My mother is a force of nature, teeming with energy and passion and skill. She came of age in the 70’s when women were told they could bring home the bacon and fry it up, too. And in her case, that was true. Well, except that she used the crock pot and fixed Hamburger Helper. We three girls had a mom (and dad) who taught at the private school we attended all through our elementary school years. My mother and father were constantly in our lives–sun up to sundown. Once I got a detention in Mom’s class and had to write sentences. She was the one who handed me my pink slip.
She was always there, and always very, very busy.
All these years later, things haven’t changed much. She still teaches music to elementary school kids (many of whom have very little support at home), she still arranges music in genius ways, takes on additional projects, performs in a professional orchestra, serves in her church, uses that old crock pot. But now she’s taking care of aging parents too.
Every Sunday, after church, my mother goes to my grandparents’ house to bathe and dress them. After she shaves my grandfather and clips his toenails, she takes my grandmother to the Vietnamese nail salon to get her withered nails coated with a fresh shade of seashell pink. Then she drives both of her parents to Puerto Vallarta, a local Mexican restaurant. She orders a double portion of chicken fajitas so that they can take some home for later. She makes polite, loud conversation because my grandfather cannot hear but doesn’t want to admit this to anyone. She tries to make my grandmother smile. She works very hard at this because it almost never happens.
When they’ve finished their meal, my mother knows my grandmother needs to use the restroom. She understands that her small, fierce mother is deeply proud, so she asks loudly, “Mom, do you want to go and wash your hands?” My grandmother looks away, a scowl on her face. My mother knows how long to wait before beginning to push the wheelchair toward the bathroom with mujer on the door.
She returns several long minutes later. My mother lets my grandfather push my grandmother’s chair through the restaurant and out the front doors. He stops to talk with restaurant patrons he does not know. They humor him, pretending to understand why he’s stopping at their table. This makes him feel independent and normal, though he’s slumping against the chair for support and shuffling, taking geisha-like steps. He is tall, snowy-haired, bent. But in his mind, he is playing his clarinet on the Laurence Welk show, the star he always was.
My mother takes her parents to Kroger, and tonight I go with her. We walk slowly so that my grandparents are behind us, but not too far behind. My mother whispers, “It’s ok. They like to feel like they can shop by themselves,” when I worry that they’re dragging.
My mother queries my grandmother, her voice pitched slightly higher in anticipation of resistance. “Mom, do you want this ice cream? This is neapolitan. This is all three kinds in one. Does this look good? It doesn’t? Do you want the pie?”
My grandmother doesn’t answer.
I watch my mom. Her eyes are far-away and determined. This is the powerhouse. This is the super woman, and she is tired. Her mother doesn’t see her but I see. My grandmother does not see what my mother is doing for her. How my mother is the only one who is clutching her parents’ dignity tighter than they are. They do not say ‘thank you.’
I swallow hard on aisle four.
I am not like my mother. I am not strong. Tonight, at Kroger, I do my best to make conversation with my grandparents. I try to humor them. But what I want to do is hold my mom. I am tired watching her serve like this. I see tiny, weary cracks in her earthen vessel and I want to change things for her. But I can’t.
I am resentful and anxious. I want someone to rescue my mother, and it cannot be me.
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you…” John 13:12-15
Jesus washed my mom’s feet, and mine. Lord, help her to somehow keep washing theirs, even when no one notices.