THURSDAY: Oma’s Shawl

BY SYLVIA BARNARD

Copyright is held by the author.

THE BEAULIEU Centre called Angie at work for the third time this week. Her mother, Elisabeth, was screaming in German and throwing chairs at the plate glass windows in the common room of the long-term care facility. All they could make out was Hamburg, bomben, feuer.  They needed Angie to come.

Two exhausting hours later, Angie walk through the door of her childhood home and sank to the green shag carpet of what used to be her parents’ bedroom. “I can’t do this anymore.” She pressed her back against the door.

The imaginary faces in the cabbage-rose wallpaper and matching curtains that had terrorized her as a child, now mocked her. She grasped her knees and rested her head on her forearms, blonde hair falling loosely over her face. She was under forty, fit, still attractive. The pain of the divorce was two years behind her. But how would she ever meet anyone when she spent all her time working or taking care of family.

Angie had implemented every strategy recommended by her mother’s healthcare team. They’d suggested family photos. Elisabeth had strewn the shredded pieces across the tile floor of her room. They suggested music. Elisabeth decorated the bathroom fixtures with ribbons of tape she pulled from the German music cassettes. Mirrors had been removed from her room so she wouldn’t glimpse the old woman she claimed was stalking her. Visits were like spinning a roulette wheel, clicking from smiles of recognition to angry accusations in a matter of seconds. 

A few weeks ago, Angie had brought her mother home for a weekend stay. Maybe time in her family home would quell Elisabeth’s anxiety. Saturday morning at the farmers’ market, Elisabeth had chatted with friends and bartered playfully with vendors in her old way. Saturday afternoon, she was engrossed in a television documentary about volcanoes in Hawaii, carrying on a conversation with her dead husband as if he sat beside her.

“Alfred, we were right there on our cruise, remember?” Her mother was calm and happy. 

Angie had taken the opportunity to slip out to the back porch to check her phone and grab a quick cigarette. Her heart raced as she dialled into voice mail, then felt her blood drop to her feet as she listened to the message from her Real Estate Agent. “Hi Angie, the couple really liked your condo but they were scared off by its condition. You really need to get rid of your renter. Call me.”

Damn, she thought. She couldn’t carry a vacant condo and this house. She needed to sell one of the properties as is. Her agent felt the condo at the south end of the city would be an easier sale, but months have passed with no results.

Angie took a long draw on her cigarette and watched a pair of Canada geese pushing their goslings out into the lake for a swimming lesson. The back door slammed. She twisted around in time to catch Elisabeth’s wild grin at the window just before she pulled the curtains closed. The click of the lock drove fingers of panic into Angie’s gut.

“Mama, open this door right now!” Angie pounded on the door until her fists bloomed red.

“Something wrong, dear?” The elderly neighbour stood on tiptoes to peer over the fence.

Be nice, Angie said to herself through gritted teeth. She means well. “No, Mme. Charron. Everything’s fine. My mother accidentally locked herself in.”

“Poor dear.” Mme. Charron’s blue permed curls bobbed gently as her fingers played with the reading glasses hanging on a chain around neck. “It’s so sad she has to live out her days in that horrible place. You know —”

Here it comes, thought Angie.

“I could help, if you wanted her to come home.”

Angie forced a smile, funnelling frustration into clenched fists at her sides. “Such a kind offer, but I wouldn’t want to impose. Now I really need to get to the front door.”

Angie rounded the corner of the house in time to hear her mother set the deadbolt. 

“Hi Mom.” Her 10-year-old daughter, Emma, rode up the driveway and dropped her bike on the front lawn.

Angie pulled her into a hug, loving the outdoor summer scent that clung to her chestnut curls. “Did you have fun at Sam’s?”

“Hmm hmm.” Emma pulled back. “Where’s Oma?”

“She’s in the house.” Angie usually tried to shield her daughter from these situations, but maybe . . . “Why don’t you go in?”

Emma raised her eyebrows, then skipped up the three steps to the front stoop and tried the door. “It’s locked,” she said, her brow folding into wrinkles.”

“Call her.”

Emma turned back to the door. “Oma, it’s me, Emma. Open the door.”

“No.”

“But I came home early from my friend’s house so we could play Mensch Ärger Dich Nicht.”  Emma and her grandmother would play the German version of the board game Sorry for hours over milk and cookies.

“It’s a trick. Your mother wants to take me away.”

Tears welled in Emma’s eyes. “What’s wrong with Oma?”

Angie drew her down to sit on the stairs. “You remember how we talked about Oma’s disease that causes her to forget things?”

Emma nodded.

“Well, it also makes her feel confused and scared. That’s how she’s feeling right now.”

“What do we do?”

Angie draped her arm over Emma’s shoulder. “I need you to go to Mme. Charron’s while I figure this out. Will you do that for me?”

After a long stare into her mother’s eyes, Emma rose. “Okay, Mom.”

With Emma gone, Angie called the police. Once she’d convinced them that her mother was a danger to herself, the officers breached the door. A semi-conscious Elisabeth was transported by ambulance to the hospital. There’d been no further visits home.

Angie pushed herself up from the bedroom floor. “Time to get off the pity pot,” she said to the cabbage-rose faces and headed into the living room. Even though her dad had been gone for ten years, the smell of his stale cigarette smoke wrapped her like a hug as she sank into his worn crushed-velvet recliner. Memories of family times in this room watching Hockey Night in Canada or opening Christmas presents after midnight mass helped her breathe.

The buzz of her cell phone signalled a new text message. She was tempted to ignore it, but it could be the Centre again, or her ex-husband telling her what time he’d be bringing Emma home. Her heart sank as she read the message: “Need to talk.” She hit the call button.

“Hey, sis, I’ve run out of minutes on my phone.”

“What’s up, Monica?” Angie kept her tone neutral.

“It’s Monique now, remember? That’s what Marc prefers.”

Angie rolled her eyes. “I don’t care what your new boyfriend calls you. What’s the emergency, Monica?”

“Come on, Angie. We haven’t talked for ages. No ‘How are you, Monique? How are your kids?’ Sometimes I feel like you don’t care if I’m dead or alive.”

“I’m really not in the mood for this.” Angie pressed her palm to her forehead. “What do you need?”

“Well, it’s not like I really need anything. It’s just that, you know, I’m supposed to send you my share of the money for Mama, and I . . . um . . . I’m a little short right now, so I . . . ah . . . Can you help out your baby sister?”

“What a surprise.” Angie couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

“It’s not my fault,” Monica whined. “You don’t know what it’s like trying to raise three kids on your own. I lost my job because my car died, I don’t have the money to fix it, and there’s no transit here in Timmins. You have a great job, Robert makes lots of money, and Mama has her pension —”

“Hold it right there!” Angie was pacing a circle around the partition wall separating the kitchen from the living room. “Nothing ever seems to be your fault. You need money? Maybe you should get your kids’ deadbeat dads to pay support.”

“You don’t have to be so mean.” Monica started sobbing. “My life’s really hard. I just need some help from my big sis.”

Angie sighed. “We all agreed to contribute so Mama can live in a place with better programs. Robert and I both pay our share. I’m the one they call to help with her behaviour. I’m the one who attends the meetings with her health team. I’m the one stuck in our old house for the last two years, living in a 70s time capsule with no money to fix it. So don’t talk to me about your hard life.”

“I’m sorry.” Monica sniffed. “You know I’d help if I still lived in Sudbury.”

Angie took a calming breath. “I know. I’m sorry.” She raked her fingers through her hair. “Look, forget about sending me money from now on. Robert and I’ll figure something out, but you really need to get your life under control.”

“Thanks, Angie.” Monica’s voice lightened. “Gotta go. Marc’ll be home soon.”

Angie hit the red button on her phone. “Will she ever grow up?” She stood in the eat-in kitchen, staring at the avocado fridge and stove. “Really, Mama, what was your obsession with green? It’s everywhere.” She threw back her head. “I can just hear the comments on House Hunters.” 

In a high-pitched feminine voice, she said, “Chase, this place is a total gut job. That wall has to go.” She ran her hand over the wall between the living-room and kitchen. “And what’s this, grass wallpaper?”

Imitating a lower male voice, Angie continued her imaginary dialogue. “Yes, but Maddie, this view over the lake is gorgeous, and the backyard’s huge. Look at those boulders sticking up. That’s character.”

“I’m home.” Emma’s cheerful greeting startled Angie out of her imaginary TV scenario. “Who’re you talking to, Mom?”

“No one. Just talking to myself.” She laughed.

“Careful, mom. I’ll start calling you the crazy lady.”      

Angie cringed. “You’re home early. Have you had dinner yet?”

“Yeah, McDonald’s. I helped Dad shop for the dinner he’s making to surprise Alexis.” She put up her hands. “Don’t get mad, he invited me to stay, but I’d rather be home with you than put up with their secret smiles when they think I’m not looking.”       

A  glance in response to the text buzz on Angie’s phone sidetracked any further reaction to her daughter’s revelation. “Damn, it’s the Centre.”

“Do they need us to come? I’ll grab my backpack.” Emma ran down the hall to her room. 

“Wait. Maybe you can go next door to Mme. Charron’s.”

Emma came back to the living-room, her backpack bulging with something soft. “Mrs. C’s probably already asleep, Mom. I really want to come. Please!”

“What’s in there?” Angie tilted her head toward the backpack.

“Just something for Oma.” Emma slipped the bag over her shoulder. “Let’s go.”

“Okay. I suppose you can wait in the lounge if things get bad.”

***

Ten minutes later, Angie pulled up in front of the sprawling Centre’s main doors. She gasped as her headlights swept across the ghostly figure of her mother, barefoot and clad in her white cotton nightgown, waving at the vehicle. Yvonne, the Personal Support Worker, was trying to corral her with her arms. 

“Mom, stop the car!” Emma leaped out. Grasping her grandmother’s elbow, she steered her to safety. “Oma, what are you doing out here?”

Yvonne rushed up to the car window. “Oh, thank goodness!”

Angie watched Emma lead Elisabeth through the front doors. “How could you let this happen?” Her eyes blazed.

“I’m so sorry. She slipped out with some visitors.” Yvonne’s forehead puckered. “We couldn’t get her back in. She kept shouting stuff I didn’t understand.”

“Never mind. Let me park the car.”

A few minutes later, her daughter’s tinkling laugh drifted back to Angie as she entered the lobby. “Oma, I’m not Aunt Monica, I’m your granddaughter Emma.”

“Ja, Ja.” Elisabeth patted Emma’s head, then looked around in confusion. “I need to get home.”

Angie made her way to the pair. “That’s where we’re going, Mama. Just down this hall.” She breathed a sigh of relief as her mother responded to forward pressure on her elbow. The squeak of Emma’s rubber-soled sandals marked the threesomes’ progress down the gleaming tile hallway.

“Mom, I think the nurse wants to talk to you.” Emma nodded her head in the direction of the woman beckoning to Angie. “I can stay with Oma in her room.”

Angie’s gaze flitted from the woman with the wavering smile, back to her daughter. “Maybe sing her one of your songs. I’ll be in the nurse’s office down the hall if you need me.” 

Emma put her hand on her mother’s arm. “It’s okay, Mom. I got this.” She helped her grandmother to bed, then perched herself on its edge like a little bird.

Angie had barely taken a seat in front of the nurse’s desk when there was a knock on the office door, “I’m sorry to interrupt,” whispered Yvonne.

“What’s wrong?” Angie sprang to her feet.

“Everything’s okay. I thought you’d want to see this.” Yvonne pointed toward Elisabeth’s room.

Angie and the nurse tiptoed down the hall, lingering outside the door to eavesdrop on the pair.

“See, this is where Monica spit up every time I rocked her to sleep. She had such a weak stomach. And, this rusty part? Feel.”

Emma rubbed her fingers over the spot on the mint green crocheted shawl. “It’s crusty.”

“Yes, that’s from your Uncle Robert. What a boy!” Elisabeth chuckled. “This is blood from his broken nose. He was trying to jump his bike over the rocks in the backyard like Evel Knievel. Instead, he landed headfirst.” She put her hand on Emma’s arm. “His father’s hand landed on his bum when he heard about it.” They giggled together.

Angie stifled a sob. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard her mother laugh.

“Hi, mom. Oma was just telling me about her shawl.”

“Where did you find that?”

“In the old trunk in the basement. You told me to look there for photos for my family tree project, ‘member?”

“I haven’t seen this in decades.” Angie held a corner to her face. “It’s stained and smells musty. Maybe we should take it home and wash it.”

Elisabeth grabbed the shawl. “No! These are my remembers! Emma found my remembers.”

“Don’t worry, Elisabeth, no one is going to take your shawl,” the nurse said. She turned to Angie. “I’m sorry for tonight and for our frequent calls. I’d intended to talk to you about increasing Elisabeth’s sedatives, but we may have found the hook we need without more drugs for now.” Then she touched Emma lightly on the arm. “So nice to see you, sweetie. I hope you’ll come again to visit your Oma.” The nurse threw Angie a smile, then squeaked her way down the hallway to her office.

Emma pointed to other stains, and to holes where the shawl was unraveling. She recounted each story to her mother as it had been told to her by her grandmother. When Elisabeth’s eyes started to droop, Angie sent Emma to the lounge so she could have a few minutes alone with her mother.

“Mama, are you okay?” Angie rested her hand gently on her mother’s arm.

“Ach, Angelika. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “Everything keeps changing. I’m never sure where I am.” She rubbed her hand across her forehead. “My mind feels like those yellow flowers, you know, the ones that turn into ‘poofballs’?”

“Dandelions?”

Elisabeth nodded. “When you blow on them, poof, they fly away, just like my memories.” She smiled as she clutched the shawl to her breast. “This can’t fly away.”

“Mama, there are so many stories about Robert and Monica, but none about me?”  Angie felt childish, but she needed to ask.

“Angelika, don’t you know? Robert was wild. He needed me to keep him in line, and now he’s a big shot mining engineer. Monica was my baby. I should have made her do more for herself.”

“Mama, you remember all this?”

“It’s not nice to interrupt, Angelika.” She gave Angie a hard look. “Of course, I remember.” Her face softened as she stroked Angie’s cheek. “You were the girl I always wanted to be — strong, independent, smart. Now you’re a fancy nurse, and here I am giving you trouble.”

“This isn’t your fault, Mama. It’s the Alzheimer’s. I wish I could make it easier for you, after all you’ve done for us.”

“I love all of you, but Angelika, you are my heart.” Elisabeth’s blue eyes disappeared behind a grey fog. “Now, go feed the chickens before you go to school.” Her mother dropped off to sleep.

“I will, Mama. I love you.” Angie kissed her gently on the forehead and kept hold of her hand. Tears coursed down her cheeks. We had so many good times growing up, Angie thought to herself, and Mama had always been there to encourage, cajole, reprimand and rescue us.

“I can do this for as long as you need me to, Mama,” she whispered.

3 comments
  1. What a nice story!

  2. I’m not an expert, but I fear that the improvement won’t last, but there may be more good moments.

  3. Beautiful story written with sensitivity. Well done, Sylvia!

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