This is not a problem when I am spiritually fit, because I feel a lot of gratitude for all she did for my brothers and me when we were young, for the liberal values she instilled in us, the hundreds of songs she taught us. So when I take her small warm hand and she clutches it so tightly that it hurts, sometimes it hurts good, because it connects me to her.
I picked her up the other morning, and I showed my love by not getting her to hurry up. I let her putter and find her own pace. She wanted to show me things in her apartment that she is proud of, even though I’ve seen them a thousand times: the view of Mount Tamalpais out her living-room window; her huge, evil, long-haired cat. I was watching her attentively, through the moo-goo gai-pan eyes of love: There is something oddly birdlike about her, for such a solid little person. She is Britishly plump, and she often has an air of radiance about her, the radiance of silvery hair. I also think that because she can’t rely on her memory, she projects outward everything else she has, and so she burns brightly. She has big round eyes, brown and wet. Sometimes when she is not as connected as usual, you feel that her mind is popping to the surface like a seal, goggle-eyed, “Here I am!” And then it disappears back into the waves: “Oops, goodbye.”
She was very connected that morning, and I was both happy to be with her and rather pleased with my patient helpful self, when all of a sudden, I saw this look in her eyes, this craftiness that I used to see in Sam’s face when his toddler gremlins had risen to the surface. It’s the look of somebody lying in wait, ready to pounce. She said, “Honey?” in this way she has. There are certain ways she can say “Honey?” without my hearing jungle drums begin to beat, without my feeling that I want to cup my hands protectively over my soft turtle parts. But she said it in the other way. In the bad way. “Yes?” I asked rather squeakily.
“One of my friends on this floor is turning 90 soon. And I wanted to give her a copy of one of the two really good books you wrote.”
“What?” I asked nicely, thinking I had misunderstood.
“You know, the two good books you wrote.” And I instantly became Curly in “The Three Stooges” — all grimaces, spasming neck, gnashing teeth: “Nyut nyut nyut.”
“Mom!” I said. “How do you think it feels for you to say that only two of my books are good?”
“Oh, honey,” she said with some annoyance, “you know what I mean.”
I stormed to the bathroom to get away from her, so jealous of my friends whose mothers live on the East Coast. I sat on the toilet and growled, fumed, prayed. I finally remembered that sometimes God seems to use her as the Coyote Trickster in my life: Like Coyote she lives on the margins, makes do with very little, sneaks playfully past my comfort zones and wreaks havoc with my act and my need to control. So in her bathroom, I did Lamaze for a minute, like the child either giving birth to the mother or trying to crawl back inside, and I eventually calmed down. I left the bathroom determined to work things out.
- – - – - – - – - -
But she’d already forgotten that there was anything to work out, which really pissed me off. I sighed and took her hand, and we left.
We drove to this wonderful store with lots of cool used furniture, and it took quite a long time because my mother walks so slowly now, petit-pas, like a wind-up toy missing a few cogs. She always carries a Kleenex in one hand, a purse in her other, a curly springy wire on her wrist that holds her house key. So sometimes I hold hands with her Kleenex. But I don’t mind: I used to clutch a wadded-up Kleenex in my fist when I was afraid, so it would feel like I was holding hands with God.
At the furniture store, we took our sweet time, as we still had over an hour left together. The best dresser was upstairs, and it took 10 minutes to get my mom there, but the woman who owns the store was very encouraging. I believed this was because my mother is so befuddled, and maybe it was touching for the owner to see a daughter being so tender with her mother. Also, I know that she desperately misses her own: I happen to own a rug that used to belong to her mother, that I bought nine years ago right before I became a mom, and when I end up at this store and remind her of this, she cries because she misses her mother so much.
I have offered to give it back, but she says she does not need it — it is just a thing, and so it cannot fill the hole in her heart that her mother’s passing left.
We bought the dresser and arranged delivery for the next day. It took a while for my mom to understand that we wouldn’t be taking the dresser with us — that it was too heavy, I couldn’t carry it, and too big, since my car is very small. First, she looked mad, as if to say, did I have any other cheap excuses? Then she looked sad, like she might cry.
Then, because she’s Coyote, she bounced right back. We were driving home when I glanced at my watch and discovered I still had nearly half an hour before I needed to leave to pick up Sam. I asked her if she wanted me to run into Safeway and pick up a few things for her.
She said, “I do need toilet paper and cat food.”
“So, let’s stop then, and go get you those things.”
“But I want to come in myself,” she said. “I only like certain brands.”
A siren started going off in my head: RED ALERT RED ALERT, it was crying. Don’t do this, it’s a trick, it’s Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football. Something will go very wrong. Do not let her get out of this car.
“Mom?” I asked. “Couldn’t you just let me run in?”
But nope, she needed to go in — she only likes one kind of toilet paper, but she couldn’t think of the name. So I sighed and put a good spin on things: Jesus is coming, look busy. Our pastor said we are Jesus’ presence here on earth and so we need to act like Him. Besides, how can you not take your mother shopping when she needs toilet paper and cat food? Also, with 25 minutes to burn, how wrong can things go?
We parked and got out of the car, which only took 10 minutes. Then we did petit-pas to where the shopping carts were lined up outside, jammed into one another. And they were stuck but good. “Mom,” I pleaded, “we don’t really need a shopping cart, do we? Don’t you just need toilet paper and cat food?”
My mother turned to look at me and she looked just as mad as a hatter, her lips pulled tight into a bad smile. And I recoiled, crying out silently, Where’s my mother? What have you done with my mother?
She blinked, returning to her old self. I tugged at the carts for a while like some grumpy mime, until one came free. I looked at my watch.
Sometimes having an elderly mother is like having a toddler with a marvelous new toy, only you feel like attacking them. Breathe, I whispered, there’s lots of time, and I fell in gamely behind her.
Once we were inside, it occurred to me that I actually had a small shopping list in my back pocket, and that I might as well pick up what we needed, because otherwise I was going to have to repeat this all later, but with Sam in the Coyote role. So I said to my mother, “Mom? The cat food is right here, in this aisle, and the toilet paper is near the produce.”
My mother looked at me out of the corner of her eyes and smiled.
I got the things on my list, and then I went to look for my mother. I checked by the cat food and by the toilet paper, and when she was not there, I went to wait in the express line, because now there was barely 10 minutes before we should be at her house in time for me to leave and pick up Sam. Then I noticed her over in the deli section. “Mom,” I called to her with exasperation. “We have to hurry now. Come on.”
“OK, honey,” she said, but didn’t head over toward me. Instead, she headed away from me. “Mom, come here!” I said. I did not want to lose my place in line, because there were already people behind me.
“I still need toilet paper,” she said.
I looked at my watch. If we were to leave right this minute, without paying for our things, I would still be late picking up Sam; the parents would be exasperated when I finally arrived. I was furious. Then I looked as far away as you could, into the Siberia of the produce department, and my mom was there, with her cart, and two Safeway employees. She appeared to be dealing cards to them, like when we were young, playing penny-ante poker at our cabin. For a moment I believed my mother was now playing a stand-up game of draw. But then, as the clerks took what she had dealt them and fanned out through the store, I understood that my mother was dispensing coupons.
She had coupons hidden in her purse! In an instant, I saw myself in the housewares department, picking up a hammer to kill her with. I’m sure this makes me look a little angry. But I just stood there quietly, partly because I didn’t want to lose my place in line. Now there were six people behind me, and one had recognized me as having written a book she’d read once. She was exclaiming over this, and I smiled grimly.
“Mom,” I called as nicely as I could manage, “come here now,” chuckle chuckle, as if admonishing a mischievous little girl, and she tottered toward me with her cart, scanning for any clerks who might be returning to her with items, like it was a scavenger hunt. Then she turned her cart down an aisle and called to me gaily, “I just need the Sara Lee Pecan Cheesecake Bites.” And she waved to me. She waved bye-bye.
I was at the head of the line. I had to let the woman who’d read my book go ahead of me. Then I had to discuss my oeuvre with the man behind me. “What kind of novels do you write?” he asked. “I wonder if you’ve written anything my wife has read.” If my mother came right then and still qualified for the express line, we were going to be an hour late. I pictured the parents of Sam’s friend tapping their feet with impatience. But there was nothing I could do, and so I prayed.
I prayed to see her through God’s eyes, but nothing happened. It was too much of a stretch. So I prayed to see her through the eyes of a friend, the eyes of someone just watching the movie of my mother shopping. And I got to see this short sweet woman with a badly pleated memory, working hard to keep herself in independent living. I saw an elderly English woman cadging coupons so she could pay her own way and not have to ask her skittish children for help. And then this woman popped back out of the waves right beside me in line, goggle-eyed, blinky, and I know this is not clinically a miracle, but it felt like one, because I finally started laughing. So maybe not a miracle, but grace. Grace means you go from slavery to freedom, freedom from the bondage of self — from small and in a hurry, tapping your foot with impatience, to holding your mother’s warm hand.
“Mom!!!!!” I said, but she could hear in my voice that I was not mad. And she turned to the man behind us and said, with her nose in the air and her eyes squinched shut, “This is my daughter,” as if introducing him to the queen.