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A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl

Marlene Adelstein | Longreads | December 26, 2018 | 3,190 words
Posted inEssays & Criticism, Feature, Nonfiction, Story

A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl

Marlene Adelstein finds herself transported back in time and consciousness via an inherited painting.
Image courtesy Marlene Adelstein / Portrait by Aaron Kurzen

Marlene Adelstein | Longreads | December 2018 | 13 minutes (3,190 words)

When Mom sees me, a big smile lights up her face, her blue eyes shine bright, and I give her a hug and kiss. “Hi, Connie,” I say. Although she doesn’t know me any more as her daughter, she seems to recognize my face. I’ve flown down to Florida to visit her in the assisted living facility where, until last year, she lived with my dad. When he suddenly got an infection and needed to be hospitalized, Mom, who has late-stage Alzheimer’s, couldn’t be left alone. It was clear what needed to happen. We moved her one floor down to the locked memory care unit, a necessity that was long overdue. My dad had been her caregiver since her diagnosis but the last couple of years she’d simply become too much for him. He recovered from the infection and moved back to the facility but into a smaller apartment, a one bedroom, where he lived alone for about five months until he had a sudden, dramatic decline in his health and, at 89, died.

Once she moved to memory care, Mom would often ask for my dad by his name, Bernard. He was the last person she remembered. But lately she has asked for Bernard less frequently and now when she sees me she says, “Have you seen the other guy?”

“No,” I say cheerfully. “I came to see you! Want to go out to lunch?” Redirecting is the name of the game to avoid the extremely unpleasant outbursts which my mom is known for. A few times a week she sets off the alarm by opening the door to the stairwell while trying to leave the floor, yelling and flailing as the staff restrains her. Exit seeking, the staff calls it. Connie wants to see her mother, who she claims lives across the street. She shoves caregivers away or pounds on the window overlooking the rehab wing my dad was in for many weeks, where she often visited him. Mother, I’m guessing, represents her husband, her children…home.

Back in her studio apartment after lunch, I give her a book called “Bear Hugs,” a small board book meant for very young children. It contains drawings of animals and the various cute nicknames their loved ones call them. I read it aloud with exaggerated expressions, acting it out. “You’re super cute and cuddly, as sweet as pumpkin pie.” When I get to the end where a mama bear grabs her baby in a bear hug, I demonstrate on her, which makes Mom giggle and smile. She loves that part. “That is so sweet,” she says and she flips through the book. She quickly forgets that we just read it so I go to the beginning and read it to her again. She loves being held and I have to admit, I like it too. I was never particularly close to her but in recent years that’s changed as our roles have reversed and I’ve had to care for this mom-child.

“You’re good,” she says to me after the third time through the book. “Well, thank you,” I say. “So are you,” and again, I get that brilliant smile out of her.

Later when I am getting ready to leave the facility, always a dicey situation, I tell her I have to say goodbye. Sadness descends over her like a curtain and I think she’s going to cry. I give her an effusive bear hug, holding my mother the way I would have held the child I never had. When she asks for her mother and “what’s his name,” I rock her back and forth as if playing a game until I am able to cajole that smile again. “I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise,” I say.

The elevator is taking forever to come so I punch in the code to disarm the alarm and duck into the stairwell to hide my tears, the door clicking shut behind me. I hear Mom screaming “Let me go, I want to go home!” and when the alarm goes off I realize she’s tried to follow me out the door.

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