The Matchbook Diaries

Initial Contact

In Southampton, in my mom’s room, is gray haired old woman.  I say, “No, I’m looking for my mother.”  Then I realize it is my mother.  She turns and looks up at me from her bed beside the window with the expression of someone who is used to being surrounded by strangers.  Recognition crosses her face.  I say, “Hi, Mom.”  This sounds so weird.

My mother, replies, casually, “Oh.  Hello!”  in her fake telephone voice.  She introduces herself as Dody.  After she recognizes me, she pretends not to have just done so.  My mother feels quite free to impose any sort of reality on any event.  She greets me with a lie.  This is her language, lies.  I’ve never seen my mother off-character.  She went through her whole life without uttering an unscripted response.  She designs replies.  At the fish shop she’d tell the man behind the counter we were heading to Puerto Rico.  Later, at the farmer’s market she’d say that I was a gifted pianist, and that my father, her ex, was going to buy me a Steinway grand piano.  My head spun then, but now I expect this chaos.

I perch on the wide window sill beside my mom’s toe and fingernail piles.  She’s collecting them.  I reintroduce my husband and introduce my son.  Singko, my boy, instantly dislikes her; he tends to be closed anyhow, but my mother, my mother he hates.

My mother did not attend my wedding.  15 years ago I sent her my refrigerator magnets.   We’d done something beautiful with our magnet company.   She destroyed them and sent the broken pieces to my mother-in-law, whom she’s never met.  That was the last time I contacted her.

About two minutes after I get there, a nurse says, loudly, un-casually, “This is Dody’s daughter!” to a pack of people standing in the doorway.  Their heads are lined up, staring at my mom and at me.  These people want to know if I’m a predator, am I here to hurt my mother, that’s what they want to know.

Afterwards, I meet the social worker who is in the early stages of dealing with the removal of my mother.  My mom has been in Southampton for four months.  Joe calls her every day, but otherwise no one has come.  (I later see that a man named Allyn, a lifelong friend of hers, has come.)  The hospital says my mother is indigent; they say that her home is unsafe and that she has no money.  This is a surprise.  My mother certainly had money.

I contact the family lawyer, Robert, and meet with him in Jericho.  I don’t want my mother to be a ward of New York State.   Apparently there is a conman connected to my mother.  I’m going to need to stick around.  My husband has work.  My son has school.  They leave for Qatar.  I get a long-term rental car, move into my cousin Sean’s basement in Bay Shore, wave goodbye, and walk inside fast so my son doesn’t see me crying.

I drive to the east end of Long Island every other day.  I spend alternate days wiping down mildewed paperwork and meeting with people connected to my mother.  I buy 6 packs of Clorox wipes cannisters twice a week.  I stop eating.  My hair falls out in wads.  I lose more than 20% of my body weight.

My visits to my mother are the longest sustained contact we have had in 40 years.  I sit and talk with her until I can see that she is tired.  Then I go.  I’m fortunate that during this time I had no clear idea what she did to me.  Had I known, I would not have saved her.  Today my mother tells me that she does not intend to marry again.  Since she lacks teeth, breasts, and bowel control, I agree with her.  She has a long brown shit stripe on the back of her hospital gown.  They do manage to get her to change her gown sometimes, but she refuses to bathe; she hasn’t bathed since she was brought in.

This morning, she tells me about five imaginary children she adopted.  I’m pretty sure this is a sideways reference to my best friend Katie’s family, the Davis family.  Katie had 3 sisters and 1 brother, a boy named Ed who I met during my incredibly unsuccessful time in Montessori school.  Ed’s older sister, Katie, became my best friend.  I am an only child; my mother was keen to have kids around.  She routinely took all five Davis children to the beach, or to play.  I’ve reached out to the Davis’ as an adult but no one wants to rekindle anything, yet we vacationed together and shared a cabana every year at the bath and tennis club.

The nurses say my mom suffers from dementia.  She may have slight dementia from some of what she says, but her odd lies, these are normal for my mother.  Her dementia comes and goes, and is not severe.  With me, she is rarely delusional, but she usually lies.

Today I’ve already fed her the two rice puddings I bought at the deli.   They know me at the deli now and they are embarrassingly kind; they’ve figured out I’m here to deal with some misery at the nearby hospital.  I buy my mom high calorie things I know she likes because she’s much too thin.  I’ve taken to buying food for her roommate, a woman who tried but failed to poison herself with carbon monoxide.

That woman is very large and my mom delights in feeding her all of her own meals, so now the poor woman eats for two.  She lost use of her legs in her self-destruct attempt, but did not achieve suicide.  She watches television all day long and has a mammoth pile of tabloids on her bed.  It seems to me the hospital is encouraging this woman to try again with how they allow her to live.  I worry vaguely about anyone who is alone with my mother for long, and I’m certain, watching this woman, that she’s not at all safe with my mother.  She is lower middle class and frighteningly innocent for a woman her age; maybe she is simply stupid, but she seems to trust everything and everyone.  She’s the last thing that needs to be near my mom.

On my mom’s side of the room I sit on one of those square plastic toilet seats as I talk, trying to be with her, to keep her with me, to understand what it is to be her daughter and for her to be my mother.   I look down at a cotton string that a monk in Sri Lanka tied on my wrist years ago.  I live my life far, far away from my mother and her lies, her violence, and my terror of both.

Today my mom tells me that she rode a bus out of Germany during the holocaust and that she witnessed her mom and dad being shot in the head, ending this complete fabrication with a flourish saying, “You don’t easily forget that kind of thing!”  I suppose not.  She looks up after telling me this story, and catches a glimpse of her roommate’s television which is currently discussing the Vietnam Memorial in DC.  The screen is momentarily filled with that potent wall of names, the dead.

My mother has now moved on from her Hitler story and looks at me with baffled eyes, “Where’s my name?” she asks, referring to the now ongoing close up scan of a section of the Vietnam Memorial.  I tell her that she was not a victim of the Vietnam war.   I watched that war as a toddler seated on our kitchen counter in front of a small black and white television.  My mom isn’t sure if she agrees with me, and is trying to figure out if there is any way she might be a dead military veteran.  This is not dementia, this is my mother.  She hides.  She shifts identities constantly.  She does not bother to coordinate her lies.  She just slides from one to the next assuming those who are nearby will keep up.  I never could keep up.

My mother is an heiress.  Her name is Rosemary Louise Baruch.  She’s the daughter of Robert Baruch and his young Jewish wife.  My mom’s mother is from Germany, and is Jewish, and did leave during the Hitler years; departing from Dresden in 1939.  My mom’s father was already living in Manhattan as a very, very wealthy Jewish man, which is why her mom got out.   These histories my mother makes up are just my mom using an atom of reality and then embellishing flagrantly.