I TELL MY mother lies.
Sometimes three or four times a day.
I lie mostly about money. That I’ve sent it or that I’m just about to send it. Or that surely I will send it tomorrow. My mother waits for money like the bums waited for Godot.
One day she called seventeen times. So said the long-distance bill. But I admit I stopped answering after seven or eight. That’s not as cruel as it sounds—because each call was new for her. She didn’t think, “My son refuses to answer my calls.” She thought, “I need money. I’ll call Danny.” Seventeen times.
That’s what most every call is about these days—money. It starts with, “Well, what are you doing up there?” “Up there” means Minnesota, where I live. She lived for twenty years in Memphis and “up there” made sense. Now she’s further north than I am, but she sticks to the old mental map. Good for her.
“Is that wife of yours still running up and down the steps?” She doesn’t risk using my wife’s name—Jayne. Names are booby traps these days. Try a name and you may reveal the secret—the secret that everyone knows but you.
But eventually—very quickly actually—she gets to the point. “Listen, honey. I am desperate for some money.” And she is desperate. That’s the stabbing part. She is desperate. You can hear it in her voice. It’s full of anxiety and appeal. And you want to do something about it. Your mother is desperate and you want her not to be. You want her to be okay. You want her to be peaceful—full of peace. Because you know that she has earned it, and because she is your mother.
My mother has had to worry about money most all her life. She married an irresponsible man. A talented man. A charming man. In many ways a generous man. But a man you couldn’t trust with money. If he had money he spent it—often on himself. You could send him out for bread and milk and he’d come back six hours later with a new television set. Or three new suits (he wanted to look good even when he got fat), or five books (he read to find the world he needed to live in), or, one time, six of those new-fangled transistor radios (“If one breaks, then we’ve always got another one”).
My father didn’t make as much as he spent—at any of his fifteen different jobs. We lived, unbeknownst to three trusting little boys, on the ragged edge of insolvency. We were never officially poor, but we sometimes toured the neighborhood. My mother fended off the creditors with monthly five-dollar payments on ravenous debts.
So she went to work, becoming a schoolteacher when I was ten. She got up at five in the morning to clean the house, woke the rest of us at six-thirty, went off to a day of teaching, and then came home to make supper and wash clothes. Teaching brought in a dependable income, but it couldn’t quite keep her ahead of my father.
So the last thing I want my mom to worry about is money. She’s got almost enough herself, and I’ve got more to back that up, so money, for the first time in her life, shouldn’t be an issue. It’s an issue.
“I’ve got a list of nineteen things I’ve got to get. And I haven’t got a penny to my name.”
It’s always nineteen things. Never seventeen, never twenty. Sometimes I ask her what’s on the list. It’s not a fair question. If she actually has a list, and she probably does, she isn’t sure where it is, and asking her to remember what’s on it is like asking Mrs. Lindbergh about her baby. (I’m sure hairspray is on it—she has seven cans of it in her closet.)
“What good does it do me to have thirty-eight thousand dollars in the bank if I can’t spend any of it?”
I take it as a rhetorical question. I don’t know where she got the number thirty-eight. I guess it will do as well as any. It’s as good as nineteen. Twice as good, in fact.
And then the question I dread from the moment I hear the phone ring. “Will you send me some of my money, son?” (She doesn’t risk my name anymore either.) “I’ve just got to get some clothes for summer”—or whatever season, about which she is often wrong. “Will you send me some money?”
That’s when I lie. It’s the only thing I’ve knowingly lied about to anyone, and it’s painful. I try to lie quickly, so we can move on to something else.
“Yes, I’ll send some money. No problem, Mom.”
But she wants details.
“When are you going to send it?”
“Today, Mom. Tomorrow at the latest.”
“How much are you going to send? Can you send fifty dollars?”
Mom, I want to say, I’d send fifty thousand dollars. I’d send you the world. If I thought it would do you any good. Even if I thought it would do you good for an hour. But it won’t. We’ve tried. And it won’t do you any good at all.
I used to send money, of course. She always wants cash. Checks are part of a universe she doesn’t live in anymore. I sent cash gladly, happy there was some little thing I could do for my mom. I sent it until she no could no longer ever remember getting any. Until she claimed she hadn’t gotten anything from me in months.
I’ve also tried delivering it to her. She’s now five hours away by car, closer than when she lived in Memphis. I’ve memorized the route: north on 94 to 27, then west to 9 and north again to 55, which changes to 11 once it crosses into North Dakota, then all the way to Ellendale on 11, many miles but only a few bends in the road later. Lately I tend to drive there and back in the same day. My brother’s place is full and the local motel makes the Bates look like Shangri La.
So when I visit I always bring some twenties. Sometimes I mix in fives and tens to make it look like more, but she’s still sharp enough to spot that trick. It’s just another way of lying.
She always claims, a claim as predictable as the list of nineteen things, that the money will be safe. “I’ve got a great place to hide it,” she says. “Nobody knows where it is.” Nobody—including her. The staff say they find bills everywhere, including interleaved within a stack of napkins.
When Mom first got to Evergreen (the name of the facility, itself a kind of lie), she claimed people were stealing from her. She’d whisper into the phone, “The black maids here…they steal.” It was disconcerting to hear a long-buried prejudice resurface in a woman who opened her arms and house to everyone over the years. She was raised in Kentucky in the 1920s and ’30s, and had absorbed a kind of working-class view of race that thought itself perfectly fair. I remember her telling me her own mother’s response when my mom asked why their black cook was eating in the dining room while the rest of the family was around the kitchen table: “Why, Nita, we always have our company eat in the dining room.”
My mother knew better even as a kid, but now that knowledge, like so much else, has been erased. I try to reason with her, without resorting to pointing out that no black people work at the place, and that none likely even live in her tiny North Dakota town. But reason and facts here, as with many things in her world now, are an enemy to be defeated. She gets defensive, like I’m calling her a liar.
“Son, I know what I’m talking about. My roommate has had nineteen pairs of shoes stolen from her closet.” There’s that number again.
Once she handed the phone to Alma.
“Yup, Mr. Taylor. You listen to your mother. It’s true. They’re stealing my shoes. Have a good day, now.”
“You too, Alma.”
I am happy to say that blaming the nonexistent black maids has faded away. And her confidence in her hiding place is absolute. So the last time I visited I asked to see it. I had some money for her, I said, and I wanted to see where she hid it.
I actually did believe she had such a hiding place. She hid money from my father for fifty years. It was the only way to save anything at all for the rainy day—and it rained quite often in our family. She was a packrat saver—sometimes sticking the stray dollar bill in an unmarked envelope, sometimes using the old trick of change in a jar in the closet, letting it pile up over the year to buy Christmas presents and a tree. Sometimes she secreted it away in a savings account that only she knew about.
Unfortunately, my father learned to depend on her secrets.
“Your mom’s got some money squirreled away somewhere,” he’d say. “She always does.”
I think it made him feel even freer to spend whatever was in his back pocket. Ol’ Nita has some more somewhere. The last time he discovered a hidden cache was just a few years before he died. It was five thousand dollars or so she had put, bit by bit, into an annuity of some kind. She had been foolish enough to list it in both their names. He discovered it and cashed the policy and came home with one of the first giant projection-screen televisions. The workmen could barely get it in the small room. Perhaps that was the day the last ember of my mom’s love for my father went cold.
So hiding money is nothing new to my mom. She takes me into the walk-in closet of her room and opens the third drawer down and picks up the handkerchiefs folded neatly in the back, right corner.
“There” she whispers. “That’s where I keep it. Nobody knows.” I add in my head, “And dad is dead, so we don’t have to worry about him.”
Actually, I don’t know whether this is really where she hides money—nothing’s there now—or whether she has just come up with this place on the spur of the moment because I asked. My mother, you see, has gotten subtle of late. Like the serpent was subtle in the garden. She feels she has to be to keep her secret.
She pretends, for instance, to remember places she no longer remembers, to recall events she no longer recalls, to know faces she no longer knows—including mine.
I once took my French brother-in-law with me on a visit to my mom. We took her to lunch, me driving, her in the front passenger seat, and Gerard in the back.
“Where do you live?” she asks Gerard.
“I live in Minneapolis.”
“Oh, I have a son who lives there. Do you know him?”
I don’t say, “Mom, that’s me. Dan. I’m right here beside you.” What would be the point? It would first confuse her and then embarrass her and then hurt her. It would let out the secret. So we all participate in another necessary lie. At least I tell myself it’s necessary.
Perhaps I should be happy that my mom is still sharp enough to fake it—to be subtle. But she was never subtle before. She was simple and un-ironic and hardworking, whereas my father was complex and reflective and restless. Among the brothers we used to say that she was perfectly matched as a sixth-grade teacher, feeling at home among the jokes and life questions of twelve-year-olds.
She still does her best to feel at home, for once again she lives with simple people like herself.
“It’s like being back in the college dorm,” she says, almost as often as she speaks of her list. “I’ve got a good roommate and we all spend time together in the lounge. I didn’t want to come here, but now that I’m here I see that it’s a pretty good life.”
In this respect my mother hasn’t changed. She spent a lifetime tracing silver linings in black clouds. Complaining was a sin against God and only made bad times worse. If you had a problem, you simply did whatever there was to do about it until the problem dissipated. If there was nothing to do about it, you did something else instead. Cleaned the house. Went to work. Made lunch for your boys.
Her parents were Kentucky hill folk. They put the stoic in stoical. (When my grandfather returned to the hills to see his father after many years, the old man simply pronounced my grandfather’s name when he walked in the door, “Sam,” and kept on rocking, as though his son had just walked out the door that morning.) My mom smiled too much to be called stoic, but she wasted little breath on complaints about her life, at least not in front of me.
Sometimes now, however, her defenses droop. She starts, “I’m not complaining now…” and then she complains.
“I haven’t seen Mark in weeks. And I never see Connie. They’ve got that ID thing on their phone and they don’t answer when they see it’s me. So I call them from a different phone so they don’t know.”
It’s not true, of course. My brother lives in the same little North Dakota town with his family. It’s why my mom is there. One of them sees her most days, and they come to take her on outings a couple of times a week, sometimes more. She is always happy to see them—son or grandson or great-grandson or one of the women of the family. She goes gladly on the outings—shopping, birthday parties, the homecoming promenade at the high school—but her brain begins erasing the tapes even as they are being recorded, and she is sure, within minutes of returning, that no one comes to see her.
Even in her complaining, however, she makes allowances.
“Now don’t you say a word to them about this. They’re very busy. I don’t want to bother them. I’m doing fine.”
The silver-lining machine is still pumping.
“I just go to bed at night and thank God that all my kids are doing well. And my grandchildren. And they all love Jesus. Do you realize how rare that is?”
I realize, Mom. And if you think we’re all doing well, then I’m not going to say otherwise. Thinking so got you through a bad marriage and maybe it will get you through the slow disintegration of your mind.
And my mother, for the first time in her life, will talk about her marriage now, if, as my wife does, you put the questions to her. We’re sitting in Ellendale’s one remaining restaurant (since the NoDak Café closed down). My mom is shocked anew, as always, at the prices on the menu.
“Three dollars for a hamburger! Son, do you see these prices? Well I’m not paying three dollars for a hamburger. I’m not hungry. I’ll just have a salad. Do they have salads?”
I don’t know at which point in the past the pricing part of her mind is stuck, but it’s not at a time when three dollars was acceptable for a restaurant hamburger.
My wife wants to see if Mom’s memory of the far past is better than that of the recent. She asks about places we lived and relatives and what things were like here or there. My mom bobs and weaves through the questions, mostly deflecting them or changing the subject. But when Jayne asks about her marriage, she is more candid than I have ever heard her.
“Your father liked the ladies,” she says with a small (ironic?) smile.
It hurts to hear her say it because I can’t believe it doesn’t hurt her to speak out loud, maybe for the first time ever, what everyone in the family knows. He didn’t just “like the ladies”—he liked the ladies sitting in the pews of the churches he pastored—the one recurring job among the fifteen. Maybe, it just now occurs to me, that was one reason we moved so often.
When she says, “Your father liked the ladies,” I am immediately jerked back to a phone ringing more than thirty-five years ago. I answer it in the hallway of my college dorm, and my mom’s voice is shaking on the other end.
“Can you come home, Dan?”
“What do you mean? When?”
“Now, Dan. Can you come home now? Can you just be here? Can you bring some schoolwork? I won’t bother you. I just need you to be here.”
“Sure, Mom. What’s wrong?”
“I’m just afraid I’m going to kill myself. I’ll be fine. I just need you to be here so that I don’t do anything.”
So of course I went home. I found her sitting in a chair, trembling. She was holding a letter from one of my father’s “ladies.” It said very ugly things, and my mother’s silver-lining machine was in shambles.
We didn’t talk about it. She didn’t want to. Just said she wanted me to be there so she didn’t cut her wrists. Assured me she would be better soon. Just needed me in the house. And so I stayed and pretended to study. And thought about my mom. And about my father. And about why couldn’t people get along.
We have never talked of that day since.
So when she mentions my father and the ladies I cringe a bit, because I don’t want these to be among the last memories bumping around in her head. But then, as if she can read my mind, she says something comforting.
“I didn’t have a good marriage, but I’ve had a good life.”
That sounds right to me.
“I made a life for myself. I focused on you boys. And I had my teaching and my friends at school.”
She is smiling now, oblivious even to the outrageous price of hamburgers. I don’t think this is blowing smoke. She believes it, and I think it is a wise and accurate summation. Life gave her a painful irritation, largely in the form of my father, himself a wounded man, and she encircled that pain with busyness and directed her love to others and, somehow, ended up with what could pass as a pearl.
Directed love is an apt phrase for how my mother related to us and to the world. She wasn’t smart enough, to be blunt, to say profound words of love. She simply did loving things. Love for her, maybe for her generation, meant service. You showed people your love by serving them. Beginning at five in the morning.
Service expressed itself early in my mom’s life. She once told me her goal as a little girl was to be a grandmother by the time she was thirty-nine. As a twelve-year-old she would find little urchins wandering around the neighborhood and take them home and give them a bath and a snack and then send them on their way. She was practicing for having three boys.
And the snacks continued. Food was an important way of showing love. Not big, formal meals with lots of silverware and glasses—that was more my paternal grandmother’s way. No, it was the small, edible smackerel that brought tiny packets of pleasure: oatmeal and cinnamon toast, grilled sourdough bread dripping with butter and jam, dishes of ice cream that my dad bought by the slab.
And she often insisted on bringing it to you, frequently on a tray. Later it bothered the daughters-in-law to no end to see her repeatedly bring trays of food, saltshaker included, to my father while he watched television. He didn’t deserve such pampering—big-bellied, remote control in hand—but the ruts of service were worn too deep to turn another way now.
The ruts are still there. My mother is the roving dorm mother of the care facility she lives in. (I don’t like the bureaucratic term “care facility,” but it beats the obscene euphemism “rest home”—you think they’re resting in there?) She is constantly checking in on the neglected, sometimes more often than they want to be checked in on. She goes uninvited into other people’s rooms while they’re napping and makes sure the blankets are smooth and up to their chins. She sits down next to a mute old man and carries on a one-sided conversation, sure he is better for the chat.
Sometimes it gets her into trouble. She’ll tow her roommate, Alma, to the nurse’s station, claiming Alma hasn’t gotten her pills. The nurse assures my mother that Alma did, in fact, get her pills just twenty minutes earlier. My mother gets in a huff. “I’ve been with her for the last two hours and you did not give Alma her pills.” The nurse is thirty-something, but to my mother she is just another sixth grader on the playground who needs a firm voice and a stern look.
Alma is my mother’s salvation (forgive me, Jesus). She is one of the locals, having grown up ten miles up the road in a small cluster of decaying houses that the highway signs still pretend is a town. I drove my mom up there once to pass the time during one of my visits. We turned off from the highway and went for a few minutes down a dirt road. My mom remarked on a cluster of cows we passed. We turned around a mile later and came back. She perked up.
“Look at those cows, son.”
“Yes, Mom. Cows.”
Alma wears a jet-black curly wig that always has a pencil stuck in it. She has clown-sized red rouge dots on each cheek. Her perpetual question, “And how are you doing today?” is the opening salvo of a conversation that will circle back, after a few minutes, to a question: “And how are you doing today?”
Though she too often smells of urine, I am glad when Alma is in the room with us. She helps keep the conversation going, playing Laurel to my mom’s Hardy. The last time I was there, the three of us sat in their room, formerly a hospital maternity room (once a place for the new coming ones, now a place for the old departing ones—life is a circle).
For some reason the name of a hymn comes up. I start to sing it, thinking only to croak out a few bars. But my mother looks at me with a smile and picks up the tune. She is harmonizing underneath my broken melody. She used to do the same with my father, sometimes in church, her sitting at the piano—he the handsome preacher, she the dutiful pastor’s wife. Singing for the ladies—and for the gentlemen.
Her voice is tremulous, partly from habit—a traditional way of hymn singing, I think—and partly from age. My memory of the words runs dry—dry, that is, until the words are needed. From somewhere deep inside me come the words just in time for the next phrase. “There shall be showers of blessing; this is the promise of love.” What’s next? “There shall be seasons refreshing, sent from….”
My mother finishes: “—the savior above.”
It is a sweet moment. Singing with my mom. Something I haven’t done since I was a child. I don’t look at her as we sing, for fear I might cry.
“Showers of blessing,” we continue. “Showers of blessing we need.” That’s certainly true, Mom. We do need them. How can I, given how you are now—and how I am—be a blessing to you? What can I do that will last for more than a few moments?
“Mercy drops round us are falling.” Alma has joined in on the refrain. “But for the showers we plead.” Maybe that’s the most I can hope to do for you, Mom—mercy drops. A call here, a visit there, a book of beautiful photographs that might, if you remember to look at them, take you briefly to other places. The doctors say you can only get worse, steadily and inexorably, as surely as winter follows fall. But even in winter, perhaps, there can be mercy drops.
Singing the hymn awakens the musician in Alma. She reaches under her bed and drags out a large music case. She snaps open the locks to reveal an accordion, and on top of the accordion another wig—perhaps her performance wig.
“I was in five bands, you know.”
She lifts the accordion and slides her arms through the straps.
“I played the piano, guitar, drums, and saxophone. I was in seven different bands, you know.”
She reaches for a battered notebook that has page after page of song titles scribbled in pencil. No music, just titles.
“I know 850 tunes by heart. Want to hear one?”
Sure I want to hear one, Alma.
Suddenly the room is engulfed in a blast of music. “The Beer Barrel Polka.” My mom is all smiles. She looks at me and nods, proud of her roommate as she was once proud of me for bringing home a good report card. She starts rhythmic clapping and beams out encouragement to Alma. You go, Alma, I want to say. You go, Mom.
It’s not easy to come up with new outings in a town that found its one traffic light underused and took it out. Her favorite place is Southside, a gas station and food mart that also rents videos and sells American flags, hot dogs, pizza slices, and, best of all, ice-cream cones. Anytime we’re out I can count on a good response when I ask if she’d like some ice cream.
“Ooh, I’ve just been so hungry for some ice cream, lately. I haven’t had ice cream for the longest time.”
Or sometimes we go to the park, across from the town swimming pool. She scared me once by plumping herself down in a swing and starting to pump herself up in a big swinging arc, like she was twelve again. I hustled over and slowed her down, unsettled by the look of wild delight in her eyes.
Sometimes we go to the cemetery on the edge of town. We walk among the yew trees and the headstones, she calling out the dates like a sideshow barker.
“Oh, look here. 1826 to 1887. That’s an old one.”
Yes, Mom, an old one. What, I think to myself, will your numbers be? What will mine?
As much as I want to focus on my mom during these visits, I can’t help but wonder if I am seeing myself—seeing my own future. Her own mother in her last days used to jump out of her bedroom window in her nightgown and run down to the river. And her sister died a few years ago at ninety, a woman no longer acquainted with her own mind. Her father, too. My doctor assures me there is no direct genetic link in these things, only tendencies. I take comfort in my dad’s mother being feisty and controlling to the end. I count on science to put an end to all this before my turn comes, but then I counted on science to cure baldness, too.
I suppose in some ways it’s worse for the family than it is for the one afflicted. You could argue she’s happier now than she was living with my father after the kids had left. That can’t have been pleasant, living with a man raised as an only child who was still an only child of sorts, a man who expected to be served but didn’t respect the server. She sees her place now, Evergreen, as her home, and home has always been important to her.
Maybe she learned to value home because she was never in one for long. We lived in close to twenty different places just in my time, more before and after—houses, apartments, relative’s homes—mostly rented, sometimes bought—one sold after a year before the bank reclaimed it. My father would walk in the door and announce we were moving, sometimes to a different neighborhood, usually to a different town. Often he already had a job there and he went on ahead, leaving my mom to pack everything up and follow. At least that’s what my mom says. Maybe it isn’t fair to my dad.
So my mother developed the gift of creating an instant feeling of home. Maybe it’s why we held onto old furniture so long. Perhaps it made her feel at home no matter what the new walls said. Home was coziness for my mom. She would do small things to make even a motel room homey when we traveled, bringing in our own blankets and pillows from the car.
She says to me often, even now, “Do you remember how you used to whisper, ‘Danny’s home,’ in my ear when you came in late at night?” I’m quite sure I never called myself “Danny” as a teenager, but these days I pretty much go with whatever version of reality my mom’s comfortable with at the moment. It’s true she did require me to come to the side of her bed whenever I got home and let her know I was in. If she remembers it as “Danny’s home,” that’s fine with me.
So Evergreen—in Ellendale, in North Dakota—is now her home, as surely as the house in the lemon orchard in Ventura, or the white-trash apartment in Sweetwater with the dilapidated screen door and the gully behind where the kids played, or the nice house on Calle Cita that we lived in when, thanks to her teaching, we had made it.
And because Evergreen is her home, she is increasingly anxious not to be away from it too long. “I better be getting back,” she now says after a couple of hours away. “They’ll be having dinner soon”—oblivious to the fact that we are having dinner ourselves as she speaks. I’m not sure whether to find this desire to go back discouraging or comforting. She wants desperately to be taken out; she wants desperately to be taken back. It’s the desperate part that hurts. Don’t be desperate, Mom. I’m here—we’re here—to make sure you have nothing to be desperate about ever again.
Then again, at least she still believes she has a home to go back to.
But for how much longer? For how much longer will she tell herself how lucky she is to have a great roommate like Alma, to be back in the dorms, to have children that all love Jesus? That’s what I am tempted to get desperate about myself. When is the personality change coming? When will the anxiety come and no longer go? When will she lose sight of the silver lining? When will she grow bitter and silent? At what point will this—condition, let’s call it—be worse for her even than it is for us?
And will I still drive ten hours in a day to see her when that time comes?
For now we can still laugh—together with her and among the rest of the family. Let’s be honest. She is now funny in a way she never was before. She makes cracks about dad and her marriage she would never have let out. She now excels at friendly putdowns. Alma says how much Mom and I look alike. Mom looks at me, shows a comedic sense of timing by waiting a beat, then says, “Boy, are you lucky.”
But she also does funny things—things you’re pretty sure you shouldn’t laugh at, but you laugh anyway, considering the alternative.
Like the Christmas at my brother’s house where she had a present in a gift bag, which she opened with much exclamation. Then she placed the bag by her chair and watched as the gift opening went around the circle. When it was her turn again, she reached down for the same gift bag, opened it again, and again expressed surprise and delight. Once more around the circle and then she opened it for the third time, more surprised and delighted than ever, before someone had the good sense to put the bag somewhere else.
We all laugh at the telling of it, hoping that we are laughing at her condition, not at her, but knowing that sad laughter is sometimes the only way to cope. Because, you see, we, too, have to figure out how to get through this.
If that sounds harsh or selfish, I don’t mean it to be. One shouldn’t have to “get through” the end of a good life. The last years should be a culmination, not a disintegration, a time of peace and passing on legacies, not a return to the infantile. It should be a time of being a blessing and feeling blessed. That’s how it ought to be.
And then there is how it, in fact, is. At least with my mom, and with so many. With each visit she is slightly blanker, slightly less aware, slightly more confused. It cannot be any other way, we are told. We should be happy about the “slightly” part.
When I come into her room on visits now, she does not know for sure it is me, her second son, but she does know it is someone special, someone she should give a big greeting to until she gets more clues. She can still name her sons; she just isn’t positive which one is standing in front of her. Maybe I should be glad, in this moment, for that much. Maybe I should be glad, in this moment, that she still laughs, that she still tells and understands jokes, that she is still excited about ice-cream cones at the gas station.
Tomorrow she will not know me at all. The day after she will not know anyone. The day after that she will be gone. But today, in this moment, she is glad I am here. She smiles and we make small talk and she holds my hand and I take her places. When I leave for the five-hour return drive, she will forget before I reach the edge of town that I have been here. But it will not have been for nothing. It will not have been a meaningless visit. For in this moment we are together. Once again Danny’s home and all is right with the world.