Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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Dinner is over. My husband Patrick is on the phone. I'm trying to load the dishwasher while Zo� spins in circles holding her fairy wand and Cleo shuffles back and forth in Patrick's black loafers. It's the wind-up period before bedtime.I give them the five-minute warning.

My mother looks down at her lap, bending so far forward that I can see the hump of her back. Clasping her hands together, she looks up again with a plaintive, pained tightening of the skin around her eyes. Her mouth opens to speak:

"No. Never mind." She shakes her head, looks back down.

"What, Ma?"

"No, nothing. I'm just being stupid. Never mind me."

"Ma. Try not to use that word around the kids, okay? Plus, it's not true."

"Oh, I knew that. That was stupid. No, I mean -- not stupid! Never mind. I'll just shut up now."

"Ma. What is it?"

But I know; I know it by heart, because it's the same every Friday night when she comes to stay. She wants the TV on right now, but the remote control confuses her. She needs the bed made up, but she doesn't understand how the thing unfolds. And she expects to be in bed by nine. If she doesn't get into bed by nine, she'll look up the stairs, wringing her hands and sighing loudly. She'll wonder out loud what's keeping me. Impatiently, she will flip through the channels, then fretfully pull at the couch, but stop herself and again glance up the stairs. If I tuck in the kids and walk back downstairs at 9:15, it may as well be 2 a.m.; the waiting and the uncertainty weigh on her that heavily.

When Ma doesn't do everything just so, something can slip through. It could be something small, like forgetting to brush her teeth. But it could be a stove burner left on, tall hot flames licking out into the dark kitchen for hours as she sleeps. It could be the door left standing wide open with the black night yawning in. Or maybe her whole world will dissolve. The truth: It is dissolving, right there inside her head. Sticky mats of neurons slowly clot there, gradually obscuring patches of her own life from view. Some of her perceptions remain clear; others are very slowly melting into a murky blur. But she doesn't know what will go next. The schedule saves her. Clean and sure, it keeps her from wondering. Her list is intact, and she checks it off: 8 p.m. television, 9 p.m. bathroom, pills, read in bed. If nine o'clock comes and the bed is not made, something feels askew. She doesn't quite understand, but she feels out of control. Maybe she has missed something important. Maybe she's done something wrong. So she lives in a constant state of low-level worry that swells into a panic as the clock ticks past the hour.

Zo� zaps Cleo with her wand, eliciting a gleeful toddler shriek. She strikes again, but too hard, and Cleo bawls. Remorseful, Zo� picks her up and hauls her to the other side of the room, kissing her ferociously and yelling, "It's OK! It's OK!" I look feebly from Ma's anxious hands, wringing one another in her lap, to my two kids, now crying together in long, wavering wails. The distress Ma projects when her schedule is disrupted infects me immediately. As she begins to fret, so do I. This isn't right. I have to make it stop. I must get these kids into bed before they kill each other, but if I don't take care of Ma this instant, my own world may dissolve. And I hate her for it. I hate my mother for her helpless descent into the darkness.

As mother to five-year-old Zo� and one-year-old Cleo, I am so used to being able to fix things, to nourish. I kiss the boo boos. I serve the food. I gave them my breast when they cried in the night. And I see them heal, grow, learn, flourish. But no matter how much I give to Ma, she only becomes smaller. My children rise up into the light, gathering knowledge, insight and wisdom. As they play and think and create, becoming clearer and brighter, I can almost see the myriad intricate synaptic connections being sculpted, refined. Simultaneously, Ma's wiring runs amok; sticky protein oozes into her synapses, and the fibers that structure her neurons begin to crimp and tangle. Ever so slowly she loses comprehension of the world, and as she does, she loses pieces of the person she once was to me. That is how it works, that is how she incites my empathy and my rage in equal parts. I should be able to fix it. I can't.

* * *

My mother's name is Ruth. She began forgetting conversations we had after five p.m. a few years ago, but I attributed that to her deepening relationship with alcohol. When she began to forget big things, like the name of her newborn grandchild, or having loaned out $50,000, I insisted on a visit to the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center. There, they diagnosed her with early-stage Alzheimer's disease, exacerbated by excessive consumption of alcohol. She was sixty-eight years old.

Throughout my childhood, Ma was warm and welcoming. She cared about animals, about teaching her first-graders, about the planet. She told me that the most important thing in life was love: finding someone to love, finding someone to love you. I know this to be true, and I say it to my children too. Ma believed in plain words. When the county jail down the road was rebuilt, the new sign said "Detention Center." For three mornings after that sign went up, Ma walked the dogs down to the new building at 6 a.m. and tacked a banner reading "JAIL" over the new sign. She lettered her banner in the same beautiful calligraphy she used to make our Christmas cards and the leaflets she handed out at peace rallies in San Francisco.

In our family, Ma was the provider. She made most of the money -- my dad was legally blind and received disability from the county -- and she did all of the cooking. She taught us to read, and she took us for walks in the hills, where she shared her love of the outdoors. Friday nights, my parents' friends gathered for guitar playing, puns, political discussion and drinks. While the kids ran wild, Ma served smoked oysters; she made the martinis. She was strong-bodied, and had strong, simple principals: Don't make war. Love people. Don't lie. Take care of the world you live in. People should learn how to read. People need exercise, they need to eat meat, and they need sex.

I loved her desperately; I felt safe with her. But I couldn't be with her enough. I cried for her, and she didn't come. It was like this. The house we lived in was on a hill. It had an upstairs and a downstairs, but the two were not connected by an indoor stairway. When I was a baby, we all lived on the ground floor, which was the top floor. But before I had stopped wetting the bed, my sister Alice and I were moved to the two downstairs bedrooms. I remember the damp side stairs and the sweet smell of oleanders as we went down for bed. At first, Ma would come down to tuck us in. When she went back upstairs, even with my sister in the next room, I didn't want her to leave me down there. Many nights, I cried for her until I hiccupped myself to sleep. It just didn't feel right to be so far away from her. Daddy too, but Mommy more.

In winter and spring, when we rose before daylight and dashed through the rain to the warmth and safety of Upstairs, it was impossible not to step on the snails. I felt the wet crunch as I ran up the slippery steps, and then there I was in the dining room, with wet hair and freshly dead, slimy snail innards all over my bare feet. I would frantically wipe the slime off onto the burgundy shag rug, reaching for a tissue to get the last bits out from between my toes. There was always coffee brewing. The smell of coffee brewing meant I had escaped the nightmares and the monsters; it meant my parents still loved me. Today to me that smell still signifies the comfort of Mommy, of Home.

* * *

I love passing on the snail-crunching lore of my childhood to five-year-old Zo�. She squirms, delighted and horrified to imagine it. But she asks me, Why didn't you have slippers on? Why didn't Aunt Alice and you get to sleep upstairs any more? What if you needed your parents in the night? And I understand that the desperate longing I felt those dark nights downstairs informs me now as a parent: This is what you don't do. You don't leave them not knowing where you are. You don't leave them scared and lonely on another floor of the house with the darkness and the rain and the slimy snails between you, when they are only six years old. Maybe this is why, when my turn arrives, as forty-year-old daughter-turned-mother, I just can't leave Ma downstairs, worried and waiting.

I ask Zo�, can she read a story to Cleo to cheer her up? Knowing that I've bought myself a maximum of one and a half minutes, I lead Ma to the futon. Together, we perform the ritual of arranging the five blankets and two pillows in exactly the same order as we do every Friday night. I tune the TV to the channel for her favorite program,"Providence." I bring her the remote control, and carefully point out the "mute" and "off" buttons to her. Setting down her cup of Sleepytime tea, I kiss her soft cheek. I'm trying not to breath in too much of her odd scent. My father died almost twenty years ago, and still it seems to me that her clothes smell faintly of his cigarettes, mingled with the odors of cooking oil and mildew. I tell her, "Tomorrow we'll go to Saul's for breakfast." Then I turn and herd the kids upstairs.

There, the air smells sweeter and the lights seem warmer. After I change Cleo's diaper, I pause to bury my nose in her soft warm belly, eliciting shrieks of pleasure. I snuffle, breathing in the warm, sweet goodness of her skin. Patrick leans in the doorway with Zo�'s toothbrush in hand, and tells us a joke. Wild and naked, Zo� bounces on the bed, and I turn to admire her lean stomach and legs. I heave a sigh of relief. We are a safe distance from Old; we are together, healthy and sane.

In the morning, Ma is waiting anxiously in the kitchen, glancing pointedly at the coffee pot. She doesn't know how to work it. She does fine with her own machine at home. We tried to teach her. But she forgot the filter; she didn't think to look for the pot in the dishwasher; she couldn't remember how much coffee to put in, and didn't dare to guess. It's eight o'clock, and I know she's been sitting there since six, waiting for there to be coffee in that pot. "Oh, good," she says. "I guess now you'll make some coffee. I was starting to think I would never get any." I fight off irritation. "Just relax, Ma. I'm making it right now." Then softer, "It'll be done in three minutes. Let's heat up a mug for you while we wait."

The child-rearing books call this "managing her expectations." As long as I am careful not to become patronizing about it, much of what I've learned about parenting two- and three-year-olds transfers well when dealing with a seventy-two-year-old with dementia. It is a tricky disease, coming and going. There are whole weeks when she's bright and joking and normal-seeming. But fairly often she feels lost and bewildered, has trouble initiating conversation, and forgets what she's just been told. Sometimes she acts just like a tired kid.

Once, Zo� asked her to read a story. They sat cozily on the couch together, Zo� looking on as Ma read in her teacher-voice from a Winnie the Pooh book. I eavesdropped, hungry for this moment of apparent normality in my mom's role as a grandma.

Zo� kept jumping in eagerly: "Look, Tigger's tail is a SPRING!"

The first time Zo� interrupted, Ma nodded indulgently. The second time, she said, "Yes, ok, but let's continue with the story now." Zo�, irrepressible, kept it up.

"Gram! Watch me do the Tigger Bounce!"

She was bouncing on the couch with one hand on Ma's back, jostling the book up and down, when suddenly Ma pulled back and threw the book on the floor.

"You're RUINING the story!"

"I am not!"

"You are too!"

"Am not!"

"I'm not reading to you ANY more."

"I don't care, and don't throw books!"

As Zo� stomped angrily away, I sighed. Ma's outburst had startled me, and I was sad and angry to have to relinquish my ideal of her playing the perfect patient wise old grandma for Zo�. I thought, my God, now Zo� knows: she'll never respect Ma again.

But Zo� isn't me. She wandered back into the room a moment later asking, "Wanna play Lego's, Gram?" And this is the gift Zo� brings to my mom and me: She doesn't have any expectation of how a grandma should be, so she gladly accepts the two that she has. She's just happy to have another person in the house to play with. Ma doesn't usually bring presents any more, and she doesn't cook meatballs or do complicated art projects like her other grandma does, but Zo� doesn't mind that -- only I do. Gram is just Gram, and Zo� likes her plenty.

When I watch Ma and Zo� bickering like peers, I feel embarrassed for Ma, but in some ways, Zo� is closer to her than I was to my grandmother. My grandparents lived only a couple of miles from the sea, and every summer from when I was Zo�'s age until I was twelve, Ma, my big sister Alice and I traveled south to Laguna Beach to visit them. My grandpa was the fun one. Mornings, he chased us down the hall holding the orange juice pitcher over our heads, threatening to tip it. We squealed and giggled helplessly, scrambling to escape to the safety of Ma's arms, while Grandma looked on. After breakfast, we'd drop Grandma off at the hair salon, or her Daughters of the American Revolution meeting, and drive straight to the main beach to see what color the lifeguard's flag was. Gramps and Ma would sit on a blanket catching up and reading, while we kids played in the waves for entire days. Evenings, there were stuffy car-rides to boring restaurants with great aunts and uncles who pinched my cheeks too hard and wore a lot of stinky perfume and aftershave.

The last time we made the trip to Laguna Beach I was twelve years old, and things had changed. My sister didn't come along that time. Gramps was dead, and Grandma was getting old. I was too young to go to the beach alone, and too old not to notice the stale stillness of their house. It smelled of puffed wheat and sour soil. The heavy drapes stayed closed all day. I tiptoed through the hushed rooms, recalling our voices. I slinked into my dead grandpa's private no-frills bathroom, where I used to pre-shower after a day in the ocean so as not to get sand in Grandma's bathtub. Peeking across the dark hall I listened to the voices of my mother and hers in Grandma's bathroom. The door was open a crack, and I caught a glimpse of Ma's flushed face as her strong, freckled arm reached for Grandma's thin, pale one. As Ma lowered her painfully down into the warm bath, Grandma gasped. Thin, faded skin flapped uselessly over her bones where muscles should be. Grandma hated needing assistance from Ma or anyone else. Helpless, fragile, she cringed there in the water, and I heard her small cry of dismay, of shame.

* * *

It's mid-afternoon. The kids are napping, conked out in the car on the way back from returning Ma safely to her own house an hour away. I re-fold the futon. Ma has neatly folded the blankets and left them, not next to the couch where they belong, but in a pile on the other side of the room, for reasons I can't fathom. On the top of the pile are the thick flannel pajamas I keep here for her. As I lift them, I eye the crotch of the pants: the otherwise smooth baby-blue fabric is damp, yellow and wrinkled there. I hold them up, sucking in my breath. A thing as simple as this. If these were Zo�'s pajamas, I'd matter-of-factly plop them in the clothes hamper with a smile and a sigh. I'd reassure her that her bladder just had to grow and learn how, that this was perfectly normal. But that patch of urine-stained fabric sends me in such a different direction because it is my mother's. I feel I have a direct tap into her dismal future. She won't just get old and weak like Grandma did. Along with her strength and control of her bladder, she will also slowly lose her mind. I have been to visit the Alzheimer's wards of local nursing homes; I know about the group of silent, white-haired women in the lobby, slumped in their wheelchairs, sleeping or just staring. I take it further, envisioning a room with dim fluorescent lights, chrome bed, slowly blinking machines, motionless hanging bags of liquid slowly dripping into tubes. In the bed lies a failing body; a life no longer lived but only suffered.

For the rest of the day, I am slightly irritable. Two a.m. finds me sobbing into my pillow beside my sleeping husband. I don't want to wake him. But I want someone to take care of me. I need someone to tell me everything's going to be OK. I tiptoe into the girls' room and breath in the sweet-salty scent of their sweaty heads in great, needy gulps.

* * *

I wonder obsessively whether Ma ever felt that desperate need to smell me, to touch me. I've asked her, but it's too late. When I ask her questions about her mothering of me (Did you nurse me? Did you carry me in a sling?), the answer is always the same: "Oh, I suppose so. I must have, right?" She just doesn't remember.

There is one way in which I know she was different, though: Every Friday night without fail, for my whole life and many years before it, she got drunk. My father did, too. This was part of their life in college, and part of mine from birth, a fact I just accepted for most of my childhood. Their Friday night drinking was integral to our family social life. My parents' friends showed up around 5 p.m. and a troop of kids romped about madly while the grown-ups talked and laughed and drank. Around seven, we'd all sit down for chicken and rice. After dinner the other families would drive merrily off into the night and we would go to bed.

By the time I'd begun to develop breasts, though, the Friday night ritual had begun to change. The other families stopped showing up. The drinking began earlier in the evening, and ended later. It began earlier in the week, too, and continued through the whole weekend. The year I started eighth grade, Ma just kept on drinking. After dinner, she'd have more beer. I would see her eyelids start to droop, her head to nod, and a helpless, desperate sadness would well up in me. So many times I tried to get her to go to bed before it happened. "Mommy," I pleaded, "just go to bed." I didn't know enough then to call it passing out. I couldn't put my finger on why I didn't want her to fall asleep at the table; it just wasn't how I wanted her to be.

Maybe the fact that this isn't the first time I have seen Ma diminished explains the unrelenting, self-righteous fury that sometimes boils up in me when she slumps wordless at my table, or can't remember a conversation we had the previous evening. I think, maybe if she hadn't been drunk so often, her supply of brain cells would have lasted longer. The morning she was finally diagnosed, MD's in white lab coats with stethoscopes and clipboards told her plainly that alcohol exacerbated her dementia and she should cease all drinking immediately. Only then did she finally stop. Great, I thought. Now that it's too late. It's not fair, but in the deepest, hardest way, I blame her for the lost time.

* * *

The day of her check-up, Ma is wearing the same dirty, rumpled clothes she's worn the past four times I've seen her. She wears her greasy blue hat with the earflaps down. Her glasses, speckled with spots of food and flaked skin, cause her to peer out squintingly, scrunching up her nose as she rushes headlong into the hospital room. She seems to expect the doctor to arrive any moment, and she hurries to undress even after I remind her that it's Kaiser and they always keep her waiting a minimum of twenty minutes. She grunts, knees popping, as she bends to remove each shoe, and each loose, grey sock. "Dzok!" Cleo reports from her stroller; "Sheoo!!" I spot an odd curling yellow knob of fungus on one of her toenails. "Contagious," the nurse practitioner will tell me, "and practically impossible to get rid of. They won't touch her at the nail parlor." Her fraying cargo pants fall to the floor in a crumpled pile and she steps out, then gently folds them. I glance uneasily about, my eyes avoiding her body. I'm acutely aware of her white underpants. I remember the underpants she wore when I was ten: simple, worn, white cotton briefs that were obscene to me in their enormity. Haunted by the image of the pee-soaked pajamas, I dread the sight of them.

I try to remain casual. I have anticipated and avoided this moment. I fear the sight of her old and sagging breasts, her flaccid, spotted flesh. I've been watching the steady degradation of her personality: the Loss Of. The loss of passion, the loss of opinions, of esteem, of self-esteem; the loss of self. I'm afraid of seeing my old mom so vulnerable, so weak: naked. At the same time, I hold a morbid fascination for it, because it shocks, it unearths me, to experience this slow but monumental shift in her from laughing, competent, assertive woman to passive, ornery, humorless lump. Her body will give me confirmation of her mind's deterioration, I think, when I witness that fragile old skeleton drooping with the flesh of the infirm.

I can't resist. I look. And I look again, surprised. Her legs are full and alive. These legs have fleshy, muscled thighs and calves, shaped familiarly like my own. And something shifts inside me. She pulls at her bra: an un-self conscious act. Her fingers calmly follow a course set by many decades of habit. This too surprises me. Did I expect her to fumble, to blush at the intimacy of revealing herself to me? But she seems to give her nakedness before me about as much thought as Cleo does when I change her diaper.

And there. Out of her bra emerge two full round breasts. White. They are several sizes larger than mine, just as they always have been: big, earthy breasts. Why did I expect skinny, wrinkled tubular sacks hanging down to her bellybutton? There she stands, a still-attractive, shapely woman. She stoops only slightly. Without her clothes, and seen in this moment of unconscious activity, she is fully physical, generously feminine. Her grey hair falls sweetly to her shoulders as she slips into the blue gown. She climbs onto the doctor's table, tissue paper crackling under her, and leans back with a sigh. In that moment, I feel drawn to her with warm, complete affection. My mother has grace; she has a natural, innocent composure. Maybe her blurry indifference adds to this effect. But her animal body has an ease that her worried mind no longer possesses. Her yellow chipped teeth, her greying hair, her muddied thoughts, cannot override the simple, beautiful fact of her womanhood.

* * *

Sometimes, I forget that I'm aging, too. Last Thursday, the sun emerged and sent all of Berkeley into a heady preview of spring. Undergrads wearing shorts and tank tops sprawled on every lawn, soaking up the rare sunshine. I felt like the archetypal breeder, glowing and sexy and just bursting with juicy ripe ova. I wore a summer dress, feeling warm and sensual in the sweet breeze of this balmy afternoon. As I pushed the stroller lightly along the busy sidewalk, my body swayed lusciously of its own accord. Beautiful Cleo snoozed pinkly, a soft bundle of toddler plumpness.

I heard the jingle of keys behind me, and glanced back to see two students: slim, brown, with smooth skin and large dark eyes. Their identical black book bags were slung diagonally across their slim forms, causing perfect breasts clad in pastel knit to protrude just so.

"He's working for a big company now, doing telephone sales," said one.

"So he's a telemarketer?"

"Yeah! And I mean, this is, like, a career position, you know? I mean he works with, like, forty-year olds; all his co-workers are like forty!"


"Good for me, though."

"Whaddayou mean?"

"I mean, like, so he sits next to some forty-year old woman all day? What could be more safe?"

And just like that, I felt the weight of my thighs.

* * *

Friday I was standing in the high-ceilinged, airy gallery where the YWCA invites local artists to display their work. One painting looked suspiciously like another piece I had seen printed many times on posters and greeting cards. In the more famous work, red, brown and gold fabrics drape lusciously the length of the narrow painting, framing the forms of two lovers; her eyes are closed, and he bends to kiss her pale cheek. The painting in the gallery appeared to be just one swath of that fabric, at close range. I glanced around the room, trying to guess whether each of these abstracts might have been copied from odd corners of paintings by that artist. And I searched my memory for his name. Came up empty. Not Kandinsky. K, K. A mild panic rose in me. Why can't I remember? I've always loved his work. I've owned prints of that kiss -- that Kiss? For one long moment I struggled.

Klimt. Gustav Klimt. Mentally, I crouched panting and sweating with the effort of retrieval. I felt the relief of having bridged a perilous gap. But I've always done this, I told myself. Tip of the Tongue. It's a common phenomenon. This is normal. This is perfectly normal. This Doesn't. Mean. Anything.

* * *

Zo� is up from her nap. I am snuggled with her, watching Peewee's Playhouse, when I find the hair on the couch. Thick and springy as wire and about two inches long, its gently helical length is a silvery blue-grey. I smile, thinking of my dad. When I was ten, my dad, the hairy and eccentric househusband, lost a hair from one of his bushy, wild black eyebrows. I came home from school that day to find said hair taped to a white three-by-five card he'd left by Ma's place at the table. The hair, thick, wiry, and glossy black, sprang upwards in sloping coils, gently bouncing from its Scotch Tape tether. Next to the hair, penned in his neat calligraphic hand, was the question, "Can you guess where this hair came from?" "DADDY," I accused with a grin, fully comprehending the wicked intent of this puzzle, "it came from your eyebrow. And I know what you're trying to get her to guess." He laughed, lapping up my affectionate scolding.

I'm still smiling thoughtfully when it comes to me that no one here has bushy eyebrows, grey or otherwise. I realize suddenly that what I'm holding between my fingers is in fact my mother's pubic hair. Reflexively, I look to see if it has a root. There is something unappealing, something disgusting even, about a hair with the small fleshy bulb of a root still attached. There is no root. It is a handsome hair, shiny and shapely and silvery in the light from the window. I twirl it between my thumb and forefinger, thinking again of Ma's body. Then Zo� looks up.

"What's that?"

I drop it behind the couch, on some level unwilling to discuss Ma's pubes with my daughter.

"Nothing -- just a hair I found on the pillow."

Zo� shrugs and goes back to her movie.

Why would I feel uncomfortable showing her the hair? It has nothing to do with hygiene. Revealing knowledge of Ma to Zo� scares me. It's as if she'll suddenly visualize the full horror of Ma's disease. And if she sees a piece of my mother in my hand, will she grasp that I, too, may fail in this way? In so many ways I am like Ma. I look and sound like her, I value so many of the things that she does, or did. I am a part of her. But I don't want Zo� to make that connection, because I am afraid of what Ma has become. I carry the legacy of my grandmother's shame. I don't want Zo� to see, by grasping how connected we all are, that I am, or ever will be, someone to be pitied. I want to be better than that; I want to be the Perfect Mama. I am not. I don't want my children to know that. Not yet.

Sybil Lockhart is the author of Mother in the Middle: A Biologist’s Story of Caring for Parent and Child, a memoir developed from her archived Literary Mama column. She has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and a defunct secondary teaching credential, both of which somehow heighten the pleasure of staying at home with the kids. She has taught French and English to high school students, done research in developmental neurobiology, and lectured at U.C. Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Brandeis University’s Artemis Magazine, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Neurobiology, the Bay Area’s Neighborhood Parents Network Newsletter, and Books and Babies: Writing About Motherhood. One of her children’s stories is forthcoming in Ladybug. Sybil lives in Berkeley, California with her two daughters.

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