My Mother Doesn’t Know Me Anymore
When I was asked to name my favorite book when joining this website I automatically typed in Lady Chatterley’s Lover which isn’t about sex by the way. It’s the best anti-war and anti-establishment novel ever written. It’s probably ridiculous for me to name just one book. However if I’m going to write this memoir well I have to state that Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse should be mentioned not as a favorite book—that sounds trivial—but as the key to learning about who I was and who I am now. A college boyfriend gave it to me to read when I was 19 and I owe him endless gratitude.
That’s all fine but try to picture a young female wolf growing up in an average middle class family in urban Pittsburgh! I responded as best I could to the pressures on me to be a nice, well-mannered young lady who earned good grades and did not get into trouble. But as Hermann Hesse says: the wolf trots to and fro. Rebellion simmered within me as much as I tried to be good. My father was somewhat emotionally removed from the hotbed of interactions that went back and forth between my mother, my sister, and myself. He saw, I think, the wolf-girl in me and could sit back and admire my tries at independence. So the struggle existed between my mother and me.
I understand now, decades later, my mother’s exhaustion; we were not made of the same stuff. She wanted me to be “lovely,” “slender,” “well-dressed,” “bubbly and outgoing.” Well who wouldn’t want their daughter to be those things? But to me then those attributes equaled “Barbie-hood,” (one of my favorite phrases), “House & Garden,” (I hated that magazine and all it stood for), and “plastic and phony.”
At 19 I left home. This was in 1969. I didn’t leave with my parents’ blessing; I was going to the University of Pittsburgh as a commuting student (what misery!) and I got really mad at my mother after one of our endless clashes—she found out that I had obtained “The Pill” like any good female wolf would do— and I just got tired and left and moved to a dismal, cheap, glorious apartment on the edge of the campus.
We never got along after that, not until 2008. My mother was mortally wounded by what I had done and never forgave me. During one period we didn’t speak to each other for ten years. I’m not bragging and I know it sounds awful. However this is a prelude to what happened between us in the year 2008, when a beloved cousin of mine died.
My mother and I had a chilly relationship by then. We were communicating but in a frosty, strained way. Then when Maxine died—she was my best friend—I went to Pittsburgh for the funeral and stayed with my mother. My father had died by then. It was just mom and me; and that’s when I realized, during that stay of five days, that my mother was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. Mentally she had always been sharp, was self-educated, and read the New York Times every day. She scorned mainstream television and only watched PBS. Within a year of the diagnosis, all of this changed.
She was forgetting names, getting things mixed up, also forgetting quite recent events. At first it didn’t seem so bad; but my aunts took her to a specialist and it was confirmed that indeed she was in the beginning stages of this brain illness.
During the visit I made to Pittsburgh in 2008 my mother and I got along better than we had since I was a small child. The tragic, terribly ironic part of this was that my mother forgot all the bad stuff that went on between the two of us! She could only see me in the present. At first this wasn’t completely obvious, of course; but after that watershed visit, after having a rollicking good time together laughing, looking at old pictures and drinking red wine, I was stunned and I didn’t want to leave. So I came back again in May of that year and we still had an even better time.
There followed a period of four years in which I drove back and forth to Pittsburgh on a regular basis and spent glorious times with my mother, as much as a week at a time.
I lost my job in 2010 and I told my mother that President Obama was extending the unemployment benefits, so it was OK to visit my mom. She always laughed at this.
Because of what was happening to her brain, she was not able to drive a car and my aunts had moved her to a care facility where she felt imprisoned. It was true; she was in a prison, both a prison of the mind and body. Now, this is a person who loved the outdoors, nature, gardening, and taking long walks. Because of her illness she couldn’t do any of that. Between her building and the next was a small section of woodland where deer lived. She was rapturous when the deer appeared; it was real life, a pitifully small bit of life, but yes, life itself. Privately I called her “The Bird In The Gilded Cage.” She had lots of money and comfort but not the things that she longed for the most.
So when I was there we took off in my car and rode all around Pittsburgh, looking at the old neighborhoods and houses where we used to live. I took her to the museums, the noble Carnegie Library, the Pittsburgh Zoo and the Aviary. We never ran out of things to talk about; this was mainly due to the fact that she said the same things, over and over and over. Like a blessing from God I had the patience to spend a week with her and not get impatient. My family was amazed; Delphine the Rebellious Wolf could be with her mother “24/7” and not go crazy?
Last weekend marked the end of the four year “vacation” I had with my mother. She recognized me as someone important in her life but she didn’t know it was me—she insisted that I was one of her cousins, and she got worried and agitated when I didn’t go home “to take care of my two children.” So the visit was ended early and I know that those wonderful times won’t be back. If I go to Pittsburgh now it will be for a short visit, to maybe take her out to lunch and go on one of the rides around the city that she enjoys so much. She is much more content being in the company of the other residents who live on her floor and are just like herself.
I miss my mother. Yes, we had those four years that are quite nice to look back on but that doesn’t change the fact that I miss my mother.