Because she is old, my mother performs the Sabbath ritual very slowly. Sitting in front of the brass candlesticks given to her by her mother, she looks as if God is pressing down hard on the top of her head. Her face juts forward, and the top of her back is rounded. Because she is demented and her short-term memory is shot, it’s impossible to have a conversation with her. But she does remember some things, such as who I am, and the barucha, the blessing for the Sabbath, both in English and in Hebrew. And because she is out of her mind, after the prayer she continues talking to God intimately.
“God,” she says, “thank you for my children and grandchildren.” She tries to say all our names, but I have to help her with the grandchildren — Ben, Rachel, Josh, Mara. She thanks me. “God,” she says, “I’m happy for you, and may my children also light candles for you and thank you, and may you teach them.” She rambles on and on, thanking and imploring, sometimes making sense, often not. It’s as if she knows times are hard for God and He needs something to lift His spirits. “Now, God,” she continues, her hands cradling her face, “I want to give you eighteen kisses.” (Eighteen is chai, the Hebrew letter for life.)
The candles are scented, and the smell of pine fills her little kitchen. She begins kissing and counting, “One, two, three . . . ” After eighteen she says, “And here’s one for good luck — good luck, God, and may my children light candles.” Then she smooshes a really long one onto her fingers, which have clearly become, in her mind, God’s own flesh. As for me, I’m Kali, that many-armed goddess, and every arm is a thought or a feeling: She’s cute — no, that’s condescending; she’s ridiculous — no, she’s childlike, like the Buddha; she’s pathetic, she’s enlightened; she’s my mother, I’m her mother, she’s God’s daughter, am I her daughter? God help me.
A folded piece of white lace is bobby-pinned to the top of her head. I helped her attach it to her hair, all sprayed and stiff like a dry nest. She is so small and forever sitting at the feet of these candles, which are so sweet smelling and golden that even Solomon, I think, in all his glory could never have conjured this scene. Wax drips onto the white Formica of her kitchen table, and I pick it off with my nail as she goes on. I don’t know where to look anymore, or exactly what to do. It’s as if I’ve become part of some Renaissance painting — my mother could be Jesus and I Mary lamenting, not at her feet, but standing beside her and flanked by a humming refrigerator and a counter with a microwave and a toaster oven.
At last she takes her hands from her face and looks at me. Her eyes are soft behind her glasses, which have slipped down her nose. I push them back up for her. Her hands are trembling. I think how I ought to light Friday candles in her honor after she is dead.
“I love you so much,” she says. Since becoming demented, she’s been a geyser of love, all criticism and demands entirely dropped away. I’ve been grieving for her for almost two years, but now, for the first time, I let myself cry in her presence. When she asks why I’m crying, I can’t tell her. What should I say? “Because your body is useless and you can barely walk”? “Because you fell last week and lay on the bathroom floor in a mess for hours until the nurse found you, and soon you will have to go to a nursing home”? I can’t say, “I am crying because your mind is shot and you can’t remember a damn thing and I don’t know what to do; because you say such stupid things that I’m embarrassed to be your daughter: you say Frank Sinatra is my father and ask where I am when I’m sitting at your side.” I can’t say, “Because I’m afraid I’ll be just like you and my kids will suffer as I do now.” I can’t say anything, so I say, “I don’t know,” and sob.
She says, “Come here,” and I kneel at her side and hold her and think, I’d better stop this, but I can’t, and she begins to cry, too, just a little, and I feel her body, rigid with Parkinson’s; it trembles a bit, and she says she wants to kiss my tears, and I let her. I feel her soft, scary lips slurp against my cheeks, and I want to stop this melodrama, end this pain.
When I can’t stand it anymore, I say jokingly, “Mom, you’d better stop tasting my tears. They’re salty and you’ll get high blood pressure.”
She stops and smacks her lips, trying to taste better, then says, “They’re not salty at all.”
“Of course they are,” I say. “All tears are salty.”
“No they’re not,” she insists and raises a finger shakily to her own eye, then lowers it. “Here, taste,” she says. “See if mine are salty.” Her finger is dry and there’s some mascara on it.
“No,” I say. “No thanks. I don’t want to taste mascara. See the mascara?”
She lifts her finger and stares at it, then shrugs. The candles illuminate her face. I rise from my knees and take my place next to her again, wondering what in the world comes next.