“She likes to be kissed,” she says.
“You kiss her,” I say, in something dangerously close to a snarl, because even though I try to be a saintly daughter, the other one sometimes slips out.
“What was it like growing up with your mother?” someone asked me years ago, when she was merely a colorful emotional thug, not certifiable.
“Like being an ambulance driver in World War I,” I said, because while my mother had many impressive qualities, tenderness and tact were not among them. She told people she could not stand them; she stopped speaking to family members for life; she left them bleeding.
I saw my job as walking behind, patching up the wounded when possible. Triage. Can this uncle, whom Mom refuses to speak to even though his wife is dying, be saved, or should I rush on to someone who has a chance, like me?
I was never aware of any fondness for children. If you were into needlepoint and wanted to commemorate Ma’s maternal feelings, this is what the pillows would read:
“Kids aren’t for everybody.”
Then, three years into her stroke, the baby obsession kicks in.
“I want a baby,” she says when I visit.
“You had babies, Ma,” I tell her. “You didn’t like it. You said we screamed all the time. Me especially.”
“I want a baby,” Ma says.
“You know, Ma, there are lifelike doll babies they give to high-school kids to show them how much work babies are,” I tell her. “Maybe we could try that first. Then you’d remember.”
The next day Ma’s aide, Terri, gets a doll from the nursing home. When I walk in her room Ma is holding it tightly, beaming. She tells me she has named the doll Beth. She is happier than I have seen her in months, which is what a good daughter should focus on. What I focus on is that my 90-year-old mother, who could once eviscerate anyone in her path, is playing with dolls. After the visit, I crumple up on a couch on a hall, where Larry, the activities guy, spots me.
“Your mother had a good life,” he says. “She traveled, she did what she wanted. I have a young woman on another floor, she never got to have a life.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know that.”
“The doll is making her happy,” Larry says.
I know that too. My mother could be having meltdowns like some of the women in her unit, or staring into space. I try to accept the ugly doll, which my mother kisses like a real baby. A stepsibling. Welcome to the family, kid, I hope you came armed. Still, there are challenges.
“I prayed really hard to God last night,” Ma tells me one morning when I arrive.
“Oh, yeah, Ma?” I say. “What did you pray for?”
“I prayed for a miracle,” Ma says. “I prayed for him to make Beth alive.”
I’m hit, I fall to the ground, but invisibly, like all the other daughters in this place.
Then one day, after a picnic in the garden, my brother Martin, who is also creeped out by the doll, tells me he has noticed that I never look at the doll either.
I never realized that. But if my brother has picked up on me ignoring the doll, my mother has probably noticed it. That must be painful. You don’t want someone holding their nose when faced with something you love. I decide I will try harder.
I go back to Gap Kids, hoping I don’t run into women buying clothes for real babies. Although how can you tell? We all have hidden lives, maybe that’s really who’s in baby-clothing shops, women with mothers with dementia. I spend a long time choosing, then get a dusty pink party dress with eyelet trim and matching pink bloomers, this time the right size. My mother is delighted. We dress the doll together, stuffing its pudgy arms through the sleeves, then I push Mom in her wheelchair through the gardens so she can show everyone its new outfit.
My mother is playing with dolls. She used to be brutal. I want my rotten mother back.