Saturday, July 14, 2012

Road Trip With My Dead Mother

another rewrite:

Mom had been dead for a while, and we were driving to New York with her in the back of the van.

In the rear view mirror I saw 9-year-old Allie thrust her head forward, face flushed.   “Why does Grandma Margaret have to be right behind me!?”

My wife just showed me her eyes that said, “Your mother.  You explain.”

“Allie, settle down,” I said.  “She’s in the storage area, under ALL the luggage.  At least after this she won’t be on the shelf in the closet any more.  And you can move up closer to us, you know.”

When I was little, riding in the station wagon, I liked sitting in “the way back”, the third bench seat that faced out the rear window - still in the car with my mom, but far enough away to be alone in my bizarre thoughts, narrating my life to some imaginary friend.

My daughter chose the very back seat of the van, and even her discomfort at being so close to her deceased grandmother did not overcome her desire to maintain independence from her parents.

We had picked up
 Mom from my sister in Las Vegas.  Mom didn’t want a regular funeral – or, at least, hadn’t mentioned it recently - so we had a private memorial service around the coffee table at my sister’s house.  My mother’s last years had been in this house where she helped raise my niece.  Mom was then handed off to me and my wife and daughter.  We were assigned to return her remains to her hometown of Niagara Falls to be buried.

First we had flown her to Cincinnati, which would have pleased her only because she loved airplanes and flying.  We packed her in the big suitcase, because (even pre-9/11) we weren’t sure about the rules for putting a heavy, sealed, wooden box of ashes in the overhead.

But we didn’t take her immediately to Niagara Falls. I was gainfully employed so I couldn’t take time all at once to vacation in Las Vegas with my mother’s remains and then run off to New York with her; that’s why we left
 Mom in the closet of our house in Cincinnati for a year.   Now we were driving her to her grave as the first leg of our tour around the state of New York.

Allie never had a sibling and wasn’t used to competing or sharing. I hadn’t wanted her to start distracting me from driving by yelling from the back of the van, “Grandma’s looking at me!” or, “Grandma’s touching me!” or “Why does grandma Margaret have to be right behind me?”  I wished she felt more affection for my mother.

One evening, eight years earlier, when my niece was 9, she and my sister and my mother had gone out to dinner.  My mother had wondered aloud if the bathroom in this kid-oriented pizza joint were clean. 

“Sure, Grandma, you’ve been in there before.”

“I have not,” mom said with arms folded and mouth set firm.

An argument ensued until my niece said, “Okay grandma, you always say that sometimes you forget things.  You probably just forgot being in these bathrooms.”

Mom had glared back, “I may forget the things I’ve done, but I never forget the things I haven’t done.”

That was one of the first clues - a few years before Mom was diagnosed with dementia.  Allie had never gotten to spend much time with her because of the distance between Las Vegas and Cincinnati. As Mom spiraled down, she still knew who Allie was, but Allie didn’t know who Grandma really was.

Until she got sick, she was the grandma that, when visiting, fell asleep in our living room while reading and snored really loudly. She was the grandma that revealed to Allie where Dad had learned to make those horrible puns. But she was also the grandma that taught Dad to make delicious mince pie.

When I was little,
 Mom told stories about growing up in Niagara Falls during the Depression and about her dad who worked on the railroad and her brother who became a big deal at G.E. in Syracuse, NY.

She told us, “When I was 16, my mother walked into my bedroom, said, ‘Margaret?’ and then died from a stroke.  Mom told us that then, anxious to go into the world, she was resigned to taking over housekeeping for her dad and brother. She told us how her dad liked mince pie. She told us about her best friend, Helen, whom she still kept in touch with “back home”. Mom told us she had bought a plot to be buried in there.

So Allie sat in the back of the van with her dead grandma behind her, traveling to Niagara Falls, New York. This was the US side, not the touristy, honeymoon destination in Canada and it looked like it had not changed since the 1930s. Best Friend Helen was still living in the house she was born and grew up in. Some of Mom’s other friends also still lived in town.

We bought a grave marker and buried Mom while everyone told a few stories of the old days. “Margee always made us laugh.  She was smart but had to work to help send her goof-off c-student brother to college because he was a man.  She got stuck in this town an extra couple of years – kind of like she got stuck in Cincinnati this past year.  Margee was adventurous and eventually traveled around Europe after WWII while we all stayed safe here.” They told us Mom was a good friend and beloved.

When I was little, I knew some of that, but mostly
 Mom was just Mom, going to work after my dad left and stuck driving the station wagon, making pies, telling me to eat my vegetables.

Literally and figuratively our family members have not been all that close.   I’ve tried to stay close to my sister and secure Allie’s relationship with her aunt as well as her one cousin on that side.  As we drove away from Nagara Falls, I vowed I would pass on these new stories of Mom to Allie so that Grandma is more than that box of ashes haunting her from the back of the van.

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