“Thank you dear.” My mom says as she endeavors to tame her disheveled silver hair with her quaking, timeworn hands. I pull the car to the curb as she presses her palms to her lap and says, “Now who are you again?” Her voice a pale, shaky version of what it was when she was really still with us.
We’ve been through this a million times, my mom Char and I. You’d think I’d get used to it by now but it never ceases to be unsettling. I turn off the ignition and take a long breath. I get out and walk to the passenger side, open the sedan’s door, and undo her seatbelt.
“It’s me mom, Cindy.” I tell her working to keep my tone even the way the Alzheimer’s transition team has instructed. “Don’t argue and don’t excite” is their mantra.
“Oh.” She looks at me skeptically but still takes my extended hand as I help lift her out of the car and we enter the care facility lobby, arms entangled in arms.
“Home, sweet home. Welcome back Char.” Green Knoll’s afternoon manager Bernadette practically sings from the extremely plaid front desk. I often think the decorator of this place must have come straight from the Scottish Highlands School of Design, if there even is such a school. It’s red and green tartan pageantry on crack.
I nod at Bernadette as I usher my mom to the elevator and push the going-up button. Her room is on the eleventh floor and has a view of Rutgers University in the distance. My mom was a tenured professor of the art and design department for over twenty-five years, but she has forgotten all of that. Now she has trouble brushing her teeth, let alone wielding a paint brush or standing at a podium to deliver some captivating lecture on modern art.
Cutting Edge. Risky. Masterful. Professor Char Galbreath’s impact on the abstract art world has been compared to Picasso’s face-changing cubism. Her rippling, geometric forms break constrained molds of what was previously thought to be progressive. She’s a true force to be added to today’s art notables.
The art world loved my mom, not sure if they would have felt the same way if they actually had to live with her. Not that she was a bad mom, but because she was so easily consumed by her creative projects and nothing we owned, nothing in our realm, was safe from being confiscated and repurposed.
At our home in Westfield she had a dedicated studio made from a converted mother-in-law flat but her art and associated supplies weren’t confined to just that studio. They were e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. The kitchen, the bathroom, the living room, no room was spared from her scraps, jars, threads and bits of fabric. And no items we brought home were spared either. I’d find homework accidentally cut up because she liked the color of the paper or the shape of a font and didn’t realize I was actually expected to turn the assignment in. Household items would go missing. Small appliances dismantled, their deconstructed parts and cords embedded in glues and resins. Office supplies reshaped, shampoo bottles crushed, even dishes shattered and used for her creations. I once found slices of my sister Gretchen’s favorite autographed Buffalo Springfield t-shirt laying under layers of shellac on a canvas she sold to some swanky art collector.
Walls revealed snippets of postcards, shards of maps and brochures, idea-smothered napkins and papers. Shelves bore odd objects found: a doll’s head, a rabbit’s foot, strange fruits the like the jackfruit and Buddha’s hand.
During her mixed media collaging phase, we hit every garage sale in a thirty-five-mile radius scooping up piles of Life and National Geographic magazines, their musty masses making up somewhat lopsided, makeshift end tables as she cut random images out from the pages and stacked the remains.
One year, when I was newly teened, before Char was a professor or well-known artist, she decided to throw an intimate supper party on the long wooden table we had under our enormous flowering dogwood tree. Mr. Checker, a prospective art dealer with a giraffe-like stretch into the orbs of painting talent was one of the guests coming and mom wanted to impress the checkers right off of him. We all knew what this meant, this moment could be decisive because Checkers was a giant. If he liked your stuff, you were destined for success.
Off to the farmer’s market my mom, my sister and I went to find the freshest, most delicious local ingredients available. Mom talked about wanting to be spontaneously inspired by the meal she was to prepare like she was with her art. She smelled, examined, degusted, pinched and procured as we strolled through the canopied stands, bringing home a bounty of garden-fresh foods and flowers.
After sending Gretchen, my dad, and me out to handle a variety of preparatory tasks including arranging tableware, stringing garden lights, setting up the bar, arranging dahlias in sapphire-colored vases, managing seating arrangements, etcetera, mom barricaded herself in the kitchen and began to create.
Guests began to arrive, friends my parents had known since their dating days, mom’s twin cousins, a few neighbors they enjoyed.
When Mr. Checker arrived several hours later, mom was still creating. The sound of chop, chop, chop emanating from the kitchen walls.
“I’ll be out shortly, please offer Mr. Checker something to drink.”
So, we offered Mr. Checker something to drink. We showed him the yard. He talked to mom’s cousins and the other guests. He sniffed the dahlias.
Mom was still sequestered. Sounds of pounding and scraping emanating from the kitchen.
We asked him questions, to which he gave unexpected answers. He was disarming and charming despite his eccentric looks. He was of modest height, thin, distinguished I’d say. He wore a gold watch, gold-framed glasses, and a gold hoop earring in one ear. He had long silken hair and his jacket was tailored, fitting his Asian statue, and fittingly was covered with black and white squares. Checks actually.
We waited some more and still no mom.
“It will be worth the wait.” She crooned, now going on over two hours since he arrived.
So, after filling his glass again and biting my lips with worry and embarrassment, I took it upon myself to show him mom’s studio. I didn’t know if she would be upset that I preempted her by showing him her creations, but what could I do? She was taking forever and I was scared he’d get mad and leave. But surprisingly Mr. Checker showed no impatience in the delays, in fact, quite the opposite, he was downright giddy as he rifled through her artistic mounds and piles.
I waited a while, a long while and then I asked casually, “Is her stuff good?”
He was quiet for just a split-second and then he said, “She is.” His voice almost ghostly in its graininess. “Her work is very good.” And then he laughed, his thin small eyes becoming moist with emotion.
By the time mom emerged she could have served spaghettiOs and she’d have had his allegiance as an agent. She walked out and announced to us and Mr. Checker casually that dinner was to be served.
The meal she made was abstractionism at its finest, a magnum opus presentation of Willy Wonka meets Hieronymus Bosch. Chicken pieces carved to look like triumphant decorated birds, wee carrots for beaks, gorgeous greens of purple and emerald for wings. She’d made a sun of potato gratin with microgreen rays, plants from herb sprigs with tomato flowers. Forest animals from carved squashes, radishes, and turnips. Dessert was just as spectacular, a volcano scene erected from chocolate she’d moussed, it’s molten top flowing lava of dark chocolate and strawberry. It was all so captivating and magnificent. That night solidified my mother’s career as a serious artist, and later a professor as she went on to get her Masters and then her Doctorate degree in Fine Arts.
Mr. Checker remained a fixture in our lives after that and later dinners were never as elaborate. They conspired on many gallery showings and he garnered her several solid patrons. As the years went by dad died and Mr. Checker was there to support and console.
Their friendship was unique, I never saw them touch even once, but I think they truly loved each other as creative spirits.
Well before his own unexpected death, Mr. Checker had commissioned my mom to do his portrait. She’d done several sketches with Mr. Checker resting comfortably in the stuffed armchair in her studio. But university demands delayed her and she never completed the piece and I think that always bothered her.
A month goes by and I am entering the same plaid-gone-wild lobby at Green Knoll and Bernadette flags me over.
“Hi Bernadette, how are you?”
“I’m fine dear, but I’m worried about your mother. She’s been making those awful messes again.”
Bernadette leads me to the dining area where mom’s head is bent low. She’s got peas and potatoes smeared on the table’s surface below her. Her ancient lips puckered, the sleeves of her blouse soiled green and yellow and brown. She’s taken tiny bits of meat and has placed them on the mashed potatoes at strategic points, in a checkered pattern. She grunts and her eye’s narrow as she squashes a roll and places it towards the top of the table, the pepper shaker emptied, black specs strewn and finger painted into strands.
She looks at up me and smiles and then says as clear as day, “Cindy, please deliver this to Mr. Checker, he’s expecting this.”
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Thank you. I so wish I could have spent more time developing these characters. I too lost a close family member to Alzheimer's. It's so sad to watch that transpire.
I loved how you portrayed what it's like living with someone so creative! And having experienced dementia and Alzheimer's in my family, I felt I was right there with your character in dealing with her mother.