One day, when my mother was recovering from her hip surgery, as she was perambulating about the condo on her walker, she gently started to murmur this phrase: Povera me, sono Regina senza Re ..." and I said, "What Ma, what did you say?"
I asked her to repeat it. Even though I had heard her say it before I had forgotten it. It was so poetic and so apt ... as our mother, as a widow, has enormous influence over all of us. Alone, her suffering intensifies the guilt we feel when she suffers or when she is thwarted and doesn't get what she wants. Of course, if she is la Regina, we are her subjects and therefore subject to her will.
My mother, a septuagenarian, had her hip replaced, a surgery she feared and sorely needed after suffering for months with intense pain and lack of mobility. Mama lives alone, in a condo near my brother, and at the youthful age of 77 appears to be the designated driver for posse of old ladies in her circle, many of whom live in her building. She is active, lucid, social and ... sharp tongued. Hopefully, I might be described the same way.
When we're together fireworks often ensue.
She says I am too sensitive and wayward. I think she's insensitive and demanding but no more so than any of my female relations on my mother's or father's side - young or old.
My interaction with Ma usually ranges from passive-aggressive ("People say I am coming to resemble you Ma." "Really, you mean since you've gained weight?") to the aggressive-aggressive ("Oh, so finally I see my daughter because I'm sick!" she says as I come for a two day stay.) But I am not asking for your sympathy because anyone who knows me, knows I give as good as I get.
But in quiet moments, she can be very thoughtful, very tender.
She said to me recently, "What will I leave behind? Nothing ..." "Us, you leave behind us ..." I insisted, feeling really heartbroken that she felt this way. "Oh yes," she said with just a hint of resignation, "My children." "Yes, and my book ... I could not have written my book without you Ma!" [My main character, the fiery and tempestuous Seraphina in Made Up of Arias is largely based on my mother and myself I might add.]
Another time as I was tucking her into bed she said sweetly(?) in Italian, "Oh, I have such good kids ... all this time I thought I had bad kids!"
So when la Regina comes home from the hospital over the holidays, the heavy emotional artillery comes out. On both sides. My sister and I have used all of our two weeks holiday over Christmas to take turns caring for her. My brother has done an extraordinary amount of chaperoning to appointments and legwork getting the condo ready for her return from the hospital and is staying overnight as well. Everyone has played their part.
However ... how to handle the division of labour now that she is at home?
The nurse assigned to care for her at home every two days (changing bandages, etc ...) asked if we had a caregiver for when we, her children, had to return to work. Of course we had not. Because this is how Italians roll ... we can't have a stranger help around the house because we take care of our own. Even though I live an hour away, work full time and have a child I am expected to accommodate this as is my sister - who works full time, is a union steward and a committed friend to a number of her circle with health issues. Hiring a caregiver would be seen as a dereliction of duty to my mother.
As would, apparently, hiring a cleaning lady. As my mother said, 'Why should I have a cleaning lady when I have children (ahem, here read daughters)?"
I know exactly what the thinking is behind this. If my sister and I did not take care of this cleaning her friends and family would think we didn't care about her, that we have deserted her. It would personally embarrass her.
However dear reader I am tired ... tired. The idea of making a trip to another city to clean someone else's toilet exhausts me.
It was at the tender age of ten I realized that domestic servitude equals love in our household. After some petty argument with my mother (the issue now long forgotten), I decided that I would sweep the kitchen floor after dinner. That was my assigned daily duty and I hated it. It was simple, could be done quickly and was an easy task for a ten year old but even then I resented the expectation that it was my job. I knew why it was my job, because I was the eldest female child and I felt that for my whole earlier life I was being prepared for a life of domestic responsibility that I did not want to assume as a female.
When I picked up that broom my mother quickly embraced me and cried out, "You do love me!" I was absolutely flummoxed ... my sweeping the floor meant ... I love you? That's how I show my love? Even at ten I was shocked at the absurdity of this thought.
Another conversation ... many years later while she is still in good health and not in need of our assistance. An argument with my mother that it is the daughters' role to care for her aging parents. I took the position that the siblings should share it regardless of sex. This shook my mother, she was actually distraught and on the verge of tears. "A son can't do that ... a son can't take care of his mother." Likely she was thinking of more intimate care and didn't like the idea. But I remember her shock and disapproval that I did not agree - a sense of almost being betrayed.
And here I am decades later ... I am faced with a similar dilemma: should I pick up the broom (or toilet brush) to prove my love? Well, should I?