My mother always was one to sweat the little things.
Maybe that’s why I’m so blithe and indifferent to details. Mama always took care of them for me.
The difference — and it is rather stark — between her crossing of every t and dotting of every i before dementia and her going over and over and over and over the same thing 20 times in 20 minutes after dementia is my sanity.
It’s especially tiring when I’m tired to begin with. And it’s especially overwhelming when I’m tired to begin with and she piles on by going in a circle from one little thing to the next and back again.
So it was yesterday. I had a pause and could take her to lunch. I picked her up at her day care, and we were off. We have a thing we do with lunches and such. I give her money. She puts it in her purse, and then, when we get to the restaurant, she proudly (and with no memory that I gave her the money in the first place) buys my lunch for me. Mama loves to treat me by taking me out to lunch. She gets a big kick out the whole thing, and frankly, so do I.
The trouble was that yesterday she kept going into worry wart mode because she couldn’t find the $40 I’d given her. Every few minutes, she would open her purse and begin searching for it. She had folded the bills into a lump the size of a postage stamp and tucked it behind the photos in her billfold (she’s big on hiding things) and that meant they weren’t in the folding money slot when she looked for them.
She would become upset, and I would pull the car over, take her billfold and show her where she’d hidden her money. She would nod sagely and say “Ohhhh, that’s where it is.” Five minutes later, she’d start looking again. I don’t remember how many times I pulled the car over and showed her that money.
We had a fun lunch, talking about how good broccoli and cheese soup is and visiting with the waitress who goes to our church. When we got back to the car, she wanted me to take her to buy a Coke at a drive in. We headed for the drive-in and she started the “I’ve lost my money” thing again.
I pulled over a couple of times and showed her where her money was. Then, after we paid for the Cokes and were driving away, she did it one. more. time.
Before I could zip my lip, I said, “Mama, will you puleez stop it?”
I didn’t yell. I didn’t raise my voice or grit my teeth. It was plaintive rather than angry. I think that was what got her attention. The sound of distress in my voice triggered her Mama gene. She put the purse away and started talking about something else.
Which almost immediately moved into a lament over the fact that she doesn’t have a car anymore; which went rather quickly to her standard tale about how I have “stolen” her car and she wishes she hadn’t let me do that to her.
After she finally wore that out, we had a nice talk about my piano lessons. She’s fascinated with my piano lessons, and seems to believe that I’m headed for a career as a concert pianist. That’s standard Mama, by the way. Everything I do has always been the best thing anyone ever did in the whole history of the world.
We drove past part of the tornado damage from last spring, and she talked for a while about that.
Then, we parked the car so I could return a book to the library. She picked up the book I’d been reading (American Prometheus) and looked at the photo of Robert Oppenheimer on its cover. My mother, who can’t remember where she put money in her own billfold five minutes ago, looked at that photo and said,
“He developed the bomb for this country. He saved the lives of a lot of boys who would have died invading Japan.”
She paused, flipped open the book and looked at the photos. “Our government was really dirty to him, accused him of being a traitor, and after what he had done for us.”
She closed the book and looked at me with eyes that belonged to the mother I used to know. “I wrote a letter protesting that,” she said. “They were only after him because he told the truth about how dangerous those bombs were.”
All I know about Robert Oppenheimer is what I read in this one book and sketchy facts about the Manhattan Project. I know of his famous comment, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” when the first atomic bomb was exploded at Trinity site. He’s a feature of history to me.
I never knew my mother had an opinion about Robert Oppenheimer. I certainly never knew she wrote a letter to her Congressman protesting his treatment by our government.
I took the book and returned it to the library. When I got back to the car, the mental door had closed and Mama returned to chiding me for stealing her car.
But for that brief moment, the photo of a long-dead scientist cracked open the doorway into who she had been as an adult and let me see a brief glimpse of a bit of the hidden things of her life that I never knew.
This is Robert Oppenheimer, discussing his memory of the first atomic explosion.