Today I found out my mother is not my real mom. Without any kind of introduction or apology, she just blurted it out.
“I’m not your real mom,” she announced.
“You aren’t?” I asked as I watched her stare out the window.
“Naw,” she retorted cutting her eyes at me.
With a laugh I responded, “Well, darn it. I thought you were.”
There were no tears, there was no shock, no slap-in-the-face moment. I just looked at her and smiled. She looked back at me with a mix of defiance and innocence, knowing that something she said wasn’t quite right but not knowing exactly what it was. Things just sometimes spill out when people get dementia, things that make no sense at all.
“What’s my name?” I asked her next.
“I don’t know,” she replied, and tucked her head—the same response I had gotten for the past two years.
Quickly, I supplied it to ease her shame.
“It’s Mary,” I said gently.
“Oh, yeah, I knew that!” she claimed, but I knew she didn’t. She never knows my name, but the glimmer in her eye tells me she knows I belong to her regardless.
Today wasn’t the first time Momma had said something peculiar. I grew up with her tall tales, and her love of personifying the world made every day an adventure.
“Those flowers are so blue they wanna talk,” she would say about the backyard hyacinths.
“Look, Mary! There’s a whole family of ‘em. See that tall one? He’s the daddy flower, and the shorter one is the momma. And the little ones—those are the kids. And the tiny little shoot,” she would say, her delight evident as she peered through narrowed slits—“that’s the baby Mary one.” Her stories, in sync with my imagination, would transport me like a snowy tuft of wind-blown dandelion, and I would spend the rest of my day dreaming of the flower family’s shenanigans.
Momma was a sassy one, too. When I got angry, she told me I could “get glad in the same britches I got mad in,” and when I wished aloud for something I didn’t need, I often heard, “Well, wish in one hand and poop in the other and see which one fills up faster.” But more often than not, she, in her unconventional way, encouraged me to dream. While other children were being taught to wish on stars, Momma was teaching me to wish on buzzards.
“See one buzzard, don’t see two; make a wish and it’ll come true,” she would say when we would see a single buzzard circling in the sky, but what I liked most was a poem she quoted when we saw a host of the foraging fowl:
“One for sorrow.
Two for joy.
Three for a letter.
Four for a boy.
Five for silver.
Six for gold.
Seven for a secret that’s never been told,” she would recite as we counted each of the predators swarming its prey. I later found out this was an old nursery rhyme Momma had picked up somewhere along the way. The poem was originally written about magpies, but since we didn’t have any in Mississippi, in true Momma fashion, she improvised and counted buzzards instead.
Although I didn’t see any buzzards today, in Momma’s mind there must have been seven, so she told me her secret—the secret that she’s not my real mom. As I watched her staring out the window, I was seized by the thought that this woman who had held me tight, wiped away my tears, taught me to be independent, given me the gifts of sarcasm and forgiveness, and had given birth to me, had lost the memory of all those things. She didn’t even remember my name. The dementia stood firm, a staunch sentinel guarding her memories.
With no buzzards in sight, I made a silent wish.
Then, crossing the room, I took her hand and looked into her eyes.
“I would love you,” I whispered, “even if you really weren’t my mom.”
And for a fleeting moment I saw the glimmer, and I knew that she knew.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT/Flickr Creative Commons: Peter Shanks