I knock on the front door and wait.
The girls stand behind me, shielded from whatever might greet us. Above, the hot sun scorns us. I can feel the girls shifting nervously as the door to my childhood remains silent and unanswered. I keep looking ahead at the old door and just hope.
This is my second journey to see my mother – the first having been strangely and suspiciously thwarted by my family. While I stand with small beads of sweat gathering into rivlets, I wonder again why I have taken the trouble to trek here, to see a woman who was not much of a mother to me – especially when my siblings do not welcome my presence. I hear myself saying that, no matter how much I do not like this woman, she is still my mother and a human being – and my family is clearly hiding something.
So, after my first unsuccessful effort to see my mother, my children and I trundled homeward once more, first on a long plane ride, with connecting delayed flights, and then on a lengthy car ride along empty highways and dusty roads. I had warned them about my mother while we drove in the car: that she might be loud and frightening and say strange things in a thick foreign accent that they couldn’t understand. That she might smell like death coming. They had nodded and stared out of the car windows at the big empty landscapes beyond the road, taking it all in quietly.
And now here we stand, waiting for the unknown, and sweating fiercely under a burning sky. Just as my hope falters, my mother opens the weather-beaten door, just a tiny crack. She eyes me with distrust. She growls, a smoke-riddled rasp rattling under her heavy accent: “Who you? What you want?”
My children tense behind me. I put on my warmest smile and hold out my hand toward her. “I am your daughter. And these,” I gesture behind me, “are my children. Your grandchildren.”
She opens the door wider to see better. “You kidding me. My daughter? Which one?” she says, a disbelieving dare in her voice.
“Your youngest daughter. Your baby.” I reply.
She frowns and fishes around in her pockets behind the big door. She fiddles momentarily until she finds what she is looking for – a half smashed cigarette and crumpled book of matches. She lights the cigarette and inhales deeply. She strikes a familiar defensive pose, her big beefy hand on her hip, her lips tight and her eyes, wary slits. “No, my daughter not here. She at school,” she says, smoke blowing out of each nostril as she speaks. Of course, none of her children have been in school for over two decades. “Can I help with you? You need something?” she says in broken English.
I step closer but stop short of going inside. I gather myself and press forward. I smile again. It is important to me that I not frighten my mother too much but that my children not sense my own hesitation.
“Yes, Mom. Yes, you can help me. Please let me inside so we can visit you.”
She looks worried but steps aside to let us in. We do not touch.
I step into the dark, smoky interior. I nearly gag on the smell of the house. My children crowd around me in nervousness. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I recognize the outlines of familiar furnishings – which are the same as they had been when I was growing up, except now they are curled yellow around the edges from neglect. And then I start to notice that certain things are not quite right. The furniture is arranged like a barricade against the world outside. Sticky dust clings to every surface, making things appear fuzzy. Bare wires poke out where a wall phone had once hung. As I move farther into the little house, little girls clustered behind me, I see that there are no chairs around the kitchen table and a drawer front has fallen down in disrepair. On a whim, I open the refrigerator and we are assaulted by the stink of rotting food. The stove looks clean, but I open the oven and find hidden piles of dirty dishes and pans. And I can tell that she is hiding dirty underwear somewhere nearby.
She is talking to me as I walk through the house. She is asking questions about things that happened many years ago or just recently, all out of order and jumbled together into one big question mark. My children whisper their own questions to me, which I ignore. I answer my mother just enough to keep her dialogue going and then I call out, “Let’s go out for dinner, Mom.” I can’t see anymore. I can’t let my children see anymore.
The idea of leaving her little house scares her and excites her. She is concerned that she isn’t dressed to go out. I assure her she looks fine enough to go out for dinner. She worries that she hasn’t taken a shower today. Probably in many days, I think, and I say again that she looks fine. She starts opening different drawers and searching frantically for something. “What are you looking for, Mom? Can I help you?” I ask gently.
She sits down on the dirty carpet and scrubs her greasy hair furiously with her hands. “I can’t find my identity. Your sisters take things,” she says, and she starts to cry. I lean down to scoop her back up and realize that, in her imperfect English, she is talking about her purse and her personal belongings. I tell her that we will not need her identity where we are going. That I will take care of everything tonight. She stops crying and gets up with me. We leave the house and eat dinner at my mother’s favorite restaurant: Taco Bell. I watch my mother eat soft tacos with childish glee and talk nonsensically to my daughters, who both smile and nod at everything she says even though they cannot understand her.
And I know that in a few hours, I will leave my mother in that house again, alone once more, sealed in a crypt of darkness and filth. The girls and I will board a plane and fly far far away to the tidy orderly lives I have built for us and I will be glad for the distance. I know that I will spend many months trying to negotiate with my family for the decent and humane treatment of the once fearsome matriarch of our family and I will lose. I know that I will not be able to save my mother, the helpless and confused elderly woman she has become. Not by myself, anyway.
“Uh, hi, yes. I would like to report elder abuse.”
I answer all of the questions and complete the report.
When the woman comes to the last question and asks me how I know the victim, I simply say I am an acquaintance.
I hang up before she can ask any more questions.