It was the fall of 2014. I had returned from a delirious trip to my first writer’s retreat in North Carolina, not knowing that my mother, Carolyn, had dementia. I had clues, two of her siblings had already died from it, but denial being the stock and trade of the human race, I gallantly did my best to ignore them. Then, I smacked into convincing evidence.
I crashed a confab that Carolyn and Mariya, her caregiver, were having in her bright, sunny kitchen. Even when she had seen me the day before, she always exuded joy and delight at the sight of me as if I was the prodigal son at long last finally coming home.
“Oh, John,” she said, “it’s you!”
She very cheerfully started to sing,
No, you can’t chop your mother up in Massachusetts. Not even if you’re tired off her cuisine.
Now, I had it, finally. Proof. Mom was losing it. That song was whack.
“Mom, what’s the song you’re singing.”
“Oh, we’ve got it right here on a CD.”
“Oh, yes. I’m sure.”
There were stacks of CDs in her kitchen, elbowed in next to China plates and spices in cupboards. But I needed to know and started to dig. Mariya joined me in the hunt. We went through all of them. Truth of it was, I really didn’t know what I was looking for.
There was a pause for lunch. I confessed to Carolyn that we couldn’t find the song she’d been singing on any of her CDs. It seemed grim, like her sanity was hanging in the balance.
“It wouldn’t be on a phonograph record? The one’s you left behind at your old place.”
“No, it’s right here in the kitchen.”
“Are you sure, mom?”
“Oh, yes. I saw the musical with your father on Broadway in 1952.”
What was she saying? This could be a story to fill in the gaps in her memory. Carolyn permitted nothing, NOT even dementia, to catch her out without a story. Her nature abhorred a vacuum, a narrative vacuum most of all. There was always a story to tell.
I was panicked, not prepared to face the idea that mom had a brain disease when the name “Lizzie Borden” came to mind. Searching the web, I found that a film had debuted in 1954 starring Eartha Kitt and Paul Lynde among others.
But I had trodden a long way down the path of proving mom nuts—why, I wonder, there was no profit in it—and now I clung onto this pathetic shred of evidence that she was mistaken and there had never been a musical, as she had claimed, but a movie instead. Why she was WRONG!
None of this stopped my eye from trailing down to the bottom of the Wikipedia page, explaining that the film was based on the musical, also starring Eartha Kitt and Paul Lynde, which was first performed on Broadway in 1952. And that musical had a song in its repertoire named “Lizzy Borden”.
And the lyrics to that song went like this:
But you can't chop your momma up in Massachusetts
Not even if you're tired of her cuisine (Her cuisine)
No, you can't chop your momma up in Massachusetts
You know it's almost sure to cause a scene
Later I learned that mom had served on the board of a local charity with Sheila Mack, another go-getter like mom, adored by many. A few weeks before the CD hunt, her deranged daughter and daughter’s boyfriend had bludgeoned her to death, stuffed her in a suitcase, and left her body in a resort hotel in Bali before lighting out for a casino.
If the cruelest circumstances are those that tempt us to abandon our ideals, this was a cruel circumstance. Sheila Mack had adopted a mentally damaged daughter with different skin tone. I wondered briefly if mom was ever tempted to blame the murder of her friend on so-called race. Carolyn had fought for over fifty years for civil rights and mental health with unfailing tenacity. Her causes were as vital to her as breathing. Instead, as on this occasion, she found solace in song. This reflex came very naturally to my mother not just to sing but to know exactly the right song to sing and to remember all the lyrics.
When Carolyn was in hospice, at home, shortly before she died, I found the CD. It was a typical score. Southern mom: 1, Yankee son: zero.