For other stories about life with Mama, visit my blog, Daughter on Duty.

Kitchen Fiefdom

In the past 17 years, since my father died, my mother has stopped driving of her own accord, recognizing when it was time without the time-honored interference of children hiding the car keys or removing the battery. She found a cadre of people to do the work around the house that my father once took care of: preparing beds for gardening, mowing the lawn and field, cleaning debris from the flat tar roof and replacing the silvercoat when needed (possibly more often than needed), getting the garbage to the dump, making house repairs and doing routine maintenance. She has found plumbers and furnace repairmen, doctors, senior transport, housekeepers, tree-trimers, and window-washers. She doggedly learned to deal with the finances, even if not the way her husband or daughters would have. She is nothing short of heroic.

As a young woman, after she left home following high school and before and during the war, she moved back and forth across the country, taking care of herself and her living while coping with fear for her husband during his long years overseas and in danger. She briefly went to college, the only one in her family to do so. Like so many of us, she lost her fierce independence under the influence of marriage, or at least hid it under a bushel basket. It should be no wonder that, after 50 years of living with a strong partner, followed by 17 years mostly on her own again, she is clinging to her rediscovered autonomy.

It seems to my sisters and me that she is not adapting well to her limitations, manifesting as diminished vision, hearing, memory, and mobility, and increasing depression. She resists our suggestions of what we think would make her life easier. And I don’t doubt that they would. But important as the physical attributes are, her most prized possession is control. As everything that she cannot control-in spite of her valiant attempts-continues in free fall, she clings to the waning things that she can have dominion over.

One by one, we infiltrate the arenas of her life, robbing her of decision-making, because it is necessary. One of the last strongholds is the kitchen. It is there that, because he had no interest, my father never had jurisdiction. It, if little else, has been her domain all her adult life. It is my lifelong memory of where she spent her time. In the kitchen, she was sovereign. And so she holds on, like the statistical shape of the bell curve, returning to the beginning.

Her rules as to where things go in the kitchen are necessary and perfect-for her; not arbitrary or optional-as they seem to me. She has taken to asking me where I have “hidden” this or that. I do not hear her question as accusatory or paranoid, but as a not-quite-joking reminder that this is still her fiefdom. I do try to remember, but because it makes no sense, and because I do the real cooking, while she just makes applesauce and soup-daily-I both forget and, okay, rebel. I am kind of over the latter, as I allow myself to “get it,” and as I attempt to be more kind and less controlling myself. I am in Subterfuge Training as I develop the skills to make changes without her knowing it (but she is very with-it, and usually notices) or in a way that might feel like it’s her idea.

Likewise, while she has always been brand-loyal as well as snobbishly rejecting of store brands, her insistence on the familiar label may now be as much about looking at the label through her tiny bit of vision and seeing something comfortingly familiar: the red and white Campbell’s soup label, the Tide logo, the blue on white Ivory soap wrapper. She has adopted new brands in the past, Amy’s for example; but perhaps she is beyond that ability now.

Why have I been so slow to dig up this wisdom? Perhaps because I am clinging to my fiercely developed and hard-won independence, too; and my own need for control; and my difficulty accepting less than perfection, as I see it; and I am waging a battle against what is, in my opinion, ridiculousness. I feel like the child again, the rebellious teenager. I heard a friend say, years ago, “someone has to be the grown-up, and it can’t be the child.” Except when the  child is the one in (semi) full control of reason. I will get my independence back. Hers is leaking away drip by drop by gush.

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