Your next door neighbor, the Chinese lady with the vegetable garden in her front yard, always gives me a sad and pathetic look whenever I walk up the steps to your apartment. "Nice garden I say," and always complement her bok choy and snap peas.
Not two minutes in the door, you tell me to sit down, and you show me photos that I’ve seen hundreds of times before. You never get tired of my baby pictures or the Polaroids of your deceased husband standing in front of his produce truck with his hands in his pocket, smiling awkwardly.
Even though your dead husband had a mistress, who shacked-up with her just two blocks from your house, you loved him anyway. You have a big heart, Mom, but you are a fool. You should have done something about it, not stood there and let it happen.
Every day, you light a Yahrzeit candle to commemorate his life on earth. As the flame burns a wavy shadow in the kitchen, you fan its warmth to your face as you dredge up all the unpleasant memories that seem to be written in the lines of your face.
You think I don’t notice you crying in the corner of the kitchen. You assume I’m reading the Sunday paper or enjoying the static of your cableless TV. But I see you hunched over the candle like a monk in a monastery, tears running down your face as if you’re peeling onions over the sink.
Soon you come into the living room and tell me to lean back on the chair, criticizing my poor posture. You push my shoulders back and say things like, “I don’t want you so high. You shouldn’t wear blue. What's wrong with you?”
“That’s nonsense, Mom,” I say and hold in my frustration.
Without asking, you shove the Sunday Inquirer in my face, thinking that it would soothe my nerves and burgeoning anger, knowing full well that it has never worked to quiet my temper in the past.
I try not to say anything, I’ll regret, and go straight to the sports section and study the box scores from last night’s baseball games to distract myself from you. Stats estheticize me. When I look at the numbers and compare one player’s batting average to another, it gives me a brief moment of joy. I absorb the sports pages like a sponge, trying to block out your chatter with a game I enjoyed since I was kid.
I would pay attention if you were normal and if you weren’t so stuck in the past. That’s all you talk about is how wonderful the past was when you were a young girl or when you first married my father. You have no present or future, only a murky past that you so effectively distort. I’ve pleaded with you to get a life, to make friends, or find a hobby. But you don't listen to me either; your thoughts dwell in my childhood and the many things that your husband repaired around the house like it was yesterday.
“I don’t care about that stuff anymore,” I say. “It’s ancient history. Let's move on,” I plead.
You hold my 1973 Northeast High Yearbook like a bible. You know I always look at my first girlfriend, Cheryl Handsinger’s class picture, and her long blonde hair falling on her shoulders; and my best friend, Sean, with his curly hair parted in the middle; and Jerry, who got a nose job after years of being teased by friends and enemies alike. Then there was Henry, our next door neighbor, who wore moccasins and carried a suede pot bag attached to his belt loop, and who, eventually, left for California with his pregnant girlfriend never to be heard from again.
You smile a toothless grin, showing off your pink gums. It makes me glad to see you happy, even though the good memories you have are like old photographs, tarnished, stuck together, and yellowing with age.
I watch your anxious movements for a few minutes. You can never relax or sit still for any length of time; you always need to be in constant motion, opening the brown refrigerator, microwaving a store bought cheese blintz, and serving it to me with a cheap can of cherry wishniak soda.
“Do you want sour cream on the blintz?” you ask.
“No, I just ate.”
“Here, have some more. Your face looks thin.”
“I’m not hungry, Mom.”
You put the food on the table, anyway. Right next to the gifilte fish that has been sitting on that soggy paper plate since yesterday and beginning to show signs of mold.
Just under five-foot with a wrinkled neck and purple age spots, you mindlessly talk about my dead aunt and uncle in a loud voice that breaks my concentration from the sports pages, so I do something that I promised myself I wouldn’t do—I lose my temper.
Blue veins pop out of my bald head as if I were my father.