For Mother's Day, here's a section of my in-progress memoir about my father's death and my mother's Alzheimer's diagnosis:
Two years before Dad died, Mom joined Toastmasters. Mom had never been that comfortable talking in front of people. She and Dad socialized a lot, but Dad was the talker; she was more comfortable listening.
She told me she admired my gift of gab, that I took after Dad. In her diary, I discovered that she viewed me as bright; I’d been tested with a high IQ. She had secret ambitions for me. She hoped I wouldn’t squander my intelligence.
What shocked me the most was to find out that she didn’t feel as intelligent as she thought I was. She wished she were smarter. This woman who got straight A’s in high school, this woman who completed more than six years of college, who was an R.N, a school nurse and a highly respected member of her community.
I am a novelist and a poet. Over the years, Mom tried to read my poetry but felt she never “got it.” Many people feel that way about poetry. It’s too obscure; what’s the point?
I tried to explain to her that I like the way poetry expresses nuances and ambiguities. As Stanley Kunitz says, poetry teaches us that we can believe two contradictory things at once. Poetry uses words to get at what cannot be expressed in a linear way. Language and understanding are unstable. A poem makes a non-summarizable feeling zip up my spine. I revel it its metaphorical expression; it makes me feel understood. It made me feel there are juicy prospects in every word. Poetry is possibility.
Mom may not like poetry, but she has always been drawn to novels and books of nonfiction. When I was an undergraduate English major, she read my required books so we could talk about them. The books in my Contemporary American Literature class she found self-indulgent and depressing and plot-less. She thought John Updike bordered on pornography (this from the woman handed over to me Fear of Flying when I was in high school). But she read them all with the studied objectivity of a medical student.
Mom once said something ironic that I now think was quite astute: “The difference between a mainstream story and a literary one is that literary stories don’t have endings.”
There was a chasm between my mother and me. She liked mainstream literature, I liked literary. She was pragmatic, I was idealistic. She inhabited a low-grade quietness, I a chatty exhiliaration. Even though she might roll her eyes at me or tease me about my energy, she was drawn to my quixotic impulses. She simultaneously rejected and was attracted to my reveling in metaphor and optimism.
She’d once entertained Catholic and catholic dreams about saving the world, of doing something like working with Father Damien and the lepers on Molokai. Perhaps she saw in me both the abandonment of those dreams and the potential to play them out.
If she wasn’t going to achieve her dreams of saving the world, she was going to allow herself time to develop a personal skill that wasn’t about taking care of others. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment and while cooking wore a denim, unisex apron emblazoned across the chest, “E.R.A. Yes!” This apron implied, I might be cooking, but I’m not just a cook, a mother, a helper of others.
When she was in her 40’s, she embarked on piano lessons, telling us she’d forced us to play piano as kids when she was really the one who wanted to. All those maddening years of hearing us practice the opening bars of “Fur Elise” over and over hadn’t turned her off to the piano.
My sisters’ and my piano teacher, Mary Bunyan, was the wife of a friend of our father’s. A short, rounded woman with a pretty face, she reminded me of a gentle grandmother from a fairy tale. The journey to her house was a fairy tale adventure itself. We had to walk a few perilous blocks. The first hazard on the route was a mere three doors down: Jigs, the meanest dog in the neighborhood. We’d walk as far as possible on the other side of the street, our feet gripping the contours of the concrete berm. (There were no sidewalks on our street. The houses were built on large lots crammed with oak trees and manzanita.) If we were lucky, Jigs would be tied up; he would lunge and howl and snap, straining the rope tied to his collar. If we were unlucky, he’d be loose. Sometimes he’d barrel across his lawn, screeching on his brakes at the perimeter of his yard, recklessly barking, spit flying from his mouth, his evil pointed teeth flashing yellow. Other times he’d charge across the street and snip at our heels and calves as we ran. We knew if we made it just a few houses away, he’d make a u-turn and silently trot back to his yard.
The next difficulty on the way to piano lessons was the Hill From Hell. This hill looked like one drawn by a child with a crayon, almost perpendicular, populated by houses defying gravity. Adults easily zoomed up the Hill From Hell in their cars, but no kid could conquer that hill on a bike, and walking it made your calves burn. Our town, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, undulated with unreasonable hills. When I read my Archie comic books, I’d yearn for the ease with which Betty and Jughead and Archie walked across their flat town, to the malt shop, to each other’s houses. Walking across my town was grueling, as was walking even a quarter mile to Mrs. Bunyon’s.
Mrs. Bunyon taught my sisters and me how to read music and perform scales to a relentless metronome. Our practice pieces were watered down versions of Bach, Brahms, Beethoven. If we perfected one of these diluted classical masterpieces, we’d be rewarded with a contemporary piece, “Close to You” or “Joy to the World.”
I don’t know why my mom didn’t choose Mary Bunyon as her piano teacher. Maybe Mrs. Bunyon taught children only. My mom’s piano teacher was much more unconventional. Mom would come home from her lesson with armloads of photocopied sheets displaying the bass and treble clefs on which she was to pen musical notes. She was plied with theory about chords and encouraged to improvise. After hours at the piano, Mom might begin to play something with a recognizable melody. She’d pause and notate on the sheet music. I felt like she was learning a completely different instrument than I’d been taught.
Like me, Mom eventually quit the piano. Maybe if she’d had my piano teacher and I’d had hers, we’d both be at it.
Relinquishing music, Mom turned to writing. Most evenings after dinner while Dad cat-napped in front of the TV, Mom sat before her computer. One of her first articles—“Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?”— tapped into her knowledge of screening kids for school readiness. Mom researched freelance writing, reading numerous books on how to write articles, how to publish them, how to market yourself.
“Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?” was published in various versions in many different local and national newspapers and magazines. This led to other health-related articles, followed by human-interest articles. She wrote a piece about a couple who were driving on an icy road at night and were hit by a semi. The husband, alive and virtually unhurt, was trapped with his mortally-wounded wife. He touched her head, stroked her hair and talked to her as she died. He had shifted in his understanding of that event; what had once seemed a great tragedy now seemed a blessing. He had helped his much-loved wife feel safe and loved in her dying. Mom said the article was too emotionally draining to write. She never wrote a piece like it again.
She said the same thing about a short personal essay she’d written for an assignment in an adult education writing class. The assignment had been to write about a personally meaningful object. She wrote about the plate she owned that had belonged to her grandmother. In the piece, she wrote about how the plate represented her love for her grandmother. As a child, she’d perceived her beloved grandmother as dowdy and ancient. On the back of the plate is the maker’s mark, topped with a stamp of a tiny gold crown. The piece ends with this lyrical sentence: “I wish I could place that crown on my grandmother’s head.” That was the most symbolically powerful line my mother ever wrote. I find it very moving. She must, too, because even mentioning the story about her grandmother makes Mom’s eyes fill with tears.
She never wrote another emotional, personal essay. Mom was not a crier; she did not like to indulge her emotions. She moved on to writing romantic fiction, stories about lost loves reunited, about misunderstandings morphing into epiphanies. She researched romance magazines and placed a few pieces. She joined the Romance Writers of America and learned the formula for writing romances. Never a reader of romances, she began to read them as research, the covers bursting with cleavage and chiseled biceps. This was pragmatic investigation. She wanted to understand how a romance was written. “If I’m going to write a novel,” she said, “I need a road map.”
She wrote a romance novel. And another. And another. My favorite is Love’s Golden Song, an historical romance that takes place in 1860s California, a time period when men shot huge blasts of water to wash away mountainsides in their quest for untapped gold. This hydraulic mining devastated the environment, clogging up waterways, forever altering the geography of Northern California. In Love’s Golden Song, the heroine is a spunky, smart, ahead-of-her-time newspaper reporter who decries hydraulic mining; her nemesis, who becomes her love interest, is—of course—a hydraulic miner. Mom did a lot of research to write this book, and the authenticity of the details is undeniable and a pleasure to read. Some actual historic characters make an appearance, such as Lola Montez, famed for the titillating Spider Dance that she performed in Gold Rush theaters.
Romance novels aren’t my cup of tea, but I liked connecting to Mom through writing. I read and edited several of her novels, enjoying the experience. I also learned from Mom’s pragmatism how better to take criticism myself as a writer. She never justified any of her writing in the face of my suggestions. She just took what she wanted and left the rest. And she was always grateful that I spent time on her work. (She also once said to me something that I'm very grateful for, something it seems to me only a mother who is also a writer might bother to offer up: that I should always write about what I want and never worry about how she'll feel about it.)
Love’s Golden Song was never published. Another of Mom’s romance novels was, though, after Mom retired from school nursing and had more time to send queries to publishers and agents. Her self-proclaimed “romantic comedy,” Dinner For Two, was released by a small press. Taking place in the Northern California towns of my youth, it’s about a woman named Misty, her love-interest Gene who is a chef, and a mystery they get embroiled in involving food poisoning at the state capital. Gene is color-blind in the story.
Color-blindness, or CVD (Color Vision Deficiency), was another interest of my mom’s. As a school nurse, she’d diagnosed a number of students with this common disorder. She often spouted off the statistic that CVD affects one in twelve boys, but many fewer girls due to its residence on the X chromosome. Because females have two X chromosomes, they need to have both chromosomes affected in order to display color-blindness; not so for males.
Mom discovered there was no literature for the kids, parents and teachers to read about the genetics of CVD and about the ways it affects one’s perceptions, experiences and life choices. Upon retirement, she wrote two books on CVD, one for kids, and one for teens and adults. Illustrations were provided by an old friend who drew a weekly comic strip and political cartoons for the local paper. (He was also a former city councilman and mayor, and the father of one of my high school friends.) Another friend of Mom’s, a graphic artist, designed the book and the cover.
After trying in vain to find an agent or a publisher, Mom self-published these books and spent many more hours on PR than she ever had on writing. She read book after book on marketing. She wrote articles on CVD that mentioned her books (free PR); she sent mass mailings to schools and doctors’ offices; she spoke at the Lion’s Club and the Rotary and to parents’ groups and groups and at church groups; she was interviewed on a Sacramento morning news program.
All of this talking was painful for her. She hated public speaking but was determined to get out the news about her books. However, as time went on she struggled more and more to articulate what she wanted to say.
We all noticed this “word problem” in Mom. If her language skills were deteriorating, the decline was so incremental it was hard to tell if her inability to speak fluidly was progressive, or if it was just her nature. When she was under stress or pressure, it seemed her struggle for words got worse. Was this a new thing, or had she always been this way? I could feel her embarrassment rise while she groped for words. I understood that flush of embarrassment. I had to work hard to be fluid with my language when I felt someone was challenging me or was asking me to explain something. I’d get flustered, defensive. It was part of my personality. For sure it was part of Mom’s, too.
She never was comfortable speaking much, although much of her working life had involved talking to parents’ groups and groups of kids. Part of her role as a school nurse was to teach a Sex Ed class to middle-schoolers. The kids wrote anonymous questions on cards, which she’d pull at random out of a box:
What’s an orgasm?
What do two men do when they have sex?
Can you get pregnant if you have sex standing up?
Mom would answer these questions straight-faced and seriously. There was no question she wouldn’t answer, she said. I have a memory of sitting around the dinner table and Mom telling us some of the kids’ questions, and all of us laughing, Dad grinning, my sisters looking at Mom over their forks.
But can this be right? How old would we have been? Would Mom have shared this with us at dinner? Possibly. If we were talking about sex as science and social information—as debunking myths and getting your facts straight—Mom was pragmatic. She could be quite frank. Mom the School Nurse was a more objective person than Mom the Mom.
I imagine her standing before the middle school class with her frosty pink lipstick, her pale face, her blonde hair in a soft puff, her long thin legs encased in suntan nylons. She maintains a gentle yet firm demeanor as she pulls the next card out of the box. She reads the question aloud, the words penis, vagina, blow job not meriting a different voice quality or facial expression than any other word.
Her deportment conveys to the kids that all these taboos they giggle about, yearn for, and worry about are no big deal. They’re just part of life.