Lena Mitchell: My mother was a piece of work
She walked out of baggage claim carrying a suitcase that used to be yellow, the kind with hard sides and short handle. I remembered that suitcase from when I was 9. It was old then. Spirit Airlines Flight 245 nonstop Detroit to Fort Lauderdale.
“Ma,” I said after I gave her a hug, “They have them with wheels now so that you don’t hurt your shoulders. “
“This bag is just fine. I’m not such a world traveler. I come to Fort Lauderdale in the winter to see you. You’re such a fancy prietzteh now with wheels.”
It was only moments after she held a wet purple sponge dipped in Soft Scrub and was cleaning my kitchen countertop and sink.
“A baleboosteh you are not.You can’t pick up a sponge once in a while and clean the sink?”
I had to just move on from her comments or I would lose my mind far too early in her 2-week stay.
“I made a nice pot roast for us, Ma, potatoes, carrots, celery, a bay leaf even. We can sit on the balcony and watch the boats go by.”
She flicked a dismissive wrist at me.
“I don’t want the pot roast chazzerei. You save it and have it when I leave. Freeze it. Don’t bother with cooking while I am here.”
Great. My low stress afternoon with her at my place already fell apart. I had to quickly think about how to amuse her so I decided to take her to Palm Beach to look at houses and then Rascal House Deli in Boca Raton on the way back. Driving to Palm Beach was a 45 minute farschlepteh krenk but a good activity to do with someone who is closer to 90 than 80. Her energy astounded me.
“Very nice.” she said as we crossed the Okeechobee Bridge to the island “These homes must cost a fortune. Who lives in these places?
“Donald Trump. Jimmy Buffett.George Hamilton. People who own stuff. Big machers, Ma.“
“Bet their VISA bill is all paid off. How much do you owe VISA?” She had to dig.
“I am fine, Ma.”
“When I go, I will leave you enough for that Visa bill.”
“Ma please!” finally, nearly 12 seconds of silence and she actually softened.
“You know, you did all right for yourself. You’ve got chutzpah. You are better off alone.”
“Yes, I know that.”
“Some day you’ll find a nice balbatish businessman to be with.”
“Ma, I already did that. Didn’t work.”
“So, you’ll try again. You can’t be all the time with gay men. Look at that tree. Someone trimmed it to look like a bear. How cute.”
“Ma, right now I really like being alone.”
“Alone is no good. Old and alone is not good.”
“So how come don’t you meet someone and stop being alone? Daddy is gone over 25 years.”
“I like George Hamilton. Where is his house?”
“Very funny, Ma.”
A half of a gas tank later, we were both hungry. I knew she would like Rascal House deli in Boca Raton, a loud, ethnic Jewish place with separate lines for parties of 2 and 3, another line for parties of 4 line and one more for parties of 5 or more. She was too impatient to actually wait for a table and get dinner brought to us. No, we had to take it out. A woman with painted on eyebrows helped us.
“Ah there it is, the chopped herring in wine sauce salad. Give me a pound.”
“$14.95 a pound? Are they crazy? You are not buying that. What the hell is this? Highway robbery, for Christ’s sake.” Here is comes. My mother is in full bloom.
“Ma, everyone can hear you.”
“I am hard of hearing yes and I don’t give a shit. I don’t like to be taken.” She was getting indignant.
‘Ma, I am paying. Just enjoy it.”
“You are not paying these kind of prices. Gantseh Meshungeh what they charge!”
I disobeyed her and put the chopped herring container in a bag. I added two potato and kasha knishes and a quart of matzo ball soup.
“We’ll go home, eat right out of this bag and watch some television.”
On the way home I was updated on Detroit minutiae, who died, who got fat, how bad the economy is, who moved away and how rotten my sister could be.
While I put the pot roast in a freezer bag, I turned on the television so that she could be occupied and I could have a few moments to regroup without her talking.
“Look at Gene Rayburn. He has not aged a day. Your television is so fancy. Why do you need such a big screen? And flat. Where is the rest of it?”
I had to ignore the TV part. There was trouble in that question.
“Ma, that is the game show channel. They rerun game shows from 40 years ago.
“That is why Gene Rayburn hasn’t aged.”
“You enjoy that, Ma. I have to go to take a shower and get ready for work tomorrow.”
“You know, you need to cut that wild long hair off and wear it very short.”
“Good night Ma. See you in the morning.”
“This is the best chopped herring I ever had.”
*Lena died two weeks short of her 90th birthday. She left me the money to pay off VISA.
Rascal House closed in 2008, 5 years after.