Losing My Mother
How do you tell your mother she’s sick—really sick—when you don’t want to believe it yourself?
Top, Judy Goldman, right, with her sister, Brenda Meltsner, and brother, Donald Kurtz. Left, Judy’s mother, Margaret Bogen Kurtz, and father, Ben Kurtz.
It’s 1974. I’m thirty-three, married to Henry, with two children—Laurie (five) and Mike (two). My mother-in-law is visiting from Miami, and my mother has driven over from Rock Hill. The three of us are eating turkey sandwiches at my kitchen table in Charlotte. I live in a brick split-level on a street of brick split-levels, all with the same floor plan. The whole neighborhood, in fact, is a looping string of brick split-levels with identical floor plans. Like a toy neighborhood. The front yards are bare except for newly planted willow oak saplings, some straight, some tilting. The day we moved in, I started reading the classifieds again, looking for a house with surprises, a little history and soul. Why did we buy this one? Maybe because the attic fan makes the air smell like the house I grew up in, on Eden Terrace. Maybe because this house was affordable. Maybe because it’s only one neighborhood away from—and looks just like—Brenda’s.
My mother-in-law, a widow for three years and still so weepy she wears sunglasses indoors, is talking about buying a condominium. When her husband was alive, they lived in an apartment. She still rents but suspects she’s throwing her money away. Mother joins her in weighing renting vs. owning.
When Mother comes to the word condominium, she stumbles.
“If you buy a con-do-nim-i-um…,” she says, not able to unroll the syllables.
I take a big bite of my sandwich. The bread sticks to the roof of my mouth.
Mother is determined. She lights a cigarette, takes a puff. “I mean, con-do-nim-i-um…”
She stops and starts again. “A condo… ,” she says. “Condo…Uh, a condo…”
Now she’s silent, staring out the window at a bush in the backyard as if she’s rummaging around in its leaves for the word.
I swallow. “Condominium, Mother.”
Why is this bright, articulate woman who was the only female studying to be a C.P.A. at the University of South Carolina in the 1920s, who kept the books for my father’s stores for years, who finishes a crossword puzzle every morning, who loves books, loves writing letters—why is she having such difficulty connecting the vowels and consonants of this ordinary noun?
There are other troubling signs. When we stop by the grocery store, she manages to pay with the right number of dollar bills. But then she dumps all the change from her wallet into her hand—dimes, quarters, pennies loose as copper fish—and holds out her palm for the checkout girl to take what she needs.
I blame everything on her age: she’s sixty-five. Of course, our parents are always old to us, even when they’re not. How else to explain her confusion, withdrawal, what seems to be depression, the way her feelings get hurt way too easily? My older sister Brenda says the problem is that Mother can’t cope with losing her beauty. Brenda’s assessment irritates me. It makes Mother sound so shallow. As though Brenda is saying, That sweet person, Peggy Kurtz, whom everyone adores? She’s not really so sweet. All she cares about are her looks. I know the real her.
Brenda’s theory denies the most central part of our mother. She was beautiful. In fact, she’s still beautiful. But if she weren’t, it would not matter one bit to her. Her concern has never been herself.
I want to tell Brenda how wrong she is.
I want to tell Brenda her judgment of Mother feels like a judgment of me. That’s how gauzy the border is between Mother and me. As though Brenda could also be saying, That sweet person, Judy? She’s not really so sweet. I know the real her.
The next time I’m with my father, I report that Brenda is being impatient with Mother, and will he have a talk with her? (I know. I’m being a tattletale.) But he takes Brenda’s side, says that he, too, feels impatient at times, which surprises me, considering his legendary devotion to Mother. “Peggy can’t unlock the door leading from the garage into the house,” he tells me. “She just gives up. She doesn’t even try.” The first time it happened, she tried to fit the key in the lock, turned it this way and that, kept poking the key into the brass surround as though her fingers didn’t belong to her. Finally, she handed him the key and said, “Here, Bennie. You do it.”
Mother is certainly not purposely losing her ability to use a key. I tell him maybe she has arthritis. Or she’s tired, not getting enough sleep. Maybe she has a lot on her mind.
Brenda, Daddy, and I have three distinct interpretations of what we’re seeing, all reflecting our individual personalities and our differing relationships with Mother. But we have one thing in common: none of us wants to admit how sick she is.
One night, my father, Henry, and I are at Brenda and Chuck’s for dinner. Mother is in Columbia, visiting her sisters. Before we get to the table, before we even take off our coats—in the front hall, under that merciless light—we start comparing notes. Do you realize Mother can no longer look up numbers in the phone book? Have you noticed she now wears only pants with elastic waists, no buttons or zippers, easy to get on and off? How long has it been since she’s written a letter? The words are like matches striking.
Our father takes Mother to a neurologist in Charlotte. Days later, a receptionist calls Brenda with the diagnosis. The doctor doesn’t call. His nurse doesn’t call. His receptionist calls. And whom does she call? Not the patient. Not the patient’s husband. The patient’s daughter (who then, of course, calls me). Did the doctor not want to spring for a long-distance call from his office in Charlotte, North Carolina, to my parents in Rock Hill, South Carolina? Did he think the news was so bleak it didn’t warrant a face-to-face meeting with my parents? Here’s the problem. There’s nothing we can do about it. You’re on your own, folks.