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I am in the USA right now, recovering from some health issues and visiting with friends and loved ones, one of whom is my mom who is now in a nursing home.
On good days my mother sits in her wheelchair—on bad days she lies in her bed—staring out her window at a hillside where she remembers playing with childhood friends. My aunt says this is a false memory; she never played on that hill. Mom has a lot of false memories; this isn’t new. She created a world that met her needs. She was the center of her endlessly theatrical universe; it was clearly an alternate reality—generally high-drama—that separated her from others. I had hoped for something more from her as the years marched by. As a teenager I hoped that Mom would snap out of it and join reality so that we could connect and truly communicate.
Ours has always been a complicated relationship; I found it difficult to relate to someone living in a different world than mine. In many ways her endless theatrics frightened me; to this day I hate to be afraid or see others frightened. It’s a painful reminder…
Last week, after my brother and I explained to our mother that she was financially broke, she suddenly inherited millions of dollars—in her dramatic alternate world. She’s now planning to build a hospital for people with arthritis. Mom always admired altruism and so she created a persona of selflessness many years ago… someone to be admired and adored. Even now she’s planning to use her imaginary money to help others and be adored. My sibs and I will be in management positions. She doesn’t want to spoil us by handing us any of her millions. We need to understand the importance of a strong work ethic in spite of the fact that we have all worked hard and are now of retirement age or close to it.
When we ask questions about her newly acquired fortune she wonders why we don’t know all of the details; haven’t we read about her huge windfall? Certainly it must be in all the papers!
Mom would be as hard-pressed to tell you what her children did throughout their lifetimes, as to tell you where her millions came from. She was never involved enough in our lives to know what we were doing. She was much too busy caring for those in terrible crisis and worrying about the less fortunates. Obsessively. In all fairness I must say that my mother helped thousands of people—men, women and children. Now at the end of her life she worries and obsesses about her children and their salvation. She knows her place in heaven is secure; not only has she worried as much as anyone on the planet (an absolute prerequisite to gaining entrance to her heaven) but her good works alone should afford her passes for at least a hundred guests to escort her through the pearly gates. I tell her not to worry about us: You will not live in heaven without your children, I say. It’s a safe statement. If there is a heaven, we’ll be there; if not, well… she’ll be none the wiser.
Mom once told me that one of the reasons she married my father, at eighteen years old, was because he promised her they would travel the world. Being from a poor family she couldn’t imagine seeing the world on her own. She felt eternally blessed to meet a man who shared her travel priorities. Once their children started coming and bills piling up, however, my parents’ travel was put on a back burner. Her life was much like mine would one day be.
And so my mother created a fantasy world to live within—or maybe she lived within her imagination from the day she was born; I’ll never know. I do know that, within my lifetime, she lived in a reality that differed greatly from the one my sibs and I lived in. Her memories of her life experiences—even incidents that we experienced together—had little resemblance to our reality. Our childhood home—driven by the whims of a mother whose extraordinary mood swings within an alternate universe dictated her behavior—was a confusing, frightening environment, lacking any emotional security.
Mom remembers me as a perfectly well behaved child, silent and cooperative—this is quite possibly because I spent my early childhood hiding from her—avoiding her unpredictability at all cost. Then again, it might be a false memory; it’s impossible to say.
My sibs and I grew and matured, spent time in therapy and developed a wicked sense of humor. It was how we survived. As an adult I hoped and prayed for a healing for my mother. Instead she remained consistently herself—stuck in her own ever-increasingly dramatic reality, without any desire to join the rest of us, dreaming her dreams and living within them. And I remained frustrated, waiting for a magical age, revelation, or miracle that would bring us to a common ground.
In 1997 my mother lived one of her greatest dreams: She experienced her first real travel when she and my father visited my daughters and me in Estonia. In the middle of their visit Mom requested that she and I take a trip down to Latvia (where Soviet mentality and culture were much more obvious than in Estonia) without my dad and stay somewhere that would truly reflect the Soviet culture—not a Holiday Inn. I agreed but with reservations: This translated to two full days of Mom Time with nowhere to hide.
We took a night train down to Riga, the capitol city of Latvia, and checked into an inexpensive, dimly lit, damp, Soviet hotel called Sport Viesnīca (or perhaps Monika Viesnīca; I knew of several cheap digs that were almost identical to one another that most definitely reflected Soviet culture). Neither the rampant cockroaches nor the rusty bathtub that drained onto the cracked ceramic tiled floor—then down a central drain in the middle of the room—dampened my mother’s spirit. She said they were interesting, even exotic because they were part of an experience she’d awaited all of her life. Some might think she had a low expectation of life. But I believe that she just wanted the rush of being somewhere completely different from where she normally lived… in her head. The roaches, rusty tub and newspaper-instead-of-toilet-paper reality shook her world, demanding that she live in the moment. She was there in that Soviet hotel— not writing a story, altering her reality, or living within her imagination—she was completely present in every single one of those dark, mildewed, moments as they ticked by—smiling the smile of a young girl falling in love for the first time.
Several hours into touring the city, on the day we were to return to Estonia, a policeman grabbed my arm and yelled at me in Latvian language, of which I spoke almost none. My attempt to speak Russian with him gave my English language away and he shouted back at me in perfect English, “You must leave immediately! There is a bomb in this building,” as he pointed upward at a building looming above us. In my preoccupation with showing my mother the city, I’d failed to notice the bomb squad and others converging on the building.
Mom’s seventy-two year old legs were limited and her stamina had long been reduced to less than a child’s. “It’s okay Mom,” I said calmly, as I took her arm and ushered her quickly away from the crowd of firefighters and policemen. “We’ll be fine. I’m not at all frightened so don’t you be afraid. We just need to get down the street quickly.” What I wanted more than anything was to spare my mother fear. I reasoned that if we died we would hopefully go quickly and if not… well… this would be a life experience. The one thing I couldn’t bear was to see my elderly mother frightened.
As we walked away from the building she looked at me and smiled elatedly, “Oh, I’m not at all frightened. I was just thinking what a monumental event this is. I’m here in the former Soviet Union. There’s a bomb in that building. This is real and I’m here; it’s all so exciting!”
I held her hand as we walked quickly down the street towards safety. If I’d been alone I probably would have taken a few pictures before retreating. I truly believe if she’d approached this building without me she might have stuck around, just to see a real live explosion in a former Soviet city… We were sharing a bizarre reality with some skewed emotional responses but I understood her in that moment—although I knew many people would not have—and I loved her with all my heart.
Last weekend my brother and I went to visit our mother in the nursing home. We said goodbye and walked out to the lobby to leave, when I realized that I’d left my car keys on her bed. I walked back to her room and entered it. She was sitting in her wheel chair looking up at the hill, her back to me.
“I forgot my keys, Mom,” I said, as I entered, not wanting to frighten her.
She didn’t turn around but kept her gaze out the window.
“There’s a big black bear waddling up that hill,” she said, pointing her crooked pointer finger at the hill. My mom’s finger is crooked because it was caught in a coffee grinder or a flourmill or the wringer in her mother’s clothes washer or stepped on by a bully in boots… her story, about how her finger became crooked, changes; the bent finger does not.
“Yes, of course there’s a bear,” I replied, as I turned to leave. Then on second thought I turned back to kiss her head one more time. As I bent down to kiss her I glanced out the window, there was indeed a black bear lumbering up the hill.
“Mom, there really is a bear, there,” I whispered, in amazement.
She looked up at me and smiled. Maybe she was relieved that I saw it, too. I don’t know. I put my hand on her shoulder and we watched silently as the bear made his way to the top of the hill.
“I used to play on that hill when I was a girl,” she said, as the bear vanished into the woods.
“Of course you did,” I said. And I thought: There could be much worse alternate universes to live in. She could be frightened; she could be seeing spiders or demons…
But she’s not; she spared us that. She’s enjoying memories of playing on hills and inheriting millions of dollars.
A big fat Hollywood ending isn’t going to happen… there will be no magical age, revelations or snapping out of it for my mom. But there might be closure for me… Mom and I have been blessed with occasional moments of overlapping realities in which I’ve seen an essence of her and realized ways that the apple actually fell quite near the tree. And then there was that one extended overlapping reality in Riga… in 1997. And, oddly enough, today, I’m thinking these simple blessings might be enough for a quiet, low drama closing to our story.
Our first winter in Estonia was cold, confusing, magical… and talk about an accelerated jaunt up the learning curve.
Within a few months I learned: When no one is out and about in a Nordic town on a sunny winter day it’s best to stay inside, because clear days tend to be colder than cloudy days and temperatures can easily dip to 40 below zero. When this happens people stay inside. It’s an unwritten rule or maybe just common sense. If one doesn’t know this rule, however, and doesn’t own a thermometer and goes outside in these low temperatures—oh let’s say to go sledding—when one rubs one’s tingling nose (which is a sign that body tissues are freezing) said nose can actually bend and stay bent off to the side until one bends it back. Apparently this is an early sign of frostbite. I also learned that -40 Celsius is the same as -40 Fahrenheit, although it doesn’t actually feel that different from -15 Fahrenheit. The injurious affect -40 has on the human body, however, is noteworthy and the speed at which this severe cold does its damage is remarkable. I also learned that contact lenses can freeze in your eyes at these incredibly low temperatures. I won’t share the details of how I learned these lessons. I’ll simply say: I survived with little more than a shattered contact lens and a nose that stayed red for many months.
Avto, the postman, bought me a thermometer after the bent nose incident (from the thermometer store, no doubt) and said something like, “You know everyone vill sink you need AA, now, because you look like drunkard wis zat red nose.”
“I’ll explain that I went sledding in -40 weather and got pre-frostbite,” I replied.
“Great plan, Hol! Zen everyone will sink you are only stupid and zere is no cure for stupid…”
I held my head high, walked very straight lines and used a lot of foundation makeup that winter.
Both girls picked up Russian language quickly since we lived in a Russian neighborhood. I studied Estonian language in an attempt to fit in with the Estonian population (who didn’t like speaking the language of their oppressors). It seemed like the polite thing to do.
Unfortunately Estonian language is (arguably) considered the third most difficult language to learn (just below Cantonese) when coming from English; this, combined with my uncooperative 44 year-old brain, created a pathetic mish-mosh of vocal sounds that bore little resemblance to Estonian language. I learned words, albeit with a terrible accent—bread, milk, shampoo, sorry, yes, and no—as well as simple phrases—pardon me, how much does this cost, when is the next train—and how to count from one to a thousand. Speaking with any level of fluency or understanding this language when spoken by locals, however, forever remained a pipedream.
Aside from studying Estonian language, my life was busy learning simple things like where and how to shop in a country that appeared to have invented the specialty shops: the meat market sold only meat, the vegetable market sold veggies, the chemical shop sold chemicals, the light bulb store had the strangest array of light bulbs imaginable but nothing more. The chair store, which sold only chairs, was across town from the table store. We’ve already covered the thermometer store…
Then there was figuring out how to do laundry—which I ultimately ended up doing in my bathtub with a little scrub board my mom sent me. Within weeks I realized that unless I could add a few hours to my day, home-schooling the girls wasn’t going to happen. So, since they were already picking up Russian language, I enrolled them in Russian schools.
Each day it seemed that one or both of the girls came home with a story about what they were learning beyond the school curriculum. Erin learned to love Borscht topped with sour cream and served with hearty black Russian bread, every single day for lunch. And then one day Jessica learned what a patronymic was and how to create her very own…
Tanya, a classmate of Jessica’s, spoke some English. With Jessica’s quickly developing Russian language skills, and the occasional pantomime, they enjoyed fair communication. On this particular day Tanya, with an audience of several other girls, announced that she was going to give Jessica her patronymic.
(FYI Patronymics are names used instead of last names in Russian culture. They are created by taking the father’s first name and adding the ending Ovna for a female and Ovitch for a male. For example: if a father is named Ivan (which is actually John in Russian), his daughter’s patronymic is Ivanovna and his son’s is Ivanovitch.)
Before I continue with this story I should mention that John Morrison, my late husband and father of my four children, loved to laugh. Since he married into a family of people who also love to laugh and have an incredibly irreverent sense of humor, all was well—within the family, that is. Frequently, our humor was considered inappropriate outside of our family, however…
So on this particular winter day Tanya, with her less than perfect English, said to Jessica: “Today we give you patronymic.”
“Okay,” Jessica said, expecting a gift of some sort since she’d never heard the word patronymic before.
“What is you father’s name?” Tanya asked.
Confused at the question, Jessica said, “He’s dead.” I have no idea why this seemed like the time to share this particular information.
Tanya, who was unfamiliar with all of those weird American names, thought carefully for a moment and then said, very proudly.“Uh huh… Okay… so your patromymic is Jessica Hesdeadovna.“
After a short, confusing hesitation Jessica said “No, he’s dead. I mean literally he’s dead!“
“Yes, I know; I understand. This is you correct patronymic. Hesdeadovna,“ Tanya was adamant.
“No; what I mean is he died!“ Jessica said emphatically.
“Oh!“ Tanya said, now certain that she truly understood, “Yeah, yeah, now I see… So you name is Jessica Hediedovna!“
With this Jessica heaved a sigh of resignation, crossed her arms in front of her chest, rolled her eyes back in her head and said, “My father is dead,“ clearly making her point. Unfortunately she was not beyond finding humor in the situation and she began giggling uncontrollably as her Russian friends looked on in horror before walking away. Within Russian culture laughter and death don’t mix. Ever.
That evening Jessica told the story to a more appreciative audience—namely her family—all of whom shared both the pain of the moment as well as the undeniable humor.
“Your dad would have loved this story,“ I said as I wiped my eyes.
“He is loving it,“ Jessie said. “Right now he’s laughing his butt off; I feel it!“ I couldn’t disagree. There’s just way too much mystery in life for me to have any clear opinions on such things.
When I look back on that winter afternoon I think that was the beginning of my understanding of the strange, solitary journey my daughters and I were on—for better or worse. We would never be Russian, Estonian or even European. But neither were we typical Americans in any of the ways I could readily identify. We were blazing new trails without role models or mentors… I had wanted a new beginning after John’s death but I’d gotten a newer beginning than I’d ever imagined.