My mother and I are isolated, but not alone. The very old are everywhere, scattered over the landscape, worn and scraped but going still. Common wisdom is that it is the duty of their children to keep them running.
This is an unexpected shower on the Baby-Boomer parade. My generation which has had so much — Elvis, the Beatles, college educations, smoking and inhaling, Timothy Leary, jobs, Andy Warhol, the Pill, Woodstock, owning their own homes, only one war — finds added to this cornucopia gems like the Boomers’ Guide to Ageing Parents and agingparents.com.
I’m not sure I am a true Boomer; I was too early for that famous surge of post war euphoria. My mother’s first memory of my birth is people crying on the streets of Mexico City because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dead. Her doctor wanted to attend an important horse race and used drugs to hurry me into the world. It was two days before she recovered enough to really know I was there. My mother and father met in New York when she as an arc welder in the wartime shipyards. I am the daughter of a Rosie the Riveter. My father was an artist in Greenwich Village who abandoned her before I was born. After that, the offer of work in Mexico seemed a good idea.
I have another story from that time, not one my mother told; it comes from a playwright who shared our pension in the heart of Mexico City. Paris Siete was owned by the Aranals, in-laws of the great Mexican muralist David Siquieros and were involved with him in the first, unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky and probably the successful one that followed. I think the assassination was a tragedy, but am impressed by my early proximity to shattering events.
The playwright befriended my mother because, although nursing me, she wasn’t given as much food as the other lodgers. The Arenals, bless their Stalinist hearts, fed her less because she paid less. Dear Karl Marx (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”) must have spun in his grave.
Never mind, we’re here now.
My mother just lies on her bed or the couch most days, eyes closed or open, in the sun if it’s there. She smiles beatifically at visitors, tries to follow conversations, and drops in one liners when she can.
People are making me a repository of ageing parent stories. The vet vaccinating my dogs tells me her ancient grandmother does nothing but sit at a table all day and stare sadly into space. The vet’s father, who must walk the length of his Spanish village to do his duty as her carer, is dogged at every step by advice from neighbours on how to make his mother happy again.
The owner of my local hardware store’s mother is almost the same age as my own and we’ve been exchanging information for some time. His mother had a fall, breaking her pelvis and her hip, but has made a complete recovery. The conscientious Irish government sent home help to visit her. His mother’s first response was invite the visitor to have a seat, “and I’ll make you a cup of tea, love.”
The Palestinian grocer tells me about his grandmother in Nablus. Her husband divorced her and sent her to live with her grown children. Broken by grief, everyday she loaded wood onto her head and walked back to her old home. “I was sent to get her. Everyone knew her, it was okay.”
The stories from San Francisco are different. “Of course he didn’t want to go.” “It was the hardest decision my sisters and I ever had to make, to put my mother in a home.” “We had to explain that everything can’t be perfect.” “My mother wasn’t happy there, of course she wasn’t.” These are good people, I know them, and I may have to do the same. Are we really such a brutal place?
Outside there is the sun and it is the day of the Bay to Breakers race. In true San Francisco fashion, the real object is to dress up. I see a man in a toga go into the hamburger cafe. Spidermen, Batmen, Ghost Busters pass in droves. On the corner a group hold long poles with bird heads painted on top, swans probably, although they look like geese. The bottom of the costumes, for both the men and women, is a tutu and a long, blue feathered tail. Exquisite.
Near them is a bus shelter with a sign: “Get unfreaked out by repossession. Call 188-995-Hope.” A few feet away a young man is rummaging in a white plastic trash bin. He throws things on the ground and once in awhile lets out a cry that sounds like a cartoon “aarrgh.” He is thin and tall and handsome, with neat red hair and a neat red beard. Neither his skin or his layers of clothes have yet acquired that patina of grey, impregnable dirt. He has not been on the street long. He stops his search finally, circles three times stamping his feet and sits down. He lights a cigarette butt, looks at it, lights another and studies them both.
I hear Patchen again: “Have you seen the homeless in the open grave of god’s hand?”