my mother wears her stethoscope like a necklace. it is always around her neck - in the car, in the grocery store, when she's cooking dinner. as a kid, i remember her stethoscope brushing against my face when she leaned over to tuck me in at night. she was perpetually on her way to and from work.
my mother is a nurse on the retirement home circuit. she used to work in hospitals, but that was before i was born. some of my earliest memories are of visiting my mom at the old folks home, where she stood beside her med cart, hunched over, counting out pills. the nurse's station bustled with octogenarians, mostly women, in floral patterned muumuus. some sat in their wheelchairs drooling or crying out for their mothers, while others scuttled down the fluorescent-lighted hallway, assisted by their walkers, muttering obscenities under their breath.
"you little bitch," a wild-eyed granny once called me as i stood waiting for my mother. we were the same height, though she was in a wheelchair, and clutching a raggedy ann doll exactly like the one i had at home.
i was terrified of old people.
occasionally, the more with-it grannies would woo me with ribbon candy or butterscotch. given other options, i would have turned my nose at such third-rate offerings, but certainly having something sweet melting inside my mouth, rotting my teeth, was better than having nothing at all.
my mother has worked at a dozen of these places over the years, and one thing is always same: the smell. it's a distinct odor exclusive the old folks home, medicinal and unsavory. it's the scent of antibiotics punctuated with imagined meats: liver and tongue, tripe.
my mom got me my first job, at 16, in a retirement home. i worked in the kitchen. i wore a hairnet and pureed food for the old folks who couldn't eat solids. i'd dump whole pieces of roast beef into a food processor, and scoop the resultant brown mush onto their sectioned plastic plates. beef mush, carrot mush and a pile of mashed potatoes. everything was doused in gravy. after dinner, when i'd bus the dining hall, i'd find the brown and orange sludge crusted into the carpet.
i didn't last very long at the old folks home. soon i was working at the mall like all the other teenage girls, selling jewelry at a kiosk next to the escalator. silverworld.
yesterday, i called my mom to wish her a happy mother's day.
"your mother's been sick," she told me. my mom likes to refer to herself in the third person, most often as "the mama," e.g. "the mama misses you so much!"
"what kind of sick? are you ok?"
"i've had pneumonia for the past couple of weeks. and can you believe they made me go into work when i could barely stand up? i felt like i was going to die."
"i'm sorry, mom. that's awful."
"i know it. i wound up giving it to some of the people on my floor, and now they're dead."
"wait...what? they died?"
"yes, my pneumonia killed them. can you believe that shit?"
"that's absolutely terrible."
"yeah. what are you going to do? anyway, i've got to back to work."
"did you get my mother's day card?"
"i haven't had a chance to go through the mail yet. i'll look for it tomorrow."
"i got you a gift card for the cheesecake factory. have dinner on me."
"oh, my favorite! thanks, meg!"
"sure, of course. happy mother's day."