Sunday, March 29, 2009

My Mother, My Self, My Imperfect Superhero

by Zinta Aistars

Mama does not wear a superhero’s cape. Children often look up to their parents as superheroes, capable of all, certainly of protecting them from all harm. I don’t ever remember looking up at Mama that way. By age eight, the world had tossed me between the grindstones, and Mama didn’t know. I didn’t tell her. Instinctively I knew: Mama would not defend me. She trusted in authority figures, an immigrant woman in a strange land, uncomfortable with the English language, and a declaration from her little girl that her need to reconstruct a world that makes sense made no sense from where I stood—would not go over well. I never told.

Now that she is in her 80s, I know I never will. She has never quite understood my distrust and deep cynicism about authority figures. Strangers are not always ugly men in vans, holding out candy to lure you in. Sometimes they are the very people to whom you hand over your child, requesting help and trusting they will provide it. But our mother-daughter relationship has always had an undertone of that which is withheld. On some childish level, looking back now, I realize I may have held her in some part responsible. I wanted, so very much, for my mother to be a superhero. With X-ray vision and powers of omniscience.

When I arrive at her house early on a Saturday morning, she throws the door open with welcome, her face wreathed with what I would almost call a rapturous joy. My father is just behind her, and they greet me as if I bring all good to their doorstep. I have been observing this for some time now … that as my parents age, our bond has grown in importance to them. As if I were some lifeline, and as they drift further and further away from this earthly life, pondering the other, the unknown, still to come, I bring not only comfort and pleasure with my visits, but even joy. It is as if I bring the sun with me. Their faces shine.

I have come to exchange vehicles with them, taking my father’s van so that I can go back downtown into Kalamazoo and take down the art exhibit of his paintings and drawings that I put up two months ago at Waterstreet Coffee Joint. This time, he can’t come along. With his chronic back pain, undeterred by five surgeries, his spine now crumbling with age, he has had yet another treatment for the pain. He cannot drive or lift or move about more than a few steps today. He nearly stumbles into my arms this morning and hugs me, saying into my ear, thank you, Zinti, thank you, what would I do without you, you always help me … and I realize he is weeping. When did I become my father’s superhero?

Mama bustles to come along. Her cheeks are flushed. I help her with her coat, she clutches her bag, and we are soon on our way.

I listen to her chatter as we head downtown. Most of it is a recounting of various health ailments, all of which I have heard a thousand times before. I occasionally say in my most gentle tone, “Mama, you already told me that story,” and she gasps and apologizes, starts on another, then later resumes the same one again. I try to listen. I try to understand what it means to be looking back at life from where she stands. I try to imagine how I might sound to my own daughter, with my own litany of whines about the various injustices of life. I know I have not always been kind to my mother. I have not always been patient.

She scurries around the coffee shop as I clip the fish line holding up Dad’s paintings. It is still early, only an occasional customer wanders in for his first cup of coffee, still bleary-eyed. I stack the paintings; Mama picks at the sticky goop left on the walls that held the bottom corners of the art pieces in place. She holds the door open for me when I carry the paintings out to the van.

“Didn’t take long, did it?” she says when I close the back door on the van.

“Always easier to tear something down than it is to build it up again.”

My words hang in the air, and we gaze at each other for a moment. Saturday morning blooms around us in full sunlight now, bright and blue.

“Would you like to go have breakfast?” I ask. “My treat.”

Her face crinkles into a smile, and she nods as eagerly as a child. Once again, I have that sense of the full circle, of changing positions, of what comes around goes around, and maybe even … second chances.

She asks me to order for her at The Blue Dolphin. She trusts me, she says. I know her penchant for all things sweet, and there are crepes on the menu, fresh berries and syrup and whipped cream. Her doctor has recently warned her that her blood sugar has crept dangerously high, to pre-diabetic numbers. I order scrambled eggs for her with dry toast, but share the Greek sausage I have on my plate with her when it arrives. She tastes it with little puckered smacks of her lips.

We sit for a long time. I finish my breakfast, she carefully divides hers in halves and asks the waitress for a box, so that she can bring the other half to my father. Her husband. She calls him after she carefully dishes half her breakfast into the Styrofoam box. Don’t worry. We are having breakfast. Are you okay?

I watch her talk into the cell phone I gave her, explaining how to use it. Take it with you, Mama, I said, and if you ever need help, here, my number, in the directory … But she never uses the directory. She always presses in the number, digit by digit, her lips moving to say the numbers as she enters them.

“I love this,” she smiles, clapping the phone shut. “It makes me feel safe.”

I nod, smiling. “That’s why I got it for you.”

Her hip is bothering her again, but the day is so bright, so wide open, pathway clear ahead of us, that I invite her to walk through town a bit with me. We walk slowly, and she hangs onto my elbow for support, saying over and over again how it eases her, and oh this bad hip, sighing heavily. But we walk the entire mall. Slowly. Peering in windows, many of the stores not yet open. A few have closed permanently, hit by the economy, and we tsk and sigh together. She stops at one of the windows and gazes at her own image, touching her hair.

“You look nice today, Mama.”

She squeezes my elbow and we walk on in careful steps. I remember how she shushed someone once when I was a girl, someone who said I was pretty. Don’t tell her that, Mama said. She’ll get a swollen head. I had liked hearing that I was pretty, and felt immediately ashamed when I heard her turn away the kind words. I didn’t ever want my head to swell.

A long time ago, at least it felt like it was a very long time ago, I left Kalamazoo because I longed to be free. Of so many things. Of so many people, places, memories. I longed for a life I could call my own. And I swore I would never come back. Authority figures that held no authority, only power and control. Heartaches and heart breaks, and horizons that always seemed to creep too close. Yes, I wanted escape from Mama, too. Manipulations and maneuvers when she thought she understood how I should live my life better than I.

They say we see our parents as wiser when we grow older. That they really knew more all along than we thought they did. That did not happen for me. Mama didn’t know better. Her advice was not always the best. Her manipulations too often led to disaster, for both of us. But, with time and the wisdom it gives, I did come to understand that at the base of her actions, even when they veered off cliffs, was a mother’s love. She wanted me to be okay. She wanted me to be safe. She longed, even now longs for me to find someone to be good to me, to watch out for me and protect me, to love me long after she is gone, so that she might truly rest in peace.

She clutches at my arm as we return to the van, ready now to go home and bring my father his half of her breakfast. I hold the van door open for her.

“You know, your father and I, we pray for you every night,” she suddenly says, seated in the van.

“I know, Mama.”

“Every night.” Her eyes flush with tears.

Suddenly, so do mine. “I know.”

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