"Careful, Ma; don't spill your soup," I warned. "First time you spill, that's it — you're going to the home. I'll know you can't take care of yourself."
Mom's reply was immediate. "I know. I've picked out what I want to take with me." First item: her teardrop-shaped Waterford crystal lamp, the one that sits on her nightstand. I don't remember the rest, but I can't forget how quickly she responded — almost as if she had really planned for this eventuality. I was unnerved. Did she think I was serious?
Mom taught me what little I've learned about acceptance. During my senior year of college, I had decided to ask my girlfriend Deirdre to marry me. If she said yes, I was going to take her to Ireland for our honeymoon — neither of us had ever been. Deirdre came to me a couple of months before graduation and told me she was planning a post-grad trip with two of her girlfriends -- to Ireland and England. I'd been scooped. I was, ridiculous as it sounds, unhappy about this. My mother's response: "Women sacrifice more than men. When she's older, she'll be happy to have this to look back on." I guess Mom would know; she went to Europe during her college years. And she has sacrificed.
My parents did not buy a second car until the mid-'80s. Up until then, we had no need; Dad walked to work. But when my mother's mother developed the mouth cancer that would eventually kill her, Mom started making weekend trips to Albany, four hours away. Once she got there, she visited her mother, took her father out to dinner, and cooked enough meals to get him through the week. He had never lived on his own.
When my grandmother died, my grandfather came to live with us. Mom took care of him for five years, until he died in our guest room in 1994. My brother Mark and I were out of the house by then, but a couple of years later, Mark moved back into my parents' house with his wife and children while he attended film school. It was not easy having two mothers under one roof for two and a half years.
Mark and his family moved out, but not before my father's parents moved in — to a gentleman's farm my parents bought them in the next town over. They had grown too frail to live on their own in Florida. After my father's father died, Mom began spending more and more time at the Farm, taking care of Grandma. Eventually, she started sleeping there, though she has never regarded it as home. Now, she shares time at the Farm with Grandma's only daughter, Cheryl, and Cheryl's husband Chad.
Me, home for Easter, trying to make pastry dough for dessert: "Mom, where's the food processor?"
Mom, with pain in her eyes: "Oh, Matthew, it's at the Farm."
Why the pain? Maybe partly because she herself was frustrated at the division of her kitchen — of her whole life. But partly, I think it was because she feared I would be upset. She was right; I was upset — not so much about the food processor, but that my mother's life was so obviously not her own. She wanted me to accept, as she had accepted.
I do better at it than some, which is why Mom was able to share the following revelation with me. Mom wears a crude beeper; when Grandma presses a button, the beeper produces an oscillating electronic ring. "Sometimes I play a little game," Mom told me. "I see how long I can sit down before Grandma calls for me."
She was counting on me to laugh about that. She gets to vent, to the extent that she ever gets to vent, to me. I'm the one she can joke with. Sometimes, I won't even give her that. If she shows me too much, I get mad like everybody else. "Mom. You can't let this situation stay this way." But she doesn't want advice or even sympathy. She just wants to laugh about it for a while.