by Emily Blake
My mother and I had, for many years, an excruciating relationship.
My father was a loving, charming and brilliant man, and my mother seemed a repressive, ill-tempered presence in comparison. Her efforts to rein me in were the bane of my adolescence, and our hostility lingered after my father’s death, which devastated us both.
I moved to France after he died. (He was a French historian, so it seemed like the proper tribute.) Twelve years later, I received a message telling me that my mother was in the hospital, the ICU, in sepsis, with a tear in her intestine. I got on the plane immediately, and when I arrived was afraid that the sight of me would push her over the edge. It didn’t. She recovered and was transferred to a nursing home.
Slowly, as she healed, she grew sweeter, and all the things I thought we’d lost returned. She was as affectionate as she had been when I was little. She began to tell me she loved me, and to permit me to say the same. I couldn’t believe I had her back.
In March of this year, when the crisis came crashing down, I suddenly realized that leaving the city to be near her might become impossible if I waited too long. Perhaps air travel would be curtailed; perhaps it would be eliminated. In a great rush, I put all my things in storage, packed two suitcases, and flew to the small city where she lives.
Her nursing home is in lock-down. No one is allowed in or out. I quarantine myself — in a modified way, going out only for quick runs to the grocery store and long rides on an old bicycle through the lush park that is the centerpiece of her town, pulling up outside her room to greet her. When occasionally aides offer to open the window between us, I frantically gesture for them to keep it closed, terrified that microbes will float in and kill not only my mother but ten or twenty other elderly, frail people inside.
Her bed is flush with the window. On one side it has a screen, with a faded, rusty smell, which slightly obscures the vision of my mother’s face. The other side of the window is clear, except that it now bears smears where I have pressed my face against it. Next to the window is a bird feeder on a narrow pole. It is filled every week with the greasy birdseed the birds love, and is a joy of my mother’s life, as she can look out and see finches, sparrows, and sometimes a tufted titmouse, eating their fill and fluttering about when she wakes.
We are fortunate to have this window. Not all the beds have one, and past the bird feeder she can see a bicycle path with passing riders, trees, a few shops, and the sky.
We have a daily ritual. She calls me at ten. “Good morning, darling!” I cry. She replies, “Good morning, darling!”
This by itself is such a change from our angry exchanges of years ago that it lifts my heart at once.
We then confirm my afternoon visit. I cannot take anything in or out of the facility —though I did put together a small Easter basket with a blue bunny, sprayed it lavishly with disinfectant, and handed it to an aide with gloves, who took it in — but I can stand at the closed window and gesture to my heart’s content. I take my phone. My mother gets out hers. We call each other. I jump up and down in delight, and she laughs. Then, when she can hear —she is quite deaf but can make out singing — we have the song of the day.
My mother’s repertoire of poetry and music is immense. I never cease to be amazed at how she can remember every line of Irish, English and Scottish folk songs, Elizabethan love songs, and salty sailors’ shanties. A particular favorite is The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, most of which I know. If I have the tune, I will hum along or do harmony. Sometimes I pretend to know the words, and imitate them. Sometimes I just give up, and wave.
Through the window my mother makes small gestures as she sings. She waves her hands, mostly her fingers as her joints are stiff, and makes small conducting movements, as with a baton. The song may go for quite some time, if she knows ten verses. She will keep on, even if I say perhaps that’s enough. (I don’t often say this.) I will, sometimes, suggest a merrier tune, as the long Celtic folksongs tend to be sorrowful, and I like to end on an upbeat.
A song she loves is one I brought home from school in the first grade. She was charmed by it and has remembered it ever since:
Horsey, horsey, on your way,
We’ve been together for many a day:
So let your tail go swish, the wheels go round,
Giddy-up! Giddy-up! We’re homeward bound!
We have been together for many a day, my mother and I. She is 95 years old. This division of the window, this closing of the nursing home, this shutting-down of daily life, has brought us closer still.
Through the window I see, not the repressive parent of my adolescence, not the antagonist of my adored father, but the enchanting, intelligent, childlike person I first knew when I came into the world, the person who rocked me in a great old wooden rocking chair in Maine and sang me the very songs we are singing now, in the same alto voice. This closed window has sealed the rifts between us. This shutting down has opened everything up.
And if indeed my mother is homeward bound, it’s in this way I’d like to end the journey.
Emily Blake is an actress and writer who has lived between Paris and New York for the past twenty years. Her theatre studio, Théâtre de la Solitude, is devoted to the development of new work, especially by women. She teaches writing and literature at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.