I’ve been gardening, and to a limited extent I’ve been writing. But mostly I’ve been gardening for awhile now. My writerly life has been ‘light’–not superficial, exactly; but I’ve been writing short children’s stories while I’ve been finishing the edit to a longer, more substantial book–Leona the Part-Time Fairy: also a children’s book, but a pithier one than the stories I’ve been writing in tandem to the edit. A writer has to be writing something in order to keep the “writing ligaments” limber. (Not my phrase: it was used by Steinbeck and, I believe, by Virginia Woolf. There is no better way to describe the process: when a writer stops writing, the mental muscle that is needed to write atrophies.)
My mother would have been 98 today; she died at 83. Seems like yesterday. My newest piece for the Iowa Writing Workshop is biographic fiction–there’s some truth to it, but it is not true: much is imaginary. However, I kept journals and did refer to them. It would be impossible to remember some of the things that happened: they were too bizarre. Memory prefers to go where it is comfortable.
Lost Moments Come Out to Play
If the day had gone according to plan, it would have disappeared under the weight of days like all others. But it didn’t.
I called to say happy birthday. My mother had been living with me until she requested the ultimate birthday present: to spend her last years living near her brothers. It was her twin brother Clarence she was especially missing.
So I arranged for her to move into a retirement community in her old home-town: her name was on a short list, though it had not yet come to the top. She wouldn’t be home to celebrate her 80th birthday with her twin.
But there was a niece willing to take her in.
“I’d love to have Grandma live with me,” Jewel had said. “It will be loads of fun.”
“She’ll wear me out,” my mother had told me as she packed her suitcase for the trip.
“Do you think I should wear shoes?” Mother asked, bringing me back to the present.
Understanding her to mean dress shoes, I replied, “Just don’t trip. Wear sensible heels.”
“Oh,” she said. “Do you really think so?”
If I had been listening to the subtext of the conversation, it was there to be heard. My mother was shouting it out so clearly. “Oh, sanity, which I trust with my life, where are you going?”
She appeared at the door dressed for dinner wearing no shoes.
Her face has softened into lines and shadows. Occasionally there is a smile, impish; like it must have been as a small girl. Impressions distort it as thoughts flick through her mind. Furniture cannot be trusted to stay put. Two and too have come to have the same meaning. People fade completely away to be replaced by ghosts.
“Do we have a dog?” my mother wants to know.
And there is pain. Mercifully, the pain has no reference; it is just there, somewhere.
“How are you today, Mrs. Morris?” the nurse has arrived, swishing cheer in the door.
“Good,” Mother says.
“Wonderful!” The nurse is busy straightening blankets, strategizing for the busy part of a hospital day, while my mother continues to watch the snow falling where it piles up on the flat roof outside her window.
“See the sheep.”
“What?” The nurse stops plumping pillows. “Where?”
My mother lifts a thin arm from under the blanket to point.
“Oh, I see,” the nurse says. “Those aren’t sheep. That’s just snow drifting into corners.”
“Do you know where you are, Mrs. Morris?”
My mother turns her attention to her bedclothes, fumbles with them until she finds what she is looking for and then reads from the imprint stamped onto the sheet. “Mercy Hospital, Great Falls, Montana.”
“Oh, mercy,” Uncle Clarence mumbles. To me. We sit waiting in the corner. It has been a long night.
“Go home,” I tell him. “You need some sleep. I’ll call you.”
“I suppose,” he says. I had learned to listen on two levels. He also said, “I can’t stand watching Clara lose her mind.”
Mom must have understood the nuance too, because she answered him, “People who listen to bird songs listen before six a.m. After that they’re too noisy.”
That made perfect sense.
My mother put her French fries inside her fish sandwich and ate a whole cup of gravy with a spoon in the parking lot at Denney’s. Then she reached inside her purse, took out her lipstick, and drew bright red over her eyebrows. Everything was wrong today—the fish was too sour, the fries were too sweet. But her new perm did look nice; her hair snow-white and lovely.
“I want to go camping,” she says. “I think I’m good for one more.”
She was remembering. We had set up camp in a downpour, snuggled in sleeping bags while water ran through the tent under our lawn chairs. How we laughed!
“This is my last camping trip, you know?” Mother had observed.
“Of course it isn’t,” I had replied, not understanding the future. “We’ll still be camping as long as we can get in the car and go.”
“I need to get my things together,” Mom says now, opening the car door. She is moving out. Again. “I’m too old to live at home.”
My answer is to help her pack her suitcase. We set up camp in the dark.
The lake stretches out flat, partitioned into slabs of colors reflecting the sky and the land in the split second before dawn. She will wake up wet; I smell urine from where I sit outside the RV drinking coffee.
“It isn’t right that they keep all those people in rooms with nothing to do,” she said last night. My mother had had a lot to say, sitting here by the fire.
“You’re here now,” I reassured her. “We’re together.”
“I threw a salad at her. That’s why she stole my socks. You really need to talk to Winifred.”
I have lived in my grandmother’s skin for several years now. I have come to know my mother’s mother in an intimate way, through my own mother’s eyes. It was always her sister Winifred she believed I preferred.
“I’ll speak to her.”
That had made my mother happy.
We sat together, three generations of women, watching the moon rise over rocks along the shore, sticky with spider webs, sticky with memories. The living and the dead.
Now, in the early morning, I cherish memories as close as yesterday. I hear my mother stirring. She isn’t speaking yet, but I hear her saying, “When time begins to crush days into days, the hours slip away to sleep. Perhaps forever. I’m wandering through old gardens, down old streets. Once again a child because, before time finally stops, lost moments come out to play.”
M L S Baisch © 2015
Photo collage: as my mother might want to be remembered. © 2015 M L S Baisch