Regular dinners at Mom’s have become the new normal for the past six years. It’s definitely not the same since Dad died, but as a family, we perform the obligatory routine of going on with our lives and staying in touch. I know Mom looks forward to our dinners together because, on the day of our dinner, she wakes up early and walks over to the hairdresser for her wash and set. Once home in the afternoon, she clutches her dust cloth in hand and begins her day’s chores. Following dusting, she brings out the big gun, the hoover.
“Because you can’t vacuum before you dust, as the dust rises when you vacuum,” she always says.
She is methodical of making sure the carpet is vacuumed in perfect lines, much like a farmer plows his fields. By the end of her routine, she’s down on her knees washing the kitchen and bathroom floors.
She happily exclaims,
“You can’t mop floors, you know, the only way to get the floor clean is by scrubbing on your hands and knees. Good hard work, but well worth it.”
After work, my job is to pick up Baba (my grandmother) and head over to Mom’s where we (my brother Stephen, Baba, Mom and I) scan the many take-out menus Mom has in her kitchen. I have been secretly stockpiling them in one of her drawers for quite some time. My agenda is not so much that she doesn’t have to cook but more so, that we don’t have to eat her cooking. God bless her. She is not a great cook; in fact, she’s not even a mediocre cook, although no one would know it by the collection of recipe books she has on display in her kitchen. I remember the years when Dad, Stephen and I sat at the dining room table and she would serve one of her many recipes taken from either the Better Homes and Gardens Fondue and Tabletop Cooking cookbook or The Beta Sigma Phi International Casserole Cookbook or any other cookbook she stashed in a cupboard. She tried; there were some recipes that did work, but the ones that didn’t still remain in my gag reflex memory. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t entirely her fault, no doubt, it is genetic. Baba and Mom have inherited some sort of non-chef gene that they passed on to me. I always think, there are worse hereditary traits that could have been passed on.
Dinner tonight is no different. I arrive to pick up Baba at her senior’s apartment at 6:30 p.m. I immediately notice she was wearing her favourite red dress with open toe taupe shoes topped off with a mismatched brown and orange bobble necklace. She has her purse in one hand and overnight bag in the other. I can’t help but think that Mom will have a field day with this. Baba is not the most fashionable person, but her glowing joie de vivre far outweigh her wardrobe. Her love of offbeat bright colours and inexpensive jewellery is the antithesis of Mom. I can’t help but smile when I also notice two large bags plopped down beside her. There must have been a sale on toilet tissue and paper towel, I think to myself. Baba’s linen closet is packed tighter than two coats of paint with paper products and any non-perishable item. She isn’t a hoarder, just buys items whenever they are on sale. She walks to the shopping centre with her bundle buggy and purchases as much as it will carry. She then heads home and packs her cupboard with such precision that it seems like a magic trick when she takes objects out. How the heck she fits so much in one closet is baffling.
Her lips curl up into a smirk when she says, “Look closely Paula, there’s more behind those bags… see?”
When I visit she can’t help herself. She loads me up with bags of toilet paper and paper towels, even if I don’t need any at the time. She even hands me a bag for Mom. Every cupboard and closet in my apartment contains some sort of paper product given to me by Baba. I have no idea if she thinks I have issues or it is her way of expressing love, but it doesn’t matter, I take whatever she gives me to make her happy.
We sit down in the dining room. Our regular seating arrangements at the table are Mom at one end of the table, me at the other end and Baba and Stephen in the middle opposite one another. Tonight Chinese food containers sit perfectly in line on the table runner in the middle of Mom’s oak table. To lessen any mess, a floral cork place mat sits directly under each of our plates. A fork and knife is positioned precisely in line with the person’s across from us. Mom is perfection to the nth degree.
I look over at Mom and ask, “Can you please pass the egg rolls?” She stares at the table. I repeat, “Mom, the egg rolls?”
“Oh, sorry, what did you want?” Mom looks at me questioningly.
“The egg rolls…right in front of you… on the table?”
Mom looks over at Stephen,
“Can you please pass the egg rolls to your sister?”
As is always the case with my younger brother, he teases me by almost handing me the container then yanks it away before placing it in front of me.
“Really? Are you five years old again?” I sarcastically say. He grins at the exact moment Baba pipes up smiling from ear to ear,
“Paula, I’ll take another if you don’t mind, I love egg rolls.”
Feasting around the world is our monthly routine. This evening is Chinese, a few weeks ago it was Italian, a few weeks from now, who knows? Mom always has the last word on what she feels like eating, and each of us goes along with her choice. Tonight, my brother has to eat quickly as he is meeting up later with his band to jam. Stephen plays bass guitar in his spare time. He is an accomplished musician; self-taught but cannot read sheet music. He and his friends have been playing music together for years. I remember it like yesterday; Dad was chauffeur in the evenings with Mom and I in tow when Stephen was sixteen. His band had secured gigs in bars around the Toronto area, some seedier than others. Nowadays his band just jams. Instead of a garage band, it is a basement jam.
“What time do you have to leave?” Mom asks Stephen.
“As soon as I’m finished eating,” he replies.
This is where he takes after Mom; he can eat anything and not gain a pound. I, on the other hand, have inherited both Baba and Dad’s trait of; look at food, gain ten pounds.
Stephen has many of Dad’s mannerisms, sense of humour and calmness. I, unfortunately or fortunately depending on your point of view, have inherited Mom’s seriousness. That’s one of the reasons Mom and I butt heads at times. Stephen has an uncanny knack of letting things slide. He’s able to refrain from most, if not all, confrontations. And Mom? Well, like most mothers when it comes to their youngest child; he is her baby and can do no wrong.
Baba turns her head towards me and begins the conversation,
“So Paula, What are your plans for tomorrow?”
I tell her that Mark (my partner) and I are going for a bike ride on a rail trail. Baba never learned how to ride a bike. In fact, she never learned how to drive a car, but is well-travelled in public transport and travels alone to nearby shopping malls a few times a week.
“Not bad for an eighty-seven year old.” She always says.
The bike ride weaves into a famous Baba story,
“We had no money when I was a kid. We were so poor we even had a cow for a year that my Mother would milk everyday.”
I am just about to ask about the cow when Mom gets up and walks into the kitchen. That’s strange, I think. Why is Mom leaving the table in the middle of Baba’s story? I tune back into Baba’s story and realize she is talking to Stephen about his music. Damn, I missed the entire story because Mom ran out of the dining room.
Mom appears holding up an empty bottle of wine in front of her and says,
“Anyone want some wine?”
Smiling, I point out that the bottle seems to be empty.
“Oh, silly me, wrong thing.” Laughing she swiftly runs back into the kitchen and fetches a full-unopened bottle.
I haven’t seen this lighthearted side of Mom for a very long time. I’m hopeful that after losing Dad a few years ago, she has finally settled into her new life without him. She deserves happiness. The past few years have been difficult for her. She has had to learn how to pay bills, write cheques, balance a chequebook, file her tax returns, grocery shop, all things many take for granted, that Dad used to do for her.
Later that evening once Stephen has left, Baba and I decide to sit in the living room and watch some TV.
“Mom, where’s your remote?” I holler.
She yells out from the kitchen where she is loading the dishwasher,
“It’s on the thing.”
The thing? Now, what the heck is the thing? Usually, it is on the end table by her lazy boy chair, but I have no luck finding it there tonight.
Again, I question,
“Mom, it’s not on the end table, where else could it be?”
She rushes into the living room with crimson wine sloshing in her goblet,
“What?” she asks.
I repeat the question, “the remote, where did you put the remote?”
Baba, probably noticing I was getting impatient, drops to her eighty-seven year old knees and says,
“It has to be around here somewhere. I’m always losing my remote. Oh Paula, It used to be a lot easier years ago when you all you had to do was…walk up to the TV, switch it on, and turn the knob for the stations. I’m sure you don’t remember that, but I know Anne does. Don’t you Anne?”
What a picture; Baba on her knees feeling around under the couch. I admit, she is pretty limber, although hindered by bad eyesight, diagnosed with macular degeneration ten years earlier. She’d always say, “That was a tough hard pill to swallow.”
Feeling like a detective on a nighttime TV show I see Mom’s eyes stare into the distance. I question Mom.
“Okay, when was the last time you watched TV?” She says nothing, just stares.
“Mom? Are you okay?”
As quickly as the spaced out look occurs, it disappears and she says,
“I think I may have put it over there,” pointing to the buffet in the dining room.
Before making my way to the buffet I bend down to help Baba up from the floor. She grunts as I lift her to a seated position. I make my way over to the buffet, and low and behold, there it is, the elusive remote. For some strange reason, Mom must have placed it on the buffet. Whoops, I should be more patient with her; it’s not like I haven’t done that before. In fact, when I’m dusting (which is not that frequently), I take things off a table and put them somewhere else, and yes at times I forget where I had place them. Although with Mom, everything has its place, there is never, and I mean never, a deviation. Whatever, case solved.
“Anne, why don’t you forget about cleaning up for now?” Baba says. “Sit down and relax!” She pats the seat next to her.
Good luck with that Baba, I think. Mom is like the energizer bunny; she keeps going until her batteries run out, which is hardly ever. As though Mom reads my mind, out of the blue she sails into the living room and seats herself in her lazy boy chair. Three generations sitting and watching Unsolved Mysteries. However, Baba always has a something to say during the show. “Oh my. That’s just horrible. That’s why I place a box of dishes every night on a chair at my front door. No one will push their way into my apartment without me hearing those dishes crash.”
Smiling at Baba and looking at Mom, I can’t help but think; maybe Mom is beginning to find her own rhythm. Maybe she isn’t worrying about things being left undone in her home. I hope this is a good sign.
Once the show ends and I’m about to say goodbye, Mom asks if I can help her pull out the hide-a-bed sofa for Baba.
“Sure.” I reply.
The hide-a-bed sofa is where Baba always sleeps when she stays overnight. Mom runs to the linen closet to gather sheets, pillow, and blanket.
“Anne, I can do it myself, no need to bother Paula,” Baba says as she begins removing the sofa cushions.
Looking over at Baba I say,
“Baba, sit down, I’ll do it. Relax.”
I stand near Mom’s lazy boy chair and pat the cushion to get Baba to sit. (She thinks she still twenty-years old. It’s time she realizes that I do not mind helping out). She smiles and gives in; perhaps the down on the knees stunt has taken more energy out of her then she will admit out loud.
I bend over and grab the handle and pull. Voila, bed ready to be made. I quickly move out-of-the-way to give Mom some room to do her magic. She takes the bottom sheet, flicks it in the air and lets it fall perfectly on the mattress. Without missing a step, she walks around the mattress carefully tucking in each corner. Her bed making skills are second to none. Hospital corners? Mom is the best. I can’t help but remember all the times during my teenage years when I would get up early in the morning and go to the washroom expecting to snuggle back into bed only to find Mom had made it. I never could go back to sleep, not on a perfectly made bed, compliments of Mom. Next, she takes the upper sheet and tucks in the two bottom corners and nearly finishes it off with the blanket. The piece de resistance ends with her… tossing the pillow on the mattress? Wait a minute. That’s new. It is like she is throwing a Frisbee in the air.
The haphazard tossing of the pillow is a far cry from what I remember. Mom’s perfection is a little off; the pillow is not in the exact centre of the bed. That’s weird, but then again, she has downed a couple of glasses of wine, maybe her vision is a little off kilter. I look over at Baba as she leans forward in the chair to get up when all of a sudden; Mom grabs the blanket off the sofa, pulls it off and dumps it on the floor. She grabs the upper sheet and repeats the same motion. She is making the bed over again. Maybe she notices the placement of the less than perfect pillow. I watch as she bends down to undo the corners of the bottom sheet and in one quick swing takes off the bottom sheet and pillow and reveals the naked mattress. I look over at Baba as she sits back down on the chair. What the heck is Mom doing? Baba and I look at Mom in silence. Once again, Mom seems to be in her own little world as she begins to make the bed all over again. This bed making action repeats another three more times before I speak up.
“Mom,” I ask. “What are you doing? The bed is fine.”
No answer. She keeps repeating the actions over and over. We must be up to five times by now, (it’s like Baba and I don’t exist). Baba’s eyes began to tear up; I’m not sure if it is because she isn’t blinking or whether she is upset at the new bed making experience. We are like statues, not moving or breathing, all the while Mom continues making and unmaking the bed. I feel my mouth open and think of all the times Dad would say, “PauIa close your mouth, you are not catching flies.” I smile at that memory for a second, and then wait for Mom to stop. When I see my opportunity, I take it. I touch her on the shoulder,
“Mom, the bed is fine. You can stop now.”
(Whatever fugue state she is in; disappears), she immediately snaps back to reality when she feels my hand on her shoulder.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
I haven’t witnessed anything like this before. Yes, Mom is on medication for high blood pressure and controls her on-set diabetes with diet, but I wonder if this is a blood sugar issue?
“I’m okay. I’m not crazy you know.” She snaps.
I look at her questionably and jokingly say,
“I never said you were crazy. It’s just… the bed is fine. You made it perfectly the first time, you don’t need to keep making it over and over again.”
“I never did that. What are you talking about?”
And there it is, Mom’s evil eye. The squinting eyes, curled up face and snarl. I know I’m not going to win this battle. I have been on the receiving end of Mom’s temper only a few times in my life and know things will escalate if I push back. I take the high road this time, and say calmly,
“I think I’ll get going now. Unless you need any more help?”
And just like a switch that flips back on, the real Mom resurfaces.
She smiles and looks up to me saying,
“No, I don’t need any more help, but do you have to go so soon? Why don’t you stay a little while longer?”
I look over at Baba as she leans over to get out of the chair. I run over and take her by the arm to help her up. She looks up at me wearily and says,
“I think I’m going to change into my nightie and call it a night. I’ll see you soon.” Then reaches up, hugs me and gives me a big kiss on the cheek.
Mom sees this as her chance to comment on Baba’s outfit,
“Mom, I don’t know why you wear that huge ugly necklace and those shoes, they don’t even match your dress.”
I interrupt whatever else Mom may have to say to Baba,
“Of course, you’ll see me, don’t forget, I’ll pick you up tomorrow night and drive you back home.”
I turn to look at Mom, shake my head and say my goodbyes for the evening. I just don’t get it. Why does she always have to pick on Baba? Why can’t she ever let things go? I have to admit that Mom looks tired, but can’t help thinking, something’s not quite right with her and I can’t put my finger on it.
I walk to the door with Mom next to me. She hugs me and repeats her mantra as I reach the door,
“Good night, now don’t forget to call me when you get home. Two rings then hang up and I’ll know you got home safely.”
“Oh Mom, I’m only a minute away. Do I have to? I’m not a kid anymore.” Now in my thirties Mom knows I’m an adult, although she will tell anyone who listens that I will always be her little girl forever.
“You know I worry about you. You’ll understand when you have kids, the worry never goes away.” Mom smiles.
Kids? She should know by now that will never happen. I don’t have time or stability in my life, not to mention the huge responsibility that comes with having children. I get it with Mom; she always says the best time in her life was when Stephen and I were kids, but she must realize her and I are two totally different people. It’s a different time and world now. First, at the age of nineteen, I helped care for my Nana as she was dying of cancer. Then in my mid-twenties I helped care for Dad in his final year before he passed away from cancer. All this makes me think, there is a gene that I carry. I can’t think of bringing a kid into this world. What if I receive news I’m dying from this horrible disease and leave my child to grow up without a mother, or worse, what if my child develops incurable cancer? No, no kids for me.
As usual, I reluctantly agree to Mom’s sign of safety. At home, I dial Mom’s number wait for two rings then immediately hang up. I change into my pajamas and head to bed, but find myself tossing and turning. I can’t stop my brain from playing out the entire night over and over again, just like Mom’s making and re-making of the bed. It has to be a blood sugar issue, I think. There is no other logical explanation.