By: Kellen Kaiser
To those familiar with my unique upbringing, a common comment is “How is Mother’s Day for you?” I joke that it is pretty stressful, what with the four moms. The truth is I get let off the hook perhaps because of their number. I am not expected to send flowers or cards because they know how expensive that would be. Most years the day involves only a sequence of phone calls, sometimes repeated if someone can’t immediately be reached.
This year though I went all out and drove home to visit. I can proudly say that on Sunday I managed to see all four mothers and without resorting to making them all come to me. Starting the morning in Mendocino County at the family cattle ranch where my 86-year-old godmother Helen resides, I rose from the bed wherein the night before I’d curled up next to her in replication of many nights from my childhood. We’d watched the Devil Wears Prada, on a tiny generator-powered TV, before falling asleep. She loves Meryl Streep. Waking up sweaty and thirsty, I padded out to where she sat reading the local paper. “You can make yourself some eggs; I ate a few hours ago,” she calls out. At nine am her day is in full swing while I feel like I’ve gotten up early. Asking what the plans for the day are, she says “well, you don’t have much time do you, before you have to get going?” Three hours but they go by fast. She asks my thoughts on the Occupy movement, and we compare the current economic crisis to what it was like growing up in the Depression. I mention the destruction wrought on the black middle class and the conversation detours briefly onto Trayvon Martin before coming back around to the need for more programs like the CCC. “That’s how my brother got a job,” she says, “back in the thirties.” Noon sneaks up on us. Time to go.
I then meet up with mom Kyree and her girlfriend Kathy at the veggie Chinese restaurant on the grounds of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Talmadge. It’s a monastery built on a property that used to be a mental institution. The buildings have that particular creepy architecture as a reminder. It was perhaps not a traditional Mother’s Day brunch but the wheat gluten was delicious, the roaming peacocks were atmospheric if also making sounds akin to copulating cats, and we snuck a peek at the rows of geriatric and genuflecting black robed nuns on the way out. They were having services in the main hall, where a younger female voice’s chanting was amplified for the crowd to follow. Ten thousand golden Buddhas of various sizes lined the walls. Music stands held pamphlets filled with prayers written in Chinese, one each next to where they bowed to the ground. I worried a few wouldn’t be able to get back up. A line of walkers stood against a wall near where outside on a folding table,containers of tea appeared in a wide selection of capped jars, water bottles, and travel mugs.
Walking back towards her car, my mother Kyree crowed that she and the girlfriend have been together nine months and were still happy! She says it like she’s climbed Mount Everest. I think to myself that the fourteen years she spent married to my other mother Nina count as a Hollywood lifetime. A regular miracle.
She has brought her pets with her, one giant horse-like dog and one “chaweenie” as they call them, half Chihuahua, halfDachshund. They claw at the generously cracked window as we approach bearing gifts. We bring them a soup’s to go container full of water, it’s a day of curious vessels for liquids, and try to convince the animals to drink. The little one does so enticed by a treat. A passing SUV hollers out of their window to ask, “Is that a wolf?” “No, part wolfhound though,” Mom answers. “Cool dog!” they shout back. Before leaving each other there was a less than customary but rather primal feeling “tick check” which in this case yielded two culprits loitering near Mom’s hairline. Maybe they came with your dogs, or maybe they are your power animal, I tell her.
From there I drive to San Francisco, where I have plans to meet godmother Margery and her girlfriend of over nine months at a Japanese place in the Mission. Because it is the Bay Area we only eat ethnic food. We are all pretending to be Anthony Bourdain. It’s true. My sweet godmother is coupled seriously for the first time in thirty years. Margery turned seventy a few weeks before and much like the flowers that accompany her spring birthday, she is blooming. She’s fallen in love, a friend from high school and she were reacquainted, both “out” for years and you know that joke about what does a lesbian bring to the second date? A U-haul. That applies here. There is an innocence to her romantic endeavors. I have a hard time imagining a situation in which someone my age would act so “foolhardy” to just leap in. With her I find it inspiring. Nowadays with seventy being the new fifty, it is just a midway point. Perhaps before then she had begun to surrender. She has a voice she uses when she’s feeling like an old lady, her little ole’ me inflection, but for love she’s begun to get in shape, losing weight, being healthy so she and her sweetheart can go hiking, see the sights together.
Old people aren’t known to be compromising. They are used to providing for their own needs but also getting their own way.They negotiate sleeping in the same room. Her girlfriend has gotten “shotgunners” -big headphones to muffle the sounds of Margery’s snoring. They want to take a road trip to Oregon, so they have to figure it out. Renting two rooms would get pricey.
We talk over dinner about a recent Time magazine article on shyness. Included in it was a survey that helped to determine where on the spectrum of introverted vs. extroverted one stood. I’d come across a copy that morning at the Ranch and had read the answers Helen, my other godmother, had provided. It included statements like “I rarely feel lonely. I’d prefer to work alone.” Basically waste your fuss on someone else. I have long held some concern over her living at the ranch all by her lonesome and her answers help to momentarily put those fears at ease. She wasn’t sitting by the phone afterall. I posed the same basic question to the two ladies I was sharing dinner with. Do they consider themselves introverts or extroverts? The girlfriend mentions a lover who died a decade before and how she shut herself off from the world as a result. Had she and Margery not connected she might have continued to live in exile. She says in reference to Margery- she has such a full life, it’s like shock therapy.
Near nine pm I roll into my final destination where the woman who bore me sits in the house I grew up in, watching Criminal Minds on TV. In her hand sits a glass of syrupy Orange Muscat.She brags she has recently acquired a pet leech and would I like to see it? My mother is a nurse and also into all kinds of kinky things, it makes perfect sense to me that she would want a leech but I can’t stop my face from curling into a grimace when I consider it. “It’s for Blood Play!” She says cheerfully, “but somehow I can’t find anyone who’ll let me put it on them.” “You don’t say,” I answer drolly. People will let you stab and pierce and cut them but try and put a leech on them and they freak right out. I can’t imagine. She tells me that so far the only person she’s put it on is herself. You have to feed it every forty five to sixty days. “Did it hurt?” I ask. “Less than I expected.” This makes sense evolutionarily speaking, since it would be in the leech’s best interest to go unnoticed to get a full meal. Mom says that when the leech was full, it just let go and rolled right off her thigh. “Like a man after sex,” she says.
When I acquiesce to a viewing, she picks up a mason jar that’s been sitting in plain view on the coffee table. It has a cheery gingham cloth on its top and looks like the sort of thing usually full of beans for soup or cookie mix, a down-homey Christmas gift. In this case it holds cloudy liquid with a thick dark slick at the bottom. I might have guessed it was moonshine had the slick not begun to move when my mother put her finger on the side of the jar. In movement it changed shape oozing long then bunching up short following my mother’s digit like a cobra with a flute. “Her name is Bethie” my mother tells me, “Isn’t she beautiful? I love how she dances!” A minute later, a cloud of dark ink rises in the water muddying its color further. “She’s throwing up” my mom says, “I’d be really worried but the woman who gave her to me said it would happen. I’m still a little concerned.” We stare into the glass jar together watching the leech curl up and twirl. I find that despite my repulsion I am hoping the leech is okay. Mom says maybe it’s a sign she’s getting ready to eat again. I respond that if I wake up in the middle of the night and that thing is on me, we’re going to have big problems. We go back to watching TV.