Mother really does know best. Raising her own children, Elizabeth Renzetti finds the benefits of having her mother move in for six months.
There are certain things that define my mother. How much she loves her grandchildren, for example, but also God, wine and butter — not necessarily in that order. On occasion, there’s a Bermuda Triangle in my house where these elements come together in a weird, hallucinatory moment that could only be created by the force field named Mildred.
We’re sitting at dinner one night, my mother and I and my two small children. We have made it through the day, barely, and we’ll make it through the night thanks to the bottle of Cabernet between us. My husband is away, as he often is — in Sri Lanka? Libya? Macedonia? Somewhere that offers warm wind and no crying children, anyway. I reach for the butter and begin to spread it on my bread.
My mother says, apropos of absolutely nothing, “You know the Holy Spirit talks to me sometimes.”
Mildred has a gift for the head-spinning comment, the way some people have a gift for pastry, but she doesn’t catch me out this time. I do know that, on occasion, the man upstairs likes to leave her a message. So I just nod and eat my bread.
“Because today I had just left the shop and I was walking past the pub when I heard a voice say, ‘Mildred, did you remember to buy butter?’ And you know what? I hadn’t. So I had to go back and get it. If the Holy Spirit hadn’t spoken to me, you wouldn’t have any butter for your bread.”
She sits back, triumphant, and I’m left to marvel at her mastery. In one breath, she has confirmed her place in God’s affection, asserted her crucial role in the dairy supply chain and made me feel guilty for sending her out to the store. Verily, she is a genius.
This is one of the many benefits of Mildred living with us for half the year. It’s like having Harry Houdini and Charo turning cartwheels in the living room; there’s no better entertainment value in town. I’d have her here all the time, but we live in London, where a Canadian citizen is only allowed to stay for six months at a time — no matter how adept she is at changing diapers, identifying Tyrone Power movies and stealing roses from the neighbour’s garden under cover of night.
She first came to stay with us a few days before my son was born in Los Angeles six years ago. She and my husband had always been friendly, but in the birthing room, after Doug read me stories of shark attacks for hours to keep my spirits buoyed, their relationship moved up a notch. “This is it!” my doctor said when the action began in earnest. Mildred, who had been a nurse at a major teaching hospital for 35 years, grabbed one of my legs and Doug, who had not, grabbed the other. You could say they bonded.
She lived with us for a couple of months that time; along with Doug’s terrific parents, she saved our bacon. Her skills were legion: knowing when to offer advice and when to shut up; walking the baby until he slept; making stuffed artichokes.
I noticed, not for the first time, my mother’s entertainment potential. She had an unerring instinct for spotting naked men, a talent she has nurtured since we were small (and possibly before that, come to think of it). “Look,” she’d say, leaning over our balcony and pointing into the L.A. twilight, “that handsome man is showering again.”
I realize how uncommon it is to want to share your house with the woman who gave you life because often she also gives grief. “I’ve thought about living with my mother,” says one friend, “but then I wonder how long it would be before I wanted to poke her eyes out with the blunt end of a fork.” Another says, “Are you kidding? She still thinks I’m eight. Every time I see her, she’s telling me how messy my hair is.”
This has never been a problem with my mother; somehow, together, we function as a smooth engine, requiring only a little alcohol to keep the gears running. I’ve always liked the Eastern model of family life, with generations living together in gently bickering harmony, sharing baby care and cooking duties and gossip. Or, in Mildred’s case, the odd disgusting story.
“She had the lemon where?” I can hear my friend James’s shriek clear across the champagne bar at London’s St. Pancras train station. He is huddled with my mother, whose cheeks are slightly flushed and who is flirting with the abandon of Elizabeth Taylor encountering Richard Burton, or a giant diamond, for the first time. Gay men are drawn to Mildred, but so are children, animals and the mentally ill.
I recognize the story, which involves a young doctor, a woman of loose morals and a citrus fruit. In her years as a nurse at a downtown Toronto hospital, Mildred collected dozens of ribald anecdotes, usually involving the collision of foreign objects and human orifices. I wonder which one James will get next. The blue crayon where no blue crayon should be? The over-amorous monkey? My mother has reached the climax of her story: “And so then the doctor says, ‘If I’d known there was going to be a party, I’d have brought the gin!’”
Hours later, when we stagger from the bar, James whispers, “You must come over for dinner soon. But you have to bring Mildred.”
Don’t get me wrong: Living with my mother isn’t all champagne and monkey stories. There’s also an excessive amount of watching old movies, playing Snakes and Ladders and me drifting off while she relives, for the 400th time, the exploits of some ancestor who fought in the Battle of Waterloo. She is (to paraphrase her friend Jesus) the rock upon which I built my home. With my husband gone at least half the time, reporting from foreign lands, it’s only Mildred who keeps the house from collapsing, ensures the kids aren’t malnourished, prevents my will from dissolving. When she’s not papering over the crack, my brilliant in-laws arrive from Canada to lend a hand. I’ve been ridiculously blessed.
They adore their grandchildren and travelling; I love their company and the free labour. It’s an exchange to make Adam Smith proud. That’s terrible, isn’t it? But anyone with small children and a halfway decent relationship with their parents understands that this can be one of nature’s great symbiotic relationships: The grandparents get to spend vast amounts of time with their grandchildren, and all that’s required in return is a bed, a TV and the occasional bottle of port.
Maybe I love having my mother in the house because the pattern was set early — when I was a teenager, we lived with her mother, the wee, soft-spoken, formidable Alma. My grandmother was from another time: She knew how to gut a deer and read tea leaves, and she practised frugality as if it were a religion. Tissues could always be reused, hamburger stretched a little further, cigarettes rolled by hand. To the end of her life, she made something called “war cake,” an alleged dessert that had the teeth-shattering consistency of cement because it contained no milk, butter, eggs or sugar. It was futile to remind her that rationing — and, indeed, the war — had ended 50 years earlier; she’d just throw in more raisins, as hard as bullets.
Alma was tiny, but her heart was as stout as a lion’s. After my parents’ marriage broke up, my mother, my brother and I went to live with her in an apartment in one of Toronto’s seediest neighbourhoods. I’d come home at night from my job at a movie theatre to find my grandmother waiting at the grimy bus stop, a pair of scissors hidden in her brassiere — women of her generation never abbreviated when speaking of their undergarments; it was too vulgar. If anyone dared interfere with us on the way home, she had her weapon close at hand.
I’m sure there were any number of unpleasant moments in that little apartment because my mother was working like a dog at the hospital and I was at the height of bratty adolescence, but when I look back I see the three of us sitting on the sofa, watching Dallas, my grandmother becoming more and more thrilled and indignant with each of Larry Hagman’s evil machinations. “Oooh, that J.R.,” she’d say, watching him pour another scotch. “Do you think he’s tight?”
When my grandmother was diagnosed with a terminal illness, my mother and uncle took her back home to Nova Scotia and made her a bed in the front room of the big blue farmhouse they’d bought. She could lie there and watch the Annapolis River, unchanged since she was a girl, when her cousin Ernest Buckler had turned her into the character Molly in his novel The Mountain and the Valley. My grandmother died in that bed, with her son and daughter at her side.
I’m coming downstairs in our London house one day, and I hear my mother deep in conversation with my six-year-old son. “It’s quite interesting to see a brain for the first time,” she’s saying. “It looks like a big bag of grey sausages.”
“Mom, for God’s sake!” I yell, covering the last steps in a second. “You’re going to give him nightmares!”
My mother looks at me mildly; shouting and recriminations are not her thing. “I was just telling him about the human body,” she says. Griff hasn’t even noticed me; I’m trumped by Mildred’s 1,001 Tales of the Creepy and Grotesque. “I thought brains were white, Granny.”
“No, honey, they’re grey. Grey and shiny. And when the doctor cuts upon your skull, you have to be awake ….”
Do we see eye to eye on everything? Of course not. I would prefer that my mother not put a pound of butter on the kids’ pancakes and then half a jar of Nutella, but who am I to complain? They haven’t starved yet. We do not agree that children thrive on midnight Malteser feasts. I would prefer not to have to listen to her endless obsession with American politics and with relatives whom I haven’t seen in 30 years, but then I’m sure there are things about me that have annoyed her since I was six. She has the good grace not to bring them up and I don’t give her grief about the Maltesers. In that way, the house runs smoothly. It’s a big house, though. That helps.
If anything, the major friction comes from the fact that I’m regarded as the Mildred hog in the family. My brothers, my sister and her six other grandchildren would like her around more. One brother mutters darkly that he’s going to build a granny flat; the other one offers theatre tickets. Every so often, the phone rings and I hear, “When’s Mildred coming home?”
But I’m able to offer London, a city she loves, and something even more coveted: a final grandchild. When Maud was born almost three years ago, my mother fell in love with comic abandon. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see red hearts spinning in her eyes. How often do you get to lose your heart, especially in your 70s?
Most of the time, Maud will perform only for Granny. She’ll eat her peas only for Granny, deign to visit the potty only if she’s got Granny’s hand to hold. I watch the two of them, so alike in the shapes of their faces and their wide brown eyes, as they work on a puzzle or struggle to get Polly Pocket into her tiny rubber halter top. One day Maud’s going to leave my table and make her own home somewhere in the world. I wonder if there will be a place in it for me.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2008 issue with the headline, “Life With Mildred,” p. 32.