The Box in the Entry Hall
My mom’s two roommates at the board and care sit in recliners in front of the t.v. sporting sweat suits and Snuggies™ and sensible close cropped hairdos. My mother sits imperious on the periphery in a straight back chair, purse in lap. Her finger tips are bright pink, like she’s soaked them in Easter Egg dye. She is so insistent about doing her nails that her caretakers relent, knowing the job will require prompt professional revision. She stares at herself in the mirror for hours each day. The helpers fix her hair in fancy styles and ask me to bring rollers and hairspray and mousse. They help her put on makeup, although at times the supervision is a tad lax, and her eyelids bear a thick application of rust lipstick. Dozens of well cut trousers and dresses hang dormant now due to her reliance on Depends. For the convenience of her caretakers she is dressed always in full, long skirts and socks but still they remain committed to prettying her up as best they can.
One of the ladies, Laurine, is at about at the same level of dementia ravage as my mother. She is obsessed with shoes. When she does look up from our shoes and registers that we are guests she introduces herself as Laurine Fowler from Arkansas. The other lady is named June and while physically frail at age 95, she is cogent and alert and it is obvious that sitting in front of the t.v. with my mother and Laurine blathering the same thing over and over again all day drives her insane. She spits at Laurine, “We know you’re from Arkansas!” or when the Arkansas native attempts to insinuate herself into our conversation, chastises, “They’re not your relatives.” My mother is presented with two new skirts. The living room becomes a dressing room. She tries both on in front of all the assembled. She twirls in front of the mirror, “I’ll take this one,” and looks for money in her purse.
Spuds and I go to the bakery to order the cake for his bar mitzvah. I’d found it online but the cake is not represented in the glossy cake book that’s displayed. After making us wait forever while he indolently wipes the glass cases with a murky rag, the clerk ambles back behind the counter. “I need to order a bar mitzvah cake. I saw it on line.”
“If it’s not in the book, we don’t have it.”
“I saw it online,” I say more emphatically.
Spuds stares daggers and pokes me. There is a very fine line between emphatic and shrilly obnoxious but I will be damned rather than walk away without a cake because some lazy bakery drone wants to blow me off. I transition to drenched in honey, but emphatic nevertheless, simpering and he makes a call to bakery headquarters and gets confirmation that indeed they can produce a cake to commemorate this strange Hebe ritual.
My usual routine causes little occasion to out myself as a Jew. There are very few Jewish kids at the sprats’ school and Spuds reports that many of the Bar Mitzvah invitations he extends to fellow students require instruction and explanation which makes him a bit self conscious. I wonder if he might have let me go off full throttle at the bakery nimrod if it had been a mere birthday cake. Maybe I would have been slower to capitulate to his “shut the fuck up” poke in the ribs if we hadn’t been on a Jewish mission. “Bar Mitzvah mom” conjures images of Mike Myers as the loud, gaudy, but guileless Linda Richman. The wonderful/awful thing about this character is that Myer’s creation, inspired by his real mother-in-law, is not only totally clueless that she is a stereotypically loud, vulgar, pushy Jew, she also doesn’t give a rat’s ass. On the other hand, my propensity to be loud, gaudy but with no dearth of guile or self consciousness doesn’t particularly make me a more secularly acceptable specimen of the tribe.
From bakery we head to the behemoth Glendale Galleria on a quest for suitable temple garb for Spuds and his big brother. I am surprised to find it crowded at dinnertime on a weeknight but suspect, for all the minions of shoppers that we are the only folks in search of bar mitzvah attire. I stand sentry in front of the dressing room and make them both come out. I jab my finger in the waistband and make them sit down to inspect for perfect fit. Both are nearly apoplectic but they know how much I loathe being at the mall and accept that submitting to my inspection for crotch fit is less humiliating then being screamed at in a crowded store.
A sure fire recipe for the inducement of panic is to remember myself at seventeen while attempting to get a read on my own seventeen year old’s emotional whereabouts. I was already licensed and until I got my own car, I’d borrow my mother’s enormous dark olive Pontiac Catalina. She traded in a beautiful 1963 Impala for the monstrosity impulsively when she spotted a good looking salesman at a used car lot. He never called her for a date and we found out that the odometer had been set back a year later when it broke down and had to be junked. There was a boy I liked in Long Beach. He had long flowing hair and played the guitar and had no interest in me whatsoever. I made excuses that I happened to be in the neighborhood and armed with new driver’s license, would traverse the snarled freeway for an hour in both directions to spend five awkward minutes. We would sit cross legged on the floor of his faux pine paneled den and he’d play me the latest song he had written, singing in falsetto, and then, stymied by his unwillingness to participate in any conversation, I would, facing not the slightest opposition, leave.
Remembering the enormous heap of things my mother didn’t get about me makes me worried about pushing the 17 year old away. I write him an email trying to check in and let him feel my presence in a way that’s less smothering than a face to face with bar mitzvah mom. It is a nice e-mail and I make a big effort to address a few controversial issues fair mindedly. I receive an e-mail back from him in minutes and it’s jarringly nasty and I am devastated at how apparently tenuous our relationship really is. I reply that I am wounded and then we both stew for a few days. He doesn’t even bother to call “shotgun” when we leave the house and he sits sullenly in the backseat.
Trying on clothes at the Galleria we reach a shaky détente and are both on good behavior. Thanks to a number of coupons and giftcards and compromises, no blood or tears are shed. In two exhausting hours both boys have pants that fit, shirts, ties, shoes and even dress socks. We are ravenous and exhausted and for the first time I can remember since I was a kid at Laurel Plaza, we take our dinner at the food court. I remember my first glimpse at the colorful stands surrounding the ice rink at the newly opened North Hollywood mall in about 1964. They were alluring and exotic and sophisticated. I would not use any of these adjectives with regard to the 2010 incarnation at the Galleria.
While Spuds prowls for something vegetarian, from across the sticky plastic table the 17 year old tells me he is sorry and even risks shedding a tiny of glimmer of light on his inner life. Compassion was meted out to me mercurially when I was growing up and I strive to be more consistent with my own kids. This rapprochement with my older son fills me a bit with the hubris that perhaps I am a better parent than my own parents were. It does seem, at least at this moment, that my relationship with both of my kids is less fractious than my own was with my parents. Nevertheless, knowing the nature of the teenage beast, this is tenuous. I bear in mind too that it is only on the piggyback of my parents’ sacrifices that I find myself in the circumstance to gloat about my own superior parenting skills.
In my last entry I spoke about how freaked out I get by doom and gloom fantasies whenever I take time off from work. I also pointed out that I always return to the office after these fretful vacations to discover posthaste that my fears were overwrought and then I rue having colored leisure time with worry and despair. As was also predicted, I return, after being in the office only briefly for the last two weeks, to work the first Monday of the year and find that there is indeed a smattering of clients who want what I have to sell.
I admit to Himself how naïve I was when I took up corresponding with three Jewish prisoners. I receive several letters from each in the course of a usual week. The thick prison stamped envelopes amass and menace me from my desk. Just like my vision of work and the office gets skewed and distorted when I am away, the stack of envelopes conjure the grim grayness of where they emanate from and not the extraordinary light and warmth each actual letter contains. When I am graced with some perspective, the time I spend at my office and the penpal experience are not oppressive or diminishing. Au contraire. I work most days and I write each inmate weekly, proving again and again the dread I muster is mostly unwarranted.
I visit my mother once a week. I’ve done this now for three years and dread it more than the travails of running a business in an impossible economy or the physical manifestations of human degradation that the mailman delivers most days. I go back to work and long time employees after a vacation or don my reading glasses to take on a twelve page letter from prison and inevitably am made happy that something I felt stricken by actually adds great value to my life. I wish I could say that visiting my mom is another one of those things I dread but once I plunge in I find myself relieved and bolstered. It is hard to shake the sadness or feel ennobled by attending to this weekly obligation. Our relationship was frequently acrimonious and unsatisfactory, and now more often than not, she does not even recognize me.
I felt most of my life, accurately I’m afraid, a stranger to my mother and yet I do not think she loved anyone in her life more than she loved me. Even now, she may not know my name but she acknowledges my significance. For years, before she was institutionalized she would always try to give me lots of crap I didn’t want. There was always a box, with my name emblazoned on it, in the entry hall at Fulton Avenue crammed with off brand chewing gum and irregular ankle socks. Now she tries to gift me a used napkin or an advertising circular from the porch. I whine often about how much Himself and my children require of me but maybe, not being needed is the ultimate despair and this reminder redeems my sad visits with my mother.