Mother and Son; Mum's the Word; The Pair; Aunt Julie
Mother and Son
My son was born this year, and this year my mother will die.
Alex, my son, is doing well. We think he's turned that corner the doctors have promised for weeks. But over the phone lines from Arizona, where my mother lives, the words "mom" and "cancer" have popped up in the same sentence.
First to use these words was my sister, who lives in Tucson with my mother. That evening my wife Jill answered the phone and from across the room that evening I heard my sister's voice crackling in the receiver. Jill got out things like "OK" and "Uh-huh" and every few seconds she would glance at me. Finally she pulled the phone away from her ear and said: "Jeff, your mother has cancer."
My mother is 75, and has never had cancer. My mother has never had much of anything that could kill her, including a bad habit, unless you count living alone. About 25 years ago she fell and broke her cheekbone on the corner of the kitchen table. She had a hysterectomy in the Dark Ages. She was born with one kidney. She had shoulder surgery in the early 1980s, during which I visited her in the hospital and we watched the IVs drip. "Which one's on?" she asked me from the bed. "The bourbon," I told her.
The most harmful condition my mother ever had was retirement. She was a nurse for 20 years, until one night in 1985 when she came home from her last shift spent shaving groins and dumping bedpans, and stood in the doorway in her hospital light-blues. I rose from the recliner -- I think "Cheers" was on -- and hugged her, and that was that. She is that way: little fanfare or attention.
Now I must pry details from her.
"How's my baby doin'?" she asks. Though I used to be her baby, she now means Alex.
"He's fine. He weighs three pounds now."
"Does he really? Good for him, God love him."
"How're you, mum?"
"I smell gasoline..."
"How are you, mum?"
She confesses that the doctor there in the desert has found "abnormalities." As if playing "Operation" I probe her anatomy until the buzzer goes off. Kidney? Stomach? Liver? "Yeah," she says, lifting that "H" on an intake of breath as people from Maine do, as I've heard her do for my 36 years. I talk that way myself in times of stress. Like now.
Alex is still in the hospital here in New York. I tell my mother he has brown eyes. "Ach!" says mum, who has blue eyes. Blue-gray. Wide blue-gray barrels that I can still remember from that day I hit her accidentally with a dart. Blue-gray as she chewed sausages for supper and watched Merv Griffin. Blue-gray that widened amazed on Christmas 1974, the year my father died, when I opened a present early -- a present she had bought me and wrapped, a present she knew full well was a Dogfight game. She had no reason to be surprised. But she knew what you had to do when you were the mother of a 12-year-old whose father had just died.
My brain and heart are full. So are my sister's, but nonetheless to her has fallen the torture of this thing that may kill our mother with no fanfare but plenty of pain. My sister and mother have grown closer over the past few years. Last winter my mom took her first serious stab at living in Arizona, which she thought meant "in my sister's house." The plan exploded after six months, my mother returned to Maine and nobody filed charges. I think the whole thing was worth more of a shot. When you've seen 74 Maine winters, is the 75th likely to be any different? Is the 75th year of ice on the sidewalk likely to be any less treacherous to your hip? Is the blizzard wind at the window all night, screaming to get at the old woman who’s alone inside, suddenly going to flay her spirit any less?
Now mum is back with my sister. This time mum is in no shape, it sounds like, to generate sparks. She walks around my sister's yard once or twice. For lunch she eats crackers and cranberry juice and sometimes a taco. My sister is having to talk about adult diapers, porta potties, and hospital equipment in her own house. And mortuaries.
Mum made it clear years ago that she wanted to be buried on the same day she died, and buried on her right side because she saw that done once and was impressed. "I don't want any fuss," she's said to me over the phone. "OK," I said. "Do we have to wait until you die?" "Oh ain't you hateful!" her voice said.
We still talk. But this new voice is somebody trying to pass as my mother. This new voice creaks, and sounds beaten. I'll ask a question. "Eh?" the voice says. I'll ask again. "Eh?"
"I'm awful tired, Jeffrey," says the voice, "and you know that's not me."
No. My mother used to shovel the porch before it had stopped snowing. The first washing machine I remember had a separate tub and wringer, and as the wringer was always busted my mother twisted the water from those clothes with sinewy arms and Yankee will. She hand-sewed shoes for many years, puncturing leather with an awl nine hours a day and tugging tight on thick waxy thread. I couldn't beat her arm-wrestling until I was 18, and then I had to cheat.
"I'm awful tired, Jeffrey."
If you put in enough half hours on the phone on enough Sundays, years go by. Only in the last week have I begun to pay attention to how tired, how creaking, and how beaten the voice sounds. My sister says I wouldn't know her. We talk about her new haircut, a haircut I suspect has as much to do with having to keep your head on a pillow for hours and hours each day as it does with style. We talk about 20 pounds lost in a few months, because you can't pack it on with few crackers and a glass of cranberry juice. My head crammed with thoughts of my son, I must now find room to book an emergency plane ticket and convince her over the phone to keep eating. I must demand she not just quit -- even while I wonder if, 40 years from now, I'll re-play this scene with me in a new role.
I'm awful tired, Alex...
"How do you feel?" someone asks me. I feel like I’m 36 years older than one of them and 40 years younger than the other one. I feel I’ve got one coming and one going. I hope Alex meets his grandmother. It'll be a good beginning for him, a good ending for her. And without it, I might never feel complete again. (Summer, 1998)
Mum's the Word
I need to remember things my mother said. She died of cancer two weeks ago. But in the 76 years before that she said a lot of things. She was born and raised in the woods of Maine, in the depths of the Great Depression. She went to work when she was 12, and until she was 40 she bathed in a basin and wrung her wet laundry by hand. And in no winter did she hesitate to pick up a shovel before the snow stopped. She said a lot of things that were pure.
Not that all she said was good or wholesome -- she once said a lesbian was "Somebody who didn't know what they wanted" -- but as words, they were her. Her pet phrases sprung from a vanishing New England, Will Strunk spareness with a whiff of pine, from the age of wood stoves and wool and buckled overshoes in deep, deep winters. She was old New England. So was what we called her: "mum".
Sometimes mum called me or my brother "Herkimer" or "Skeezicks." I liked "Drizzledrawers." My mother had a vocabulary that could send a professor to a dictionary -- go ahead, try to look up "Drizzledrawers" -- but her words were not from libraries. Nor were they from the banal, inaccurate class of "A-yah" that's dragged out whenever any other part of the country tries to understand Maine. My mother spoke Yankee, true Yankee, but she made the proper hard "ayr," with a sharp suck of breath on the "r" and a squeak like snow underfoot on a frigid morning. Her "No" was a flat and loud "Dow!"
Mum had a stunning memory for the words from her childhood, such as "Oh Mother McGee" or "Godfrey Mighty." To her a son had no higher calling than to "be a good boy," and in school "get good rank." I think she believed right up to 7:12 p.m. EDT on Friday, September 18, 1998, that nothing in her life ever really matched her childhood in the woods.
"We had fun though, you know it," she'd tell us.
Mum spoke the way most writers should write; every syllable counted, whether she was talking about seafood ("I like lobster but it don't like me"), epidemics ("Everybody's havin' it"), weather ("It's a nasty-asty day"), or bedtime ("I think I shall urinate and go to bed"). Every time we went to the store she talked straight, proclaiming "The sooner we leave, the sooner we’ll get back." Once I bought a Volvo that never started in the rain, and learned that for pithiness her advice ("You got taken when you bought that car, Jeffrey, that's all") ranked with her observations ("You flooded it, that's why").
Mum talked her best trash behind the wheel, especially at a stop sign waiting for traffic. "They see ya sittin' and they wait. Poke-ass (ah-sss) Pete..."
Cut off by an out-of-state driver: "Massachusetts. Figures."
Cut off by a foreign driver: "Gawddamned Canadian! Go home..."
Cut off by a car with a dent in it: "He's tried that before."
Cut off by anybody who honked: "Up ya bucket!"
My mother talked salt with originality and style, without being self-conscious of either, and without one word of cussing. More or less. Next to other drivers, she most hated institutions. In 20 years as a nurse she called her hospital "that joint" or sometimes "the bughouse." When an IRS agent once asked her to make a photocopy of a canceled check to the government, she said, "No, that costs a dime!" and hung up. Of society she was one of the first to believe "They must be on drugs."
Through what eventually became the last years of her life, mum and I spoke on the phone every Sunday. "You still writin'?" she'd ask. After I got married it became "What's Jill doin' tonight?" When we had our son it became, "How's the baby?"
When I saw her in her last week, she looked up from the bed and told me, "Go home and be with him, Jeffrey."
One of the worst things about her end was that her speech disintegrated into nonsense and moans. She preserved her "Dows" to the end, however, when we asked her over and over if she wanted something to eat. And in the nursing home, with 24 hours to go and the morphine flowing, she said her last thing to me:
"You still here?"
Three syllables. Mum had a lot to say. (September, 1998)
My brother's cat Skeets died. "Well, we're having a bad day," my brother said on the phone the other night, "just about the worst day I can remember."
My brother lives in Maine, and doesn't say things like that lightly. Some people might think this should be a puny deal in my life now, what with my baby son in the hospital for almost nine months and my mother dying of cancer last September. I hadn't laid eyes on the cat -- a.k.a. Skeeter, a.k.a. Poopie -- in years.
I'm sad now to think that I saw Skeeter little since about 12 years ago, when I wrote a story about him and my mom. I made a lot from that story. First I made $10, the editor of a Brooklyn newspaper pulling the money from his own pocket. It was also the story that Jill read on one of our first evenings together. It was long before we dared call anything a "date," but far enough along that I memorized how she looked on the subway as she digested my words on the Xerox. I can still see her handing the photocopy back and hear her saying, "Wow, Jeff." I don't think I've ever written another thing that opened both an editor's wallet and a woman's heart.
Jill, now my wife, has said "wow" a lot this past year. Our boy Alex is still on life support, with bad lungs. Our own two cats died last spring. Then came my mom.
My brother says his house seems "so goddamned" big and empty now. Still, "I'm not going through a hundredth of what you are," he said to me the other night.
Probably not. But in honor of what Skeeter meant to me, here's that old story.
On the July afternoon that Skeets arrives he measures, tail and all, about the length of a shoe. Two blue eyes blink from an orange bank of fur. He spends a lot of time prepared to spring. "His name is what?" my mother asks.
"Well you wanted him, mister," she says to my brother. "You're going to take care of him."
The next day she shells out eight dollars for cat food, and on impulse an additional $1.99 for a catnip mouse that to this day lies ignored under the couch.
Well, my brother likes to explain, three were left by the time he got to the litter. He picked up the little black one and it just sat there. Then he picked up the gray tiger and it looked around a little bit and also just pretty much sat on his hand. Then he put the future Skeets in his hand. Skeets looked around, then ran up his arm and sat on the top of his head.
This is remarkable for a 3-week-old kitten. Skeets displays the same coordination as he grows into his "get tough" look: ears flat, tail and back arched, legs stiff in a sideways hop across the floor.
"That thing is crazy," my mother comments. She has him de-clawed in the interests of her couch. With Viet Cong cunning he learns to leap around her thighs and bite. Also, before he reaches four months old he's whittled her houseplant population from nine to three.
At four a.m., the knobs of the bedroom doors begin to rattle. By 4:30 the kitchen rustles and crashes with the delightful clatter of securely latched cupboard doors being flipped open. As dawn just begins to pale the windows, my mother's slippered feet pad across linoleum strewn with coat hangers and pencils.
"Stop it!" she hisses to the furniture. Skeets is nowhere in sight. "Stop it right now mister!"
She returns to bed, hoping to doze off and awake two hours later not remembering the commotion at all. But by 5:15, the doorknobs rattle again. The whole kitchen sounds alive. And this time when mum pads in, there's enough light to glimpse Skeets's rear end slithering under the couch.
6:45 a.m.: My brother at the table, head in hands over his coffee mug. My mother crunching into her English muffin and rolling it over a tongue that's fuzzy with lack of sleep. The cat curled on the cushion of the chair, his eyes closed and his sides rising and falling evenly.
6:50 a.m.: My mother seizing the back of the chair in both hands and pitching Skeets to the floor. "Get up!" she says.
He shakes his head and probably thinks he's in a madhouse.
If the dish for melting butter on the popcorn maker is knocked off while the machine is running, the kernels fly out and an enterprising cat can chase them. Coming on the heels of Skeets linking the whir of the can opener to dinnertime, this popper discovery marks another stage in his relationship with household appliances.
For her birthday, I wire my mother flowers -- a daisy bouquet trimmed with blue forget-me-nots. Her arms loaded while she carts in groceries, mum meets the FTD man on the steps. She enters the living room and the places the bouquet on the TV. Skeets, stretched on the sofa, retracts himself and lifts his head. Mum enters the kitchen, lugs the bags to the table, and goes out to the car to get the rest. Soon she returns, again loaded with bags, and glances at Skeets. He remains on the sofa. She makes it to the kitchen table and begins unpacking the bags.
Skeets trots through, heading for the bedrooms with a blue forget-me-not dangling from his lips.
"Hey!" my mother yells. "Hey hey!"
He double-times. She pursues. Cornered at her closed bedroom door, he spins, at bay, and flops on his back with his white belly skyward and his paws in the air. He chomps the forget-me-not.
"Hey!" my mother says.
Skeets peers around the recliner during "Hee Haw." He moves forward as his target knits and waits for the lottery drawing at 8 p.m. Hugging the flank of the love seat, he inches his rump higher and higher.
"Forget it," my mother says.
He places one paw forward, then another, his eyes huge and locked on her slippers. Then he goes low and his tail snaps once.
"Forget it ..."
He leaps seven feet and lands ca-whump. His teeth close around my mother's slipper and find her middle toe.
"Ow! Get- Get out of here! Get-"
He retreats, glaring. She wiggles her aching toe and realizes that her slipper is moist with cat spit. And look, the drawing is over. She has missed it. Maybe now she has $3.2 million and should dancing around the living room.
"First thing I'd buy would be a big old German Shepherd," she says. "Biggest one I could find."
"No," my mother tells him. "By godfry, no!" She stands in her bathrobe at the kitchen counter, mixing the crabmeat salad for my brother's lunch. The crabmeat was a gift from her sister.
"No you're not getting this mister. Aunt Yvonne works almighty hard to get this stuff and I'll be goddamned if you're getting any." Meow. "Uncle Earl hasn't known a day of good health in ten years and you're not getting a damned bit of this."
She's careful not to touch the smaller, separate pile of crabmeat with Miracle Whip, because Skeets doesn't like mayonnaise.
He does like Nine Lives and Tender Vittles, and, when he's well-behaved -- or whenever he just wants one -- a gummy, beef-colored nugget called a Pounce. His weight passes seven, eight, 10 pounds, finally leveling off at 13. My mother weighs him every week by first weighing herself, then scooping him up to weigh both of them together. Skeets doesn't seem to mind being weighed. He stares at his own softball-sized face in the bathroom mirror as mum glances down at the scales, usually muttering something like, "Eleven pounds! Holy God! Big tub of lard!" But before she drops him she snuggles her nose deep into his warm orange fur. Later as she cooks lunch, he will receive pinches of hamburger for which he will, almost, stand on his hind legs.
My mother expects a teenage cat about to witness his first Yuletide to leave the Christmas tree alone. He will not. Even as we sprinkle the branches with tinsel he snaps his tail, squats by the sofa and asks with his eyes, "All this for me?" Within 24 hours he has strewn tinsel as far north as the bedrooms. My mother -- a rational woman who raised three outstanding citizens -- threatens to take Skeeter in her arms and twist his fuzzy head around until something goes crick.
But she has lost battles like this before, most recently The Seige of the Top of the Refrigerator. One afternoon early in the Christmas Tree Campaign, my mother plows into the living room and begins tapping something into her palm from a tiny white box. She then empties her hand into the tree.
I turn to my brother, whose nose is in the TV Guide.
"Do you want to ask?" I say.
He doesn't look up. "You do it."
"Mum, why are you putting pepper on the Christmas tree?"
"For the same reason I put VapoRub on top of the refrigerator!"
"Seasoned greetings," I say to my brother, and we begin to sneeze. For three days my mother succeeds in keeping both of us away from the Christmas tree while Skeets knocks off the decorations.
In the following months, Skeets grows immense and drowsy, and more prone to attack if it doesn't involve getting up. I phone my mother and hear her say:
"Oh, that thing. He's right here at my feet. Aren't you? Aren't you a pretty little thing? You like having your belly rubbed? You like having your belly rubbed? You like- Ow!" I hear her swear at Skeets, then at my brother: "Come get your goddamned cat!" I listen to her with one ear. With the other, I listen to the sounds of a city where, every day, lives collapse beyond repair. I try to not imagine the years when my mother will be old. I try to not imagine when she may not have a cat, or a house, or a Christmas tree to call her own. (Late Winter, 1999)
Julie is my sister-in-law. I lean over the crib and tell my baby, "Get to know Aunt Julie, Alex. She has lots of credit cards, and you're her only nephew."
Julie looks down at him as his hands come softly together. "Clap, Alex," she says, "clap and you'll get a toy."
Jill and I moved back to New York 15 months ago because we were going to have a baby and we thought it would be better to be around family. My big sister lives in Arizona and my big brother in Maine. The move sort of worked out, except Jill's mom developed kidney problems. We have friends here, too, of course. But when Alex came along weighing just 21 ounces, friends didn't seem to know what to say or how to say it.
As Alex's hospitalization dragged from weeks to months, to fractions of a year, Jill and I didn't care to hear what anybody had to say. Eventually we even grew unsure of what to say to each other.
Julie always said, "I'll take him." She seemed to be first to treat Alex like a person, first to call up and say, "Hello. Is Alex there?"
Julie doesn't have a baby, but she wants one. Nonetheless, last winter she threw my wife Jill a huge, surprise shower. Julie drove us home from the hospital when Alex was discharged. Julie was there with a bag of food on the day Alex was born. Julie stood there when they wheeled Alex past on the way to Intensive Care.
"There's tomatoes," Julie, the new aunt, said, handing me the bag. "Ma ate everything else."
Aunts can be a wild card when you're raising a kid. In 1974, when I was 12 and my dad had just died, my mom had to work a lot so I spent weekend days at my aunt's house. She had three sons, all older than I and all infinitely better at building model tanks, planes and ships. They learned to drive before I did, and took me swimming and for pizza. Unlike my mother, my aunt never balked at taking kids to McDonalds. In the summer my aunt's living room was cool.
That summer I turned 13, I'd wheel my 100-pound Schwinn back from my aunt's house and up our dusty and spider-invested driveway, come into the house and start with the comments about how we lived. I hope Alex never says that kind of stuff to me.
Aunt Julie's nicer than you are! All I have to do is clap!
I think Julie will be safe. She's one of those people who's particularly sharp about other people's situations, a talent she brings to bear on Alex. Julie has bought Alex some of the best toys, including one that makes a noise like a car alarm. She is first to harp that he needs more pacifiers like the one he loves. When Jill wanted to buy Alex a high chair on eBay, Julie asked if I'd seen the highchair. I had. Mission style. Julie said it looked like an electric chair. "A good highchair for a baby on Death Row," she said. I told Julie that I don't write about accounting five days a week so my kid can have a used high chair and maybe some stranger's cooties.
"Exactly!" Julie said. "You must be my long-lost brother! Jill's not my sister!"
Then one recent Friday night, after a long day at her job amid the malls of Nassau County, Julie pulled up to the front of our building with the back seat of her Taurus filled with our new highchair. We never really had to pay her for it. Before she drove away, she held out her cheek for me to kiss.
I haven't always been sure what Julie thought of me. A few times through the years I've made a joke and she has sneered. A real sneer, too, like a cat who's quietly mad. Then there was Thanksgiving 1992, my first family immersion as Jill's boyfriend. Some kids were playing on the floor when dessert came around and Julie looked at me and suggested that I just hand the kids their pie down there. I did. The parents got mad.
I told Jill that Julie was trying to get me into trouble. Jill said she was not, and besides, Julie had always done much worse to her. Julie used to make hangmen's nooses and dangle them so the shadow was cast in the light of the street lamp coming through Jill's bedroom window. That's sinister and inspired. All my big brother used to do was threaten to drop marbles down my throat when I was sleeping. I really want Alex to have a brother or sister.
Nor have I always been sure what Julie thought of babies. On one of our first dates, Jill told me about a family party where some kid began crying in the crib and the crazy mom rushed over saying, "Don't cry! We didn't forget about you!"
"Julie said, 'Yes we did,'" Jill said. Jill has told that story dozens of times, and always smiles. Jill is proud of Julie.
I am, too, after this past year. Maybe Julie senses this, because three or four times now she as she left our house, held out her cheek for me to kiss. Jill says this means Julie likes me. That's nice in a sister-in-law. Julie the Aunt we'll learn more about as time goes on. Eventually she'll ask, "Is Alex there?" and we'll put him on, and they'll talk and in a little while a Taurus will appear out front to take him away. And when he comes back from seeing her and she has given him something nice, I will tell him to be sure to tell Aunt Julie "thank you." (Fall, 1999)
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