ColumnsWhat A World

I Remember, Mama

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My mother may soon have the daughter she always wanted
By Nancy Ford

The trouble first popped up during our conversation on my birthday.

Every year on my birthday, stretching back as far as my mind’s eye can see, my mother has related the story of the yellow beans. Seems the afternoon she went into labor with me all those years ago, she was in the kitchen; apparently, even prenatally I recognized the importance of that very special room. As I began to emerge into this world, probably wondering what was for dinner, my mother was stirring a pot of yellow beans.

Over the years, my mother’s retelling of the story of the yellow beans had come to be as expected on my birthday as her Hallmark card in my mailbox. “I can never cook yellow beans without always thinking of my first baby, my firstborn,” my mother would repeat annually without fail, reliably as the dawn, as though my natal festivities would be incomplete without a salute to the golden legumes.

This year on my special day, my mother and I chatted about nothing special in particular: the weather, the grandchildren, a song I was rehearsing for an upcoming local event. After a while our conversation began winding down, but she hadn’t yet mentioned the beans.

“Are you and Dad going to have yellow beans for dinner tonight, in honor of my birthday?” I jokingly instigated, now too accustomed to the tradition to relinquish it.

“Yellow beans?” she responded curiously.

“Yes, you know…yellow beans…for my birthday…,” I prompted long-distance, awaiting the annual call-and-response.

“Oh, do you like yellow beans?” she laughed, but with audible curiosity.

“Well, yes, I like them, but—remember?—you were cooking yellow beans when you went into labor with me.”

“I was?”

And at that moment I realized my family and I were heading into uncharted territory.

She’s almost 80, for God’s sake; of course she’s having memory issues. I’m nowhere near 80 and it’s not the least bit unusual for me to get up from my desk to do something, but forget what it was I got up to do by the time I reach my office door. I’ll search high and low for my glasses, only to find them resting on top of my head. I’m thinking of marketing a retractable chain for the TV remote control; if it worked 50 years ago with my mittens, it can work today. And didn’t I used to have a girlfriend laying around here somewhere?

I call these personal, less-than-total recall phenomena my Aunt Clara moments, in honor of Samantha Stevens’ dizzy aunt on Bewitched. Sure, it’s all real funny until the day I find myself sitting in my niece’s fireplace, all dusty and ashy, with no idea how I got there.

Siblings who live closer to my parents have noticed other signs of our mother’s escalating memory problems, which have not been officially diagnosed as Alzheimer’s Disease, thankfully. At least, not yet. So far, doctors are attributing the lapse of memory to her advancing age.

Regardless, the situation has prompted me to wonder what a future that includes a parent with Alzheimer’s might look like. A quick Google search reveals that Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Alz.org says those with Alzheimer’s live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival can range from four to 20 years, depending on age and other health conditions.

So. Let the questions begin.

Does this mean that in four to 20 years I will have the opportunity/burden of coming out as a lesbian to my ultra-conservative mother…again? It didn’t go real well the first time. Will her reaction to learning she birthed a homosexual be even more extreme this time than it was the first go-round, ending perhaps with her completely disowning me?

Or, assuming that all of her children are straight, will she ask where my husband is? Will I tell her we divorced way back in 1980? Or will I allow her the fantasy she always hoped for me and tell her he just stepped out for a pack of cigarettes? Will she remember he didn’t smoke?

A third possibility: will the increased visibility of gay folks in recent years somehow rewire her diseased mind to accept her lesbian daughter in a way her healthier mind could not? Will she now embrace the new (old) me, and walk with PFLAG in the next Pride Parade? Will she brag to neighbors that she has a lesbian daughter, just like her fellow ultra-conservative, Dick Cheney?

In terms of sex, politics, and religion, my mother and I couldn’t be more different from one another. But before she answered the call of marriage and motherhood, she sang with a band, making a name for herself on the local circuit. She also had aspirations of becoming a writer with the optimistic intention of being the world’s next Erma Bombeck. Big dreams.

My mother was talented enough in both these endeavors to have been successful, but instead abandoned her dreams to follow the more traditional path that was expected of her. In four to 20 years, I wonder if she’ll recall any of those dreams.

Next time I go home, maybe I can whip up a pot of yellow beans and help her remember them.

 

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