My mother and I achieved a warmth in correspondence that we never quite replicated in real life. When I broke down her house I discovered she’d saved everything I’d ever written to her. When I came home from summer camp, the trucks with our luggage arrived before the buses of campers. Parents had to locate our duffels in advance of our arrival, via a buff tag on a wire twisted round the strap. I wrote on the back of mine “Hi Mom! I love you!” and it remained stuck up with yellow tape inside the knotty pine dish cupboard on Fulton Avenue for decades.
Mom turns 89 this week. Her toenails, always impeccably shaped and polished now have a persistent fungus that is impervious to everything the podiatrist prescribes. I arrive for her birthday celebration and she’s wearing a black skirt, and short socks and wool slippers, something out of Potemkin’s Odessa Steps scene. The last time we took her out she freaked when we tried to leave her back at the house, screaming for her brother and my father. It disturbed me so much that since then our visits have been confined to old movies on t.v. from the plastic sheathed couch at the board and care. I determine for her birthday to regale her with the Mexican food she loves so we venture to a neighborhood restaurant.
Mom has no idea she is at a restaurant. Now she is always just some place and it is always now. When I first take her from Fulton Avenue she is distinctly conscious of not being at home but now even the notion of home has faded. We slide into an ample booth and a big bowl of dark thick spicy salsa and some chips grace the table. Mom immediately jabs a jalapeno with her fork and chomps it down, only to be shocked by the heat. I ask the waitress for water. We move the salsa and my mother grabs it back possessively, stabs at it greedily and then screws up her face in discomfort. Groundhog Day until some water finally arrives to distract her while the salsa is discreetly moved out of her line of sight.
The birthday girl inhales a plate of enchiladas and half of my quesadilla and I treat her to a couple cups of her favorite strong black coffee. I know the jolt will make her, not having had caffeine for months, totally hyper and drive them crazy after I drop her back at the home. We return and serve a cake and she eats two large pieces, eyes the last remaining slice in sad hopefulness and denies having had any at all. I leave some gifts, a few colorful skirts and a new handbag, in bright gift bags on her bed. The caregiver takes Mom to open the presents and we sneak out before she realizes that we’ve left without her. She floats through another birthday, oblivious to the decay of her mind and body. I do the best I can.
I send the seventeen year old e-mails. I am not sure that he reads them, as he uses texting and Facebook more for communications these days. I think maybe he does but I’m embarrassed to ask him and suspect he’d be too embarrassed to tell me. There is a friction often when we are face to face. Our pace is so rapid that so much of my conversation with him pertains to logistics, as in, telling him what to do. When I am not barking orders, I struggle to keep my narcissism at bay but sometimes he competes unfairly with my memories of myself at seventeen. One of the weird things about being a parent is trying to keep in perspective the inevitable comparison and hashing over of our own childhood as our kids reach parallel milestones.
In my e-mails I try to tell the boy about me so he gets a bit of why I am the way I am. This, I hope, will instill him with a bit of compassion, but if he is capable of the same treachery that I was at the same age, it could come back to bite me. I write to him to remind myself that he is not me. I assure him that while I am often proud of him for things he takes little pride him, and may diminish or not fully appreciate what he feels are his best accomplishments, that I really am proud of the whole picture. He is mostly at ease in the world while I remember myself and my rash conjectures and social desperation and feel embarrassed for my poor awkward teenage self.
I wrote last week about my husband’s mad dash for the lint filter upon returning from a week abroad without intending to ascribe to this to any meanness on his part, just innocent weirdness and cluelessness. Nevertheless, while I am unable to proffer “kudos” because he viscerally hates this word, I will note that since my posting, he is particularly generous with his attention, even shockingly agreeing when I ask him to watch t.v. with me. I scan the gazillion channels and there is nothing much we can agree upon.
While my husband has devoured his share of literary filth he has no appetite for what my father referred to as “stag films.” Once though, while channel surfing in a hotel room we came upon the HBO series Taxi Cab Confessions and it held our interest. This show is no longer listed on the HBO After Hours menu but in mutual agreement we select a documentary called Hookers and Johns: Trick or Treat: America Undercover, intrigued perhaps by more than just the use of two colons. Prostitution isn’t something I think about very much except to note that prohibitions against it suck up a lot of law enforcement and corrections resources.
I had always presumed the raison d’etre of HBO after hours programming was cheap thrills but, except perhaps for the fiendish gynecologist film, Dead Ringers, which Himself and I saw on our first date, I can think of no sexually themed material I have ever partaken of that was less titillating. Some scenes are shot in strip clubs where the dancing is nothing like the demure burlesque of Gypsy Rose Lee and instead of tucking dollar bills into panties, men rub their credit cards against young women’s wildly gyrating genitals. What’s weird is that men actually participate in this in the presence of other men, and in this instance, in front of a camera, and no one seems embarrassed. Himself and I though are beyond mortified when the seventeen year old walks in on us to retrieve a DVD and catches us watching on t.v. an act for which a $20.00 payment has been negotiated being performed in the front seat of a car. He leaves our room wordlessly, another sign of his quality that makes me proud.
One interviewee quips that a hooker isn’t paid for sex, she’s paid to leave. One fifty something client avers that he is sexually attracted to women in their twenties and money is the only inducement he has for them to have sex with him. The working girls interviewed have no lofty ideas about being sex therapists and express no professional pride, and only a desire to earn money. There isn’t a single frame suggesting that the modern incarnation of the oldest professionals and the oldest consumers are ennobled by this commerce in any way.
Government interference over the choices a woman makes about her body, i.e. prostitution and abortion, doesn’t seem to have done anyone any good. The feminist movement is mostly unified with regard to abortion rights but polarized about the possible legalization of prostitution. I am disappointed that the issue of abortion has become a pawn in the universal health coverage debate but I would feel better about throwing my energy into decreasing the need for any abortions at all. I can envision a methodology towards preventing many of the abortions that will be inevitably be performed, legally or illegally, but it seems that there has never been, and never will be, an anecdote for prostitution. Some feminists claim that performing sex for hire is an expression of a woman’s control over her own body but the HBO film we thought would give us a thrill or a chuckle put me on the side of the woman’s movement that views the performance of sex for money as degrading.
I read in the dentist’s chair a People magazine feature about a little girl who knowing she was dying of cancer, left so many notes for her parents hidden around their home that they continue to find them several years after her death. Something that happened before I was born left my mother hard and angry and grudging yet every word I wrote to her she kept. Sometimes, in myopia, I see myself so closely in my seventeen year old son that I lash out and then find myself too weak to atone in three dimensions and manage only e-mails he may or may not read. I know though that his father reads my words, emails to efficiently deal with household management to conserve precious face time, angry rants, misguided tangents and love letters full of things I am too shy to even whisper.
I am a few hundred words short to be starting the last paragraph but this week’s writing has been in fits and starts and for the last entry I spent so long memorializing another week that by the time I arrived at the bakery all of the challahs were gone and we had to substitute a beigey Russian bread to conjure vaguely shetl images and a sickeningly sweet mushy Hawaiian round that at least was the same pale yellow color. I will be quick here, in order to snatch a proper challah, to tie it all together. I realized when I cleaned out my mother’s house how long I’ve been at this writing thing. I am reminded though that given my Fulton Avenue legacy and being my mother’s daughter that I am blessed to love a husband I can be myself with and to belong to the first generation of women for whom marriage is not a form of commoditization. The writing is hard but I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’ve been living a bit longer than I’ve been writing but I do it with less confidence. In recognition of this, just for today, I will end my piece a bit abruptly and with no rock solid conclusion and buy a braided bread and try my best to make a real Shabbat of peace with the real people who I love.