My mother loves a good bargain. We’re in the designer section of the department store where she worked for two decades. She says, “Don’t you like this one better?” She holds up a blouse.
I counter with another blouse. “This one’s the same, but it’s ten dollars cheaper.”
She tucks her own find under her arm and approaches me. She looks at the label, then the price tag. She holds high the blouse she picked out. “This is a Liz,” she says in the same way I might say, “This is by Faulkner.” My mother points to the seams, explaining the underground world of designer clothes to me. “Liz clothes last forever. And look, this used to be fifty-six dollars and it’s marked down to twenty-five, plus my discount.”
“Do you get a discount here?” I say, teasing her because “Plus my discount” has been her mantra for the past two hours of shopping, as it is her mantra whenever we shop here.
“Yes, I get a discount,” she says, in the same way I might say, “Officer, I did not run that red light,” with indignity and a hint of doubt, even though I really did not run the light. She adds, in a whisper, “And I get an extra 15 percent on my VIP card.”
My mother wears hats, has a virtual stockroom of shoes (bought on sale), and lives in a mobile home made of vinyl and formaldehyde. She’s built a little like a tree if the tree could be a redwood and a willow simultaneously, with a strength and rootedness accumulated over time, with a pliability and grace that bend with care for those around her.
Although I can’t put a finger on what it is, there’s a quality to the expression on her face that pinches my emotions. It’s an expression that remains even when she’s relaxed. One eyebrow is higher than the other, sharply arched; the other brow curves softly, the eye underneath it more open, more innocent. This asymmetry gives her the constant look of confusion. Not the confusion of one who does not understand the world, but rather, of one who understands, but perceives something is wrong. The expression has been there since she was a child. I’ve seen it in old photos: Margie and her brother, Bill, standing by the dairy cart; Margie and Bill proudly holding a stick with two or three trout dangling from it; Margie holding her handmade rag doll; and later, Margie holding her first child, her second, her third, her fourth. She is my mother, the woman with the eyebrows unevenly arched, the eyes that suspect everything and are simultaneously innocent in every moment.
This month is my birthday. Though I am in my forties now, my mother will shower me with gifts, and as I unwrap them, she will say, “Guess how much I paid for that?” I will not need to guess high in order to satiate her appetite for bargains. She will have given me the best of the best for the least of the least. She will look at me with the eyes that tell two stories. She will say, “Open this one next.”
I don’t remember when the love of a good bargain overtook my mother’s life. She was free of the condition when I was a kid. My earliest memories are of her rising in total darkness, putting on tights and a T-shirt, and exercising. I sat on the sofa with my legs curled into my chest and watched as she raised her arms to the ceiling and touched her toes, once, then again. She did backbends and knee bends. She sat on the floor, stretched her legs into a V, and held out her hands.
“Row with me,” she’d say. And I’d lower myself from the too-big sofa, sit on the floor, stretch my legs out, place my feet on the inside of her knees. She’d grasp my hands, and we’d row back and forth, around and around. From this position, my mother could touch her chest to the floor. She didn’t do push-ups on her knees. She ran three miles a day before Nike told her she needed a special shoe to do so. She did all this in the silence before dawn. By eight in the morning, she looked like anybody else’s mother, smearing peanut butter on two pieces of Wonder bread, licking grape jelly from her thumb, patting meat and bread crumbs into a loaf for dinner, wearing an apron, opening the screen door halfway to check on me or to wave hello to another kid’s mom.
I’m continuing her ritual these day, not the bargains, but the workouts. I get up at five, put on my sweats, and lug my gym bag to the car. When I arrive at my mom’s place, she’s sitting on the porch, the half light of dawn shadowing her, making her look even smaller than her five-foot-three frame. She waves from beneath the eaves and comes out wearing a red tam cocked to one side of her head.
“You don’t have to wait outside for me, Mom,” I say. “It’s dark.”
She says, “I wasn’t waiting long. I heard your car.”
As she slides into the car seat, I think of the avocets. I’ve been riding my bike to a marshy pond where they stand in the bent morning sun, their long, amber necks sometimes shadowed, sometimes gilded in the light, their black wings like precise pencil etchings on their white shoulders. I think of them not because my mother resembles them in any real way, but because she is graceful and quiet beneath her body that appears to some to be growing awkward with age, her mind that will not still from worry.
She says, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m deaf in one ear, so I couldn’t have heard your car. But I did. You always drive in on my good side.” She points to her hearing ear.
“Are you riding the bike today?” I ask.
“Yes. I went 10.8 miles last time. I’ll go 11 today.”
In the gym, I take my place on a treadmill behind my mom’s stationary bicycle. I watch as her feet pedal in circles, and as I run, I can feel the rain that fell on us the day we rode mountain bikes in Crested Butte when she was sixty. My memory keeps clicking backward, her odometer, forward. I close my eyes, let my memory go. But shortly, my mother pokes me. “I did it,” she says. She’s standing beside me, pointing to the bike odometer. “Eleven miles.”
“Good job, Mom.” I stop the treadmill and follow her to the weights. We look like retired boxers, our sweaty towels hanging around our necks. She places the pin under the sixty-five-pound plate. I spot her. I watch her left arm tremble, her right arm remain steady as she lifts.
“That’s the same weight I lift, Mom.”
“You better work harder then.” She laughs and spots me as I lift.
Though my mother is strong, there are two challenges that inevitably defeat her: She cannot allow herself to sleep more than five hours a night, and she cannot remain quiet when she’s feeling an emotion. This is not to say she speaks about the emotion. Rather, it goes like this: After we work out, it is tradition to have tea and toast at my house. As we enter, my mother sees a photo of my grandmother, her mother, on my coffee table. “Is that a picture of Mom?” she says.
“Yes. I was going through old photo albums.”
My mother pauses for some time, both physically and verbally, then, referring to her mother’s premature death, she says, “I never got a chance to thank her.” She stands motionless.
“She knew,” I say. “Like you know how grateful I am to you.”
Her eyes well up, then zero in on the living room carpet. “Is that spot from one of the dogs?” she says. She walks quickly into the kitchen, returns with a wet rag, kneels down, and starts scrubbing. It takes me five minutes to convince her to join me in the kitchen. “I’ll be in in just a minute,” she says, her voice cracking. After tea is served and the toast is hot and buttered, her bent body rounds the corner. She’s fighting the emotion still; I can tell by the way she focuses on the rag and talks incessantly. “I think I got most of it. You might check it later. When things are wet you can’t tell for sure if they’re stains or . . .” She takes a seat by the window, her audible stream of consciousness like a river during spring runoff.
“I got a positive response from the editor I told you about,” I say.
“The one in New York?” she says.
“Yes. I’m going there Friday to meet her.”
She stares out the window. She looks hard at the horses in the field behind my home that used to be her home. She looks as if she is trying to remember something. She fails.
“Why are you going to New York?” she asks.
I reiterate. She remains quiet and places her right hand on her left to still the tremble.
The doctors tell my mother she has the heart of a child, 60 strong beats a minute at rest, 150 on the cardio machines and she’s not even maxed; she was eating sprouts and yogurt when the rest of America was drowning in mayo and iceberg lettuce. The doctors tell my mother, “You’re in great shape.” She comes home and says, “I don’t have Parkinson’s. The doctors say I’m in great shape.”
“You can be in great shape and have Parkinson’s.” I bark this sentence at her like a Doberman, then I hate myself for being the one who must remind her of her disease. Occasionally, I hate her for having it, then I hate myself more, and it goes on like this until I accept the world for exactly what it is: unfair, mean, graceful, luscious, and magically illogical.
My mother defends, “They don’t even know what causes Parkinson’s, so how can they know I have it?” She is also magically illogical.
It’s been three years since her diagnosis, three years since she first sat at my kitchen table and lost the thread of an easy conversation, her face staring and expressionless, her arm shaking, her eyes that tell two stories narrowing now to none.
Before my mother moved out of this home and into the vinyl-formaldehyde box of my father’s choice, she had a garage sale. She sold things dear to her for reasons I could not understand. She said, “I got this Hummel for only three dollars. And this original oil painting for twenty.” I could not tell if it was the object she loved most or the bargain marked by the object. She sold these things for a significant profit. I’m talking thousands of dollars.
This weekend she is having another garage sale. It will be at her new home in the mobile home park called “Sunset Village,” for seniors only. They’re sponsoring the all-tenant sale. She spends weeks getting ready, pricing items, doing nothing less than a stock inventory.
When the day arrives, everything is priced and recorded on a tally sheet. At six in the morning, people start knocking on her door, and she is ready; she steps outside and lifts the plastic wraps from the sale tables, unveiling a masterpiece. You could mistake your shopping experience in my mother’s carport for a pleasant day at the local outdoor mall, the way the dresses hang elegantly on the makeshift racks, the way the jewelry is still in its original box, velvet, satin, lush, ten dollars, firm, but she’ll take five. She misses her days in retail; you can tell by the way she greets each garage-saler individually, cradles each purchase in bubble wrap, places it in a box, and says, “Thank you. Enjoy!”
Inside, my father sits in his La-Z-Boy. He’s been sick recently. His kidneys have failed, and his heart pumps like a locomotive just to push a hairline of blood through the dark and narrowing tunnel of his veins. In addition to cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, and shopping, my mother now has to bathe, shave, and dress my father; she has to give him his insulin shot. She washes bloodied sheets. “I am not a nurse,” she says. And my father, a military man to the bone, has devised a ritual around administering his shot. The syringe must sit on the counter for five seconds before use. The insulin bottle must never touch porcelain. The angle of needle insertion must be twenty-two and a half degrees, the bisection of forty-five. My mother wears tie-dyed scarves, rainbow socks, and Dr. Martens sandals. Neither my mother nor my father is malicious or mean; they are simply as made-for-each-other as Rush Limbaugh and Shirley MacLaine.
My father rises from his chair at ten in the morning and calls my mother in from the sale. “I need to take my shot,” he says. Then he disappears into the bathroom. Moments later, I go inside to ask my mother how low she will go on her pewter collection. As I enter, I watch her place the hypodermic needle on the counter. Her body quivers like a tree in a sharp, undecided wind. “Is that right?” she says, and my father nods, yes. He says to her, “Don’t do too much, today, Marge.” He says to me, “I worry about her. She’s not well, you know. She needs rest.” An hour later he rises from his La-Z-Boy, pokes his head outside, finds my mother in the middle of a group of people, collecting money, socializing, saying, “Thanks, enjoy!” and he says, “Marge, aren’t you going to make lunch?”
Five years ago, before Mom had Parkinson’s, I took her to Sea Ranch, a quiescent stretch of beauty nestled in the redwoods along the Northern California coast. We rented a small house with an ocean view, and daily we walked through shaded woods laced with ferns and mossy creeks that meandered, like us, toward the sea. At the base of the steep hill a collection of boulders demanded we scramble on all fours to reach the sea. I thought Mom would turn back, but she laughed when I doubted her agility. She negotiated the tangle of rocks easily, showing less fear and more grace than I.
At night, as the California sun turned to cool gray fog, we made popcorn and hot chocolate and watched old black-and-white flicks: Bogie and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn. “It’s a shame about Katharine Hepburn,” my mother said. “Her Parkinson’s.”
My mother has always been good at pity. I have not. “She handles it well,” I said. “She still takes parts in plays.” My mother nodded, her eyebrows growing more asymmetrical as she watched Kate in all her glory.
Last week, we returned to Sea Ranch, a sort of rendezvous to see if what we had gained there the first time—peace of mind, rejuvenation—was still available to us. My mother did not walk down to the ocean on the wooded trail this time; she did not scramble over the rocks, and I did not pity her, but instead, found a new path to the same ocean.
Instead of watching old movies, we lay in front of the picture window and watched the sky turn to night. Twice she saw what she said was a star stuck in a black hole. “See the way it moves so quickly—like a race car bumping up against the edge of that black hole?”
“I don’t see it,” I told her.
“Yes, look! It’s like a black whirlpool, and that crazy star’s just frantic, trying to get out, but the black hole just sucks it down.”
I looked up. The sky, to me, remained only an endless theory of possibility. The stars were so lush it was difficult to separate one from the other; they blended together and milked the sky with light, only the brightest among them adding texture and points. I never saw the star stuck in the black hole, desperately trying to get out.
When I returned home, I researched, again, the symptoms of Parkinson’s. I learned it is more than a tremor, more than a crooked body that cannot easily find a point of balance. It is a smorgasbord of symptoms: memory loss, disorientation, hallucinations, and eventual schizophrenia. Like a smorgasbord, however, the person with Parkinson’s does not necessarily have all of these symptoms; each symptom exists as a mere possibility.
Throughout the trip, though, my mother saw UFO-like stars trapped in black holes. She listened to foghorns one evening when there were no ships in the bay; she remembered, in detail, things that had never happened, and on occasion, she failed to recall what did take place. On the way back into San Francisco, a city in which she lived for several years, she asked, “Do we have to go over that one bridge?”
While at Sea Ranch, we ventured out into the world of commerce on a few occasions, and my heart ached as my mother searched for souvenirs, trinkets, anything to help her remember the event. But it was more than memory loss that drove her. She shopped here with the same urgency she displayed when buying bargains at home. When we returned from a day at the ocean, she clung to her new sweatshirt the same way she held to her discount at the department store, as if her experiences would be lost if not made tangible, as if her discount illustrated, in no uncertain terms, the amount of love she felt for her family and friends—if only she could give them what they were worth, if only she could grasp and hold on to what she was worth. But she could not.
It occurred to me then that in no other time in history and in no other place but America would I have this experience of losing a parent so slowly, so ethereally, so painfully in exactly this manner. In my mother’s day, choice meant three makes of automobiles (if you had the money), one brand of tennis shoe, two brands of coffee, and marriage at eighteen. Today, the definition of choice would not fit on this page, nor in this volume. Overwhelmed as she is (as we all are) with the ease of fulfilling her external desires, she seems to have mistaken them for her dreams—or perhaps she has simply learned to mistrust what she dreamed.
Suddenly it makes sense to me that my mother wants desperately to get more than she paid for. In what other realm of her life has she ever been given such a break? In what other realm has she ever been marched into an arena and told, “This can be yours, or perhaps you’ll choose this.”
I fantasize this happening for her now: She is eighteen again, and suddenly she can choose to be married or not; she can choose to have children whenever and if ever she wants; she can walk over to this rack and pick up a college degree, a few “self-improvement” courses, or a selection of art classes; she can go to this case and decide if this marriage is working out; she can go to counseling if it is not, and if it still does not work, she can choose to make it on her own. At some point in her life, she can choose to live by herself if she wants. She does not have to live under her parents’ roof, then under her husband’s roof, then under her children’s roof, and when that is all over, she does not have to spend every ounce of spare energy she has caring for her husband, keeping her vows because she is loyal and good, and so is he. I fantasize she is Katharine Hepburn, and in spite of her place in history, her gender, her class, she was able to make choices, and she chose well, and because of choosing well, she can go gently into that good night—or, if she chooses, she can rage against the dying of the light. I fantasize that the black hole has finally released that crazy star.
But this is one of the accomplishments my generation has made: the overwhelming ability to choose. Because I live it, I have never truly recognized it, and recognizing it now, I want only to be able to deny that it was ever otherwise, because we all want to believe, in America, that our fates are cut by chisels we hold in our own hands, that circumstances do not limit, that time and culture do not dictate. But they do. My generation has nothing if not choice. But what void will we feel at our deaths? What easy pill will ease our pain, or slow time enough for us to question who our daughters and sons are, who we are, who our parents were. Though the world itself may end in either a whimper or a bang, an individual’s life does not. In America, it ends like a metronome whose ticking we did not hear, at least until the last measure of the song. I hear my mother’s metronome ticking, and I want nothing more than for the music to grow louder, to drown out the easy comforts that quell her desires and overshadow her authentic dreams.
Five days after our return from Sea Ranch, there is a knock on my door. I open it. It’s Mom. She’s dressed in jeans and T-shirt, and her hat of the day is a ball cap with her short ponytail hanging out the back hole.
“There’s a sale at the department store,” she says. “They’ve been bought out. This is the last sale where I will get my discount.”
I know the gravity of this situation. I know what not getting that discount will mean, what it will do to her self-esteem, and silly as I seem to myself, I share her desperation about the loss. I gather my wallet and comb my hair. As I get ready to go, however, I’m suddenly pleased. This “no discount” may offer a time for my mother to discover her worth in something other than dollars and cents. It will open a space, perhaps, for her to see that I would love her and remain by her until death (and beyond) if she gave me only an ugly rock for my birthday. I want to hold up my Liz Claibornes next to the life and good mothering she has given me and say, “Thanks,” not for the clothes.
On the way to the department store, my mother unfolds, like the village storyteller, the decline in prices she witnessed firsthand (she stopped by the store before she came to my house). “This jacket was on the two-dollar rack. It had been ninety-eight dollars, then it was forty-eight, and then twenty-four. It’s a Ralph Lauren, and I got it for two dollars, plus my discount, plus my VIP. Came to a dollar twelve.”
I pat her on the back. “That’s great, Mom. It’s a great jacket,” and as jackets go, it is great, especially for a buck give or take a few cents.
But my heart is still aching. Her body is still crooked, and her eyes are still hazed with cataracts and wild with desire. What I want to do is pull to the side of the road or get back on the plane and sit in a room with her by the ocean and listen, for hours on end, to her real stories, to the stories she would tell if both her eyebrows could talk, not only the innocent brow, but the one that is arched sharply and does not understand the world, the one that sees something unjust but cannot name it. But my mother, like all mothers, is a one-sided creature. You either get the kind of mom who sugarcoats everything for you, or you get the kind who criticizes the air you breathe. In your little role as the offspring, you do not get the luxury of watching your parents become their own, oddly whole human beings with quirks and jaggedly adorable imperfections. As soon as you no longer depend on them, you blame them, and as soon as you learn that blaming them for who you are or whatever pain you feel is ridiculous because you are just fine the way you are and pain accompanies every ecstasy of life anyway, just at that moment, you wake up and see that your parents have entered into a whole new territory called old age. You cannot go there. You cannot meet them. You cannot enter.
I look at my mom. Her gray hair beneath her cap is a little wild this morning. She can barely reach the gas pedal. Her face, beautiful to me, is also somehow foreign. When did she become old? At what point did the laugh lines around her eyes turn to effort? At what point did her every tomorrow fill itself with question rather than with promise?
Suddenly, and as if lunacy is a common experience for me, I say, “Mom, I have to take you to see the avocets.”
“Do they carry avocets? I’ve never seen avocets in the store.”
“No. You’ve got to turn around. They’re not in the mall; they’re in a marsh.” “Marsh? I don’t know where there’s any marsh.”
Eventually, I convince her. “We can come back to the store right after we see them. I promise.”
She says, “Well, okay. But they have some really good buys in there, and this is the last sale where I will get my discount.”
I take over the driver’s seat. I drive away from the shopping mall, down the boulevard of strip malls, and onto some back roads that lead to an open space. The marsh is a mile walk on flat terrain, a distance of which I know my mother is capable.
I park the car and get out. Mom remains seated, her eyes creased with worry. “Is it okay to be here?”
“Yes, it’s okay. Why wouldn’t it be okay?”
“It’s so empty. Is this somebody’s land? We’re not trespassing, are we?
“No, we’re not trespassing, Mom. Let’s go.”
Cautiously, looking in all directions, she gets out of the car. We enter the trail as if it is foreign terrain, an illicit journey into what has always been possible. In moments we are surrounded with trees, swaying cottonwoods that give voice to the wind. In a window of sky between the green, the bent figure of a great blue heron passes, his movements deliberate, graceful. My mother knows these birds; they hunted on the small pond behind her used-to-be-home. She says, “There’s big blue. That was big blue, wasn’t it? I didn’t know he was still here.”
“He’s still here,” I say, and we continue walking. Though the earth is loose and uneven, my mother’s gait is fairly steady, her posture almost upright. Meadowlarks sit on mullein stalks and sing as we pass. These, too, she had forgotten were so abundant in our neck of the woods. And we see, as well, the patterned flight of hundreds of swallows, the labored flight of several magpies, the signs of coyotes and foxes, the flash of bright yellow and red of the western tanager. She says, “I’ve never seen that bird before. It looks tropical. I didn’t know we had tropical birds here.”
The trees open up to a small lake, and we round the bend and walk toward the marsh. The land is less verdant here, more mucky. She says, “This should be taken care of. This is a not very pretty. Don’t you want to go back to the lake and see big blue?”
I stop on the dry land, and I point. The marsh is golden, the morning sun still angled on the horizon. “Look.”
My mother looks toward the muddied water. Her eyes light on nothing. “I liked it better back there,” she says.
I remain standing in one spot. I don’t point again; I just watch the six or seven avocets standing steadily on their too-tall legs, their golden heads and white bodies reflected perfectly in the shallow water that moves like mercury. My mother’s body shakes backward and forward at the waist. I had not seen this before in her, but it is there now, and it can be expected to stay. She looks from the water to me, and looks back toward the prettier lake, clearly put out. Whatever it was about these avocets I wanted her to see was a miscalculation on my part. I start to turn back.
But my mother’s body has suddenly stopped shaking. Her brown eyes are somehow clear again, and she is, for the first time in a long time, silent. She says, “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Did we have to pay to get in here?”
“Mom, you were with me. You remember. Did we have to pay?”
“No,” she says. “But I don’t know why not.”
I take off my jacket and lay it on the ground, then sit down. I know Mom will remind me the ground is dirty and full of fleas, but I do it anyway. A few seconds later, she takes off her jacket, her Ralph Lauren, and covers the ground with it. She sits next to me. I put my arm on her shoulder.
As if delivered on a screen from a slide show, the words to a poem appear in my head. I say the words aloud:
if I lay down tonight in
this wet field of light
would I feel the flesh
of this terrain folding over me—
a seed planted of
understanding. would I
feel the losses shrink away
before the hope of
what will already
never return haunts me.
My mother says, “Are you praying?”
I say, “Yes.”
When we get back home, she seems to have forgotten about her discount and the last sale at her department store. My father is at my house—he came to visit the dogs, as he often does—and my mother starts telling a story, one she has not told him before, about our recent trip to Sea Ranch.
“We went to the lighthouse in Point Arena,” she tells him. “It’s one of the tallest lighthouses in America, 145 stairs to the top, and I climbed them all.”
She remembers this event accurately down to the last detail. “We climbed to the lens, to the part of the tower that sends light out to sea, but to get there, we had to climb these very narrow stairs. They were completely vertical.”
Her description is not an exaggeration.
My father says, “You didn’t climb them, did you, Marge?”
“Of course I climbed them.”
I nudge her. “Tell him the rest of the story, Mom.”
She cocks her head, not knowing what else of significance happened. She made it to the top, that’s all that matters to her, and so I say, “She made it to the top,” and my father smiles and nods.
But what happened after that matters worlds to me. With all the signs at the entrance of the lighthouse that warned about the difficulty of the climb, we never considered that the descent would also be difficult. My mom, who collects lighthouses, whose favorite book is To the Lighthouse, who falls asleep with a miniature lighthouse glowing in her window, was so excited about making it to the top of the lighthouse, she neglected to consider coming down. But as we turned away from the circle of unending ocean that surrounded us at the top of the light, she was faced with a narrow channel with no arm-rails and two-inch-wide iron steps that were placed one below the other in a spiral. As she turned and saw the challenge ahead, I could see the fear in her eyes. But she had no choice. She had to balance; she had to descend.
“I’ll spot you, Mom,” I said, but there was really no way to do that. “You’ll have to turn around and climb down backwards.”
My mother’s eyes froze. “I can’t do that,” she said, but then she turned around, placed her quivering foot on the first rung, and placed one foot behind the other. Without looking or holding on, she descended.
What she didn’t know was that a group of tourists were crowded in the landing, waiting to ascend to the lens. The twenty or so of them watched breathlessly as my mother’s tennis-shoe-clad feet dangled and then blindly found their way to the next step, one after the other, no handrail, no light. I was so focused in on her, I didn’t notice the crowd, either. But as my mother’s two feet finally landed on deck, the crowd broke into cheers. Several people patted her on the back. Others called out, “Good job,” and they meant it. Like her, they were caught in the moment. They could feel the tension and fear she overcame with every step. And at the end of it all, they released their breathless doubts about her ability to make it, and they cheered.
My mother smiled and lifted her face toward the sky like a victorious athlete. “You did it,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “I did.”