Sunday, November 29, 1987
LOST IN AMERICA
mother and I are driving through Hartford, Conn., on the
way to a town called Essex. Neither of us has ever been
to Essex, but we're both desperately hoping that my mother
will want to live there.
has been rootless for several months now, moving from son
to son around the country, ever since she sold the house
she had lived in for 40 years, the house she raised us in,
the house my father built. The house where he died, April
4, 1984. She would notethe date each year on the calender
in the kitchen.
"Dave died, 1984," the note would say.
"Come back, Dave."
The note for July 5, their anniversary, said:
"Married Dave, 1942. Best thing that ever happened
The house was too big for my mother to handle
alone, and we all advised her to sell it. Finally she did,
and she shipped all her furniture to Sunnyvale, Calif.,
where my brother Phil lived. Her plan was to stay with him
until she found a place of her own out there.
Only she hated Sunnyvale. At first this seemed
almost funny, even to her. "All my worldly goods,"
she would say, marveling at it, "are in a warehouse
in Sunnyvale, Calif., which I hate." She always had
a wonderful sense of absurdity.
After a while it didn't seem so funny. My mother
left Sunnyvale to live for a while with my brother Sam,
in San Francisco, and then with me, in Florida; but she
didn't want to stay with us. What she wanted was a home.
What she really wanted was her old house back.
With my father in it.
Of course she knew she couldn't have that, but
when she tried to think of what else she wanted, her mind
would just lock up. She started to spend a lot of time watching
"You have to get on with your life,"
I would tell her, in this new, parental voice I was developing
when I talked to her. Dutifully, she would turn off the
TV and get out a map of the United States, which I bought
her to help her think.
"Maybe Boulder would be nice," she
would say, looking at Colorado. "I was born near Boulder."
"Mom," I would say in my new voice.
"We've talked about Boulder 50 times, and you always
end up saying you don't really want to live there."
Chastened, she would look back at her map, but
I could tell she wasn't really seeing it.
"You have to be realistic," I would
say. The voice of wisdom.
When she and I had driven each other just about
crazy, she went back out to California, and repeated the
process with both of my brothers. Then one night she called
to ask, very apologetically, if I would go with her to look
at Essex, Conn., which she had heard was nice. It was a
bad time for me, but of course I said yes, because your
mom is your mom. I met her in Hartford and rented a car.
I'm driving; my mother is looking out the window.
"I came through Hartford last year with
Frank and Mil, on the way to Maine," she says. Frank
was my father's brother; he has just died. My mother loved
to see him. He reminded her of my father.
"We were singing," my mother says.
She starts to sing.
I'm forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air.
tell she wants me to sing, too. I know the words; we sang
this song when I was little.
First they fly so high, nearly reach the sky
Then like my dreams, they fade and die.
But I don't sing. I am all business.
"I miss Frank," says my mother.
Essex turns out to be a beautiful little town,
and we look at two nice, affordable apartments. But I can
tell right away that my mother doesn't want to be there.
She doesn't want to say so, after asking me to fly up from
Miami, but we both know.
The next morning, in the motel coffee shop, we
have a very tense breakfast.
"Look, Mom," I say, "you have
to make some kind of decision." Sounding very reasonable.
She looks down at her map. She starts talking
about Boulder again. This sets me off. I lecture her, tell
her she's being childish. She's looking down at her map,
gripping it. I drive her back to Hartford, neither of us
saying much. I put her on a plane; she's going to Milwaukee,
to visit my dad's sister, then back to my brother in Sunnyvale,
Calif. Which she hates.
The truth is, I'm relieved that she's leaving.
"You can't help her," I tell myself,
"until she decides what she wants." It is a sound
About a week later, my wife and I get a card
from my mother.
"This is to say happy birthday this very
special year," it says. "And to thank you for
Our birthdays are weeks away.
About two days later, my brother Phil calls,
crying, from a hospital. My mother has taken a massive overdose
of Valium and alcohol. The doctors want permission to turn
off the machines. They say there's no hope.
We talk about it, but there really isn't much
to say. We give the permission.
It's the only logical choice.
The last thing I saw my mother do, just before
she went down the tunnel to her plane, was turn and give
me a big smile. It wasn't a smile of happiness; it was the
same smile I give my son when he gets upset listening to
the news, and I tell him don't worry, we're never going
to have a nuclear war.
I can still see that smile any time I want. Close
my eyes, and there it is. A mom, trying to reassure her
boy that everything's going to be OK.
© 1987 Dave Barry
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