My mother is going to a wedding, and she needs cosmetics. I take at least ten minutes to select blush and eyeliner and just the right shade of Revlon lipstick.
I’ve already taken her shopping for high heels, and I’m drained. When your mother has dementia, she angers easily. Every suggestion you make seems a damning verdict on her ability to care for herself. I had much to juggle in the Easy Spirit store: my 2-year-old ran repeatedly toward the shop’s door, flung wide open to welcome the spring sunshine. My mother, meanwhile, was shoving a stiletto on the wrong foot over an athletic sock and telling the staff that they had given her the wrong shoe. Racing up and down the aisles to scoop up my child, I tried to sneak a confidential conversation with the salesman: “My mother has dementia, so let me do the explaining. But try not to talk to me, speak directly to her. But listen to me.” It’s really fun giving this break down to a busy New York shoe salesman, who you know loves dealing with complicated family dynamics.
Every lobe of my brain lights up as I do-si-do with dementia and toddlerhood. Both my mother and my daughter are always on high alert for being spoken about rather than spoken to, so I’ve developed the skills of an undercover federal agent to care for each of them. With my mother, I usually fail and we have a Eugene O’Neill-worthy quarrel. We end up agreeing never to see each other again. She says I am “making her memory worse by not letting her make her own choices.” I tell her she is driving me absolutely nuts.
In five minutes she won’t remember any quarrel, and I won’t be angry anymore. I’ll just see my mother, or the woman who shares her history and holds pieces of her soul but doesn’t have quite the same bright eyes my real mother had. We’ll be friends again, and we’ll take my daughter to lunch, and I’ll schlep them both through the day, neither one of them capable of caring for themselves, both utterly determined to do so.
I decide to go to the cosmetics aisle alone, as though it is a sacred rite. I’m preparing a bag to give to my mother’s boyfriend for the wedding. He remembers her from “before” and—like me—he holds onto that memory with white knuckles even as he tries to enjoy her as she is now. She can still be fun, after all. You just have to catch her on the right day, and her wit is sharp as ever. A friend recently told her that despite the massive brain bleed five years ago my mother seems “her old self.” She didn’t miss a beat. “I wouldn’t know,” my mother quipped.
I love the old-fashioned pharmacies that sell soap from Rhode Island in tin canisters with sailboats on them. The same company sells talcum powder. Does anyone still use talcum powder? I can’t resist lingering.
My mother bought me my first bottle of perfume. We lived in an apartment in Los Angeles, and I had my own room. There were few items in my bedroom; my mother believed deeply in valuing a few precious things. A dusty pink vase stood in the corner, housing stalks of elegant pussy willow. My white desk, a pristine hand-me-down from my sister, now far away in college, overlooked Gregory Way.
I woke up on my 17th birthday to find a curved glass bottle on the white desk. It stood in a pool of sunlight. My mother has—or had—an eye for detail. It was “Beautiful” by Estée Lauder. I luxuriated in the promise it held. I had no boyfriend, no parties to attend or dates on the horizon. I did not attend my junior or senior prom; if anyone wanted to ask me, they didn’t.
Still, I had some romantic life because I recall my mother teaching me things, things her mother taught her, things she simply felt to be true and things she had discovered about men and sex. My mother was not always around in my teenage years—she had health troubles for a time—but when she was there, she was so completely.
One afternoon I played her a song from a cassette I’d bought at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. It was Ella Fitzgerald. I imagine a first experience with a drug is like one’s first encounter with the First Lady of Song. I had no words to describe the feeling, but my mother did. We sat on my carpet, and she closed her eyes and tilted her head. “She’s silk and honey.” We listened to 14 minutes of Ella scatting “Take the ‘A’ Train” and then rewound the tape.
I don’t have watercolor memories of my mother. She was sharp and tailored. She was the first to explain to me what tragedy was, what drama was. She’d been a world-class champion figure skater, a Broadway dancer and a television actress, not to mention a screenwriter and a novelist, but she always felt her girls were infinitely more talented than she was. They say girls absorb their mother’s own sense of self-worth and not their mother’s praise, which makes it crucial that mothers avoid denigrating themselves. Nonetheless, she made me feel that I was made of silk, some exquisite object that sprung from her imagination rather than from her loins.
My mother called me the night before the wedding. She was hysterical. Her boyfriend had just called to tell her that he was picking her up for a formal event the next day. What was she going to do? Her roots had to be done. She had no makeup, no jewelry, no dress or shoes! I told her, again, that everything was packed in a shopping bag: shoes, pantyhose, dress, cosmetics, patent leather purse, pearls and high heels. Her boyfriend would bring them to her apartment with plenty of time for her to change. I told her to look in the mirror. Her hair was freshly cut and colored.
“Thank you,” she said.
Oh, Mom. Thank you.