Rose’s mouth is set in a grim line. Her sour face, the one she used when she disapproved of my behavior as a child, the one she shows to Timmy and Tessa, my seven year old twins, the face that looks set in stone. I reach over to adjust a crimp in the shoulder strap of the seat belt, but Rose slaps my hand away. Not a push, but a hard slap. I would cry out, but if I began I would end up screaming .
Rose gives a desultory wave to my children and husband standing on the lawn.
“Bye, Grandma,” the children call in unison.
“We’ll all come next weekend, Rose, after you’re settled,” Peter adds.
Rose quickly turns her head away, her hands folded in her lap. Her eyes, staring straight ahead, have a glazed, faraway look.
Oh, Mama. Why are you making this so hard? You have to go to the Marcus Home. My marriage, my job, my children’s lives. And yes, my sanity… No exaggeration, Mama. You’re chipping away at all of it. Little by little. And you’ll keep at it until there is nothing left.
Auntie Rose, then Mama Rose, then Mama. A gradual progression from the time I was three years old. Rose, a 45 year old spinster at the time. My father unknown, my mother a runaway. Rose, my mother’s older sister, was my only relative
“Your mother just dumped you here and took off with her new boyfriend.” Rose didn’t believe in glossing over the truth. “Black is black and white is white. You can’t make one become the other.”
I remember little about my mother. Long blonde hair, silk against her skin. Mint in her kisses. To hide the booze, Rose said. I missed her and was scared of Rose. Tall and straight and plain. At first, I refused to switch over my love and call her Mama. She was Auntie Rose until I went to school and felt set apart, not having a mother. By then, we had become used to each other. There was a softening on each side, and Mama Rose came easily. Within three months it became simply Mama. It was a change that had pleased Rose.
“We’ll get to the Marcus Home early enough to settle you in before lunch is served. In pleasant weather it’s possible to take your lunch and eat it on the patio. But I told you that, didn’t I?”
I might as well be talking to myself. Where is Rose’s mind right now? How far back is she traveling? Several times in recent weeks, I’ve found Rose going through her photo albums and old papers. Receipts and invoices, ledger books, business cards and stationery–the detritus of a secretarial business Rose operated out of her apartment, working twice as long and twice as hard after I arrived.
“That’s how it’s got to be,” Rose had said. “You need clothes and food and doctors when you’re sick. Now go to your room and play quietly. Today’s a work day.”
Sunday, however, was the Lord’s Day and Rose did not work. She provided me with opportunities to learn and to have fun on Sundays. The zoo, a museum, the ballet. In summer, picnics and trips to the beach. On Sundays, Rose was more human, less the automaton who sat at the typewriter for hours, clicking at the keys, her eyes seldom straying from the page. The speed of those fingers!
“Don’t stand there watching me,” Rose would say to me.
“Teach me, Mama.”
By the time I was 12 I was producing professional looking work and earning my allowance by helping Rose after school.
“My daughter will do it,” Rose would say. “She may be young, but she’s quick and accurate.”
Oh, Mama! I wish things could be otherwise.
I am grateful for what Rose had done for me, and I do for Rose as much as I can. But, Rose needs more now. A house with no stairs, help with bathing, reminders throughout the day to take her medication, more frequent trips to doctors.
“I have to go back to work, Mama. You’ll be on your own.”
“I’m capable of taking care of myself during the day.” Rose had stretched herself up as far as she could, standing without her cane. “I can get my own lunch, and I won’t forget my pills.”
The screeching smoke alarm had alerted a neighbor. The call to my office to come home. Cold sweat and feeling faint when I hung up. A burned lunch that Rose had tried to prepare herself. What if…I couldn’t bear to think about the what ifs.
“Just to sit in my chair,” Rose had said. “Just to rest. I didn’t mean to sleep. I didn’t…” Rose, first contrite, then angry when I got some home help. Four different helpers and four failures. Oh, not the helpers. They were jewels and bore up well for a few weeks.
“An old folks home,” Rose grumbled when I showed her several brochures. “Why bother asking me? You’re making the decisions.” Rose, from that day, said no more about the move. She had said no more about anything.
The Marcus Home, a stately colonial style house with four columns across the porch, was once a private home. The neighborhood had become mixed with few residences remaining. Most houses had been converted to medical and other professional offices, and some had been torn down to make way for retail stores.
A place of quiet and homey comforts, the Marcus brochure proclaimed. Today, I wonder about that. Weekends when I visited before, yes, but today, mid-week… Heavy traffic, impatient drivers honking, an idling truck spewing fumes in front of a grocery store. Still, it does have charm, an aura of gentility.
“Don’t you think so, Mama? The Marcus? All those flowers. Aren’t they lovely?”
Rose walks unsteadily along the path, refusing to use her cane. She refuses to give in. I have to admire her for that. It was this trait that had enabled her to keep me with her during lean times, her refusal to consign me to a foster home, to keep me out of the morass of Social Services.
Rose has shrunk. I hadn’t really noticed how much before. Now I’m the tall, imposing one, the one in charge. The bully daughter. Is that how you think of me, Mama?
“Full of gray-haired old ladies and bald men.” At the entrance to the lounge, Rose mumbles her first words in days. “Perhaps that’s how I’ll amuse myself. Count the shades of gray. How many would you guess? Seven? Eight?”
The administrator of the Marcus comes toward us, and Rose shuts down again. A thin man in his 60s wearing a dark suit with black tie. Giving him the once over, Rose’s stone face becomes even harder. Funeral clothes. I can imagine Rose’s thoughts.
The residents’ rooms are in an annex added to the rear of the colonial house. Rose’s room, on the second floor near the elevator, is a neutral room, the color of desert sand, neither offensive nor exciting. Bed, dresser, walls, drapes. Rose heads for the bed and sits on it, giving it a little bounce. On the desk is a sheaf of papers and a telephone.
"All the numbers you need are here," the administrator, Mr. Conroy says. "Housekeeping, nurse's office, my office. Everything's listed here. Meal times, church services, weekly shopping trips."
Rose begins to finger the emergency pull near the bed.
"Don't pull that!” Mr. Conroy shouts, “unless, of course, you have an emergency. There's one in the bathroom, too." He takes a step forward, looking like he’s about to slap Rose’s hand.
Rose tosses the cord aside, disgust spreading across her face. I know that look, the "I'm not stupid look," the one she gave to repairmen and auto mechanics and to me often enough.
"Is that part of the decor?" she asks, pointing to a green chair with pink cabbage roses, the only non-institutional furniture in the room. "Did the previous occupant die?"
"No, no. The woman moved to another residence, closer to her children. She didn't want the chair. We can remove it."
Rose leaves the bed and sits on the chair, taking a proprietary attitude, stroking its arms. "It's ugly. But I'll keep it. The derelicts of society, the chair and I. Superfluous, left over."
"There are suitcases and some boxes and a small television in my car," I tell Mr. Conroy before Rose hits her full stride. "May I have some help?"
Mr. Conroy sighs with relief at the exit cue. We leave Rose sitting on her new possession, stroking its arms and contemplating the rear garden from her window.
When I return with a porter and Rose’s possessions, Rose is in the doorway talking to a stocky woman with steel-gray hair.
"No. She's my niece," Rose says. "I raised her. But she's not my daughter. I never had a daughter, not a real one."
The steel-haired woman nods as the porter and I push past her. It’s pay-back time, is that it, Mama? I thought we had forgotten that truth. We became Mother and Daughter. We are Mother and Daughter. You’re my Mama and I became your little Mellie. I’m not going to fight with you, Mama, or explain to the woman. Throw your darts if it makes you feel better.
Once back in the room Rose hands me my purse.
"I can stay, Mama. I took the day off, remember. I've got lots of time."
"No. I'm the one who has lots of time. It'll give me something to do. Go home."
She opens the door and gives me a push into the hall. "I'll walk you to the elevator,” she says, suddenly taking on the attitude of a hostess.
"I'll call later,” I say. “And I'll be back in two days with Peter and the children." I almost add, "I love you," but I’m afraid Rose won’t repeat the words. Not now, not when she thinks I’m abandoning her like my mother abandoned me. Is that what you’re afraid of Mama? That I’m dumping you? I won’t forget you here. I’ll be back, often. And you’ll visit. It’s not the same. All right, all right! It is the same, in a way. But not the same. Oh, I want you to stay with us, but your health, the money, the house, the stairs…There is a difference, Mama. Don’t you see?
At the elevator Rose, refusing my hug and kiss, flutters her fingers in a dismissive good-bye.
In the parking lot, a woman about my age, is crying. She’s having trouble finding her car keys. “I cry each time I visit my father," she says, looking up at me. "I feel so guilty. But I have no choice. Do you have a mother here, or father?"
"Neither," I say. "An aunt. “
Perhaps Rose has found a way to ease her hurt, a way that would ease my guilt, as well. Not a daughter confining her mother to a home, but a niece with an aunt. Concentrate upon the biological truth of the situation. What Rose hadn't said, but probably meant, was that a real daughter wouldn't leave her there. A real daughter would find another way.
"It's my aunt," I repeat. "My Aunt Rose."
BIO: Adelaide B. Shaw lives in a small rural community in New York State. Her stories have been published in several literary journals, including The Toronto Star and The Writer's Journal, both contest winners, American Literary Review, Green's Magazine, Sunscripts, The Villager, Reader’s Break, Dogwood Tales, Housewife Writers’ Forum, New England Writers' Network, Emrys Journal, The MacGuffin, Griffin, The Country and Abroad and in Loch Raven Review In addition to writing fiction, Adelaide writes haiku and other Japanese poetic forms, such as tanka and haibun. Her collection of haiku, An Unknown Road is available at www.modernenglishtankapress.com