At the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place half a century earlier. On others she presided over family dinners cooked on Sunday afternoons for children who were now gray with age. Through all this she lay in bed but moved across time, traveling among the dead decades with a speed and ease beyond the gift of physical science.
"Wheres Russell" she asked one day when I came to visit at the nursing home.
"Im Russell," I said.
She gazed at this improbably overgrown figure out of an inconceivable future and promptly dismissed it.
"Russells only this big," she said, holding her hand, palm down, two feet from the floor. That day she was a young country wife in the backyard with a view of hazy blue Virginia mountains behind the apple orchard, and I was a stranger old enough to be her father.
Early one morning she phoned me in New York. "Are you coming to my funeral today?" she asked.
It was an awkward question with which to be awakened. "What are you talking about, for Gods sake?" was the best reply I could manage.
"Im being buried today," she declared briskly, as though announcing an important social event.
"Ill phone you back," I said and hung up, and when I did phone back she was all right, although she wasnt all right, of course, and we all knew she wasnt.
She had always been a small woman — short, light-boned, delicately structured — but now, under the white hospital sheet, she was becoming tiny. I thought of a doll with huge, fierce eyes. There had always been a fierceness in her. It showed in that angry challenging thrust of the chin when she issued an opinion, and a great one she had always been for issuing opinions.
"I tell people exactly whats on my mind," she had been fond of boasting, "whether they like it or not."
"Its not always good policy to tell people exactly whats on you mind," I used to caution her.
"If they dont like it, thats too bad," was her customary reply, "because thats the way I am."
And so she was, a formidable woman, determined to speak her mind, determined to have her way, determined to bend those who opposed her. She had hurled herself at life with an energy that made her seem always on the run.
She ran after chickens, an axe in her hand, determined on a beheading that would put dinner in the pot. She ran when she made the beds, ran when she set the table. One Thanksgiving she burned herself badly when, running up from the cellar even with the ceremonial turkey, she tripped on the stairs and tumbled down, ending at the bottom in the debris of giblets, hot gravy, and battered turkey. Life was combat, and victory was not to the lazy, the timid, the drugstore cowboy, the mush-mouth afraid to tell people exactly what was on his mind. She ran.
But now the running was over. For a time I could not accept the inevitable. As I sat by her bed, my impulse was to argue her back to reality. On my first visit to the hospital in Baltimore, she asked who I was.
"Russell," I said.
"Russells way out west," she advised me.
"No, Im right here."
"Guess where I came from today?" was her response.
"All the way from New Jersey."
"No. Youve been in the hospital for three days," I insisted.
So it went until a doctor came by to give one of those oral quizzes that medical men apply in such cases. She failed completely, giving wrong answers or none at all. Then a surprise.
"When is your birthday?" he asked.
"November 5, 1897," she said. Correct. Absolutely correct.
"How do you remember that?" the doctor asked.
"Because I was born on Guy Fawkes Day."
"Guy Fawkes?" asked the doctor, "Who is Guy Fawkes?"
She replied with a rhyme I had heard her recite time and again over the years:
"Please to remember the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot."
Then she glared at this young doctor so ill informed about Guy Fawkes failed scheme to blow King James off his throne with barrels of gunpowder in 1605. "You may know a lot about medicine, but you obviously dont know any history," she said. Having told him exactly what was on her mind, she left us again.
Then doctors diagnosed a hopeless senility or hardening of the arteries. I thought it was more complicated than that. For ten years or more the ferocity with which she had once attacked life had been turning to a rage against the weakness, the boredom, and the absence of love that too much age had brought her. Now, after the last bad fall, she seemed to have broken chains that imprisoned her in a life she had come to hate and to return to a time inhabited by people who loved her, a time in which she was needed. Gradually I understood.
Three years earlier I had gone down from New York to Baltimore, where she lived, for one of my infrequent visits and, afterwards, had written her with some banal advice to look for the silver lining, to count her blessings instead of burdening others with her miseries. I suppose what it really amounted to was a threat that if she was not more cheerful during my visits I would not come to see her very often. Sons are capable of such letters. This one was written out of a childish faith in the eternal strength of parents, a naive belief that age and wear could be overcome by an effort of will, that all she needed was a good pep talk to recharge a flagging spirit.
She wrote back in an unusually cheery vein intended to demonstrate, I suppose, that she was mending her ways. Referring to my visit, she wrote: "If I seemed unhappy to you at times, I am, but theres really nothing anyone can do about it, because Im just so very tired and lonely that Ill just go to sleep and forget it." She was then seventy-eight.
Now three years later, after the last bad fall, she had managed to forget the fatigue and loneliness and to recapture happiness. I soon stopped trying to argue her back to what I considered the real world and tried to travel along with her on those fantastic journeys into the past. One day when I arrived at her bedside she was radiant.
"Feeling good today," I said.
"Why shouldnt I feel good?" she asked. "Papas going to take me up to Baltimore on the boat today."
At that moment she was a young girl standing on a wharf, waiting for the Chesapeake Bay steamer with her father, who had been dead sixty-one years. William Howard Taft was in the White House, America was a young country, and the future stretched before it in beams of crystal sunlight. "The greatest country on Gods green earth," her father might have said, if I had been able to step into my mothers time machine.
About her father, my grandfather, my mothers childhood and her people, I knew very little. A world had lived and died, and though it was part of my blood and bone I knew little more about it than I knew of the world of the pharaohs. It was useless now to ask for help from my mother. The orbits of her mind rarely touched present interrogators for more than a moment.
Sitting at her bedside, forever out of touch with her, I wondered about my own children, and children in general, and about the disconnection between children and parents that prevents them from knowing each other. Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them. If a parent does lift the curtain a bit, it is often only to stun the young with some exemplary tale of how much harder life was in the old days.
I had been guilty of this when my children were small in the early 1960s and living the affluent life. It irritated me that their childhoods should be, as I thought, so easy when my own had been, as I thought, so hard. I had developed the habit of lecturing them on the harshness of life in my day.
"In my day all we got for dinner was macaroni and cheese, and we were glad to get it."
"In my day we didnt have any television."
"In my day..."
"In my day..."
At dinner one evening a son had offended me with an inadequate report card, and as I cleared my throat to lecture, he gazed at me with an ex
I was angry with him for that, but angrier with myself for having become one of those ancient bores whose highly selective memories of the past become transparently dishonest even to small children. I tried to break the habit, but must have failed. Between us there was a dispute about time. He looked upon the time that had been my future in a disturbing way. My future was his past, and being young, he was indifferent to the past.
As I hovered over my mothers bed listening for some signals from her childhood, I realized that this same dispute had existed between her and me. When she was young, with life ahead of her, I had been her future and resented it. Instinctively, I wanted to break free, and cease being a creature defined by her time. Well, I had finally done that, and then with my own children I had seen my exciting future becoming their boring past.
These hopeless end-of-the-line visits with my mother made me wish I had not thrown off my own past so carelessly. We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.