Why remember anything/but the wonder of those few days,/the iced trees…
–Natasha Trethewey, “Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971”
You drive me there, down Highway 99 to Bakersfield, east across the Tehachapi (it is spitting soft sleet at the summit, swirling dark clouds, a foreshadowing we delight in and to which we are oblivious); intersecting with I-40 at Barstow and continuing eastward across the endless rest of California; Arizona, where we face a full moon rising over Flagstaff, the cooling of cedars; the next morning warming up like spring or June, elevating our moods even further through Albuquerque and Amarillo and finally arriving in OKC, at a hotel with a karaoke bar, where I drink too much and rise and sing to “All Alone Am I,” wake the next day with a splitting headache and your somewhat astonished glance; cancel breakfast with Aunt Sarah with some lame excuse and continue to head east through Oklahoma, veer southeast toward Ada, Allen, Atwood; down through Gertie, a typical non-town with a Quik Pic/gas station combo, the government-sponsored senior center with its two-dollar lunch, and at least five churches; around that obligatory corner with the gutted mobile, hollow door flung open, weeds engulfing broken steps, a child’s single shoe, a clothesline with one hanging frozen shirt; on south over the crunch of gravel and into my mother’s dirt driveway; she rushes towards us with open arms, her face swollen and red from a medication that’s supposed to make her think straight, and she hugs and whispers, “You’re here, you’re here, you’re here.”
You have prepared for Denise’s arrival, welcoming her with lemon throat lozenges and Tums in a bowl on our bedside table, an ashtray on the front porch and a fan on the dresser, even though it’s winter, because you know she’s quirky this way, needs the noise and the breeze no matter what the temperature. You chide me for letting her iron her own shirt, saying I should be ashamed, reducing me to a little girl in trouble. Though you’ve long forgotten how to navigate the intricacies of the coffee pot and the need for soap in the dishwater, you insist on frying the potatoes to go with the purple-hull peas for dinner, stirring and stirring them to mush. You tell me you don’t understand why I keep calling them black-eyed peas, even though this is what we’ve always called them. You don your fishing hat and grab your walking stick fashioned by your husband and invite us on your daily walk with him, which on that day we avoid, waiting on the porch, discussing how you’ve changed, your mental decline ever so slow and insidious, which you refuse to talk about. Yet parts of you never change. Your unspoken acknowledgement of us as a couple; your ever-present charm and Okie hospitality. You return smiling all the way across the yard, the black five-toed kitten loping along beside you, and ask us if we want, “oh whatever it is you call it,” which ends up strawberry shortcake.
The ice storm
One day the wind changes directions and the sky clouds over. We watch Gary England’s predictions on Channel 4, while my mother makes endless trips from the couch to her bedroom and back, gazing through the blinds of the picture window, waiting, watching for the weather to change, when the lights go out. You descend onto the Plains, a record-breaker, blowing ice sideways across the yard, slamming into the trees, wrapping branches in a glassy glaze, until they crack and crash under the weight. Individual blades of yellowed grass stand crystallized in place, bent and breaking under the steps of our plodding feet. You rage on. For three days we’re shut in, the countryside of scattered farmhouses white and dark. I take over the kitchen, cook every meal on the one-burner stove and boil water for baths. We read by candle or lantern light and banter back and forth about nothing, as my mother continues to pace and look out the windows. You pin us in our beds, under piled quilts, as Denise and I cling to each other.
You are a mixture of a man, meanness and kindness; we never know which way your wind will blow or when, out of the blue, out of your mouth, who-knows-what will come. On one trip, I awaken to your raised voice through the walls. I listen through the bedroom door. You instruct my mother to clean herself, your voice insistent and hard. I barge in, abandoning all thought of respect or manners. Who gives a shit at this point what you might think or say or do? In the tiny bathroom off the master, you thrust the soap into her hand and insist she has to learn. Yet on the first day of the ice storm, when we have lost all power, you bring flashlights, lanterns and a one-burner camp stove in from the shed. You take care of my mother for three years, until you can no longer. You bake her biscuits every morning, and sometimes fry her an egg, as she sits in her pink robe at the kitchen table, hands in her lap. You retrieve a fecal log she has hidden in the recipe box and say nothing. You tolerate your wife’s lesbian daughter; work beside Denise stripping carpet out of the same bathroom and laying linoleum more easily cleaned, until you exceed your tolerance. We scatter; leave you alone in your stripping and laying.
My mother as a young girl
I know little about your life then. I do know Granny was hard on you, called you lazy, which you believed and worked to dispel, meaning you really never stopped working. Even if you were sitting still, you thought about what you should do next, what needed to be done, what someone might think about what was not done. Even in the nursing home, you were drawn to the smell of the laundry room; helped to fold and unfold the same washcloths or stood with the dispensing nurse at the medicine cart, patting your hand along its metal edges. You graduated from Crooked Oak High School, roller-skated at the local rink, got tipsy a few times and were drawn to my laughing father in his Navy whites, who’d just returned from a ship off Guam. Your own father killed himself when you were four or five, setting a rail car on fire with his own self inside, an advancing case of syphilis contracted as a railroad engineer taking over his mind. You despised your stepfather for an unknown reason, yet you attended to him like a dutiful daughter in his last days. You watched your own mother change from a force of nature — in the kitchen, in the garden, in her own café — to obsessively seasoning the pots on the stove, lining the sink with a thin stream of Mazola and accusing her husband of sleeping with other women on his trips to the grocery store. Thus began the dread of losing your mind.
That tiny blue bathroom
It’s only my mother and me now. She’s standing there naked from the waist down, full of fear like a child. I run water in the sink, lather a washcloth with the bar of soap, bend down and touch the warmth between her white, shivering legs. She starts. I tell her, “It’s OK, Mom, it’s OK,” as she balances with her wet, shaky palm against my back. I’ll never let my mother go to the bathroom alone again when I can help it, which is rare. Countless times she is alone, a thought I can’t get out of my mind. When I am there, she sits on the toilet and I sit on the side of the bathtub facing her. We sing Amazing Grace, or I sing and she hums. We smile at each other. At the end of the hymn, we clap for ourselves, for the unseen audience — and start all over again.
My mother losing it
One summer, you begin to plant marigolds in the barrels lining the porch and lose your way, asking your husband for help. Later, you forget the word “grasshoppers” that you try to explain are chewing at the necks of these same orange-gold flowers. You will grin in your lawn chair when I tell you how cute you are in your fisherman’s hat and brogans. You usually shrink from compliments, yet lift your arthritic hands in a “Tah-dah,” but you will have forgotten those words, too, and simply laugh, while I snap a picture. You will continue to grin on the second day in the nursing home when you greet us with, “This is such a nice place,” when you have peed into your shoes and are wearing the same blue coat. I know in that instant that even though you are losing your mind, you are still trying to make us all feel comfortable, still letting us off the hook.
You realize now that you’ve conflated the seasons and every trip to Oklahoma, from the time your mother showed the first signs of dementia, when she stopped writing letters because she explained, “I can’t spell worth a darn anymore,” to the first day of March, 2002, when you check her into the Woodland Hills nursing home eight miles from the house in another snowstorm, her hair freshly done up by the hairdresser who worked out of her home down the road, something your stepfather insists upon. Each thing is real and true, the sleet in the Tehachapi, the full moon in Flagstaff, the karaoke, the trailer weeds, the fried potatoes, the walk, the deformed kitten, the strawberry shortcake, the bathroom incident, the recipe box, Amazing Grace; only a fraction of the remembered images of that time. So many trips, five or six times a year, over the course of the eleven years it takes for your mother to finally forget how to swallow; when we give up feeding or hydrating, remove the oxygen mask, which she hated and constantly pulled at, when we finally let her go. It is the ice storm that stands out now, the ice snapping branches, the sleet flying sideways.
After three days, the sun finally comes out and the lights back on. The central heating clicks in and the fan in the guest bedroom hums a fresh breeze. The TV voices blare again at my stepfather’s bad ears. The day of our leaving has come too quickly and not quickly enough. Amid goodbye hugs my mother says, “I know you’ll never come back,” afraid the ice storm has done it, is driving us away. We try to reassure her, but there is no taking this thought out of her head. Our feet trample the rigid grass as we traverse the melting yard. Denise drives us out, through a frozen landscape of split trees, foot-long icicles dripping from power lines and giant slabs of ice lifting off semis, hurling through the air toward our windshield, aiming to knock us off the road. We keep driving away from it, from all of it, from the Quik Pics and dead towns, from flapping, empty shirts, from loved ones losing it, from flat out loss we cannot stop.
Phyllis Brotherton has a long career accounting for things. A late blooming writer, she received her MA in Creative Nonfiction in 2000 from Fresno State University and is currently a 3rd year MFA student there. Her work has appeared in the online journals Pithead Chapel, Spry, and the San Joaquin Review, and is forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree. She is the Interim CEO at the local PBS station and lives with her partner, Denise, in Clovis, California.