Back in Ma’s kitchen Jody turned to me and said, “She’s got enough crap in there to feed an army,” as she at last managed to get the freezer door fully shut. “If I see another frozen Salisbury steak dinner I am going to puke.”
“Me too,” I replied, squirting the green dish soap into my palm and scrubbing my hands together briskly under the almost scalding water. As usual, the feeling of wanting a shower as soon as possible after arriving at Ma’s place began to creep in. Jody’s hands were already red so I knew she’d washed them at least twice since we got there. Being a nurse, she was extra cautious. We avoided surface contact with anything in the house as much as we could, and of course always kept hand sanitizer at the ready in the car for the ride home. We’d also divert Ma’s attention from trying to get us to go down the hall to her bedroom for any reason for fear of a lone, surviving bed bug somehow stowing away on one of our socks or something.
Washing her hands one last time, Jody said over her shoulder, “I’m going next door to chat with the neighbor. Gosh, I forget her name. She’s outside with her new baby and I’ve been dying to see him. Did you see all that red hair?” And lowering her voice said, “Give you and Miss Sunshine a chance to talk.”
“That’s it, abandon ship,” I said, sighing.
“Oh c’mon, just listen to her same old crap for a few minutes and we’ll be on our way to a martini and a fried clam plate. Yum.”
Jody descended the short flight of stairs to the front door, and I heard her say, “See you mum,” just as the screen slammed and she headed next door, leaving me to rejoin the pity party I knew my mother was throwing for herself in the other room. I walked back to the living room and resumed my position on the edge of the arm of the couch.
The “Game Show Network” was now on the television showing old re-runs of “The Match Game.”
The audience was laughing. I glanced to see Gene Rayburn holding a skinny two foot microphone, and he had just said something funny to Charles Nelson Reilly who was pushing his oversized glasses up onto his nose with a long pointy finger. By the flowery shirt he was wearing, it had to be an episode from the middle seventies.
Besides “Days of Our Lives,” that was the only channel she ever watched except for when the Boston Bruins or Red Sox were playing. She’d call me up ten times on the day of a game to make sure she had the game time right and knew what channel to turn to so she didn’t miss it.
Her enjoyment at watching those teams was really the only thing we had in common, and it at least gave us something to talk about besides her personal soap opera or her bowels. The channel that carried the Red Sox would often replay a game from the night before for those that had missed it. They called it “Sox in Two.” Even though she’d seen the original broadcast, Ma would sometimes watch the replay of the game and when next we spoke on the phone would say “Did you see the game today? It was the same score as yesterday!” I gave up trying to explain it to her when she’d always insist “no, no, it was a brand new game.”
“Remember I had a shirt just like that?” I said referring to Charles Nelson Reilly. Dad hated it or anything else that made any of us kids look like “dirty hippies.”
“Oh yes, I remember it. Your father didn’t want you to have it, but I made him let you get it” she said. “Wasn’t it for back to school? We got it at Bradlees.”
“Yeah, I think so. No, you didn’t make him get it, you bought it using your ‘sneakies,’ remember? Then we told Dad Aunt Kay bought it for me.” I detected a tiny smirk at the old reference to one of her former secret successes.
“So what do you think about that chair for Diane?” Ma asked.
“Sure, if she really wants it, who cares? I’ll bring my truck down next time and bring it to her if she can wait that long. She’ll have to get someone to get it up the stairs to her place though. I’ll give her a call later.”
“Oh don’t worry, she’ll wait for anything that’s free,” she said bitterly while conveniently ignoring the fact that anything she ever owned herself had come to her free.
“Why do you have to be so nasty Ma? Diane does more for you than anyone, and only God knows why. You should be glad to help her out when you can. She runs all over creation for you, getting your pills, picking up orange juice or whatever, coming over anytime you have a meltdown over dead batteries in the remote or a smoke alarm that won’t shut off. She just came by last week to plunge your toilet for crying out loud. You should be grateful!”
I always tried to speak in a calm voice, as though to a child, in dealing with her, but my tone was firm and a little angry. God, she was relentless.
“I’m the mother and an old lady! My kids should do things for me,” she insisted. What did I ever do to them?” she asked, indignant, starting to sob like a spoiled child and for no apparent reason. Here we go again about “her kids.” Freud ran through my mind. “She’s demonstrating regressive behavior as a defense mechanism for being remonstrated for her selfishness and narcissistic personality.”
She’d never understand that her bitterness towards being ‘abandoned’ by her own children was more than matched by their disdain for her. What she also didn’t fully realize, was that although most of them had established a firm physical detachment from her, they still allowed her to keep a psychological grip over them to some extent. Even as they lived out their lives at a distance, clinging to their anger and blaming her and Georgie for what they perceived as the irreparable damage they’d done in corrupting our childhoods in every way. It really wouldn’t have mattered to her one way or the other even if she were aware, because how others felt about anything was of little concern to her.
“Look,” I said, now more controlled and trying to ignore her exaggerated weeping as her psychologist had instructed. “Diane’s got a ton on her plate right now, you know that. Dealing with Eddie, and her own crazy health too! She just had three stents placed into her heart, she’s a full-blown diabetic, she raised Loretta’s kids and now she’s got her own son’s kid to take care of. And she’s sixty years old! You have to really try not to stress her out any more Ma okay?”
Diane was followed by Judy, then me, Loretta, Karen, David, Eddie, and then Susan. Susan was the outlier having been born seven years after Eddie when we lived at that house on Walworth Street. We always called her “the baby,” well into her twenties.
I have a framed, grainy, black and white picture taken sometime in the early sixties of all of us kids save Susan. Eddie was just an infant in Judy’s arms and we’re standing in the living room with everyone smiling at the camera except me, standing there in the back, peeking out with a face too serious for a child, and gazing right into the lens. We looked unexpectedly well-nourished, and were just a little too young yet to understand the psychological and physical dangers already percolating in our midst.
To be continued….