No one can leave a lifetime of love. My mother’s presence is etched into my very being by all her kindnesses, both large and tiny, drawn over a span of 80 years. When she began to know something wasn’t quite right, when she became frightened by the withdrawal of words, or distractions would make her come to a questioning halt, that life of love bore her on, even though familiar landmarks were fading.
I kept telling them at the assisted living home that a woman of such independence, who loved to drive on her own to the west coast from Oklahoma in her red Z, could not be expected to stay walking up and down hallways, never taken out any place. But they would counter that “she won’t get back in the bus when it’s time to go” and “we don’t have enough personnel to assign someone just to her.” A teacher of such long industry could not sit and do “art and crafts” projects—she knew “busy work” when she saw it, even in the fog of unknowing that she was increasingly forced to inhabit. “She refuses to participate,” they said, “and cries a lot.”
Only when I could fly down and visit for three or four days, when we left the confines of this meaningless existence and she said in a conspiring whisper, “Let’s get out of here!” did she come alive, safe in my car, safe in my care, safe in seeing a stranger’s adorable child who smiled at her and willingly played with her at a diner. A child knows a child heart, though they had just met. Then her words flowed, buoyed by the joy that had propelled my mother her whole life as a teacher; sharing love and happiness came naturally to her, and she slipped into that well-known person as easily as you add cream to coffee.
A familiar joy on our captured outings was going to the Sonic and ordering just the right burger, with that natural limeade she always liked. We would sit there drawing out the time, lingering over the tater tots, sometimes talking, yet knowing in the silences that we would soon have to return to “the home.” Not her home, but someplace in which she was forced to stay. A place where you’d never find a tater tot, and if by some strange lottery of luck they would ever be served, they wouldn’t taste like tater tots because they weren’t served up in the freedom of a drive-in, in the freedom of a “Z.” Whoever knew that something as small as a tater tot could bridge a person to herself so quickly?
I have not ordered tater tots for a long time, neither have chosen to drive to a Sonic. But that face of love I knew for a lifetime is always with me wherever I go. And I marvel how even little things like the radiant smile of a small child or the freedom in a tater tot can make a person slip out of the shadows and back into life.
Regretfully, I do not have a recipe from my mother except for how to love.
Pilar Carling has performed with numerous companies such as New York’s CSC Repertory, Richard Morse Mime Theatre, and Paper Bag Players. As a mime and movement coach, she has worked with prima ballerina Gelsey Kirkland and with Philip Anglim and David Bowie in Broadway’s original The Elephant Man. She has taught at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and Stella Adler Studio of Acting.