Every once in a while, you might get a feeling you need to shoot a picture. I would follow through on those, no matter how awkward, or sad, or inconvenient it might be. Over the years, I’ve made pictures of some feelings. Missed lots of times. Some, though, I still have a picture of, and I’m glad I do. Those pictures, of those feelings, have become my memory. When I saw my mom over Christmas, I had a feeling it would be the last time I would see her. So I made a picture.
My mom was an Irish lady with a trip wire temper and a pretty good right cross. She was also a good mom, in her way. She spent her life raising three kids, fiercely, and uprooting us as my dad kept changing jobs. He was gone a lot, so she bought and sold five homes on her own, and stuffed all of us and the dog into a Plymouth Belvedere, and headed for neighborhoods and schools unknown. She also spent her life doing battle with just about anybody she felt looked at her cross-ways, which was just about everybody, including, maybe even especially, her own family. She always spoke her mind. And if you didn’t agree with her, you were just, you know, wrong. Her steely bluntness made for lively family gatherings, which diminished in popularity and numbers over the years.
Ma was just about always at DEFCON One or Two at the least. Prickly to a fault, she went through her day on the alert for any fault or slight, real or perceived. If you did business with her, you pretty much got sued, or at the very least received a legally loaded, relatively unpleasant letter. She went through lawyers like popcorn.
Mom was a sword that cut both ways, of course. Her fearsomely direct approach to parenting left you no doubt as to where you stood as one of her kids, to be sure. But woe to someone she thought might have crossed one of us! One of my high school teachers who didn’t care for my attitude, an Irish Christian brother no less, drastically re-jiggered one of my grades once to negatively affect my GPA. She went to the school and fixed it, and him. I’m sure he said his prayers that night with renewed vigor.
Neighbors were an especially favorite target, especially if they had the temerity to actually stick around, and plant bushes she didn’t find attractive, or re-grade their property so that by her lights their runoff water would then hurtle, Niagara-like, towards her property. Once, a neighbor came over to ask her to shut down the light bulb she kept on overnight above her driveway door. He alleged it was keeping his toddler up at night. I don’t think it was reasonable to ask a 75 year old woman living by herself to shut down the comfort of a 60 watt bulb in the driveway, really. Neither did Ma.
She nodded when informed of the youngster’s sleep travails, and thanked the neighbor for the information. The very next week, after a visit by an electrician, her driveway was lit up with multiple 150 watt floodlights that sprayed so much illumination her place looked like a POW camp, minus the razor wire and the bark-less Dobermans. Those neighbors irked her so much she put up a laundry line on the thin, heavily shaded strip of property between her garage and their backyard, a place where literally, the sun didn’t shine. Every time those folks launched a barbecue or had some company, her undies would go up on the line. They would stay wet, on the line, all day. Drying them, you see, wasn’t the point.
Our parents live on in all of us, of course. Once, approaching the George Washington Bridge in heavy traffic, with four lanes squeezing to two, I went Road Warrior on somebody who was trying to cut in front of me. White knuckling the steering wheel, muttering ancient curses, I was on a bumper grinding heading with this guy when my ever perceptive oldest daughter called out from the passenger seat, “Dad, you’re becoming grandma.” I let the guy in.
All of mom’s flinty antics were of course amusing and exasperating until they became serious. As the police chief of her town said to me and my sisters, “We really don’t want to put an 85 year old in jail. But she has to stop.” Ma was pushing it. In the end she was the one who moved.
We had our bumps, to be sure, and long periods of silence as the years wore on, as she got ever angrier at the world and her diminished power over it. Eventually, given the haze of aging memory, she softened a bit, and there were a couple of visits. At almost 97, she could hear and see just fine, and took one aspirin a day as the sum of her medication. What she couldn’t do particularly well was remember.
She had flashes, though. That last visit, I do think she recognized me, if only briefly, and she reached to hold my hand. As difficult as it was, I made a picture.
We talked for a bit. It was nice. As I left, I made this last photo. I guess I just had a feeling.
She’s gone now. True to form, she resolutely refused to share space with my dad, preferring to go with her mom and pop, at rest in the Bronx. The ground there will be richer for her presence, I’m sure. And, if a tree ever grows out of the earth where my mother lays, I guarantee you it will be a tree to be reckoned with.