During the almost 14 years my mother lived alone after my father died, I often visited her in January, that month of deepest cold for us in Minnesota, but for her in Charleston, fickle in its flickering from warmish blue skies to humid grey chill. Once even ice on the bridges: far scarier driving than anything Minnesota had dished out!
She kept her Christmas tree standing, first as the floor model, then the last five years when she declined, as a little table tree bought for her by her “care-givers.” The sparkle of little lights helped push back the long darkness. So did the TV. We would sit in front of the screen together, as she did every evening when she was alone. First eating dinner on a TV tray while she watched the six o’clock news, then later to watch various PBS programs she liked.
Those years from 1990-2003 were some of the busiest of my life. At home in Saint Paul, I rarely watched TV–too busy reading student writing or writing my own. But my visits to her were a kind of vacation. I brought along a book or two for the long flight and inevitable delay changing planes in Atlanta. But I expected to spend my evenings beside her or taking her out to dinner or to a concert.
She was really old, then. Born in 1908, she was entering her 81st year when my father died. Soon after her doctor put her on a version of a statin drug to lower cholesterol, and she followed suit with her own diet. Though never obese, she’d put on weight during my father’s decline–eating out, eating especially the shrimp she loved. As the drug leached fat from her system, she developed wrinkles all over her face. This startled me when I first recognized the change. Though her trimmed-down body looked more youthful, her face had a witchy effect except for the sparkling blue eyes. It helped when she wore lipstick, for her lips were beautifully formed, one of her best features.
Like her German-American father who’d lived on alone in his huge North Dakota house for years after his wife died, my mother was temperamentally suited to solitude. She developed a schedule you could set a clock by, ate virtually the same thing for breakfast and lunch, then rotated her “diet” dinner menus throughout each week–if it was Tuesday, beef stir fry; if Friday, fish sticks and potatoes. Several parts of her habit kept her entertained and lively: her dog Cindy, a Scotty mix, who was devoted as only good dogs can be, but insisted on doggy behavior, even to the point of occasionally slipping the fence at the back of the property, and sending my mother “into dithers” until she found Cindy again.
January named after the Roman word for doorway: the opening of the year, but also, I like to think, named for Janus, whose two faces looked in different directions. January in Charleston with my mother had us looking back to the past of my high school yearbooks which I leafed through upstairs while my mother took her lengthy afternoon naps. Or sitting at the restaurant atop the Holiday Inn, Riverview, and staring across the peninsula of Charleston to the new “roller coaster” bridge. This entertained me with memories of driving the old narrow one, and of living across that second of Charleston’s two rivers, in Mount Pleasant.
But we also looked forward a bit, in that we exchanged modest confessions about things happening in our current lives. One evening while we sat on her sofa before the TV, PBS presented Yoyo Ma, the great cellist, playing Bach’s cello concertos. I was enthralled, but beside me, my mother voiced boredom. “Oh, I’ve seen that so many times already,” she complained, startling me with the notion that PBS rotated shows over and over. It was the closest she ever came to showing me the inside of her life alone: she actually wanted to talk to me, she the silent to my father’s gregarious exuberance; she the deflector to his constant display of emotion. “You know Elinor F. died,” she said, as I turned from Bach to listen to her. Yes, I had heard this.
Elinor like my mother lived on alone for years after her husband, also a Citadel professor, had passed away. Elinor, like my mother, from the North, also loved parties and entertaining. “Elinor and I used to ‘cuss and discuss,'” said my mother. It was the first time I’d ever heard that phrase. It was the first time I’d realized that my mother, like almost all women I knew, had bosom friends to whom she unburdened herself–about their Citadel compatriots, no doubt, but probably also about their solitary lives. It was the first, and perhaps the only time, I heard my mother hint that she had suffered a personal, emotional loss. She did not voice grief at my father’s death. She did not complain about her solitude. But she did become more chatty with me, that evening, and on our regularly scheduled once-a-week phone calls. She wanted human companionship, which she would acquire, eight years into her solitude, when she developed shingles, lost hearing in one ear and became less able. For the five years of daily visits from the African-American women who became her care-givers, my mother had someone to talk to. I’m sure these women helped prolong her life. They certainly relieved me of much anxiety for her well-being.