"Tell me a story. Tell me about the olden days."
The "olden days" are our code words for the years of my mother's youth, a time so long ago that I, with a six-year-old's wisdom, cannot imagine what life was like then. With my head resting on my mother's lap, I wait for her to begin.
"What do you want to hear?" my mother asks, her hands smoothing the hair away from my forehead. Her hands are forever in motion. My mother is a gifted artist, but it seems she does not trust what she sees. She must touch.
"Tell me about the milk wagon."
"Ah, yes. The milk wagon." Her voice is far away. In her mind she has already left the present and gone back to the second decade of the twentieth century, when bread was a nickel a loaf and little boys didn't wear long pants but knickerbockers that ended at the knees. She doesn't speak for a moment but sits quietly, thinking. Her hands feather over my hair and press down gently on my brow. I close my eyes. Her forefinger strokes down the bridge of my nose. And so she begins:
"When I was a little girl, about your age or a little older, my daddy gave me a watch. Not a watch like you wear on your wrist but a pocket watch, the kind men wore on what they called a watch fob. Daddy worked for the railroad, and his supervisor gave it to him as a reward for working extra shifts. But the watch didn't run well -- it lost time -- and so Daddy gave it to me.
"Mamma didn't want me to have it, though. Said I was too young to have such a valuable gift. She was afraid I'd lose it, I think. But Daddy insisted, and when Daddy was home, his word was law, so I got the watch."
"Yes," I say.
I love to listen to my mother talk about the olden days. Her speech slows down, and traces of her native South creep into her voice. My mother's people on her mother's side are from Alabama. They were never plantation owners but more of a "landed gentry." My mother's great-grandfather was a former governor of Alabama. Listening to my mother speak of her childhood, I know that soon the "I's" will get longer, and she'll be saying "y'all" in a cultured drawl.
"Go on," I urge when she is still quiet.
"Yes, the watch. Well, when school got out that summer, we got a pass on the railroad and went down to Andalusia to grandmother's farm like we always did. My, how I loved going to grandmother's! I could run barefoot and free and stay out after dark, and there were so many aunts and uncles and cousins that I never once had to look after my little brothers!
"Well, I took my watch with me to Andalusia, of course. And wound it every chance I got so everyone would know I had my very own watch. That morning, the morning of the milk wagon, I remember the roads were very muddy. The mud was like a sticky red goo that slurped between your toes when you walked in it. Grandmother's house was at the top of a steep hill, the last on the route. Twice a week, the milkman's two big dray horses strained to pull his wagon up the hill to bring milk to all of us cousins staying with Grandmother. Once the delivery was made, the milkman liked to share a cup of coffee with Grandmother in the kitchen while we children scattered out into the yard to play. We were afraid of the horses, but we still liked to climb on the wagon, especially to see if we could steal some milk."
"Was the milk in bottles?"
"Oh, no," she says, laughing. "That's a modern convenience! This milk came in five-gallon cans with a little spigot on the bottom so you could pour it out. We had to supply our own bottles. Wash them out and reuse them."
"What happened next?"
"Well, I remember I was watching one of the boys trying to sneak milk out of the cans. But I was also showing off my watch, swinging it round and round on its chain so that it would catch the light. When suddenly, the chain broke and the watch rolled in the mud under the wagon."
"What did you do? Were you scared?" I can hardly contain the excitement in my own voice. I know the thrilling part is about to begin.
"I was terrified! I knew Daddy would whip me good if I didn't get that watch. So I went right under that wagon without another thought. Then Luther, I think it was -- he was always sort of a bully -- threw a rock at one of the horses. The horse reared up in fright, and the wagon began to move. The right front wheel knocked me down. I was scrambling then, trying to get up and out from under there, but the wagon began slipping backwards in the mud, and that wheel rolled right over me. Right here." She points to her a place just above her shoulders; her hands flutter over my head but never touch me.
She is caught up in the story now. "I can still see it. That great big wheel, coming right at my face, and I'm pinned in the mud and can't move fast enough. Then it's on me, so heavy that I can't breathe. I think I'm going to faint, but I don't. I stay wide awake with my eyes open. And then the wheel is off of me again, and it hurts to breathe, and I'm trying to move because I'm scared to death one of the horses will step on me. And then it's all confusion and noise. Someone grabs me by the ankles and pulls me out, and Mamma and Grandmother are in the yard, yelling and crying. Mamma whisks me up into her arms and carries me to the house, telling someone to get the doctor. Quick!"
"Were you hurt?"
"Oh my, yes! Broke my collarbone in two places. Here and here." She points to the fine bones criss-crossing her neck. "I was lucky I wasn't dead. But the milk cans were mostly empty."
"And the watch?" I know how the story ends, but I still want to hear it.
"The watch? Well, after they got me all cleaned and patched up, I was still clutching the watch in my hand. When Mamma found out why I was under the wagon, she whipped me hard with a switch, broken bones or not. She was furious." She folds her own hands quietly in her lap and stops speaking. For her, the story is over.
"But that is so unfair!" I hate to think of my mother being whipped.
"Not really," my mother says, smiling. "Mamma was so scared, you see."
"What happened to the watch?" I insist. I fight back a yawn. It's long after my bedtime.
"The watch?" she repeats. She is no longer thinking about the olden days but what she has to do tomorrow. "Oh, the watch. Mamma took it away and put it in a box. I never saw it again. Now then, are you ready to go to bed? It's late."
But I do not answer. I have fallen asleep.
* * *
"Hi. How are you feeling?"
"Aww-ful!" Shifting my weight uncomfortably on the bed, I turn toward the sound of my mother's voice. The room is cast in shadow from the late afternoon sun, and I can't see her face clearly. I lean forward from my pillow. "I itch all over," I add. "I'm trying not to scratch them, but--"
"But it's hard. I know." My mother turns on the light and sits lightly on the edge of my bed.
"Any new sores?" she asks.
"No." I sigh. I am ten years old and have been struck down by the miseries of chicken pox in the middle of the summer. For the past two days, the sores have been spreading over my body: first, on my chest and arms, then down my legs and feet, and now into my scalp under my hair. The last part has been the worst of all. I feel as though I am living inside of an oozing, itching sore, with not an inch of normal skin left. But, according to the doctor's instructions, I must not scratch. Therefore, I itch.
My mother places my hand in hers and begins to massage my fingertips, one of the few places free of sores. The gentle pressure on my skin is pleasant. I watch her motions with interest. Her cuticles are stained with traces of oil paint, a color that looks like burnt sienna, and I remember that she must have just come from teaching her portrait painting class. In this small town, most of her students are bored housewives, women who have a moderate ability to draw but no real dedication to improve. "Sunday painters," she calls them. But they pay her well for her advice, so she expresses her real opinions only to herself and to her family.
"Would you like me tell you a story?" she asks. She gently rubs my fingers between her palms.
"I don't know." There is a terrible crawling feeling on the back of my right leg, and I'm wondering if I can quietly rub it against the sheets without her noticing. "If you want," I say as I slide my leg slowly across the bed.
"How about the billy goat story?"
"No, not the billy goat story." There, I think. That feels better. "Tell me about the time you had pneumonia."
"The pneumonia story? Okay." And so she begins:
"When I was a very little girl," she says, her voice sliding into her soothing lilt, "I got very sick. I was even younger than you are now. No more than five or six at the most. Anyway, I came down with pneumonia. It was in the summer, like it is now, and we were at Grandmother's, of course.
"I don't know how I got sick exactly, but I remember that it had been awfully cold that year. Folks around those parts said that it was the coldest summer in 50 years. Mamma was always fussing at us to come in out of the rain. Said we were as dumb as a mule hit over the head with an ax handle. She only talked like that when she was angry. Of course, we paid her no mind. What I liked to do most was go with the boys down to the creek to fish for tadpoles. Mamma would have had a fit if she'd known about that. Whipped me hard with a green stick. She was terrified that us kids would get bit by a cottonmouth.
"Anyway, the day before I got sick I had been down wading in the creek. Mamma wanted to know why my clothes were so wet, and I lied and told her I slipped and fell in a puddle. The next morning I woke up with the worst fever! I was shivering and burning up at the same time. And I ached all over. Kind of like your itching. You can't make it go away."
"Did your mother know you had pneumonia?"
She shakes her head. "Not then. She thought I just had a bad cold. Grandmother made up a mustard plaster for my chest, and they put me to bed."
"What's a muster plaster? Is that like Vicks Vaporub?"
My mother laughs. "Not muster plaster, but mustard plaster. It's the same idea as Vicks but a lot more nasty. They take homemade mustard and smear it between layers of cheesecloth and put it on your chest. It's supposed to pull the mucus out of your chest and help you to breathe easier. As I remember, it really stinks and burns your skin."
"Did it help?" For the first time that day, I'm feeling more relaxed. I settle deep into my pillows to listen to the rest of the story.
"Didn't seem to. By evening, I was much worse. I don't recall much, but they said that I was wheezing like a leaky bellows. Mamma sent one of the boys to get the doctor. Grandmother wanted to send a telegram for Daddy to come right away. He was still working in Little Rock, you see.
"Then the doctor came and sat on the bed and talked to me for awhile and listened to my chest with his ear. Oh, he was a funny little old man! He hadn't shaved and his beard scratched my skin. Well, he gave Mamma some medicine and told her to call him if there was any change. He told her -- I know this because I was listening real hard even though they were in the hall -- that he thought I either had pleurisy or the beginnings of pneumonia. But he was sure the drops he had given her would take of it.
"Now you have to remember back then, they didn't have anything like antibiotics or sulfa drugs. Most of the medicine was just alcohol, herbs, and flavoring. And not much better than a prayer. They used to bring a fever down with cool water and rubbing alcohol. Well, after the doctor left, my fever went down for a few hours, and then it shot back up. So high I was delirious. After that, I don't remember anything because I went into a coma. They say I was unconscious for five days.
"When I finally woke up, the sun was streaming in through the window. It must have been mid-morning. I was confused because I was sleeping on the back porch downstairs, not with the rest of the cousins in the big bedroom upstairs. I was surprised to see a mattress with a quilt on it on the floor next to my bed. That was where Mamma had stayed with me all the time that I was sick, but I didn't know that then. My first thought was, 'Gosh, I'm hungry!' And my second feeling was excitement to hear Daddy's voice in the front parlor. He never came down to Andalusia until the end of the summer. There were lots of other voices too. From the sound of it, adults talking about something very serious.
"I sat up very slowly and dangled my feet over the side of the bed. I felt lightheaded, and my legs looked awfully pale and white against my nightgown. I wasn't sure how strong I felt, but I decided I was going to walk down to the parlor and ask Grandmother for some breakfast. So I stood up. Wobbly. But I kept my balance.
"Now the hall to the parlor was no more than 15 feet long, but that morning it seemed like a mile. I remember I leaned against the wall to hold me up, and I took a step. And another step. It was slow progress. But I kept going. And as I got closer to the parlor, I could hear what they were all talking about. 'We thought the Rev. Bircher would do the service. Does that sound all right by you, Slim?' Grandmother said. And Daddy said, 'Yes,' in a funny, kind of choked voice. Then Grandmother said, 'Fanny and I already went down to Sloan's to pick out the casket before you got here. You can go down this afternoon to take a look at it if you want.' My Daddy told them that whatever they picked was fine by him. That last one stopped me cold! Somebody had died, and they were planning a funeral. I wondered if they'd let me go since I'd been sick. Funerals were always interesting in Andalusia." She chuckles softly. "We were Southern Baptist, you see."
I don't understand her joke, but I don't want to interrupt the story.
"Then," my mother says, "I heard my little brother, Sonny, crying. 'Mamma,' he wailed, 'I don't want Zeller to go to heaven!' 'Hush now!' Mamma told him. Suddenly, I couldn't swallow.
"Zeller was Sonny's name for me! They were talking about me! Planning my funeral!
"Well, I started walking faster then. I wasn't dead yet, and I didn't plan on being buried! When I got to the end of the hallway, I must have made a noise because everyone turned around at once." She shakes her head. "Oh, you should have seen their faces! Like I was a ghost or something! No one said a word at first. Then Uncle Wilma jumped up from his chair, stuck his hands in armpits, and began to cluck like a chicken. 'Would you look at that?!' he said. 'Here she comes! Ol' birdie-legs herself!'"
I laugh out loud. In my mind, great-uncle Wilma is a frail old man whose own spindly legs remind me of a chicken.
But my mother isn't amused. She glares at me, and her blue eyes flash sparks. "It wasn't funny!" she says. "Can you imagine? Here I had just gotten up from my deathbed and that man had the nerve to call me 'birdie-legs'! I was so mad that I didn't speak to him for days."
"But you did forgive him later," I say.
She is thoughtful for a moment. "Not entirely," she says at last. Suddenly, she stands up and pats me on the shoulder. "Well, I should start dinner. Feel better now?"
I nod. "Yes." The itching has stopped.
* * *
"Do you want some ice cream?"
"No thanks," I say, staring at the TV. What I really want is for my mother to go away. It is the night of my high school prom, I'm without a date, and I don't want to spend the evening with my parents. But I don't have a choice. In this little town, there isn't anyplace else to go.
"You could still get dressed up," she suggests, "and we could all go out somewhere. Maybe to the Entrée for a nice steak dinner."
This time I turn to look at her. I appreciate the offer, but I would rather stay at home than have the entire town witness my humiliation. "Thanks anyway," I say. "I'll stay here."
Until that last week before the prom, I had remained hopeful that the boy who ate lunch with me would ask me to go as his date. Of course, I also knew that he couldn't afford it, since he came from a family of ten children. But at least I wanted him to tell me that he wished he could take me. However, he never said a word, and I never said a word. And now I had no date. Every one of my friends were going, even my best friend who planned on wearing bluejeans instead of a formal. I sigh loudly. Life is unjust.
My mother sits down beside me and takes my long hair into her hands. As is the fashion of the times, my hair is waist-length and straight. "You have such beautiful hair," she says. "Such a pretty brown."
"Hasn't done me much good," I reply.
She ignores this. "We should paint your portrait again soon. Before you're all grown up and gone away. Will you sit for me one of these days?" She drapes my hair over my left shoulder.
"I guess." Her hands smell faintly of turpentine and paint. I take a deep breath, and I'm nearly overwhelmed by the pungent aroma of lilacs. My mother cut the lilacs from the front bush this morning and has spent most of the day capturing their temporal beauty on canvas. If I lean forward, I can see the still life drying on the easel in the kitchen. Many years later, I will hang that same painting in my own dining room. "You don't have to keep me company," I say. "I'll be okay."
But my mother doesn't leave. She hovers nervously next to me, waiting for -- waiting for what? What does she think will happen? Her hands reach out to stroke my hair and then pull back without touching me. Finally, she says softly, "Would you like me to tell you a story?"
"Oh, mother!" I cry. "You can't be serious! Not the olden days!" I'm appalled that she thinks my misery can be cured by a simple story.
"Not so long ago," she says. "This happened when I was older than you are now." She pauses for a moment. "Did you know I had a full scholarship to the Chicago Institute of Art?"
This time I am surprised. This is a story I've never heard before. In spite of myself, I'm drawn into asking, "Why didn't you go?"
Smiling, my mother wraps her hand around mine and pulls me close. And so she begins:
"Oh, it was all arranged," she says. "I had this wonderful art teacher in high school who really believed in me. Mr. Liske was his name. And he had gone to the Chicago Institute of Art. Well anyway, my senior year in high school, he called me into his office and told me that he had written to a former teacher of his at the Institute and sent her some of my sketches. She was very enthusiastic and wanted me to come to the school. Of course, this was the middle of the Depression, and we all knew that I couldn't afford to go to any kind of college. But Mr. Liske had found a special scholarship for needy students, so the tuition wasn't any problem. He even arranged for me live with one of the faculty members in exchange for keeping house. You can't imagine how excited I was! After hearing all of this, I rushed home and told Mamma right away. Daddy was still at work.
"Mamma was cautious but pleased. She wanted me to have opportunities, and yet, I knew that she needed me to be at home to help out with the boys and my baby sister. Finally, she agreed that this could be a good thing for me."
Puzzled, I stare at my mother. "I still don't understand," I say. "After all that, why didn't you go? It sounds like you were all set."
"No," she says. "There was still Daddy. We had to convince him. I must say, Mamma and I did our best. We went over every possible argument that Daddy could have. We even talked about ways that I could work part time and send money home. When Daddy walked in the door that evening, we were ready for him."
My mother sighs. "But even with all of our careful planning, we couldn't get past Daddy. He could be as stubborn as a dead horse when he made up his mind, and he had his mind made up about this before we ever finished telling him our plans. Daddy said, 'No,' I couldn't go that far away, especially up North and to a city like Chicago with all of that crime and those gangsters. I was much too young to be on my own. Besides, it was the middle of the Depression. What if I lost my scholarship or my living arrangements didn't work out? How would I get home? And that was that. I never went to the Chicago Institute of Art. Instead, I worked for two years as a window display artist at the downtown five and dime until I could save up enough money to attend the local branch of the university." She sits up and laughs. "And I'll tell you something else too. I never went to my high school prom!"
"Because you couldn't afford it?"
"No," she says, taking my hair into her hands again, "because Daddy wouldn't let me date boys until I was 18 years old. And then it was too late."
"That's horrible!" I am truly shocked. "He sounds awful!"
"Not horrible. Just very protective." Suddenly, she jumps up from the couch and pulls me up with her. "Come here," she says as she turns off the TV. "I want to show you something." We go over to the far side of the den, to a wall that is lined from ceiling to floor with bookshelves. Over the years, these shelves have become a repository for our hobbies, our various reading interests, and sundry decorative items. There are old copies of Artist magazine, textbooks, a set of encyclopedias, odds and ends from my grandmother's antique glass collection, old paperback books, and even a wax model of muscle and bone from my mother's anatomy class, something we put out every Halloween to scare the neighborhood children. My mother picks up a stack of Artist magazines, and I think we are going to look at some of her favorite reproductions. She loves to talk about the different styles and techniques of the old masters. Her favorite artist is Vermeer, but I think her work resembles more the style of early Cezanne. However, she shoves these aside and reaches for a dusty leather book buried under the magazines. "Here it is," she says, wiping it clean with the heel of her hand. "I want you to see this."
"What is it?"
"My high school annual." She opens the book to the first pages. "See? I was a cheerleader. One of thirty girls."
I look and see my mother in the back row dressed in a funny outfit with a big skirt over blowzy pants. "It's hard to imagine you leading cheers," I say.
"Oh, that's not what I wanted you to look at." She turns the pages. "It's this."
The page she indicates has "The Best and the Beautiful" printed in old-fashioned script across the top. Below these words are about 15 photos. My mother starts with the picture at the top left. "This was Suzy Lee. She was homecoming queen that year. By the time she was 30, she had been married and divorced three times. She committed suicide in 1948." She points to the next picture. "This is Bill. Captain of the football team. He became an alcoholic. And this boy is Hillary. President of student council. He became a lawyer and was sent to prison later for embezzling money from trust funds." She goes down the list, picture by picture. Each one has a tale of destruction and loss. Suicide. Divorce. Addiction. Jail. Death by carelessness or accident. It is horrifying to hear of so many promising young lives wasted but also strangely satisfying. There is justice in the world. Divine justice. I wonder how many of these stories are actually true.
"What's the point?" I ask when she finally reaches the end. "I don't get it."
"The point is," she says, "that these people had everything in high school. They were smart. Good-looking. Popular. A few of them had loads of talent. But all of them looked to the outside world for proof of those qualities. And when the outside world failed them, they had nothing to fall back on. They were destroyed by their lack of faith. It doesn't matter who you date, how popular you are, or even if you don't reach all of your dreams. It only matters that you believe in yourself. Always." She closes the book. "Now do you get it?"
I don't answer her immediately. I glance at her and then look back at the maroon book in her lap. I decide that she's right. It doesn't matter. It doesn't even matter if the stories she has told me tonight are false. "Go tell Dad to get dressed," I say. "But not to go to the Entrée. It's still early. Let's drive to Flagstaff for dinner and a movie."
Smiling, my mother rises from the floor. "Okay. It's a date."
* * *
"She's had another fall," my father says over the phone, the poor long-distance connection humming in my ear. "The second one in three weeks. Patsy said they caught her, so she went down easy. But it doesn't look good. I'm afraid she's getting worse."
Turning left off of the old highway, I drive slowly down the two-block street and park beneath the shade of a sprawling elm. A hand-painted sign on the fence reads simply, Good Mission Care Center. The Good Mission Care Center is not nearly as lofty as its name: a large, rambling old house converted into a nursing home, this building is now home to my mother.
My father has warned me about this visit, tried to prepare me for what I will see. I haven't been back to my hometown for almost a year, and my father says that my mother is much worse since the last time I was here. "She's really gone downhill in the past few months," he says when I phone to say I'm coming out. "She doesn't know me anymore, and she's been having trouble walking. Patsy says she's started roaming the halls at night, looking for her mamma. Don't forget she had those two teeth pulled last month, too. That's changed how her face looks."
With a touch of impatience, I tell him, "I know all of this."
"I just want you to be prepared."
Now I sit in my father's car waiting for the courage to go inside and see my mother. Swinging open the gate to the chain link fence, I wince at its rusty squeak. Five women sit in easy chairs on the porch near the front door. They don't rise when they see me coming, but I can sense their flutter of excitement all the same. The woman closest to the gate stops me as I step onto the porch.
"You're Zella's girl." She reaches out and touches my arm.
"Yes," I say, smiling. I'm not sure of her name.
"Oh, I knew it! You look just like her. She used to talk about you all the time."
I nod, uncomfortably aware that she is speaking in the past tense. My mother doesn't talk at all now. Comprehensible speech is beyond her ability. However, it is true that we look alike. I have two pictures on my bedroom dresser: one is my high school graduation picture, and one is of my mother when she was 17. In the photos, we have exactly the same bone structure, the same features, the same expression. Sisters born 40 years apart.
"Go on in," the woman says. "She's on the couch."
After the bright sunshine outside, the common living area seems unnaturally dark. I blink and look around for my mother. Two elderly men sit across from one another at a card table studying a chessboard. They don't look up when I pass in front of them. There is the sound of rattling dishes and silverware in the distance. The staff is busy with preparations for lunch. Except for the two men staring at their chessboard, the room seems deserted. I wonder if the woman outside was confused. Perhaps my mother is in the kitchen with everyone else. And then, I see her.
She sits alone on a sagging flowered sofa in the corner, her face obscured by shadows. I move closer to her, feeling as thought I'm swimming through murky water. I'm relieved to see that she still looks well cared for. Her hair is combed, a trace of lipstick colors her lips, and her clothes are neat and clean. Patsy, the manager of Good Mission, often dresses my mother in bright-colored clothing that she finds at Goodwill, elegant cuts of fabric that my mother would never have worn in her other life. In her other life, my mother preferred to dress in subdued hues of brown and khaki, saving her more brilliant colors for her artist's palette. But Patsy's taste is true. My mother is still beautiful.
I pull a chair up to the couch and sit down. "Hi!" I say, cheerfully. "It's Jeanne." Up close, the illusion of beauty is distorted. This woman is not my mother, not the woman who cared for me and loved me. The framework is the same, but the details are blurred. I feel as though I have stepped off a steep precipice and can't catch my breath before I fall. And yet, this woman carries my mother's name. "Hi," I try again.
She doesn't turn toward me but jerks her head to one side. Her hands, always restless hands, begin to pluck nervously at an invisible piece of lint on her slacks. The fingernails, no longer paint-stained but painted, pinch empty air. I want to place my hands over hers to still them, but I hold back. My mother told me once, that when she was young, people always told her she had lovely hands. When she was old, they told her that her hands had "character." Now her hands just appear tired.
"Mom," I say softly. Glancing around the room, I look for someone to come help me. But we are alone. The two men have abandoned their game for lunch. Suddenly, I'm angry.
This disease, this bitter scourge called Alzheimer's disease, has robbed my mother of her talent, her memory, her personality, and finally, her speech. She hears me but cannot understand. My words mean no more to her than the wind blowing through the trees. And her lack of speech has silenced me as well. How can I communicate with someone so lost?
I sit in silence for a few moments. She continues her impatient plucking. The constant movement makes me nervous. Placing my hands gently over hers, I try to still them. "Tell me a story," I say then. "Tell me about the olden days."
Her hands are quiet. For the first time, she looks directly at me.
"When I was a little girl," I say, "my daddy gave me a watch. Not a watch like you wear on your wrist but a pocket watch."
She smiles. "Yes," she says.
And so we begin.