Lila woke up and wondered where she was. This wasn’t home. It kind of was but certainly not the home she lived in most of the time. Her bed had been…no, not an ace. Not a king. Oh, well. Whatever kind it was this wasn’t supposed to happen. She’d have to tell Arthur to call someone. The roof was leaking. Had it rained last night? Must have and now her gown was wet.
“Arthur?” she called out. He didn’t answer. Where was that man? She padded into the hall and then the den. Her daughter, Jean, rose from the breakfast table, just visible past the half wall. Having coffee with her was…was…
She couldn’t remember. The man Jean had married. What’s-his-name. “Mother?” Jean asked.
“Where’s your father? The roof is leaking. It got me and my bed all wet.”
Jean came to her and put an arm around her shoulders, turning her back the way she’d come. “You’ve wet the bed again, that’s all.”
“I did not!”
“It’s ok, Mother. Let me help you get cleaned up and dressed.”
Lila went into the bath next to the room she’d come out of. Jean turned the water on to warm it and fetched a washrag and that stuff that smelled so good. It was kind of vanilla-y. “You don’t have to baby me,” she groused. “I can do it.”
“Okay. I’ll strip the bed and start the washer. Put your gown and underwear outside the door.”
Jean gathered up the wash and went to the laundry room, smiling at Joe as she passed the table. “Maybe it’s time for the adult pull ups,” he suggested.
“I guess so,” Jean sighed, a little piece of her heart breaking off. She knocked on the bathroom door. “Mom? Have you washed up?”
From behind the door came a scared voice. “Come in here, Jeannie.”
She entered the bathroom and stood behind her mother, looking at their reflections. Mother smelled a little fresher but it was definitely shower day. Pointing at the mirror, Lila asked, “Is that me or someone else?”
“It’s you, Mother. It’s just time for a dye job and a perm.”
Jean held out the robe. “Put this on and come pick out what you want to wear.”
Lila moved the hangers around, looking for…”Here it is! I just love this dress!”
Jean crossed her arms. “It’s too cold for that. How about that pretty peach sweater and the white slacks?”
“Oh, I guess so,” she grumbled. “It doesn’t feel that cold to me.”
“That’s because we’re inside where it’s warm. This afternoon we can go for a walk if you want.”
She followed Jean to the table. Carefully, she examined the flatware for spots and made an appreciative noise when a cup of coffee was put in front of her. The husband stood up and kissed Jean, folding the paper and putting it under his arm. He bent and planted a kiss on top of Lila’s head. “Behave yourself,” he told her.
Lila smiled. “Have a good day, Gerald.” She caught the look that passed between them. “What?”
Gerald shook his head and walked to the door. Jean sat and looked at her with thin lips. “His name is Joe. Gerald was the boy I dated in high school.”
“How about some eggs and toast?”
“That’ll be fine.” She’d really wanted pancakes but decided to not make a fuss. Maybe she’d make pancakes for everyone for supper tonight. “Where’s your father?”
Jean’s mouth made an O as she brought the plate to her. “Don’t you remember? Daddy’s gone.”
“Yes, but where?” Lila frowned and picked up the pepper shaker. “I suppose he’s off with that little tramp of his.”
Jean patted her hand. “No, Mother. I mean Daddy passed on. He’s been dead for six years now.”
“He has not!” Lila exclaimed indignantly.
Jean clamped her lips shut. Perhaps it helped her to cope, thinking he was catting around instead of in the ground. “Do you know what today is?”
Lila bit off a corner of her toast. “Veterans Day?”
“No. It’s Leta’s birthday.”
Smiling warmly, she chuckled. “My sweet little Leta. She’s ten this year, isn’t she?” Jean looked so crestfallen Lila got embarrassed. Maybe she was eleven. Or was it nine?
“Sweetie, Leta’s a sophmore in college.”
“Is she?” Lila forked up some eggs to cover her blunder. “How time flies.”
“Do you know what day of the week it is?”
“It’s not Sunday or Gerald—I mean Joe, wouldn’t be leaving for work. Is it Friday?”
“No. It’s Wednesday. Can you look at the clock and tell me what time it is?”
Lila dropped the fork on the plate and threw her napkin across the table. “What is it with all these questions? Why do you want me to tell you what time it is? You have a perfectly good watch on your wrist.”
Jean leaned over and retrieved the napkin. She wouldn’t look Lila in the face. Small wonder. She was acting funny. “I’m just checking something.”
“Never mind. I’m sorry if I upset you.” She got up and cleared the plates while Lila finished her food. Once the dishes were in the dishwasher and the skillet had been washed she looked to see if her mother was done. To her dismay Lila was pouring coffee over her toast. “Mother, what are you doing?”
Lila looked down at the plate then into her coffee cup. “I could’ve sworn this was syrup. Guess it’s because I woke up with a taste for pancakes.” Her bottom lip quivered and she looked up at Jean like a confused child. “I made a mess, didn’t I?”
She barely heard Jean’s soothing and recoiled just a little when she hugged her. It had seemed all right at the time but now that she’d done it Lila was surprised. And scared. She’d never had coffee on toast before. Why had she thought she’d like it this morning? “I’m full, Jeannie.”
Jean opened the sliding glass door to the patio and handed her the leftover piece of toast. Lila remembered what to do with it. Crumbles for the birds. She scattered the little balls she made of the bread then took an out of the way seat to watch. “Hey, Mr. Bluebird,” she sang softly. And to the robin red-breast, “When the red, red robin comes nob, nob, nobbing along.” She couldn’t remember what the smaller birds were called but a gospel song went with them.
She poked around the rose bushes and made spluttering noises over what a shame it was that someone hadn’t watered them. Not a bloom one! She uncoiled the water hose and proceeded to give them a good drink. Just as she was getting something done Jean came out and made her jump when she cried out. “Mother! You’ve gotten your feet wet. Come in and change your shoes or you’ll catch cold.”
Lila dropped the hose, couldn’t remember what to do with it now. Jean stalked past her and now it came back to her. You had to turn the water off. Chastised, she followed her daughter inside after pulling the muddy shoes and socks off. She’d done it again.
But she hadn’t meant to do anything bad. “Don’t be mad at me, Jeannie.”
That got her a nice hug and smile. “What were you doing with the water hose?”
Lila blinked back her tears. “The roses are dying. No one’s watered them.”
Now it looked like Jean might cry, too. “It’s winter, Mother. They’re supposed to look like that.”
“Are they?” Lila ruminated on it for a minute. “Are the lilies dead, too?”
“They’ll all be back in the springtime.”
“Oh, that’s good.” She took the socks from Jean and pulled them on. “Just like that?”
“Just like that. We won’t have to do anything. It’s a kind of magic.”
“Awww.” She put on her lace up booties and bent to tie them but must not have done it right because Jean shooed her hands away and did it slowly, explaining each step. At one time she known this, hadn’t she?
Jean turned on the t.v. to a cooking channel and after a minute Lila got tired of it and went to the cabinets beneath the bookshelves. It was like finding old friends, all that junk in there. She pulled out a red handbag. The only thing in it was aa wadded up handkerchief. Way in the back was a pair of dress shoes with those skinny heels. Lila hadn’t seen them in ages.
Sitting on the couch, she removed her booties and slipped the heels on. When she stood and walked around to get the feel of them she began to teeter. Her legs wobbled and her ankles bowed then she fell right on her rump. It scared her more than it hurt. When Jean came running and cried out it scared Lila even more. “What on earth! Are you all right?” She knelt down and took the shoes off her and wiggled her feet. “Does that hurt? Did you twist your ankle?”
“No. I’m not hurt. I landed on my pillow.”
Jean laughed with relief. “Sweetie, we talked about not trying to wear heels, don’t you remember? No? Never mind. Let’s get you off the floor.”
Lila did as she was told and put her arms around Jean’s neck. Jean grabbed her by the waistband of her pants and lifted her, setting her into the rocker. It made her mad at herself. She didn’t know she was doing something stupid until it backfired. “I’m so much trouble, Jeannie. Maybe it’s time I went home so you don’t have to be bothered.”
“That’s not a good idea, Mother. If you’d fallen at home who’d have gotten you up?”
“Your father, of course.”
Jean clamped her lips shut and put the booties back on her feet. “Do you remember catching the stove on fire?”
“I did that?”
“Yep. You, Joe and me sat down and discussed why you shouldn’t live alone.”
“But this is putting an awful lot on you,” she pointed out.
Jean took her face in her hands and looked deep in Lila’s eyes. “No, it’s not. I want you here and so does Joe. It’s my turn to take care of you, okay? Just as you took care of me when I was little.”
“But mothers are supposed to take care of their kids.”
“Yes. And it’s perfectly fine for daughters to take care of their mothers when they can’t do it anymore.”
Lila’s heart melted. She had raised a wonderful girl. “I love you so much, Jeannie.”
“I love you, too, Mother.”
Lila felt agitation rising and she clutched Jean’s arms. “Please don’t put me in a nursing home. I’ll stop wearing high shoes. Tell me what not to do and I won’t do it.”
Jean swallowed the lump in her throat and sniffed. “I’m not going to put you in a nursing home. Cross my heart and hope to die.” She stood up and took her mother’s hand. “How about we get out for a while?”
“Can we go to the flea market? Maybe get ice cream?”
After the first five minutes of browsing through the stalls Jean knew she’d have to keep an eye on Lila. So many things about her behavior had reverted to the age of five. More than once she had to tell her mother not to put things in her pocket without paying first.
Lila was having the time of her life. It was good to get out of the house once in a while and if you could see old friends at the same time, all the better. Judging from the way many of her acquaintances didn’t seem to remember her, a trip to the salon needed to happen this week. She argued with the vendors and talked them down a little on the price and was, on the whole, pleased with her purchases. And Jean didn’t need to know about the little ceramic dog in her pocket. She’d worried her daughter enough for one day.
After ice cream they headed over to a neighborhood she thought looked familiar. When Jean pointed out the church she and Arthur had attended all through Jean’s childhood she was excited. “Oh, I want to go this Sunday! Do you think they’d let me play the organ again?”
“They might.” Jean went into the cemetery and they got out. She led the way to her father’s grave. “Look, Mother. Who’s name is that on the headstone?”
“Arthur McLellan.” Her head popped up, eyes wide with surprise. “What do you know? Just like your daddy.”
Jean hid her smile. “No, this is Daddy’s grave. And on the other side of the stone is your name and birth date. When you’re laid to rest beside him we’ll add the date of your death.”
“Are you sure it’s not some other Arthur?”
“Yes. Positive. There couldn’t possibly be two Arthur McLellans with the same date of birth with a wife that has your name and birth date.”
“I suppose not.”
“So do you see now that daddy’s not running around on you with another woman? He didn’t leave you, he died.”
Lila burst into tears. “Why did you show me this? It was easier thinking he was out there being naughty but would come home when he got tired of it. Now he’s dead and he won’t ever come back.”
Jean hugged her mother and let her cry. “I’m so sorry. It worried me that you couldn’t remember he was gone. That’s something I didn’t think you could ever forget. And I didn’t want Daddy’s good name besmirched, even by you.”
Lila took the tissue Jean offered and blew her nose. “I guess it’s better that he’s dead than fooling around on me. Thinking that just about killed me.”
They drove home and had lunch. Jean got out the calender her mother marked on and gave her a pen and her address book. Lila stared at the squares and tried to recall what they meant. This was her handwriting but what had she written? Jean glanced over her shoulder now and then. It cut to the bone to see how much her mother’s dementia had progressed in just a year. The notations for birthdays and hair appointments and small daily plans had become a string of letters and numbers or untidy scrawls.
“What did you say today is?”
Jean answered, “Wednesday. December the second.”
“All right. Next Tuesday is when the girls come over to play cards.”
“Yes. Tuesday is rummy day.”
Lila wrote it down. “I think I’ll serve…those things. You know, those things. The serving dish looks like a parfait glass and you put shrimp in them and that red stuff.” She stopped and stared at the wall for a moment. “I forget what else.”
“You mean shrimp cocktail.”
“Well, it’s not something you drink, you know.”
“I know. That’s just what they call it. The only thing you forgot is the lemon slice.”
“Do we have those kind of bowl glasses?”
“If we don’t I think we can make do. The girls won’t care.” She set a tuna salad sandwich and a glass of tea in front of her mother. Getting her own sandwich she sat across from Lila and watched somberly as she planned a card game that wasn’t going to happen. One of the foursome was in worse shape than Lila. Two had died and the other was in an assisted living facility.
Well, now, hold on a minute, Jean thought. Why not have a rummy game on Tuesday night? She and Joe and Mother. It would be good for her and she could serve shrimp cocktail. The game would in no way resemble gin rummy but what did that matter? The important thing was to let her do what she could for as long as she could. Keeping the brain active is a must, the doctor said.
Lila flipped through the address and phone book and wrote down her friends’ numbers because she couldn’t keep them straight anymore. What fun, what fun! Lots of gossip and reminiscing.
Jean said a prayer of thanks for each day her mother held on and brushed back tears for the woman she would be no more. It hadn’t been easy moving her into their home and giving up the job she loved to care for Lila full time. Would she regret it later? No. The only regrets she could imagine were those she’d have if she didn’t take this fragile, broken time and cherish every sweet, exasperating moment.
She pushed her sandwich plate away and leaned over toward her mother. “Hey, Lila Belle.”
The face that still held traces of the young bride she’d once been lifted when she heard her name. Soft blue eyes looked at her with the web of smile lines around them. Lila knew those wrinkled cheeks were as soft as a little girl’s. Her sweet mama. She hoped this second childhood was as happy as the first. “I love you,” she said, reaching for Lila’s hand.
A beautiful smile lit up the young-old face. “I love you, too, baby.” Lila squeezed her hand then let it go and picked her pen back up. “When you’re not being a bitch.”
Jean burst out laughing and couldn’t stop until tears were rolling down and her belly hurt.