Courtesy of Leslie Kendall Dye
Courtesy of Leslie Kendall Dye

Contrast Study

Contrast Study: An imaging procedure in which a contrast medium is introduced to enhance the image of a particular body region or structure.

A bookstore opened today, on the night before Thanksgiving. It stands across the street from the Museum of Natural History. Our neighborhood has been waiting for months—crackling with anticipation, leaving encouraging notes on the shop’s locked glass doors, standing with faces pressed to the windows to watch shelves being built and cartons of merchandise being wheeled around the empty space.

My toddler and I stand at 81st Street, watching the balloons being inflated for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She catches a glimpse of the enormous Snoopy and Woodstock, but is unimpressed—she dashes toward Central Park West and scoops handfuls of leaves as freezing rain descends.

I, too, feel the urge to run from the frenzy and anticipation, from the holiday momentum.

I take her to the bookstore.

It’s called a “soft open.” That means the merchandise is barely out of the boxes, the floor has yet to be swept, the carpets are not yet spread, and many of the shelves are empty. It’s the sawdusty beginning of a new home. It’s staff rushing around, telling curious customers where the mystery and memoir sections will be. It’s the cash register buzzing triumphantly, as the first receipts are printed.

We wander in the shop for a while, perusing the elegant hard covers and lush cookbooks and quaint picture books, until the hour grows late and I am due home—back to what’s waiting for us at the top of the stairs.

 

The holiday season and its attendant pressures are descending.

The day darkens by five o’clock, and to combat this, the lights are going up. Bright stars are mounted on the poles of Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues; the store windows are now toy train and tinsel paradises framed with gleaming lights. New York City puts on a good show.

Meanwhile, envelopes from Oxfam, City Harvest and The New York City Food Bank wait in our tiny mailboxes. We retrieve them and head to our apartments, our doorways dressed in holiday wreaths.

A $35.00 contribution gives two families Christmas dinner. I think of those families who have next to nothing and the families who have nothing at all, not even a home. I think about the toys that catch my eye in shop windows, the ones that would be such fun to wrap and put under the tree for our only child—things she doesn’t need and doesn’t ask for. I remember my mother lamenting a t-shirt she saw a man wearing in Beverly Hills. It read: The One Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.

I stop frequently at the bookstore window to admire the handmade puppets, the wooden blocks in shiny wagons, the teddy bears from France.

Every November, before our national day of big-meal gluttony, I listen to experts on NPR talk about how to brine turkeys and make dinner guests comfortable. I take too long in the shower so I can hear the host explain that people should always give their guests something to do, like opening a bottle of wine or setting out plates of hors d’oeuvres. I envision people wrapping bottles of champagne in shiny paper with curly ribbons, putting on top coats and heading to taxis.

Now that we have a child, we don’t get invited to those sorts of parties anymore. Most of our city friends don’t have children, and the three of us—my husband, child, and I—seem to me a tribe from a distant island. The holidays are supposed to be big, aren’t they? You are supposed to be in a large kitchen arguing over recipes with family and friends.

The Salvation Army Santa Clauses have begun to line Fifth Avenue. They hold green buckets and big signs and ring enormous bells all day while collecting money for people in need. I hear the bells clanking and remember that my sorrows are small; my feeling of loneliness is unearned.

Everywhere there are reminders—if you choose to see them—that despite the lights and parades, life isn’t always pretty or comfortable.

 

Sundowning: the appearance of confusion, agitation, and other severely disruptive behavior coupled with the inability to remain asleep, occurring solely or markedly worse at night; sometimes seen in older patients or patients with dementia.

Sundowning is a term I learned five years ago when my mother had a stroke.

Think of “golden hour,” but in reverse. If you snap a photo at golden hour—the hour just before sunset—the image glows due to the sun’s angle. People who have suffered brain damage, on the other hand, often become deranged as dusk falls. They turn brittle, angry, and sometimes violent.

There are lots of theories as to why this happens. The darkness affects visual acuity and heightens disorientation by robbing already confused people of the cues they depend on. The brain’s chemistry changes as light fades. Circadian rhythms are fragile in damaged minds.

My mother has dementia.

Five Novembers ago, she bled into her brain. She hemorrhaged for hours while sitting in triage, nobody realizing the implications of her terrible headache. By the time she saw the doctor, her brain was soaked. The next day, she lay unconscious in a bed in the I.C.U.

I was told to say goodbye to my mother. I was told she would never wake up. I was shown a CAT scan that “proved” it. The blood filled more than three-quarters of her brain. People don’t wake up from that.

Two days later, she woke up.

Well, someone woke up that night, but she wasn’t exactly my mother. The brain swells after a massive bleed. Synaptic traffic ceases. The mind’s neon-lit highways go dark. They become country roads with no sign posts. Psychic anguish seizes the swollen brain. Melancholia rages.

And it will be even worse at night.

A person will sundown.

The night she woke up, my mother sundowned with the best of them.

I had never heard her hurl obscenities at anyone, never imagined a nurse would joke about wearing a football helmet to care for her. You see the most dignified people do startling things when their brains have been injured.

I am not sure how the body knows it is night in an I.C.U. There was one small window; I suppose that’s enough. When the pale autumn sun slipped below the horizon, she became feral. The nurses came in to check her pupils and she raged, cursing and taking swings at anyone who came near her.

She woke up, but she woke up broken.

 

My mother was a champion figure skater by the age of seven. She was a survivor of child abuse; her mother dragged her to the skating rink at four every morning and hit her with a hairbrush when she failed to land a jump. She was a straight-A student and a ballet dancer and a child actress. When she was ten, her mother told her she was “rotten from the day she was born.” She went to Sarah Lawrence, paying her way with the money she earned from acting. She was the lead dancer in a Broadway show by the time she was twenty-two, and she was voted “Best Legs on Broadway” in 1961. Later, when she married my father and moved to Los Angeles, she switched to the Hollywood small screen. She was trapped in an unhappy marriage and used too many pills to cover a lifetime of pain. She brought me to West Hollywood A.A. meetings on weekends, where I met the funniest people in show business. She wore Liberty scarves and houndstooth jackets. She wouldn’t let us wear white after Labor Day. She taught us that some people had too much and most people had too little. She missed New York City for all her married life.

 

I tear us away from the bookshop by 7 p.m. My wallet is lighter and my hopes unreasonably high; the new bookshop has worked magic.

We hear “Silver Bells” broadcast over speakers in Theodore Roosevelt Park.

It’s too early.

It isn’t Christmastime.

Not quite yet.

The carolers in the park seem a hallucination.

I hurry my daughter home, clutching our bag of books.

When we trudge into our lobby, my mother is waiting for us at the top of the stairs with my husband. I picked her up this morning at her apartment in a midtown assisted living facility. She is just out of the hospital after stomach surgery, after which she bled profusely. Her doctor ordered a contrast study so they could find the source of the bleed. They illuminated the organs inside her belly by injecting iodine into her vein. They found and cauterized the wound, but it will take all her body’s resources to replenish its blood supply. The doctor warned me she would need a lot of sleep, and indeed, she’s been falling asleep all day, often in the middle of a sentence. I’m glad she’s safe in my home, where I can keep a watchful eye.

I hope she is glad too. My mother rarely knows where she is, but she covers well. She doesn’t like anyone to know that she’s confused, so she pretends. After a while she gives in and asks me lots of questions.

Where are we? How long will I be here? How did I get here?

I explain, but the wind of dementia blows quickly and the spot I have marked in the sand for her is covered almost immediately. She can’t remember—again—where she is now, or where she is going. She can’t make marks that last; the sand under her feet is forever smooth. I try to imagine my mother’s interior world: what is it like to be unable to plant a flag, to leave a trail, to shape your understanding of identity with both short and long-term memory?

My mother thinks our 600-square foot apartment is a townhouse, because we live in a small building and our place faces the street. Our front room has two large southern windows from which you can see lush trees and a narrow road. Whenever she wakes up in our living room—which is also our dining room, office and playroom—she gazes through those windows at the quiet street below. She asks me how many floors our brownstone has. I look through her eyes and imagine our low-rise building as a six-story house with a grand foyer one flight down, a long hallway leading to a library, a dining room, and a spacious kitchen with a swinging door out of a 1930s movie. I wonder how closely this matches her conception. She can’t grasp the reality of space around her, so she fills in the gaps with pictures from the past that still populate her mind. She grew up on East 68th street in the 1940s, in a time when her parents paid $130.00 a month for a classic six. Most of the intervening years are now lost. She knows she is in the “present day” but she isn’t sure when or even what that is exactly.

I think maybe it isn’t all bad to be confused.

Then I bite my tongue for thinking it.

After dinner, I watch my mother and child play in my daughter’s shoe-box room. My daughter is dancing to Dick Hyman’s jazz rendition of The Nutcracker Suite. My toddler instructs my mother with recently acquired vocabulary from her ballet class.

My mother listens attentively as my daughter lectures her. She is so patient with her grandchild. Unaffected by the residue of memory, her vision is fresh every time she sees her.

I snap some photos. My mother is wearing a sweatshirt depicting an A.B.T. dancer in arabesque in the second act of Swan Lake. My daughter is wearing one of my childhood leotards and some pink wings. I interrupt their pas de deux so I can show her how to hold her back regally. We work on creating resistance through her slender arms. She imitates me. We turn the music up. We are three generations of dancers now, leaping on a shag rug in a living room in Manhattan.

My daughter is beautiful. Every mother thinks so, I know, and every mother is right. My daughter is strange, too. She is odd and small and full of startling energy. Her hair is chopped into a bob, by my own hand, because she loves to sit after the bath and feel my fingers sectioning the hair and snipping while she watches a movie. When I was little, my mother used to blow out my hair in front of the television too. She would brush and brush and tell me my hair was like “spun gold.” I didn’t understand until I had my own kid how happy it had made her to groom me. My favorite spot is the hairline, where the skin feels like velvet.

“Do you like dancing? Did you know your mother is a ballet dancer?” my mother asks her granddaughter.

“Of course I know that, Grandma Ellie. I’m going to be a ballet dancer, too. I want to do everything my mother does.”

My mother looks up at me and smiles.

“It feels good, doesn’t it? To have your daughter love you?”

 

My mother doesn’t get to keep the memory of the dancing tonight. It will be gone before morning.

I cannot pretend she is still my mother.

My mother is scented with Bal A Versailles. My mother wears the pearls her father bought my grandmother in 1939. She wears a St. John knit dress and kisses me goodnight before she leaves for a date.

My mother knows what I looked like as a child.

My mother knows the name of the doll she gave me when I was six.

My mother finds nuance in novels and subtleties in movies that other people miss.

My mother knows the history of theatrical jazz dance. She studied with Jack Cole, who learned Hindi dance vocabulary in India and taught his American students how to isolate their hips, rib cages, fingers, and necks, giving birth to the hybrid art form we see performed on Broadway stages to this day.

My mother was the lead dancer in the original cast of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Frank Loesser wrote the show. My mother wrote poems while the dancers were on break, scrawling in a notebook in the rehearsal space. She gave him her poems and he read them. Then he told her to keep writing.

I wish I could remember all the stories she’s told me, but time steals accuracy from us all.
Five years of seeing a person as she really isn’t—or shouldn’t be—makes me doubt my recollections of who she was. Sometimes I long for a five-minute chat with my before mother, just so I can be sure she once existed, because there’s one thing I know with certainty: This woman with the tentative, confused eyes is not my mother.

 

Before her stroke, my mother and I had a bad fight. “Be kind to me,” she said, when tempers cooled. “I think of the things I said impatiently when my mother was old and forgetful. Don’t say things you will regret. I tell you this for your sake, not mine. Remembering your cruelty will cut you like glass when I’m gone. ”

 

I fold out the futon in our living room. We bought it because I was seduced by its fabric and color: it’s made of a gray flannel that reminds me of the soft palettes of traditional autumnal clothing—the sort of clothing that, being raised in sunny Southern California, I never got to wear growing up. My mother loves autumn too. She was raised on one coast and I on the other, but we both love gray skies and chilly air. I cover the futon in sheets and a blanket. My daughter places her favorite bunny at my mother’s pillow.

When I go to bed, I’m prepared for my mother to awaken in the night. When she stays over, she usually knocks at our bedroom door around 2 a.m. and I hurry to get there before she opens it wide, blasting the bedroom with the bright light I have left on for her in the hallway. Usually, she just needs to be reminded of where she is and put back to bed.

When she comes to our door this time, I know instantly that it’s different. Her eyes are wild.

My mother is sundowning.

She asks me if she is a prisoner here. Does her daughter know that she is here? Why won’t I tell her anything? Do I know where her daughter is? Why won’t I answer her?

I stumble into the living room.

I wish it would help to say: Remember dancing with your grandchild tonight? Remember The Nutcracker Suite, Mom? You’re safe in your daughter’s apartment on the Upper West Side.

I want to say: Do you remember our house in a cul-de-sac off Mulholland Drive? Do you remember our little street, how we bounced down the hill in your Toyota Corolla after school?

Does it ring a bell?

Do you remember watching Postcards from the Edge when it first came out and laughing when Shirley Maclaine asks Meryl Streep to take off her jacket while she’s singing at a party? Remember how you said: “That’s my mother!’ And your daughters, flanking you in the theatre, said, “Mom! That’s you!”

Don’t you remember, Mom?

The woman in my living room wants to know where she is. She begins to hunt for items: her jacket, her keys, her purse. She looks frantically for the door. She is certain I am holding her prisoner. I remind her that I’m her daughter. She spins on me and shouts, “I had a stroke, but I’m not a moron. I know exactly who you are.” I don’t know how to answer that. We’ve gone through the looking glass. She calls me a liar. I don’t bother to ask her what I have lied about. Then she asks about my father. Where is he? They’ve been divorced for thirty years. Her longterm memory has dissolved in the blackness of night.

Mom, do you remember how you always cry when you hear Ethel Merman breaking down at the end of “Rose’s Turn” in Gypsy?

“Mama? Mama?” Rose stutters, the lyrics trailing into confusion.

Do you remember, Mom?

Mama?

Mama?

The woman in my living room is furious with me. I don’t answer her questions quickly enough and she is certain she has to get out of here, wherever here is.

Time is wavy, history is scrambled, identity is fractured, the tie between mother and daughter is shredding.

I give her a Benadryl. She has to calm down, she has to go to sleep, or I don’t know what will happen.

I call my sister for help. When my mother sees me talking on the phone, her paranoia flares like a kitchen fire. She wrenches it from my hand and slams it down.

“Some daughter you turned out to be,” she says.

When will the Benadryl work? Will the Benadryl work? Afraid, I plead for distance. She comes at me, begging me to help her, begging me, I think, for clarity, and more importantly, for peace of mind.

She lunges at me.

“Stop it!” she screams.

“Stop what, Mom?”

“You know,” she says.

The best thing to do to is to wait.

But I scream.

“Mom, stay away from me!”

Suddenly, a switch goes on. She recoils. Why is her child speaking to her this way? Has something happened? She doesn’t remember anything.

 

Five years ago, a hospital social worker told us that this was one of the worst possible outcomes of a stroke. My mother was fully mobile; she even demonstrated a ballet barre to the astonished physician who had predicted she would never wake up. By all rights she should have been paralyzed on her left side. Her physical prowess gave her a sense of being her old self and she had no idea she had severe mental handicaps. This put us in a dreadful bind: she would be outraged at the suggestion of needing help, but incapable of surviving the day without constant assistance. Because she lacked short-term memory, we would be forced to repeatedly mention her needs. Power struggles would ensue when, say, she tried to leave the house in a summer dress on a frigid winter day. My mother would respond to this as an insufferable indignity. Our new relationship would require a level of diplomacy a saint couldn’t muster.

“I feel so sorry for families in your position,” he said.

Five years ago, I rejected this prognosis.

I was a novice.

Two weeks after her stroke, I dragged my mother out of the hospital. I took her to The Met; I took her to see the lit-up trees lining Park Avenue; we gazed at the origami holiday tree at the Museum of Natural History. We stopped at St. John the Divine to hear Christmas carols and stare at stained glass. I would revive her personality by enfolding her in a picture book version of New York City at Christmastime, the New York City she pined for while raising children in sunny Los Angeles, the New York City of the 1940s.

Her New York City.

We walked up Amsterdam Avenue to meet with a neurologist on 113th Street. He asked her a series of questions and held up a series of cards. She failed every test. When shown a photo of a kitchen in disarray, she couldn’t see that an electrical cord shouldn’t be in a sink. She didn’t know the difference between a fork and a tea bag. She didn’t know the year. She couldn’t write her own name.

Five years later, she is better. She has learned to write the alphabet again and I find paragraphs of text she has painstakingly set down in the spiral notebooks I bring her each week. She’s been writing a story about a little girl whose father took her to Rockefeller Plaza in 1944, where the five-year-old taught herself to skate in one day. The little girl’s father had skates custom-made in her size and by the time she was seven, she was performing. There was one problem for the little girl: she was Jewish. The New York Skating Club refused to admit her. All the prizes and good grades in the world could not elevate her class status. Every week my mother asks me for a notebook, because she is “working on a new story.” It is the same story, her origin story, the story of her childhood. It is a story about a nine-year-old Jewish girl who skated to the song “Sleigh Ride” in a Christmas exhibition in 1949. It is a story about a tiny creature whose radiance illuminated the gloom of a dark and bigoted era.

During my mother’s visits, I often plunk a volume of poetry in her lap. “Read to me,” I demand, the way I did when I was small. I close my eyes and pretend that she remembers my childhood too. I pretend that I am still that child. She reads me Thomas Hardy. “The Darkling Thrush” is one of my favorites. It’s about a little bird who sits on a gate, singing sweetly. Why, the poet wonders, does this thrush sing so happily despite the darkness of winter? What does the thrush know that he does not?

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

We lie on my quilt and she struggles with the meter, adjusting her reading glasses, asking me to turn on another lamp, in a room filled with shadows.

 

Five years of grasping for reality erodes your sanity in a horrible way—separate from the original insult to your brain. Five years of living in a shifting collage of memories and images, five years of wondering what will happen in your day, of being certain that nothing will happen in your day and that no one will come to visit—this will defeat you. When my mother smiles for photos, I see a vacant look in the eyes that were once so bright. She’s exhausted.

Even when the sun is out, my mother struggles to make a straight line of her life, but how can she with little past and no future? We try to orient her; we fill her days with music and newspapers and walks in Central Park. I’ve put a radio right by the bed in her apartment. When she calls me I remind her to turn it on. Sometimes she cheers up. Sometimes she even dances and tells jokes.

But we dread the evening.

 

The Benadryl is beginning to work. She sits on the couch while I read an article on the Internet. She knows I am avoiding her, but she doesn’t know why.

“Can we talk?” she asks. She wants an explanation for the mood in the room. How can I explain what happened? Nothing happened. Nothing happened except sundowning.

My skin crawls. Our conversation will be a rabbit hole. I don’t want to explain things I have explained one hundred times a day for the last five years.

“Mom, could we just sit in silence? I might suffocate if we talk.”

And with that, I break her heart.

I pat her head and tell her it will be better soon.

“Define ‘better,’” she laughs.

I tell her that despite her stroke, she is still her witty self.

“I wouldn’t know,” she says.

Even now, she doesn’t miss a beat.

I can’t wait for the morning light to stream into our front windows.

Her eyes grow wobbly. She adjusts her pillow and sinks into it.

I creep into my bedroom and nestle into the darkness. My child is in our bed, sleeping through the nightmare in the living room. Her head rests on her tiny fists.

My mother is equally angelic on the couch, her hands folded delicately under her head while she sleeps.

 

It is two weeks before Christmas, and the new bookstore is thriving. Handmade wooden toys spill out on the floor of the children’s room. The scent of just-opened cardboard boxes permeates the little shop and knick-knacks jostle for attention on the tables: tea towels, ornaments made of yarn, piles of vintage postcards.

The bookstore is having its grand opening tonight. We’ve been regulars for two weeks, but tonight is the ribbon-cutting: the new era officially begins.

It is snowing outside and there’s a party with cookies and wine. People browse and gather books under their arms and congratulate the shy owner on his lovely new shop and wish him the best of luck and tell him how much the neighborhood needed this. New York City is hanging in the balance, they say. We’ve lost so many bookstores and so much else that made the city what it was.

The neighborhood hopes that the opening of an independent bookshop on the Upper West Side will be like water on parched soil. Down with the chains and the overpriced boutiques!

People hang a lot on a Columbus Avenue storefront.

It’s crowded. It looks like one of those parties in a Woody Allen film. Customers banter and bump into each other; Art Tatum plays on the radio. There is lots of tweed and Burberry plaid. I thought I’d feel festive coming to the ribbon-cutting; instead, I feel small in my dingy down jacket. I wish I’d dressed up. I liked the “preparing” part better. I liked getting in on the ground floor, when the shop was a secret, a magic portal, and I was Lucy finding Narnia. Now it’s been taken over by people who smell of brandy instead of sawdust.

I listen to the owner’s welcome speech. My daughter eats a cookie shaped like a leaf.

Then my husband and I stuff her into her puffy coat and the glass door’s bell jingles to broadcast our departure.

We emerge onto Columbus Avenue. Bright lights blast our eyes; honking fills our ears.

My husband holds our daughter up to see hundreds of protestors marching north on Columbus Avenue, halting traffic flowing south. Salespeople from local boutiques rush to the sidewalk to take photos.

We stand at the shop’s door for a long while, watching the stream of flashlights and reading the posters raised overhead.

We can’t breathe. We can’t breathe. The chanting continues up the avenue. We stand motionless, witnessing New Yorkers mobilize on a snowy winter night.

On the other side of the bookshop’s door, people are breathing in the scent of books and fruity wine, listening to jazz and eating cookies shaped like leaves.

 

I have two piles on my desk.

One is of envelopes stuffed with return address stickers and holiday cards. Charities send these with requests for money. They know their token gifts will induce a great measure of guilt, so poignant in their modesty.

The other pile is of Shutterfly Christmas cards. I want to send a beautiful image of our child to our friends. My twenties were a rough swim, but now I’ve made it to shore. Those round-edged iridescent cards will vouch for me.

After I give my toddler the return address stickers to play with, I write some checks. I cannot use the stickers and greeting cards or read the letters from hungry seniors without sending money.

Outside, Tiffany ads have taken over every bus stop; trees glow in all the lobbies and each little shop has a blackboard placed out front, counting down the days, reminding us it isn’t too late to buy one more scarf or trinket. Holiday glitter coats the streets, but it plays a funny trick: the sparkle highlights the bleakness of winter, as though the city has been injected with iodine designed to outline the lonely and forgotten.

I stamp the envelopes, my meager offerings, and put them on our hallway table to go out with the morning mail. Then I pad down the dark hall to my warm bed.

 

My parents threw lots of parties in our house in Beverly Hills. We had a champagne-colored marble table, imported from Italy, that weighed five thousand pounds. My parents were not a happy couple, and our time of prosperity was unexpectedly short, but our life, in that brief era, was filled with company. Actors and screenwriters and novelists surrounded that marble table and filled the house with chatter and gaiety, laughter and conversation. The crowds gradually dissipated when my parents divorced, but it wasn’t until my mother’s stroke that all the ties unraveled. Her closest friends call me now; they want to know how she is, to tell her they love her, but no one wants to spend time on the phone with someone who doesn’t remember her own dear friends.

I’ve saved an article about my mother from a 1947 Collier’s Magazine. It’s called “Skating Baby,” and it tells the story of a little girl prodigy who performs at Rockefeller Plaza. It hangs in our front hall: history in black and white print.

Once, my mother performed for thousands. Once, my mother tucked me into bed, and picked out the sheets for that bed. She chose a quilt with butterflies and cranberry trim. Once, my mother placed a pale pink vase filled with pussy willow in the corner of my bedroom. Once, my mother had an eye for the tiniest detail.

Now, I hound the staff at assisted living to empty her trash cans or replace a burned out bulb. Now, I label her drawers to help her find articles of clothing. Now, I remind my mother to go to the 6 p.m. movie screening so she isn’t alone when the sun goes down.

The nurses at my mother’s residence know me well. Some hate me. I am a thorn in their sides, always demanding to know if my mother has had her Ensure, if her room has been cleaned, if they mind fixing the television because she pushed the wrong button on the cable box and all she gets is static.

The nurses witness suffering relentlessly; I don’t know how they find the heart to smile or put one more collection of pills on a tray, face one more clogged toilet or bloody mattress. But they do, and they gather up my mother’s medications for me when I come to pick her up for an overnight visit. They listen to stories about my daughter and ask to see photos of her.

I am sitting in our small New York City apartment as I type this, looking out at the bare December branches I dreamed of in a youth spent under palm trees. There’s a snowstorm predicted for Christmas Eve. We have a little evergreen decorated with white lights and silver bows. We’ll have a quiet Christmas, not like those my mother used to host.

My daughter likes to wear her grandmother’s old satin robes. She poses on our window ledge like a tiny Auntie Mame, her posture both campy and graceful. She is so like my before mother: elegant and lush.

When she was a newborn, I brought her to the assisted living complex. The residence is only a few avenues from Times Square. In fact, it stands on the very same street where How to Succeed, and my mother, made their Broadway debuts in 1961.

Every orderly made the same quip when they saw the baby.

“We see the end of life around here, but we never see the beginning.”

Now, I watch my three-year-old posing in the window. When my mother was small, my grandfather gave her ice skates because she had energy to burn. So too does my daughter.

My mother lives on through her strange and wondrous grandchild.

Both of them—granddaughter and grandmother—merge in my mind. They share a determined opposition, a fierceness of spirit that is arresting.

There’s my mother’s voice again—grappling with the meter of Hardy’s poem.

That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

In my mind’s eye, my mother and daughter are dancing to The Nutcracker Suite on a cold night in late November.

Shadows retreat; a rosy glow spreads across a space that once was dark.

They are my darkling thrushes.

Facebooktwitterreddit

6 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *