By Rosalie Tirella
It was the mid-1970s, and I believed in love the way I would never believe in love again. There was the music on the radio – songs by James Taylor and Carole King. There were the movies that were hits – movies like The Way We Were starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. There was my cousin “Tina” who was classic 1970s beautiful with her thick, chestnut hair that swung down to her butt and her pretty face and figure that literally (I witnessed this twice) stopped traffic as she walked down the street. I believed in TRUE LOVE, the PG version, even though my mom, Italian dad, my two sisters and my grandmother from Poland were pretty much living the “not-yet-rated” Martin Scorsesse version in Green Island.
The fantasy that I would meet and marry a tall and handsome boy who looked like Paul McCartney and played accoustic guitar – to and for me – took hold when I was 14 or so. I went around our Green Island apartment fantasizing about my Paul McCartney look-a-like and his lovely sad eyes and started writing poems – poems that I hoped would some day be lyrics to the melodies my true love composed for me.
This actually happened for my cousin Tina. My aunt and uncle were middle-class and could give their kids stuff my mom could never buy for us kids: stuff like an upright piano for Tina and private paino lessons. At 19 Tina was attending Anna Maria college and met a young guy from WPI college who played the accoustic guitar. He wrote songs for her and she wrote the lyrics and because she loved him so dearly composed very long and dramatic melodies on her piano. For him. For love.
I believed that when I was a bit older – in college like Tina – this would happen to me, too. I also believed that when I and my true love looked at each other it would be like when Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford looked at each other in The Way We Were – long, wistful glances – deep into the eyes. I would brush the wispy bangs out of my true love’s eyes, just the way Streisand had done to Redford when she and Redford (“Hummel” in the movie), said their final good-byes to each other on the streets of New York City. Cue the sad, lovely music: Streisand is singing “The Way We Were,” the theme song of the movie, written by Marvin Hamlish.
These days I am brushing the wispy – gray – hair out of my mother’s eyes – not some guy’s. My mother has changed during these past few years. She is 84. Two years ago, she could have run my business with one hand tied behind her back. Today I look deep into her eyes as she watches her beloved Red Sox on TV and see the old confidence, the old purposefulness, even severity gone. Her strongest personality traits and the ones I sometimes found the most vexing – poof. Gone forever.
Now she lives in a world that’s out of focus, a world where sentences need to be repeated, Meals on Wheels need to be delivered to her door every day, PCAs must shower her and homemakers must cook meals. And I, her only daughter living in town, must visit every day – to “check on” her and make sure everything is going smoothly. (a more complicated job – and it does become a job – than you would think)
A few years ago Mum knew all the Red Sox players and how well they were doing during the season. Batting averages, home runs, fouls – she could have been one of the TV commentators. And when a game became a nail biter, Mum would get up out of her easy chair and walk right up to the televsion – stand two or three inches away from the TV screen – and shout: “Come one! Come on! Go! Go!” And if the Red Sox prevailed, up went Mum’s crinkly little arms and out came “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” Cheers for her heroes! Manny and Ortiz and all the Sox players – they were her boys.
These days, the TV is on and she is watching her Red Sox, but she is seated at her little table without the Sox game schedule at her elbow, without the coffee cup rising to her lips after a good pitch or catch, without the frequent trips to the TV screen to cheer on her beloved Ortiz. The informed game talk is gone, replaced with occassional glances down at the big ugly black orthopedic shoes she wears now.
She says, “Do I have to wear these? They’re so heavy.”
Just like my heart is now.
Instead, I say: “Mum, you’ve fallen twice – you can’t wear your slippers anymore. These shoes give you support” (not really knowing what “support” means). I say: “Please, Ma, listen to the doctor so you don’t end up in a nursing home!”
Then PANIC! I panic because I know I am losing my best friend, my #1 booster, my closest confidente, my smartest, strongest, bravest ally! Mum panics because she doesn’t want to leave her cozy little studio apartment – the one that she has happily lived in and happily grown old in for more than 16 years. Her cat, her sofa, her little twin bed, her pals at the end of the corridor on her floor … gone forever to be replaced by johnnies and nurses aides dressing you a bit too hastily. And no Rosalie, her best buddy, hanging out with her, jabbering away about her problems.
Ma grows serious – too serious – to enjoy the Red Sox. I grow serious, too.
Taking her blue plastic comb out of the little box I have placed on the little folding table that sits to the left of her, I begin to comb her short hair. I look at all the little dime-store prayer books she used to read during the day, prayer books that she had memorized from years and years of reading and rereading them. Not any more: They sit untouched, unread – even coffee-stained. I had to throw out a couple of especially messy ones (when she wasn’t looking).
On Ma’s low table also sit little statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Saint Theresa, Saint Martin and a ceramic angel holding my mum’s birthstone. I bought the little angel for her a few months ago and she loves it – has it positioned right where she can always see it. I comb Mum’s brittle gray hair to the side, and remind myself to make an appointment for her with a hairdresser that makes apartment calls. Mum has lost the little paper with her old hairdresser’s name and number on it and no longer remembers the person who used to come down and do her hair. Truth be told, I’ve forgotten the woman’s name, too.
I will have to find a new hairdresser for my mother – one who gives great “perms.” One who loves old people.
With my fingers I brush the wispy bangs out of my mom’s eyes, and the sad love music begins … .