Mom repeats herself a lot nowadays. She repeats herself too much now, in my opinion. It’s sad, really, how she repeats herself now. She didn’t used to do it so much. Or is that use to? Well, anyway, Mom has gotten into a bad habit. Or maybe there's another reason. Maybe she can't help herself.
How do I do this? Mom asks. She asks for instructions all the time, it seems. Often she asks for them at very inconvenient or inappropriate moments. It's frustrating, obviously. Some of the requests are for things she already knows how to do, or did, yesterday. She wants to know which buttons to press to run the dishwasher.
How do I turn this thing? I want the economy cycle.
She asks what the weight of air to inflate her tires is.
Is it thirty five or thirty pounds?
It’s 32 pounds. She never remembers that. She asks what color the kitchen or the bathroom is going to be painted. We’ve discussed the color choices a lot.
Stop getting so upset! We chose the wheat-colored shade, just like you wanted.
That's me talking. Mom seems to think now that she'd chosen a cool blue, icy-like, but hasn't remembered that she changed her mind because it would look chilly in the winter. She's very sensitive to colors, I guess. Hope she remembers that you can't have the store mix up a gallon, get home, then change your mind. You're out a lot of bucks.
Change of direction. Not my doiong.
When are you going to Argentina? She asks.
Some day. Soon, in fact. I speak clearly.
But I’m not going. I already went. I’m going to Algiers now, next month. I travel a lot for my job. I’m a travel writer, have been for many years. Too many, I sometimes think. Anyway, at least I can use a map, in digital or hard copy. Poor Mom never was able to figure out where I went. The map in her head was pretty frayed, because she hadn’t studied since she was sixteen. The world has changed a lot since then, too.
When did you say you're going? The question is repeated,
I will probably never go back to Argentina, but I know I will be asked if I’ve been. Once Mom gets a phrase or a sentence stuck in her head, she’s not going to give it up easily.
Some day. Soon.
Moving on... maybe...
What are we having for supper?
That’s a totally normal thing to ask, unless you’ve discussed it with the person you're asking just a couple of hours ago. Supper is not something people usually forget. Especially not after they’ve helped decide what they’re going to have.
I thought this might be a good opportunity to switch the two dishes Mom had chosen to make and say we were having something that I had preferred. My conscience wouldn't let me, however. We're going to have what she suggested because she can still remember the recipes: spaguetti and meatballs, plus macaroni salad with tuna, onions, and green peppers. With the little rings with ridges, if they've got them in the grocery store.
Mom's going to remind me that she only drinks tea with supper, or maybe milk.
Mom, I know.
How old are you now? Twenty? Forty-three? No, wait, seventy.
Don't think I'm going to be tricked into telling you how old I am through my mother, because that's not going to happen. Mom knows full well how old I am. She was there and that's something she never forgets. She likes to tell me about it. She likes to describe how she felt like her body was splitting and all my father did was drive her around in the car. As if bumpy roads would make me be born. (For the record: I did actually find a hospital where I could be born.)
Did we ever see The Name of the Rose?
We had seen it three or maybe four times. It's hard to recall now. It was several years ago, anyway. It was also an odd question. What was so important about the film based on Humberto Eco's novel and with the handsome Sean Connery as a main character? Why does she have to ask me this? I don't have all the answers, do I?
Kind of puts a lot of pressure on me. I know the story takes place in 1327 in Italy, that the English translation was published in 1983 and the film is from 1986. That's already a lot of answers. My memory is fine. I've just forgotten how many times I've seen the movie. Let me add that the novel was Eco's first, and came out in 1980. Some people loved the story, but others trashed it.
One day Mom surprised me. She didn't say something she'd said countless times before, or say she'd forgotten something. She explained:
I know I’m repeating myself. I repeat because you need to hear it. It’s important. I repeat things I want you to know.
I was thinking how not all those things could be so important. Plus, did she think I was stupid or was losing my mind? How could the buttons she needed to push on the dishwasher be vital knowledge? How could my age matter? What did a movie about a fourteenth century religious matter have to do with her?
Mom had so many stories. She was long-time treasurer and chaplain for the county VFW, the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Lots of her stories were about the meetings, fund-raisers, raffles, handmade poppies, volunteer work, stuff like that. The names of the people were consistent, until the persons named had passed away. Everybody was sooner or later included in the VFW stories. I always tried to listen to the narrations respectfully, but in my head I was somewhere else. Sometimes I wanted to laugh at the women's names, or the men's, so old-fashioned. Sometimes I knew the people mentioned, but mostly I didn't.
I couldn't help being bored. Those meetings had nothing to do with me, even if my father had been a veteran. Dad didn't get into the bad habit of repetition, but that's probably because he didn't live long enough for that to start. I'm really concerned it's what's going on with Mom, though.
A bored listener can still be a good listener. Just remember that. It's a good skill to have.
Mom also used to tell the stories of caring for her mother when she was ill. She didn't complain, and telling some people about the nursing she had done for several years was merely a way of expressing her sadness at the progression of grandma's illness as well as unconfessed disappointment. Once she said she would have like to have been a nurse, which was before she dropped out of high school.
She never gave herself a chance. Life wasn't a big help there, either. Men either. I mean, they never saw her as a professional anything.
Your father always used to...
Those are the memories that bother me the most. He was a good man, when other things were not bothering him. Those times he wasn't a person anybody should waste time discussing. He wasn't always fair to her, but Mom always tried to put her own spin on reality, and her two spins were joy and tragedy. Joy you could and should express. Tragedy that had to be swallowed and digested, even when it would be changing one's DNA for good.
I didn't care what my father used to do or think or say, but I always said uh-huh as politely as I could to Mom, then forgot. Neutral was a good idea. She had her way, and I had mine.
The repetitions, the forgettings, the oblivion. Hers, not mine, of course. Mom, you already told me that. Mom, I know.
Now I repeat her stories, as if I were a condemned woman. She never shuts up, I never understand why.
The mother arrives and listens to the final portion of her daughter's monologue, shaking her head. It saddens her to hear what is being said. Maybe one day there will be a cure for it. Is this her fault? Did she pass it along to her daughter?
The mother reflects. She speaks and her speaking is very different, slow, deep.
I know you hated to hear anything twice. Smart little girl you were. Quick, caught on fast. Too fast. I had that way of slowing you down. I retold stories, repeated questions, trying to hold fast to a little mind that was running through the days. You were born running. You never stopped.
You told me to slow down more than once, Mom. The daughter listens.
Yes, but only because I was afraid you'd run into the furniture, would fall and hurt yourself. Your mind was your own. All I ever wanted to do was anchor you, dear.
The daughter had never considered that possibility.
I forget the dishwasher buttons because I wanted you to stop and learn the right ones.
I forget the weight for my tires in case you were ever driving my car and needed to put air in one. They do deflate from time to time and I have to remember to watch them.
If anybody knows how old you are - the daughter doesn't want her to say it out loud - I do. I couldn't forget that. You, however, occasional act younger than your years. You also can get stuck in the past. You need to find your balance, act your true age, and be wise about it.
I threw in the movie question just for fun, to throw you off track, to be playful. I never took enough time to play with you while you were growing up because I was always nursing my poor mother. I was distracted by that responsibility. You were probably alone too much.
Probably? More than probably.
Mom never said that to me when I was little. I never thought I was alone because I had dolls, books, toys, everything I needed. But Mom, I see, was clearly distracted, being the nurse she could never aspire to be. Being the daughter who cleansed wounds and gave sots in withered skin that no longer felt. Mom was busy and sad. I kept myself busy and was lonely beside her. When we finally went to see that movie it was on a VCR at home. We both needed to watch it more than once. We both know we watched it three times, on a Friday, a Saturday, a Sunday. Mom liked it. We both did.
Do you remember the VFW? Of course you do. I like to tell you what I remember most because I want you to know that when I'm not around. That way we can still go to a VFW picnic together. Or a Christmas party. Or a wedding reception at the Hall. I want to remind you that a big part of my life was tied up in that organization because it was part of the happiness at having your father return alive.
The daughter questions whether her father and her mother's husband were actually the same man. It seemed likely there were two versions. Was the mother or the daughter out of touch with the facts? Where was he in all of this anyway? Had he disappeared or was he perfectly present? It would be nice to know. She needed to know the measure of his evil, or find it was all somebody's lie, and cast it far away.
The daughter swayed her head a little, side to side, as if counting all the repetitions she knew were moving and slipping through her memories of her mother, of Mom. Trying to put them in order, but finding no straight lines. Mom watches, and her eyes are wet. They have tried for a long time to make things work, to have the same memories, not to forget. Mom always wanted to keep her mind, as she called it, not become an addled vegetable.
She had achieved her goal. She could move back and forth in time, shifting gears smoothly. Sharpening her vision and other senses as time went on. In contrast, her daughter had aged so much and was even beginning to look fragile, brittle. Maybe she hadn't listened well enough to her mother, her Mom, her tester and teacher.
It might be necessary soon to put an end to this relationship, the mother knew. She who had cared for her own parent for many months was able to see the decline in her own daughter. She pulled the tumbling locks that needed a bit of brushing now toward her lower stomach, to her innermost organ. She would not give in easily. She would stay with her daughter and her mother (in a sense) as long as she could.
Even if she had to keep repeating things over and over.
Oral tradition has its price.
I know that now, Mom.