Saturday, July 14, 2018

Dr. Jekyll Meet Mrs. Hyde

If you met me in a coffee shop, you would think I’m nice. And I am. I tip well, address the barista by name, and let that harried customer behind me go ahead in line to order.

My local teashop even knows me by name. “Hi, Heather! Iced or hot today?”

So sweet, I am…

But, get me behind the wheel of my car, I transform. It’s as if horns sprout from my head and fangs overlay my bottom lip. I’m a monster on the road.

It’s a buildup of ferrying kids across town and years of having to go from Pasadena to the Westside to visit my aging mother in declining health. “If I never see Sunset and the 405 again,” I told my sister, April, “I’ll be satisfied with life.”

Or, maybe it began back when our oldest, Allan, was eighteen months old and learning to talk. He commuted with me to my work at the Santa Monica Athletic Club across town. That Christmas we were driving to my mother’s home in Hancock Park. Hank was at the wheel when a snappy red Camaro cut him off as he was changing lanes, causing Hank to step on the brakes to avoid a collision.

Allan, seated in back clutching his gingham blanket in his car seat, called out:  “Fucka!”

Hank turned to me, “Heather, where’d he learn that?”


I’m not alone. There are a lot of us out there. I see them daily on my jaunts. Only they act on it, speeding, swerving and cutting in. I just swear and police in my head. Yesterday, I counted four illegal maneuvers in a two-mile stretch on the 134.

This morning on a call to April, I’m behind the wheel. She was greeted with a cheery hello and conversation interspersed with:  “No, you don’t, damnit,” as I inched my way closer to the car in front not to let in the guy in the Mustang who’d been riding the side lane that wasn’t even a lane. “I need to teach this jerk a lesson!”

“Oh, boy,” she laughed. “Sounds bad out there this morning. Be careful!”

Just then, I saw a woman zipping over two lanes across traffic to make an offramp. “Plan, ahead! You’re taking other motorist’s life in your hands, you F**er!”

“Sorry, Ape. Now, where were we?”

“Is that your sister swearing at the drivers again?” her husband, Dennis, said in the background while she had me on speaker.  “I love it when Heather swears. I can’t believe it’s coming from her!”

And don’t get me started on drivers who text. Yesterday, I saw a young guy on the 101 in the fast lane. He had two phones going - one in one hand to his ear and on the other phone he was texting. “Jesus!” I’d said aloud to myself. “How’s he steering? Frigging idiot!”

When I see an Uber or Lift driver vacillating or dropping a passenger in an unsafe corner, it’s all out. “You’re not a professional driver! You A**hole!”

This all coming from me, who at sixteen, failed my behind-the-wheel driver’s test by accidentally running over a cat that had darted out in front of me.

Who am I to swear and criticize?

Yet, I do my best to be a safe and courteous driver. No texting and I’m always “hands-free” when I’m on the phone. I’ve only had a few tickets in forty-four years of driving and, thankfully, no accidents since that fateful driving test. Perhaps, that’s why I try to be diligent out there. In the blink of an eye, anything can happen.

Becoming a monster behind the wheel can be a hazard in Los Angeles when you spend hours on the road and I’m getting worse. I mean, I’m not that person who is about to get out of my car and take a pipe to an errant motorist, but I need to calm down here.

So, I’ve taken steps. I’m leaving earlier so I don’t get revved up in snarled traffic and I’m turning to “Chill” on Sirius XM when I start to feel my temperature rise.

Has it worked? Not really. “Chill” is for the spa. Not the transition from the 101 to the 405. But, leaving early is key.

I think back to my daughter, Hilary, the ultimate in nice, a clinical therapist and social worker, when she moved back to Los Angeles. After riding the rails in New York for three years, she was ready to get back behind the wheel. “Mom,” she’d said, “it feels so good to just drive around. I miss being in a car by myself.”

Didn’t take long, though. Now, in my morning line-up of calls, I’m hearing myself back at me as Hilary and I talk while she is driving to work. “Shoot,” she’d said, the other day, “Just go ahead, mister!” I hear a honk. “Ugh, these drivers!”  Another honk. “What’d you say, Mom?”

Maybe it’s hereditary and in a matter of time, she, too, will begin to insert those profanities. It gets to one out there on the roads in this city.

This afternoon on Colorado Boulevard, I put my indicator on to slip into a coveted parking space, turning my head (I never trust the back-up camera), I slowly backed up, breaking to an abrupt stop when a guy in a grey Camry, ignoring my signal, sped up from behind and zipped into the spot.

I shook my head at him, mouthing, “Are you kidding?! You Sh**t!”

Miraculously, on this busy shopping street, another space opened up down the block. I dashed in to Bird Pic to get a quick iced tea. There, in front of me, the guy in the Camry. He grabbed his iced tea and shot me a quizzical glance. Is she the same woman…fumbling, he dropped his straw.

I picked it up and handed it to him with a smile. “Have a good day.”

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Marilyn Of Old

“You need to come now! I’m out of vodka and kitty litter!”  Shannon laughed, mimicking my mom. “I’d get these calls,” she picked up her glass of Pellegrino. “Oh my god. Driving your mother was the best.”

Shannon had come to the rescue as Mom’s driver after she’d lost her driver’s license at 83. Numerous events had called for it, the least of which was Mom pressing the gas pedal, thinking it was the brake as she entered her garage. Thankfully, the only damage she’d done behind the wheel had been merely a crack in the wall.

That was twelve years ago.

Before coming to this dinner with Shannon, I’d dreaded having to bring her up-to-date on my 91 year-old mother’s Parkinson’s and her declining health.  This past year had not been easy. It was enough to live it, but to talk about it...

Then, again, who knew that my mother would live this long anyway, given the wild life she’d led?  Three husbands. Cigarettes. Boozy nights. Partying hard in her earlier years. “Ever heard of a ‘dawner?’” she’d ask my grown children.

“No, Nana. What’s that?”

My sister, April, and I wondered if she lived so long because because she practiced a lot of self-care in between what she called “the parties and balls.”

She was diligent about weekly massages, resting up, and limiting herself to just a few errands a day. “That’s enough,” she’d say. “I need to fold my tent.” She was into “health food” way before “organic” became the craze. And managed her stress by being a master at deflection. Somehow, her problems always became ours, a sort of a shared stress as if she were delegating some of it to my sister and me. “For Christ’s sake you two, what am I going to do now?!” 

Mom’s crowning glory, the once bleached blonde bubble-do is now grey and cropped short in straight layers. Long gone is the “pouf,” she worked so hard to attain. Occasionally now, as if by rote, Mom reaches up to fluff up her hair. I’m half- expecting her to grab the tall white can of Sebastian hairspray that was never far from her grasp. Instead, she drops her hand to rest on her lap in The Jewish Home for the Aging where I visit her.

She sat at what she called her “command center” when she first was moved in -- a rolling hospital table in her room on her skilled nursing floor – with a messy array of drug-store make-up, a magnifying mirror, the combs and countless bottles of perfume littering every inch of the space, her fear of going without make-up, that she’d “look like a peeled grape without the greasepaint.” That part of her is gone.  The command center holds only a box of tissues now. Why do I miss picking up an extra Revlon “Hot Coral” lipstick at the drugstore only to find she had three already?

Meanwhile, the tabloids stack up on the chair in the corner. I haven’t had the heart to cancel her subscriptions. I show them to her, and if it’s a good day, I’ll get a flash of the Marilyn of old and she’ll make a comment about the cover. “Not much,” she’d said of Prince Harry last week. And for a fleeting moment, she’s back.

My mother’s hands look foreign to me now as if they belong to someone else. Where are those long square-shaped acrylic talons, painted to match the season, her affection for showpiece nails that drove me crazy? 

“Mom’ they’re too long!” I’d protest.

"I'll cut them short," she'd lie to appease me.

I miss them now.

Gone, too, are the wedge heels and pointy-toe shoes.  “Moon shoes,” she’d called the Velcro straps and rubber sneakers she now wears thanks to problems with balance.

No matter, though, she’s still dressed in sparkly, animal-print tops with a line-up of gaudy fake bracelets that adorn the paper-thin skin on her forearms, the fashion choices a mark of her conscientious caregivers. They long for the Marilyn of old, too. Her nurse told me last week that she actually misses finding random false eyelashes on the floor of her room.

My mother used to be flamboyant. Larger-than-life, a cross between Phyllis Diller and Carol Channing who happens to think she’s Marilyn Monroe.  But now this spitfire trio is, as Mom would say, “fading into the sunset.”

“What would Mom’s take be?” April and I said to each other recently after a family event. “I miss that phone call from her to rehash,” I sighed.

“Yep,” April replied. “She would have nailed it in one sentence.”

At dinner, I smile at Shannon and reach for my glass of wine. For this short while, she brought back the Marilyn of old in her memories of Mom, not what I’d expected, and so pleased. I’ve been so steeped in her current condition that I forgot all about these funny antics.

Shannon shakes her head with a smile and looks at her husband of eight years. “Then, her stories and advice on how to find a man.”

“Ugh,” I smile, rolling my eyes. “It was always about a man with Mom.”

“Drop a handkerchief in the travel section of the bookstore,” Mom would say. “Rich men like to travel. That’s where you’ll find one.”

“Lean in a little with the men,” she’d told our college-age daughter. “That’s how you catch ‘em.”

To a single woman at my work: “Listen, they aren’t going to come knocking on your door. You’ve got to get out there and beat the bushes to get a guy. Preferable, an Italian.”

Shannon puts her glass down. “And, then there were her one-liners: ‘Shit –toi!’”

“Oh my god, I forgot!” I sigh. “Like when she’d forget something on her market list… ‘Shit-toi!’”

“Exactly,” she laughs.

Mornings are spent in her wheelchair now. Afternoons Mom is in bed, needing rest. Earlier today, I couldn’t rouse her from her nap in her wheelchair. That happens a lot these days.

So, I sat there in her room, waiting for her to wake, to know I’m there. I looked down at her ankles. The recent swelling had gone down. I lifted her pant leg to check.

There, just above her ankle, was the small monarch butterfly tattoo she’d gotten at 85, before the Marilyn of old had faded into the sunset.

“People warn me that it’s permanent,” she’d, told us before getting it. “They say, ‘But, Marilyn, you’ll have it forever!’”

“Who are they kidding at my age?” she’d laughed. “Shit-toi!”

I smoothed her pant leg back over her ankle. “Mom, I’m going now. Love you.”

And in another fleeting moment, she fluttered her eyes open “Ciao.”