Madame Vuillard at Table Eduard Vuillard 1888 Private Collection
The times are tough now, just getting tougher
The whole world’s rough, it’s just getting rougher
Come on baby,
Did you watch the Grammys, Hallie?
Yes, but I was disappointed. I wanted Bruce Springsteen to win but, well… you probably don’t even know who he is…
Bruce Springsteen? Hallie! Of course I know Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen is THE BOSS. After all, Hallie,
I live in Hollywood!
I’ve always loved that story. I thought it showed my mom’s youthful vigor; her spirit; her vitality.
But now I think it tells you
When that conversation took place,
my mother was 70 years old.
Though she spent her days working in an art gallery–
her evenings watching PBS or reading The New Yorker—
to me, she was old.
And old meant out of touch—unaware–incapable of appreciating
the good and the new and the exciting.
But even if I detected her mild annoyance, I didn’t begin to anticipate what was in store for her–
or understand the battles that would shape the rest of her life.
Some incidents seemed minor at first;
like the day we went to the drug store,
only to discover her doctor had failed to call in the prescription.
The wait was long; the clerk was rude; the pharmacy had no chairs.
And as we stood,
I witnessed time take its toll–
at my mother’s age,
nothing was minor.
Other incidents were more serious,
harrowing, in fact;
like the day she walked to the bus and
muggers knocked her to the ground.
They stole her purse,
broke her wrist;
a few weeks later,
money was missing from her account.
At the bank,
the teller yelled
She called me in tears.
I did what I could
from 3000 miles away-
but I couldn’t change her reality–
she was old;
she was vulnerable–and
she knew it.
But it wasn’t only impatient clerks and cruel strangers who made her days more difficult.
The truth is
I did too.
To this day, I relive moments that should have been different
Guess what mama? My company is sending me to London and Paris!
Oh honey, that’s wonderful! I’m so happy for you.
I’m so excited.
Tell me, are you flying to London and then returning to New York and then going to Paris?
Well, um, are you going to London and then back to New York and then to Paris?
Why would I do that, mama? Think about it. Why would I fly all the way home when London and Paris are so close?
I don’t know.
You don’t know? Why would you ask me that? Look at a map! THINK ABOUT IT!
Her voice was barely audible
I was just asking…
But I wasn’t cutting her any slack. I thought she asked silly questions to get attention. I didn’t appreciate that her questions were harmless. It never occurred to me that she might be confused.
And I never once thought
what is this like for you?
Instead our conversations became delicate dance, often underscored by my dismissive tone and impatient replies.
My mother endured it until she could take no more. But one day, through the unfiltered voice of dementia, my mother’s truth came roaring back at me.
I was visiting the nursing home. But it was no ordinary visit. That day, when I arrived in Los Angeles, I learned my mom’s last remaining sibling, her beloved Julia, had died.
It was my job to tell her.
We sat in the garden in the fading afternoon light. I told her I had bad news.
Something happened, mama. And it makes me sad. And it’s going to make you very sad, too.
I looked into her eyes. I waited.
She threw her hands to her face. She screamed–shrill—piercing–raw–
She was like my mama–my mama! Oh, Julie, Julie– I had a feeling! I should have been with her.
Oh mama, no. It’s OK that you weren’t there.
NO, it’s not OK! I knew I should have gone to Seattle. I wanted to go. How could this happen?
Mama, she was 99.
Yes, and I thought she would live to be 100!
My mother was rocking back and forth—sobbing
My poor Julie, all alone, all alone…
I was desperate to calm her–
And so I lied.
It’s OK, mama. It’s really OK. She was peaceful—and well…she wasn’t alone. You know, Aunt Julie had lots of friends…
Yes, friends. Aunt Julie had lots of friends!
(Clever me—she’ll stop crying if she thinks her sister was surrounded by friends…)
My mother’s eyes hardened. Her expression froze in contempt. Her entire body trembled
Aunt Julie didn’t have any friends. She was old.
And people HATE old people.
She spit each word with a sneering, harsh growl:
The nursing home staff was watching from a distance. They quickly approached. My mother grabbed her nurse’s hand
My sister died. My Julie…
We’re so sorry…let’s go inside…
I sat alone in the garden, staring at the dimming sky; upended by her ferocious rebuke.
People hate old people–
my lie had unleashed her truth.
she had heard every
from the world;
Girl with the Flowered Background, Richard Diebenkorn 1962 Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
After that day
I’d like to think I finally saw her;
I’d like to think
I’d like to think I was more understanding, more honest, more giving
in the decade left to my mother
after her Julie died.
But one thing is true:
my mother’s words reverberate to this day.
As I help an elderly gentleman search for a jar of cloves in the market;
slow my gait behind the woman with a walker;
instruct a clerk to assist the old lady in the eyeglass store
(will somebody help me please?),
I wonder what it’s like for them—
and hope my smile masks my impatience
(some things are hard to change).
I relive many moments
but this time
I do better
(yes, I am going straight from London to Paris– it’s so close, you know!)
I’m a little late,
I’d like to think
I’m becoming the person
my mother always thought I could be
Adele Springsteen, age 90, dances with her son, March 2016, Madison Square Garden “She’s Still Got The Moves” he shouts with pride
Cover Me music and lyrics by Bruce Springsteen Copyright 1984 Bruce Springsteen. All Rights Reserved
There are several complete videos of Bruce Springsteen dancing with his mother Adele available on YouTube–the one excerpted above was recorded by markit aneight