I was never close to my mother, not counting those first nine months and the six months that followed when she breastfed me unlike most mothers in the scientific 1960s.
“We’re mammals! Of course I breastfed you,” she had said when my first son was born.
And there are all those fine meals and a clean, enticing home filled with unusual things: two large, striking, oil paintings by her friend Gaylord Flory; a hand knotted rug from Libya; a carved wooden chest from Brazil; and a backyard with a vegetable garden surrounded by fruit trees. But no, we were never close, until Alzheimer’s.
It wasn’t Billy Collins’s “worn truth that you can never repay your mother” that led me to have her move in with us when the lock down Alzheimer’s unit was her only other option, though we read his poem, “The Lanyard,” together many times. It was our unfinished business of finding a good “close.”
When I was little, frugal Alice would let me nibble off the remaining bits of red from around the excised stem of a tomato if she was cutting one up for a salad. For her, I always kept a bowl full of ripe red tomatoes out on the counter for the taking. Competitive? You tell me.
“Can I have a toe-Mah-toe?” Alice used her My Fair Lady voice and held her pinky out when she asked for one.
“My mother wouldn’t let us do that.”
“Mine didn’t either.”
“Okhh, That’s hard.” Alice gives the best empathy.
“I kept a salt shaker hidden in my tree fort and would sneak tomatoes from the garden and eat them up there in the fort.”
“Very clever. I wish I had thought of that.”
“Thanks. But you didn’t have a tree fort or a vegetable garden when you were little.”
“No. That’s right.” Alice took another bite. “Where did I live?”
“You lived in a walk up, railroad apartment on 56th Street back when that was still a bad neighborhood.”
“233 East 56th Street.” Six stories, multiple apartments on each floor, with a shared toilet in the hall, her building is long gone, replaced with nondescript offices.
“And there was slaughterhouse and meat processing plant down where the United Nations is now.” I learned this fact when I was doing research for a novel.
“The smell was horrible.”
“I can imagine.”
But the best facts I learned straight from her.
“Sometimes my mother stewed a lamb’s head for supper. I wouldn’t touch it. I’d go to bed hungry. But my sister, she loved it.” Alice reached for another tomato. “You know, you must have been a cute little kid. I wish I had known you then.”