Actors Home party (photo by E. Herd)
Pseudonyms are used for Actors Home staff.
I took last Friday off from work to go to a holiday party at the Actors Home where my mother resides. I had other things to do, like renew my driver’s license, return a pair of slippers at Kohl’s. and pick up a final Christmas gift, but the main reason I took the day off was to go to the party.
My husband Lorin and I arrived a little before 4:00 to escort Mom from her unit to the party on the main floor.
“Mom, there’s a party on the first floor. Wanna go?”
“Not really. I don’t feel so good,” she said.
That should have clued me in, but I was persistent. Let’s be honest, I wanted to go to the party. I was looking forward to a couple glasses of wine, a hot meal and the entertainment. The mood was festive: red and white tablecloths, decorations, a pianist playing Christmas carols. What could go wrong?
When we entered the party room, Mom said, “I’m not dressed for this.”
“Do you want to change upstairs?” I said.
The activities coordinator, Mira, said, “I’m dressed casually; I’ve been working all day.”
I said, “I’m casual too, Mom.” I was wearing jeans, and my striped Christmas sweater and black hiking boots.
She said in an acid voice, “Well, you’re always casual. At least you’re comfortable.”
No use arguing with the boss. Guess I’m a bum.
Servers came around with platters of hors d’oeuvres like shrimp and spring rolls.
“Mom, you like shrimp. You want some?”
“No, I’m not hungry.”
“Well, we’ll get you some anyway.”
The server handed her a small plate of shrimp with a spoonful of cocktail sauce and a wedge of lemon.
“Do you want lemon on the shrimp?” I asked.
“No.” I handed her a shrimp dipped in cocktail sauce, and she ate it reluctantly.
Lorin sipped a glass of coke, I had white wine and Mom had a Sprite.
Lorin said, “Mom is in a brown study.”
I had to ask him what that meant.
“Do you want a glass of white wine?” I asked her.
“No, this is fine.”
She used to like Chardonnay.
The pianist continued playing Christmas carols, and I sang along, hoping Mom would pipe in.
“This isn’t Christmas anymore. I miss Rick. There’s no family, not the way it used to be,” she said.
Rick is my brother who lives in upstate New York.
“I know, Mom. Do you want me to call Rick? We can speak to him now.”
“No, that’s okay.”
“These clothes don’t fit. Why don’t you give me clothes that fit?” She tugged at the rolled up sleeves of her pink sweater.
“I didn’t buy you that sweater, Mom. They got it for you at the old place.”
I sang along to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and said, “You always liked this one.”
“It’s from Easter Parade*,” I said.
“I’m not dressed for a party,” she said, scrunching up her face.
Lorin and I made an executive decision to return her to her room, sensing that her discontent was escalating. When a social worker asked why we were leaving, I said that Mom was “cranky,” and we thought it best to bring her back to her room.
“Come back and enjoy the party,” she said, smiling.
I told Russ, the nurse in her unit, that she wasn’t having a good time and asked if she could have dinner with the group.
“Sure,” he said.
I wheeled her to a table with two other ladies and said, “I’m putting your cookies and soap in your room.”
“Okay, at least that’s something to look forward to,” she said.
Lorin stayed with her while I was out of the room.
When I returned, I said, “Okay, so you’ll eat dinner here.”
“I’m not hungry,” she said, petulantly.
“You need to eat something.”
Her face contorted into a sneer and she said to Lorin, “You shit!”
I exchanged looks with Lorin.
“Okay, Mom, we’re going now,” I said.
“You’re not staying with me for dinner?”
Lorin said, “Have a good dinner. Good night, Katherine.”
“Enjoy!” she burst out, almost hissing at him.
One of the ladies at her table looked at Lorin and said, “She’s a liar.”
From the mouths of babes, or old people with Alzheimer’s—kind of the same thing.
Lorin and I returned to the party and enjoyed the buffet dinner and entertainment.
Broadway dancers and singers performed, including Christine Ebersole, who closed with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
I wish Mom could have enjoyed the party with us, but it was not in the stars, I suppose. Somehow it’s easier for me to tolerate her abuse of me—she could be very cutting and hurtful towards me before her Alzheimer’s diagnosis and still is from time to time. What I cannot tolerate, however, is her abuse of Lorin. That is unacceptable.
Perhaps I’ve become inured to her verbal and psychological cruelty, but something snapped on Friday. I felt like Little Edie in Grey Gardens, the ever-present caretaker who spent her life living with and taking care of her mother. No, I don’t live with Mom, but sometimes it feels like she lives inside my head.
I spent Saturday being angry at her for her cruelty, and at myself for spending so many years taking care of her when she has expressed so little love for me. I don’t think she’s ever really loved me. I’m not saying this for sympathy, but because I believe it to be true. There are many wasted years I’ll never get back. Liking myself and loosening her grip on me takes daily work; it may be a life-long effort. I don’t want to live in Grey Gardens.
*The song is actually from Meet Me in St. Louis, not Easter Parade.