Friday, May 27, 2016

Ironing Naked

Read at the 2011 Madison Listen to Your Mother performance 

(click here to view)

The week before Mother’s Day it seems everywhere you turn, someone is sharing some great piece of wisdom their mother has bestowed upon them.

Well, ladies, today I will share with you one of the greatest pieces of wisdom my mom has shared with me.  Are you ready for it?


The first thing I thought after she told me was, “YOU iron?”  And second, had she tried ironing naked before, with “consequences”?  Or maybe this it just a piece of bizarre-- though well thought-out, you gotta give it to the woman-- advice?

To give you some perspective, let us view my first memory of my mom.  It is the blizzard of 1978-- the snow up to the lids of the garbage cans.  Everyone and everything stops.  And my mom decides to walk outside into our backyard naked

I watch her in disbelief (already at four years old I know it’s strange for someone to go outside naked, let alone into waist-deep snow.)  She is out there for three or four minutes-- it seems like an eternity-- just looking around, as my father and I watch from the kitchen window.

When she comes inside, I ask her why.  She shrugs her shoulders, “I wanted to feel what it was like.”  “Why did you come in?” I ask.  “My feet got cold.  Otherwise I would have stayed out there.  It was wonderful.”

As a child, you sort of think of your mom as normal, because you have nothing to compare her to.  As you get older (especially as a teenager), you think of all the reasons why your mother is abnormal (or obnoxious, or embarrassing).  Because she’s your mom.  Somehow her very being seems a reflection on your being.

It is not until recently, as an adult and as a mom myself, that I’ve been able to put together some of the pieces-- start to understand who she was-- the quirky, but emotionally and intellectually present mom-- with who she has become.

Who she has become.  Unreliable, for a start.  At times emotionally irretrievable.   

She and her common-law husband, in the past years, bought a fixer-upper to start a B&B.  She has spent all of her savings, her retirement.  She has racked up credit card debt.  The business failed.  Her health has been up and down.  When I talk with her on the phone, she monologues.  She hasn’t seen me or my children in two years.

And, as my sister found out one day, she’s growing pot.  Not just a little pot, A LOT OF POT.  Yes, kids, Granny grows weed.  She’s got an A-1 grow operation in her basement.  $25,000 worth of the best hydroponic growing equipment and exhaust systems.  Granted, it’s “medicinal marijuana”: Somewhere between illegal and legal, but still.  When I confronted her, I could hear her partner in the background yelling, excitedly, “We’ve even been featured in High Times!”

Now, no, I have never seen the TV series Weeds.  I don’t really feel like I need to.  My mother satisfies any need I might have for crackpot entertainment.  And aside from that, I was honestly upset at first. Upset about the bad decisions that led to her precarious situation. But also, as someone who loves and adores my mom, I somehow feel threatened.  (Might I lose my grip, too?  Could I go from intellectual, creative-type to crackpot in my old age?) 

And laughter aside, I do worry about my mom.  I don’t want her to end up eating cat food.  I don’t want to have to strip her of her independence, move her into my basement with my misbehaving tomcat.  But every time in the past four years my sister and I have staged an intervention, helped her along with advice, she hasn’t followed through.  She’s indignant, or she has cleaned up her act just enough to keep going. 

I can’t help but think that there’s some middle ground to find here between laughter and horror.  There is nothing at the moment that I, my sister, or anyone else can do to “solve” my mom or her problems.  She doesn’t want us to; she doesn’t see them as problematic. 

So here is my decision.  I’ve decided to accept our relationship for what it is.  She is allowed to be the caring mom she wasand the absent mother and grandmother that she is.  She is allowed to be her past (and MY past) as well as her present.  Mom doesn’t have to be perfect.  I don’t need her to be perfect.  And just because I am a mom myself, that doesn’t mean that I have to solve her problems.  I can love her and shake my head.

There are a shitload of things in life I learned from my mom.  How to think, how to love-- even, perhaps, how to mother.  And apparently, how to iron.  Or not iron.  And how to accept her and myself for who we are.  Really.  It’s good.


This piece was read at the American Family Dream Bank on Thursday, May 26, 2016, as a part of the DREAM BIG series: "Listening to Our Stories, Realizing Our Dreams" with Listen to Your Mother. It is a follow up/partner piece to my original piece "Ironing Naked" from the 2011 Madison cast of Listen to Your Mother.


“Hi mom, how’s it going?”

Mom (tentative): “Good, I think. Better than it has been. My memory is getting better.”

“Hi mom, how are you?”
Mom: “I’m getting much better. It seems that I had some big event, and it was causing me to not remember things. But now I realize, wow, I was really out of it.”

“Hey mom, it’s Jenny. How are you?”
Mom: “Okaaaay. Jim tells me I was having issues with my memory. But I can’t remember them. It’s very strange.”

After years of worry, of cajoling, of schlepping my mom to memory clinics where she was pronounced “very intelligent,” and showing little or no cognitive deficits, the bottom dropped out. One night she collapsed in a seizure, and wasn’t coming out of it. Airlifted to the next big medical center, we received a diagnosis. 

The MRI showed, along with anecdotal evidence, that she had been having seizures without us knowing it, probably for years. This time, though, the seizure had knocked the needle off the record, and her brain was having trouble booting back up because of dementia. This was the word that had been the terrible centerpiece of conversations about my mom for at least the past decade, with no medical corroboration until that point.

But see, here’s the rub. When you get a diagnosis, you say OF COURSE and at the same time you feel guilty, even when you did everything you could.

I went to a neurologist’s appointment with her shortly after her diagnosis, and she got really agitated and upset by us talking about her, and she put her hand on her hips and said, “Well, I’m not STUPID. Everyone is talking about me like I’m stupid and I don’t understand. I have a very well-developed vocabulary. You aren’t stupid if you have a master’s of fine arts and are the recipient of a national endowment for the arts individual artist grant.”

And she’s right, I remind her. She’s not stupid. No one is saying she’s stupid. We’re just saying she can’t remember shit. 

It sounds almost cruel to say it that way, but it ALWAYS makes her laugh. Then she snipes something back at me about me not being a piece of cake either. 

Today, she is no longer having seizures, but the medicines have taken away much of her independence. She feels unsteady on her feet, she’ll never be able to drive. I guess the good thing about having memory problems is that the bar is re-set every day. Every day you’re winning that race. Every night, like sisyphus, the rock rolls down the hill again.

Last year, we moved my mom and her partner to Grand Junction, so that they could be closer to their doctors. Most of the boxes were labeled “living room- books” or “decor” (that really could be anything— believe me). 

One box had a sticky note on it that read “No idea” in a shaky hand. And as I opened the box, the lifted flap revealed a perfect pizza. I mean, the most perfect pizza you could imagine. And I thought HOW COULD THERE BE A DAMN PIZZA IN THIS BOX? As soon as more light hit the surface, I realized… this is not a pizza. This is a perfectly felted, life-sized facsimile of a pizza.

She can’t remember her own medications, or what they’re for. She mourns her parents’ deaths every time someone tells her that they’ve passed away. But she can create— over days— a physical object out of hanks of colored wool that has an aspect of genius to it. There are moments she still seems alive in— when she tells a joke, offers advice, muses about her felting. But there are still parts of her that are (and will be) missing. 

I still don’t have the mom I had when I was a child, or a teen, or as a young woman. I don’t have the same mom I did ten years ago, or the mom I thought I had when I wrote “Ironing Naked” in 2011. 

Just like life, the box, marked “no idea”— it’s a truthful rendering of where we are at the moment. It can contain moments from the past— the waist-deep snow— almost forgotten— or a surprise. A pizza for no reason. A woman who dives down deep, and resurfaces every day the same woman, but perhaps different, when you open the box. My mother.