By Martha Rosenthal
Jessie started every Monday morning with a class meeting in a circle on the rug in the back of the room. It made the transition from weekend to school week a little easier on her and, oh yes, gave her students a chance to practice their listening and speaking skills. This Monday everyone seemed to be half asleep and it took several reminders to get them all to sit up instead of lounging on their stomachs. However, after taking care of announcements they perked up for the main part of the meeting, which was to hear what everyone had done over the weekend. “Remember, you may only share one thing you did. Provide enough detail to make it interesting, but please, keep it short. That way everyone will get a turn,” instructed Jessie. Around the circle they proceeded.
“I went to a movie,” said Eddie.
“Perhaps a little more detail, Eddie?” prompted Jessie.
On to the next. “I had a soccer game and we won.”
“It was my sister’s birthday and she broke her finger.”
When it was Jessie’s turn she liked to take the opportunity to model how to tell a short, but interesting, story. How to engage one’s audience. Somehow she’d gotten onto telling about her visits to her mother, Marion. It had started with the rabbit story.
“This weekend I picked up my mother from the nursing home to take her out to lunch and, as we were getting on the freeway, she yelled to watch out for all the rabbits. She couldn’t believe I didn’t see them because they were pink and hopping around close to the roadway. I think she must have seen flowers and imagined they were rabbits. Maybe she needs to get her eyes checked.”
The class had laughed. They thought it was the funniest thing and, ever since, when it got to be Jessie’s turn in the circle, an eager silence fell over the group. And when Jessie began, “Well, this weekend I visited my mother,” she often heard someone whisper, “Oh boy,” or “Yes.”
She’d told about taking her mother to have her eyes checked. “My sister was visiting from New York, and we took Mom to the optometrist. You know how it goes. You sit in a chair and read letters off a chart across the room. My mother has been wearing glasses as long as I can remember, so she knows the routine. She sat down, and the doctor covered one of her eyes and told her to read the fourth line. And my mother says, ‘Vrskdr,’ you know, as if it were a word.” The class had cracked up. “The doctor didn’t quite know what to do, but we got her some new glasses anyway.”
There was the story about going into the game room. “At home we always had jigsaw puzzles going. We’d work on them and talk and talk and talk, so I thought Mom might like to try a simple puzzle. We found one that was the picture of a garden and poured out the pieces. It was just like old times. I worked on the border and told Mom about this art exhibit I’d been to. When I finally looked over to her side of the table, she had arranged the pieces into a stick figure instead of fitting them together.” Laughter.
This Monday Jessie began as usual. “Well, I went to visit my mother yesterday.” The silent expectation filled the room. Suddenly, the smells of the nursing home permeated the classroom: the clean aroma of face powder and the rankness of bad breath.
This past weekend Marion had answered the door in the nude, and Jessie knew they had started a new chapter in her mother’s decline. Her mental acuity had started dropping off subtly years ago when Marion began calling Jessie regularly to come over and help her balance her checkbook. Her mother, who had worked crossword puzzles every morning for years, couldn’t line up the columns of numbers accurately. “Who’d have thunk I’d go neurological?” Marion had declared one afternoon. At that point she began shrinking her world. She put her name on nursing home waiting lists, sold the baby grand piano, and organized her possessions into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ boxes. It was the last time she would act with such decisiveness.
Jessie had hustled her naked mother inside the apartment. Marion was not distressed.
“I knew it was you. You’re a woman. What’s the big deal?”
“It’s no big deal, Mom, but it’s a little cold,” Jessie had said. She fetched Marion’s pink robe and helped her into it. Her mother’s hairless body had become smaller, more tender.
“Where’s this week’s mail?”
Jessie collected the checks and bills, discarded the junk mail. “Here’s your absentee ballot. Mark your choices.” She held out the form to her mom.
“You do it,” said Marion.
“C’mon,” said Jessie. She gave the paper an impatient shake, but when she looked into Marion’s face all she could see was a pleading confusion.
“Okay. It’s okay.” She withdrew the ballot from Marion’s tentative grasp. Was this the same woman who had glued herself to the Watergate hearings? Who had passed petitions to impeach Ronald Reagan? She put the form into her purse.
“Hey, let me tell you about your granddaughter’s latest thing.” She settled into reporting about her family and her class of fourth graders. Marion had smiled and nodded, but had mixed up Jessie’s husband’s name with Jessie’s father’s. Her legs had shifted restlessly beneath her robe.
Jessie could hear feet shuffling. Was it her mother holding the railing along the hallway on her way to dinner? Or was it the fidgety impatience of these little children? She ran her hand over the classroom rug. My mom answered the door naked. Ha. Ha. My mom thinks I am married to my dead father. Scanning the students’ faces, Jessie inhaled their soft innocence, turned the pencil in front of her ninety degrees. “You know, she went off the deep end a little bit.” She gave a short mirthless laugh, more like a cough.
“What’s that mean?” asked Buck.
“Did she die?” asked Sarah.
Jessie did not want to turn this into a mini lesson on death, or dementia, or aging, or the sandwich generation, or the cycle of life, or kindness, or respect, or the importance of families, or duty, or how to be a loving daughter, or fucking figures of speech. In fact, she was sorry she had brought the whole thing up at all. But she was, after all, a teacher.
“No, she didn’t die. It means she is losing her mind more and more. It means I probably won’t tell you any more stories about her. It’s kind of hard for me.”
The class shifted uncomfortably, but quickly enough the moment passed, and Eric told about his new skateboard.
Over the next couple of years Jessie never told her class how Marion had reported that she’d given birth to twins the night before. Nor did she tell how Marion had imagined that the orderly had “had his way with her.” She didn’t tell about the time the nurses couldn’t wake her mother up. They called the ambulance and whisked her over to the hospital. When Jessie stood by Marion’s gurney and said her name, Marion opened her eyes and said, “I guess I showed them. Always telling me to do this, do that. Those goddamned nurses. That was the hardest thing I ever did.”
Not long after Marion died, Jessie had dreams in which her mom appeared and asked how things were going. Everything was fine with Marion. She might have been wearing an old hat with a lace veil, the kind Jessie used to play dress-
up with. Or she might have been carrying a spatula. It was the kind of encounter Jessie would want to tell her class about, but this was a whole new group of students now, and they wouldn’t care to hear about her mother.
Copyright Rosenthal 2012