My Mother, My Roommate
She also binges Bonanza.
Banner image credit Jennifer Hughes; Alien She exhibit, PNCA 2015-2016
Living with my mother is like this: Making cranberry chutney in the kitchen, I rehearse a variety of imagined responses for when she inevitably says I like the canned stuff better. I feel myself getting worked up and annoyed as I chop onion and apple and measure out ginger and cinnamon. I fucking like the canned stuff better, too; canned cranberry sauce is a seasonal delight, I love to see it sliding around on a plate, naked in its indentations from the can, like my ankles when I take my socks off at night. But the cranberry chutney is its own thing, and making it is its own thing, too. I love stirring the berries and raisins around in the pot with all the sugar and maple syrup, watching it get thick and oozy and the sound the berries make when they pop. The berries pop! I wouldn’t have known that if I’d just cracked open a can of cranberry sauce which we do have in the cabinet, two cans in fact, Kroger brand from Ralph’s not even Ocean Spray. The trashiest and no doubt goddamn delicious. But cooking for me is a project. It is truly the only thing that delights me that I cannot stress out by working to turn it into a side hustle. I will never learn proper, safe canning, and so I will never try to sell you my cranberry chutney. Which was fucking delicious stuffed in a whole-wheat pita with some turkey slices. After a year being vegetarian I’m back on birds because perimenopause is wreaking havoc with my body and the Suzanne Somers perimenopause book - yes, I checked it out of the library, and gave it a hard skim - says you need LOTS of protein. So I did a tarot reading and I got 6 of Cups for staying vegetarian (compassion) and Ace of Disks for going back on birds, which told me what I wanted to know, would it make a positive difference for my body. It will. I didn’t create this fucked-up universe where creatures eat one another, I was flung down here blind and ignorant as anyone, and so have resumed eating birds (and fish). We’ll see how many really cute bird (and fish) Tik Tok videos it will take for me to refuse to eat them again. I’ll keep you posted.
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Anyway - this was supposed to be about living with my mom. Who did not, I must confess, say anything about the cranberry chutney beyond expressing disgust at the thought of cooked celery, but I assured her that I, too, think cooked celery is barfy, and omitted it from the recipe. My mom likes to put her two cents in, which is often hilarious, but sometimes I have to shield myself from her opinions about, say, my hair (Oh, but you have such nice, long hair, don’t cut it!) or my cooking (‘Tofu is disgusting, it doesn’t taste like anything.’) The chutney recipe, if you care, is from Terry Walter’s Clean Food, which, I know, is a problematic title, as we want to champion all food, especially the dirty food, like the Doritos and the Hershey’s Kisses I also ate that day. Orthorexia is the new hot eating disorder - eating, like, supppperrrrrr healthy but really sort of not eating very much at all because you’re caught in the grips of compulsion, control and visions of skinny. The whole ‘clean food’ movement is somewhat responsible for this latest spin on diet culture, but I just really like this cook book a lot because it gets me to eat tons of vegetables and cook with shit like fresh ginger and Mirin, and it’s very fun. Before I had my terrible/wonderful Covid divorce, back when the divorce was approaching, sending nauseating waves of anxiety throughout my body, like, all the time, I was researching different ways to regulate oneself. In addition to watching Yoga videos for dysregulated children taught by instructors who addressed me in a babyish coo (loved it), I learned that following recipes actually helps bring you down when you’re freaking out. I loved cooking way before learning this, but it was so soothing to know that I already had this big tool in my mental health toolbox, and it made me realize that I do feel sort of peaceful and floaty, drifty, while cooking. It’s a domestic, country-mouse cousin of sub space, being bossed by the recipe, the feeling of pleasure when it turns out right, the little pinch of pride, I did it.
I like writing this Substack because I can start out telling you I’m going to write about living with my mom and wind up all the way over here and it seems fine. In all my other writing I curse this aspect of myself, how hard it is to stay on track, what the fuck, what is the point here. I truly believe there is no point, really, to any of this, especially writing, but Capitalism makes us all pretend there is, and writing must stay on task especially if you’d like to make a dollar from it, and I would. So let me tell you about Mom.
In Covid summer, when my divorce occurred, I found myself alone in a giant house, wondering how I would run my life - make money, write, parent, ever love again - in the wake of this crashed and burned marriage. It was great to have a relationship tank in Covid because everything was all shut down anyway and people were bummed and losing their minds so I fit right in, and didn’t need to make any big moves anytime soon. It was also horrible, because I couldn’t just go out and fuck a million people to replenish my dopamine and majorly distract myself. It was also great, because in the slow-moving stillness of that time I had the space to get to know my slow-moving, Taurus husband, falling in love through text messages and remote movie-watching dates that eventually grew into socially distanced dates, and then outdoor dates where we were closer, until finally we were making out on my couch before an artfully crafted snack board (him, not me) and the re-boot of Unsolved Mysteries. Had Covid not been in affect I probably would have gone for instant gratification with a pack of Tinder swine, and been too high on some manic combo of angst and sex addiction to slow down and move at his more thoughtful pace, watching the hot and tender sparkle of my love grow before my eyes, and in my heart. Am I grateful for Covid? Not hardly. That would be gross. But like so many fucked-up moments survived, I can see the crucial, gorgeous things that came from it. It’s a headfuck if you think about it too much.
While I was divorcing, and slowly falling in love with my time-release Taurus, my Mom, a nurse, was on medical leave from her job at a nursing home in Florida. You may remember how the virus spread like oil fires through assisted living facilities. My mom has COPD, one of the lung problems that doomed early Covid victims. Her workplace had been lying to staff about infections, not enforcing safety protocol, not providing clean masks for workers and patients. She got a doctor to sign her out of duty for a while, many months, during which she inflamed her COPD by smoking excessively at home, locked in her house alone, lonely for her husband, dead three years, and for her kids and grandkids on the other side of the country. My sister and I always spoke about what would we do with and about our mother, as time marched on; it seemed awful for her to keep living this lonely life in god-awful Florida, where people called her a ‘snowflake’ like it was a bad thing. Sitting in my empty divorce house, filled with the sound of my child now only half the week, the other half full only of an uncanny stillness, it suddenly made total sense that my mother come and live with me. Her medical leave was running out, she’d either have to return to work and, I believed, die for a corporate-run nursing home in a worker-hating state that did nothing to care for her, or she’d have to take an early retirement and sit around lonely for the rest of her life. If she came and lived with me, we could sit around lonely together. She’d been a crucial support system for me throughout the divorce, always available, validating, sympathetic and, in spite of our very different ways of living and processing life, the things she said to me made sense, helped me. Except that one time where she got hella Chelsea (our trashy birthplace) and called the woman my spouse had left me for “a frigging whore!” I burst out laughing, it had been so long since I’d heard the word ‘whore’ used in such a fashion (not to mention it was my own whoring that at least in part probably doomed my marriage). I was touched by the violence of her protectiveness, tho. “Ma,” I said, “Whores are great, honest, hard-working, adventure-loving people. You’re going to have to call her something else.” Now she burst out laughing.
When I asked my kid if he wanted Nana to move in with us he jumped up and down on the couch with glee. When I invited her, she confessed she’d been thinking the same thing. She was also worried, as I was out of my mind with grief, and maybe I was just being rash and wild. But I knew it would be the perfect thing. She could help me with my son when I had to work or was otherwise occupied; I could help her by giving her a place she could afford, close to her family.
It’s weird how perfectly its worked out. Though we’ve had lots of eras of pretty severe conflict in our lives, the passage of time, introspection and – on my part – lots of recovery has brought us to a place where we get along pretty great. In fact, during this era of people having to estrange themselves from their Trumpy family members, I’ve never been so grateful at her rage against the ruling class, her avowed dedication to reproductive rights, her sharp, Scorpionic sense of justice. While some people become more conservative as they age, my mother has become far less so; she doesn’t hold the attitudes that upset me so tremendously in the past. She can see aspects of her life, and of our culture, with a wider, detached view. She watches loads of woke documentaries – I recall coming downstairs one night and having her tell me all about this amazing movie she watched, I Am Not Your Negro. “Saw it in the theater,” I told her, before she launched into Momsplaining James Baldwin to me. But I was delighted that she watched it, and was so moved, and freshly obsessed with the wildly obsessable James Baldwin. She went on to watch documentaries about Nina Simone, Native Americans, the OxyContin epidemic, the horrible mortality rates for pregnant Black women, the awful working conditions for Certified Nurses Assistants in the US. And, of course, Dateline and other murder docs. And, Bonnets.
‘Bonnets’ is what I call Little House on the Prairie, and my mother -whose circadian rhythms are forever fucked from a combination of decades spent working graveyard shifts plus the sleeping difficulties common to older people – enjoys binge-watching whole seasons of the show, deep into the night, into the morning. Occasionally I have woken up at, say, 4:30am to use the bathroom and heard the familiar, slightly mournful theme of the show horning up from downstairs, falling back asleep with visions of the two beloved Melissas of my childhood – Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson – running through a field in Batsheva-inspo dresses. And bonnets, of course. When I was very little, my mother used to put both me and my younger sister to bed, then once my sibling was sleeping, come and retrieve me, so I could lay on the couch with my head in her lap, getting my hair played with while we watched Little House. Top ten face childhood memories, easy.
My mom also binges Bonanza. She finds one of the cowboys handsome. She’s been on an Elvis kick since I took her to see the Baz Luhrmann biopic some months ago (another viewer had parked her walker besides my mother’s in the theater, saying, ‘We better make sure we don’t mix them up after the movie!’) She has a thing for British royalty, and calls the recently dead monarch ‘My Queen.’ She folds all my laundry, though I never ask her, and each night she goes into the kitchen and does all the dinner dishes, even though I insist she doesn’t have to. She’s a good roommate – a way better roommate than I ever was, back when I was one. Currently she’s taking her afternoon nap, asleep in the ‘guest room,’ her room now, the little room I once thought of as horribly sad, where I once cleaned the debris of my then-spouse’s tryst with their girlfriend, then later moved into when I knew the marriage was over. I thought it had had bad vibes; it probably did, and some of them were mine. But she brought a new life into the room, cluttered as it is with pictures of her grandkids and her teapot collection and Funko Pops of her queen. And she brings new life into the house at large, stationed as she is on ‘her chair,’ the one she has claimed in front of the TV, dotted with candy wrappers and old cups of tea. We should all be so lucky to spend our golden years thusly: keeping our own hours, binge-watching our shows, eating all the dirty foods we love and being loved by those who love us.
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