Mom sits in a puffy gray hospital chair next to her bed in the Orchard Manor nursing home in Lancaster, Wisconsin. She leans back, as if she doesn’t have the strength to hold herself up. Her oversize blouse sags, revealing the scar from her open-heart surgery several years earlier. Her skin is crackly white, like a china cup that has been broken and glued back together. She isn’t wearing her false teeth and her mouth hangs open, looking like an endless black hole.
I sit in a chair next to Mom as my brother-in-law videotapes us. My voice is soft, persistent. It is the professional voice I used so often when I interviewed people for the many stories I wrote. Stories about college professors and their research at universities in Iowa, Michigan, Washington, New Hampshire. Feature articles about interesting people for the daily newspaper in Yakima, Washington and Keene, New Hampshire.
This story, however, my mother’s story, is personal. I care how she answers my questions – or doesn’t. She hesitated when I broached the idea of interviewing her. “What kinds of questions?” she asked. Just questions about your life, I said.
I knew what she was afraid of. Would I ask why she beat me with a branch from the maple tree in the front yard of our house in Andrew, Iowa? Why she pricked Pam’s arms with pins as we watched TV on a Sunday night. Why she jumped out of the car after fighting with Dad.
I do not ask my mother these questions. Now is not the time. There would never be a time. I cannot bring these events into her dying days. And I fear she will deny them, or say she doesn’t remember, making me doubt my own memories once again.
Instead, I ask about her childhood, the loss of her father when she was only10, how she met Dad, the happiest days of her life, the saddest. I am not surprised by her answers. I knew she grew up poor and took lard sandwiches to school for lunch. And that Dad and she, in the first years of their marriage, lived on a farm and had four children under the age of five in a house with no running water. “We made do with what we had,” she says more than once.
She says, after she graduated high school, she wanted to train to be a nurse but they didn’t have enough money. Now I’m surprised. I never thought of my mother desiring anything more than what she had – marriage and children. It never occurred to me that perhaps she wanted more, that she might even consider a profession.
But I yearn for more from this interview. I wonder if she wanted kids, if she is proud of us. She says that’s what people did in those days, have kids. And she is proud of us because we are all hard workers. I don’t ask if she loves us, if she loves me. I am afraid of the answers.
When the interview is over, I close my notebook, give D.A. the sign that he can stop the videotape. I will fly home to Michigan the next day.
“Are you coming back?” Mom asks.
“No. No, I don’t think so."
We both know the next time I come home will be for her funeral.
Her brown eyes, deep in their sunken sockets, stare at me, as if she is trying to remember my face. I want to cry. I want to hug her. But I do nothing, just sit silently, feeling my face sag into letting go.
I do not hold my mother’s searching gaze. I turn away and leave. I had hoped she would say she loved me. I couldn’t bring myself to say I loved her.
It has been ten years since I interviewed my mother. She died a few months later. Only this year did I have the courage to look at this videotape. What was I afraid of? That I would be too sad? Or not sad enough?
Cherryl Jensen is a yogi and writer who lives in Amherst, MA, with her daughter Aschleigh. She has had several poems and articles published in journals and newspapers in Washington State, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. In her other life, she was a public relations professional for more than 30 years in several colleges and universities. She is currently in her last semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, studying for an MFA in creative writing. In addition to writing and yoga, her other obsession is crossword puzzles. She encourages you to donate to blacklivesmatter.com.