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Across the Universe with Agnes

 In May 1990 Agnes collapsed and was taken to the hospital. I was in Chicago and flew to New Jersey immediately. Therese fetched me at Newark Airport and drove straight to Point Pleasant. My mother was unconscious and attached to a breathing machine. When I caressed her hand, I noticed her freshly painted nails.

“We went for a manicure a few days ago.” Cousin Therese whispered.

Agnes had dementia the last five years of her life. Whenever I visited her, we’d have dinner, go to a movie, shop. Her lifelong carping and criticism must have died with the missing brain cells. She was softer, easier to love, without the booze. More than a few times I caught her walking out of a shop with unpaid goods. I thought she just forgot how to pay.

The official cause of death states, “Alzheimer symptoms due to alcoholic brain syndrome.” A few years earlier, alcohol and cigarettes had been removed from her life. But she didn’t know it. Her dementia had progressed to the point that she involuntarily mimicked both lighting up an imaginary Marlboro and sipping an imaginary scotch-on-the-rocks. Wet brain (formally known as Korsakoff syndrome) is caused by alcohol robbing the brain of vitamin B1. The deficiency slowly destroyed her brain cells. The damage progressed beyond the point of no return until she died. She was seventy.

When I was a young wife and mother living in married student housing at Michigan State, my mother would occasionally send me exquisite sweaters, blouses, shoes and boots. My husband was a graduate student. We had a baby. Our only expendable income came from my babysitting jobs. My mother’s part-time job selling shoes supplemented whatever she could beg, borrow or steal from relatives. I gladly accepted her gifts, never questioning how she could afford them.

Agnes taught me to shoplift when I was twelve. At the time I thought we were learning together. She was, in retrospect, more experienced than she should have been for a beginner. I became a successful petty thief until I found God in my mid-twenties and changed my ways. 

In dementia Agnes carried a small red leather clutch purse. She incessantly opened it and fingered through its only contents—lipsticks. The nursing home crew gave her their old lipsticks because the sound of them click-clacking as she rifled in her bag calmed her down. Besides, if her purse was filled with lipsticks, she was less likely to lift them from the other residents.

The day she died, Therese suggested we visit the nursing home to thank the staff. Agnes’ nondescript empty bed sat in a room with five others. Her closet and dresser overflowed with garments I’d never seen before.

“Is all this my mother’s?” I asked a nurse.

“No. We couldn’t stop her from taking other people’s clothes so we gave up and let her keep them.”

I thanked her for letting my mother make her own way across the universe.

Heads Up! Who Said Pot is Not Addictive?

Tricia Thack and I left our husbands in New Jersey and headed to Vermont soon after I returned from peace and love and LSD and pot at the Woodstock Music Festival in August 1969. I had a 2-year old son, she had an infant and toddler daughters, so together we rented a first floor 4-bedroom apartment in a 150-year old Victorian on the Villageth Green in Pittsfield. We drew close because we had a love for beer, pot and men. New Jersey friends up for ski weekends on nearby Killington mountain, and new friends from the places we worked in the resorts all flocked to our door for after-hours hoopla.

We reveled in breaking the chains of constraint that kept us from having fun. We were always broke. When our kids needed winter clothes I, having been taught by my mother, shoplifted from stores in Rutland. Tricia spent a lot of time on the phone begging her husband and parents for money. We waitressed, cleaned hotel rooms, babysat and tried to budget. But all our money went for booze and drugs and we had trouble holding onto jobs.

Once I drove 150 miles down to Boston to buy a kilo of marijuana in a carful of other amateur pot-buyers. We heard it came from Mexico by boat and was free from sticks and seeds, insuring a higher potency than what we’d been smoking. Somewhere in the supply chain the pot was dried, pressed into bricks and wrapped in plastic. I’d never bought pot in a brick – it was a get-rich-quick scheme dreamed up by the local ski-bum-Unknownpusher guaranteed to turn our $300 investment into a $1000 profit.

In the car we had a load of fresh-rolled joints and a case of Rolling Rock to fortify us for the 6-hour round trip. At our destination, I simply handed my cash to the leader of our pack, too stoned to get out of the car. We partied all the way back up Interstate 91.

I can’t remember when someone passed me my first joint – late teens? early 20’s? I don’t know where or when. Such is the nature of cannabis. You lose track. I saw God many times, in the consciousness-raising vapors arising from Joe Cocker, the Rolling Stones and The Doors. My foray into pot dealing withered on the vine though. I smoked it all up, shared it with friends and strangers alike, unable to make any kind of clear-headed money transaction.

Tricia and I used to laugh that we ingested more drugs and alcohol in an hour than Wizard of Oz star Judy Garland did when she accidentally died that year after swallowing 10 sleeping pills and a few glasses of wine. The delusion of our invincibility propelled us to smoke more pot, drink more alcohol and swallow stronger drugs.

Against all odds I survived my addictions.  But pot? Man, it still calls my name in the night.