Maisie

Maisie is a fluffy little red dog – part Pomeranian, part Chihuahua, and part something with an under-bite, which makes her look solemn. She is an introverted little dog not naturally suited to visiting dementia patients but handles it with admirable stoicism. She dodges the residents when she can politely do so but otherwise accepts their petting and ruffling, as long as I stay close. When one man grabs Maisie’s ears and shoves his face into hers, she cuts her eyes at me but offers no protest.

When Maisie and I get to my mother’s room, she is sitting in the hallway.

“Oh, thank God!” she says when she sees me. “I knew someone would come if I thought about it hard enough. Did you bring the car? I’m all packed.”

I tell her that she has to stay here for now – doctor’s orders – but she’ll be going “home” soon, and after a brief burst of panicked rebellion, she acquiesces. In the meantime, I tell her, maybe sometime I can take her over to our house for lunch and a movie or something. This would be impossible, but it sounds pleasant to her, and to me too. Then she’s sleepy and I help her into bed, an arduous ten minutes of coaxing, strategizing, positioning, and hoisting. She goes to sleep immediately, and I tidy her room up a bit, retrieving her clothes and her framed photographs from the laundry basket where she has packed them in preparation to embark. Maisie wanders the room and occasionally licks a spot on the floor.

I see a wheelchair coming through the door of her room. In a building full of dementia patients, one gets a lot of unexpected visitors. This woman is wearing a bright purple track suit, and I wonder if she picked it out herself or if someone bought it for her; possibly they meant for her to wear it with a red hat.

“I thought I saw a cat or a dog,” she says shyly. I call Maisie over and let the woman give her a treat. She stares at her hands, which are like batik – blue, green, and purple. Lovely colors, although not usually associated with human skin.

“I hope your mother is doing all right,” she says quietly. “It happens to all of us.”

We sit silent for a moment.

“My parents were real sick,” she says. “I had cracked eight ribs or so and broke my spine. There was no one to take care of a dog.”

Another silence. We contemplate Maisie.

“I should get back to them. They live on 85th. That’s that way?” She jerks her thumb to the rear. I say it is, and she rolls down the hall.

The War

My mother is asleep in bed with her mouth open. I’ve brought coffee, which gives me the right to nudge her awake, and I adjust the bed to the proper angle.

“I dreamed I was cleaning the Santa Maria,” she says after pleasantries, still groggy. “We were going to be inspected by the queen.”

“High pressure,” I say.

Then she notices the bulletin board on the wall across from her and asks what the pictures are, the ones she’s been looking at for over a year now. They are my father’s school pictures, and I disentangle them from the ribbons crisscrossing the board and bring them over. We talk about them again, and then I show her a picture I have on my phone of my father’s high school class.

“I think that’s junior year,” I say. “Look, there are only four boys in a class of twenty-five.”

“That was during the war,” she says.

“Yes, I suppose they were working.”

“I don’t remember much about the war,” she says. It’s a bit chilling to hear her say this, as she has always been able to tell her stories of World War II, even if she can’t form new memories.

“Well, let’s see,” I say, as I carefully thread the pictures back onto the bulletin board. “You remember the margarine. Having to color it.”

This is a story she’s told many times, how Anna used to grab either her or one of her two sisters, whoever was unlucky enough to go through the kitchen at the wrong time, and make her mash the gelatin capsule of artificial color evenly into the white margarine so it would look like butter. It was hard work, and they all tried to duck it.

She doesn’t say anything, lying halfway propped up with her coffee cup in her two knurled hands.

“And were there air raids?” I prompt. “In New Orleans?” Another story she’s told many times.

“Drills,” she corrects me. “You used to tell yourself they were only drills. Which they were.”

“So what did you do? Just turn out the lights?”

“And get someplace safe.”

“Where did you go?” I ask, interested. This has never come up. “The laundry room?”

“I don’t remember,” she says slowly. “We didn’t have cellars in that part of the country, of course.”

My grandmother, during her own dementia, often banged loudly on my bedroom door and screamed at me to turn out the light, couldn’t I hear the air raid? She was deaf and had aural hallucinations, which my mother does not. But my grandmother never tried to get us to all go downstairs and huddle in the laundry room, so maybe it was only lights.

“I got a soldier’s name to write to,” my mother is saying. “I think I wrote him one letter.”

“Did you knit?” I ask, having read of such things.

“Oh, I knitted. I don’t remember ever finishing anything.”

“Well, you were awfully young.”

Then I say, remembering, “And Grandma and Grandpa took you to see the soldiers boarding.”

I immediately regret saying it, because she used to tell it as quite a sad thing. Soldiers from all over had boarded a ship that was leaving from New Orleans, and the whole city had turned out to see it. She has described it for me, the streetlights turned off, the lines and lines of soldiers lit only by the light from houses and the occasional flashlight.

“It was just marching feet, that’s all you could hear,” she says. “And people telling their beads. And crying. Some of the boys were crying too.”

Her voice catches at this last sentence, and I cast about for another topic.

“Did you have Soot then?”

“Soot was a good dog.”

I prompt her to tell stories about how she and her sisters used to dress Soot up in their clothes. And then her coffee is finished, so I take the cup, and she nods off again. As I’m leaving, she wakes up long enough for me to ask if she wants me to close the blinds again. She says no, she likes the light. It’s cheerful.

The Elephant

“Do you know what I was dreaming?” my mother asks. I’ve just woken her up for dinner. We’re sitting at a table in the dining room with a new resident, a woman named Kathleen. She looks relatively young, maybe sixty or so, and exhibits a bug-eyed twitchiness that could be the result of the stress of new circumstances but looks like an established trait.

“I was dreaming about the time I had to borrow an elephant for the parade. Do you remember that?”

“I think that must have been before my time,” I say. I’m quite sure this never happened, but it does almost sound like something my mother would have had to do for the Boy Scouts or the Friends of the Museum. Throughout her life she’s had to do things like find a wheelwright or a blacksmith or a dance troupe for some event or demonstration.

“I wrote to Barnum and Bailey,” she says. “They were very nice. They let me have an elephant for the whole day, and they said the kids could ride it.”

“Was this a fundraiser?” I ask, fascinated.

“No, it was just the parade.”

“I suppose they sent a trainer too,” I say.

“Did they? I suppose they must have. It was a lovely, courteous elephant and shook hands with everybody.”

We pause while an aide delivers cutlery wrapped in a paper napkin and glasses of juice and water. My mother unfolds her napkin and arranges the cutlery carefully, spoon on the outside, and takes a sip of juice.

Suddenly Kathleen starts, and she asks me urgently. ”What happened to the cages?”

My mother doesn’t hear. I look at her politely, not sure what she said or what it means. Kathleen gives a slight huff of impatience.

“Are they just going to let the birds fly around?” she asks.

“Oh,” I say, thinking. “The birds are…the birds are outside.” Kathleen accepts this, to my profound relief, and I turn back to my mother.

“I wonder if a lot of people borrow elephants,” I say.

“I wonder,” she says. “They didn’t seem surprised, so maybe so. I’ve certainly written a lot of strange letters in my day.”

Someone brings coffee, and my mother smiles gratefully and then continues.

“They elephant was very polite. They sent a trainer with it, and it did everything the trainer said. People posed for pictures with it, and the children rode it for hours.”

She smiles, thinking about the elephant. “I wish I had an elephant here now to take me to the train station. I’ve got to be heading back home first thing in the morning.”

“I don’t think elephants are very comfortable really,” I say. “Very broad backs.”

“You’re probably right.”

Lucky

My mother is one of the lucky ones. When insurance companies started selling long-term care policies in the eighties, there was a brief period when those policies covered your care until you died. My father bought policies for both of them. The insurance companies soon figured out that this was ruinously expensive and limited the policies to three years, but my parents were locked in. That’s what pays a large percentage of my mother’s bills now. That’s why we are able to put her somewhere decent. She has a private room and the staff are good-natured and attentive. Yet it is still a horrible place full of sickening smells, hellish moans, and nightmarish bodily gurglings. There is a man who constantly chants, “Where did Daddy go? Where did Daddy go?” There is a woman who sits in the hallway crying, saying she wants to go home. Everywhere you look there are heads bobbing uncontrollably and unfocused eyes.

My mother, at her most lucid, recognizes the nursing home for what it is and often implies it is a place to dump unwanted relatives. “No wonder they shipped her off,” she’ll say about an inhabitant who is shrieking or crying. She expresses relief that she isn’t there permanently. This is the advantage of her inability to form new memories. I’ve been able to tell her that she is only here until she gets better.

“I wonder what it would be like to really live here,” she said once. “I remember you all talking about it once when you wanted to get rid of me.”

“If we wanted to get rid of you, we would put you on an ice floe,” I replied, and we both laughed hard enough to show our uvulas.

Truly, if we had wanted to get rid of her we would have let her keep her apartment, keep forgetting her medications and forgetting to eat. If we had really wanted her out of our lives, we would have let nature take its course. I remind myself of this often.

Don

The wing where my mother lives has a strong shit smell, stronger than the rest of the nursing home for some reason, and I lightly place one finger under my nose so that I only smell the sharp artificial lemon scent of hand sanitizer. I try to look sort of casually pensive and not like I’m blocking stench, reminding myself that if this were a few centuries ago, everything would smell like shit all the time. Also my mother would be kept in a cage or possibly she would have been accused of witchcraft, so instead of visiting her in a nursing home I would be going to her hanging, which would still smell like shit and without the notes of bleach and meatloaf.

It’s important to keep things in perspective.

I find my mother at a table in the dining room. Lately I’ve been visiting at meal times, that being the only time I can count on her being awake. I pull up a chair next to her and perch on the edge. I stopped sitting all the way back in the nursing home chairs the day I sat in urine. There’s a small man across the table from her wearing a Duck Dynasty t-shirt and an epilepsy helmet, and I tell him hello before turning to my mother to ask how she is feeling, if anything hurts.

“No,” she says. “I’m just tired. So do you have a key to this place?”

“Which place?”

“The apartment we’re going to look at. Do you have the key?”

“No.”

“Is someone going to let us in?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you’d want to go tonight. You’ve got a room here just down the hall. I thought maybe you could stay here just for tonight.” I present this as a novelty, an adventure.

“Well, that might be a good idea,” she says. “I am pretty tired.”

My mother is struggling with the zipper of her cardigan, and I reach over and refit the pieces so it zips correctly.

“You’re like my wife,” says Duck Dynasty. “I’ll be fighting and cussing with something, she’ll just reach over and – ” he twiddles his fingers in demonstration. “I used to tell people, I’m the wife, she’s the husband. You ask my kids who you want to cook tonight, they’ll say Dad. My wife doesn’t cook as much. I learned from my mother, my grandmother.”

“Well, that’s an important skill,” I say politely. I turn back to my mother, but turn back when he keeps talking.

“We were married forty-seven years when she died. Half of it legal. Her dad said he never knew a man wanted to take on a woman with one and a half kids. I went to make love and wound up staying forty years.”

“Ah,” I say. “Well.” I consider offering condolences, but the moment has passed.

“My name’s Don,” he says. “Everyone calls me Don. I got twenty nieces and nephews, they call me Don. They say Uncle Don, I know they want something.”

I smile and again turn to my mother.

“So how – “

“My mother didn’t care for my wife,” Don says, and I swivel back around. “Not before we were married. After we were married, she said, Take care of my baby. Because I was the youngest. But she blamed my wife for everything. I say we were both to blame equally. Let me ask you something.” He points a finger at me. “We make love” – I blink, startled – “who gets stuck with the baby? I leave, you get stuck.”

“I suppose that’s – “

“I married a woman with one and a half kids. One day a woman I know from New Mexico calls, talks to my wife. I come home, my wife says, do you know this woman? I say yes. She says, well you got two sons by her. I say, they must be twins, I didn’t know her that long. But whose fault is it? I was in the phone book!” He says this with humor, so I smile again.

“I worked for the carnival for twenty years,” Don is saying. “People ask why I didn’t quit, I tell ‘em ‘Why would I quit? I get to go on the rides free!’ Some nights I make five hundred dollars, I get to keep a hundred of that. But some nights you make nothing.”

“The only thing my mother never taught me, she never taught me about sex.” The last word is whispered behind his hand. I examine a spot on the table and try to think of a way to change the subject. I didn’t sleep well last night, and the bus was crowded, and it’s just not a good day for me to have a conversation about sex education with a retired carny.

“I got married, I learned some that way,” he continues. “My daughter, when she started growing” – he indicates his own chest – “I sat her down, told her, ‘This is what boys will want from you. This is what you need to do.’”

My mother has heard none of this.

“I don’t know where the car is,” she tells me, and I’m relieved to turn back to her.

“You lent it to us,” I say, which is true except that she gave it to us outright when she started having trouble driving. “We can bring it back whenever you like.”

“Well, I don’t suppose I need it now. I just wanted to know where it was.”

“My son – stepson, really, but he calls me his dad, not his stepdad – he and his wife are drug addicts. I told ‘em to come stay with me, they didn’t have nothing. Put them in one bedroom. They shoved a towel under the door. I go outside to the window, they got the window wide open –“ a two-handed gesture “- and they’re – ” he mimes smoking a joint. “I told them, you got money for that, you got money to get your own place. They left, never seent ‘em again. Except at their mother’s funeral.”

“Oh, my,” I say. “That is hard.”

“You spend a hundred dollars on that, you can afford your own place.”

A hundred dollars seems high to me, but of course, I don’t know the amount of weed we’re talking about.

He’s wound down again, and they’ve started serving dinner.

“What is that?” He points at a pool of green on a passing plate. “I don’t want that.”

With Don distracted, I can finally talk to my mother.

“Where is this place?” my mother asks me.

“Not too far away,” I improvise.

“Good. I wouldn’t want to be too far from Napoleon Avenue. That way Mama can visit on the bus.”

“Oh, that’ll be nice.”

Beige

The dining room is beige with beiger trim and a chandelier like a crystalline goiter in the center of the ceiling, an ill-advised attempt at elegance. The middle table is reserved for residents who need help eating, and there are two women seated there, slumped in wheelchairs. My mother and I are off to the side at one of the other six tables. A man at the table next to us is repeatedly bellowing, “BRING ME SOME ICE CREAM!” It’s four o’clock, and we are waiting for dinner.

“That’s a nice purse,” my mother says to me.

“Oh, thanks. It’s actually a World War II map case.”

“Do you know where there’s an army-navy store nearby?” she asks, interested. “I wish you’d take me next time you go.”

“There are a couple in the suburbs,” I say. I’m carefully not mentioning which suburbs because I’m not sure what city my mother is in today.

“I always did like army surplus stores. I used to go all the time when we lived in Arlington. To get things for the boys.”

We sit in silence for a moment (except for “BRING ME SOME ICE CREAM!”), and then for lack of anything else to say, I observe, “New tablecloths.”

“These are nice, aren’t they?” she says, “But they aren’t new. They’re the ones you bought for Grandma.”

“Ah.”

“I tried to get some myself, but I couldn’t find any. I called all the army surplus stores in town, but they said they had never carried them, even though I knew they had. I did finally find some, but the color wasn’t as nice as this. They were beige, which doesn’t go with anything.”

“Despite what people think,” I say, and she laughs slightly.

“BRING ME SOME ICE CREAM!”

“You know,” my mother says, “after the war, ice cream was scarce. I remember once I was trying to get some for a family party. I called all the army-navy stores, but they said they had never sold ice cream, even though I’d bought it from them a hundred times. I finally got some, but it was an odd color. Beige.”

“What flavor was it?” I ask. “Beige flavor?”

She laughs. “Just about. It wasn’t bad, though.”

An aide, Oscar, comes to the table to give my mother a menu. He’s lanky, with dark hair and a three-day beard. My mother thinks Oscar is my brother Stephen, who was the same approximate phenotype and who died in 1997. After some discussion of options she chooses the ravioli. Oscar circles it on the menu and moves on to the next table.

“Did Stephen leave?” she asks after a moment. “I thought he was joining us.”

“Well, but he’s working. He’ll probably come back in a minute,” I say. My mother has told me that Stephen works there, “but he’s calling himself Oscar now.”

“You know, I ate ravioli my whole life,” she says, “but after the war it was scarce. I remember once we were having family over, and I thought it would be nice to have ravioli. I called all the army surplus stores in town, and they said they had never sold it. Even though I’d bought it from them a hundred times.”

There’s no mention of eventually finding beige ravioli, and I suppress the desire to ask.

Ravioli & German Mines

Before the dementia – at least before the diagnosis – my mother lived in a small apartment in a retirement home, surrounding herself with only the most precious of her ancestral artifacts as well as thrift store finds and a few Ikea bookcases. The retirement home served decent meals, but I think she subsisted largely on canned goods. Once while preparing lunch, she dropped a can of ravioli about three inches from a sixteenth century German monograph on (I believe) mining techniques that had belonged to some relative. The book was wrapped in a cloth grocery bag and was not harmed, but I persuaded her to move it to a glass-front bookcase – ancestral, not Ikea – away from the kitchen.

If you wanted to choose an event to exemplify the character of my entire family, you could do worse than to choose dropping a can of ravioli next to a sixteenth century German mining text.