My mother is still at the assisted living facility where she has resided for more than a decade, and I’m grateful that she’s been able to remain in a setting that is familiar to her, but there’s something about it that always makes me sad. As I walk up the stairs I brace myself for whatever new problems I may unearth and for a certain smell that greets me as I push open the door. It’s an institutional smell, one of disinfectant, soiled laundry, unappealing meals, some sort of stagnation that makes me crave air. My mother feels it too, and although she doesn’t complain, she’s always eager to go outside.
She seems more bewildered than usual. “What are we waiting for?” she asks. “What’s supposed to be happening? Where am I supposed to be?” She’s wobbly, and I am told she fell down, and there’s a new bruise on her thin white skin, along with a rash, and her feet are so swollen and sore she’s been unable to wear her usual shoes. I don’t know what we are waiting for. I try to be cheerful.
It’s hard for her to get up from a seated position, and it has become difficult to get her in and out of the car, but as soon as we step out of the building, she becomes more animated. With childlike enthusiasm she remarks upon the clouds, the warmth of the sun, the flowers and birds, a cat slinking by. We head over to the drive-thru lane of the McDonald’s on 17th Street, not a choice I’d ever make otherwise, and I hand her a soft-serve vanilla ice cream, and she gratefully licks and slurps. She gulps, in fact. It occurs to me that she is gulping at life, or whatever is left of it, inhaling what pleasures remain, grasping, almost greedy, still here and still wanting. It occurs to me that her old resilient body knows only to keep going. It’s not about making sense. But the senses.
There’s no real conversation anymore, not that there ever was much. I write notes, although lately I wonder how much she is comprehending, and I do know that whatever information she derives in the instant of reading evaporates almost immediately. As part of the ritual of my visits, I pull out a composition notebook that we keep in a bureau drawer near her bed, and I make a journal entry for her, marking the date (which is always a surprise to her) and reviewing what we did in the course of this day. There are more than ten years’ worth of these journals stashed in her room.
But what surprised me the other day was the discovery of an audiotape I made of a conversation I had with her nine years ago. I’ve been working on an oral history project recently and was sorting through old transcripts and tapes when I came upon this one. I did not recall that I’d ever attempted to interview her, and it was startling to hear her voice, loud and clear in a way it no longer is, with its almost comical New York accent. Even then it was difficult to maintain the thread of questions and answers. Her responses are often confused, and she had obviously forgotten many things already. But occasionally she is remarkably lucid on this tape, and I was surprised at how independent she still was at that time, going for walks on her own outdoors, changing her own hearing aid batteries, genuinely engaged in activities.
Most fascinating to me, however, were the stories she shared. There aren’t many, but they are touching, and I find it curious to think about the randomness of what remains. Why did these fragments of her long life linger in memory with such clarity while others blurred or vanished entirely? For example, she talked a lot about the candy store her parents ran when she was a child in Corona, Queens:
We had candies for a penny, and we had candies for a nickel. My favorite candy bar was the Wow. It was a nickel. It was a big bar with marshmallow. I loved it….Besides candy, they sold nuts, salty seeds, Indian nuts, and what do you call the other seeds? Pumpkin seeds. We had big jars and you scooped them out. I think it was like a penny a cup or two cents a cup. Yeah, we had that candy store for a while. I lived in back of the store. We had four rooms in the back and we lived there. We lived upstairs too for awhile. But we moved down. The janitors were the Picklers.
And I had a friend there that used to come. Her name was Mildred Piantanida. She used to come for her Coke. She loved her Coca Cola. And cigarettes. We sold cigarettes, you know. And she would sit and talk with me. Her name was Mildred Piantanida. She passed away a long time ago. She was quite young. She had two sons, two boys, and her husband was Italian. Piantanida. Oh, she was a nice lady. She was my friend. She gave me a lot of business, you know. Yeah, she was older than me. And I moved away. And then I heard when she had passed away. She was sick. I never forget her. She was very nice.
She also talks on this tape about her ill-fated musical aspirations:
I had a piano in Corona in the room in back of the store. We had the store, remember. It was an old upright, a nice piano, and I wasn’t playing it yet. I just had a couple of lessons. And my mother, she chopped it up for firewood. I cried. I says, “Why, Mother?” She said, “We need the wood for fire.” I lived in a cold flat. It was a cold flat in back of the store. She had someone come and chop it up. I wasn’t there. I said, “Why?” She said nobody’s gonna play it. We need the wood. An upright piano. It was a nice piano. Oh, I felt so bad. But we were poor, you know. And we needed the firewood.
God, that story still hurts when I hear her telling it. I even wonder if the lack of musical ability in my own life was sealed way back then. (But it was a cold flat. They needed the wood.)
I asked her if she had any other musical experience, and she said:
I started with the piano a couple of times. And then I started with the violin. One of my cousins owned a music store in Flushing and they gave me the violin. I took a few lessons. An Italian man used to come give me lessons. But I gave it up. It’s too bad I didn’t keep the violin. He was a nice man, an Italian man. He wanted me to be a musician.
I reminded her that she used to be a good singer, and she immediately recounted this story that I’d heard from her when I was a little girl:
Yeah. I went to a studio where they test the voice. My mother took me. We went on the train. We had to go to Brooklyn. We went to the studio and they told me to sing a song. Do you know that I wouldn’t open up my mouth?! I was so shy. So he told my mother. “She’s not ready yet. Take her home.”
It must have been a terrible disappointment for both of them. A lost voice, a lost opportunity. I wondered how her mother reacted:
She wasn’t mad. She was a good mother. May she rest in peace. She was a good mother, my adoptive mother.
So my mother would not be famous, but she seemed proud of a job she held in Manhattan’s Garment District in the 1940s and her fleeting contact with a celebrity there:
I worked for Kolmer Marcus in New York. One day George Raft came in for his coat. I filled out the slip. They sold men’s suits and coats. Expensive…Daddy couldn’t afford a suit there.
Speaking of Daddy:
You know where I met Daddy? At a dance. With my girlfriend Sylvia. That’s where I met him. I met him at The Manhattan Center. It was a dance hall. He came over and he swept me off my feet.
Then I got married and I moved into the house where he was living. His mother was a sick lady. She had that illness. Multiple sclerosis. I met her, she met me. She took a liking to me. They used to have a lady come in and take care of her. She passed away in the hospital. She was young too. I remember. I didn’t go to the funeral. And then when Daddy came back I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” I felt bad. He handled it fine. He was strong.
There are more meanderings on the tape, mostly bits and pieces prompted by my specific questions, and I know enough about the facts to note the many mistakes and confusions, but I’m glad I made this effort to record her then. It could never happen again, even at this standard.
For now, she’s either drifting into the distant past or in the moment, more or less. We drive through a nearby residential neighborhood whose quiet streets are lined with beautiful homes and tall trees, and she slurps her ice cream. This is real, and now, and it makes her happy. We pull over to a shady place along the curb and sit for a few minutes. She counts eleven big blackbirds on a bright green lawn.