Meg Federico describes her mother’s less-than-golden years in a remembrance that is poignant, funny, and at times, simply heartbreaking. Her mother, Addie (a Wellesley graduate), and her equally aged, but new second husband, Walter (who comes with a grown daughter, Cathy), drink too much and are sinking into dementia. As Federico tries to bring order and compassionate care into a chaotic, even as it is well-to-do, household, she finds herself looking into her past and examining her troubled relationship with her suburban, country-club mother. In this excerpt, Addie, during a lucid interlude, confides her dashed hopes for a career in publishing to her astonished daughter…
I tried to think up lines of conversation that Mom could handle. Today, in the gloom, she was silent, depressed about Cathy and Walter. I’d never heard anything about her honeymoon aboard The Queen Mary, although I’d seen pictures of her wearing a very odd pleated cape, arm in arm with Dad, who was grinning. I brought up what I thought would be a happy reminiscence. “Oh, yes,” Mom said with a sigh. “That’s when your father told me I could not keep my job.”
“You wanted to keep working?” I had never heard this angle before. Mom’s face flooded with regret. “Well, they’d told me I showed promise at Scribner’s, you know. ‘But the children come first,’ he said. Hard words for a new bride to hear.”
I suddenly saw Mom in a new light, one that illuminated the background. She gave up her job and her independence for Dad, whose priorities were his children, his job, and then his wife. So she had marked time. She’d gotten rid of us all as quickly as she could, so she could finally have Dad to herself. But by the time we were all finally out of the house, it was too late. Dad had become an old man, too worn out to be an enthusiastic soul mate for his much younger wife, and perhaps unaware of her longings.
Poor Mom! Then her husband died. So she got a new husband and what happened? She had to compete with Cathy! She has never been good at sharing. “Oh, Mom, how sad for you, and how hard,” I said. And her old face revealed her surprise that this secret pain was understood—ironically, by one of her children.
Mom rolled her head, tilting her eyes toward the window and the fenced yard beyond. “Is that some kind of dog?” she asked me, raising her bony finger to point. “Some kind of deer?” My heart sank. Her sudden trips to Kooky Town were always disturbing. I never knew where we were going to end up.
I got up to look, scrambling for what I’d say when there was nothing there. But in a corner of the yard, a large gray doe was cropping the grass close to the post where the lawn mower didn’t reach. She was big and wild and unexpected and glorious. Both Mom and I caught our breath. For a moment she looked right at us (though more than likely she glimpsed her own reflection in the window). Then, with a flick of her tail, she gathered herself and soared effortlessly, weightlessly over the railing, leaving us wildly, wildly happy.
From the book: Welcome to the Departure Lounge: Adventures in Mothering Mother © 2009 by Meg Federico. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
-by Apollinaire Scherr