What she seemed to want in her last years was to rattle around in that old house, even though most of her friends had died and she complained bitterly about being alone. When my brothers and I pointed out, gently, that perhaps the house and the hard winters were becoming too much for her, she would lash out and say, “I’ll know when it’s too much for me, and that’s when I’ll do something about it!” This, I knew, was not going to happen. Mother was getting increasingly frail, and had a form of chronic leukemia that wasn’t severe enough to treat but made her very tired all the time. And her mind was beginning to go, though this was hard to tell, because she presented the resolute appearance of someone who had all her marbles. She’d had the good sense to give up driving (which was more than could be said of her legally blind nonagenarian neighbors), but when the furnace broke down, she was unable to describe to me what was wrong or remember the word thermostat.
So I called every day and found someone to grocery shop for her while my brothers and I worked out a long-term strategy. I was 200 miles downstate but still lived closest, so my husband, Ted, and I made frequent trips north for weekend visits that were too short but seemed to last forever. Mother wasn’t able to do much at this point: even walking around the mall made her legs hurt, and restaurant meals had begun to make her cranky. So we spent most of our visits in the house, sitting in the living room, whose spare furnishings were still as my father had first arranged them more than 50 years before. (He had a knack for arranging things, Mother said.)
After a breathtakingly early dinner, Mother would sit up way past her usual bedtime—till nine or even 10—and talk to us. Mostly she’d talk about her childhood in Wilmington, the crowd of kids in a house with one bathroom, where she and her next-younger sister, Leanore, would share the tub when they both had dates. (“Your grandmother didn’t approve, so we got into the tub with our underwear on and cracked her up,” Mother said.) Or the times she and Leanore were invited to New York City in the 1930s to visit their cousin Richard Himber, who had a society dance band and lived at the Essex House. She spoke as though these visits were the most fun she’d ever had. Sometimes she’d talk about her years with my father, who arrived late to every dinner party she ever gave. Ted and I would sit and listen to these stories for the fourteenth time, too stupefied to contribute much.
It was during one of these one-sided conversations that she got around to saying how happy she’d been when her daughter was born. I was a late child, an accident—Mother at first mistook her morning sickness for a recurrence of hepatitis—so I’d never thought of myself as a bundle of joy. But evidently I was. “I’d always said I wouldn’t have another child unless I knew it would be a girl,” Mother said. “I loved my sons, but I really loved my daughter.”
I’d been nodding off, but this jerked me awake.
I was still sitting in one of the two big living room chairs, looking at the dust on the coffee table (Mother’s cleaning lady had developed sciatica and had not been replaced), and Mother was saying she loved her daughter—that is, me. It’s not that I thought she didn’t love me—I’d come to believe she did—but I couldn’t remember her ever actually saying so. Later, upstairs, I said to Ted, “What was that? Was that not the strangest damn thing?”
I’d gotten used to Mother being the way she was. She was my first great unrequited love, the nut I couldn’t crack. I have almost no memories of being held or cuddled by her. I do remember once sitting with her in the big chair when I was three or four. I used to suck my thumb and knead a piece of fabric with the same hand, and I was kneading her apron and drooling all over it, and I knew she could not possibly be liking this, but for some reason she was letting me do it anyway. The anxiety I felt—as though I were stealing comfort and would have to pay for it later—is what stayed with me.