Saturday, July 1
Overcast and muggy. After a few days of cemetery walks, I return to my old route, Beach Street and Wells. Construction everywhere — grooved pavements, raised manhole covers, bump signs — but empty of noise, workers’ holiday weekends off to an early start.
In my mother’s front yard, four squirrels, one chipmunk, a few doves, and a rabbit gather around the feeders, the squirrels thwarted by Uncle Charlie’s device: A water cooler milk jug with its bottom cut out taped by its neck to the pole. Now, my mother doesn’t order us up several times a day to bang on the screen and yell at the animal. When I step onto the lawn, the creatures scurry across the yard, the doves explode toward the telephone wires.
My mother is waiting for me with her Sharpie and her pad of paper.
“Let’s make a list of what we need for the kids,” she says. My family is due on Monday. They have voted on strawberry rhubarb squares over apple. “We’ll get stuff to make grinders. Make sure you get the cooked salami. And the iceburg. Nevermind that you think it tastes like water. People like it, that’s all.”
Her latest lesson is in how to choose the best watermelon. “You have to pick it up and look underneath. If it’s yellow, that’s the one to get.”
At Stop and Shop, I lift melon after melon, the crate of them so deep I start to worry I’ll have to climb in to deliver her the elusive best choice. Finally, she’s satisfied. I insist on going to the other end of the store to get frozen peas and milk.
“You pick the tomatoes,” I say. “And get Greg his juice.”
Greg is her acupuncturist whose only fee for home visits is a few bottles of Kombucha tea. She likes to stock up on his gifts. Also, these errands will keep her busy enough for me to get to the deli without her. She likes to see the coldcuts up close, will shove her carriage through the waiting crowds and push her face up to the glass so she can make out prices. I like seeing her do this, the way she can offend and be oblivious about offending, but shopping, her favorite pastime, wears her out now. I’m hoping I’ve been subtle enough about her assignments so that she doesn’t guess my motives.
Home, I unload the groceries in a quiet house so unlike the weekdays when the door opens and closes all day, visitors passing through. I miss those interruptions now, miss my children and Dennis. I look forward to their noise this weekend.
When I finally sit down, my mother is working on her word searches. I thumb through the book I’m reading. I look up and she’s looking at me, smiling.
“This is nice,” she says.
“What is?” I say.
“This,” she says. “Just the two of us.”
My sister Patty cuts the rhubarb and the strawberries for the squares.
“Let me see what you’re doing there.” My mother wheels her walker over and picks up some of the slices. “You can make them a little bigger.”
She measures out the ingredients for the crust but lets Patty mix it.
“Your turn,” my sister says, handing me the rolling pin. My mother supervises.
In all the years she’s made pies, I have never observed her, have only come home as a child to a cookie-sheet sized apple square still warm on the top of the oven, and, on the counter, wrapped in wax paper, a few cinnamon sticks made with the leftover dough. My kids have watched plenty of times so that, when I came home as an adult, I’d find them all covered in flour: my mom, my preschoolers, the dogs, every horizontal surface of my house.
In later years, when the girls stepped off the school bus, Apphia says they could smell the pie from the driveway even with all the windows closed.
Once I assemble my amateur version of her crust, my mother patches holes and spreads milk over the crust with her fingertips.
By the time it’s done cooking, smoke billows out of the oven where the juice has spilled over, and we sit in a smoky fog smelling burnt sugar.
A rainy day. Mom naps after our busy weekend. My nephew Jason invites my sister Patty and me me over for a cookout. My mother is too tired to go. Instead, my sister Barbara Ann and her husband Bill bring over burgers from the 99 (my mother calls it The 99 House) and stay until Patty and I return. When I come in, I join them at the table where Barbara Ann wonders what went wrong with the potato salad she made from my mother’s recipe for a different cookout that weekend.
“Did you use olive oil?” my mother asks. Her nemesis is olive oil.
“I used canola.”
“Well, I use corn oil, but, anyway, you didn’t use enough.” She tastes a spoonful. “And not enough oregano, either. Look, when you’re only using one spice, you have to use a lot of it.”
“Okay,” Barbara Ann says. “I wasn’t sure how much to use.”
“More salt, too,” my mother says.
I say, “Basically, you did everything wrong.”
We laugh. A few minutes pass. My mother says: “And when you cut your peppers, you have to cut them in thin strips.”
Finally, she says, “Look. Next time, just boil the potatoes and bring them over here. I’ll show you what to do.”
A squirrel perches on the birdfeeder. An Einstein who has, at last, broken the code. That water bottle provides no barrier to him. My brother Billy and his wife Caroline are here from Canada. Billy scares the squirrel away and then observes the thief’s method as he returns: He jumps onto the top of the water bottle, springs immediately to the feeder dish and clings there until he can pull himself up. When I leave for my walk, Billy has the water bottle on the lawn, spraying it with Pam.
By the time I return, the squirrel has been run over in the middle of the street. A pair of watchful crows strut on the neighbor’s lawn.
“Well,” I say when I come in, “we gave that squirrel his last supper.”
Everyone peers out at the roadkill. “Fed the crows, too,” my mother says.
I clean out mom’s fridge while she watches the news. Another result of all these caretakers: my niece Amy-Jo leaves the mozzarella and tomato slices she used to make my mom lunch when she stayed a few days ago; Billy leaves the pepper he didn’t use for the lasagna he made for us before he left; Barbara Ann’s potato salad is still in there; my yogurt; my kids’ take out leftovers. And then there is the excess I’ve learned to associate with my mother: 3 jars of hotdog relish; 9 jars of jam (including 3 strawberry); old sauce in cottage cheese containers; olives, olives, and more olives.
Mom is very tired today. She asks for an extra Xanax. She tells me that Joe, the hospice nurse, told her to listen to her body. Above all else, he said, your body will tell you what’s happening.
“Well,” my mother says, “my body tells me things are changing.”
“I’m tired all the time,” she says. “That’s the cancer.”
There is no debilitating pain, though. We’re doing it so far. We are not allowing her to suffer.
“Everyone is treating me differently, too,” she tells me. “Joe asks different questions. The social worker repeats them. Like they’ve spoken to one another.”
“That’s what’s good about the team,” I say. “They do talk. They know better then how to help you.”
“Even Dr. Vanasse ( she says Dr. Vanessa) said she’ll see me in two months. Two months. Usually she wants to see me every four weeks.”
This seems like good news to me, but my mother insists a change is a change. “Well, it’s good, right?” I say. “That you can still go to her? That you aren’t housebound?”
“When I can’t go to her anymore, then she’ll really know things are different,” my mother says.
She falls asleep for several hours. I work on an essay I’m writing about one of my father’s famous cows, even steal outside to call Barbara Ann to see what she remembers about the animal that she and my uncle drove to Cornell for surgery on a cancerous eye. Why didn’t I ask my father these questions? What am I not remembering to ask my mother?
“All I remember,” Barbara Ann says, “is that she didn’t make it home again.”
I’m sitting on the front steps, my presence keeping the birds at a distance. Beside me in their mulch beds, the tomato plants thrive, but don’t flower yet. I fill the watering can and soak them before my mother can remind me.
Once she wakes up, she is mad at me for letting her sleep this long.
“You must have needed it,” I say. You and your changing body.
She winces as she gets out of her chair. “Well,” she says, “I’m hungry. I think I’ll make us some pasta cece. How does that sound?”