Guarding the Fire
My mother doesn’t brush her hair anymore. I take her to church and to choir and look at her hair that she has not looked at. She has been sitting on the sofa all day, day after day, never looking in the mirror, and so the back of her head becomes a multi-directional mishmash. She doesn’t care. Part of me can’t wait to not care too. But another part says, “Merry, you will be picking out your outfit and orchestrating your own memorial service when you are her age. And you will care how you hair looks. You will desperately care.” I care now, why not then?
She is my only child. And I know my sister-in-law is thinking I am finally getting the experience of what it’s like to have children. The truth is, I always knew I would be the one to care for my mother, as she was self-sacrificing to a fault, never looking out for her own interests or needs, and my father didn’t look out for her much either. He didn’t bother to pay into social security or Medicare. She taught English in 1959 and 1960. Years later, after following my father’s career in science at MIT and as a professor at Notre Dame, she taught an environmental course for four years at the local community college. This was the lifetime total of her paid work, not enough to qualify for Medicare. This woman held a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and single-handedly launched a marketing campaign for the fledgling organic beef farm my father started in 1980 in southwestern Michigan. She spearheaded all kinds of political activist work with the League of Women Voters, started a local “Citizens for Environmental Protection” group, and served on a panel in D.C. for the National Organic Standards Board. All that education, volunteer activity, unpaid research, and upstart bravado, but no Medicare. Luckily, the farm can still pay her bills, but only if she keeps the meager lifestyle to which she has become accustomed.
At 77, she spends her days floating between CNN, writing her “book”, crosswords, Tetris, jigsaw puzzles, and pouring half a bag of cat chow on the front deck. She ingests nothing but raisin toast, orange juice, cheese, Barq’s root beer, and chocolate, unless I force her to eat something I cook. She puts on the same shirt everyday. She asks me the same questions everyday. “Do you come back over here after I go to bed?” Yes mother, I walk back and forth from the cabin all day and half the night. Especially in the winter since I have to feed her fire in the basement. I walk from my cabin next door, the renovation project I was determined to take on after my divorce. I could not stand to allow my family to let it fall to ruin. And there was the subliminal knowledge that she would need me there someday. Someday soon.
After living a full ten years in California, I wound up back on the farm in Michigan after going through cancer and realizing that my husband was not in it with both feet, and professional fulfillment eluded me in southern California. So I decided I had to leave the perfect climate and the comfortable condo to come back and save the cabin on the farm. That was in 2005. Ten years later, the place still needs work, but it is livable and feels like it is distinctly mine and reflects my artistic leanings, even though only a select few have ever been inside of it. Kind of like my vagina.
Since 2005, I have come and gone from the cabin for various far flung endeavors, and each time I come back it’s like a return to both a beginning and an end. It’s a way of marking the chapters of my life. I step back in time and revisit my 16-year-old self as I dance on the exact same floor boards as I did when “Flashdance” was all the rage. That teenager had wisdom beyond her years. Or else I am a thoroughly immature 50-year-old woman. I have talks with my 80-year-old self who has also been here all along, like the cobwebs. Each time I return, I unearth the baseboards of my identity, stripped down to the bare bones.
Am I just another crazy wannabe literary outcast in her far flung cabin on the old organic farm?
Just like my mother?
No, I tell myself. I did not ever stop working because of marriage and kids. Seems like kids create more reason to work, not less. I was always employed or self-employed, doing something or other that was barely tolerable. I made the decision in 1986 to major in Dance at the University of Michigan and my family never let me hear the end of it. I knew the path that I was choosing. Gigs. Part-time work. An old car, if any car at all. Probably no husband, because men tend to like practicality in women. No kids since there would be no husband. And roommates forever, unless I decided to go back into isolation on the farm again. But it was that passion, that undeniable, unfathomable need to crank up the volume and let loose, that I felt was my child, that I had to guard from a world that would smother it. I wanted to be a force of nature that could set emotions in motion, that could light fires with just a look.
I’m not complaining. I was able to follow my passions wherever they led for pretty much my whole life. Some might take pity on me because I never had a “normal” middle class existence with a loving family. But how many of us, even if we set our sights on this seemingly simple outcome, even manage to have it for very long? Am I really supposed to still be aiming for a $60,000 income, a two car garage, and a 55-inch TV? I already had those things with my first husband, but the price I paid was much higher than the value of the items themselves.
Riding around the small town I live in now, I gaze at the unchanged pockets of poverty. People are sitting on their sagging front porch, some are making futile attempts to fix the siding, and the front yards are strewn with rusty bikes, cars, tires, wind catchers, and and all manner of recyclables. And I think again about how you can’t fix stupid. Am I a Republican now? We could throw money at some people all day and they would keep spending it on drugs and cars. But it’s not just that — it’s the reminder of the limits of money. That money itself will not solve problems, relieve loneliness, prevent child abuse or suicide, stop wars, or fix climate change. It is collective human will alone that may be able to do these things. How do we harness that?
Back to mom. I don’t even know where all that other stuff came from. There were times in my life when I was catapulting from one bad decision to another potentially worse decision while she was the voice of reason that I tried to shut out. “What does this old lady know about my world?” Is that what my niece thinks about her mom and me? Is the world that different now than it has been in the past? A kiss is still a kiss, isn’t it? And from this kiss, a life spills forth in all its glory, chaos, and exquisite potential. So much potential. So much scattering.
She ventures outside intermittently, wandering to the pond where her husband’s ashes were scattered, or picking up pinecones for no apparent reason. She imagines that she is gardening, but she is just looking at what she planted years ago. Knowing that her vision of me is fading, literally, I have to realize that she is the one person on this planet who has watched me grow from my beginning. Who will know me now? Who? Who? Who?Like the owls in my woods. Then I remind myself to strive not so much to be understood, but to understand.
What is it about the decline or death of a parent that makes the child feel they must do penance? The suffering of the parent means the child must follow suit?It’s like paying back the parent for the suffering you caused them as a child. We will follow suit soon enough, we don’t have to go looking for suffering.
Recently, I went through cancer (again) and was terrified to think that I might die before her. Who would take care of her? My brothers?? They lived nearby but rarely came to see her. It was partly my love for her that gave me a sense of purpose and a drive to stay alive. It was also all that unfinished business…all the projects that I had put off for so long because I was still too busy competing with 26 year olds. In a strip club, no less. Yes, a post-menopausal, three-time-cancer-surviving stripper. Holy cow. That’s either super tragic or devoutly to be wished, depending on your point of view. Maybe that is the ultimate success for a woman: to look 30 at the age of 50! Well, I don’t look 30, exactly…depends on the lighting.
Listening to the spring peepers outside my back door, I just hope that by striving to be myself in world that does not favor that, I kind of did justice to what my parents tried to create: a business ahead of its time, and kids who swim upstream against all odds. Some have called me “Hurricane Merry”. The only safe place is in the eye of the storm.
Thank you for reading. Time to go brush hair again…and deal with the starlings living above my back door.