“When I was a child looking at my parents’ lives, you know what I thought? I thought heartbreaking. Now I think heartbreaking, but also insane. Also very funny.”
– Margaret Gluck
I reached into the trunk and grabbed the handles of as many of the plastic grocery bags as I could to begin the shuttle back and forth to the blue, split-level ranch. It always took us at least two trips up the crumbling walk to get everything dumped onto the Formica counters in the dated galley kitchen that looked every bit as it did back in the nineteen seventies when it was built. Jody had already carried an impressive first load into the house, so I figured I could manage the rest of it in one more load. I put the bags that I’d gathered in my right hand onto the ground, and slammed the trunk shut. I re-gathered the bag handles and waddled up the walk towards the door balancing all ten bags like two giant buckets of water. I glanced up and saw that the gutter was hanging loose at one end of the roof line, and the fake icicle Christmas lights my brother-in-law had put up along the same line were still there. It was June.
Jody was in the kitchen wedging frozen TV dinners and waffles into an already overstuffed freezer. Now she was the one muttering and I was smirking as I climbed the dirty rug up the short flight of stairs that faced the kitchen, the acrid smell of cigarette smoke already watering my eyes. The air was hot and oppressive. First thing we always did when we got home from the “loony bin” was strip off our clothes and put on a load of laundry.
“Hi Ma,” I said as I crested the top stair and glanced over to her sitting on my right.
“Hi,” she said in a weak voice, as she rocked gently to and fro on the edge of her dirty blue electric recliner, her head in her hands. Yep, another day in her paradise I thought shaking my head. Ma pretty much lived her life sitting in that chair, day in and day out, and for no apparent reason other than to give the accentuated appearance of helplessness and suffering. Other than trips to the doctor or the bathroom, she stayed put, as though bed-ridden. She was spry enough to run with care up and down the hallway or take the short two flights of stairs to the basement when it suited her, but she preferred to appear anchored and unable to move to amplify her appearance of misery. Plus she was lazy. I took the few quick steps into the kitchen and plunked the rest of the groceries onto the small, round Maplewood kitchen table. It was littered with half-eaten loaves of wheat bread, stale marshmallow cookies, and an assortment of tubes of ointments like KY jelly and Preparation H. Already annoyed, I reminded myself I wouldn’t be here long and to just deal with it.
“I’ll put these away, you go ahead and visit,” Jody said, sounding just a little too generous.
“Gee thanks,” I said, smiling and rolling my eyes.
I stepped back into the living room, and Ma had by now completed her infantile rocking and resumed her more typical position, sitting all the way back now in the recliner, legs crossed, smoking a Benson and Hedges Menthol Light 100 that came from the flip-box pack. No soft pack for her. Once I forgot to get them in Menthol and she refused to smoke them. Another time I forgot the “100,” and those too stayed on the dining room table, un-smoked. She eventually gave them to my oldest sister, who was always short of cash, pack by pack as Diane completed duties and errands for her and of course performed the requisite amount of groveling. I took a peek at the cuckoo clock I’d bought for her while stationed in Germany, one of the many clocks in the room, and it was about twenty minutes to one. I had skipped breakfast save for a quick glass of milk with my morning medications and my stomach was growling. We usually rewarded ourselves for doing our Readville duty by stopping at our favorite fish restaurant in Chelmsford on the way home. We always sat at the bar, and the bartender, Scott, knowing our every other Saturday ritual, would , with genuine sympathy, start to set up our drinks before we even got nestled on our stools, then smirk at us and say, “Hey kiddies, how’s Mom today?”
I bent over and kissed her on the forehead, the light kiss the only appearance of affection I could muster at all anymore. My ritualistic visits pretty much always started this way. On days we’d come over, she’d keep that furtive watch for when we pulled up to the front of the house, then scurry to the recliner having already prepared the stage. Lights off? Check. Television off? Check. Sad face? Check. As soon as she heard the key in the lock, she’d either lean back in the chair with her eyes half-closed with a weak expression on her face or forward with her head in her hands and commence her rhythmic rocking.
Knowing all this and in speaking with her psychiatrist, it was important the doctor said that no one “enable this manipulative behavior” by giving it any acknowledgement. At first it was difficult to ignore, but the doctor was right. By doing so she’d quickly give up the ruse, frustrated by no reaction, and in short order revert to her more usual sarcastic martyrdom. I moved back a couple of steps and perched myself onto the overstuffed arm of the couch, just off to her left, taking my established position for our short twenty minute or so visit. That was what our relationship, beyond weekly phone calls, had now boiled down to. Jody and I didn’t like to sit at all on any of the furniture ever since the bed bug infestation, but I felt safe enough on that small patch of material.
I began with my perfunctory, “So, how are you feeling today?”
To be continued….