O Noraht, Noraht

I wanted to love my mom because she did the best that she could do. But her best was terrible.

Published January 31, 2003 8:29PM (EST)

In a superhuman show of spiritual maturity, I moved my mother's ashes today from the back of the closet, where I shoved them a few weeks after she died. I was going to put them on the bookshelf next to the three small pine boxes that the pebbly ashes of our pets were returned in last year, after they were reincarnated as percussion instruments. My mother's ashes, on the other hand, were returned to us in a brown plastic box, sealed, with her name spelled wrong: Dorothy Noraht Wyles Lamott; only her middle name was Norah, not Noraht. She hated the name Norah, which I love, and she didn't go by Dorothy, which she also hated. She went by the name "Nikki," the character on a radio show that she loved as a child in Liverpool. She hated almost everything about herself, and women, and men, and at the same time, thought the Lamotts were better than anyone.

I've been angry at her most of my life, even after she died. I put the ashes in the closet as soon as they came back from the funeral home, two years ago, thinking I could finally give up all hope that a wafting white-robed figure would rise up from the ashes and say, "Oh, Little One, my darling daughter, I am here now, finally." I prayed and prayed for my heart to soften, to forgive her, and love her for what she did give me -- life, great values, a lot of tennis lessons, and the best she could do. Unfortunately, the best she could do was terrible, like the Minister of Silly Walks trying to raise a girl, and my heart remained hardened towards her.

So I left her in the closet for two years to stew in her own ashes, and refused to be nice to her, and didn't forgive her for being a terrified, furious, clinging, sucking maw of need and arrogance. I suppose that sounds harsh. I assumed Jesus wanted me to forgive her, but I also know he loves honesty and transparency. I don't think he was rolling his eyes impatiently at me while she was in the closet. I don't think much surprises him: This is how we make important changes -- barely, poorly, slowly. And still, he raises his fist in triumph.

I've spent my whole life trying to get over having had Nikki for a mother, and I have to say that from day one, I liked having a dead mother much more than I did an impossible one. I called her Noraht as her nomme de morte. I prayed to forgive her but didn't -- not for staying in a fever-dream of a marriage, not for fanatically pushing us to achieve, not for letting herself go from a great beauty to a hugely overweight woman in dowdy clothes and a gloppy mask of makeup. It wasn't black and white: I really loved her, and took great care of her, and was proud of some heroic things she had done with her life. She had put herself through law school, fought the great good fights for justice and civil rights, marched against the war in Vietnam. But she was like someone who had broken my leg, and my leg had healed badly, and I would limp forever.

I couldn't pretend she hadn't done extensive damage -- that's called denial. But I wanted to dance anyway, even with a limp. I know forgiveness is a component of freedom, but I couldn't, even after she died, grant her amnesty. Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You're done. It doesn't necessarily mean you want to be with the person again; but if you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare -- which is the tiny problem with our Israeli and Palestinian friends. And I guess I wasn't done.

I stored her in the closet, beside her navy blue purse, which the nurses had given me when I checked her into a convalescent home nearby, three months before she died. I'd pick up the ashes from time to time, and say to them, grimly, "Hello, Noraht." Then I put them back. My life has actually been much better since she died, and it was liberating to be so angry, after having been such a good and loyal girl. But 18 months after her death, I still thought of her the same way I do about George Bush -- with bewilderment that this person could ever be in charge, and dismay, and something like hatred. I decided to see if I could find some flecks of light. Friends told me to pray, and to go slowly because otherwise, my rage was so huge, how would I be able to see fireflies in the flames? I could go as safely, and as deeply, as I could into the mystery of our relationship. I couldn't scatter the ashes -- the box was sealed. So I went through her purse.

It looked like a doctor's bag, worn and dusty with two handles, the sort of purse Ruth Buzzi might hit you with. I opened it and began pulling out Kleenex like a magician pulls endless scarves from her sleeve. It was very distressing. My mother's Kleenex was distressing to me my whole life. It always smelled like the worst of her, all her efforts to disguise herself, behind the mask of makeup, her perfume and lotion and lipstick and powder, all gone rancid. Also, she'd swab you with Kleenex to clean you up, with her spit. It was disgusting. In her last years, all she did was fumble for it, and finding it, not remember why she'd needed it. My mother almost never cried -- her parents were English -- so it wasn't to wipe up her tears; and she had drowned in those uncried tears.

Uncried tears syndrome left my mother hyper-vigilant, unable to settle down into herself, and -- to use the psychiatric term -- cuckoo.

She took the purse with her everywhere. It was a weight, ballast; it tethered her to the earth as her mind floated away. It was also health and preparedness, filled with anything you might need. For instance, there were a lot of Band-Aids. You never know when you'll need one, only that in this world, you will. There were pads of Post-its; they gave her confidence that she could keep track of things, if only she could remember to write things down and stick them up somewhere. And then remember to look up at them.

There were house keys, which made me feel such grief that I had taken away her freedom. But my mother had an unbelievable life for someone so sick with Alzheimer's and Type II diabetes, and no money, for as long as we could pull it off. We helped her have independence and a great view, and her cat, and her friends, until the very end. When we put her in the home, her freedom was gone anyway. She only had the freedom, when the nurse left at night, to fall when she tried to get up to pee, freedom to lie in wet sheets, freedom to get stuck on the balcony and not remember how to get back in.

There were mirrors in her purse, so she could see that she was still there: Am I still here? Peekaboo! There I am. There were a dozen receipts from Safeway, which was right across the street from her retirement community. She was supposed to be on a strict low-carbohydrate diet to help control her diabetes, but every single receipt is for bread and cookies, which she'd sneak out to buy when she escaped, when the nurses or I were off doing the laundry. I kind of like that in a girl. She also bought dozens of tubes of Crystal Light, intensely flavored diet drink flakes you mix with water. She must have hoped they'd fly straight into her brain, like Pop Rocks, energize it like tiny Tinkerbelles.

I kept putting off opening her wallet. There would be pictures inside.

There were a number of receipts from Kaiser in her purse. Nurses handed them to her over time, and told her to hold onto them until she was called, and so she did, because she was a good girl. She loved the nurses, and she loved her doctor, so the receipts were like love letters she'd never throw away. She had a card with the direct line of a nurse who helped her clip her terrible rhino toenails. People always gave her special things, like their direct lines, because she was so eager and dignified and needy, and everyone wanted to reward and help her. People lined up to wait on her, to serve her, her whole life.

There was also a large heavy tube of toothpaste. Maybe she bought it one day at Safeway, and never remembered to take it out of her purse. Maybe she liked people to sneak peeks of it in her purse: It said of her, I may be lost, but my breath is fresh. There were three travel-size hand lotions, a tube of lipstick, a compact, and six cards from cab companies -- Safe, Friendly, Professional. Just what you need. Plus, she could always get home when she got lost, which she did, increasingly.

Finally I opened her wallet. It was filled with cards. She had library cards from 30 years ago, membership cards to the Democratic Party and the ACLU and the Sierra Club. There were two credit cards, which had expired before her mind did. She had an insane, destructive relationship to money, like a junkie. There was never enough, so she charged things, charged away a whole life, to pump herself out of discomfort and fear. She assault-shopped.

There were photos of my nephew Tyler, my older brother's son, and of Sam. She loved being a grandmother. And there was an old picture of herself, a black-and-white photo from when she was 21 or so. She was a beautiful woman, a little like Theda Bara, the white face, jet-black hair. She had dark eyes, full of unflinching intelligence and depression and eagerness to please. In this photo, she looks like she is trying to will herself into elegance, whereas her life was always hard and messy and full of scrabbling chaos. Her frog-stretched mouth is trying to smile, but she can't, or maybe won't, because then she would look beautiful and triumphant, and there would be no rescue, no one to help or serve or save her.

She saved all of her cards from the years she spent practicing family law in Hawaii, an Hawaii Bar Association card, and her Hawaiian driver's license, which expired in 1985. In the license photo, she's brown from the Hawaiian sun, soft and rosy, as if she has risen through warm water, but her eyes are afraid, like she may be about to sink back down to the bottom again. And she did, and clung to our necks to save her.

Her purse says, "I'm a liberal, and a grandmother, and I keep my teeth clean, and my skin soft. And if I can't remember something, I can write it down. If I get a cut, I'll bandage it right away." Her purse made my heart ache. I threw most of the contents away that day -- the Kleenex, the lotions, the toothpaste, and the purse. It was like a dusty navy blue organ she didn't need anymore. I kept the things in her wallet, even the old library cards. I glanced in a tiny mirror. It scares me how alike we look. I wear glasses now, like she did. I look tired -- I am tired. Also, I have a pouch below my belly, whereas I'd always had a thin waist before. Now there's this situation down there, low and grabbable. If it had a zipper, you could store stuff in there, like a fanny pack.

When I was done, I put my mother's wallet back in the closet, next to her ashes. I said a prayer: I said to Jesus, "Here. Could you watch her awhile longer?" I left it there for another six months. It was during that time that my three pets died. I was inconsolable. You want a great mother, I'll show you a retriever-Labrador mix. During that year, I also fell in love. I went to Hawaii with my boyfriend, but got very worried beforehand about how I look in a swimsuit. My friend Robyn suggested I rub lotion into my thighs and stomach, gently, so they would feel cared for, and to decorate them with tiny rose tattoos. It seemed nuts, but I did it, and it helped me feel better -- maybe not quite like Uma Thurman, perhaps, but better, and better can be a real miracle.

I had that on my mind when I got up this morning, for no particular reason -- the lotion, and the rose tattoos. After breakfast, I went and got the brown plastic box out of the closet. I couldn't very well rub lotion onto it, but I sat with it in my lap for a few minutes. The pouch on my belly is nice for holding children, so I let my mother sit there for awhile. Then I decided to wrap the box of ashes in birthday paper, lavender and blue with silver stars, and I taped a picture of a red rose on it. I got a little carried away -- hey, happy late birthday, Noraht -- because the thing is, I don't actually forgive her much yet. But by the same token, I'm not wild about my stomach either; but I get along with it better. Besides, only part of a day has past, and I am definitely not hating her anymore. My heart is not quite so hard. I put her box of ashes on a shelf in the living room. Grace means suddenly you're in a different universe than where you had been stuck, and there was absolutely no way for you to get there on your own. When it happens -- when you stop hating -- you really have to pinch yourself. Jesus said, "The point is not to hate and kill each other today." Can you write that down, and put it by the phone?

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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