I have spent a month with my mother this winter, her 86th and my 60th, the coldest January she’s seen in years. Every morning at the breakfast table we flip through the flimsy pages of her small town’s local newspaper, sharing a lurid headline here, a recipe there, agreeing that if the paper gets any worse they might as well stop printing it.
My mother sits at her end, her tiny bones sinking into the thick folds of a voluminous robin’s egg blue bathrobe. Her eyes are that color too. She picks at a half slice of the Christmas fruitcake a friend makes every year—dark brown like wet bark, flecked with pieces of red and green jellied candy, stinking of whiskey. She tells me one more time how my brother-in-law, who hates fruitcake, admitted this is the best one he’s ever tasted, as if that will make me like it. She wraps the last crumbs of it back in its whiskey soaked cloth sack and sticks it in the refrigerator.
In the mornings she works at her letters while I work on the computer. Her precise, straight handwriting has gotten smaller and even more straight and precise as she has gotten older and her hands more arthritic and less nimble. She covers every inch of blank space on every card she writes, at least two or three every day. Mary, who comes to clean the house on Wednesdays, says my mother is keeping the U.S. Postal Service in business with all those stamps.
We have our lunch in front of The Young and the Restless which has been a mess for the past few weeks since one of its young male actors was fired from the show and the writers had to figure out what to do with his character, the town’s baddest bad guy. The crazy plot the writers made up to dispense with him has finally unfolded and we are left less than satisfied as they put him in a flaming car crash but there are no signs of his body in the rubble. We know that means he will likely show up in Genoa City again with a new actor’s face. The miracles of plastic surgery.
My mother naps after lunch and I work some more or take the dog for a walk if it’s warm, or tiptoe around the house pulling boxes of photos off the shelves, looking for stories that haven’t been told. Most of them I have heard a hundred times: the cousin whose mother dressed him in girl’s clothes and curled his hair into long ringlets until he was seven years old. The girl cousin who went off to Chicago during the war and worked in an airplane parts factory. The uncle who taught himself to play guitar and charmed the girls and married one who looked like a movie star when he came back from the war. The uncle who could train dogs to do back flips.
After her nap, my mother reads. This week she’s finishing Undisputed Truth, the Mike Tyson biography, a Christmas gift from her grandsons. They knew she would like it as she is a big boxing fan and a sucker for a hard luck story. From time to time, she looks up from her book to tell me about some terrible trouble Tyson got into as a kid. All my life I’ve asked her what she likes about boxing, this gentle little woman who’s crazy for blood sport. Usually she just scrunches up her shoulders and says, “I don’t know, I just like it,” but this time she looks at me with an expression that implies I should already know this, it’s so obvious.
“When I was growing up, we listened to the radio on Saturdays, and only Saturday because you didn’t want the battery to run out,” she says. “Usually we listened to the Grand Ole Opry, but my daddy loved to listen to the boxing matches. That’s when Joe Louis was fighting. We listened to the heavyweight championship fights. I guess that’s why I like it.”
We share dinner and when she goes to bed I look at the oldest photo album, the crumbling one with black pages with half the pictures missing. Here is one of my mother at 14, wearing a crown and holding up a papier mache torch. The sash across her chest is embossed with letters that spell MISS AMERICA. She is standing atop a log, next to a woodpile, her head inclined against the wind that blows waves of hair across her face. Another story that hasn’t been told.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.