Vasant (Spring) 2020 Short Stories - Ernie Brill


The Least You Can Do For Your Poor Old Mother

By Ernie Brill


So when are you coming to pick me up already? I’ve been waiting two weeks. I’m much more comfortable after the cremation. I don’t have to lie in that horrible nursing home bed with that endless pain in every cell in my body yelling my lungs out. You could drop dead before someone helps.


When your father died, it was like the last light went out. Oh, I could see you but you know it wasn’t the same. You seldom came. When you did, I could tell you couldn’t wait to leave. I can’t blame you. I was no barrel of laughs. Who wants to be with a ninety year old woman who’s deaf, barely talks and when she does its whining mumbles? Morphine made it impossible to move my mouth. My lips felt so parched. Are we in the Sahara desert? That’s how they dole out the water there.


No wonder I kept screaming “HELP HELP “- how else could I get anyone’s attention?


Come get my ashes. When you can grab a minute, take them to the ocean. Walk along the beach. Scatter them in the water, sand and shells.


I love the ocean. I could swim in the ocean for hours. If I believed in reincarnation, I was once a whale. Your father would have said well you‘re big enough or some other puerile comment befitting his hostility, but he was always denigrating everyone to cover up his own stifled emotions with wise-guy cracks.


The only time he wasn’t covering emotions was when he was chewing my ear off when you and your sister were asleep or not around or in California where you fled to avoid us.

But as my father said, “Everyone make their own way”. So we supported you and your sister until you were on your own feet despite how long it took you to get a respectable job. What were you- forty? Ok you were a writer all those years but you barely made enough to scrape by.


You can’t say I didn’t warn you. I recall I said “Get a trade.”


Come get me. I’m not comfortable here. Death surrounds me. Everything at the funeral home’s so tastefully mournful; it’s enough to freeze every hair on your body.


They have this fake Louis the Fourteenth furniture - call it skeletal silver- with fake gold gilded edges. Do they think when loved ones pass away, relatives expect to walk into some tawdry imitation of royalty, the hushed atmosphere, the soft music. I expect to see Boris Karloff serving tea any minute now. Get me out of here.


I don’t care what you do with anything else - the pictures, furniture- none of it’s important. As for where to put the ashes, don’t get anything too expensive. I never gave it a thought. I’ll trust your judgment.


Just make sure you don’t lose me. And, for God’s sake, don’t leave me in this mausoleum. Bring me home.


When I had my own life, I seldom had a minute to myself. Now I have eternity. So talk to me. Tell me all the stories you never had a chance to tell me. How are you? How are the kids? Tell me the stories you made up to help me pass the time. I liked those.


At least you put me in the front seat, not like in the trunk like your poor father who you drove around for two weeks before taking him out. If that’s not hostile, I don’t know what is. I know you’re very busy with work and kids and our bills and obligations, but try to think sometimes of how other people feel, in this case, your own father!


Admit it’s peculiar. You rode around with him in your trunk for six weeks and you didn’t pick me up for almost an entire month. There’s a message there, not a particularly nice one. A therapist might have a field day with that one.


Your sister claims we neglected you. More to the point: I neglected both of you. So typical: her wonderful father never bears the brunt of her disgruntlement. I, terrible mother, the awful mother who only took care of you for your entire childhoods while your poor father worked two jobs and came home at ten o’clock every night or later while I worked, rushed to school, made sure you had hot meals and clean clothes in that horrible apartment in those god-awful projects where most people had never read a book (unless it was a comic book) and whose idea of a good time was mahjong or throwing a football around and whose level of discourse was if the Dodgers had won or if a Chevrolet was more desirable than a Plymouth.


And what about all those days I stayed home when you were sick. You seemed to have tonsillitis or strep throat or the flu your entire childhood. Nobody asked me how I felt staying home, making pots of soup and doing arts and crafts projects you seldom appreciated. You only wanted to sleep and read. And fussy! Wouldn’t eat this. Wouldn’t eat that.

Scared of the veins in the chicken.


OK, maybe I did over-boil it on occasion. You were timorous about eggs- the yolk and whites “too gooey”. And yes they were undercooked a few times. I had so much on my mind, but why fuss and whine so much?


I had too much in my mind and was sick at heart after the war with the horrors revealed, the soldiers coming home, the Nuremberg Trials, and when we realized the entire European side of our family had been slaughtered. It’s unspeakable.


Then that maniac McCarthy, the poor Rosenbergs. To this day who can answer my question: Why were two Jews the only ones electrocuted?


Your sister feels I neglected you, but does she ever consider my feelings? Does she try to understand I didn’t have a second to myself? With working, studying for this exam that exam, running for the bus to the train when I went to finish my Social Work degree so the two of you could have a better life, planning meals, buying food, trying to do laundry on top of everything else in those so-called bargain days like that washing machine and dryer your father brought – the “great deal” that threatened to break down any minute and flood that rat-hole that they had the nerve to call an apartment.


I felt bad leaving you at home alone by yourselves, but I knew you had food to eat and books to read. Then we got the television. I didn’t want you to watch it too much but what could I do? I had to work then fly off to school and most of the time I couldn’t find a babysitter you wouldn’t take advantage of, like poor Ms Hensley whom you told your sister had a rare blood disease and needed extra sugar so she was allowed to eat- for every supper, with your assistance – most of a box of Lorna Doones or Oreos.


How you pulled the wool over that woman’s eyes I’ll never know. Well, you always loved stories so it was inevitable you’d use them for your own nefarious purposes.


Let’s try not to dwell in the past. You finally picked up my ashes: now what?


Do what I asked. Spread my ashes in the ocean. I understand that you are planning to go out to Cape Cod this summer to that beach you like. Fine. I want most of myself to go into the ocean. Some handfuls on shore are ok, but don’t overdo it.


People might get upset. Here they are, walking along the beach. They’ve spent their hard-earned money on their measly vacation. Suddenly on the gorgeous sand replete with beautiful shells and occasional creamsicle colored crab shells bleaching in the sun there strangely smells bits of peculiar grey material not like the sleek grey of a seagull feather. They might get suspicious. So be careful; keep your wits about you.


I don’t care what you do with the urn. I like it, by the way. It’s not ostentatious. For once in your life, you’ve shown good taste choosing mahogany - a bit pricey, what they’re charging these days is ridiculous. Maybe you could use it for a vase. Put flowers in it.


Yes, you can remember me by the flowers you never seemed to manage to send unless your sister signed your name to the ones for my birthday or our anniversaries. I know what you are going to say - she sent the flowers with our own money since we’ve supported her most of her life which you reminded us incessantly for YOUR whole lifetime, but you must admit she’s had her problems so we have helped her out some - not always as you claim, but it’s our money, our child, and even if she is your sister in a way it’s none of your business.


My question now is: how long will you plotz around before you take me to Cape Cod and fulfill your final responsibility? I’m sitting on this shelf in your living room with your father and your wife’s mother - and you haven’t even had the courtesy to introduce us. Manners, what are those? I understand your sister will receive your father’s ashes. Some things never change, do they?


For once in your father’s life he’s keeping his mouth shut and not telling me what I’ve done wrong this time or which relatives or best friends have betrayed him so thank God for small favors.


I don’t mind sitting on the shelf for a while, but have some consideration for your poor old mother and realize its February. Although you leave home to go to work and turn down your heat to save money - and I understand the heating costs are outrageous - I’m the one stuck here and it is quite cold. I could, despite my current condition, use a little warmth.

And just because I’ve changed my corporeal form, doesn’t mean I still don’t have emotions. I’m here. I’m interested. I’m a woman of the world. I’m not a person who just goes off and drops dead, and that’s that. Obviously, there’s always been a lot more to me!


It’s bad enough in life I seldom got what I wanted, too busy pleasing my parents or trying to show that I could be better than what most of my generation thought women could be or do. I wanted to be more than a housewife or a secretary. And don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against secretaries. Their work is more important than most people realize.

They are one of the most maligned groups in the world, grossly underpaid, and if there is a God in heaven, he should be forgiven for making secretaries work in those horrible high heels that no human should ever have to wear, and while we’re at it throw the girdles in too, or, rather, throw them out!


After I ‘d finished pleasing my parents- did I ever finish - it was your father, a fulltime job with all his lunacy, reassuring him, editing his papers, his “talks” at all his important conferences, helping him - God in heaven- with his lunatic family. A collection of certifiable psychopaths if ever there was one. You might have wondered why I never visited them when your father took you and your sister. His mother loathed me; she would have despised anyone he married. She still clutched her umbilical chord, and I spent a good part of my life cutting it away.


Some philosophers claim we are never free of The Mother. There may be some truth there. But I spent so much time advising the mothers of our family to be more than they thought they could or should be.


Yes, your sister claims I was always on the phone, to my sisters, my in-laws, always giving advice, lending a helping hand, the Social Worker of The Century your sister once called me. Yes, I helped people. Who else would do it? I’ll tell you: no one – that’s who.


But who was ever on the phone to me?


Five years ago, you asked me about the drawers in the desk in the basement. Deep in the drawers, under old high school pictures and college yearbooks, in the dusty mustiness, you found my old sketchpads and pictures: the unfinished horses, hundreds. Yes, I drew them. I drew since I was a little girl. Horses and elephants.


But my parents were too busy raising five of us in the depths of the Depression and then the Holocaust to really look. And how do you look at pictures of horses and elephants when thousands are murdered or starving or walking the streets with no jobs, no food and no shelter? Who looks at pictures of the poor when you discover your people are annihilated?


Later, I picked it up again. Here, there. But who had the time? So we tried to give you, your sister, your generation the time. You wouldn’t have it as hard as we did. So, tell me, honestly, did you have it as hard as we did?


On that note, if it’s not too much to ask, take me soon. Don’t make me wait too long. Do what I ask for once, like the years I asked you to clean your room, and you Okayed me to death.


Be kind to your old mother. Take me where the water meets the sun.


You know how much I loved the ocean. You know I love to swim out way out, let my worries float away to the horizon. An illusion surely, but the sun’s bright, the water’s warm, and I can’t hear a soul save breeze-carried far-off voices of volleyball joy, kids wanting ice cream, laughter.


I’d feel so refreshed, cool and calm, serenely watching the horizon.


So have a heart for the woman who brought you into the world. Take me to the ocean, and give me to the waves.


Ernie Brill writes fiction and poetry, especially about class and race in big city settings. He is the author of I Looked Over Jordan And Other Stories(Boston South End Press 1980) amnong the world's first fiction about marginalized hospital workers.



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