Friday, January 29, 2010

The Way to the Heart

The Way to the Heart
My children are indignant at being served twice in the same week homemade pineapple muffins with candied ginger for breakfast. I am on an experimental fruit muffin baking jag and would have given most of this batch away if I hadn’t accidently gotten a bit of eggshell into the batter which I thought I had retrieved but found traces of in about 25% of the muffins I ate. They are nevertheless, forewarned of shell bits, quite flavorful and evaluated with all possible objectivity, better than any commercial muffin and even most found at hoity toity bakeries that we don’t go to.

The kids bombard me the second I walk in the front door. “What’s for dinner?” to which the standard answer is “I don’t know,” and when I do know and they complain the retort is always, “This is not a restaurant.” They lurk around suspiciously while I cook. Spuds is ever watchful for signs of mushrooms, olives, tofu and raisins and the 17 year old is concerned about suspicious mixtures, which I often rely on to up the nutritional ante of the few sure foods that all three will eat. Himself will ask only if it is a wine or a beer night. His list of verboten foods is voluminous and he knows that in order to insure his proper feeding, that with the exception of lettuce and cucumber which I am unable to cook or conceal, many of the foods which unadulterated would cause a dramatic negative reaction are carefully blended into other concoctions to muddle the intensity of flavor. Thus we sup on traces of Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnips, squash, parsnips and mayonnaise.

Except for avoiding the anathematic, food isn’t as important to Himself as it is to the rest of us. The seventeen year old notes with astonishment that except when unavoidable during travel, my beloved has and will never stop to purchase food or drink. “I can always get something to eat at home,” he notes while expressing derision at the accumulation of food related detritus that overflows the litter bag in my car. I am prescribed pharmaceutical toothpaste which is effective only if one refrains from eating for a full hour after application. The only way I can accomplish this is by taking a sleeping pill and hoping I don’t pass out before I can brush with the dentifrice.

My mother always took pride in her willpower although she would occasionally binge on favorites like black licorice, dark chocolate and ice cream, her complete inability to sit still mitigated any extra poundage. She is still rail thin and has shrunken even tinier as is typical of the very elderly. I skip my weekly visit the weekend of the Bar Mitzvah and return the following week with a box of chocolate cookies. Guilty at having left her to languish for two whole weeks I let her keep eating them until I’m afraid she’ll get ill. She babbles on incoherently about work and cleaning and money. Then she gets hung up on a word that just won’t come and sits silently. She recognizes me as someone familiar bearing chocolate but alludes to “Layne” and long dead relatives. Up until several weeks ago, when I arrived to see her she would be sitting alertly, tightly clutching her handbag. The purse is gone now and with it, another chunk of my mother.

The caretaker reports that while the other residents sit placidly in recliners watching old movies, the television and being seated don’t engage my mother at all. She cleans and sweeps and fusses. She becomes agitated at night and screams that she wants to go home. Even dosed with sedatives, she has twice deactivated the alarm system in the middle of night and is found wandering the street. The first time she is intercepted by the police and the second time she is found by neighbors who call 911. The facility has upgraded to a better alarm system and they’ve added a motion sensor.

I wonder about this home she’s so desperate to return to. She lived on Fulton Avenue for over fifty years and it is the only home I remember her in but as a child she moved across the country and attended dozens of different schools before graduating in 1938 from Belmont High School. Is she trying to get back to Fulton Avenue or a tenement on the east side of New York City where she shared a bed with two nieces the same age as she, dead now for decades? Is it a shack in what was rural Encino in the 1930s where her parent’s plans for a chicken ranch failed? Is it a tiny Spanish house in a court a block from my Silverlake office that looks exactly the same as it did when my newlywedded and apparently deliriously happy parents lived there in 1942? Is it one of the many other places she never spoke about to me that is burned as “home” into what’s left of her memory?

I am curious about where she is trying to get to and I will never know. I know she wanted to be beautiful and cherished and lavished with attention and riches. She responded hostilely when my first writings were published and then she set out for several months to write herself before losing interest. She trivialized the work I did along side of my father. She did express pride when I taught, which to her I guess seemed a respectable position, that at least was indicative of intelligence, for a fat girl. While I was never fit to compete with her, at least in role of “teacher” I was not a total embarrassment.

My mom romanticized Catholicism and was delighted when I married an Irish Catholic and disgusted when he converted to Judaism. She declined including any of her friends at our wedding because she did not want to reveal our Jewish background. She was pleased when Himself completed his PhD and she could say her son-in-law was a doctor, even if not the kind who helps people. Her major delight in my children is that they are of fair complexion and blue eyed and unlikely to be indentified as being of Jewish heritage.

Although it is less than an hour of my week, the anticipation of visiting her inevitably induces dry heaves. I hate myself when my thoughts turn to the ways in which her death will be a relief. The dreaded weekly visits and fears that she will escape and wander will end. I hate that I will never understand what led to her to a life of obfuscation. It is sad that she will leave the world never knowing, that despite the obstacles she threw my way, I took the best I could from her. It makes me sad that my mother will have died never having appreciated or feeling part of that which I am the most proud of and thankful for.

Through the theatre group the kids get called in for an audition every so often. Nothing has come of it which doesn’t bother them at all, and they have fun. Separate of the theatre group we noticed that a kid’s game show is looking for contestants. Spuds watches the game on TV, does well and wants to try out so we sign him up. We’ve been involved with the children’s theatre group for a decade now and a number of the kids are extraordinarily talented and work professionally. Lots have them have been accepted to performing arts academies and great colleges. With very few exceptions, the parents are mellow and don’t push the kids at all.

This is a try out for an ultra low budget game show, not an acting opportunity. The biggest prize is a weekend at a lousy tourist hotel in San Francisco and dinner at a chain restaurant. Spuds likes playing the game and thinks it will be fun so I drag him all of the 15 blocks from my office to a freezing soundstage at Sunset Gower Studios. It seems though that the preponderance of kids and their parents are star struck and many know each other from rounds of auditions. A number of the kids are home schooled so they can attend cattle calls and one girl says she’s just moved to Hollywood from Arizona in order to pursue her acting career.

The kids are given a little written version of the game to start. Then, comes the excruciating part. Each of the would be contestants has to extemporize in front of a camera for two minutes. The words “awesome” and “random” are intoned frequently. There is much singing and dancing. None good, particularly the poor child who’s migrated from Arizona. Other parents have schlepped kids from Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. There is a potential contestant who misses a day of school for a drive from Fresno. A number of the mothers have younger siblings with them in the freezing waiting area. The little kids are bored and cold and fidget and are harshly admonished by their moms to pipe down and keep still.

Getting on the show isn’t that big a deal to Spuds who notes that even the grand prize hotel is beneath his standards. He’s been on other auditions so he just faces the camera and is relaxed and funny. He gets a laugh saying that he’s a vegetarian but he hates vegetables and that he subsists on pasta and candy. This is close to the truth, lest you think of polishing the mother of the year award. Most of the other kids, all aged 10-14 have this really creepy desperate quality to them. I find this and the vibe I get sitting in the audience surrounded by brittle anxious stage moms sad and distressing.

This mother stuff is hard and hasn’t come naturally to me. My mom was never a stage mother and gave up early on my being the keys to her kingdom of fulfillment. When my fatness and sullenness and my betrayal of her by maintaining a relationship with my father made it plain that I would never be a vehicle for her personal ambitions she made it clear that I was an obstacle. Being aware of this as a mother doesn’t necessarily make easier to avoid the extremes of wanting my kids to fill my void or resenting them for distracting me from my own self fulfillment. Maybe one day they’ll be as conflicted as I am and drag themselves out of guilt to visit me in my decrepitude. They say that as our children see us minister to our own aged parents, so will they attend to us. So at least, even if they’re hobbled by old resentments, they will most likely bring me something to eat.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

My former mother-in-law's family delighted in serving me "orange juice" for years. They liked asking me if I liked it. I was told much later that it was Tang. Imagine the fun our kids will have fooling us when we dine with them, one day, hopefully not too soon. xxx me