Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Imaginary Husband

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Photo by Micheile Henderson. See more of Micheile's work at instagram.com/micheilehenderson/.

Photo by Micheile Henderson. See more of Micheile's work at instagram.com/micheilehenderson/.

It's a crisp fall day when my husband Jeff and I pick up my ninety-year-old mother from the memory care unit at Salemtowne to take her to lunch. I have kept a routine of seeing her every week since my father died three years ago. We head to the Midtown Café, because there is room between the tables for her walker and the parking isn't difficult. The food is good, too, and the hostess always recognizes us and greets us warmly. A glass case in the back of the restaurant displays exotic desserts, and we usually treat Mom to one after lunch.

Mom likes to sit by the window. Our server, a young woman, approaches, and we place our orders, with Mom insisting on receiving her coffee right away. And could the server bring some crackers to munch on?

"Sure." Servers are almost always accommodating to Mom's sometimes high-maintenance requests. Mom is a tiny, frail woman with wavy silvery hair and nearly everyone finds her adorable. Except me. Sometimes Mom drives me crazy.

Mom orders pancakes for lunch. Jeff orders a hamburger and I ask for a chicken wrap.

"Lisa, I don't know if I should tell you this," she says as soon as the server has brought our drinks. "But I've remarried."

"Oh," I say. She has told us this before. "Really?"

"His name is Mr. Seig."

"Does he live on your hall?" Jeff helps Mom with the cream in her coffee. We've developed a relaxed approach to her stories unless they're frightening to her.

"No, he has a big house here in Winston, and he comes to visit me. He eats with us sometimes. He's one of the wealthiest men in North Carolina. He owns a lot of property, and one of the reasons he married me is because he wants me to help him manage his property."

"Oh," I say. "That's nice. So where did you get married?"

"He owns an island in the Caribbean and we went down there and got married on his yacht. The captain married us." Mom sips her coffee, not meeting our eyes.

"That sounds romantic. Why wasn't I on the guest list?" I ask. I can't help myself.

"Well," she says smoothly, "I tried to call you. I think you didn't pick up."

"Well, one day I'd like to meet him." There are times, I admit, when Mom calls and I don't pick up. She calls me about five times a day, forgetting that she's already called.

"Well, I'd like you to meet him, too. He's ninety-three. He is always sending me these beautiful dresses to wear, and I tell him I don't have anywhere to wear them. I told him I was only marrying him for his money and he said, 'Oh, that's all right.'" Mom finds this amusing and laughs. Mom taught in the Forsyth County Schools for more than thirty years. She and my dad lived frugally, valued scholarship and integrity. She shopped at TJMaxx. To hear her saying these things is strange to me. I never thought she cared that much about money.

But I smile and take a sip of my water. At that moment, the server brings our food.

"He's going to buy Salemtowne and turn it into a theme park," she adds, as Jeff cuts up her pancakes for her. "And he's married me to help him manage the project. He said he thought I was the only one who could do it."

Jeff and I exchange glances and smile. The idea of turning a retirement center into a theme park strikes me as hilariously funny but I don't dare laugh. As we continue with our meal, Jeff and I try to bring Mom up to date on our daughters' lives, but Mom has other worries.

"Mr. Seig is keeping an eye out for that ring of clothing thieves," she says.

"Clothing thieves?" Jeff asks.

"Yes, there is a whole ring of thieves that have been stealing clothes from the people on my hall. I've called the police, and the last I heard, they had been apprehended."

"Well, Mom, if they've been apprehended then it's nothing to worry about."

"Well, people are still stealing my clothes, Lisa."

"I think sometimes the staff gets people's clothes mixed up, that's all."

Jeff takes the check and goes to pay the bill and get us a dessert.

"I don't know why I didn't show you all those puppies that are living under my bed," Mom says. "The mother dog is so loyal to me. She's had three litters now. The man across the hall sold the first litter for ten dollars each."

"Maybe I can see them when we get back to the room," I reassure her.

 

 

Next, we take Mom to visit Dad's grave, and she continues with her stories as we wind in our car down the paved roads between the headstones, passing a green funeral tent,  a crew in muddy overalls digging beside it.

 

 

"Here you go, Mitzi." Jeff returns with a piece of chocolate pie, and then helps Mom divide it for the three of us. Mom waves down the server to bring us a few extra plates. This is one of the things that drives me crazy. It seems like so much extra trouble for everyone. But as soon as I think it, I tell myself to let it go. Mom loves sweets and usually eats more dessert than she eats of her lunch.

When we're finished, Jeff goes to get the car while I bring over her walker and help Mom out of her chair. As we're leaving, an elderly gentleman using a walker takes a look at Mom and says, "Hey there, pretty lady." The middle-aged woman with him scolds him. "Dad, are you flirting again?" The man winks at Mom and she absolutely beams. I remind myself to tell Jeff; he knows how much Mom treasures male attention.

Our routine after lunch is to drive Mom around Wake Forest to see the campus, and then down Faculty Drive, our old street, where Mom and Dad lived since 1961. The new owners of the house fell in love with it; they had been looking for years for a mid-century modern with original fixtures. I was able to tour it once they'd renovated, and it looked spectacular. I was delighted that the house was so loved. Mom wouldn't go in though; she sat in the car in the driveway.

Next, we take Mom to visit Dad's grave, and she continues with her stories as we wind in our car down the paved roads between the headstones, passing a green funeral tent,  a crew in muddy overalls digging beside it.

When we stop at Dad's gravestone, Mom stays in the car and Jeff and I walk over and stand by the grave, arms around each other, remembering Dad. We brush colorful fall leaves from the flat stone. Below, his name is carved: "Lieutenant J.G., World War II, Professor of Physics, Wake Forest University." Mom was so proud of the man Dad was and all he accomplished. We all were. Mom and Dad were inseparable for their last decade, and I have now realized one reason for their closeness:  they both had dementia and were covering for each other. While Jeff and I stand there, I have the same recurring thought as always: that the leaves of the oak tree beside Dad's grave will move in the breeze, indicating that Dad knows I am here and is greeting me. I wait for them to move, holding my breath. And a breeze stirs and they shiver, a few bright leaves falling into the grass. I let out my breath and, as always, ask Dad for his help. Am I  doing the right thing in the way I'm caring for Mom? Should I be keeping her in my house? I know I couldn't manage it, but I still feel guilty. I want Dad to approve of what I'm doing.

"One thing I have found out about Mr. Seig was that I was married to him before I married your father," Mom says as soon as we get back in the car. "And I had a son by him."

"You were?" I ask. "You did?"

"Yes. I had gotten pregnant out of wedlock, and his mother took that child from me and I was not able to raise him. Well, that son is grown now and he's being given an award and Mr. Seig sent over a beautiful dress for me to wear to the awards ceremony. And I said that I shouldn't go to the awards ceremony, that the mother who raised him should go. And I told Mr. Seig that he should give that dress to her. He didn't like that."

I am not sure how to answer, but I'm thinking that worrying about this child she never knew could create anxiety.

"Mom, Dad was the first person you ever married. And you were married to him for sixty-four years. You were not pregnant out of wedlock. You never married anyone else. You never had to give away a baby. You're imagining this."

"I am?" She looks at me wide-eyed.

"Yes. It's all in your imagination."

"I think you're wrong. You didn't know me then."

"I know that, but I know you were never married to anyone except Dad."

"Well." She looks confused and doubtful. "I hope you're right."

 

Jeff and I both allow ourselves to laugh at it now, and we joke about wild wheelchair rides and elderly cartoon characters and candy-coated pills.

 

We take Mom back to her room and she is tired, so she gets into bed for a nap. The staff has been trying to get her up to join in more activities on the unit, but she remains uninterested. The only activity that has interested her so far was an Elvis impersonator, and she talked about him for weeks.

Jeff leaves to go get her a Coke, and she leans toward me and takes my hand.

"I want to die," she says. "Ever since Dad has been gone I don't have anything to live for. I just want to die."

"I know you do, Mom," I say. "I understand. But I don't know what to tell you. I guess you just have to hang in there." I could say that I love her and I don't want her to die. But I don't know if that's the right thing or not. So I just lean over and kiss her forehead, as if she is my child.

"Where does she get this stuff?" Jeff asks as we drive home. "It's almost like she's been watching some movie and incorporated part of the movie into her life."

"I know! Turning Salemtowne into a theme park!"

Jeff and I both allow ourselves to laugh at it now, and we joke about wild wheelchair rides and elderly cartoon characters and candy-coated pills.

"I never knew she had such a vivid imagination," I add. "When we were growing up she always seemed so sensible and down-to-earth. You're really good with her," I add, putting my hand over his. "Thank you for helping me take care of her." It touches me to watch him help her. His soft-heartedness is so endearing.

"You're welcome," he says. "She needs somebody."

Two or three days later Mom calls me. My feelings about her calls are changing—I just feel happy she can still remember the number. She never learned to use a computer or smartphone, and sometimes I wonder if her dementia might have started much earlier than we originally thought. She is beginning to have trouble with the TV remote, and I'm worried that the phone might be next.

"I hate to have to tell you this," she says now, "but you know that I married that Mr. Cleary."

"I thought his name was Mr. Seig."

"Oh, well, he goes by both names," she answers smooth as silk. "Anyway, I believe that Mr. Cleary has died. I heard that they are sending a car for me to go to the funeral. But I don't know what to wear."

"You don't have to worry about going to a funeral, Mom," I assure her.

"The people that work for him don't want me to inherit any money from him. You know that he was the wealthiest man in North Carolina. I think that they might be trying to kill me."

Shock runs through my system. Does she truly think that? How awful that must be for her. "No one is trying to kill you, Mom. You're safe and no one is going to hurt you.'

"I just think you're naïve, Lisa." She draws a deep breath. "You just don't know."

I reassure her several times that no one is trying to kill her and she does not need to go to a funeral today, and we hang up. I am concerned, though, and I call the nurse on staff to see if she will go check on her. But then Mom calls me back a few minutes later.

"Mr. Seig had word sent to me that I was not to come to the funeral," she tells me. "It's because his family and the people who work for him don't want me to inherit any of his money. I think they're trying to kill me. There is money in my closet that they are trying to get."

"You're safe, Mom. You don't have to worry. There's no money in your closet."

"How do you know that?"

"I just know. Go look in your closet. You won't find any money."

"All right, I'll go look. Hold on just a minute." There is a sound of the phone being set down, and I wait for a long time while she gets her walker and then shuffles over to her closet to inspect it. While she is gone I hear the closet door open and close, and at last she comes back.

"Well, I was sure I had seen a bag with money before. Maybe someone already came and took it."

"You're completely safe, Mom. There was never a bag of money in your closet."

After five more minutes of reassurances, we finally hang up.

The next week, Jeff has to work, so it's just Mom and me on our way to lunch at the Midtown Café when Mom says, "Well, you know, when that Mr. Seig married me, I told him I was only marrying him for his money, and he said, 'That's all right.'" She laughs at her joke. "But really, as I got to know him, he was such a sweet and caring man that I came to love him. But now he's died and I'm all alone again."

"I know, Mom," I say. "I'm so sorry."


Lisa Williams Kline has published a number of short stories in various literary magazines, as well as a collection called Take Me (Main Street Rag). She has won the Press 53 Fiction Award, and honorable mention in the Glimmer Train Winter Fiction Open. Her essays have appeared in Skirt, Sasee, and Carolina Woman. She has also published ten books for young readers.


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