I write to three Jewish inmates in California prisons, each once a week. When one of my pen pals learns I write to other convicts too, he suggests that I just change the name on the word processed letter but I do not. I dedicate the time necessary to write three separate letters and it is satisfying to me to keep this connection. Most of what I write is about my workaday life. I wonder if my pen pals are not bored to tears with the banality of my carrying on. If I were sentenced to life I wonder if the description of someone outside’s trivial day-to-day would quench some vicariousness or salt the wound. I make mental notes for my pen pal letters as the week glides by and perhaps the responsibility of recounting my activities to the inmates makes me more mindful of my freedom and what I do with it.
I try to ask non-controversial questions so my correspondents have something to write to me about. One sends me an old photo of himself with a white poodle on his lap. He explains he’s crossed out the dates on all of his pictures because he cannot bear to note the time elapsed. I write him about our half breed poodle Fido. He writes back that although it wasn’t a manly dog, he’d loved his poodle. I don’t know if his prison uses dogs for contraband detection, but chances are with a life sentence, he will never pet a dog again.
Himself says that one of his early indicators of his true love for me was my ability to identify so many different breeds of dog. Of all the canine companions we’ve raised together, Fido is the most Himself’s dog. When I come home from work she raises an eyelid to indentify me and then returns to her nap on the couch, never condescending to use the dog bed. When she hears Himself’s car from blocks away she dashes from window to door frantically whining and has torn many garments in her enthusiasm to greet him.
I write my pen pal that Fido has been panting and we are waiting for some lab results. In my next letter I will share the sad diagnosis that eight year old Fido has rapidly metastasizing lung cancer and a life expectancy of about two months. Because the cancer has spread to her liver a special bland food is recommended. This reminds me of my mother’s boyfriend Charles back when she lived at the steaming cesspool of now we called “the hotel.” He wears bib and diaper but his daughter is slavishly committed to reducing his weight. His lunch, seven days a week, is non-fat cottage cheese and sugar free canned peaches. I don’t think there’s a state of dementia advanced enough to induce me to eat non-fat cottage cheese. My mother would steal food from the kitchen for him. I sneak Fido hunks of chicken when the other dogs aren’t looking.
Fido has a prescription for 60 daily pills. The vet says we’ll know when the time is right. We’ve known in the past although we were a few hours too late for the ancient scruffy little terrier Bingo. I’m afraid in Fido’s case Himself’s judgment might be clouded by his desire to get his money’s worth out of those 60 expensive pills. This prognosis is not what we expected and it is sad to lose a good dog but it a comfort that this is another sorrow my beloved and I will endure together.
Since my kids began at the far-flung charter school and it seems the only time I don’t have to pee is when I’m peeing, it is my mission to identify conveniently located, clean, uncrowded bathrooms between school and office. The quest leads me to a small family run bakery in Altadena. I stop there just about every day and buy a coffee so they don’t think I’m a bathroom mooch, although this pretty much guarantees another pit stop at the resplendent Gelson’s bathroom before I hit the office.
I overhear snippets of the bakery owner’s conversations with a couple of regulars. They talk about how easy teachers have it, only having to work until 3:00 p.m. and what with summers off and all. They go at weird movie stars on talk shows with bad posture and messy hair. They chastise Johnny Depp for hating America but living pretty high on the hog with U.S. dollars.
Another morning’s topic is the Dave Chappelle Show. Unless you are a professional comedian yourself, if you really love a comedy show, you do it no justice by attempting to reenact your favorite skits for others. Three white men, slightly older than I perceive myself to be, but probably close in age to me, chatter back and forth delivering Chappelle gags, all heavily peppered with the word “nigger” which they abbreviate to “n.” I wonder if this would have transpired if a black customer were in the store. I suspect these guys are tapping into Chappelle’s self deprecation in order to rationalize their own deep seeded fear and contempt.
The bakery has easy parking and only once have I found the restroom occupied, whereas Starbucks is always dicey. The pastries are of the high end sort and excellent but at $3.00 an item, out of my price range. Unfortunately, the little shop has not only given me an oasis for my weak bladder and a tiny window into the mindset of the Altadena menfolk, it has enhanced my anticipation of TGIF. On Fridays, the week’s leftovers, which have been frozen, are displayed on the counter, all individually wrapped in Saran and for $5.00 you can buy as many as you can fit into a bag. The one branch of math I excelled in was geometry and it may not be my imagination that the proprietor eyes me funny as I carefully piece pastry in until the bag is overflowing. So even if they are clueless about teachers and probably worship Chappelle for the wrong reason, the anticipated baked goods bargain makes it easier to foist myself from my warm bed on Friday mornings.
My mother never remembers having eaten and is issued a dozen or so small meals day which she scarfs with vigor and relish. Perhaps it is a reward for a life of privation that she remains tiny thin. Nevertheless, if not for her dementia she would remonstrate me for buying bags full of pastry, while also trying to horn in on the bargain. She tells her caretaker that I am her little sister. When I introduce the boys as her grandsons, it doesn’t register. Ditto when I wish her a happy 89th birthday.
I complain about a weird psychic dissonance I am unable to shake and Himself suggests that what’s left of my mother wears on me more than I realize. She is suddenly old and withered and the dementia carries her farther and farther away. But she can eat as much as she wants and she is young and now, after living how she lived and being dogged by the things she feared, she is free. She is the center of her universe, and it is always now.
Himself, I guess, grayed quickly in the course of two or so years whereas my hair’s faded over the course of two decades. I didn’t really notice. When he calls it to my attention I observe that the lighter hair softens his face and brings out the blue of his eyes but he thinks I am just humoring him to shut him up from grousing. The body my mother took excruciating pains to maintain has withered and she is all purple-black veins and ancient skin and I am her daughter. I will not go lightly into decrepitude but neither do I dread the prospect of growing old. My body will show its years but for every joy and dog we bury and puerile joke, our union is burnished by what time and fate mete out, as we grow old together my gray husband and his gray wife. And it’s good that I’m able to tap into that because in this economy, cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery are out of the question.
It is theatre week and I am determined to make it a happy experience but there is already a screaming fight with the kids as I rush to set up a spaghetti dinner I’d prepared for fifty in time for it to be eaten before dress rehearsal. The sprats are indolent and unlistening and I am a hysterical psychotic freak. They don’t get what the big deal is to feed fifty people and I don’t get that they’re facing a dress rehearsal of the play they’ve worked so hard on. At the theatre I notice someone has gotten into the sodas I’d purchased to sell and nearly blow a gasket. I am bossy with the kids as they congregate hungrily and get in my way as I try to set out the food.
I find some notes from nearly a decade ago when we were planning concessions for another play, three single spaced pages addressing such minutiae as napkin brand and ascribing cute Monty Python inspired names to menu items. Now that I’ve served as concessions queen for some twenty plays, I barely need notes and I have figured out that Rice Crispie treats inevitably sell way better than anything I’d prefer to eat. My sense of accomplishment over such an insignificant realm in vast universe embarrasses me and perhaps leads me to be a self righteous asshole about it. I am determined to chill and take pleasure in this small good thing I do well and amid and for people I care about.
I bake all week and more baking and cooking is in store for me in preparation for Thanksgiving. It is wonderful to work in the remodeled space and remember all the years I cooked in lesser kitchens. Growing up with family gravitas in the valley the holidays usually brought out the worst in people. I remember the last time my mother cooked Thanksgiving dinner. I’d wanted to host it myself but she was determined and cinched the deal by reluctantly agreeing to include a family of three we knew who had no other invitation. On Thanksgiving morning she called and said she’d changed her mind and that they couldn’t come.
There was a Christmas party held by my sister at a time when my father and his wife maintained a cordial relationship with my mother. My mother always bought cars with two doors so she wouldn’t be asked to drive anyone in her backseat. Even before the early signs of Alzheimer’s might have made her afraid to drive, my mother always wanted to be picked up and driven. I don’t know if it was a cheapness or if she just wanted to feel taken care of. My sister’s was only a mile away but my mother called my father and asked if they could pick her up. My stepmother said no. Neither my mother nor my stepmother’s motives are clear with regard to the asking or the refusing. My mother drove herself to the event. My father and my younger than my sister stepmother entered, both wearing red sweaters. My mother rolled her eyes and said in a stage whisper, “Father and daughter.”
Himself may be right about my mother. I get an urge to call her sometimes and it makes me sad when I realize that this is no longer an option and that even when it was an option it wasn’t really. My mother loved me more than I think she loved anyone on the planet but she was crippled in a way I have struggled for years to understand. What Himself sees wearing me down is not the loss of my mother, it is the loss of the idea of mother. I scream fiercely at my boys and am terrified by my potential to disenchant them. I know someday they will most likely mourn the loss of me, their mother, but I pray that the idea of mother endures for the rest of their lives. I married without knowing how to be a wife or what to expect from a husband and Himself was just as clueless. We are still figuring it out. The seventeen year old was the first baby I ever held and I was so undone by this that I was still in shock and not much wiser when Spuds came along. We’re still figuring out the parenthood thing too. I pray that my sons’ memories of me are mostly sweet ones and I hope when I’m gone I will have lived my life in a way that my children are spared the onus of reckoning with my bitterness.
Shabbat Shalom. And break a leg.