I Don’t Need Glasses To See How Much I Love You
As unpleasant a thought as it was, Maggie Duncan had to admit she simply liked her mother more now that she was dying. Maggie supposed eventually she’d have to bring Georgia to a home; some day soon some calamity would strike, her mother would go out for errands and wind up two counties over sitting in a jail cell, but not yet. Maggie was waiting for that rare and precious state of confessional clarity when her mother would admit to all her failings as a mother. Maggie could forgive her then, or at least excuse her, and then release her. If Maggie was being honest with herself, emotional ransom’s what it was.
It wasn’t something Maggie was proud of, but she took solace in the thought that if her mother were to die, it was better to feel sympathy now than not at all. And she did. The Alzheimer’s had stripped away the ego of Georgia Duncan, her steadfast insistence on fact, so that she seemed younger now, young like the first graders Maggie taught: more receptive to the wonders of the universe.
The brittle logician of Maggie’s childhood who had once compared religion to the Wizard of Oz would now have waited heart and hand behind the Scarecrow and the Tin Man for her missing element.
Maggie finished her lesson plan for the following day and loaded up her bag for the evening. She locked her classroom and poked in to wish Sarah, the other first grade teacher, a good night, before walking across the parking lot where her Subaru station wagon was waiting in its old familiar spot. It was late, and the shadows fell long, disproportionate to their sources. She would only have time for a quick visit tonight; check in to make sure her mother hadn’t burned down the building, say hello, and get her father’s wedding ring before her mother gave it away to some stranger, like she’d done with her grandmother’s ivory brooch the week before.
Maggie had her mother’s face, which she was proud of, and her mother’s candidness, which she wasn’t. In all other respects, she was like her father: a broad-shouldered, brooding professor who valued consistency above all other virtues. She remembered arguments between them when she was a little girl, lying in bed still awake, waiting for the stiletto stalk of her mother’s return home. Her father would be angry; Georgia was late, and she never should have been out at all. She’d forgotten what day it was—whatever day it was—forgotten what it mattered. Eventually their voices would trail to a whisper, but the tension never left the house. The next morning Maggie’s father would melt a bar of bittersweet chocolate into a saucepan of milk to make her his special hot cocoa, and he’d look at Maggie a little differently, like something had been lost. Maggie missed him terribly.
Lately she’d found herself missing all sorts of things; earlier that morning she’d forgotten an appointment with the county superintendent, and when he’d finally found her in the teacher’s lounge, she was drinking tea and reading a magazine. The look of horror on her face had been excessive considering the circumstances; it was a forgivable offense, he’d tried to console her, everyone forgets things now and again. But she had been inconsolable.
Maggie’s mother lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of an old Victorian townhouse, managed by the crabby Miss Thurber, who seemed to have taken it upon herself to convince all the world it was still 1959 and life was still simple and good. She and Georgia had never gotten along very well, but what was surprising was that their animosity had only deepened after the Alzheimer’s set in, as if they both had competing versions of the past and neither fit with the other.
Miss Thurber was outside watering her window box flowers when Maggie arrived. “Hello Maggie,” she said. “Haven’t seen your mother around.” She clipped off a dead bulb with her fingers and flung it to the curb. “You should really have a talk with her, you know. The other day she was gone for over four hours, and when she came back she’d misplaced her key, and—what if I hadn’t been here to answer the door?”
“Hello Miss Thurber. Yes, I’ll have a talk with her, but you understand she forgets things. It’s a part of her illness.”
“Maybe so, but I can’t be expected to sit by the door waiting to open it for her, can I?”
“No one’s expecting you to do that, Miss Thurber. If you could just give her a hand now and then. Don’t think I haven’t appreciated what you’ve done for her, Miss Thurber—for us.”
Miss Thurber snorted and turned back to her flowers and Maggie walked inside. In the entryway she stopped
to pick up the cascading pile of mail. From the postmark dates some of them had been lying there since her last visit the week before. It was all bills, direct mail, and coupons to the new Chinese restaurant down the block: nothing personal.
“Hi Mom,” she called, dropping the mail on the hutch. “It’s Maggie.” She went into the living room. “Mom?” She wasn’t there. In the kitchen, Maggie found the sink piled high with dishes. Chuck the cat rubbed up against her leg. He at least looked well fed. “Mom?” She heard the toilet flush and a minute later, Georgia Duncan came shuffling into the hall.
Maggie remembered how once her mother had smelled of lavender and rose, and how eventually she had grown to despise the perfume, which carried with it all the aromatic connotations of motel rooms and whiskey breath. Now, despite the foul odor of mothballs and mildew and cat urine, Maggie could have hugged her mother.
“Oh dear, my dear,” Georgia exclaimed. “I’m so happy to see you! There’s something I found I’ve been meaning to give you, something of your father’s—oh!” She was digging around through the piles of paper and curios. “Where did I put it now?” She was more agitated than usual, and seemed to have difficulty making eye contact.
“Mom? How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine Sweetie. How are you?”
“Good. Mom, why don’t you just sit for a minute?”
“Alright dear, alright. I’m sitting down. But I wonder—” She ran over to the window seat and came back with a small leather eyeglass case with gold etching on the front. “There!” she exclaimed, handing it to Maggie. “I thought so. These were your father’s.”
The eyeglasses had egg-shaped wire rims and cable arms to loop behind the ears. Her father hadn’t worn glasses and Maggie said so. She said, “I didn’t know Daddy wore glasses.” She tried them on, and suddenly her mother lost all trace of form and distinction, became just a blur, a wash of pink and gray. Maggie’s head began to throb. “Mom,” she winced as she pulled them off, “Mom, these are a really strong prescription. They couldn’t have been Daddy’s.”
“Oh no, they were your father’s. He’d worn them since high school.”
“But Daddy had perfect vision, Mom.”
Georgia leaned back in her oversized armchair. “They’re your father’s Maggie,” she said. “He wanted you to have them. I would have given them to you earlier, only I—I forgot. You know how these things are.” She smiled at the cat, who had established himself in the center of the rug between them and commenced grooming himself voraciously.
“Mom?” Maggie was aware of a tinge of desperation coloring her voice, and she tried to calm herself. “What are you saying, Mom?”
“I remember how he used to take them off to kiss me,” Georgia continued, “only sometimes he would miss! He was very self-conscious of them, you know. I don’t know why. He used to say, ‘I don’t need glasses to see how much I love you.’ But I always thought they made him look very debonair.”
Georgia kicked off her slippers and reclined her chair, and she seemed to be looking at Maggie now and smiling, though Maggie was having trouble focusing on anything at all. All of a sudden Georgia began giggling crazy, crazy like a little child, and the sound startled Maggie.
“Oh Chuck!” Georgia laughed, “Chuck, you’re tickling me!” The cat had repositioned himself at the base of her feet and was licking away at her toes. He licked them methodically, as he had with his own mottled fur, and with each toe Georgia howled with glee and cried, “Chuck! Chuck, that’s tickling!”
Maggie didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what she could say. A year earlier and she would have had no qualms interrogating her mother, stirring the past for answers. She would have raged and cried and reevaluated the worth of things. She would have gone to therapy. But now she could either take the gift as a sign of her mother’s mental decline, or as a confession of paternity, or she could simply take them as something she had no use for, a curio to be stowed and forgotten. There were too many questions to hope for any kind of answer.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED