Captains of the Mother Ship
Jennifer Moglia Lucil
Copyright 2020 by Jennifer Moglia Lucil
my visit to my mother’s senior community during the holidays,
as well as the most noticeable effects of her dementia. In an often
humorous and ironic tone, I talk about the loss of my mother’s
ability to cook Italian food as well as the character of her
apartment complex in New Jersey. In contrast, I share our family
visit to my mother-in-law’s home on Cape Cod during this same
holiday week. My observations about her strength of character
and vivid memory in vibrant community with others provided a
philosophical point of reference for me in considering my own
relationship with my mother.
the Four Seasons residential community in Clifton, New Jersey, you
can go for a walk. But make sure you bring a key fob. If you decide
to take the stairs instead of the elevator and you do not have a key
fob, you may get locked in the stairwell between your mother-in-law’s
third-floor apartment and the first-floor exit.
fact that my husband, David, has experienced this particular form of
captivity is no surprise, given his tendency to act like a cooped-up
animal when we venture from the Southwest to visit my mother in New
Jersey for the holidays. To further understand his frenzied sense of
containment, consider that David is a guy who likes to get out of his
immediate space to feel content. After a few drinks, he might tell
you about the time he swam across Walden Pond when dared by his
carpool colleagues on their way to work one day.
have become accustomed to calling my mother’s apartment “Mom’s
castle,” conjuring up all manner of comparisons to an archaic
fortification. There is, indeed, a watchman at the entry like a
knight on guard, and an encircling turnpike like an impenetrable
moat. It is not an exaggeration to say that pedestrians take their
lives in their hands to venture out of the community gates.
I visit my mom, my sense of independence decidedly shifts. I have
felt constrained, too, only for me, it is guilt for having moved with
my husband and twin boys 2,000 miles away to New Mexico that pulls at
my gut, never mind that the move occurred several years ago. And now
the dawn of a new year conjures up a fresh ache in the form of my
mother’s progressing dementia. Dementia,
you son-of-a-bitch, did
you have to
make these visits even harder than they already are?
woman who stands before us now needs us to translate meanings from
the wider world.
this object, what does it do?”
use it for your hair.”
do you do with it?”
dry with it.”
what do you call it?,” and then tears because she can’t
piece those words together. The concepts are quickly becoming ridden
with fissures like an old baby blanket; the fabric of words, too fine
to hold the meaning of language together.
stage is it, one might ask? If I categorize, identify, or classify
the symptoms, as humans do, I can supposedly place some distance
between myself and the disease.
stage is somewhere on the downhill of forgetting how to cook family
recipes, wondering who all those relatives were who gave her big hugs
at a family wedding, and speculating what in the world an ATM card
could be for.
sister said that in recent weeks, Mom had been saving items for my
sister to name—a razor, dish soap, a piece of broccoli—before
her visit to the supermarket. Provided with a name, mom could get
assistance from someone in the market to help her find those
were confounded last year, when Mom bungled the Christmas Eve meal.
all the years I had grown up in my Italian-American household,
cultural roots came alive during the holidays. We went to church
intermittently when we heeded the call for funerals or holidays, but
we were more devout about food. Parmesan cheese from the Italian
store, pasta at least twice a week, good tomatoes and sauce were
always on hand. On Christmas Eve, Mom re-enacted the Italian
tradition of a seven-fish dinner in spite of the fact that we kids
and my dad mostly only ate shrimp. She toiled to make fried calamari
along with the shrimp and broiled fish, occasionally even the baccalá
(salted fish) like her father did.
what we cared most about was the pasta puttanesca mom made. One of
the handful of Italian words we knew was “putana,” the
root word of the sauce, which meant “whore” in Italian.
Like a prostitute, the sauce had everything in it—olives,
capers, anchovies. The joke spiced up the memory of Grandpa in the
kitchen. He was a good cook who always had the stub of his cigar
somewhere in his kitchen, and we liked to think that the real secret
of the sauce was a little cigar ash.
a mom who did not have a professional life outside the home, cooking
was not only a tie to the past, it was an avenue for creativity and
inspiration. Mom was one of those people who actually read cookbooks.
After reading Marcella Hazan’s, Marcella
example, she explained
to us that Sicily’s food was so interesting because the country
was invaded multiple times. The cuisine had Greek, Spanish, French,
even Arab influences, and Mom could showcase the variety.
year, I remember looking forward to my mother’s cooking. My
southwestern habitat seemed to me more than a desert by its
region--it was a desert of Italian specialties. On my commute to
work, I always mistook an oversized, pink crystal in a shop window
for a prosciutto crudo. Time and again, the mirage would emerge as
the storefront for an herbal-CBD shop, not the deli display case of
an Italian salumeria.
we were all disappointed to find mom in confusion in the kitchen and
the ingredients dissociated from their place in the family recipe.
The anchovies were unopened on the counter along with a half-opened
can of tomatoes. There were no olives or capers in sight. “What
do I put in the pan first?” she asked. My sister and I were
angry and tired, having assured mom to make a simpler meal of “just
the pasta” for dinner that year. We had taken the kids skating
in the afternoon and were ready for the meal before the exhaustive
night before Christmas. “What
could not have known that we were witnessing the unraveling of more
than the sauce, it was her identity that had begun to fade.
stage of dementia is confounding for everyone, with the fiendish
promise that the coming being will forget who all of us are—friends,
cousins, grandchildren, daughters, us.
let me stay here at this place for a moment before we drive away, The
Four Seasons Community,
irksome as it may be to visit, I know the fact of it in our lives is
temporary. And that’s the great crack up, yes? When we know
nothing lasts, we can all just walk about like jolly elves in Santa’s
magical garden of forgetting.
of Santa, there’s a God here. It’s the God Safety, and if
you eventually go for a walk, know that every surface will have a
thick spread of rock salt. It is sprinkled liberally even if there is
no form of precipitation in the long-range forecast and seniors who
walk here seem few and far between.
clubhouse is grand, with chandeliers, a ballroom, and an indoor pool
under a sky of windows. If you are a relative, you can only access
the clubhouse if you are escorted by a resident through the doors.
You may not use the exercise equipment or enter the billiard room
unless you are 18, of course.
complex was chosen by my older sister because it is within driving
distance of her house and has all the amenities. My sister and I
often fretted about mom choosing to stay in the apartment when she
could be living it up at the grand clubhouse down the hill. I’d
call and nag by phone, “Mom, look at the schedule of activities
at the clubhouse. Mom, why don’t you go to the chair yoga
class?” My sister had the most effective method. She would show
up with her kids who came running around in bathing suits. “Grandma,
mom said we were going to the pool today!”
the while, maybe mom really just wanted to say, “I
don’t want to go to the freaking clubhouse.”
the complex by car, but be prepared to allow a grand gate to close
behind you. Re-entry is allowed only if you provide the full name,
building number, and apartment of the person you are visiting.
Calling Uber is a nightmare, unless you are willing to walk out
dragging your suitcase to the address of the Greek Orthodox Church
across the street so the driver can find you curbside.
this juncture in our trip to see the relatives for the holidays, we
would typically rent a car and drive to see David’s mother,
Virginia, who lives on Cape Cod. She is six years my mother’s
elder, 83 to my mom’s 77 years.
wise sister, Liz, (who hosts Christmas and leaves the day after to
visit her in-laws in Canada but usually takes care of Mom) asked the
question: “Would you consider taking Mom to Cape Cod with you
it was we found ourselves packed into mom’s Honda Accord, our
twin 13-year-old boys in the back seat with Grandma Roz, David
driving, and me in the passenger seat. It was, perhaps, a small way
to make up for all the years I have not been present. Mom, a
longtime driver who once braved the New Jersey turnpike on a daily
basis to get to her local stores, now sat meekly in the back seat.
in the drive, she asked, “Don’t you use the computer?,”
in a fretful voice. She meant the GPS. The navigation technology
(iphone app and its forebear, the GPS gadget) had existed through all
the changes in the latter part of her life--divorce, multiple knee
surgeries, major move out of our family house.
navigator’s dependable female voice was a comfort. Mom
consistently used the GPS whenever she drove to and from my sister’s
house, 30 minutes away. Even though Mom had learned how to drive to
Liz’s house a different way than the GPS told her (a toll route
was easier for her), she always kept the voice on “just in case
had experienced this trip multiple times and wanted to use alternate
roads to avoid I-95 for a while, so we kept the GPS lady off. The
winding road of the Hutchinson River Parkway lulled us forward and
onto the Merritt Parkway, with its winged sculptures and arched
bridges of the WPA era. Our next stop at Papa’s Pizza in
Connecticut served a pie that was so extraordinary to us, the taste
of it brightened the next set of interstate highways and gave us hope
of reaching the sandy peninsula before nightfall. We finally
disembarked at Virginia’s house in East Harwich, Massachusetts,
on the eve of the new year.
the gray-shingled home on Meetinghouse Way, my mom and Virginia
embraced, gathering each other up in an assemblage of fragile bones
and merry Christmas wishes.
did not talk or see each other often, but there was a bond of having
twin grandchildren, the joy and grief of having kids visit from their
home so far away.
seemed genuinely impressed by all the “beautiful things”
in Virginia’s home, an accumulation of family
treasures--antique sideboard, grandfather clock, oriental rugs. She
noticed the paintings too, landscapes in oil that spoke of New
England in painterly shortcuts, fisherman at the shore with his line
in a flowing river, hills with old mill in the background.
objects covered the house like a blanket of snow. In myriad ways,
they were all reminiscent of Virginia’s childhood in Rockville,
CT of the 1930s, where the local textile mill would dump red dyes
into the river at 4:00 p.m. each day and her parents served a roast
at the walnut dining table at six.
move to Cape Cod was a rebellious risk in the 1960s that suited
Virginia and her eccentric husband quite well. Now on her own at 83,
Virginia’s life pulsated through her role as parish nurse
(having been a school nurse for many years). The chatty network of
senior, church-minded ladies shared stories about who was divorcing,
who was in the psych ward after a breakdown, and who had died that
week. There were choir rehearsals, church breakfasts, and funeral
“I bought a roast beef
for us from Ferretti's" Virginia announced, assuring us that this meat was
not from her freezer downstairs. David and I feared that freezer, with
its pounds upon pounds of crystallized meat that Virginia bought on
markdown at Stop and Shop. The freezer was bought ostensibly to
manage her depression-era habit of stowing away meat whenever
possible. The habit extended in this day and age to most foods on
sale. In the refrigerator upstairs, for example, you could find
multiple packages of cheddar cheese with past expiration dates,
half-filled jars of condiments in varying states of decay, and
“spoon” roast beef from Ferretti’s, however, was
recently killed and it was for our special occasion. David’s
brother and 16-year-old niece came the following day for dinner, and
we sat at the dining table together. Brother Elliott carved the meat
and served it up to the “ahhhs” of the mothers, while
niece Caroline shared iphone pictures from her sweet sixteen party
and let slip that the cute boy on the dance floor was a jerk who
“just wanted to get in her pants.”
the thing of great consequence. The most remarkable thing, aside from
everyone getting along mostly and putting up with each other without
excessive drinking was this-- the roast beef that my 83-year-old
mother-in-law cooked was delicious.
we sat in the music room. Some of David’s old friends stopped
in before travelling home to Maine or Vermont, and the talk was of
the sailing team and adopted children and the tornado from last fall.
David’s own journeys were ever-present in conversation, as he
sprinkled his references to places he once lived abroad, like
Colombia and Ecuador.
friend, Pat, showed up at the door with a big hello.
had first met this younger lady (in her seventies) with her silver
bob and cute figure in the driveway of the house. This was last
summer, and Pat was wearing a stylish bikini with a little skirt,
rattling at hyper speed that she was just dropping by to bring Ginny
a basil plant and check in on her. Pat had grown up in a row house
filled with siblings in Lowell, Massachusetts, and to this day, she
gravitated to a home with the promise of a little banter and a drink.
Pat was a church friend, of which Virginia had many, but Pat stopped
in to see Virginia on a regular basis, typically at 4 p.m. to share a
glass of bourbon.
friendship with Pat, having begun at the Episcopal Church of the Holy
Spirit (or “Spirits” as they would joke), had deepened
through Pat’s divorce and new marriage to a former
psychiatrist-turned-sailor who left on his yacht for months at a
time. When Pat’s only son died of an opioid overdose, Pat came
to the house and said to Viriginia, “Brett’s gone,”
and she sat in the music room to cry.
December day on the week of the death five years ago, Virginia had
Pat come with her to church. Virginia told the ladies in the
community room that Pat “was a little tender,” and they
pulled up a chair for her. Together, they decorated wreaths to
deliver to the nursing home. And they moved on.
one point in our current holiday crowd, Virginia brought over an
object to share. Her father’s violin had been sitting in the
it be worth it
she asked me.
Although my violin experience dated mostly from high school, my
parents used to marvel at my dedication to the instrument. My aunt
even had me play the sappy Barbara Streisand tune, “Evergreen,”
at her wedding, and I recall that there wasn’t a dry eye in the
place. Viriginia offered me a bow that was just a shred of horse
hair, but I played a scale as warmly as I could.
play violin? I
don’t remember,” my
mother commented. I tried to ignore her face, which was warped with
disbelief and confusion.
I focused my attention on another story Virginia was telling about
her father, the doctor who made house calls all around Rockville,
Connecticut. He went to the row houses of factory workers and visited
a sick woman there. As a way to cheer her, he played a tune on his
violin. The sick woman could not pay any money, so she gave him a
small candle stick in exchange for the kind service.
the candle holder on the table.” And there behind me, was a
small, forged iron candle stick. The payment from all those years
ago, solid evidence of a memory.
our return to New Jersey, I took Mom for a chilly walk on Nauset
Beach. We remarked how frightening the warning signs about sharks
were, as they had become abundant in the warming waters. I held her
bony hand as we stepped down from the boardwalk. Slowed by the sand,
we must have appeared like a single organism, quietly and steadily
linked, moving along the shore amidst the breaking sea foam.
upon our return to New Jersey, I felt embittered all over again. It
was not just the apartment complex that bothered me, it was Mom’s
sense of defeat, even before she had dementia.
Mom’s memory was good, people who lived in her building only
reminded her of things she lacked. The husband and wife across the
way were the absence of couplehood, her own husband having left years
before. The single woman next door who used to be the librarian at
Montclair State University represented career—my mother did not
pursue a teaching career after getting her degree in education back
in the sixties.
my adulthood, I became a teacher and a mother, nothing out of the
ordinary. I did not break any glass ceilings. Along the way, I had
sought substitutes for my mom. My mother-in-law was a boon, always so
talkative and forthcoming about the people of her past as well as the
people she knew now. I sought substitutes in women colleagues who
seemed accomplished, unconcerned about appearances, and willing to
take risks. I liked to spend time with these people, but mother I
only took in small doses. In my move across the country, in seeking
other mothers, I felt complicit in the erasure of my own, like the
conceit of Mom’s spreading disease.
there was a time when my mother existed for me in her presence of
being. A presence that was all around me in the home, and after I
moved away, she was a presence that sustained me by phone to listen
to any worries I had, or the kindness who fed me and welcomed me at
any hour of return.
the bright morning after our trip, I ventured outside for my first
walk of the new year. I took the key fob and made it successfully to
the sidewalk. The sight of a working man on a garbage truck filled me
with a kind of delight. A human? Working the garbage truck in the
year, 2020? One man called out “Happy New Year” as he
toiled among heaps of holiday trash. When he realized that I was
disoriented and had to catch myself walking toward the wrong building
(all the units look the same), the trash man mocked me with a little
confusion dance and a broad smile.
residents of the complex, well-off retirees, were either hidden away
inside their locked apartments or had flown to Florida for the
I walked, my eye followed the garbage truck as it trudged uphill, and
something in the background suddenly came to the fore. Why hadn’t
I noticed it before?
immense cliff rock stood around the Four Seasons. It occupied the
perimeter of the complex, and jutted up to the clouds, with a skirt
of metal netting to prevent stones from falling on people’s
heads. I could just make out a snarl of trees growing from the top,
so menacing and wild, it brought to mind Dr. Frankenstein’s
ambition come to life with lightning bolts.
mighty cliff, it must have survived the excavators and machinery that
came, not too long ago, to destroy and then to build the complex amid
the rubble. Maybe the construction workers thought it too difficult
to bring down, too uncooperative, and so they deemed the effort
leave this colossal mess,” they
remembered the surprise of another wild place nestled in this densely
populated area of New Jersey. The Saturday before Christmas, my
sister brought me to the South Mountain Reservation, which was a
steep mile up through her neighborhood. At the entrance, signs
informed the public about the cliff formation west of the Hudson
River--the Palisades, something that I had only known as a parkway
name. Like the Palisades formation, the mountain had volcanic
origins. Forces jutted skyward upon a supercontinent, magma and lava
cooled over millions of years to make black basalt. The Lenape people
called the great cliffs Weehawken, or “rocks that look like
rows of trees.”
was a terrace within the reservation, 500 feet above sea level, where
you could see the Manhattan skyline. I remembered the 9/11 memorial
there, where my sister said people crowded together as the towers
the Four Seasons, too, the cliff stood with its black-rust face,
implausible backdrop to a lonely park bench with its little patch of
manicured lawn. In the early morning under a stark blue sky, the
cliff rock suddenly called out, Attend
Mom seemed inert in her apartment of stark white walls and granite
countertops, I wondered if this cliff was the bedrock of something
more inherent to her being. Was it the ancestor of another rock that
I knew from family lore, the apartment building in the Bronx, New
York, where my mother lived as a child? She was little Rosalie back
then, and in that rock her mother, Olga, and father, Sam, came up and
down stairs every day. Her younger brother Sal made the noise and the
grandparents, aunts and uncles were always there, down the hall,
around the corner, in the six-story building near Pelham Bay. That
rock was alive with the breadth of family--a proud Italian-American
family who shared their stories of building a life here.
time spent visiting our mothers made my husband and I feel so old,
yet so small. We inevitably became children who could not believe our
mothers would soon leave us. The mother with her abundance of
memories in a society of her own, and the mother whose only
affirmation was in having children who remembered for
her. Still, they were the mother ships of our generation, the origins
from which our journeys launched into the world.
is a children’s book called, Are
You My Mother?,
in which the little
bird runs all across the land looking for his mother after she leaves
the nest to find food. Are
asks the cow. Are
you my mother?, he
asks the dog and
he repeats the question of everyone and everything, even a car and
other non-living objects. He’s out of his mind, howling and
crying, when the excavator, of all things, takes pity on the baby
bird. The digger twists and lifts it to his nest, where he is
reunited with the mother bird in the end, given the prize of a
wriggly worm. She never woke him up to tell him she was leaving, I
want to ask in this moment, oh great cliff, shale and talus, the true
captain of the mothership.
you known me all along?
you my mother?
a writer, Jennifer Moglia Lucil enjoys sharing stories of
working-class folks. She teaches an outdoor kindergarten and is a
parent of 13-year-old twin boys. Her essay, “Chance
Conversations,” contemplates life in the gig economy as a
teacher who also drives for Uber. It won a first-place award in
creative non-fiction from the Albuquerque, NM,
paper, Alibi. https://alibi.com/feature/53637/The-Writing-Life.html
(scroll down to find “Chance Conversations”).
Her essay about a local theft in Albuquerque won the Anne
Hillerman Award (silver) for unpublished non-fiction from the
Albuquerque Museum of Art's Celebration of Writing
studied literature at Smith College and earned an M.A. from Brown
University in Literature and Film Studies. Her hope is to always
bring compassion to her writing, and to bring humanity to light by
focusing on ordinary people's struggles.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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