The Women in My Family

My cousin, Therese, called me in Chicago to say my mother, Agnes, was in the hospital in New Jersey.

“You’d better come,” she said, lovingly snatching the decision right out of my hands.

On the way down the Garden State Parkway from Newark Airport Therese gave me the lowdown. All my mother’s organs collapsed at the same time and she keeled over. Emergency workers attached her to a ventilator at the nursing home and took her to the hospital. She was brain dead.

Life support. Two words that say someone must make a decision about life and death.

'We can't pull the plug until the paperwork is finished.'None of my three sisters called to inform me about Agnes. I don’t know if I spoke to them as I made arrangements to fly to New Jersey. They all lived on the east coast: Maere in New Jersey, Gael in Connecticut and Stacy in Vermont. Cousin Therese had called Stacy who remained in place, waiting to hear.

Agnes looked surprisingly peaceful, considering she’d lived her last five years in dementia and the previous fifty-five years in an alcoholic haze. I picked up her hand and noticed her freshly painted nails. Therese answered the question on my brow.

“I took her for a manicure three days ago,” she said.

My mother’s chest rose and fell as the ventilator pumped oxygen into her body. The nurse looked in and said, “You can talk to her. She can hear you.” She can? That made no sense. She hardly heard me with a live brain and certainly wouldn’t have wanted me to talk to her dead brain. Don’t be an ass, I could hear her say.

But, just in case, I whispered, “It’s Regan. I’m here.”

Therese left to care for her own family, and I waited alone for the doctor. He gave me the medical information—alcoholic brain syndrome—and said the hospital would require signatures from all four sisters to turn off the ventilator.

I called Stacy and Gael to make arrangements for them to fax their signatures. Maere, who lived nearby, said she’d come to the hospital. By the end of day she hadn’t shown and I couldn’t reach her.

I overnighted with Therese and spent the next two days at the hospital trying to contact Maere. Finally I told the doctor she was unreachable.

“We’ll have to proceed without her,” I said.

His measured response said Maere had been pleading with him every night on the phone to keep her mother alive and that she was sure my other sisters would want that as well. That threw the disposition of my mother in contention. So now the hospital required all the sisters to be present to sign, witnessed by a hospital employee.

They all came, each with different emotions.

Gael was angry that Agnes had disrupted her life. Stacy was happy to help but had to rush back to Vermont. Maere scowled at me. At the funeral, an old bartender friend confided that Maere sat at his bar those days before Agnes died, crying,“my sister’s trying to kill my mother.”

When the nurse turned off her artificial life, something tickled my spirit.

Agnes. She heard my whisper.

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Remembering Revlon

Remembering Revlon

Whenever my mother dressed for a special occasion, the last thing she’d do is color her nails and lips. She’d sit in a living room chair with high heels dangling from her crossed leg and expertly paint her fingernails with a little bottle of toxic red enamel. She never smudged them, never blotched her cuticles, never spilled the polish, never needed to mop up after herself. 

First, she’d soak a Kleenex in an upended bottle of Cutex nail polish remover and wipe all her nails clean. The vapors would tickle all the hairs in my nose and give me a headache but I never turned away. I’d watch her unscrew the top of Revlon’s Fire and Ice and pull out the dark bristles dripping in red liquid. With one hand flattened on the th-2antique mahogany side table, and the other hand holding the grooved white plastic top, she’d drag the brush along the lip of the bottle to get just the right amount of polish. Pulling the brush from the bottom of the nail to the top in perfect form nail after nail, she’d quietly finish the job, then blow on the tips of her fingers to dry them. 

I’ve watched artists do this same thing with their paintbrushes. I wonder now if my mother could have been an artist since she seemed to be a natural in manipulating the brush. Where did she learn that? Like me, she was not the kind of person who would have practiced such a thing as a teenager. Unlike her, I’ve never managed to lay polish or lipstick on myself with such aplomb.

At the mirror, she’d further glamorize her ensemble with matching lipstick. Gripping a short, thin-handled lip brush in her right hand, she’d cradle the unopened lipstick in her left hand, slide the top up with her left fingers and let it drop into the crook where the palm meets the thumb. Holding both parts steady, she’d flick the lipstick brush back and forth on the creamy substance with her right fingers. Then she’d outline the edges of her top and bottom lips with the curved tapered brush. Next she’d brush the bare flesh inside the lip lines with vertical strokes. With fresh lipstick her beguiling red lips seemed larger than usual but not unnatural. She kept her lipstick and brush in a small leather pouch. Sometimes she left the house with only her Marlboros and her lipstick pouch.

In her dementia my mother always carried a small clutch purse. She incessantly opened it and fingered through its only contents—lipsticks. The nurses gave her their old lipsticks for her purse because the sound of the click-clacking as she rifled through it calmed her down.

Unknown-1For a few years after my mother died, I entered into the ritualized glamor of painting my own nails red. I sat before a young manicurist who updated me every week on the intrigue of her affair with a rich married man. When she moved in with him and quit her job, the allure of painting my nails lost its luster. 

I Love Lucy: Meditation on Funny

I Love Lucy: Meditation on Funny

I Love Lucy. The weekly television show from October 1951 to May 1957 starred Lucille Ball as Lucy and her husband, Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo. The naïve, curious, ambitious th-3and untalented I-Love-Lucy sought love and approval through show business and schemed her way into hapless situations that led to trouble for the couple and their friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz. At the end of each half-hour black-and-white show, I-Love-Lucy was forgiven and everyone hugged. From the age of five through eleven I never missed an episode.

 

F    U    N    N    Y


amily. Imperfections aside, I-Love-Lucy had everything I wished for my mother – vitality, ambition, curiosity, best friends, fun costumes and love for her family. In 1954 my mother drove past the 1600-seat Indiana Theater on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute with my 8-year-old eyes peering out the open window from the backseat. Parked curbside, an oversized flamingo-pink tractor trailer emblazoned with the words, Long, Long Trailer promoted the new Lucille Ball-Desni Arnaz movie. “No, you are NOT going to that movie.” My mother and her sister insisted it was not their job to provide entertainment for their children.

nyielding. My mother’s sister, Jean Renehan, was the exact opposite of I-Love-Lucy. Whip-smart, well-informed and organized, her only ambition—to connect to Jersey Shore high society—led her to marry a charming, well-turned-out blue blood alcoholic with a dowry. Always the strongest, most graceful and best-dressed woman in the room, she wasn’t prone to bumbling mishaps—until each cocktail hour separated her from grace. She laughed with others but the only lines she delivered herself were opinionated sarcastic put-downs of those who didn’t meet her standards.

onsense. Rick Steves has recorded three different videos of the Iberian Peninsula’s Rock of Gibraltar with its infamous native monkeys. Like I-Love-Lucy, the monkeys’ obsessions get them in trouble and make people laugh. Tourists move in to pet the comical wild animals and in the blink of an eye the monkeys snatch hats, purses, lunch, keys – anything to engage the unsuspecting humans in a game of hide and seek.

incompoop. Donald Trump is the I-Love-Lucy of American politics. He announces thpreposterous schemes, gets himself in trouble and we create punch lines to make ourselves laugh. When TrumpCare passed the House of Representatives, he tweeted, “ObamaCare is dead,” and threw a victory party at the White House. It looked like he actually believed the nascent bill became law. Late-night comics played Schoolhouse
Rock’s “Just a Bill” to show the fabulist President how a bill becomes law. Unlike I Love Lucy, this is not a TV series we can turn off.

uck. The sloth is named after the human vice because it is the very definition of inactive and lethargic, two characteristics totally foreign to I-Love-Lucy. Sloths spendUnknown-2 most of their lives hanging upside down in trees. Their fur houses moths, beetles, cockroaches, fungi and algae. I recently heard about a service that will deliver a sloth to people who want to hug them. Eww. Do they know about the fur? God bless the sloth-huggers who embrace these imperfect funny creatures as I did with I-Love-Lucy.