On Sundays, I pick my mother up at her assisted-living facility, just a couple miles from our house, and take her for a drive. We used to go for walks, but she’s unsteady on her feet now, even with her walker, and once the temperature dips below 60 degrees, she gets too cold.
Although she’s in the front seat next to me, conversation is nearly impossible since she’s so hard of hearing. Short, declarative sentences requiring no reply are best: “It’s cold today.” “The sun’s so bright.” “I spoke to my boys and they’re fine.”
“The trees are nearly bare, more bare than last Sunday,” she says. It’s true: just last week the sun had shone through a wealth of yellow maple leaves, turning them luminous, lit from within. “All those leaves on the ground,” she adds.
She’s always been stymied by quantity. It overwhelms her. Too many leaves, too much food, too many shoes, too many choices. This took me years to realize—that it was the sheer quantity and not the particulars of what she was regarding. Too large a portion of mashed potatoes caused the same anguish, verging on disgust, as too big a diamond ring on the finger of a patron whose books she used to check out of the library where she worked.
“It’s Veteran’s Day,” I say, and she says that she knows. The veterans in her facility had worn their army and navy caps down to the dining room, and small American flags on short wooden sticks were decorating the lobby.
“At lunch today,” she begins, and I feel myself brace myself for yet another story about how Hattie never orders from the menu but quizzes everyone else about what she’s having, how Sylvia chews with her mouth open, how Betty takes a sip of soup and makes a sour face, ordering the waiter to take it back. But instead, she relates a story that Florence told—Florence who knows everything—about a man who said he’d been chosen to fly a mission over Belgium. His group had been divided into three planes: the first and last were shot down. He’d been placed, by chance, in the second.
“I guess everyone who was alive during the war has a story,” I say stupidly.“Yes,” she says, and I’m surprised that she heard me. “You know, Dad was in the Navy, and after his training at Cornell, he was assigned to a ship, the USS Kasaan Bay. He had to take a train to San Diego, and it was so slow. Troop trains had to stop to let other trains go by, and the trip took forever.”
According to my mother, every trip that doesn’t take any time at all takes forever—even this one, to the supermarket, where she’s shopped for over 50 years. She likes going there because I can leave her walker in the car while she pushes a wire cart, like everyone else. And because she knows, or used to know, where everything is on the shelves.
“Anyway,” she continues, “they get to San Diego, and they get on the ship, and they head for Japan.”
“I never heard this story,” I say, mostly to myself.
“About two days out, they get the news that there’s been a ceasefire. So now the ship has to change course, and they head back to . . .” here she falters.
“San Diego?” I ask, and she says, no, something about that line that goes across the middle of the Earth. “The equator?” No, she says, that strip that goes across South America. “The Panama Canal?”
“That’s it,” she says ruefully. “The Panama Canal. They go through that and up the coast. They stop at the tip of Long Island, way out east, and that’s where he’s discharged.”
“Montauk?” I ask, a place my father had always liked visiting. I remember going to the lighthouse there, and walking on the beach to collect shells.
She falls silent.
“I never heard this story,” I say again, but she doesn’t reply.
When we arrive at the supermarket, my mother hoists herself out of the car with my help, which she insists she doesn’t need, and holds on to her sunglasses, which I take away from her so she can grip the cart with two hands, and exhales noisily to register her displeasure with me. I get a cart for myself, and we walk into the store together. She stops a few feet from the door, near the apples. I’m afraid that she’s overwhelmed by all the people, the activity, the traffic. “I haven’t seen so much food in a long time,” she says.
She wants to walk around on her own. When we meet up at the checkout line, my cart is full of food to make for Thanksgiving; hers has a plastic bag with three bosc pears. They cost $1.61.
“I forgot my wallet,” she says.
“I’ll pay for these, and you can pay me back,” I tell her. I can already see her rooting around in her tiny change purse for the 61 cents she’ll insist I take.
In the car heading home, my mother says, “It gets dark so early—by 3:30.” It’s 4:30 and just turning twilight. I’ve known for decades that she’s an unreliable narrator, ever since I first learned the term in a college lit class. Her perceptions of the world skew toward the dark, away from nuance. But this isn’t a result of her age; she’s been this way for as long as I can remember. If I had to generalize about growing older, I’d say that we don’t change, except by becoming more of who we always were.
We pull up in front of her facility, and she says that I don’t have to go upstairs with her; she can manage. I feel slightly guilty about acquiescing—the car is warm and I’m tired—but I know it’s important for her to feel independent, to do what she can by herself. Before I open the door to get her walker out of the trunk, I thank her for telling me the story about my father.
“There are a lot of stories,” she says. “I was in the middle of writing him a letter one day when the news bulletin came over the radio that FDR had died.”
I remember the afternoon when we learned JFK had been killed: I was in French class. When the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, I was home with my two-year-old son.
“I don’t know what happened to all those letters,” my mother says. “We wrote every day.”
I get the walker, help her out of the car, and she takes a deep breath before heading inside. “Who’s going to clean up all those leaves?” she asks, looking around. (In a few months, she’ll say, “Those trees look dead. I don’t think they’ll bloom this year.” Spring always surprises her, even after 93 years.) “When the trees lose their leaves,” my mother continues, turning to go inside, “you can see all the different shapes of the bark and branches. It’s like seeing an X-ray.”
I’d never thought of it that way, but she’s exactly right.
My mother, I think driving home, is the most observant person I know. She takes in the world like a documentarian, recording what she sees, which is just about everything. Someone’s shoelace is untied. Half your collar is up and the other half down. There’s a speck of lint on your sweater. The trees, bare, look like X-rays. She isn’t curious about what she sees, and often puts information together in a cockeyed way, but she sees it all.
When I get home, I think, I’ll call and tell her that I have those letters that my father wrote to her when he was in the Navy. I’m not sure why I didn’t mention it before, but I’d found them while I was cleaning out her house a year ago. They were in a wooden box, sorted into discrete packets tied with blue ribbon—hundreds of letters. I’d slipped one out of its envelope. “My dearest,” it began, in my father’s hand, the careful script of an engineer. That’s all I could read; feeling as if I’d walked in on them, I thrust the letter back into its envelope and replaced the box where I’d stashed it.
My own important letters—a typed note from John Updike in response to a fan letter I’d written, a letter from my father begging me to break up with a boyfriend who was rude and no one liked, a note from my sister-in-law (who died before she was formally my sister-in-law) saying that she knew in her heart the moment she met me that we’d be close—are scattered. I deliberately stash them here and there so I can stumble upon them, usually while looking for something else.
If I were to tell my mother about this, she’d give me the look that says, Who are you? The same look she assumes when she remembers that I don’t balance my checkbook. She was a bookkeeper, and her financial records were kept scrupulously for years; the way Talmudic scholars pore over texts is how she tended her bank statements. I stick my records in an overflowing box.
I know she thinks she failed with me. But she didn’t. She taught me the most important lesson of my life—to show up, especially for the tasks you least want to do, like taking your mother to the supermarket so she can buy three pears and not have the money to pay for them. And she told me the story about my father nearly going to Japan, which is always good to remember, especially when the days grow short and dark early, and our thoughts turn to saying goodbye.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
Roberta Israeloff is a freelance writer who lives and teaches writing in East Northport, New York.