I recently visited Mom mom in “the home,” and we got to compare some notes on aging. Gloria is 90 years old and, holding steadfast to her earlier vanity, she’s the only one in her retirement building with brown hair. She is fit as a fiddle, all things considered. She stands tall and regal as a queen, and she is royally hard of hearing.
I arrived at her apartment door and knocked. LOUD. No answer. I stood in the vestibule she shares with another resident, staring at the giant stuffed teddy bear resting by the window, and contemplated pounding on the door and how that might be received by her neighbor (assuming she can hear). The door was locked. I called my mom and asked her to please call her mother and tell her to open the door. A second later the phone rang, I heard Mom mom exclaim “Oh my God!” and moments later the door opened.
Mom mom is an amazing specimen for her age. She will be 91 in May, and while she walks much slower these days and with a “cart” (a fancy walker with a cup holder and pockets for stuff – like cigarettes) in case she loses her balance, she is – contrary to anything she might tell you – healthy as a horse. She’s had a heart attack, cervical cancer, she loves her beer, she’s smoked all her life, and she now takes insulin injections for her Type 2 diabetes. She doesn’t check her blood sugars, and when I chastised her she scoffed at me. And – as I said – she can’t hear a damn thing and I have to shout at her, which makes me really self-conscious in public but I guess I can’t really stand out too much in a retirement home where 85% of the community is nearly deaf anyway.
She told me my cousin bought her a hearing aid, which I already knew, and said it doesn’t work as she picked it up off the coffee table to show me. I shouted at her that it might work better if she put it in her ear. She laughed at me.
She is blunt as all get-out…one of the things I love most about her. She gossips to me about the residents… this one is nice but not “all-there,” that one’s a “dumb shit,” this one is “just a smoking buddy” and they’re “just friends.” She doesn’t hold back when she’s got something to say. She tells me how much she loves her former son-in-law and what a good man he is, and how my mom should’ve stayed married to him. Yep – my dad is that special – over forty years later. She tells me what a “looker” my husband is. She has a way of gushing that makes a grown man blush with embarrassment.
She got out of jury duty by telling them – in so many words – that she’s racist (which, of course, she’s not). I told her she could’ve just told them she had bladder control issues and couldn’t be sitting for long periods of time. She just clicked her tongue and dismissed that with a wave of her hand. I guess vanity won out again.
She once lifted a hanging plant from the front of the grocery store and carried it right to her car and she told me about it! I suggested that I would refuse to visit her in jail, and she said they wouldn’t arrest an old lady – they’d just think she was senile and didn’t know what she was doing. YET, she got into a CAR and drove away.
She embarrassed me when I was about 11, while we were out for dinner with the entire family. I was sitting at the bar between her and my mom sipping on my Shirley Temple and during a lull in their conversation Mom mom looked down at me and exclaimed, “Tara! You have breasts!” But embarrassment doesn’t end like that with Gloria… she copped a feel to confirm her proclamation. Unfortunately, death doesn’t come easily to the mortified 11-year-old.
I’ve forgiven her. No matter what MY mom says, she knows not what she does. I could tell her anything. Always. She may tell everyone else, but she’s not easily shocked. She has given up on the usual conventions of civility for the most part – a product of her age and just not giving a shit – something I find alternately admirable and hilariously funny. She does care about her appearance. She was dressed like she was going out when I got there. She wears nice clothes and puts on a bit of makeup, and makes sure her “hair look nice” (because hair in her world is plural).
We compared aches and pains and she dismissed mine. We compared beauty products and I told her that the smell of hand cream always reminds me of her. She has always used Jergens, and I know that smell as well as I remember the smell of Play-Doh. She gushed over my skin that looks like “porcelain,” and I reminded her I’m wearing makeup designed to do that. She said I got good genes, and I agreed. She doesn’t look like she’s 90.
The beauty of my relationship with her is that it’s separate from those with her children. It was not a Norman Rockwell childhood, for them or for her. I know who she was, but I also know who she is today. She doesn’t lay guilt on me, because I won’t feel it the same way. And she’s really good at it. She cries as easily as she laughs, and every goodbye is always accompanied by tears. I get it. She doesn’t see everyone as much anymore, but of course – she also never wants to go anywhere either. And that’s her prerogative.
My mom surprised her with a 90th birthday party last year – with a huge cake for all the residents and live music. Gloria sat in her chair and received her subjects like a queen bee. She’d never had a birthday party. Ever. Everyone wished her well and here’s to next year! To which she muttered under her breath, but loud enough for me to hear, oh God – I hope not! She wished not to have one more year in "this place." But I’m glad He’s not ready for Gloria yet. I’m still learning from her.