I found that hard to believe, that the dishes were put away dirty, because my Mom is an immaculate housekeeper.
My wife had long conversations with Harriet about how to force Mom to employ a cleaning lady that we would pay for.
Personally I didn’t believe Mom needed a cleaning lady.
When I went to visit her, the dishes were clean, the toilet was clean, I leaned on the table and found no dust on my shirtsleeves. I didn’t think, as my kids said, wrinkling their noses, that Mom smelled. To me, she smelled the way she had always smelled: soap-sweet, powder-sweet. She treated me with the same adoration she always had. The lunch she made was the lunch I’d always loved. I detected no change.
Harriet said my inability to see the deterioration in Mom was an emotional block, that I was afraid to face the truth about the person who had loved me better than anyone in the whole world. I said that Harriet’s version of “the truth” was rotted through by envy, and that her rant about deterioration was wishful thinking, that she had her eye on the Steinway and secretly longed for Mom to check out.
Harriet hit me in the face when I said that. It wasn’t the first time, let me tell you. Since her divorce, a lot of her friends and therapists have apparently told her it makes you calm to vent your rage. But it didn’t make Harriet calm to hit me. She just cried. She knew she was hitting the wrong man.
My wife says she’s never met anyone with worse taste in men than Harriet. The first guy was an asshole who drank a lot. The second, Vinny, was a nice guy. I liked him. We played racquet ball. So he had a few women on the side, surely Harriet was old enough to handle that? I always maintained that it would be a lot easier than handling a second divorce, and I was right. But they don’t listen to me, these women. They do what they want. What they feel. Oh yeah, above all, they are devoted to how they feel.
The lovers Harriet has had since divorce number two (according to my wife who tells me all this stuff even though I beg her not to, I pull the pillows over my ears, I walk the dog, anything, anything not to hear) these lovers have beaten Harriet, taken her money, planted drugs in her cookie jar, abandoned her in motels on distant highways and peed in her face. By this time I am screaming Shut up! No more! Why is it that the problems of women, which used to be so politely concealed in the ‘50s when I was growing up, are now the stuff of common conversation? It’s not decent, is it? I mean really, is it? Decent? I mean, who needs to see this phenomenal variety of feminine hygiene pads and tampons, who needs to hear how satisfied they’re gonna be if they schmear on some cream or we take some killer pill? Whatever became of allusion, suggestion, euphemism, faking it? Whatever happened to Modess, Because?!
Likewise I did not wish to hear that my mother now reeked of urine leaks and couldn’t reach down to wipe her own behind because of what my wife called her osteoporosis. My wife who failed high school biology and had to take it again in summer school and then failed college geology! (impossible as that should seem to anyone who remembers college geology) my wife now babbled multisyllabic ob-gyn words like she had known them since she was a baby and tormented me with mental beaver shots of my own mother in her bathroom! Jesus, I said. Stop!
Go see your mother, my wife pleaded.
Harriet should go, I said. They talk. I don’t talk with Mom, I just eat the lunch she has made for me, kiss her, leave a check on the piano, and go home.”
Harriet’s a crazy person this month, said my wife. “The fibroids are hemorrhaging and she’s afraid she’s going to need surgery and will never be able to have another child.”
She’s thirty-eight! She has three children! Why does she need another one?!
It’s an emotional thing, she said. It’s how the surgery will make Harriet feel about herself. Please go see your mother. It kills Harriet to see your mother so feeble and stinky. Your mother says she won’t have a cleaning lady snooping around through her personal stuff and Harriet gets crazy and they fight. Your mother’s too frail to fight with Harriet.
Then let Harriet restrain herself, I said.
And she told me Harriet can’t restrain herself this month because of the hemorrhaging fibroids!
I was trapped. Lost in the jungle of female endocrine upheaval. I called Mom and said I was coming over.
Jesus, she was happy. Oh, Martin, she said, my Marty darling, how good it will be to see your face! (Tell her you’ll bring lunch so she doesn’t have to cook, my wife whispered.) I’ll make lunch, Mom said. Your favorite. (Don’t make your old mother cook! hissed my wife.) Bring Milky Ways, Mom said. We’ll put them in the fridge first thing and by the time you’re ready for dessert, they’ll be nice and cold the way you used to love them when you were a kid.
When I got to her apartment, she didn’t answer the door. I rang and rang. Ten minutes, maybe more, before I got the super to open the door.
We looked in the kitchen. We looked in the living room and the bedroom. We didn’t look in the bathroom, I mean we didn’t want to, we were afraid.
The super was afraid to find my mother in the bathroom, and I was afraid to find my mother in the bathroom. But finally I had to go in there and see. The super turned his face away and went to wait in the hall.
She had been taking a bath. I guess that’s why she never smelled bad when I visited, she must always have gone out of her way to take a bath and be clean for me.
I swear I didn’t see her body. I mean I looked at it but I didn’t see it. Isn’t it written somewhere that you shouldn’t uncover the nakedness of your parents? Isn’t it like a rule of decent human behavior, a written down rule?
I put the Milky Ways in the refrigerator. I called my wife. I called Harriet. My wife handled Harriet.
For some reason, the two of them didn’t want the medical people to touch Mom right away. They lifted her out of the tub themselves and dried her and put her on the bed and covered her. Then the ambulance took her away.
My wife played the piano.
Harriet and I ate the candy of our childhood.
Although Mom was naked when she died, we didn’t bury her naked. I mean we buried her in clothes. I don’t know who picked them. Couldn’t have been Harriet, she was too crazy crying. I guess it must have been my wife. My wonderful wife.
Author’s Comment: “Marty’s Version” is a theatre piece, meant to be played. It is the product of a long marriage and the often unexpected and surprisingly powerful friendship of sisters-in-law.
Well done with human dimensions of naturalistic truth. Yes, this is how women can care about family. This is how men don’t understand what women know instinctively when they wrap the presents, clean he toilets, care for the sick and aging and the young and helpless. A moving story of family love in the rough and reality of caring for an aging parent. Yes, I cared more for my mother-in-law and understood my sisters-in-law better than my husband understood his mother and sisters. There is that candid feminine bonding that is deeply instinctual about love, life, bodies, scatology, and true human frailty, and how men sort of, but not completely, miss the nitty-gritty needs of life. Saying “my wonderful wife.” at the end, makes this guy loving and real, if a bit clueless during the telling. Well done, Susan Dworkin.
One of the most potent pieces Persimmon Tree has offered. Our fear of bodies. Our fear of “the other” who is … or isn’t us. Or who we think she is. Or who we think we — are.
(I pause to think about Adrienne Rich’s words–““When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”) And then I reread this piece, and am grateful to read a woman telling a man’s truth, as well.
Thanks, Susan Dworkin.
Very powerful piece Susie. As a caregiver to my mother in law, this brings back many memories. You have a gift for writing our deepest thoughts and feelings.
Beautiful. Really lovely.
Oh my. Fascinating. My younger sister and I took care of our mother for four years like this, including cleaning her body when she died. Nobody punched anybody out in those four years, but we had our moments. Your story brought it all back for me, including the sorrow at my mother’s death. This was really well-written.