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The soft hills covered in summer green vines acted as the perfect backdrop for the wedding. At the reception on a adjacent hill to the one where the ceremony took place, everyone was ready for a glass of wine. “I didn't get a glass of wine,” my mother hissed at me and grabbed mine. She surprised me. I had never seen her that aggressive before. Why had she acted like that? I felt hurt and guilty. Then I wondered whether it had anything to do with her recent diagnosis: Alzheimer's disease. Feeling lost I asked for a glass of wine.
My mother was dressing in front of the full size mirror. She was going to yet another social event that is, a party among friends. The friends of my parents were old school bodies and they kept up with each other through dinner parties. The women, dressed up in the latest fashion, orchestrated the event like magic, starting with martinis, continuing through a lavish 3-course meal with wine, and ending up with coffee and cognac. I watched her pick out her outfit: a chestnut brown gauze-like dress with a white collar, long transparent sleeves, and a belt accentuating her waist.
I could hear her crying. Went downstairs to her room and found her confused and scared. “Where's Whitney?” she cried, “she's really scared and I have to find her.” I knew my mother’s dog meant everything to her and I also knew that Whitney would be under the bed. “She's right here, mom, under the bed.” I saw how scared my mom was. She always projected her own emotions to her dog and that is how I knew. I just didn't know how to calm her down. We were in a different place, away from her home, vacationing with family.
“Would you sort all the clothes?” My mom was asking me to sort winter clothes from summer clothes for all of my four siblings. A full Sunday job. And I didn't mind; in fact, I loved to sort stuff, actually got a high from that. That is how my analytical mind started searching for patterns in everything, all the time. This belonged here and that belonged there. Everything had a place and belonged somewhere. In my adult life I always wondered where I belonged. And moving every few years throughout my life I could belong anywhere. A true life traveler.
I saw her profile through the rear window of the car, which slowly moved down the long driveway. Turning around I thought of her not being at home the next few weeks. Left with four younger siblings, a busy father, dogs and horses, I knew school and friends would suffer. This was the second time my mom had to go for some R and R; a place for worn out people I gathered. Granted she was head of a big household but she also had help. To me it was a mystery she had to leave. Never quite understood why.
“Would you like to be a big sister again?” Looking at my mom I failed to figure out what she meant, because she was her normal slim self in a fitted floral summer dress. “What do you mean, mom, do I have a say in this?” “Well, no, I am pregnant and thought you would be glad to hear.” Not wanting to react the way she wanted, I smiled, while secretly feeling a strong sense of
being the big sister of three already, aged 8, 5, and almost 4. The following month I would turn eleven.
“But mom, do I have to wear the exact same outfit as my sisters?” “Yes, this bright red Pinafore dress looks great on all three of you, and then I can see you better when we travel.” “But mom, I'm almost twelve and they're four and six!” I cried with tears behind my eyes, anticipating the humiliation of being dressed like my kid sisters. Every summer we went as a family to Copenhagen to visit the famous TIVOLI park with rides, theater, and restaurants. To get there we had to ferry across the ocean from one island to the next.
Thinking of memories with my mom is like stepping into a void, feebly trying to find them. I claw my way through to grasp and hold on to something, but nothing materializes. How can this be? I spent all of my childhood, youth, and much of my adulthood right next to her; in some parts I shared my home and business with her. She's always been in my life and still, I have the hardest time thinking up mutual interactions that show emotion and impact. Slowly, I realize that I have known only the mask but not the soul behind.
I see her at the airline counter. She's pleading with the business class lady for an upgrade. What I notice is a helpless but sophisticated elderly woman who makes a case of newly implanted metal knees and succeeds at it. An actress in disguise, able to lie about the age of her knee condition. Blown away, I smile at her and help her into the wheelchair that will take her to the airplane. Still traveling by herself, she was off to Denmark to be with my sister. That is two years ago. Now, she needs someone to travel with her.
With four children at age twenty eight my mother did not want to live in the city. She wanted the fresh air of the country. And she found an old farm house with thatched roof, crooked windows, and ceilings so low my dad had to bend his head when he walked through a doorframe. Our neighbors were small farmers with a few cows, pigs, and chickens and who cultivated barley, rye, oat and wheat on their limited acreage of land. When we arrived they had no real bathrooms. I was happy there but suspect my mom craved the obvious isolation.
“Why can I not go?” “Because you are only thirteen years old,” my mom repeated. “But I have friends who are going!” “That is not our concern. You cannot go party on a Saturday night. That is the final word!” I felt cheated. Robbed. My friends were going to a grange hall to listen to a band and to dance. What was wrong with that? What could go wrong? We just wanted to have some fun. My dad was no help; he listened to his wife this time. Upset and powerless I slammed the door to my room and cried.
“She needs a haircut. She keeps scratching herself,” my mother whined. “And you have help setting up an appointment for her?” I asked. “I walked over to the pet store yesterday to see if they could take her.” I sighed. I had noticed on her banking account my mother had spent money at RideAid and I knew she had forgotten where to take her dog for a haircut, although PetCo was right next to RideAid. And as we spoke on the phone the dog’s haircut was all that mattered to her. To care for her dog had become problematic, too.
My mother was a ballet dancer and reached a competitive level in her youth. Therefore, she had to travel to other towns to perform. Because she was a young teenager her parents weren't happy about it and put a stop to her ballet career. Robbed of a dream she never forgave her parents. Therefore, when it was my turn to dance ballet she let me, but without any real support. I loved it and wanted to continue; however, my lessons took place twenty miles from our home which – impractical and time consuming – also put a stop to my ballet career.
In the morning our kitchen sounded like a beehive, smelled like a deli, and felt like grand station. With five children having to get out the door to school within a narrow time frame, eating breakfast, preparing lunches, and figuring out what to wear, had everyone buzzing to meet the deadline. Mom had a production line going preparing five lunches: rugbrødsmadder (Danish open faced sandwiches made from dark rye bread with liver paste, salami, egg, or cucumber) put in special flat lunch boxes with custom dividers for each half piece of bread. Typically, we each got four halves. Good food.
The red bandana across my right eye had me look like a pirate but I felt more like a zoo keeper amid my large family, sitting around the dining room table. My father and my husband had mellowed out from their preferred drinks: scotch and soda, bourbon and ginger ale, respectively. My teenage brother brooded and soon hurried down to his room. My two toddlers didn't want to eat their Osso Buco – one of my mother’s specialty dishes – and I tried to ignore the thumping pain behind my right eye while feeling the nausea permeating my body, beaten in battle.
“They will have to sow you one,” my mother pointed out. “But how will it look like?” I whined. “Don’t you worry, you know I get all my dresses from here and they design the best dresses in town!” “But I also need a ‘second-day-dress’, from here, too?” Shopping for my confirmation dresses at the most exclusive clothing shop in the city, and hoping for trendy and popular, my mom insisted on classic: a white dress in organza, transparent sleeves and a layered skirt à la 1920’s plus a dark green velvet dress with white collar à la Audrey Hepburn.
“But mom, is that really necessary?” “Yes, I want you to have pepper in your hand as a precaution. You are on your bike early in the morning and who knows who will be out there.” “It’s just a couple of miles, I’ll be there in a flash!” She stuck the pepper in my hand and reluctantly, I kept it there until I hit the country road from our long driveway, then I tossed it. The road could barely hold one car going one way and I was riding fast along the undulating road on my way to pick strawberries.
My mother loved to polish silverware and brass and copper. She could seat at least twelve around the dining room table with a full set of silverware for each person: two forks, two knives, and two spoons. The large living room, the dining room, the entry hall and the anteroom all exhibited pots, plates, candlesticks, and ashtrays made from brass, copper and tin; however, the tin was never polished. Every month the housekeeper and my mother would sit down to polish a whole day. She never asked me to help, and I never insisted. Old, her arthritic hands gave in.
“You just don’t understand what I’m going through, what I have to do while you are away!” I overheard my mom talk to my dad who had just returned from yet another business trip. And true, she was left with a big household while he was away schmoozing and drinking with business relations. But that was how they had set up their marriage: she at home, he away. Or was it? Was it a conscious decision or a result of expectations? Weren’t they living as expected? After all, they were a product of the dapper 50’s and the abundant 60’s.
“Mom, where are you?” I shouted from the hallway, slamming the door behind me. No answer. I was home early from school and wanted her attention. Still, no answer. I rushed upstairs to my room, flung my bag in my room, and looked for her. Nothing. Back downstairs, I didn’t see her in the kitchen and wondered: is she in the living room? Normally, we were only in the living room in the evening, after dinner, after homework, and after all other chores of the day. There she was: curled up in the wing chair with a blanket, sleeping soundly.
My first own room: I was twelve and the only one of five siblings with her own room. Before they opened up the wall to expand our living quarters into an unused part of the farmhouse, I had thrillingly walked up to the wall, knocked on it, saying: “It won’t be long and I will walk right through you into my own room!” Mom helped me decorate: striped wallpaper in gold and ochre; new futon bed with floral cover in burgundy, forest green and off white; a small bureau of whitewashed stained pine; and a white chair with wicker seat.
My final paper for the Women’s Studies class was to be on a woman relation, and I chose my mom. Basically, I interviewed her and wrote down her story. Most of what she told me I already knew, but after a few sessions, she surprised me by talking about a sexual encounter she had had. Nineteen years old and a virgin, she married my father and had it not been for this other sexual experience, she would only have known my father. The man who wanted her was my dad’s boss, and the planned encounter happened at a hotel room.
I was born in North America, just like my mom. She was born in Brooklyn and I was born in North Carolina. Her parents came through Ellis Island in 1932 and my parents came to know about tobacco: the plant, the harvest, and the production. Both my mother and I were still babies when our parents decided to return to Denmark. In both cases, the wives wanted back, while the husbands wished to stay. Not until I moved to North America with my husband did my parents decide to emigrate a second time, this time, to California, as we did.
“You’re working today?” I asked my mom who was leaving. “Yes, you know I’m helping out in grandma’s shop over the summer.” I knew that but I didn’t know how often. My grandma’s souvenir shop was located right across from Hans Christian Andersen’s museum and right next to the restaurant that my grandfather had started. Now, I wondered why my mom was working there. She had never before worked outside the home. I was on summer vacation from school and therefore home with my young siblings. One time, she brought home two large stuffed bunnies for my two toddler sisters.
“Really? I can choose any ski pants and ski jacket?” I asked my mom. Looking for ski vacation clothes for my younger brother and two kid sisters I was surprised to learn that I could check out what I wanted for myself. Soon I scoped out the perfect winter jacket: snow white with a pattern of large black chicken wire to accentuate the texture. With that I chose Christmas red ski pants, the stretchy kind that looped around your feet. Adding my dark hair sporting a white headband, I could already see myself silhouetted against wintery slopes and clear skies.
“I know you will like him,” I told my mom, “he’s just your type!” I was talking about my latest boyfriend, who seemed rather serious about me. He was cute: long blond hair, sky blue eyes, full lips, and clothed in grey slacks and light blue shirts. He looked proper and preppy. But I also knew he was a ladies’ man and had seen him together with different girls, among others one from my class who was from his village, too. He had sought me out through a friend who dated my friend, and the four of us went out.
In elementary school I wrote vivid stories in tiny notebooks and I drew and colored pictures of my characters. One time my teacher asked me, whether I had made up the story all by myself. I didn’t know what to say, because of course I had! When I started high school my storytelling abilities had suffered. I had been taught to write a certain way and I didn’t like it. My voice felt silent. All through high school I struggled to write my papers and begged for help from my mom. She had no idea and left me crying hard.
My adult life turned out differently than I thought. Without support or real knowledge of my passion for the arts I never imagined pursuing that, although my dream was to become an actor. Therefore, I became a mom like my mom and got involved in the hospitality business with my husband, which my parents supported. At one time my mother had a small antique shop and my father his office right next to our restaurant. Was it because I needed them or did they need me? I grew up with my parents until my early 40’s when I entered college.
With her children all grown with children of their own and with her husband gone, my mother’s world slowly shrank. She turned to gardening and created an oasis of lush and plentiful flowers and plants in colors of the rainbow and with scents of honey and nectar. She kept decorating her home for every holiday as well as taking care of her own beauty. But when her world clashed with the real world, as in maintaining her house, paying the bills, or handling solicitations on the phone or by the door, she was lost. She got scared and needed protection.
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