Saturday, January 19, 2013

Tea, cribbage, popcorn, and my beautiful mother

My mother has burned the popcorn yet again. My mother always burns the popcorn. Come to her house any evening, and you'll scrunch up your nose. It's a distinctly unpleasant smell, but you get used to it in a few minutes.

"Would you like some popcorn?" she asks, holding out the wooden bowl of slightly blackened popcorn.

"No thank you," I respond. "I'll just have tea." I put the kettle on and check out her candy container while the water boils. All that's there is the leftover candy from the Christmas parade—the utter rejects of the rejects. Broken peppermints and bubble gum. "You need new candy," I say. She laughs.

The water boils and I make a pot of tea. Constant Comment. It's what we've been drinking for decades. The pot I bought for my mother the year we lived in Germany. I put three tea cups and the pot on the dining room table. My father gets out the cribbage board and deals the cards. He pulls his red ball cap a little lower down to keep out the dim light overhead. He can't tolerate light glare of any kind.

"I only have 5 cards!" my mother says.

"That's all you're supposed to have," says my father.

My mother eats her burnt popcorn. "Would you like some popcorn?" she asks again.

"No, thank you," I reply again. "I'm just going to have tea." I resist mentioning that the popcorn holds a bitter taste of burn. I've said it on a hundred other nights, but lately I've stopped.

We play a hand, count our cards. My father has a bandage on his upper lip where he'd had a skin cancer removed. He looks dapper somehow, like a colonel. Sophisticated. I wonder why my father has never grown a mustache.  He drinks his hot tea with a straw so that the bandage doesn't get wet.

It's my mother's turn to deal. "Do I deal six cards?" she asks.

"No, just five," my father says.
Are you sure?" my mother asks. "I had six cards last time!"

"Five cards, Mom."

She deals, then asks whose turn it is. "I talked to Barbara today. She sent me a stack of pictures," my mother says. I struggle to come up with "Barbara." My cousin's wife? "They were pictures of Shirley's." I understand now. Shirley was my mother's best friend from childhood. They've known one another for over 75 years. Shirley has been in a nursing home for years, battling Parkinson's.

"Barbara says Shirley sleeps all the time," my mother says. She shakes her head.

"She's probably on a lot of medications for the Parkinson's that makes her sleep," I tell my mom. She looks relieved. Sleep brought on by medicine is better than just being so old that you sleep all the time.

"Barbara adopted a girl, you know," my mother tells me. I don't think I've ever met Barbara, but I have known nearly all my life that Barbara couldn't have children. "She'd be a woman now, of course. Elizabeth." 

My father directs us back to the game.

"Wait!" says my mother in alarm. "I only have 5 cards!"

"That's all you need," I reassure her.

"Am I the only one eating popcorn?"

"You are, Mom." I photograph her hand in the popcorn bowl. She laughs.

We play for an hour, and each time my mother asks: "Six cards?" My father and I exchange looks just once. What is there really to say?

Every few months my father will ask me: "Do you think your mom has Alzheimer's?"

"No, Dad," I tell him because not only has she been tested and cleared, but I intuitively know she doesn't.  I used to tell him that we women are just like that. Sometimes we can't find the words for simple objects because our minds are so full of our children and cooking supper and a million other things. Every single day my kids find a word for me. "Teapot, Mom. Dog toy. Piano bench." Who can concentrate on something so simple when you have a list of 20 running conversations in your head?

But there is more now to my mother's grasping for words, to her repetition. My mother is growing old. Her friends are dying, have been for 20 years. A year ago she lost her last brother, and her lifelong best friend sleeps in a nursing home all day long. She aches, each and every day. She rubs her legs, flinches with pain as she gets up from the couch.

Still, she gets up every single day. She cooks a big lunch for my father every single day. First sign of a sunny day, she hangs her laundry on the clothesline and picks up sticks in the yard, leaving piles for my father to cart down to the curb. She reads voraciously and even plays solitaire on the computer. Most day she shakes it off terribly well, this business of growing old. But in the evenings, she is weighed down by it, by the fullness of her life and by the sheer loss of what-once-was. I love her.

My mother wins the game. She is ecstatic —we never beat my father. She may not remember how many cards to deal from hand to hand, but she counts off her points like a math whiz.

I will gladly take the questions asked again and again, the burned popcorn, and the thrice-told tales, and I will treasure up these moments, these days, for as long as they will last.

Linked up with Saturday Snapshot


  1. Your post brought tears to my eyes. What a blessing moms are. Hold on to these memories, they are so fleeting.

  2. Sarah,
    January is a particularly difficult month for me. It is the month of my mothers birth and the anniversary of her death, with just 2 days in between. Memories like you shared today are so common and yet, at the same time, so rare! Yes, do take the repeated questions, the stories told again and again and maybe, just maybe, eat a couple of those burnt popcorn kernels! There was a "wink" at the end of that! Loved the photo of her hand in the bowl, it was absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing her with us!

  3. You paint the picture of aging so perfectly. I just came from my mom's house where my sister and niece and I played cards. Mom declined to join us. I hope she'll want to try it next time.

  4. That was truly amazing! How wonderfully written!

    Thank you!

  5. What a beautiful paint a word picture so well!

  6. Sarah, your post was lovely. It made me miss my mama, and wish I could go back and have a do over of the times I was impatient with her or frustrated that she was repeating herself. My mama taught me to play all kinds of card games, and unlike my father, would let us win sometimes when we were little. I hope it's all right that I mentioned your wonderful story on my blog:
    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story of your mother.

  7. Hi Sarah! I'm a new reader. Love this post about your mom. When we love each other "as is", everything is so much more relaxed and we can love more. It comes through in your story, and your example is wonderful.
    Audrey Piepmeier

  8. What a beautiful post about your mother. These regular moments will one day become the most treasured.

  9. Sarah, I read this when you first posted it, but was on my phone and had difficulty leaving a comment. It has been on my lists of things to do ever since.

    This was one of my favorite things of yours that I have ever read and I just had to tell you how beautiful that it was.

    1. How sweet that you remembered and came back to comment, Kathi!


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