Five short stories about my mother.
I am nearly sixty-two years of age. I only mention this to illustrate that I am no longer a child. Everyone seems to appreciate this fact, except my mother, who is eighty-seven and a Holocaust survivor. For good measure she also survived three years in a Communist concentration camp. She was recently hospitalised in a comatose state with acute abdominal problem. The doctors - undecided about diagnosis - suggested an operation as a last ditch attempt to save her life. I gave consent. She was in no shape to be asked or to argue. Minutes after the operation an apologetic surgeon informed me that there was no hope. They could do nothing and reckoned that she had no more than 48 hours to live. I cried. I could not help it. I am her child. I love her, in spite of the fact that she is the most difficult person I have ever known. Preparing for the inevitable I stayed at her bedside feeling full of guilt and remorse. Nearly 24 hours after the operation she opened her eyes and looked around in a daze. Her eyes found me. Through a haze of tears and with a forced smile I asked her how she was. There was no verbal response, the unmistakable facial expression gave the answer:
- “Can’t you see? I am dying!”
She looked me up and down, gave a brief moan then addressed me in an admonishing tone:
- "How can you walk around in such dirty shoes?" - she asked.
Had I not known her origins, this could have confirmed that she was indeed a Jewish mother. She defied the doctors, as she defied the Nazis and Communists. She is now back in her own home making satisfactory progress. Still feeling guilty - like a Jewish son - I visit her daily, like a good child. She tells me off daily, like a good Jewish mother. With dogged determination she seems to be working towards a single goal. Ensuring that I will be on the reception committee on the other side if and when she finally decides to go. And may God have mercy upon my soul if I should be waiting at the wrong place!
SEX APPEAL & THE OEDIPUS COMPLEX.
-“Look at me!” - my 88 year old mother raises her walking stick and prods me in the belly as I recline on her settee listening dozily to her long story about nothing
- “Tell me honestly do I still have sex appeal?”
I sit up faster than it is good for my sagging physique. “Sex appeal?!... what sex appeal?” - my brain races ahead of my mouth, before I bite on my lower lip to stop saying what I am thinking about. - “ Who is she kidding? I am 26 years her junior and I don’t think I have any sex appeal any more. Further more I am fast approaching the point when sex has no appeal to me whatsoever! What is she on about?”
I look at her frail, bent figure, the face furrowed by age, the eyes that once shone, but are now sadly veiled and I can see no sex appeal at all. I see a very old, very lonely woman, who happens to be my mother. I love her, but how can I answer such an unfair question, without upsetting her?
- “ Yes of course you have darling” - I hear myself lying through my rotten teeth - “you are still gorgeous.”
Then the devil takes hold of me as my thoughts race ahead and I smile at her approvingly. Yes, she does have sex appeal!.... Definitely!! After all how often do I exclaim “F*^* you mother!” when she phones me in the middle of the busiest surgery session to give me a blow by blow account of the winds that ail her?! And now, I’ll wash my mouth out and purge my mind before I phone my shrink to let him know that perhaps after all I do have a slight Oedipus complex.
DYING.... OF TOOTHACHE....
I am “down in the mouth” when the telephone rings. There is nothing unusual about that in a busy dental surgery. My receptionist answers and from the corner of my eye I see her back stiffen slightly. - ”Mother” - the instinctive recognition flashes through my mind... and sends an apprehensive shiver down my spine.... There is nothing unusual about that in my busy dental surgery. Sure enough the receptionist beckons with the receiver.
- “Your mother” - she whispers with a smirk - ”she is dying again.”
No... nothing at all unusual about that in my busy dental surgery. I make a quick excuse to the patient and grab the phone. The voice from the other end sounds distant, laboured and agonising as if it were from a tortured soul, speaking direct from the gates of hell.
- ”What’s the matter?” - I yell into the receiver impatiently in Hungarian, expecting a long account of her latest wind-modulation prescribed by her doctor.
- ”Very, very pain” - comes back the answer in broken English, from which I deduce that she is still playing up to the receptionist .
- ”Hello! It’s me” - I yell again - “what’s the problem?”
- “Ah, it’s you!” - the tone changes slightly. She is now at least ten yards back from hell. - “It’s your mother speaking” - as if I didn’t know - “You must see me immediately! I have terrible toothache.”
She begins to describe, in halting Hungarian and in minute details, the pain that afflicts her. If I listened through her story it would be midnight before I could get another word in edgeways. I quickly calculate that at least three days must have passed since I had last contacted her. Yes, she is due for another “episode!”
- “ Get in a taxi and get here now!” - I shout abruptly and slam down the receiver. I think fondly of the lunch I am going to miss. I glance nervously at the clock, the appointment book, the patient in the chair - mouth wide open and full of surgical instruments - and my receptionist. In that order. The grin on the face of my receptionist is maddening. I need encouragement like this like I need a hole in my own molar right now.
- “Stop grinning” - I bark at her.
- “Yes Sir!” - she jumps to attention mockingly.
Back to the mouth. Steam and blood pressure rises as I speed up. “Poor sod” - I think of the patient apologetically as I race through with the rest of her treatment and shove her out of the surgery. Mother arrives, limping, doubled up with the pain that is supposed to be in her tooth.... Another Oscar winning performance.... She slowly makes it to the chair, dragging her feet. She jumps with pain before sitting down. She jumps three more times before I even get a mirror out of the drawer. My receptionist’s shoulders - her back turned to us - shake with quiet laughter.
- “Swine” - I think as I struggle to keep a straight face.
- “Which tooth?” - I ask Mother raising my mirror.
- “This one” - she points to a lower canine and jumps again. The receptionist is edging towards the door. I bend nearer to Mother and with the mirror I lightly touch her lip, intending to deflect it in order to have a closer look at the tooth. She jumps and moans.
- “Very, very pain” - she cries out, determined to convince both of us. The receptionist dives out of the surgery. The sow is going to have a chuckle whilst I still have to struggle to keep a straight face.
- “Stop jumping about” - I instruct Mother sternly.
- “Don’t talk to me like that! I am your mother!” - she retorts. - “It hurts.”
- “Why don’t you go and visit a dentist then?” - I look her in the eye.
She smiles and raises her hand, jokingly threatening me with a slap on my face.
- “Don’t jest! Treat me like any other patient. I am in pain... and by the way, how come you didn’t pick up the phone for three days. Can’t you remember my phone number?”.......
I leap at the tooth... she hits the ceiling..... I give her a local anaesthetic and remove the tooth. She behaves well. She is receiving my undivided attention. She has to pay with a tooth for it... but that’s a small price in her eyes. She is lonely. She demands attention. Any bloody way she can get it. I take her home and escort her to the door. She smiles gratefully and - with the blood-soaked tampon still hanging out of her mouth - she tries to kiss me. I decline and kiss her on the forehead instead. She smiles again and waves as I prepare to leave her.
- “ I got my money’s worth” - she winks at me with a cheeky glint in her eyes - “ I am just making sure that you are repaying the tuition fees I spent on you!.....and don’t forget to call me tonight!”
What can I say to that?... It seems to me that we are both paying.... with blood..........
There are moments in life when one does not quite know whether to laugh or to cry. My mother is now nearly 91 years old and she is slowly disintegrating in front of my eyes. Following an episode of some days of utter confusion around Christmas of 1997 - when she wandered away from her home dazed - she collapsed on the street, was picked up by neighbours and admitted into the geriatric ward of the local hospital. After three months of “observation” and the typical National Health Service bungling, during which time nobody at the Hospital was either willing or able to discuss with me a diagnosis, she was quietly handed over to the social services. It was only then that I was told that she was suffering from senile dementia. Had they asked me earlier, I could have told them that much. I had been suspecting it for some time and dreaded facing the inevitable moment when she would be unable to cope on her own. She was placed into residential care, where she is well looked after and where she has settled - involuntarily and reluctantly - into a kind of routine. I visit her regularly, suffer with a sense of inescapable and heavy guilt and watch helplessly her slow and painful descent into the abyss.
On a recent visit she was telling me about her dream of the previous night about an argument between her long deceased younger brother Denis and her also long deceased ex-husband Laci, when Laci threatened to beat Denis up. During her long description of the dream she was also trying to fold a paper hanky simultaneously on the table top in front of her. She was not making good progress. Her hands were shaking, her motion was slow and laboured and the piece of tissue - folded several times - would not stay down as she intended.
- “I don’t like it” - she declared.
- “What don’t you like” - I asked.
- “I don’t like this tissue, it’s not neat enough.”
- “Don’t worry it does not have to be” - I tried to reassure her - “it is only a piece of tissue.”
- “But I want it to look neat....”
I could not answer... what could have I said?...
- “Are you Peter ?” - she turned to me again.
- “Yes.” - I nodded my head in silent agreement and tried my best not to feel hurt by the question.
- “Ah, yes” - she continued - “I remember. I am just not sure whether you are my husband or my brother.”
- “Neither.” - I shook my head sadly - “I am not your husband and neither am I your brother. I am your son.”
She raised her eyebrows and her eyes narrowed into a slit as she quizzically looked at me.
- “How can that be” - she puzzled over my reply - “if I am not married to you?”
Before I could mentally register the absurdity of the conundrum she had just phrased, she raised a finger, tilted her head slightly as if listening to a conversation and hushed me to silence.
- “Can you hear them?” - she asked.
- “Hear whom?”
- “Laci and Denis... They are quarrelling again” - she whispered softly. - “Laci wants to beat up Denis. Will you stop them?.... Can’t you hear?”
- “No” - I shook my head - “I can’t. How could I? They both have been dead for years.”
- “Dead?...” - she looked at me with surprise - “how come that they don’t know it?.....”
There are moments in life when one does not quite know whether to laugh or to cry. Not wanting to appear indecisive... I did both... I am just unsure whether I laughed at the absurdity of senility or the absurdity of life itself. And I am equally unsure if the tears were for her or for me.
HOLDING THE CARPET SHAMPOO
She is gone. She is there… she is "over the other side" now… wherever that is… if indeed there is such a place as "the other side"… I am here… standing on "this side"… wherever this side is… if indeed there is such a place as "this side" and not just a mistaken mirage… or a terrible reality… I am standing here, holding a bottle of Carpet Shampoo… I am confused… I don't quite now how I feel or what I feel… Emptiness, I suppose…and I deserve it… I often jested about Her waiting for me to go "over there" first, in order that I may roll out the red carpet for Her arrival. And I also often added to the jest, saying that I better take a bottle of Carpet Shampoo with me, to make sure that she can step on a spotlessly clean carpet. The joke is on me now…
She is gone… she is over there… she has beaten me to it… and I am standing here… holding the Carpet Shampoo… How do I feel?… I wish I knew… What feelings can one expect from a nearly sixty nine year old "little Jewtheran orphan boy"…I am my mother's son. She carried me under her heart, I was attached to her body by an umbilical chord, she gave me life, nurtured me, loved me, scolded me… and oh how she scolded me… Hard as I ever tried, that umbilical chord would never break. It is still there. As I was once inside her body, she is now inside my heart, my mind. She will always be there. In my childhood and youth we were separated several times by circumstances, by events greater than the both of us. Some of those separations were long and painful. Yet even during those forced separations she was still always there with me, as no doubt I was always with her. Should it be any different now? She has just slipped away for a final journey, to join my father and other members of her larger than life, colourful family. There she is waiting for me to join her when the time for my final journey comes. This is just another forced separation, by events greater than the both of us. Yet she is still inside me, constantly to love me and to scold me. Just like so many times before.
Neither of us was steeped in so called religion. Yet when I was a child she taught me a simple evening prayer, so she must have believed in a power greater than us. We had a heritage that both of us were forced to deny in a world, where the ultimate sin was to be Jewish. Consequently I do not know how to pray or conduct a remembrance in our own tradition. So, how should I feel?… how can I feel?… Empty and sore and angry. I feel cheated. She is gone… She is over there… and I am left bereft, standing over here… standing like a lost cucumber… holding a bottle of Carpet Shampoo… and as I stand here, I can see Her standing over there, with an impish, disapproving smile on her face as if she was saying:
- "So where is my red carpet? Don't I deserve a little consideration? Have I not been a Mother to you for nearly sixty-nine years? And you are just standing there, in dirty shoes and uncombed hair, disrespectful as usual and what do I see in your hand? A bottle of Carpet Shampoo. Is that what I deserve for bringing you up? Not even a bunch of flowers?… just a bottle of carpet shampoo?… Aren't you ashamed of yourself?… Is that the way to say goodbye to an old Yiddisher Mom?"
She is right of course… but if she is right, how is it that the only answer I am capable of muttering is:
- "Well, what did you expect?… The Hallelujah chorus?"…
True to form, I feel compelled to be disrespectful, even hurtful just one more time…. for the last time… Why should it be any different now… after all, if she is a Yiddisher Mom, I am a Jewish son… even though just a Jewtheran… and I really and truly want to hurt her… just one more time… for old time's sake…. Why?…. Because she is over there and I am over here… standing here holding a bottle of Carpet Shampoo…feeling like a lost cucumber…And I am hurt… and angry as hell… and empty as a shell… And as I am standing "here" and look over "there" my vision slowly fogs over and Her face is starting to fade. Are my glasses getting misty, or am I shedding tears? I don't know… I can't feel any more… I am all empty inside…
I think I better get myself together, stop standing "here" and as it is not my time to get over "there" yet… I better go home…there is work to be done and life must go on… And I better take this blessed bottle of Carpet Shampoo with me… It will come useful when the next dollop of the usual and frequent proverbial hits the fan and messes up the well-trodden carpet of my life….
© Peter Oszmann
Site: Jew Be or Not Jew Be
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|Reviewed by m j hollingshead
|enjoyed the read|
|Reviewed by Cathy Montgomery (Reader)
|Peter, I just loved these stories! I laughed and laughed...until the last one. For that story I did both--laughed and cried. What love! What a mother! But, you know, any mother worth her "salt" will have some of the same characteristics as yours. I'm like Claywoman, too, I wish that you had more stories about your mother. How blessed to have her so long. Mine died at the age of 58...and I will always miss her!|
|Reviewed by Claywoman
|I don't know if your mother is still living, but she sounds wonderful! If she's not, she lived a full, rich life and had a son she was proud of and loved...This is a good write, I wished it was longer with more stories...|