Changing of the Guard

I hold an envelope in my hand. I know what it contains, but I hold it between my finger and my thumb, staring down at it, willing it not to exist.

I visit my parents every summer. I pack my children in the car and drive six hours due West listening to complaints of “are we there yet” and “I’m bored” so that my children will make memories in my childhood home. I lived in the same house from the time I was four until I went to college. My parents are still there. It will always be home no matter how far away I move or how long it’s been since I used the address.

This week, as I drove the straight and narrow highway, my mind drifted to my mother’s house. A house where everyone was always welcome, where the smell of fried okra lingered in the air outside the kitchen window, where coffee was always brewed and ready to be poured for anyone who stopped by. Visible from the major street, it’s always been a beacon of warmth to anyone driving by. Often times, my family (all four brothers, their wives and children, my parents, and I) would be sitting at the table piled high with my mom’s semi famous home cooking with sweet iced tea in every glass, and a random friend or family member would walk in the door without knocking having passed the house and seen several cars parked outside.

My mother never hesitated and would jump up from her chair and set an extra place or two. Her cooking style always offered enough for one or two more, and if you knew my mother, and you happened near her house at dinner time, you too would stop in and “pull up a chair.” Dinner was an event, and though her house was small, she could feed a small army from her stove.

Some of my sweetest memories were made at my mother’s house at her kitchen table, and driving home, I looked forward to sitting there with her, drinking my morning coffee and visiting with her and my dad.

As a teenager, it always annoyed me that I could see my mom in the kitchen window when I pulled up to the house, but this time, seeing her peeking through the curtains made my heart smile, and I practically leapt  from my car to run and meet her.

I walked into the house, and breathed in that consistent familiar scent. Home. I would make it into a candle if it were possible and call it “Comfort.”

My dad greeted me with a hug and as I squeezed him back, I noticed that he was even smaller than the last time I saw him. He stooped down and hugged my kids, and I caught sight of the new age spots forming on his bald head. I pulled my mother into an embrace and held her for a little while until my kids could no longer contain their excitement and wanted Nana’s attention all on them.

I unloaded my car and delivered the bags to my mother’s room where the kids would sleep. I dropped the bags in the doorway and stood aghast as I took in what was before me. A walker. My parents are in their seventies, and my mother’s health hasn’t been great in years, but this was a first, and my mind drifted back to my grandmother’s house where first there was a walker, then one of those portable hospital potties, then a wheelchair. Then a nursing home. Then a funeral home.

My mother called my name , and I let out the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. I followed her oxygen tubing to her living room and found her comfortably sitting in her rocking chair, a pretty blonde little girl bouncing happily on her lap. They both looked up at me, two sets of identical blue eyes beaming with love. “What do you want for supper,” my mom asked.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and in my mind said “chicken fried steak “ or “pot roast” or “chicken and dumplins” (they’re not dumplings in my mother’s house). But I knew that was out of the question, and so I simply said I wasn’t hungry and sat on the couch. We ordered pizza and enjoyed it almost as much as if she had cooked. (The next day, she surprised me and made a ham, a Sunday afternoon staple in my home, and it tasted as delicious as it did in my memory.)

I slept in my childhood room and woke looking up at the purple and red checkered ceiling my brother built for me when I was 8. I rubbed my eyes and listened to my parents laughing, enjoying their sweet and playful conversation with my children. I took advantage of the kids’ distraction and opted to shower. I opened the shower door and held my breath once more at what was in front of me. Handicapped bars. I recalled a conversation with my dad where he told me he installed them to make showering easier for my mom, but the visual of those bars cemented something I’d been ignoring for some time. My parents’ aging. I traced my fingers along each one of them, feeling the cold metal in my hand, and before I realized it, I was holding onto them for support.

That day, my dad and I took the kids to an outdoor museum that required lots of walking. I couldn’t help but notice how many breaks my once spry father took during the walk. We lost him during one of those breaks and found him back inside. He hitched a ride on a golf cart, too tired to walk back on his own. The rest of the day, he was spent, completely exhausted.

Throughout the rest of the week, I couldn’t help but notice the subtle differences in my parents. Tiny little things like movements that once were easy, took more time, and it wasn’t unlikely to find one or both of them quietly napping in their chairs.. I looked around the house and wondered how much longer they would be able to keep it, and I had to squelch the thought that one day I might not be able to go home.

I don’t remember when they got old. It’s like one day they were shiny and young, and the next they were tired and gray with age spots and walkers and handicapped bars and oxygen.

And this envelope.

This envelope that holds the information I will need when they can no longer make decisions for themselves, and as I read the words, my resolve breaks and I weep, dripping giant drops of tears onto the paper.

I will hold on to this envelope and its contents, and when it comes time, I will do my part and carry out their last wishes, but in the meantime, I will hold on to my memory, to the smell of my mother’s kitchen, to the sound of my dad’s laughter, and I will treasure the time we have left.

Time – it’s our most limited resource. Don’t waste it.

mom and dad young

 

 

 

Aside

Queen Grimhilde

The snow falls outside my window, a constant reminder of winter, quilting the ground below in a pillow of frost.  As the wind picks up, the flurries rise and fall and whirl in a frenzied tornado leaving the land white from ground to sky.

White.  The absence of color, so majestic.

The forest outside my window tells a story, the howling of the wind, the creaking of the trees in the breeze.  It tells my story.

“I won’t bore you again with it.”

“No, Madame Grimhilde, please do tell your story.  I’d love to hear it…ahem… again.”

“You’re too kind, my dear.  If you would be a darling and fetch me a blanket, and make me a cup of tea, first.  I can feel the chill in my bones today.”

“Yes, Madam, of course.”

“I once was a beautiful young woman, you know,  full of hope and promise, with skin so fair, my mother would say she could see my blood coursing through my veins.  We had little money, my mother and I, and she often would have to beg for food to make it through the week until our next pension.  My father died young in a brutal accident, or so my mother said.  I remember very little of him, but Mother persevered and made me promises of a grander life. She always said that my beauty would win me a prize of a young man, maybe even a prince.  She forced me to stay inside the house, never to meet the sun and suffer its damage.  I spent my days trapped in our cottage. Alone.

“As a young girl, I spent most of my time reading.  I started with the fairy tales wrapping myself in make believe stories of happily ever afters, but as I grew older, the darkness in our little cabin sunk into my soul.  Fables no longer entertained me.  I began to crave more mystic stories, and found them hidden in my mother’s chest, the one I was strictly forbidden to touch, stories of black magic and spells.  Eventually, I learned the craft, but I’m getting ahead of myself, dear.

“One afternoon, I was in the kitchen attempting to brew a love potion  when my mother came bursting through the door.

“‘We have a visitor, Hilde.  Do go and put on your best gown, and please, wash that muck off of your hands.’

“I scurried to my room and retrieved the only gown I owned, the one my mother wore when she married my father.  I brushed off the dust from the capped shoulders and slipped it over my head.  My mother came in and helped me fasten it from behind.  We stared at my reflection in the mirror as she smoothed the silk folds.  Her warped fingers bent like gnarled tree branches around my waist, a testament of the hard work she endured to keep us alive.  I held her hand there, and together we admired my reflection.  She pulled my long black hair into a low plait and fastened it with a red ribbon.  My alabaster skin stood translucent beneath the obsidian silk.

“‘I think I’m ready, mother.’ We heard the hooves and neighing of horses outside.

‘”My dear raven girl,’ she said, ‘Your prince awaits you.’

“My mother greeted our visitor as any peasant greets a lord and bowed as he entered our tiny cottage.  Introductions were made, and we sat at our table.  Before I knew it, my mother poured the young man a cup of the brew I had created.  I pushed my chair out and lunged toward him when I realized what he was about to do, but it was too late.  He took a sip.  And then another.

“He knelt down in front of me and took my slender fingers into his.  ‘You will be my queen,’ he said and kissed the top of the hand he still held.

“I never had a choice in the matter.  A few days later, we were married. My dearest mother died the next day.   I moved into his castle where he lived with his daughter, a little petulant child, plump with being fed too many cakes and given anything her little heart desired, beautiful though with skin as white as snow and lips the color of a ripe red apple.  My husband adored her, even more than he adored me, which was quite a lot.

“The fucking fat bastard wouldn’t keep his hands off of me, always wanting to prod me with his tiny fucking cock, breathing his rank nasty breath into my face as he thrust himself into me night after night after night.  On nights when I refused, my face ached where the tender purple marks littered my skin. Eventually, I stopped struggling.  I thought that maybe one day the gods would bless me with a child, but unfortunately, every month I received a reminder of a body that could not produce life.  Broken.  Barren.  And stuck with that little bitch, Snow White, and her fat disgusting father.

“I could only take it for a few years.   One quiet evening, I fed my husband a beautiful feast.  We were alone in the castle, and I watched his cock swell in appreciation at another excuse for gluttony  just before he fell face down in his plate.  We buried him the next day.

“Snow White was beside herself with grief and a healthy fear of me.  I kept her around as long as I could.  She grew into a beautiful teenager, with a slim waist, full plump breasts and a big round ass that brought all of the princes to our castle to adore her.

“I spent most of my time in my bed chamber with my little pet bird I called ‘Raven’ because he reminded me of Mother. But I could not ignore Snow White and the attention she received from the princes that came from all across the land to get a glimpse of the girl with the fair skin and the red lips.  I noticed more and more that the princes never even looked in my direction.  One day, one had the guile to ask me if I was Snow White’s grandmother.  He fell from his horse to his death on his journey home.  Stupid little man.

“I often stared at my reflection in the only mirror we kept in the castle and eventually moved it into my secret room where I made my potions.  One day, as I looked at myself, the mirror revealed the lines beginning to form round corners of my lips and at the creases of my eyes, the silver wiry hair peeking out around my temples.  The mirror saw the truth and told me I was no longer the fairest in the land.  Filled with rage, I ordered a huntsmen to take that damned child into the forest and kill her, but the noble prick couldn’t do it and came back to the castle begging my forgiveness, which, of course, I could not oblige.

“I learned of where she stayed and followed her about the forest one day, cloaked to keep my skin from the sun, and watched her as she talked to the birds and the rabbits as if she’d gone mad.  That was nearly enough until I saw she she was pleased, happy even.  Her skin reflected the sun’s light, and there was a twinkle in her eye.  The little corners of her crimson mouth turned up on the sides in an obvious smile.  Unacceptable, I thought to myself.  She does not deserve happiness if I cannot have it, too.

“I watched her enter her little cottage and knocked three times on the door after she was inside.  I brought a bundle of candied apples with me, one of her favorite little treats, and when she opened the door, her mouth fell open at the sight of the sweets.  She looked at me, close, as if I resembled someone she once knew but then cocked her head to the side and raised a brow at me.

“‘May I help you with something, old woman,’ she said to me.

“I recoiled at the term ‘old woman,’ but before I could turn and go, she reached down and retrieved an apple from my basket.

“‘Do take a bite, young lady,’ I said to her disguising my voice.

poison apple

“She ate the entire thing in three bites, then licked the gooey sugar from the delicate tips of her fingers.  I watched her fall to the ground, convulsing, white bubbles foaming from her heart shaped lips.  I turned to run back to the castle.  I ran and ran, my breath catching in my chest, muscles aching, until I could no longer make my legs move.

“And then I woke up here, my dear.  I don’t know what happened next.  I’m not sure why Snow White fell.  I only wanted to give her a sweet treat, you see.”

She looks at me now with a smirk.  She doesn’t believe me.  None of them do.  I scoff at her and pull the blanket over my legs and wheel myself back to the window where the white envelopes the landscape.

“Hilde, er, uh, Madame Grimhilde,” she says attempting to garner my attention again.

“Please just go.”  I say, refusing to take my eyes from the snow.

“Madame Grimhilde, I need you to take your pill.”

“No!  Get out of my room.”  Those fucking pills.  They want me to rest, to put me in my bed to sleep until I die, to forget my past, to lay in my own piss and wither away…forgotten.

“Mrs. Grimm, you must take your medicine before dinner.”

“My name is  Madame Grimhilde, and in case I did not make myself clear the first time, I said GET OUT!”

They think I’ve lost my mind. It’s only a matter of time before they come in and tie me to the bed again.  If only my body worked, and I could run and free myself from this prison, feel the snow crunch against my slippered feet and the chill of that unforgiving wind on my cheeks.  Instead I’m trapped here in this room, this place, this hell that is my mind.

“Poor old bag thinks she’s the Evil Queen again,” I hear her whisper to the men who strap me to my bed right before I feel the pierce of the needle.

“Her dementia’s acting up again,” I hear a male voice say, “It’s always worse for the ones who get no visitors.”

And then my head swims into blackness again.

Where is the white?

The white…

White…

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