Mom and Meby John Carroll
Mom asked me to write a story about her at one of our lunches, a story I’ll attempt to write here. She asked in March of last year, about four months before she passed. She surely wanted it to be a piece of loosely inspired fiction, but I can’t write about her without writing the truth. And the truth is, I’ve found success since she died. She was my trusted editor, my best critic, and yet I had nothing published in our final years together. Only now is my name known again, and I struggle to admit the truths apparent in such change.
Our lunch on that March afternoon started as our lunches usually did: two days early. I visited mom like always – on a Monday, in advance of our bi-weekly Wednesday lunches. Before I even went inside her two-story row home on Elliston Drive in Northeast Philadelphia, I went to the intersecting Keswick Road to visit Kelly O’Brien, the Nazareth Academy Junior who drove my mom places that winter and spring. I paid her the usual $25 to take my mother to the train station, assist her with buying her fare and then whisper a few specific words to the usher working the door. None of this had to be discussed, as the details had been worked out years before, practiced to perfection during previous trips. I wished her well. She didn’t need to respond: she knew that she should save all of her conversation for my mother, who was a tour-de-force of distraction and tangent in a car.
With that taken care of – Mom didn’t know that Kelly was paid to chauffer her, and likely would forget such a detail as quickly as she learned it – I went back to the house and rang the doorbell. That was the custom since I had walked in on her four years prior watching soap operas in the nude. We didn’t speak about this change, just adapted to it and pretended that it’s how I always entered the house. I didn’t mind, either: it’s not like she lived in the house I grew up in. The Elliston home was a change made later in life, my mother having decided that the Center City condominium no longer offered an age-appropriate lifestyle – she was 61 when she moved, 68 on the date of our significant March lunch. In dark moments, I now wonder if this was the start of her mind slowly wasting away, a poor decision, the first in a string of them. She didn’t belong on the outskirts of the city. It only put her closer to the cemeteries.
“My handsome boy,” she said to me when she opened the door. I smiled like I always did when she said this to me. The prior years had been tough on Mom and me, as her memory abandoned us. Still, particular traits of her remained, having so inhabited her response memory that they seemingly had too firm a grip on her brain to ever depart. “My handsome boy” was one such trait, and after I entered she gripped my face with both hands to bring it closer to hers and kissed the tip of my nose. I felt comfortable in that moment, just as I do in the recollecting of it.
“I read your story,” she then told me, walking back up the three foyer steps and into the dining room, where an old story of mine was spread out across the table. The new story protruded out of my back pocket, but I kept it there momentarily as I went to see what she mistakenly read as new work. “Is this about your brother?” she asked.
The story was called “Some Come Running Through,” an unremarkable entry in a string of rejected pieces. It was written from the perspective of a child who learns about the death of his brother by overhearing a phone call in the middle of the night. My brother Daniel, meanwhile, was very much alive then, as now. I haven’t seen him since my mother’s funeral.
“Danny’s not dead, Mom,” I explained as I tidied up the story and glanced at her notes. The first-person point-of-view, which she herself had recommended upon my first drafting the story nearly a decade earlier, had subsequently confused her, forcing her erratic mind to read it as fact, as a confessional essay, as a part of our family’s alternate history. Her notes, though, were all coherent, and many of them read on-point, like one that asked me not to invoke the title so much. I made a mental note to remove a few instances upon returning home
“May he rest in peace,” she offered as she shuffled down the hallway to the bathroom. Her dementia granted her a comedic timing that neither of us could savor, but I mostly blamed Daniel and not her. He should have called more often, and shouldn’t have lived so far away, certainly not in his mother’s declining years. He lived then, as he does now, in Portland, Oregon, working for Amazon.com. On angrier days, like those spent trying to straighten my mother’s memory out, I hated his distance, because I wondered what I would do differently if I didn’t have such an obligation. This desire to flee was at the heart of the new story I had brought for her to read, and I longed for her to see it, even if she wouldn’t remember it in subsequent weeks.
I wrote our lunch appointment in her datebook, which rested on the short and stout bookshelf she used as an end table at her recliner, a ratty old plaid thing that bore the claw marks of a cat who had been dead for two decades. That bookshelf held all of my work, and nothing but it – six journal appearances, one magazine printing, and stacks of unbound copy paper upon which my unpublished and forgotten work was printed. She thought she had honored my work by collecting it as she had, but that short, solitary shelf only reminded me of how my career had burned out so quickly. A brief string of somewhat significant publications in my early 30s had promised much, but I never did publish enough to put together the collection I longed to see in print. Instead, I stood in the living room of my only remaining audience. She was proud of the work, perhaps due in part to her mind’s inability to process unpublished pieces of paper as failure. For her, that private library of me, John Carroll, was enough.
The new work I had for her excited me. It was different. It was a story about a high school teacher who flees Philadelphia, abandoning his wife to see a soccer team in North London. It was the first time my work ever left the city and its surrounding suburbs, and while I was happy to lunch with Mom and hear her discuss my work in whatever limited capacity she could muster, I longed for the days when my most important friend and editor would immediately understand the significance of this story. Instead, she’d likely stack it on the shelf with the rest of them, if she could even remember to do that, and render it just as shitty and incomplete and worthless as the pile of which it would temporarily be king.
I draped a blanket over that bookshelf, taking care to remove the datebook and place it back on top, and then arrange the story next to the calendar. I drew an arrow from the book to the story, which had a demanding post-it. It said, “READ ME.”
Mom walked back from “piddling,” as she called it, as I rubbed my finger back and forth over the top of that post-it, trying my damndest to ensure that it would stay in place and remind my mother of the date and work we had ahead of us. I wished that I could have grabbed her shoulders, shaken her vigorously, and cleared the crippling malaise that had fallen over her and over our relationship. I didn’t want to be violent with her, only sudden. I wished that her mind had simply had a case of the hiccups, so that one good spook would return us to normal.
When I turned toward her, she grabbed my face again, cradling it in both hands. She said, “My handsome boy,” then kissed me on the nose, then apologized for being in the bathroom when I arrived.
Our significant lunch, the lunch where she asked why I’d never written about her, started without a hitch. We met at 30th Street Station, as we always did, not because it was the closest station to our destination (it was not), but because it was the most ornate. It was familiar. My mother loved the design of the old art deco building, a grand and open hall that looked a little cheaper now that large advertisements were stretched across its gorgeous facade. I waited at my usual spot, right at the top of escalator seven where my mother would emerge. She specifically asked me to do this when she moved out of the city and started visiting by train. She said she liked the way the ceiling framed my face as she emerged out of the darkness of the tunnel. I can’t imagine she remembered ever making such a demand by the date of that lunch, but I continued our traditions in the hope of finding those brief moments where recognition would occupy her eyes again, if only briefly.
There was no spark on that day, only the recognition that I should have cherished more often, the simple recognition of mother spotting son, grabbing son, complimenting son, and kissing son on the tip of the nose.
Her datebook had every relevant detail, from the time she should wake and shower to Kelly’s pick-up time, but she had forgotten about all of that, instead asking where we would be lunching, another detail in the already forgotten datebook. The book was a result of her first accident, when she boarded the R7 train in the wrong direction, heading North to Trenton rather than South to Center City. She had waited three hours before calling, weeping bitterly over the phone as she described her surroundings and asked for my help. I couldn’t recall a time she had cried aside from Dad’s funeral, and so I both over- and under-reacted. As similar lapses occurred, I established protocols around the house. I paid girls from around the neighborhood, Kelly being the last of them, to drive her places. I added my number to her phone under the names John (mine), Joseph (my deceased father) and Martha (hers), so that I’d receive any call she tried placing to those names.
But I never took her to a doctor, or to a hospital. I had an illusion that I wished to maintain. If there was never a name for it, then there was the hope that it could be overcome. It could be a problem that would pass, not a crippling disease that ate away at her brain, her memory, her way of life. In retrospect, it was probably my own life that I protected. I didn’t want to know the name for her illness, the name of what was eventually in store for me. I didn’t want to spend years researching something that would devour my memory, rendering useless that very research that would occupy too much of my life. I was selfish. I see that now.
When she asked where we would be lunching, I told her that we’d be going to the Marathon Grill, and she asked if we had ever eaten there. She had become less adventurous in her old age, cherishing nothing more than a relatively plain salad or sandwich rather than the exotic and ethnic foods that once drove us to Craig LaBan’s favorite lunch spots around town, to the type of food we never had while Dad was alive. Our last such “adventurous” trip had been to Passage to India, an Indian buffet where mom had shrieked that the Chicken Tikka Masala was actually made with cats. I ushered her out that day, straight across the street to Marathon Grill, a local chain with interiors of polished wood burnished by abstract aluminum art. It was the kind of place designed to make old people like her (and me, really) feel young again.
We rode to Marathon in a cab, a luxury I sprang for when I became too embarrassed about my mother’s frank observations on the subway or bus. Those last days and years spent with my mother were the only time I splashed cash across the city. I kept, and still keep, a tidy studio apartment in the Graduate Hospital area, even though I make enough from teaching to afford myself a few extra square feet of space. I started paying for cabs when mom’s dementia had revealed a rather startling unconscious, perhaps the product of an upbringing that she had not written much about in her letters, letters that she left for me, letters that now stand stacked against the walls of my ever-shrinking studio apartment. She had always struck me as a proud product of the city, cosmopolitan and indulgent but not afraid to ride SEPTA buses with what she referred to as “the colored riff-raff” in her late, foggy years. I wondered then if her late-set racism worried me because of the hate in her words, or just the fear that I, too, will be filled with more hate than memory, more words than stories. I’ve yet to figure out the answer, and once I do, I imagine I won’t even be able to remember it.
The cab ride that day became an adventure in fact-checking, as Mom told stories about landmarks that she recognized, pointing out Bundy, the store where she had bought me my first Smith-Corona (true), and the First Unitarian Church, where she and Dad had married (untrue).
Upon arriving at the restaurant, my mother marched ahead of me and informed the hostess of a reservation for two under the name McClure, her maiden name, which she had been tossing around randomly in previous months. The hostess, however, knew Mom and me, for we were regular Wednesday lunch diners, and I’d thank her for the special and unnecessary attention by slipping her a tenner every now and then, to thank her for playing along, but I didn’t do that on the day of note, the time my mother asked for a story.
The details are easy to remember because the details had been the same for some time. I wore the same clothes and ordered the same food because I wanted to hear her kid with me like she used to, offering jokes about my limited wardrobe of polos and khakis – “office drab,” she used to call it – and my love for any variety of walnut salad. This was the hope that drove every interaction of ours in those final months – that she would eventually just snap out of her stupor and ask me what the hell had been going on the past few years. I had convinced myself that her memory was still intact, and I only had to find it, like those years spent scouring our backyard for the very last Easter egg, the one that she one day confided she had never hidden, only dropping it somewhere obvious when she felt I had put in enough work for it. I had hoped she was toying with me again, and I wouldn’t have been mad about it, because at least I would have known that she had been in control all along.
Lunching with my lost mother was an experience of accumulation. We started that lunch with unsweetened iced teas, because the drinks triggered the mother of old. As she told me a story about a dog dying on her street after being hit by a car, a story in a long line of stories that I would never be able to verify, she tore open sugar packets and sweetened both of our drinks. She poured the sugar over her index finger, which she laid atop the rim of the glass.
“We must keep the bad stuff out,” she explained, as she always explained when she sweetened her iced tea and her coffee. She let these “bad grains” sit on her finger for a few moments before she turned and blew them off onto the floor. When her synapses were firing incorrectly, just ever so slightly off, she would go through this same ritual with diet soda or tonic water.
I seized on such moments, hoping that by finding the right one and pairing it with the right response, I might have turned her around for the better, established some sort of narrative momentum that wouldn’t allow her to confuse the present moment but align it with her past. This was a boyish hope, the hope of someone who, as a child, had watched too many soap operas with his mother, the hope of someone who wanted to believe that it was all nothing more than prolonged amnesia, a significant blip on a life’s radar, but still a blip. It all should have been correctable.
“How was your ride with Kelly?” I asked her, hoping that she’d have one detail, however minor, that she could offer in reply, something I could have taken back to Kelly and asked, “Did this happen? Is she remembering correctly?”
“I told her all about this garden killer you wrote about,” she offered. “The garden serial killer.”
This was not the answer I wanted, but it was a memory: her recollection of a short story of mine involving a murder at Benjamin Rush Gardens, the community space we had visited when Dad was alive, where we grew carrots because I felt certain that I could rid myself of my glasses if I ate enough of them. She had made the mistake before, somehow having confused a solitary and unplanned murder in a short story with a series of green thumb killings across the city, a contradiction that would have made sense if such a spree had ever happened in real life.
“Why are you thinking about the garden killer again?” I felt silly asking her this question, as if the man was real and still terrorizing green spaces across Philly, but I wanted to follow whatever threads she tossed me, however confused they seemed. That story was six years old, and while she was mistaken about its veracity, she had remembered something. That struck me as important.
“I read it this morning,” she explained. “Just as you asked. I really liked it, John.”
I sagged. There was no moment to seize, so we sat there in silence. Our conversations had become much slower overall. I found myself considering my responses carefully, as if in an interview or back in a confessional at St. Katherine’s, our parish growing up, the one where Mom and Dad were married.
As I considered what I could say to her next, Mom pulled the waitress aside, asking for a grilled cheese in addition to the two other orders she had already placed (a chicken Caesar salad and a BLT). Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that every character in a story should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. My mother became the perfect character at lunch because she wanted everything. Meanwhile, I only wanted her as I remembered her.
“Did you read the new story, Mom?” I asked her, finally.
“I just told you I did,” she said. She was wrong and yet she was right, as even her short-term memory wasn’t assured.
“That’s an old story, Mom.”
“It was new to me, John,” she responded, sternly. Even though she didn’t understand the circumstances of why she was being challenged, she still responded like she did in what I called her good days, the days I’d prefer to remember instead of this one.
“You don’t think I know what my most recent work is?” I snapped back at her. I should have known better, but I felt comfortable falling back into the petty arguments that inhabited our old days but never dominated them. If we couldn’t have a conversation based on facts, we could have a conversation carried by emotion. She still understood that I was wounded, and that I thought she had made a mistake, even though she disagreed and despite not recalling the details of our disagreement. And so she offered an accord.
“Do you have another? I can read it here,” she said. “Read it right now.”
Our plates arrived as she asked and as I glumly realized that, no, I didn’t have an extra story with me. Our system – with the hidden old work and the brightly marked new work – had not failed us before that particular day. And so as I shook my head, and fought back childish tears that I hated then and still hate now as I write about them, she offered another solution.
“Tell me about it,” she said. “Tell me what the story is.”
Again, I had to choose my words carefully. Trying to outline the story in any detail would be futile. I needed to find the exact sentence that would capture her attention, and the right emotion to communicate meaning, meaning that I worried I had not even found by that point in the drafting of my story.
I took my time. I watched my mother eat the grilled cheese, a sandwich I later learned that Marathon Grill didn’t even have on the menu, they simply made it that afternoon to appease a customer with a simple and plain request. They forever earned my business and my love that day.
Mom ate quickly, scarfing the sandwich in a manner that her other self would deem as grotesque, as un-ladylike. I tipped the salt over my salad just once, my quirky and minor indulgence that allowed for hidden bursts of new flavor in all of my meals, when I heard her click her tongue against her teeth.
“Salt is a killer,” she said, then repeated with dramatic pauses between each word: “Salt. Is. A. Killer.”
If my prompted moments of recognition were satisfactory, then these surprising and unplanned ones were doubly invigorating. My memory was flooded with similar moments, moments directed at me and my brother and my father and my grandfather and even countless boy and girl friends who had entered my house at various ages of my life and used salt in front of her. I was suddenly stuffed. My walnut salad with the hint of salt had been rendered inedible in the face of such memories, an unappetizing pile in the presence of a few simple words. Yes, salt was a killer, is a killer.
But my mother’s face was a blank slate. My glee was foreign to her, and so she again had become foreign to me. Her left cheek bulged with the food she had stored there, her chewing paused by the joy on my face. Her hair, in that moment, changed color before my eyes: it was not silver, but grey. It was a dead color, a revolt of the roots. That was the day that inspired me to start dying my hair, to fight back the streaks of silver that had penetrated my otherwise rich, brown locks. That was the day when I decided to start fighting death.
As I struggled with how old and decrepit she suddenly seemed to me, she asked the question that started me on this story: “Why have you never done story about me?”
Her phrasing was crude, her usually elegant voice abandoning her as it had so often in her last months. I turned back to my salad, having found it suddenly more appealing, but she seized the moment, seizing it to my surprise because she usually lacked the foresight and drive to persist on a particular point that year.
“Why am I never in a story?” she asked. My head was not flooded with answers for her, nor with memories (for there were none), only solutions for the situation that unraveled in front of me. If her voice grew louder and more agitated, I would have had to act quickly: putting money down, and too much money because I didn’t want to waste time counting, and then I’d grab her arm, hard and firm to let her know I was serious, and then I’d pull her out, calling for a cab as soon as we were out the door and back on Chestnut Street.
As I figured out those plans, though, the anger left her face. Her next words were not to me, but to the waitress, as she asked for a Banana and Mango smoothie. She then turned her attention to my soup, which she assumed was hers, the lines of demarcation blurred by the numerous plates at our table.
“You can call it ‘Mom and Me,’” she said after slurping and swallowing. “Just like Marley and Me. That sold a lot of books.” Her literary taste had worsened since moving to Elliston Circle, reading whatever bestsellers her elderly neighbors shared with her. I couldn’t make sense of her request. Did she want a novel? Was she just speaking at random? Was she remembering something about me, about my failures? And if so, was that something to celebrate or forget? It’s here, in print, but I can’t decide, and I’ve still no one to show it to, not now. I am only hoping and guessing that a story — a true story — will be enough. If it’s not, then I’ll start making it up, to satisfy the both of us.
I wanted to ask her a lot of questions then, questions that I knew she wouldn’t have the answer to. I wanted to ask her if she recognized my father at the telescope in “Light Pollution,” the story that she once loved so much and the story that earned me my first publication, which I brought to her at one of our lunches, when she reached across the table to grab my face, just like every other time, but then it had been so important. I needed to ask if she recognized my brother with the headphones as he listened to late night hockey games played out on the west coast. I wanted to recount specific scenes that I had ripped from my life, from my father’s, from my brother’s and grandfather’s and those of my friends, from everyone I had alienated, everyone except her. Most importantly, I wanted to ask her if she remembered any of the lunches, any of her notes. I wanted to ask her if she remembered why she was angry over being an audience and not an inspiration. I needed to know if she remembered any of those details, or if she only remembered the anger that her absence from such theft produced. If she remembered nothing, would I? And if we would both forget it all, what was the point of telling these stories in the first place? I wanted to ask all of these things, needed answers for all of these things, but knew I’d receive nothing from her.
My ever-fluctuating appetite was gone then, and in a poorly chosen moment, I offered her a reply that was much too late – not by minutes, but years.
“I don’t know where I’d begin,” I told her.
“Start with the cranberries and walnuts,” she replied, pointing at my salad with her fork. “Gotta eat all the goodies.”
There’s a version of this story that ends as follows: with her smoothie coming, and her only finishing half of it, and our forgetting the leftovers at the table and never making our next lunch because of her first, brief hospitalization, followed by two more trips, each longer than the one before, followed by complications having arisen from procedures during those visits, ending with a death as confused and muddled as her last years with me. From there, I dwell on her, her life, her request for a story, and I begin to write about her and the last lunch we shared in the city.
But that is only a version, and not the one I’ve chosen. There’s another version where the smoothie never comes because we run out on the check. I pull mom in this version, but not because she’s acting up, and only because we want the adventure. We ignore traffic lights and bring cars to a stop. Mom flips off the drivers who honk at us and I only wish that they could know what it is we are up to. I want to make plans for her to read my story, a story about flight, but she storms ahead into the Macy’s building, her favorite in the city, and for once we don’t travel horizontally across its spacious and open sales areas, but go up: past Men’s and Women’s and Fine Jewelry, through the offices above and onto the top of the building.
We continue there, living above Philadelphia. We jump from roof to roof. We swear not to look down, but we break that promise and stare, we look frequently, and we finally agree on a new promise. We promise that we will never forget. And I ask her: “We haven’t yet, have we?” And she grabs my face, and I can feel her wedding ring on my right cheek, the ring she’s never forgotten to wear each morning. It is warmer than her hands.
She answers: “My handsome boy.”