Some nights my eyes flutter open just as I am drifting off. Panic rises in my chest. I curl into my hollow, scooped-out belly. Tears quiver and shudder, silent in the darkness, born of feelings which slumber when I am awake.
I need my mother.
I need to touch her and smell her. I need to drink her in for the day she no longer walks the earth.
I don’t understand the urgent messages which bypass my logic and shake my body. Maybe they are not meant to be understood, for to analyze them is to diminish their pull and mystery.
My flesh issues from hers. Our viscera are forever bound, transmitting dispatches almost too subtle to apprehend. Only in the gloaming of sleep can they find their mark.
I am a defenseless child, sniffling in the night: Mommy!
She is blinking back sleep when I arrive around 9 p.m. on Saturday for a two-day stay. I love her for primping, yet it distresses me to see her curling-ironed hair and powdered face. I want Mom au Natural, the mother of my youth, who appears once this old girl stops caring about appearances. I love her naked face and her straight, fly-away hair. I love her mom musk. It’s just a little bit stinky.
We hug, and we can’t let go. Who is clinging to whom? I feel her still-strong back under the thin padding of age, and I am reassured despite her stoop and slowing gait. I breathe into her neck, and I nuzzle her whiskers, which both scratch and soothe. I kiss her cheek, and I kiss her cheek again. I hug her, and I kiss her cheek once more. I cannot release her. Stay with me forever, Mommy!
My mother looks weary and fragile in the bright lights as she moves about the kitchen with intentional steps. Her efforts are redolent of Estee Lauder and longing. And meatloaf, of course. She has my dinner warmed and ready, just in case. Just in case her girl is hungry. Tit for tat. We are both starved.
I eat. Every bite is delicious. I am afraid of taking too many nibbles, of eating her all up. She must be protected, conserved.
I command: Tell me when you want breakfast, and I will make it. Whatever you want. I want to serve you for a change.
She wants to please me. She tolerates my efforts the same way she managed those 8 a.m. Mother’s Day breakfasts in bed. Soon she is up from the table and bustling. She can’t help herself. Her love is palpable. But more than love is involved in these appetites. My mother must feed me so that I can feed her.
She consumes me hesitantly at first, without appearing to do so. Her hunger is gentle and timid, and I can bear it.
Mom was gifted but under-educated, insightful but unaffirmed. She has become opinionated but difficult to confront. She lacks the confidence to mount overt challenges, preferring sidelong jabs instead. She remains independent but lonely. My mother is so proud of me, so pleased to see me, that she has to check herself. Over the next two days, we walk and talk. We eat and talk. She talks and talks and talks, my listening presence both validation and repast.
I listen raptly and study her intently, filling my larder with rations I hope will not have to last for the rest of my life.
I see her crazy eyebrow hairs, her still-beautiful face. I pore over her fingers, which are bent into unnatural shapes by the slow progress of arthritis. I know her secret and take her right hand, needing to touch her palm. The graft from her stomach is brown and baby soft where she reached up and grabbed her mother’s scalding coffee. It comforts me.
I spread my spiritual arms to luxuriate in presence and in memory. Cookies baked, stories told, brows smoothed, books read. Gwen and Mom and I squeezed into a wing chair, one girl nestled on either side, as she reads The Wind in the Willows. I see us at the dining table with our friends as she supervises the annual gingerbread house and cookie decorating event. I can think of no other mother who allowed such prodigious, glorious, mess making! I recall her guided adventures through the wilderness of the forbidden creek. I feel pride in the fact that she was always chosen second—after Mr. Plotnick–for neighborhood baseball. You should haves seen her at bat! I hear her outrageous howl as she watches British television. My father never failed to become apoplectic over her “raucous laughter,” and that was part of the fun. Our walks around the sprawling suburban block with our terrier, Bonnie, were not chores, but events.
I have the best Mom ever! In my softened state, I am a honey-filled sponge.
I stockpile as fast as I can. I jump at every crumb.
My mother is filling as well, although she lags behind me. I wonder if age is responsible. She has regained some of her energy and form and is in touch with her hunger. In fact, she is becoming plucky.
By Monday morning I note signs of my impending saturation.
My mother doesn’t listen. Not really. She loves me beyond measure. This I know. But she has difficulty listening. Viewpoints and choices outside her range of comfort do not register–or they do not register as valid, which is almost the same thing and likely worse.
Mom asks me about myself. I open my mouth, and my responses become convenient segues into her stories. Another time, I feel tender enough to risk the slow wade into grief over the sudden death of our beloved Demont, a friend and brother since college despite infrequent contact in recent years.
My mother makes the attempt to hear me. She does. She tunes in closely when I speak of his daughter. I lament: How will she pay for college now? Aha. The fact that Shereen was born out of wedlock signals to my mother that her suspicions about Demont, whom she had warmly welcomed into her home on several occasions, have been warranted all along.
Oh, look! Mom notices something interesting as we drive the rolling hills. Demont is forgotten. Mom points out the window and begins to narrate passing scenes. She repeats stories I already know. I don’t think she knows how I feel or what has taken place. And I don’t tell her.
In the past, I have gently confronted my mother about her religious and political tirades. I have told her how anxious and trapped I feel when she goes on and on, assuming I am on the same bandwagon or that I need to be instructed about The Ways of the World. My mother is often able to curb her diatribes, at least in the short term, though leakage inevitably occurs.
Last year, she asked me point blank: Do you think I am racially prejudiced? I gave a point-blank answer: Yes. A long walk-and-talk was required. She was Very Hurt and Misunderstood. I used all my counseling skills and let her pick my bones clean. I velveted my paws out of love but I did not recant. What I did do, and this is not necessarily admirable, was spin her around with words which left her unsure of my meaning so that she, none the wiser, took from our talk the apology she needed in order to reassure herself that she is a Good Person.
Arguing back doesn’t hold much promise for change. I am not one to bang my head against the wall repeatedly just to see if the wall is still hard. My mother is doing the best she knows how, and she does work at expanding her views. She has come much farther than her parents and brother. I’ll give her credit for her efforts. And some sighs as well: Has she not noticed that our children have begun to stay away?
By the time I pack my bag, I am close to fed up. Mom’s logic is emotional, squishy. She is sentimental. With dewy eyes, she must touch, squeeze, hug, pat, and rub to better draw out my juices. I have reverted to childhood defenses: I am hard and smooth and logical. I cannot not tolerate this slop.
I feel guilty accepting the half-peck of peaches, the tub of gummi worms, the two bars of Belgian chocolate, the three bags of dog treats, the four jars of jam, and the partridge in the pear tree. I know I am starting to have unkind thoughts. Damn her, anyway. I do not want to see her I’m-trying-to-be-brave smile and martyred gaze as I step into my car. I do not want to know that I am leaving her unsatisfied, the visit an hors d’oeuvre, a down payment. Love has become an intellectual phenomenon, and I need to get the hell out of here.
It’s been just over a week since my return. My stomach is starting to rumble.