Six weeks ago, my mother arrived at my suburban ranch house carrying the hard-sided Lancel train case I’d brought home for her from Paris in 1985. Filled with her lotions and potions and her massive makeup bag containing six lipsticks and enough medication for a month, it was the clearest indication of her intent: to stay with us—her middle-aged daughter, and my wife of twenty years— in Connecticut until the coronavirus was contained. She would remain here only until it was safe enough for her to return to her apartment in Manhattan, located in the hot zone of the Upper West Side.
When I pulled my car up to her building and went upstairs to get her, she greeted me at the door with her train case stuffed into a wire grocery cart, the sort that older folks wheel around the city on their shopping trips. She was also carrying the threadbare Louis Vuitton duffel bag I’d scraped enough money together to buy her on her fifty-fifth birthday back in the late 1980s, shortly after I’d graduated from college and fled her apartment on a stern warning from my own physician. Written in ink on a prescription pad was the recommendation: Move out of her apartment, or you will have a stroke by the time you’re twenty-five.
Thirty-one years after graduating, I wrote a memoir about us: me growing up the gay, taciturn kid of a flamboyant former television singer who didn’t know she was pregnant with me for six months. This hyperheterosexual, body dysmorphic, glam-queen fur model who lived for the attention of men and wound up with me, a chubby lesbian food writer daughter. I wrote about our fierce, emotionally violent codependence and simultaneous estrangement, about her clinically diagnosed narcissism, and my own tendency toward extreme numbing and addiction. And how, after years of living across town from her in Manhattan—her primary relationship once she was widowed—I finally left the city to begin my own life at thirty-six years old. I had, in 2000, made the decision to literally leave her for another woman. I moved to New England for love, because, as my doctor had told me so many years earlier, it was either my mother’s life, or my own.
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But in 2016, at eighty-one, my mother suffered an incapacitating fall. That required my being at her side, a complete intervention in every part of her life, from financial to medical to emotional, even as we slipped like a hand in a glove back into the old rancorous roles that threatened to destroy us.
The only thing is, my wife of twenty years said one night after my mother's fall, she cannot move in with us. Because she will kill you. And so, as soon as she recovered at the nearby rehabilitation facility in Connecticut, she returned to her independent life in the city.
Now, four years later, deep in the throes of coronavirus with hospitals in Manhattan filled to capacity, my mother is the poster child for vehement non-compliance; she would no sooner wear a mask over her perfect makeup than I could be tall and skinny. And so I drove down to the city to pick her up along with her Parisian train case and her makeup and her Louis Vuitton bag, threw her in the car, and drove her home to live with us and our dog for an indeterminate amount of time.
During the pandemic, my friends have struggled with working from home while also trying to home-school their children, make their deadlines, feed their families three meals a day, stay reasonably healthy, and keep their homes clean. And my friends whose older parents are separated by distance and either living in nursing homes or assisted care communities, are faced with the terrorizing prospect of not knowing when, or if, they will ever see them again.
When my late father’s sister died on April 5th in Florida at the age of 102, she was flown home to New York alone, like cargo, buried in the family plot without benefit of clergy, and memorialized during a Zoom call with enough people for a minyan. My aunt had been born in the Bronx during a pandemic and died during one. She did not die because of the coronavirus, but her family could not say goodbye to its matriarch as a result of it.
I knew that my own mother would be a walking petri dish. She would use the ATM gloveless; she would never wear a mask; she wouldn’t use hand sanitizer, claiming an allergy to it; she would go grocery shopping if I couldn’t get her immediate deliveries of food that I usually send her twice monthly. So I did what most of us are doing, and what I, as a memoirist, have tried to do most of my life: I tried to control and shape our narrative. To set down over our history some sort of form and boundary to what has been, for more than half a century, a relationship throbbing and shapeless with enmity. To re-write our ending; to keep her safe.
But, as my friends with children of all ages have experienced, plans are only that: plans. And in the translated words from my Orthodox cantor grandfather, who left his mother behind in Ukraine in 1905 and never saw her again (she was murdered by Nazis, her only crime being a poor Jewish beet farmer): Man plans, and God laughs.
And so, my wife and I are now living with my mother when we swore we never would, or could. We have our routine: the coffee, the dog walk, the rounds of movies thanks to Roku, the staggering anorexia that results in her eating no more than six hundred calories a day, consisting mostly of the cheap industrial cupcakes I buy whenever I go to the store, because that’s all she’ll voluntarily eat. The demands that I order her makeup from "The Amazon" because she’s running low. Where is she going? Nowhere. How could she be running low? She isn’t. I used to fight with her about it—about the frivolity that has left her with the trappings of wealth, but no actual money—but I don’t anymore. She’s a frightened eighty-four-year old woman living through a pandemic, just on the other side of the bedroom wall I share with my wife.
It has been thirty-one years since I last lived with her. Then, Ronald Reagan was in office, and many of my friends were dying of a strange virus that was being called "The Gay Cancer." Every morning then began with her screaming at me to be something I wasn’t—skinny, beautiful, straight; every day ended the same way. In the middle of every night, I snuck off to the kitchen to fill a goblet with cheap Soave Bolla from a jug, sucked it down, and buried the glass in the bowels of the closet in the den, where I slept on a pullout sofa. I swore that, assuming I survived my time living with her, I would never, ever live with her again.
But now, during the virus, I look over at my suburban sofa every night, where my mother eats in a trance the simple roast chicken dinner we feed her off a television tray. She surprises us by cleaning her plate—she hasn’t eaten anything but cupcakes all day—while the three of us sit in a row, with the dog, watching her favorite old movie: Sunset Boulevard starring Gloria Swanson. She mouths the words, I’m ready for my closeup. Looking at my mother, I see the passage of time, and I see the truth—that we control nothing.
Perhaps my grandfather was right: Man plans, and God laughs.
Elissa Altman is the author of Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing.
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