By WENDY HODGE
My mother has become a stand-up comedian in her old age. I figure if you’ve lived 90 years you’ve earned the right to crack jokes whenever you feel like it — and she feels like it a lot these days. She laughs at herself and at funny memories from long ago.
Most of her time is spent sleeping, although she will tell you she’s only resting her eyes. She curls up on the couch, sometimes with the television on and sometimes in silence. She eats when she’s hungry, whether it’s mealtime or not. Again, nine decades has bought her the freedom from schedules.
Many times a day, she struggles to her feet and uses her walker to make her way down the hall to where my dad is lying in a hospital bed. He is dying, and it’s a slow and painful business. My dad married my mother when he was 25 years old, and he’s 95 now, which means they’ve been husband and wife for 70 years. Not a minor accomplishment, is it?
My mother is not capable of many of the physical things she’s done for so long. She hasn’t cooked a meal in ages. She no longer does housework. She “rests her eyes” far more often than she ever did before. But her mind is still busy, always thinking and worrying and remembering.
We sat together last night and talked about many things — none of them monumental or life-altering — just stories from my childhood and from her grandchildren’s childhood, stories that we have recounted many times over the years. We weren’t really just talking, though. We were checking our inventory of memories. She was making sure I was still holding them, because very soon I will be the only one left to do so.
We talked about how my son didn’t sleep through the night until he was in middle school, and then from that point on could sleep through an earthquake. We remembered how my daughter used to somehow talk her boy cousins and her brother into dressing up in tutus and pearls to play “ballerina party.” Nobody else on earth could have talked those three boys into doing such a thing.
We remembered how my sister used to hate school when she was a child. She more than hated it — she plotted against ever going back again. I’ve heard over the years the battles that were fought just to get her in the car to drive her to elementary school. The irony is that she loved college. She would have been a lifelong Auburn student had she been allowed to stay forever.
I asked my mother if she remembered the first time I saw the Wizard of Oz. It was a Sunday night. Back in those days, you actually had to wait for a show to come on TV, sometimes for a whole year. NBC had all those special movies — The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments and Gone With the Wind. The problem was, they were always shown on Sunday night from 6 to 10 p.m. My whole family was at church at 6 every Sunday night. I was an adult before I saw the first hour of any of those movies.
The year I turned ten, I saw on the cover of that weeks’ TV Guide that The Wizard of Oz would be on the following Sunday night. A plan began to grow in my heart — I would be sick that Sunday night and see the entire movie. Surely, if I tried hard enough, I could conjure up a stomach virus or the plague.
Sunday night finally came, and I felt great. No matter what I did, I couldn’t find a sick bone in my body. So I did what I’d never done before — I pretended to be ill. I went all out and gave an award-winning performance. I found myself at home, just me and my mother, when the movie began at 6:00 on the dot. I was so excited.
I wish I could say it was magical and my fondest childhood memory. But, no. My excitement turned to slight dismay as I watched an ugly old lady plot to euthanize an innocent girl’s dog. My dismay turned to sickening dread when the old lady morphed into a green-faced witch with fingers like claws and a laugh like nails on a blackboard. Sickening dread turned into sheer horror when the flying monkeys were set loose into the sky.
What in the name of all that was holy was this nightmare?? “THIS is FUN??,” I wanted to scream.
My mother didn’t say much. She sent me to bed when the movie was over, and I was left to deal with my own nightmare and my guilt.
So when I asked my mother if she remembered that night, she said, “Of course I do.”
“I need to tell you something,” I said.
She turned to me and smiled and said, “No, you don’t. I know everything about that night.”
“You do?” I asked.
She laughed and said, “Yes. I knew what you were up to from the start.”
“Why didn’t you punish me?” I asked.
“You did a good job of punishing yourself, don’t you think? Flying monkeys are scarier than I’ve ever been.” She laughed, and I laughed and we both laughed until we cried.
“Now let me get my bohunkus up off this couch,” she said, rising to her feet. “I’m sorry I said such a bad word. My brother taught me that. He learned it in the service.”
We stood there looking at each other for a minute and then laughed ourselves all the way down the hall to my dad’s bedside.
When I left a while later, my mother squeezed my hand and said, “Remember not to forget. Remember for both of us.”
And I do.