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9 Penn Street

“I can either get ready or go. I can’t do both.” That’s one of Mama’s favorite quotes from her cousin, Naomi, now dead. From the look of Mama’s household, she’s not getting ready for eventualities. She’ll just go.

I’m used to the one-way traffic pattern that has evolved in my mother’s house since my father died, twenty-two years ago. Now that she lives alone, she has spread out. You have to flatten against the chest in the dining room and suck in to let anyone else pass. I’m the one sucking in. She has politely refused my efforts to consolidate the piles, we call them, to make it easier for her to get around and, just as important, to make room for someone to be there to help her if and when she can’t function as well as she can now.  She’s “too busy living” to bother with unpleasant ordeals such as I have in mind.

“Let’s not get into all that, now,” she will say. “Let’s just enjoy your visit,” effectively sidestepping the issue. I register despair with a wry smile and try to be grateful for what order there is, which entirely falls apart on the dining room table, Mama’s office.

This is where she conducts a voluminous correspondence in her beautiful, albeit illegible, nineteenth-century handwriting and on her trusty Royal typewriter. Somewhere, under something else, is just the right blank card and a copy of the precise quotation to enclose so that she may, promptly, dispatch the quintessential phrase to ease a loss, celebrate a success, or convey a bit of news “just in case you’re interested.” A note of warning floats on top of a vast collection of newspaper articles and miscellany that constitutes her clipping service: Don’t Straighten My Mess . . . You’ll Foul Up the System. Rising out of the appearance of chaos on her “desk,” happy Oriental lilies, arranged in a tall cut-glass vase, brighten the whole house.

“When I look at those beautiful flowers, I don’t see the mess,” she will say.

In the face of such charming resistance, over the years, my efforts to disturb her system anywhere in the house have been as condemned as Sisyphus with his rock. Why don’t I learn?

Maybe it’s because I know I’ll have to deal with every piece of this stuff, someday, that I get anxious when I look at the neatly labeled and bundled artifacts of her ninety-five years of living, stacked in every conceivable spot: under mahogany tables with nicely turned legs and on top of uncomfortable, antique chairs that belonged to a matrilineal ancestor. Memories, I know, are attached to the things in her house that indicate her interests, her travels, and her sensitivity to beauty. The cards she has received and the copies of letters and clippings she has sent and will send are artfully tucked around the brightly polished silver service and pretty vases of various description, holding sometimes a single flower from her garden or a collection from the curb market.

“The container is the secret of a good arrangement,” she wants me to know. “You must have the right container.”

The container, I think. She has certainly outgrown hers. She is root-bound.

• • •

There has never been much storage space in the two-bedroom house at 9 Penn Street, but now that the attic stairs are impassable, with the vacuum cleaner and miscellaneous other things stashed within easy reach, the situation among Mama’s books and interesting possessions has reached critical mass—tripping hazards everywhere. Clothes hang on both of the open bedroom doors and the shower rod in the bathroom. Plastic bags protect her wardrobe from gathering dust and an exasperated daughter—getting in and out of the tub is like going through the car wash.

I try not to think about all that, which will inevitably become a discussion when I get there. Instead I remember cousin Naomi’s quote as I try to get my household in order. I am not looking forward to the drive from Chapel Hill to Greenville, South Carolina, to go with my mother to her cardiologist’s appointment. I wish I could just go.

I want to be there by teleportation. But before I can leave my own house I’ve got to pay bills, sweep out the car, water the houseplants, water the hydrangea in the yard, make sure I’ve got cat food (where is the cat?), do the laundry so Betty can iron, go to the bank—Betty likes cash. While the laundry spins and tumbles I make a batch of Tollhouse cookies with twice the nuts and half the chocolate chips. Mama likes those. I’ve got her covered up in nonpareils, her favorite dark chocolate candy with tiny white beads on top. I don’t have to stop at Southern Season on the way out of town. She believes in the restorative properties of chocolate and Early Times—in moderation. Every day. But I can’t let myself get distracted. I will need the cell phone, which I only use to call out. And, please, don’t let me forget the damn cell phone charger and gas and something to wear to church.

• • •

I check to see if the fountain in my garden is squirting straight up, and not out, so the pump won’t burn up. I need to set the hose dripping on the newly planted pink dogwood that looks a little forlorn. The mow-blow-and-go guys will turn off the hose tomorrow. One last time I survey my postage stamp–sized Eden, if a little singed around the edges, to see if there is anything fit to travel the 250 miles with me to Greenville. I keep a five-gallon bucket in the car for hauling flowers in water. But even the roses have sense enough to lie low in the middle of July. Nothing that blooms is not fried but one confused gardenia, who doesn’t know its season has past. I’ll take it to Mama. It can ride in the cup holder on the remainder of my iced tea.

As I drive away from my house and get on the highway I light a cigarette, crack the window, and set the cruise control five miles over the speed limit. I try to get behind someone I suspect has a fuzz-buster and kick it up to 85, or more, and follow them until I get to the known speed traps around Greensboro and Salisbury—a regular cottage industry. I forgot my books on tape, so I have three and a half hours to think.

I call Mama to tell her the exact time I’m leaving so she’ll know what time to expect me. When she knows I’m on the road she’ll take a nap and I’ll call her again when I get to “the peach,” a giant water tower in the shape of a peach and perfectly painted with gradations of yellow, pink, and coral. From certain angles it looks like a gigantic, obscene posterior. It’s illuminated and glows at night—mooning its heart out from way up there. When this I-85 icon pops into view over the curve in the highway, above a Tijuana Fats, I’m in Gaffney, South Carolina. The blue mountains I grew up with are still there in the distance, and I’m exactly forty-five minutes from home.

I have to laugh out loud as I conclude my quick call to Mama from the peach and toss the cell phone in the other cup holder beside the gardenia. She told me that the police had called (a recording notifying everybody in the vicinity) to ask her to be on the lookout for a short man wearing a baseball cap who had just robbed the bank on Augusta Road. I’m glad they’ve got my mother on the case. There would be nobody better if they need a detail person. Once she gets attached to some thing or idea, she never lets it go. And, worst-case scenario, it would be a good thing if the robber did come to 9 Penn Street to divest my mother of a few of her possessions. That might make room for some ’round-the-clock help. Neither one of those things will ever happen. If a burglar set foot into Mama’s territory, he’d break his neck. The whole house is booby-trapped. And, as far as ’round-the-clock help is concerned, she doesn’t want to look at anybody “lying about,” and she doesn’t have the energy to show anybody new what to do—the way she likes it. She “makes the effort” to do what’s important to her. This is not important in her scheme of things. I worry about her every day. Especially since things have changed.

• • •

In 2008, to celebrate my mother’s ninety-fifth birthday, I took the whole family to the Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia, for Thanksgiving. Friday would be my granddaughter’s sixteenth birthday, and the big birthday would be the following Sunday. I could kill three birds with one stone: two birthdays and one holiday. It would also be a shot across the bow to my family that I was retiring from my role as Johnny-on-the-spot—a grand gesture before I carved out the next two years for myself, to seriously work on my writing. I had been accepted in a low-residency creative writing program, beginning in January. It was a great relief to them, too, that I had run up the white flag on my campaign to try to fix everybody else’s life.

Prior to my surrender, I had had the full-court press on my mother to consider a move to a retirement home near me with an assisted living arrangement, before it was too late. Before something happened and she couldn’t drive.

“I drive better than I can walk,” she says. It’s true. I’ve been in the passenger seat when she parallel parked on a dime in front of the main post office. When she got out of the car the people on the sidewalk applauded. Why, I knew she was thinking, I’ve had a lot of experience. She likes to go, even though she can’t walk more than half a block because her back is collapsing due to the cumulative effect of gravity and all those years of moving around. To ensure that she wouldn’t get stranded (and with regret at trading in her old car) she bought used Taurus, in mint condition, last year. The car dealer from Travelers Rest, twenty miles away, drove it over for her to test drive. I admire her optimism—she’s getting a new roof on the house, too, guaranteed for twenty years. But I can’t stop imagining the many things that can happen between now and when she leaves her house, feet first. If you’re not ambulatory, a retirement home won’t take you; you’ve got to get on a waiting list.

Three years earlier, when I began this siege that was going nowhere I was also remodeling my kitchen. In the bargain, I added a walk-in closet to the downstairs bedroom so my mother could move in with me in Chapel Hill. She doesn’t want to leave her friends and come live with me, but I made a deal with her: “If you fall or anything happens and you can’t drive, I’ll come get you. You, the silver service, and your jewelry will come to my house.” I made her promise me that, as a last resort.

To complicate my life further, I had another front blazing with my granddaughter. I had her in the crosshairs of my determination to convince her to go away to school—get away from those grungy-looking friends in her band. I wasn’t too old to know that sex and drugs go along with rock-n-roll and this Joan Jett image of hers—heavy black eyeliner, blue hair, and provocative clothes—was dangerous. Something should be done! Both Mother and Eliza heeled in and said, “No, no, hell no.” I was so mad I couldn’t see straight. When it was clear that Eliza wasn’t going to budge about going away to school, the opportunity of a lifetime, I said, “O.K. Fine. Then I will!”

My mother and I shared a suite at the Homestead that became de facto headquarters for a drink when the troops weren’t scattered, doing their own thing. While my daughters, Gibson and Mary—the mother of my grandchildren—were taking the spa treatments and horseback riding, my thirteen-year-old grandson, Asher, was on a fly-fishing jaunt. My granddaughter, Eliza, and I went off to tango lessons in the ballroom while Mama “stretched out.”

Except for the tango lessons, Mama and I hung together. I tuned my pace to hers, and we enjoyed the rolling mountain scenery, the comfortable atmosphere at teatime in the lobby of the Revolutionary War–era hotel, and a daily soak in the healing waters the area is famous for. She soaked. I supervised the spa assistants that helped Mama in and out of the long, deep, claw-foot tub. A fall would be the worst thing that could happen. I liked indulging my mother, and she loved being waited on, as long as she was calling the shots.

She enjoyed all that but wasn’t too satisfied with our driving or the fact that wheelchairs don’t have shocks. We all took turns pushing her around the long corridors of the hotel and over the steep, bumpy sidewalk to the adjoining restaurant for lunch. On one such trip, the edge of the pavement caught the front wheel of the wheelchair on a right turn, and we almost dumped Mama into the shrubbery. She was a good sport about it, but she didn’t think it was as funny as the grandchildren did.

“There’s no damn reason to get in such a bloody hurry. You’ve got precious cargo here.” She readjusted the silver combs in her hair. “You’ve got my flask, I hope.”

That wasn’t the only hazard of “driving Miss Daisy,” as Mama called it. On the daily trip back to our room from the spa, my slick, leather soles slid backward when I tried to push her up the carpeted incline, a reconfigured concession to the handicapped. She’s not a shriveled-up, little, old lady. She’s shrunk some, from her full height of 5’10,” but she weighs ten pounds more than I do, and I could stand to lose fifteen. I tried again, with a running start and no better outcome. Unlike Sisyphus, we have options—she could get out of the wheelchair and walk up—but a teen-aged boy fell in with some muscle. “Don’t mention it,” he said when we awkwardly laughed and thanked him.

She’s embarrassed to be in a wheelchair, period. It’s only a concession she makes to the long halls and the speed of her companions. She’s used to poking along at her own speed, on foot, with the assistance—or, I should say, accompaniment—of a slender wooden cane. She would not be caught dead with one of those heavy-looking, aluminum, three-pronged things that might actually be of help if she lost her balance. But even in the wheelchair, my mother gets a lot of attention.

Although Mama drives me crazy with most of her string-saving, obsessive-compulsive habits, I have studied her like a map of the world to try to learn her secrets not just of living so long, but living so long with an adaptable spirit and a good attitude. Not many have made the trip from being a Strom Thurman Dixiecrat in the ’50s to voting for Obama. Hell, she dated Strom. “It wasn’t much of a date,” she said, “I went with him a few times while he shook hands with everybody in sight. Besides, I was too old for him.”

This Thanksgiving Day, I looked at her afresh along with the other guests as they met her for the first time. In the cozy grouping of chairs and sofas in the lobby, I watched the firelight play across her beautiful features. She had the good fortune to be born with the look of her era, the ’30s: tall, thin, cheekbones to kill for. She used to look stunning in the broad-brimmed hats she wore to church. Although those same hats are in boxes in the attic, you wouldn’t say Mama’s looks had gone with her era. She is still beautiful. Her auburn hair is silver now and thinner, but she can twist it up with combs that keep her natural waves in place, softening her face. Not a line in her forehead. I watch other people light up when they meet her, and it’s usually not long before they discover a connection: someone they both know who went to college with someone they know, or someone they grew up with, in a small town in South Carolina I’ve never heard of, who knows someone they know. Or someone they knew. Her real attractiveness and her secrets to living well spring from her interest in other people and her general good humor. Oh God, deliver Mama from old people who can only talk about what ails them. To her few remaining peers, and to mine, she is a marvel. She still lives in her own house. And she drives.

Mama is an asset wherever she is. At the Homestead she charmed the guests, the staff, and her great-grandchildren. It was a wonderful Thanksgiving. We had a lot to be thankful for. However, the day before we were scheduled to leave, at 2:00 a.m. on her ninety-fifth birthday, she woke me up complaining of “a tightness in her chest.”

“I made it to ninety-five, and then I blew it,” she said at the twelve-bed Bath County Hospital, two miles from the hotel, fixing the young doctor with her usually more brilliant smile and sharp brown eyes. He sat down and spent a considerable amount of time, more like a visit, explaining his diagnosis: atrial fibrillation. That was a lot for all of us to take in on top of seeing my mother, for the first time in her life, hooked up to all sorts of monitors. I suddenly felt responsible for every silver hair on her lovely head and wanted to do something. Anything. We brought her a small, pretty, inedible cake from the hotel and gave her our get-well presents and funny cards. The X-ray technician gave her a teddy bear.

Mama quit smoking on the spot, but the doctor said she could hang onto the Early Times, a present she appreciated in the face of yet another loss: a loss of her trademark vitality that had outlived most of her generation.

On the drive back to Greenville from the Homestead, my concern went into overdrive that my mother’s needs may, at some point, outstrip her neighbors’ generosity. However, their devotion to their friend, Margaret Williams, was and remains truly steadfast. Charles Gentry is her neighbor across the street who, daily, lays Mother’s paper at her door. He was in the driveway when Gibson pulled her car up to 9 Penn Street—Mama packed into the front seat with four hotel pillows like something fragile. I was depending on Gibson to stay a few days to make sure we knew how to work the portable oxygen—Mama’s ticket out of the house—a smaller tank than the two torpedoes that rode in the back seat with me, one of which connected across the front seat to Mama’s nose. Nancy, the next-door neighbor, is a physical therapist. She came over at midnight to be of assistance when the oxygen service showed up to deliver the air purifier and to pick up the heavy artillery. Mama promised not to trip over the long cannula that wrapped around her head and reached all over the house.

Her friends she has lunch with at Tommy’s Ham House (her club) had all left messages on her telephone. They are a gang of all ilk, from judges to engineers to plumbers to “computer people,” thirty or forty years younger than my mother—some in worse shape—who had been alerted and were ready to offer assistance, especially Skip Spooner, a labor lawyer who grew up in south Georgia. He has been calling himself “Rescue One” since he saved Mama from the power outage during the ice storm three years ago. He took her to his girlfriend’s apartment where they, all three, passed the dark, cold night in front of the girlfriend’s gas logs, drinking bourbon and eating steaks that Skip cooked on the gas grill. Skip had called to offer to come get her in Virginia if we needed him to. These “playmates,” she calls them, all sit with her at the Bull Table at Tommy’s Ham House where there’s no telling what you might learn. Mama’s their historian and on the receiving end of a lot of abuse.

“There’s not anybody older than Margaret,” they say. And Skip teases her about dropping out of her water aerobics class when one of the geriatric men showed up in a Speedo. They have no mercy. But Mama is still a game girl. She is not one of those sweet old ladies who is delighted by any attention. She can be quick and wicked.

An example of her wickedness—I thought it was wicked—occurred two summers ago when I came home in July to take her to visit a friend of mine who invited us to stay a few days at her house in the mountains. At the time, Mama was making noise about the stepping-stones at the bottom of the eleven steps up to her front door. Over the years these flat stones had sunk and become uneven.  I knew she wanted me—I’m a professional gardener—to lay a brick walkway from the big steps over to the three little steps at her driveway, a distance of about twenty-five feet. This doesn’t sound like much if you say it in a hurry. But I knew she would also have me dig up the Charleston grass where the walkway would be and resprig it in the bare spots in her lawn, carry the cube of brick her next-door neighbor had left over from her extensive landscaping (a gift to Mama), and level the path. I had offered to pay somebody to do it, but the price was too high for her sensibilities—no matter who paid for it. The whole time we were in the mountains I was dying, thinking of the July heat and the work that would be for one person. Me. When we returned, there was the walkway, laid in a basket-weave pattern, bent in a forty-five-degree angle around her Chinese hollies. Charles Gentry had done it with the aid of his wife and Nancy as hod carriers.

“Didn’t your mother just cry?” my friend asked when I told her about this most recent episode in the life of my mother’s support network.

“No. I cried.”

As Mama walked across her new walkway she simply said, “Isn’t it amazing what a man can do with a little supervision?”

She said this to only me, a shot across my bow, in a sense, that she can still take care of herself within the community of caring she lives in and has developed over her lifetime. She has a reputation of being the first one there with her brand of support for them and her sense of humor. Of course she wrote each of them a note acknowledging there is no way to repay a gift like that. No way. She wrapped jars of scuppernong jelly we brought back from the mountains to leave on their porches.

My mother operates on her South Carolina state retirement from working twenty years as a social worker, a few wise investments, the mess on the dining room table, and the wrapping paper, neatly rolled or folded and stuffed beside the piled-up, unusable luggage rack in my old room. Nothing leaves her house without commemorative stamps, at least, or a pretty, hand-tied bow. Presentation is important to her. You can tell that by the way she, herself, is always so well put together. She never goes anywhere without looking cheerful in her favorite colors: shades of coral, turquoise, lime green, and “Love That Red” lipstick.

• • •

I stayed with Mama in Greenville long enough to evaluate the situation as much as possible. We went to her internist and the new cardiologist who wanted to pray with us. I thought, Oh God. Are they turning it over to the Lord? Is this the end? Is she just going to go? I wondered what she thought. I knew she believed in praying, but what I usually saw was that she also believed in rowing toward shore. The new doctor prayed that he would be directed to know what to do and gave thanks for Margaret Williams’ long and remarkable life. I kept one eye open. She trusted that he “knew what he was about.” He was tall and handsome. That goes a lot farther with Mama than where-did-you-go-to-medical-school. I made sure he knew that she had more miles to go and started making notes about a second opinion.

In the meantime, I cleaned out the kitchen—threw away a jillion scratched Tupperware containers and miscellaneous other stuff, anything with an expiration date in the last century. The trash bin was practically piled up to the eaves at the back door, and my car was crammed with glass jars and the rest of it for the Nearly New. While Mama rested and wrestled with whether she should give up or keep going, I scrubbed out the cabinets, relined the shelves, laid in the roach motels, and reorganized everything to within an inch of its life. At last someone, besides Mama and me, could function in there if necessary.

Mama was not pleased. She couldn’t find anything, and she might need those things she hadn’t seen in thirty years. She hadn’t given up.

• • •

Now, eight months after Mama’s first episode of atrial fibrillation, I was still full of apprehension. Mama had a pacemaker on her mind. The doctor had said that he wanted to try to control her heart “flutters” with medication, but that hadn’t seemed to work. Daily, sometimes several times a day, when I spoke with Mama on the phone, she complained of that “tightness” in her chest. It had happened the last time I was home (or was it the time before?) when we spent a whole day in the emergency room where they have the equipment to measure her distress. When she doesn’t feel well—a new thing for her—she doesn’t know whether to lie down, take a series of three nitroglycerine tablets, or call an ambulance. I don’t know whether to tear off to Greenville, quit school, go get her, or what. What would be the risk of inserting a pacemaker? I would let her make the call. She’s been making them for ninety-five and a half years.

To my relief the cardiologist said, “No.” A pacemaker would not solve Mama’s problem, at any age. And she volunteered that she hadn’t had any more “tightness” since he doubled the dosage of the heart medication a month ago. Her next appointment would be three months out.

That information from the cardiologist—I liked it that he was so definite—combined with the B-12 shots from her internist, allowed us to go home with hope for the near future. We could go back to 9 Penn and work on those piles. I never give up, either.

I pour Mama a bourbon and Coke with plenty of ice, a dash of frozen lemon juice, the damn straw, and a napkin. I drink mine neat: about two fingers of Early Times with a splash of branch water. She promises to go through at least the two stacks on the floor beside the chair, in the way of changing the water in the flower arrangement on the dining room table. But first, we just relax.

After we rest up from the doctor’s appointment, we have a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich on that good sunflower bread. She fixes the sandwich in the toaster oven because the real oven—with the exception of one eye she needs from time to time to make her buttermilk salad with orange Jell-o, pecans, and crushed pineapple—has been retired for years and stays covered up in aucuba foliage, rooting in water. She will pot them up when the yardman comes and when she feels like it. I’m suspicious that mosquitoes are hatching in there, too. I’ve killed five so far—that would take care of the ones that may have flown in the door. But I don’t say anything to distract her from our task. Surreptitiously, while she was resting, I changed the water in her makeshift potting shed on the stove. It’s part of her nature to have living things around her. A reminder of the ongoingness of nature. Mosquitoes don’t bother her.

As I sit on the porch (it used to be a screened-in porch, now it’s the library/sitting room and the only place where more than two people can sit down) waiting for Mama to get off the phone in the kitchen, I notice the gardenia in a silver bud vase. Mama has put it beside my place on the sofa. They only last a day in their most pristine state. This mixed-up one—blooming in my garden when the others were spent—is turning an ivory shade but, days after its prime, it still retains its fragrance and may begin to root. Do I really want to tackle the piles? Shouldn’t I just “enjoy the visit?” I may need to save those documents in the pile for another a chapter I can write in my writing course. They could be part of a book someone may want to read about a life well lived and a hard act to follow. Do I want to be that mosquito this trip that does bother my mother? I think we’ll just think of somewhere to go and forget about getting ready.