My mother lives with my baby sister a few miles outside Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Sometimes several times a week my sister finds mama packing a suitcase.
“Where you going, mom?” my sister asks.
“Home,” mama replies.
“But, mom, you live here.”
“No, I live in Garden City.”
Mama did indeed once live in Garden City, Michigan, more than sixty years ago. It was a modest starter home, even by 1950s standards. My little sister’s house, where mama now lives, is by far the grandest mama has ever lived in, maybe the grandest she ever been in, on a quiet lake with a private boat dock that has a wrought iron bench where she can sit and feed the mallards—a dream home. Maybe that’s the problem. Who would believe a dream to be real? My sister lets mama pack, not wanting to agitate her, and mama asks, “Will the bus pick me up at the end of the driveway, or do I have to wait at the end of the street?”
“What bus, mom?”
“The school bus.”
Now she is even farther back, in school. We’re guessing about fourth grade, or maybe fifth.
“No school today. It’s a holiday.”
“Well, what about my paper route?” This is important, for in those lean Second World War years when she was nine or ten, her paper route was not just for her personal piggy bank. It was part of the family income. It helped put heavily-rationed food on the table. This is a matter of concern, a huge responsibility for a ten year-old. Her worry is not made up or imaginary. It is real. For us it is 2018. For her, 1944. Some physicists say time travel is not possible. It defies the Second Law of Thermodynamics they say, the one about entropy, the one that says the amount of disorder in a system can only increase. To reverse time would be to reverse entropy, reverse the amount of disorder by going backward. I don’t see how my mother’s return to 1944 can be seen as a reduction of disorder.
Mama forgets who people are sometimes. She didn’t know her own baby sister at the funeral of another of her sisters, but then, who could expect a child to recognize a younger sibling who appears old and grey and wrinkled. Mama is 84 now, her own hair long since pure white, though in her youth it was a chestnut brown, and I remember that most of my childhood it was streaked with iron grey. Her white hair now catches and holds the light, seems to have its own incandescence. Mama also sometimes thinks my older sister is a burglar, insists that she has pilfered many of mom’s most treasured belongings, the carved jade featuring pagodas and exotic trees that dad brought back from the Orient in his navy years, the blue and white porcelain pitcher and basin my brother bought her when he went away to boot camp in the navy, just like dad. These and others were belongings lost, of course, in the house fire in 1984, of which mama has no memory. Or, I don’t know; maybe that pitcher and basin are still packed away somewhere, now scorched black from the fire. Seems like I’ve seen them somewhere.
Old black and white photos of mom and dad and faded early color photos of us kids are screwed tight to the wall of her room to prevent the burglar from stealing those too. Mom and dad look impossibly slim for my memory, clowning around the hulking old cars of those hulking old days, wearing their Leave It to Beaver clothes. There’s the fuzzy color picture of me and my little sister, she in her pastel orange dress, or maybe it just looks like it’s pastel now because it’s faded. It’s that way in my memory too. Her little hands are in bandages from when she, a toddler, fell against the old wall heater, and stood wailing, her palms frying on the hot surface. She was 15 months old. I was just shy of three years. In my memory of it, I am the one who pulls her away from the burning surface of the heater. Older witnesses say my contribution was mainly to scream until adult help arrived. We all know it’s our own memories that we trust the most, that tell us who we are, so I think they’ve got it wrong. Of course that’s what I think.
Mom thinks dad has run away with the woman from the big house across the lake from my sister’s house, a woman, by the way, neither mom nor dad has ever really met. Mom asks my sister why my father left her.
“Mama, daddy didn’t leave you. Daddy died.”
In fact dad died five years ago, in the very house where mama still lives with my sister. The burglar that took him was called cancer. It crept in through his esophagus unnoticed, and had invaded nearly every part of him before it made its presence known. This veteran of two wars spent his last days crying out for his mother, who had been dead for nearly fifty years. Maybe some memories mama is better off without. I just wish she knew her husband of over sixty years didn’t leave her for some imagined temptress across the lake. Mama sits sometimes by herself, talking, not as people talk to themselves but as they talk to other people, waiting for responses, reacting to their banter. I like to think it’s dad she’s talking to. I’m sure that’s how I will remember it.
Mama has a miniature dachshund, that is, well, not so miniature anymore. The dog looks like an over-inflated football with a doggie head, tail, and stubby feet that barely reach past its round belly. If it gains another pound, I believe its feet won’t reach the floor. The vet says it has an enlarged heart, much like the rest of its anatomy except its brain. It eats everything it can fit inside its mouth, including half of what mama is supposed to be eating. This dog has become the single most important thing in mama’s world. If anything happens to that dog, I swear we’ll have to have it stuffed and mounted, like Felicite’s parrot in the Flaubert story. A good taxidermist should be easy enough to find in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
I think it bothers my sister some that mama always seems to remember who I am, though sis would like think it would be a challenge for someone who believes she is nine years old to accept the existence of her child, who is in his early 50’s. My sister worries about such incongruities, but when mama smiles and knows my name, I have a hard time seeing that as a bad thing. Mama always says the same thing when she recognizes me, that it’s been a while since I visited her. Sometimes it is true. Sometimes it has been five minutes. I smile and apologize, even if it is for the third time that day, even as I wonder which mom I am talking to today. I wonder sometimes, God help me, if this is even mama, or if I am just watching reruns of a series whose last new episode has already come and gone.
Mama has not been to a doctor’s office for a medical exam in decades. My sister insists that her birth, nearly fifty years ago, was mama’s last official interaction with professional medicine. I must admit, I cannot remember mama going to any medical facility after her last trip to the dentist in 1976. It is a marvel that she has lived to her mid eighties with no help at all from modern medicine, but that is just what mama always thought would happen as she read her health magazines and homeopathic medicine books when I was growing up. The official sweetener in our home had always been honey, raw local honey. Refined sugar was the devil, later eclipsed in that diabolical role by high fructose corn syrup, but all of those processed sweeteners were to be avoided. Don’t even mention artificial sweeteners, like saccharine or aspartame. Pure poison. She also believed fervently in the miraculous healing powers of garlic, alfalfa sprouts, and organic vitamins—especially vitamin C. Non-organic vitamins were also pure poison. All the protests over the years from me and my siblings look somewhat ridiculous now that she is an octogenarian, though I do wonder what science could do about her current condition. Probably nothing, or at least, not enough to make it worth the side effects or worth upsetting her by bringing it up. Still, behind this rationale looms the threat that she might at some time require more managed care than my sister and her husband can provide. My sister is an RN and her husband a pediatrician, but there is only so much they can do on their own. None of us likes to think about mama’s reaction if she has to be sent to a facility where she will be surrounded by people in scrubs and lab coats, something she has feared for as long as I remember. However many of us she may have forgotten, these fears she remembers. How would any of us feel if we were taken against our will to somewhere strange to us where people do frightening things to us while telling us it is all for our own good? Somewhere we would not be allowed to sit on a wrought iron bench, feeding the mallards. Where our every comfort is a symptom to be suppressed? Or should I say, how will we feel?
For now, Mama thinks she lives in Garden City, Michigan, and I say let her be, if she is happy there. I hope my own mind finds a happy home for me someday, not likely quite half a life from now.