From the memoir Tasting Home, forthcoming with She Writes Press, 2013
My mother died on January 5, 2010, at 101 years old. Six months earlier, in July, my husband, Bill, and I had paid her a visit her at the continuing care center in Hemet, the city on the edge of the Mojave where she and my father had retired. We found her waiting in her room, hands folded across her lap in her lightweight wheelchair. There was nothing wrong with her legs, but she had gotten tired of falling down all the time from the vertigo.
“Where’ve you been all day?” she asked, annoyed.
“We’ve been flying and driving to come see you,” I said as cheerfully as I could in return. “Didn’t the nurses tell you we were coming in the late afternoon?”
The nurses didn’t tell her, or maybe they did. But she’d been waiting and she wasn’t happy. She was dressed up as usual in a long-sleeved top of pink crochet ending in a flourish of ruffles at the wrists, a purple polyester pants suit, and a matching set of pink bracelet, earrings, and necklace. She had on eye makeup and lipstick, pink polish on her nails, and a round band-aid concealing the quarter-sized age spot on her right hand. At 101, she still liked to brag that she was always taken for ten years younger. And now she was eager to go.
The visit was peaceful when Bill was in range. He was courtly to her, told her we loved her, though that wasn’t true. Bill had only seen her twice before, and I was attached to her by a web of sorrow, longing, anger, duty, guilt, none of which registered as love. When Bill dropped us off at the restaurant and left to park the car, she turned to me and said, “I like that Bill. He’s nice. Maybe he’ll rub off on you.”
I swallowed, a wound opening somewhere in the region of my throat. Girlish one moment, quickly cutting the next, she was always oblivious of having delivered a blow. I could put it down to age now that she was 101, although it had been the story of our relation since my childhood.
We ordered dinner. Bill and I wanted hamburgers and salads, she pancakes with butter and syrup. Dining at the care center she’d been starved for butter, sugar, and white flour. The pancakes came the size of large dinner plates. She covered them with butter, soaked them well with maple syrup, and ate every bite. Back in her room we spent an hour and half playing cards. The days when she served us crackerjack and fudge were long gone, but she could still beat us both at “Zilch,” a dice game involving elaborate rules for counting the combinations.
The next day Bill and I rearranged her room to make space for the sofa she talked incessantly of buying. I’d tried to tell her there wasn’t space for it.
“Yes, there is!” she’d say, “ I measured it myself.”
So I gave up trying to tell her any different. When Bill escaped to Target to buy bulbs for her lamp, I helped her sort through the half-empty boxes in her closet. The director of the center, seeing “fire hazard” all over them, was insisting she prune them down. Having finished the closet, I suggested tackling the bed. She had boxes stashed end-to-end under its frame.
“No!” she said, out of the blue, her body stiffening, her eyes becoming narrow.
“But the staff is bound to check,” I said.
“No, they won’t! Not unless you tell them to,” she countered.
“Mom, I’m trying to help you.”
But I dropped it. I told her I was going to the visitor’s bathroom and took ten minutes coming back.
In December, the director of the center called me to say that she’d been talking to her coffee cup.
“I see you in there,” she’d been saying.
“She’s hallucinating,” the director said.
“She’s remembering,” I replied.
My brother had visited her six months before, wearing a mountain-man beard she’d never seen. It had been a while since he’d visited, and it had taken her some time to recognize who he was.
“Mike! I see you in there,” she’d said at last.
He had always been special to her and ever since his visit she’d been recounting that discovery to me during every call I’d made.
A few days after the teacup conversation, the director called again. Mother had had a stroke, so Bill and I flew down to see her once more. When we arrived, she was sleeping in a hospital bed. Teeth out, her face caved in, mouth open, snoring softly, her skin pale as the sheet, her body so shrunken, she looked like a corpse. She was on morphine now, since being turned was painful to her, and she slept most of the day. But the staff woke her for meals and water, for turning, for diapering. I fed her green Jell-O and apple sauce when she was awake. I tested the Jell-O first—strong lime flavor, intensely sweet, a slight aftertaste. Not a great dish, but it was doctor’s orders and would have to do.
“Good, Mom,” I said when she took a bite. “You’re doing really well.”
One morning she was especially alert.
“Real food,” she muttered. It was easier to understand now because they’d put her teeth back in.
“What food, Mom? What would you like?”
“Why, buttered toast and coffee!” she said, as if I should have known that. So I tracked down some toast and butter, filled a cup with coffee, and brought it back to her room. I buttered the toast until it was soft and tore it into tiny pieces and fed her as if she were a bird. I wondered, Did she feed fed me like this when I was young?
I was happy to have such simple tasks to perform. I was being “the good daughter” again. And for once it was without conflict, without ambivalence. She looked so shriveled lying there in her hospital gown. I wanted to feed her. I held her hand because I was moved to do so.
“Your hand is warm,” she told me.
I laid my hand, with hers still in it, along her face. She smiled.
“That feels good.”
The next day she asked me, eyes closed, coming out of her morphine fog, “Is Mother here?”
She thought I was one of her sisters down on the farm.
“I’m Judy, your daughter,” I said, wanting her to understand for once that I was the one taking care of her. But I let that go, too. She needed, was reaching out to, one of her long-dead sisters. I could be a sister.
“Mother’s here,” I said.
__________________________________________________________________________ Key Lime Pie*
(Adapted from Martha Stewart, Martha Stewart’s Pies & Tarts, Clarkson Potter, 1992)
One 8 inch pie shell, baked and cooled
1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
½ c. fresh key lime juice**
1 ½ T grated key lime rind
1 egg white stiffly beaten
¼ cream of tartar
5 egg whites
6-8 T sugar
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
1. Combine condensed milk, yolks, lime juice and rind in a bowl. Gently fold the beaten egg white into the mixture. Pour into prepared crust.
2. For the meringue, beat 5 egg whites and cream of tartar until fluffy. Continue beating and slowly add sugar. Beat 7 to 8 minutes to form stiff peaks.
4. Smooth meringue over the filling and cover filling completely. Make sure meringue meets the crust.
5. Bake 8 to 10 minutes until the meringue is golden brown. Do not chill. Serve at room temperature.
*My mother was a depression era cook who liked putting ready made ingredients, like chocolate pudding or tomato soup, into cakes. I had initially planned to include a recipe in her honor involving key lime cupcakes and frosting made with lime Jell-o. But the recipe didn’t pass the taste test in my kitchen. Life is compromise. I’ve included a favorite recipe for Key Lime Pie. I like to think that Mother, who was famous for her pies, would have liked this one too.
**Key limes are small, round, and yellowish. They are grown in Florida and in Mexico and other parts of the Southwest. They will perfume your kitchen.