Monday, March 17, 2014

The Poetry Thief

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The poem is undated. I would guess it's from the 1950s. It's in my mother's distinctive penmanship, the sight of which thrilled me when I was a lonely college student making daily afternoon trips to my little metal mailbox. I was quite homesick in my first semester at Columbia. My mother, trying to chase away my fears, would write little notes about comforting daily events: her trips to La Cienega Park with our dog Chloe and a legal pad for screenwriting, sightings of movie stars at the grocery store, dates with the man she was currently seeing and her assessment of his intellectual worth, and most importantly, what was happening on Another World, the soap opera we used to follow together before I left for school.

I framed the poem, jotted down with a ball point pen on onion skin paper. The frame sits on my baby daughter's bookshelf. It's an historical artifact and a good-luck charm, two things every library should have.  The poem also represents my mother as she was. My daughter will not have this experience of her grandmother in the flesh, but she may have a taste of it in my mother's clever rhymes and soulful short stories, in some old television show clips and glorious black and white photos of my mother spinning and jumping on the Rockefeller ice rink.

To Mother on Mother's Day:
Mother's Day is controversial.
Fathers think it's too commercial.
Sons essay in every way.
To recognize a Mother's Day.
Daughters shell out every dime
For they'll be mothers too, in time.
Mothers respond with lots of zeal,
For they're behind the whole darn deal!
This ditty captures something largely lost now -- a cleverness, sometimes biting -- and a refusal to say things that weren't true. It took me a few reads to notice that nowhere in the poem does my mother actually wish my grandmother a happy Mother's Day. Further, she practically points an accusing finger at mothers in general. In the case of her mother, she had good reason. Not that my grandmother was all bad, and as my mother's dementia has grown, her need to remember the good things has swelled as have her memories of the abuse she suffered shrunk.

Nonetheless, my mother is not a dishonest person. At my grandmother's funeral, my uncle, not known for his veracity but instead for his empty grandiose gestures, gave a long speech about his mother's many virtues and how much he would miss her. Certainly the latter was not true, and indeed he had spent the last few years of her life avoiding her.

My mother spoke second. She got up quietly and said "I'll say this for my mother. She worked very hard. She tried very hard. She always insisted on cleaning her own house and her determination in certain areas was admirable." Then my mother sat down. She spoke kindly and respectfully. She did not mention loving her mother nor did she speak of her mother's virtues as a caregiver, because she did not experience any.

A hemorrhagic stroke is often fatal, particularly in a person 70 years of age. Blood covered a full 3/4 of my mother's brain surface in 2009 and we were told to say our "goodbyes." I would love to think my unconscious mother found the whispering in the I.C.U. patronizing and so woke up three days later to make a fool of the doctor who assured me there was no hope.

Nonetheless, there is damage. Sometimes you see your parent quite clearly through the fog of confusion she is feeling: a glimmer of a really good pun, a moment of vanity, an old story she tells you. But much more is lost. You fight your way through the years to remember the scent of Bal A Versailles and the feel of her silk cocktail dress at dinner parties and you maybe sense it. But the whole world of your relationship has grown foggy even to you, who has not suffered a stroke. The current image you have of your parent, veiled in a cloak of mental disarray, replaces the many years of identity your parent built up prior to her sudden loss of faculties.

Sometimes I see flashes in my mind's eye: my mother teaching a combination in her theater dance class at Lichine Ballet Academy, explaining the importance the origins of  jazz and theater dance in Indian dancing. I see my mother applying makeup in her lighted mirror, I see her stack of paperbacks on her bedside table when she was hospitalized for a month in her forties. She read Bonfire of the Vanities in one day, despite her illness. I see her driving me to auditions and running lines with me in the fluorescent hallways outside casting offices. I remember her spreading paprika on roast chicken. I see the young boy who dropped me off after a date when I was fifteen, declaring to me that "my mother should open a kissing booth."

Now the predominant image is the exhausting nature of dementia. The cruel way in which it steals my mother's past and future. She can't remember the lovely days she's had with family and friends and she can't know that tomorrow she will be among loved ones again. She calls to ask when we will see her again. Many times a day.

The other day I took my little girl down to her apartment to pick her up. I tidied up the place and I found scraps. I often find these little scraps around my mother's room. Sheets torn from legal pads are on her bed, her dresser, on her little dining room table.

New York, 1944

She was five years old and small for her age. Her father tried to find skates in her size, but without success. So he bought her a pair of high white baby shoes, bought the smallest blades he could find and had them reduced to her size. "

That seems to be as far as my mother got. It was some sort of history of her beloved father, I guess.

He walks in beauty like the night.
His tennis coach has taught him right. 
He's smart and sweet and oh so strong.
He never does a thing that's wrong. 
His clothes are perfect, hair well-styled 
His speech is clear, he's never riled. 

That one is about a dear friend of hers who visits faithfully and loves my mother for all that she was and loves her for who she is today. He is a rare sort of soul, a gentleman and a gentle man. And this was my mother's attempt to give him a gift and to use her once formidable intellect to churn out a little ditty of appreciation. I knew the poem would be lost if I didn't rescue it, so I snatched it up and told her I was going to copy it and give it to her friend in case she misplaced it.

"Well, I suppose if you think it's any good..." She said. It might have been swept up with the garbage had the housekeeper arrived before I had. And my mother wouldn't have remembered writing it. Her day is a carousel of memories: past, present and future are blurred and I don't think one can ever know what it is like to live in the world with dementia. I wonder if it is like a proprio-ception problem.

Before I was fully recovered from my hip surgery, I couldn't "find" my foot or lower leg. I didn't know where it was in space. I understood I had a leg, but I couldn't be sure how to place it on the ground. Does my mother have difficulty "feeling" her brain? The signals are crossed and the roads converge in strange places and she is stranded in the wilderness? I think so. But then I see a little scrap with a bit of poetry on her bed. And while the poetry is far from profound and the rhymes are a bit forced, they contain a fighting spirit that I don't often see in her when we visit. She is more often than not melancholy, troubled, and anxious. Wouldn't you be if you didn't know what yesterday brought or tomorrow was going to bring?

Circumstance has dulled the blade of my mother's intellect. It has stolen her ability to write screenplays and song lyrics and clever stanzas of poetry. When she was a dancer in How to Succeed, none other than Frank Loesser read her poems and encouraged her to keep writing. That is a source of tremendous pride to me. And if you ask my mother, she might even remember the story. She still has lots of good ones.


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