Sunday, December 10, 2017

Saturday with Mom

I travel to my mother’s house on a curving country road, past well-tended farms with driveway signs that quote the Old Testament.

Create in me a clean heart, O God

Sin is a reproach to any people

A soft answer turneth away wrath

Early morning light graces the trees and pastures, and I think, as always, of stopping to use the camera I’ve brought along. But I don’t stop today. I hardly ever stop. Mom is waiting.

When I get to her house, she’s all dressed in her purple outfit, a strand of costume pearls around her neck today instead of the rose quartz necklace she’s been wearing lately.

I have a tiny plush dog with oversized, sparkly blue eyes to give her. Its fur is gray with white markings, and I hope it will remind her of her long-dead Malamute named Bear. She's delighted with the toy. “Oh, how cute!”

“I think it looks like Bear,” I say. “Do you remember Bear?”

“Of course,” she says, caressing her new baby. It’s impossible to know whether she really remembers Bear, and I have no idea why I still feel the need to invoke the past with her.

Mom’s current dog comes up to say hello. Katie, a fluffy black mutt with spotted feet, is so fat she breathes heavily and waddles when she walks. Mom will not be discouraged from constantly giving her “treats” — whole slices of cheese and ham, sweet rolls, leftovers of all kinds. Sometimes I can convince her to refrain while I'm present, but I know she'll forget as soon as I'm gone. In her mind, Katie seems to represent every dog and child she ever cared for. She often talks as if she has a whole houseful of creatures to look after. I hate to see what's happening to Katie, but the only remedy would be to take her away from Mom. None of us is prepared to be that cruel. So I just pet the dog and feel guilty.

Mom’s partner helps her get her jacket on, and she and I head out to Southernaire, a restaurant near Kentucky Lake. Our family’s been eating there for years, and my eldest brother and I take Mom there most Saturdays for breakfast. His absence today makes Mom anxious.

"Is somebody coming with us?"

"No, Jeff can't come today. He's tied up with work. He's gonna come next week."

"Oh." A long pause. "He seems like a really good guy."

"He is a really good guy."

We repeat this exchange at least four times in the 15 minutes it takes to drive to the restaurant. It's not entirely clear whether she knows we're talking about her son. She seems to understand who I am, but I know that when I'm not around she refers to me as "my friend."


Southernaire is homey and charming and odd. The lobby features a big screen TV, video games, and a taxidermied beaver sporting seasonal headgear. The dining room, by contrast, is like a genteel tea room, all lace curtains and aquamarine walls.

While Mom slowly works on her heaped-up plate of eggs and bacon, the usual cast of characters cycles through —local families, couples, a pair of 60+ pilots who've just flown in on the air strip across the road. Three huge young men lumber in and take up a table. They look like brothers, or maybe cousins. They strike me as farm boys, though I can't quite put my finger on why. Two of them are decked out in Vol orange.  I half expect the room to list in their direction, they're so big. "You got a pork chop back there?" one of them asks the waitress. "Fry me up a pork chop."

While I'm studying the farm boys, Mom is fixated on a little blond girl at the next table. She keeps trying, without success, to get the child to smile back at her.  Mom has always loved kids, and whenever we're out in public she invariably zeros in on young children, especially girls. It's sweet to see, but it's also a little intense. She looks at them the way a 4-year-old looks at a puppy — fascinated, delighted, covetous. She'll often speak to the parents if she gets a chance, usually saying something admiring and innocuous like “That's a beautiful child.” Out here in the country, people always respond in a friendly way, and I'm grateful for that. I've often wondered whether an elderly man with a similar fixation on kids would be treated so tolerantly.

We box up Mom's leftovers to take home, where she'll likely feed them to Katie. I've only had to stop her a couple of times today from putting salt in her coffee or sugar on her eggs, and she was easily persuaded to leave the little tubs of half & half on the table. She offers to pay, pulling bills out of her purse and trying to hand them to me. We never let her pay, but I don't think she'll ever stop trying. She grew up poor and has a deeply ingrained sense of the importance of money.

Out in the parking lot, there's a vintage El Camino, fire engine red, with an unopened sack of something — maybe horse feed — lying in the middle of the pristine bed. I like to think it belongs to the large young men, though the cab looks like a tight fit for even one of them.


On the way home, we stop at a dollar store to look at the Christmas stuff. Mom has no Christmas decorations of any kind at her house, and she doesn't really understand the holiday anymore. She wouldn't refuse a present, and she thinks the lights are pretty, but it's not at all clear that she registers what any of it means. Nevertheless, I'm suddenly determined that she'll have something in her house to mark the season. As with the little plush dog, this is more about my needs than hers, and as we paw through the snow globes and reindeer ornaments, I'm painfully aware of the source of all these cheap gewgaws.

I find a little aluminum tabletop tree covered in gold glitter. $3.00. “This is pretty, Mom, don't you think?”

“Oh, it is pretty. And just $3.00.”

I get the feeling she's humoring me, but it's hard to tell. She might actually like it. And she regards all gifts as expressions of love, always has.

When I pay, the young woman behind the counter hands me a slip of paper along with my receipt. It's a note, handwritten on a piece of register tape. It says, “God Bless + Merry Christmas,” with a little 😊

A blast of cold wind hits us as we head to the car. Mom clutches her jacket and grimaces. She seems so frail, as brittle as the brown leaves blowing across the asphalt. While I drive, she lifts the little tree out of the plastic bag and admires it. “This is something I can treasure forever,” she says, and repeats it a few more times before we turn down the dirt road to her house.

*Photo by BitterGrace