At the Four Seasons residential community in Clifton, New Jersey, you can go for a walk. But make sure you bring a key fob. If you decide to take the stairs instead of the elevator and you do not have a key fob, you may get locked in the stairwell between your mother-in-law’s third-floor apartment and the first-floor exit.
The fact that my husband, David, has experienced this particular form of captivity is no surprise, given his tendency to act like a cooped-up animal when we venture from the Southwest to visit my mother in New Jersey for the holidays. To further understand his frenzied sense of containment, consider that David is a guy who likes to get out of his immediate space to feel content. After a few drinks, he might tell you about the time he swam across Walden Pond when dared by his carpool colleagues on their way to work one day.
We have become accustomed to calling my mother’s apartment “Mom’s castle,” conjuring up all manner of comparisons to an archaic fortification. There is, indeed, a watchman at the entry like a knight on guard, and an encircling turnpike like an impenetrable moat. It is not an exaggeration to say that pedestrians take their lives in their hands to venture out of the community gates.
When I visit my Mom, my sense of independence decidedly shifts. I have felt constrained, too, only for me, it is guilt for having moved with my husband and twin boys 2,000 miles away to New Mexico that pulls at my gut, never mind that the move occurred several years ago. And now the dawn of a new year conjures up a fresh ache in the form of my mother’s progressing dementia. Dementia, you son-of-a-bitch, did you have to make these visits even harder than they already are?
The woman who stands before us now needs us to translate meanings from the wider world.
“Mom, this object, what does it do?”
“You use it for your hair.”
“What do you do with it?”
“You dry with it.”
“So what do you call it?,” and then tears because she can’t piece those words together. The concepts are quickly becoming ridden with fissures like an old baby blanket; the fabric of words, too fine to hold the meaning of language together.
What stage is it, one might ask? If I categorize, identify, or classify the symptoms, as humans do, I can supposedly place some distance between myself and the disease.
Mom’s stage is somewhere on the downhill of forgetting how to cook family recipes, wondering who all those relatives were who gave her big hugs at a family wedding, and speculating what in the world an ATM card could be for.
My sister said that in recent weeks, Mom had been saving items for my sister to name—a razor, dish soap, a piece of broccoli—before her visit to the supermarket. Provided with a name, mom could get assistance from someone in the market to help her find those essentials.
We were confounded last year, when Mom bungled the Christmas Eve meal. For all the years I had grown up in my Italian-American household, cultural roots came alive during the holidays. We went to church intermittently when we heeded the call for funerals or holidays, but we were more devout about food. Parmesan cheese from the Italian store, pasta at least twice a week, good tomatoes and sauce were always on hand. On Christmas Eve, Mom re-enacted the Italian tradition of a seven-fish dinner in spite of the fact that we kids and my dad mostly only ate shrimp. She toiled to make fried calamari along with the shrimp and broiled fish, occasionally even the baccalá (salted fish) like her father did.
But what we cared most about was the pasta puttanesca Mom made. One of the handful of Italian words we knew was “putana,” the root word of the sauce, which meant “whore” in Italian. Like a prostitute, the sauce had everything in it—olives, capers, anchovies. The joke spiced up the memory of Grandpa in the kitchen. He was a good cook who always had the stub of his cigar somewhere in his kitchen, and we liked to think that the real secret of the sauce was a little cigar ash.
For a Mom who did not have a professional life outside the home, cooking was not only a tie to the past, it was an avenue for creativity and inspiration. Mom was one of those people who actually read cookbooks. After reading Marcella Hazan’s, Marcella Cucina, for example, she explained to us that Sicily’s food was so interesting because the country was invaded multiple times. The cuisine had Greek, Spanish, French, even Arab influences, and Mom could showcase the variety.
Last year, I remember looking forward to my mother’s cooking. My southwestern habitat seemed to me more than a desert by its region—it was a desert of Italian specialties. On my commute to work, I always mistook an oversized, pink crystal in a shop window for a prosciutto crudo. Time and again, the mirage would emerge as the storefront for an herbal-CBD shop, not the deli display case of an Italian salumeria.
So we were all disappointed to find Mom in confusion in the kitchen and the ingredients dissociated from their place in the family recipe. The anchovies were unopened on the counter along with a half-opened can of tomatoes. There were no olives or capers in sight. “What do I put in the pan first?” she asked. My sister and I were angry and tired, having assured Mom to make a simpler meal of “just the pasta” for dinner that year. We had taken the kids skating in the afternoon and were ready for the meal before the exhaustive night before Christmas. “What happened, ma?”
We could not have known that we were witnessing the unraveling of more than the sauce; it was her identity that had begun to fade.
Mom’s stage of dementia is confounding for everyone, with the fiendish promise that the coming being will forget who all of us are—friends, cousins, grandchildren, daughters, us. Me.
So let me stay here for a moment before we drive away from The Four Seasons Community. As irksome as it may be to visit, I know the fact of it in our lives is temporary. And that’s the great crackup, yes? When we know nothing lasts, we can all just walk about like jolly elves in Santa’s magical garden of forgetting.
Speaking of Santa, there’s a God here. It’s the God Safety, and if you eventually go for a walk, know that every surface will have a thick spread of rock salt. It is sprinkled liberally even if there is no form of precipitation in the long-range forecast and seniors who walk here seem few and far between.
The clubhouse is grand, with chandeliers, a ballroom, and an indoor pool under a sky of windows. If you are a relative, you can only access the clubhouse if you are escorted by a resident through the doors. You may not use the exercise equipment or enter the billiard room unless you are 18, of course.
The complex was chosen by my older sister because it is within driving distance of her house and has all the amenities. My sister and I often fretted about Mom choosing to stay in the apartment when she could be living it up at the grand clubhouse down the hill. I’d call and nag by phone, “Mom, look at the schedule of activities at the clubhouse. Mom, why don’t you go to the chair yoga class?” My sister had the most effective method. She would show up with her kids who came running around in bathing suits. “Grandma, Mom said we were going to the pool today!”
All the while, maybe Mom really just wanted to say, “I don’t want to go to the fucking clubhouse.”
Leave the complex by car, but be prepared to allow a grand gate to close behind you. Re-entry is allowed only if you provide the full name, building number, and apartment of the person you are visiting. Calling Uber is a nightmare, unless you are willing to walk out dragging your suitcase to the address of the Greek Orthodox Church across the street so the driver can find you curbside.
At this juncture in our trip to see the relatives for the holidays, we would typically rent a car and drive to see David’s mother, Virginia, who lives on Cape Cod. She is six years my mother’s elder, 83 to my Mom’s 77 years.
My wise sister, Liz, (who hosts Christmas and leaves the day after to visit her in-laws in Canada but usually takes care of Mom) asked the question: “Would you consider taking Mom to Cape Cod with you this year?”
So it was we found ourselves packed into Mom’s Honda Accord, our twin 13-year-old boys in the back seat with Grandma Roz, David driving, and me in the passenger seat. It was, perhaps, a small way to make up for all the years I have not been present. Mom, a longtime driver who once braved the New Jersey turnpike on a daily basis to get to her local stores, now sat meekly in the back seat.
Early in the drive, she asked, “Don’t you use the computer?” in a fretful voice. She meant the GPS. The navigation technology (iPhone app and its forebear, the GPS gadget) had existed through all the changes in the latter part of her life—divorce, multiple knee surgeries, major move out of our family house.
The navigator’s dependable female voice was a comfort. Mom consistently used the GPS whenever she drove to and from my sister’s house, 30 minutes away. Even though Mom had learned how to drive to Liz’s house a different way than the GPS told her (a toll route was easier for her), she always kept the voice on “just in case something happened.”
We had experienced this trip multiple times and wanted to use alternate roads to avoid I-95 for a while, so we kept the GPS lady off. The winding road of the Hutchinson River Parkway lulled us forward and onto the Merritt Parkway, with its winged sculptures and arched bridges of the WPA era. Our next stop at Papa’s Pizza in Connecticut served a pie that was so extraordinary to us, the taste of it brightened the next set of interstate highways and gave us hope of reaching the sandy peninsula before nightfall. We finally disembarked at Virginia’s house in East Harwich, Massachusetts, on the eve of the new year.
In the gray-shingled home on Meetinghouse Way, my Mom and Virginia embraced, gathering each other up in an assemblage of fragile bones and merry Christmas wishes. They did not talk or see each other often, but there was a bond of having twin grandchildren, the joy and grief of having kids visit from their home so far away.
Mom seemed genuinely impressed by all the “beautiful things” in Virginia’s home, an accumulation of family treasures—antique sideboard, grandfather clock, oriental rugs. She noticed the paintings too, landscapes in oil that spoke of New England in painterly shortcuts, fisherman at the shore with his line in a flowing river, hills with old mill in the background.
These objects covered the house like a blanket of snow. In myriad ways, they were all reminiscent of Virginia’s childhood in Rockville, Connecticut, of the 1930s, where the local textile mill would dump red dyes into the river at 4:00 p.m. each day, and her parents served a roast at the walnut dining table at six.
The move to Cape Cod was a rebellious risk in the 1960s that suited Virginia and her eccentric husband quite well. Now on her own at 83, Virginia’s life pulsated through her role as parish nurse (having been a school nurse for many years). The chatty network of senior, church-minded ladies shared stories about who was divorcing, who was in the psych ward after a breakdown, and who had died that week. There were choir rehearsals, church breakfasts, and funeral after funeral.
“I bought a roast beef for us from Ferretti’s market,” Virginia announced, assuring us that this meat was not from her freezer downstairs. David and I feared that freezer, with its pounds upon pounds of crystallized meat that Virginia bought on markdown at Stop and Shop. The freezer was bought ostensibly to manage her depression-era habit of stowing away meat whenever possible. The habit extended in this day and age to most foods on sale. In the refrigerator upstairs, for example, you could find multiple packages of cheddar cheese with past expiration dates, half-filled jars of condiments in varying states of decay, and questionable produce.
The “spoon” roast beef from Ferretti’s, however, was recently killed, and it was for our special occasion. David’s brother and 16-year-old niece came the following day for dinner, and we sat at the dining table together. Brother Elliott carved the meat and served it up to the “ahhhs” of the mothers, while niece Caroline shared iPhone pictures from her sweet sixteen party and let slip that the cute boy on the dance floor was a jerk who “just wanted to get in her pants.”
But the thing of great consequence. The most remarkable thing, aside from everyone getting along mostly and putting up with each other without excessive drinking was this—the roast beef that my 83-year-old mother-in-law cooked was delicious.
Later, we sat in the music room. Some of David’s old friends stopped in before travelling home to Maine or Vermont, and the talk was of the sailing team and adopted children and the tornado from last fall. David’s own journeys were ever-present in conversation, as he sprinkled his references to places he once lived abroad, like Colombia and Ecuador.
Virginia’s friend, Pat, showed up at the door with a big hello.
I had first met this younger lady (in her seventies) with her silver bob and cute figure in the driveway of the house. This was last summer, and Pat was wearing a stylish bikini with a little skirt, rattling at hyper speed that she was just dropping by to bring Ginny a basil plant and check in on her. Pat had grown up in a row house filled with siblings in Lowell, Massachusetts, and to this day, she gravitated to a home with the promise of a little banter and a drink. Pat was a church friend, of which Virginia had many, but Pat stopped in to see Virginia on a regular basis, typically at 4 p.m. to share a glass of bourbon.
The friendship with Pat, having begun at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit (or “Spirits” as they would joke), had deepened through Pat’s divorce and new marriage to a former psychiatrist-turned-sailor who left on his yacht for months at a time. When Pat’s only son died of an opioid overdose, Pat came to the house and said to Viriginia, “Brett’s gone,” and she sat in the music room to cry.
One December day on the week of the death five years ago, Virginia had Pat come with her to church. Virginia told the ladies in the community room that Pat “was a little tender,” and they pulled up a chair for her. Together, they decorated wreaths to deliver to the nursing home. And they moved on.
At one point in our current holiday crowd, Virginia brought over an object to share. Her father’s violin had been sitting in the closet. “Would it be worth it to repair?” she asked me. Although my violin experience dated mostly from high school, my parents used to marvel at my dedication to the instrument. My aunt even had me play the sappy Barbara Streisand tune, “Evergreen,” at her wedding, and I recall that there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Viriginia offered me a bow that was just a shred of horse hair, but I played a scale as warmly as I could.
“You play violin? I don’t remember,” my mother commented. I tried to ignore her face, which was warped with disbelief and confusion.
Instead, I focused my attention on another story Virginia was telling about her father, the doctor who made house calls all around Rockville, Connecticut. He went to the row houses of factory workers and visited a sick woman there. As a way to cheer her, he played a tune on his violin. The sick woman could not pay any money, so she gave him a small candle stick in exchange for the kind service.
“That’s the candle holder on the table.” And there behind me, was a small, forged iron candle stick. The payment from all those years ago, solid evidence of a memory.
Before our return to New Jersey, I took Mom for a chilly walk on Nauset Beach. We remarked how frightening the warning signs about sharks were, as they had become abundant in the warming waters. I held her bony hand as we stepped down from the boardwalk. Slowed by the sand, we must have appeared like a single organism, quietly and steadily linked, moving along the shore amidst the breaking sea foam.
But upon our return, I felt embittered all over again. It was not just the apartment complex that bothered me, it was Mom’s sense of defeat, even before she had dementia. When Mom’s memory was good, people who lived in her building only reminded her of things she lacked. The husband and wife across the way were the absence of couplehood, her own husband having left years before. The single woman next door who used to be the librarian at Montclair State University represented career—my mother did not pursue a teaching career after getting her degree in education back in the sixties.
In my adulthood, I became a teacher and a mother, nothing out of the ordinary. I did not break any glass ceilings. Along the way, I had sought substitutes for my Mom. My mother-in-law was a boon, always so talkative and forthcoming about the people of her past as well as the people she knew now. I sought substitutes in women colleagues who seemed accomplished, unconcerned about appearances, and willing to take risks. I liked to spend time with these people, but mother I only took in small doses. In my move across the country, in seeking other mothers, I felt complicit in the erasure of my own, like the conceit of Mom’s spreading disease.
Yet there was a time when my mother existed for me in her presence of being. A presence that was all around me in the home, and after I moved away, she was a presence that sustained me by phone to listen to any worries I had, or the kindness who fed me and welcomed me at any hour of return.
On the bright morning after our trip, I ventured outside for my first walk of the new year. I took the key fob and made it successfully to the sidewalk. The sight of a working man on a garbage truck filled me with a kind of delight. A human? Working the garbage truck in the year 2020? One man called out “Happy New Year” as he toiled among heaps of holiday trash. When he realized that I was disoriented and had to catch myself walking toward the wrong building (all the units look the same), the trash man mocked me with a little confusion dance and a broad smile.
The residents of the complex, well-off retirees, were either hidden away inside their locked apartments or had flown to Florida for the winter.
As I walked, my eye followed the garbage truck as it trudged uphill, and something in the background suddenly came to the fore. Why hadn’t I noticed it before?
An immense cliff rock stood around the Four Seasons. It occupied the perimeter of the complex, and jutted up to the clouds, with a skirt of metal netting to prevent stones from falling on people’s heads. I could just make out a snarl of trees growing from the top, so menacing and wild, it brought to mind Dr. Frankenstein’s ambition come to life with lightning bolts.
This mighty cliff, it must have survived the excavators and machinery that came, not too long ago, to destroy and then to build the complex amid the rubble. Maybe the construction workers thought it too difficult to bring down, too uncooperative, and so they deemed the effort useless. “Let’s just leave this colossal mess,” they decided.
I remembered the surprise of another wild place nestled in this densely populated area of New Jersey. The Saturday before Christmas, my sister brought me to the South Mountain Reservation, which was a steep mile up through her neighborhood. At the entrance, signs informed the public about the cliff formation west of the Hudson River—the Palisades, something that I had only known as a parkway name. Like the Palisades formation, the mountain had volcanic origins. Forces jutted skyward upon a supercontinent, magma and lava cooled over millions of years to make black basalt. The Lenape people called the great cliffs Weehawken, or “rocks that look like rows of trees.”
There was a terrace within the reservation, 500 feet above sea level, where you could see the Manhattan skyline. I remembered the 9/11 memorial there, where my sister said people crowded together as the towers fell.
At the Four Seasons, too, the cliff stood with its black-rust face, implausible backdrop to a lonely park bench with its little patch of manicured lawn. In the early morning under a stark blue sky, the cliff rock suddenly called out, Attend to me.
While Mom seemed inert in her apartment of stark white walls and granite countertops, I wondered if this cliff was the bedrock of something more inherent to her being. Was it the ancestor of another rock that I knew from family lore, the apartment building in the Bronx, New York, where my mother lived as a child? She was little Rosalie back then, and in that rock her mother, Olga, and father, Sam, came up and down stairs every day. Her younger brother Sal made the noise and the grandparents, aunts and uncles were always there, down the hall, around the corner, in the six-story building near Pelham Bay. That rock was alive with the breadth of family—a proud Italian-American family who shared their stories of building a life here.
This time spent visiting our mothers made my husband and I feel so old, yet so small. We inevitably became children who could not believe our mothers would soon leave us. The mother with her abundance of memories in a society of her own, and the mother whose only affirmation was in having children who remembered for her. Still, they were the mother ships of our generation, the origins from which our journeys launched into the world.
There is a children’s book called, Are You My Mother?, in which the little bird runs all across the land looking for his mother after she leaves the nest to find food. Are you my mother? he asks the cow. Are you my mother? he asks the dog, and he repeats the question of everyone and everything, even a car and other nonliving objects. He’s out of his mind, howling and crying, when the excavator, of all things, takes pity on the baby bird. The digger twists and lifts it to his nest, where he is reunited with the mother bird in the end, given the prize of a wriggly worm. She never woke him up to tell him she was leaving, I thought.
I want to ask in this moment, oh great cliff, shale and talus, the true captain of the mothership.
Have you known me all along?
Are you my mother?
Photo at the top of the page by Jennifer Moglia Lucil.