Last year my mother moved into an assisted living home. Her frequent bouts of depression trumped any nostalgia she had for her old life, and she left behind a house full of belongings. A few months after her move, I found myself kneeling on the floor of her old closet, stuffing dated outfits — her fringed vest, mint-green muumuu, brocade shift dress — into trash bags.
My fever pitch slowed, though, when my fingers fell upon an old scarf — a Hermes knockoff in shades of navy, gold and orange. It was that last hue, its brilliant carroty oranginess, that stirred my memory, taking me back to spring of 1987 when I was 21, finishing up a semester abroad in Paris and about to embark on a three-week trip with my mother and sister.
I remember standing on the train platform absorbing the jostling of impatient travelers as I scanned the crowds for my family. I couldn’t wait to see them. My mom and I had always been close. She was my support system, even when I moved overseas. She’d written me letters, sent care packages and called frequently. I was hungry for her nurturing ways and eager to show her Paris.
My excitement over our reunion began to wane, though, when my eyes lit upon a petite, plump 50ish woman with bright ginger hair, waving one arm frantically.
“Nancy! Nancy!” she shouted.
It was my mother — normally dark haired like myself — with that scarf tied jauntily around her neck. I don’t know who I’d been expecting. A tall lithe woman with a stylish updo clad in a black trench coat? But I felt my disappointment keenly, and my returning smile was a weak one.
Ever since I’d landed at Paris-Charles De Gaulle Airport, I’d been trying to shed my identity as a young woman reared in the suburbs of Middle America. I replaced my Levis and sweatshirts with dark skirts and high heels. I started to drag on the occasional cigarette and I squirted French perfume liberally on my pulse points. Now here was my mother, behaving as conspicuously as I had ever seen a tourist behave in Paris. “God,” I thought as I made my way toward her, “don’t let me turn into her.”
Over the next few weeks I cringed each time she did something I deemed unsophisticated. I’d learned to cross busy intersections with a brisk step and a blasé expression. My mother, by contrast, darted ahead, weaving through the crowds and waiting on the opposing curb, performing that enthusiastic “I’m over here!” wave.
Her giddiness over sharing in my international experience — one her own parents, both illiterate laborers, never could have afforded — overrode any sense of decorum. When I led her through the marbled halls of the Louvre, she insisted on pointing out the male statues that were sans fig leaf. And, after I made the mistake of teaching her how to say, “I have to pee” in French, I heard the phrase announced gaily every time she had the urge: “Nancy! Je vais faire pipi!”
After a few weeks in the capital, we boarded a train for the French Riviera where we sunbathed on the rocky beaches of Nice. As the waves crashed in our ears, we spread out our towels, and my sister and I wiggled out of our bikini tops. Almost immediately, a group of leathery old men we’d passed on our way down to the water picked up their metal chairs and dragged them closer to us. My mother sat nearby, but much to my relief she wore a one-piece suit and none of it came unfastened.
Later that evening as we strolled along a pedestrian street near dusk, enjoying the caress of the warm salty air, I approached an ice cream vendor.
“Une glace au chocolat,” I said, then turned to ask my mother and sister what they would like.
My mother pressed forward, “Moi, aussi!” she quipped. “Moi, aussi!”
“Mom!” I hissed, furious that she’d usurped my role as translator.
Two decades have flown by, and she and I have gone through many more transitions: she from middle-aged empty nester to robust retiree and me from insecure college student to careerist-turned-supermom.
Today my mother is a frail widow struggling gamely with severe late-life depression, and my sister and I are her middle-aged caretakers. I recently brought along that old orange scarf on a visit to my mother’s assisted living home. I meant for it to be a funny reminder of old times, but her memory isn’t what it used to be.
As I held it in my hands, seated on the love seat in her tiny apartment, I thought about how much I missed my old mother. If I’d known how quickly she would disappear, how I’d be left with just an old scarf to remind me of her once spirited personality, I might have given her a bearhug on that train platform in Paris, taught her to curse in French and, above all, insisted she roll down her swimsuit top.