This is my favorite picture of me and my mom, ever (see below). There are several over the years, but this one really stands out. My mom is smiling, not admonishing or critical. I’m relaxed, not being criticized or told how to act in the photo. It’s a crazy change. She doesn’t remember that my dad took this picture. She probably doesn’t remember that little hike we took.
It’s sort of a terrible feeling, to love my dementia-riddled mom more than the one I knew growing up. I feel a lot of guilt about it. But it’s true, and I think it means that I might be able to close the chapter of human history that is her life, with us being on the best of terms. I adore her memories. I cherish the things we remember together about when we had really happy times, since they were so few and far between. I’m never going to bring up the bad stuff. It’s all in the past, and I’m thrilled that she doesn’t remember.
My mom and I could not be more fundamentally different. I’m a California girl, born in November of 1970 in Vallejo, adopted a month later by my mom and dad. I’m a quintessentially all-American girl from a privileged, white, middle class upbringing. I’m 5’8” tall, with a fairly powerful frame, big brown eyes and brown hair that was more auburn when I was younger. Growing up, I wanted for nothing in the physical realm. I was well-fed, clothed, educated on multiple levels. I had violin lessons, horseback riding lessons, was on the swim team, went to Washington D.C. on the school trip, went to New York City to play at Lincoln Center with my orchestra, went on school ski trips, and just generally had every conceivable physical need met, plus any that my parents thought were “enriching”.
My mother was born in 1939 and raised in Hamburg, Germany. She was a war baby, about 6 years old when WWII ended. She looks nothing like me, a tiny lady, 5’4” tall with a delicate build and the stunning combination of blue eyes and dark brown hair. She was a model for Schwartzkopf in her late teens/early twenties. Her father, a mounted policeman in the city, was drafted into Hitler’s army early in the war. She didn’t really know her dad until the war was over, and even then he remained a mystery to her. My mom knew hunger. She knew scarcity and fear. She knew cowering in bunkers during air raids. She knew that neighbors disappeared from their apartment building, never to return.
When my grandfather was deployed to Russia, Hitler’s media told the German soldiers that they were winning the war there. My grandfather, fearing that Germany was unstable and completely unaware of the precarious situation he was marching into, told my grandmother to follow him with their two tiny girls. My grandmother dutifully followed on foot, staying close to both German and Russian soldiers’ camps to be “safe”. My mother, about four or five years old at the time, remembers asking soldiers for “khleb” and “masla,” bread and butter, for herself and her mom and baby sister. It was dangerous for her mother to do so, in part for fear that sexual favors would be expected in return, in part because she would be recognized as German in the Russian camps. This is the story my mom has told me.
Anyway, something (else) went wrong, and my grandfather was taken prisoner in Russia. Somehow, my grandmother either received this news or could no longer justify her precarious situation, and returned to Hamburg. My grandfather and a few others escaped the Russian POW camp and walked through the frozen landscape back to their homes in Germany. It would take a long time before he reunited with his family. Some of the men lost fingers and toes to the cold. In the meantime, my mom remembers coming back to their tiny apartment in Hamburg, in a 5th floor walk up in a beautiful Art Deco building in a bad part of town that I always remember smelling of urine near the front door. They didn’t know if my grandfather was alive or dead. The building across the street had been bombed out.
My mom remembers how, after the war, the Deutsche Mark fell in value so that people wallpapered their homes with the currency.
So I didn’t understand her. I didn’t understand her seriousness, her formality, her obsession with her looks, or her anger. I didn’t understand why the things I thought were so important as a teenager were trivial for her. I had to have a knock-down, drag-out fight with her to get a prom dress, and also a letter jacket. She scrimped and saved every penny even though my dad made a very good living, I remember clipping coupons with her to take to the grocery store. She has a closet full of clothes; she has never once donated a single item, so proud of her collection of beautiful things that she now never wears. Sweaters and wool coats are moth-eaten, but when we tried to box some things up to give away a couple of years ago, she broke down in tears and everything went right back into the closet. My mom inspired in me the effort of exercise. It may not have stemmed from all the right places, but it was an effort to help me look my best, such as that was. She did my first 5k with me when I was about 12 or so.
God, I love this photo. I love how easy we are with one another at long last. I love how she’s holding on to me. I love how fashionable she always is. I love her smile, I love my smile. I love that neither of us are young anymore. I love our forward movement, I love that my dad took this picture. Heart, heart, heart.
The next few years will not be easy. My dad has to stay healthy enough to care for her. I feel like this window is narrow, this time when she still remembers who I am, but doesn’t associate anything negative with me. Things are really getting bad sometimes. The last time I was home, we went to a well-known pizza restaurant she’s been to a hundred times with me. When we sat down, she saw all the people in masks waiting tables and thought we had brought her to a hospital. She cried. She doesn’t know where she keeps her underwear, and I couldn’t find any in her closets. She won’t take a shower. Getting a haircut is an undertaking.
But when we go for a hike, she remembers all the singsong chants we did when I was a kid on trips to Germany. She remembers my sweet high school boyfriend, now buried in the local cemetery. She doesn’t remember that he died, and I’m not going to remind her. She remembers things she did and said as a child and a young woman. A few years ago she went through a period where she was viscerally angry with my father and blamed him for ruining her life. Now he walks on water for her.
This ramble, like so many of mine, is pointless. I feel for anyone who’s going through similar stuff with their aging parents, or who are dealing with childhood trauma and putting that aside to be a dutiful caregiver. I’m lucky that my dad’s still in the picture. If he wasn’t around, I’d have to figure out how to care for my mom by myself. Maybe that’s what she deserves, after all her childhood hardship and a lifetime of fighting everyone and everything. Maybe what she needs is rest and the help of someone she knows to get her to the end. Maybe that will be me.
To the last parade, as the parties fade, and the choice you made, to the end. -My Chemical Romance, To The End