Ma in the House

Before Ma arrived at our house, we tried to move or remove a few things to make life easier for her.  Backpacks and hat-and-mitten barrels were urged out of the hallway. The giant dust-bunnies (a creative collaboration between our Maine coon-ish cat and our aging suburban house) were swept up from the corners of each wall-papered room. Stacks of boring professional-type reading were carried out of the bedroom we were handing over to Ma. The rest of the library-studio-study-costume bank, in other words our house of groaning boards, we left pretty much as it was–just lightly dusted and a little more tightly arranged.

After Ma arrived, things changed further. She blended in gently and helpfully, and made us more civilized as always. An early sign that things were different was the command she called out from the dining room to the kitchen that the grocery list needed to be rewritten neatly. When I teased her about it, she asserted, in the tiniest huff, “Just to make it more legible.” My spouse and I go by the minimum standard, that a random miscellany of items scrawled on a scraggly envelope back  in the 3 usual hands (2 adults, 1 teenager) is list enough. Frankly, in our whirligig family life, we are lucky to even have that much forethought prior to a dash to the grocery–devil take the one illegible bit that indicates an arcane non-staple item (a tropical sauce or a particular flavor of vinegar). Meanwhile, Ma has always had handwriting that looks like an orderly set of blossoms and tendrils; she could have been a bookkeeper in a temple where neat writing was an offering to the gods, where tidy pages won one merit in the afterlife. To add to that glory, she actually got trained as a calligrapher when she was in her 40s, by a teacher who escaped from concentration camp in World War II by means of his handwriting (thus document-faking) skills.

My writing, painting, reading-and-note-taking mother is contented to stay in the house most of the time, and this tendency is encouraged in her by being in the shivery Northland that is Maine. Nevertheless, she was eager to make one trip: an early shopping run we made with her after she arrived was for decent watercolor tubes. She was managing to do full-page paintings of flowers while sitting at my tiny, antique, secretary desk with the fold-down top. Of course she apologizes for making “a mess” though in our household, which is a giant irony. The room we have given to Ma is usually the only tidy-looking place (though I’ll be the first to say that we have our own ways of organizing  cleverly hidden beneath a (“busy fools-“) distracting layer of clutter).

Yesterday we got Ma lightweight, lace-up, snow boots and a tiny steel tea kettle she can lift without stressing her malfunctioning thumb joint.  These are the additions to her stockpile of required items for the month plus she is spending with us over the winter holiday. The spooky warm December we were having didn’t liftour general suspicion that it might snow anytime in “inland Maine north of Portland”–we knew what was happening in the northern parts of the state. Ma is still mulling over the strangely familiar Tibetan-sounding brand name of her new lightweight boots.  I told her the name must have been chosen on purpose because it’s reminiscent of mountain-climbing in the Himalayas. Middle-class Bengalis have long vacationed in the foothills of those mountains and my parents continued to visit there even after we emigrated from India; Tibetan names and words have long studded the edges of standard Bangla vocabulary.

Meanwhile, the new one-quart tea kettle was quarantined to Ma’s sole use, and she no longer hadto lift the whistling brass-trimmed behemoth the rest of the family wields. The lady carries choicest teabags wherever she goes in case she finds herself where people don’t “get it” about good, hot, tea. Although we naturally had a large jar of loose tea leaves for when the day allows leisure for a ceremonial steeping, this is too much work now first thing in the morning with the 3 permanent residents dashing off in different directions.

We knew our heavy-weight pots and pans would be a burden to Ma–though she wouldn’t stop turning out hot, vegetarian means with whatever there was at hand. She is 78% right in her unexpressed fear that we’d never produce edible things for her ourselves, at least not in a timely, meal-time manner– so we were looking for light steel cookware for this slightly fragile seasoned professional . We thought of each new item we purchased in terms of its weight, the way one does before an overseas flight. It was a different way of seeing the world guiding my spouse and myself towards coordinating ourselves for our own, already-underway, aging.

If she wanted to, Ma could write a colorful column about the multifarious changes we foisted on her as she becomes a member of our household, even if it’s for just “some of the time”.  I’d have to edit her account, of course. Just so you know, I got her permission to write this.