My Cell Phone Rings
My cell phone rings often these days. Usually it’s Zuni (my mother’s live-in Paraguayan housekeeper), or Andrea, who fills in on Zuni’s days off. Sometimes it’s my mother’s secretary Jan, or the geriatric care manager I’ve hired to oversee the aides I’m bringing into her Washington, DC house. But this time it’s my mother herself, a rare occurrence because she can no longer remember phone numbers, or where to find them on the laminated list I’ve made her, or whether she called me five minutes ago. I answer, as I often do, with my stomach in knots.
Her voice is more imperious than it’s been in the last weeks, and her accent still retains a hint of her British colonial childhood. My husband says she sounds like Anthony Hopkins.
“The maid tells me that you no longer want me to drive,” she announces, as if this is a little misunderstanding we need to clear up. She’s forgotten Zuni’s name and that Zuni isn’t a maid.
“The doctor doesn’t want you to drive.”
“Nobody told me that.”
“Yes, Mummy, you had an appointment with Dr. S. on the sixteenth and she explained it to you.”
“Does that mean I can’t even drive myself to mass?”
“Because you could get faint or dizzy. You could arrive somewhere and not remember how to get home.”
“Really?” Now her voice falters. “Well, I do suppose that would be a problem,” she admits. “Does this mean I’m never going to be able to drive?”
I take one step back from the truth. “We’ll see.” It’s what parents say to kids to avoid disappointing them. “The doctor hopes the memory medication will improve things.”
Silence. “It’s hard,” she says at last in a small voice.
“Yes,” I acknowledge. “It’s very hard.”
I am grateful for this moment of parity, a reminder of our most recent relationship, the one we shared for almost thirty years.
At her suggestion, we’d spent a long weekend some years back going over all the aspects of her living will. Did she want to be kept alive if she had a stroke? Should she be hydrated even though hydration would prolong her life? What about pneumonia and antibiotics? The questions we couldn’t face were what to do with the stage between independent self-reliance and death, this slow shutting down. That’s the stage we’re in now, the third stage of our lives together, when sometimes I have to act like her mother and sometimes, she tries to reassert her authority. She relies on me, especially now in her muddled state, to tell her the truth, and I do my best.
“Mummy, I understand you met the nurses yesterday.”
“Who are those people? Where did they come from?”
“I’ve hired them. They give your caregivers someone to call who isn’t the doctor or 911. I’m hoping they’ll keep you out of the emergency room.”
“But I’ve never been in an emergency room.”
“You were there last week, Mummy. For eight hours.”
“Oh. I don’t remember that.”
“Well, that’s a day you don’t want to remember. Some forgetfulness can be a blessing.”
We share a laugh. For a moment she sounds like her old self. And so, I describe it, hoping for a spark of memory.
“Jan was sitting next to you in that emergency room for eight hours. Let’s just say that you’re going to have to submit to one hour a week of a nurse checking your vitals in order to give me and Jan peace of mind. Not to mention Zuni and Andrea.”
“Oh well, if it helps all of you, then I suppose it’s fine.”
That’s always been the way to present something new to my mother. She wants to make it clear that she doesn’t need anything, but if others do, then she will, of course, oblige. She and my father were distant physically and emotionally from us and from each other, so I had long played “Mum” to my younger brothers. By the time my mother stopped drinking, I was already the mother of my own two children, so I never had to poke through that wall between childhood and adulthood to prove that I belonged on her side of the fence. Perhaps that’s why I can speak to her now in a no-nonsense tone of voice that many adult children find it hard to use with their parents when the roles reverse. Or perhaps I’m punishing her. Perhaps both.
Whatever its source, that tough voice is available when I need it. But I’m not enjoying this third stage of our lives together.
“This is hard.”
“Yes, Mummy. Very hard.”
On both of us.
I want my mother back. If I can’t have the one I never had, who was supposed to pick my screaming self out of the crib and hold me close, or cheer at my field hockey game in sixth grade, or attend my college graduation, or teach me how to soothe my own infant daughter, then so be it. I’ll settle for the one I had in my middle years, the mother I could phone and talk to for hours about politics, my brothers, my children, the relatives; the mother I took to the Channel Islands to attend her best friend’s eightieth birthday; the mother who could remember what her six children were doing and where they lived; the mother who was happier to have me sitting on the couch next to her than anybody else.
It is clear that this new mother, the one who’s taken up residence in her body, prefers the dog’s company to mine. Morgan, the eleven-year-old corgi, demands nothing of her. He doesn’t insist that she track a conversation. He doesn’t attempt to discuss the temperature outside or whether the bird on the feeder is a cardinal or a woodpecker. He doesn’t turn the radio to her favorite classical station and then look disturbed when she can’t figure out how to push the off button on the remote. He doesn’t urge her to drink more water or require that she swallow a vanilla protein shake before her third cup of coffee. He simply settles next to her chair and keeps her company.
In the old days, she often chastised him for barking too often or wanting always to be on the other side of the door. Now she talks to him whenever he enters the room, or starts gnawing on one of his toys, or drinks water out of the plant saucers instead of his bowl. At the sound of her voice, he trots over so that her hand, when it drops, comes to rest on his head. That action stills whatever is agitating her. I wish I could live in each moment with her as completely as Morgan does.
My brothers and I are doing all we can to keep her at home, so the trappings remain the same. My mother has always had a certain British upper-class type of beauty, not unlike Queen Elizabeth who was born a month later. The still elegant, silver-haired woman holds court in the garden room from an upholstered, high-backed chair that we call “the throne.” We are only partly joking. She is flanked by the jasmine bush she grew from a cutting but can no longer smell, and the huge wooden statue of an eagle from the top of the Los Angeles County courthouse that my father bought on a whim. The laptop computer she now forgets to open rests by her chair; the laminated list I compiled of her friends and family whose names she can’t remember, lies next to the phone. The crutches she’s had to use for the last fifteen years because of a spinal condition are tucked in easy reach under the coffee table. The bookshelf, filled with books she’s read but can no longer follow for even one paragraph, holds photographs of family and a few of the famous people she and my father knew in their Washington heydays. She can’t identify most of them.
The person who used to sit in that chair has slipped out the back door. She went quietly. We didn’t heed the warning signs, although recognizing them wouldn’t have made a difference. We just kept hoping, as so many adult children do, that she would be able to live as full a life as possible and die in her sleep.
My mother’s life falls into three parts. The first lasts from her birth in 1926, in Gibraltar, until her marriage to my father at the age of eighteen. The second covers the years of marriage and childbearing until she became a widow at forty-eight. The third and longest stage is life on her own, now thirty-five years and still counting. In many ways, quiet independence has suited her personality. In our large, boisterous family, she was always reserved, a person we children didn’t know very well. When my brothers and I were growing up in post-war Washington, my American father’s family dominated our lives.
My father’s family lived up and down the East Coast, and we spent every Christmas and part of every summer with our Alsop grandmother and cousins on a shade tobacco and dairy farm in Avon, Connecticut. We knew the names of the cows in the barn. We knew Emma the cook, who slipped us spoonfuls of cookie dough from the pale brown crockery mixing bowl pressed against her uniformed bosom. We knew Aggie Guthrie, the Scottish girl who arrived at the farm in 1911 to raise my father and his three siblings. On every visit, we tiptoed back into the dark corner of Grandmother’s living room to stare with ghoulish wonder at the mummy’s hand, a disintegrating relic inside a glass case that some Alsop or Roosevelt ancestor had stolen from an Egyptian tomb.
My paternal grandmother was Theodore Roosevelt’s niece, the only daughter born to his younger sister, Corinne. My grandmother’s closest female first cousins were Alice Roosevelt Longworth—Theodore’s eldest daughter, who lived near us in Washington—and Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor had defected from the Theodore side of the family into which she was born, when she married that “feather duster,” Franklin, so even though she and my grandmother remained friends through family spats and political divisions, nobody thought it was important that any of us be introduced to FDR’s widow. (She died when I was fourteen.) The Roosevelt name lingered in the family shadows, but we weren’t brought up to dwell on it or use it to further any cause. We did, however, have an enormous allegiance to the very American Alsop tribe.
The only one of my mother’s relatives that we knew was her mother, Cecilia—Granny we called her—who came from her home in Gibraltar every September, right around my birthday, and stayed for three months while my father traveled abroad reporting and writing weekly columns for the Herald Tribune newspaper syndicate. Granny seemed impossibly old-fashioned and prissy in an English nanny sort of way, with a patina of Latin exoticism. She wore a black lace mantilla to daily Mass. Like my mother, she spoke a kind of kitchen Spanish to the maids or anyone who looked vaguely Latin. She insisted on cleaning the bookshelves one book at a time, implying the inadequacy of my mother’s housekeeping. For the one or two days when their paths crossed, she and my father would renew their longstanding battle over the ashes in the fireplace. She thought they should be removed; he liked them to build up over a winter to ensure a hotter flame. She seemed rigid and opinionated. I sensed that, like us, my mother endured these visits more than she enjoyed them. We knew nothing of Granny’s life and with the casual cruelty of self-absorbed children, we didn’t care. We didn’t like to be told to polish our shoes, sit up at the table, and mind our manners. During Granny’s visits, we skulked around, avoided her as much as possible and waited for our father’s return, as it signaled Granny’s departure.
It wasn’t until I was well into my fifties and my father had been dead for over twenty years that I began to ask my mother about her life. The stories that came spilling out of her, rich with detail and emotions, felt as if they had been dammed up for years in the deep pool of her memory.
“Nobody ever asked about my childhood,” my mother said to me when I began to interview her on tape. “They didn’t want to know what I’d been through before I got here.” As a child, it didn’t occur to me to wonder about her grandparents, or whether she had a pet, or what house she grew up in. The names Gibraltar, Algeciras, Kent, and Fetcham cropped up occasionally in her conversations, but the places seemed far away and foreign to our American ears.
And then there were the boxes, shipped long ago from Gibraltar, shoved in the basement, and forgotten. They are a treasure trove now.
I think people are either editors or pack rats. I’m an editor. Living in a New York apartment is a bit like living in a boat. My rule is, “Nothing comes in, but that something must go out.” My mother’s a pack rat. Except for the years during the war when she stayed in her parents’ two-bedroom flat in London, my mother has always lived in large houses. So, when it became time to help her “downsize” from the eleven-bedroom house in Washington where we all grew up to a four-bedroom house a few miles away, I was prepared for the job of cataloging the antique furniture, the china, and the paintings that had passed down through generations on both sides of my family. What came as a complete shock were the boxes of memorabilia we found tucked away in the basement, much of it from my mother’s family, the Hankeys. Eighteenth-century deeds and certificates noting births, marriages, deaths from England and Gibraltar were all jumbled together with letters from her brother, Ian, and photograph albums from their childhood.
“Mummy, where did all this come from?” I asked as I labeled the boxes for the move to the new basement.
“Back in the early 1970s, when I had to move your grandmother from Gibraltar to that nursing home in England, I had it all crated up and shipped to me here. Your father was sick at the time, so I didn’t have a chance to sort through any of it.” She smiled wearily. “I guess I never got around to it.”
Now, as she slips deeper into dementia, those basement boxes provide hours of entertainment and give us a way back to each other. Sitting on the sofa next to her chair, I ask her to read to me from the parchment documents so I can catalogue them. For a moment, she is not muddled or confused, does not protest that something’s gone wrong with her eyes. The high-flown language is familiar to her, and she dials up the British accent just a little. One of our favorites is the official commissioning of her uncle Wilfred as a Second Lieutenant in the Land Forces. Dated 1902, it begins: Edward by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India, Etc. To our Trusty and well-beloved Wilfred Humphrey Mosley, Gentleman, Greeting. And so on and so forth. We giggle together over the language, the lofty tone, the elaborate stamps and signatures.
I wish I could give us more times like these.
In the last few years, my mother has been telling people that I’m writing her autobiography. I don’t bother to correct her. It isn’t an autobiography, because, of course, she’s not writing it. It’s not even a biography, because it’s also featuring me. I’ve been researching her life because I want to get down her story before she leaves us, but also because it helps pass the interminable hours when our only topics of conversation have become the birds on the feeder and whether the dog has gone out. I need to figure out how she got to be the mother she was, but at the same time, I’m trying to hang on to her as she slips away. Stay here with me, Mummy. Read to me. Tell me more stories.
Before I even thought of writing this book, I knew I wanted to get every story out of her while she could still tell them, so I’d have no regrets when she was gone. Friends who’d lost their own mothers had warned me about that. Ask her now, they said, before she dies. Stupidly, it never occurred to me that she could leave me without dying. This way. By inches. Asking her about dates or meetings or moments in her long ago past has now begun to feel cruel, as if I’m poking at an open wound. I keep promising myself that I will slow down and learn to live with her in the moment, but the researcher in me often forgets.
I’m looking for answers. Who were you, you two strangers who became my parents? What drew you to each other? Did the love survive the marriage? And then the harder ones. Why were you such an absent mother, especially for me, the only girl in the house? Was it your natural British reserve that made you hold yourself apart? Or were you trying to shield your children from your own deep despair soothed only by the vodka stirred into your Coca-Cola?
Maybe I think the writing of this book will crack the barrier, get near the coded self that she withheld from everyone. Maybe it will help me to age differently, so that at the end, I won’t be as alone and sad and isolated as she is.
Maybe I’m just kidding myself.
“Old age is a shipwreck,” my uncle used to say. So right he was.
MY PARENTS’ LOVE AFFAIR
My Mother’s Childhood
Gib is short for Gibraltar, a rocky peninsula attached to the southern coast of Spain that was claimed by a British Admiral in 1704 on his way back from a failed attempt to capture Barcelona. In 1713, the territory was ceded in perpetuity to Great Britain under the Treaty of Utrecht, and the Spanish have been trying to reclaim it ever since. Gibraltarians have repeatedly voted against proposals for Spanish sovereignty, preferring to remain a British Overseas Territory, what used to be called a Crown Colony.
Born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1926, my mother was named Patricia, but was always known as Tish. Unlike me, she had only one brother, Ian, who was sent to boarding school in England when she was three and killed in the war when she was sixteen. She might as well have been an only child.
Gibraltarians call themselves mongrels because the settlers came from every one of the countries that ring the Mediterranean, as well as from Britain. My mother’s father, Arthur Hankey, was a shipping merchant, brought up in Surrey, England, while his wife’s ancestors emigrated from Spain, England, Ireland, and Italy. The family lived in a Georgian house on Prince Edward’s Road, directly across the street from Hargrave’s Parade where the army drilled its troops. In the afternoons, whenever the band struck up, the neighborhood children poured out of their houses to march up and down in time with the soldiers, cursing at one another in imitation of the sergeant swearing at his men.