These days, I’m inclined to think that my eccentric parents are going insane. I consider flying back home to see if this is true because these things are hard to gauge via video chat. They look crazy when we talk. Perhaps they are displaying the first signs of dementia, but how can I be sure? Last week, as my mother goes on and on about some cooking show that she likes to watch, my father thrusts his face across my computer screen. Babygirl, he says, Your mother is controlling my thoughts through her food. When you come home, you’re going to find a zombified version of me and don’t say that I didn’t warn you. Afterwards, my mother adjusts the camera onto her face and resumes talking about shrimp frittata.
Dad, can you stop it? I say before mother wrestles the computer away. I’m trying to stretch my leg as I talk to my folks. A million frustrations are ahead of me: An appointment with an arthroscopic surgeon, dance rehearsals, the jeans I cannot wriggle into without sharp pain shooting through my knee. I stare into my computer looking for signs that my parents are okay. You know that’s a harmful archetype don’t you? This idea of a conjure woman who casts an evil spell?
Exactly, my mother says. She is proud that I recognize historical representations and misrepresentations of womanhood. Her scholarship, years ago, was in the emerging field of Women’s Studies. Her big regret is that she did not contribute more to this discipline, but who in the end will blame her? The jobs she got postdoc barely paid her bills, when here comes my father, an R&B singer, who promises to take care of her needs. She was first-generation Bahamian in the U.S. She was here on a visa that would soon expire.
My parents married and moved to a rambler in Oakland County, Michigan where, mama has told me, she thought she would eventually pick up and finish her dissertation. All these years later, she’s still ABD. But the power of ideas animates her every move. I’ve caught her mumbling her thoughts as she cleans glass tabletops with vinegar and newspaper, as she flips conch fritters in their popping oil.
She is an especially astute reader of other people. Your father is the type that loves to be in charge, she told me when I was nine. It burns him up that he was just a back-up singer, you know. That’s why he pushes you so. We were in the gymnasium for my school’s production of The Sound of Music, and I had just left the stage in tears. During the performance, students in the audience had mocked my portrayal of Maria, and they’d laughed out loud at the kiss I performed with Kevin Susser who played Captain von Trapp.
I’m not going back out there, I announced. I don’t know what I expected my parents to do with that. Perhaps I thought they would kiss the top of my carefully braided head or offer some gesture to demonstrate their solidarity with my childhood suffering. That’s what Mike and Carol Brady did each week on The Brady Bunch. At the time, my favorite episode was the one in which Bobby plots to run away. When his mother, Carol, hears of this, she packs her own suitcase and declares that she will follow Bobby wherever he goes. It ends once Bobby understands that he is loved.
To say that my father was unlike Mr. and Mrs. Brady would fail to capture the full flavor of his sadistic style of parenting. When I refused to go back on stage, my father grabbed the soft meat on the back of my neck. He pinched it. You want to be ordinary, huh? Or extraordinary? He asked me this with his face in my face. A trickle of sweat made its way out of his right sideburn. I remember blinking my eyes, trying to make sense of his abstract words. I knew that extraordinary was a higher goal than ordinary, but what did extraordinary look like? Wasn’t heckling from the audience evidence that I was not only ordinary but perhaps a terrible actress? You are a great performer, my father said, as if he could read my mind. Go out there and throw your heart into the second act if you don’t want a whooping when we get home. Moments before the second act as I prepared to walk onstage, he said, Remember! Throw your heart into it. Do it until their clapping sounds like love.
I guess my father is thinking of his own advice these days because he’s returning to music even though he is in his seventies. Over the years, he has figured out ways to stay in the public eye through speaking engagements and writing a memoir, but this time he intends to record new songs. Really? I say, studying his face on my computer screen. But he talks as if things have been set in motion as we speak. He says he has hired an agent. And your mother is fighting me like she fights me on everything, he says. She’s trying to control my thoughts through stuff that she’s putting in my food. Oh, Daddy, I say, but he insists, She is. This talk of mind-control seems a little extra, even for him, so my partner Mike and I discuss what’s going on and I purchase a roundtrip ticket to Detroit.
It’s late October when I arrive, and the sight of vermillion trees tugs at my throat. I feel a certain nostalgia for home. That feeling completely leaves by the first night. My father is right, my mother’s compulsive cooking comes off as a little bit creepy. It’s not the dark arts, mind you, but the volume of it resembles some sort of deep-seated mania. This is the never-ending story with my folks. They use their looniness to vex each other. Your mom is screwy, Mike said after the first time that he met my parents. And she picks on your dad. What are you talking about? I replied. My mother gave up her research to support his career. That’s not picking on him, that’s called having his back.
This is not to say that I regard my mom as innocent. The first thing I notice when I arrive home is all of her canning supplies pushed up against one wall. Boxes of food processors balance one on top of the other against a second wall. Why she needs more than one food processor or a year’s supply of canned food, I do not know. Then there are the vegetable roots, perhaps potatoes, growing in jars placed on counters and in the windows. Dried herbs are piled in heaps. In the kitchen, a stock pot bubbles with gelatinous froth.
As I peer into each room, I understand my father’s complaints. No, he is not being “mind-controlled,” but my mother has overwhelmed the space with an unbelievable amount of foodstuff. It stretches from the kitchen to the dining room, bedrooms, and den. Cookbooks are stacked on end tables collecting dust, or maybe that’s flour. This place is a mess, I say, as I hobble around on my bum knee. Clearly, my parents have lost interest in maintaining their home and that’s fine. But the cooking, Good Lord, I’ve never seen so much of it. Everything in the house is an object of my mother’s obsession. When I was a girl, things felt exactly opposite. The home I remember showed off my father’s accomplishments. His awards and photographs covered the walls and curio cabinets. If those trophies and pictures are still around, they have been tucked into corners of the crawl space or cedar closet where they remain out of sight.
In my mind, the easiest way to deal with my parents’ situation is to sell the rambler and move them into an assisted living facility. That way they can meet other retirees and attend scheduled events. They could be busy and avoid this odd behavior, which I want to attribute to their fear of growing old. I mention the idea of assisted living on Day Four at breakfast. My father says, Babygirl, please. We’re not doing that. My mother just does that thing with her lips that translates roughly into, “whatever.” We’re sitting at a round table on which my mother has placed scrambled eggs, lemon bars, fried potatoes, and fruit salad sprinkled with sprigs of fresh mint. There’s also leftover steak, chow mein, and pan-fried kielbasa because who doesn’t want a little Chinese carryout and hot dogs with their breakfast at 9 a.m.? Daddy refuses to taste any of it. With a trembling hand he has poured his own coffee that he made in a pot separate from the one that mother and I share.
Well, I tell them, if you won’t consider selling the house, I insist that you take a long vacation. Come and visit me and Mike for a few months in Seattle.
You sure you want us there? my mother says. You and Michael are so private. What do you do anyway? Do you even go out?
I don’t begrudge my mother for speaking this truth. Mike and I have built a quiet almost monastic life in an apartment near Puget Sound. We choreograph at our theater company, do a couple of shows each year, but otherwise we stay to ourselves. It costs money to leave the apartment, and we don’t have much of it. Every now and then we host a dinner party for our friends, Leah and Gordon.
Is the theater company in the black? my father asks.
No, I say, but our last show was nominated for a Drama League Award.
I think you told us that, daddy says before changing the subject. He mentions his plans to meet with record executives sometime next spring in Los Angeles. These are meetings that his new agent has scheduled.
Have you met the agent? I ask my mother.
I have not, she says.
Of course you haven’t, my father says, because she lives in L.A.
I don’t doubt my father’s ability to court good luck. He grew up a poor boy in eastern Kentucky and became a famous singer who traveled the world. When he first talked of publishing a memoir, mother and I thought it a fanciful idea since we had never seen him write more than one page of prose. But he wrote an entire book without a ghostwriter, without anyone’s help. You get a limited number of opportunities in life, he likes to say, and I wonder what he must think about mine. I muddle through each year. I dropped out of college. I’ve been rejected at an embarrassing number of dance auditions. I fell in love with a Canadian guy who convinced me to sink my money into a theater company that we can barely manage. And now at 37, I have a knee injury that could end my not-so-successful career.
At these efforts I feel sadness and sometimes shame. After our Drama League nomination, Mike and I flew out to New York for the awards ceremony. This is it, we thought, this will be our big break. And then we lost. The nomination helped when we applied for grants for our theater company. We produced a few more shows because of it, but even I was surprised at how quickly it became another line on our resumes, a missed chance, an almost-made-it type of thing.
Maybe we’ll stop in Seattle when I go to L.A. in March, my father says.
I don’t want a hurried stopover on your way to California. I want you and mom to stay for a few months, to get out of this struggle being waged inside of the home. My mother sucks her teeth as if I’m talking complete nonsense. I didn’t raise you up to be a dutiful woman, she says as she pushes daddy’s cup from the table’s edge.
If they had been other parents, I might have ended up with a different life. Maybe I would have married, had children, bought a house in a neighborhood fifty miles or so from where I grew up. But I had Richmond “Ricky” Roberts and Igrid Braithwaite as my parents. I spent entire summers in places like Ibiza, Spain, in a hotel room with other children of Motown singers and musicians. I watched one kid get his fat head stuck between the railings of our hotel balcony. I saw famous people get high and overdose. And I watched my mother’s face through the years, the way her mouth pulled down at the corners when she smoked her cigarettes, as if everything she tasted and saw in life was sour. Years ago, when I told my mother that I was thinking about having children, she startled to attention. Why would you do that? she asked. You can’t travel or do anything with kids. I reminded her that we traveled to many places as a family, but she insisted that that was a different era and situation. You need to focus on yourself, she said. As if she had ever done the same.
On Day Eight, I’m in the kitchen where mom is baking an applesauce cake that she dusts with powdered sugar. Because it’s your favorite, she says to my dad. Says who? he responds. I don’t want your cake. After a loud argument about what he will and will not do, he gives in to her request to eat one slice. For the first time since I’ve been home, a sense of peace settles in. In that moment, it feels as if we are trying to be a normal family, as if we’ve abandoned the idiosyncrasies. The three of us sit beneath the patio umbrella eating cake. My father does not prattle on about the state of popular music, and my mother is not fussing over a meal she’s spent hours cooking. We sit and enjoy the setting sun. Fall leaves drop colors into the grass.
If I were a different daughter, this is where my story would get dark. I would tell you that zombies and witches do exist. That my father is a zombie and I pray that he was turned this way by my mom. That I watched the whole process happen, watched his skin go ashen and his expression turn blank as a plum. That it happened as he ate her poisoned cake and talked about his future. His pulse was slowing as he spoke, but we did not notice. We only realized the change in him when he failed to respond to our simple questions.
This is the moment my father disappeared. Medics came and revived him, but he would never return to his former self. He now shuffles when he walks, and he drools. He needs help getting dressed and wiping his ass. Like a zombie, he does what he is told to do.. This is what he feared, but it’s also what my father deserves. For the years during which he controlled everything in our home. For stealing my mother’s bright future.
But this is not the story that I will tell because it isn’t true. Well, some of it is. But my parents had their understanding. A mother is not the ideas that interest her. Sometimes she’s not even her own advice.
It isn’t until Day Nine that I have time to call Mike from the hospital. Daddy is tucked beneath sheets and is under the care of a neurologist and a staff of nurses. They think stroke, I tell Mike. They’ll run more tests tomorrow. My mother and I are about to have an ugly talk about our health care options.
This will be the second difficult conversation I will have had in a single month. Weeks before, in an office that looked out at Mt. Rainier, my doctor ran down my choices. She said that if I choose surgery, I might have one or two years left to dance. What surgery would do, without question, is bankrupt me and Mike. I could have a somewhat normal life with physical therapy and pain medication.
You can’t give up dance, Mike said in our apartment that night in front of Leah and Gordon. We were all drunk and sharing a little too much information. Why not? I asked. Maybe I won’t dance on Broadway or win awards, but I’ve taught hundreds of students. And I’ll still choreograph.
But you are a dancer, Mike said. His eyes reflected the fear that a fragile covenant had begun to fray. So what, I said. Why can’t I make peace with this and just move on? Because, Leah said, it doesn’t work like that. Gordon nodded his head in drunken agreement. You can move on, he said, but we’re talking you through this so you won’t have any regrets.
Of course, I know all about regret: she raised me. She is standing now in the driveway on the morning of Day Twelve. I’m leaving for the airport. I need to tend to things where I live, but I’ll return soon.
I’ll call if there’s any change with your father, my mother says. She pauses then, before asking, Have you made a decision about your surgery? Have you talked to Michael? What does he want you to do?
I listen to her talk. She has questions. She has to get them out before I leave. She has questions. She has a lifetime of concerns.
I’m learning to respect the different roles my mother has mastered through the years---partner, student, thinker, expert, friend. I’m remembering the Christmas we spent in Nassau three decades ago. Mother drove me across the island to the primary school that she attended. She told me how proud granny had been when she was selected by the Victoria League to study abroad. That’s how she lived in London and how she ended up here. We looked at the tiny classrooms and desks and then visited the farm where she’d grown up on the western shore. Two old houses stood on the property. One of them reminded me of the shed in our backyard, and the other one was large with white columns and faded green shutters. That’s where the British planter lived, in the big house, she said. He owned our land. I was fourteen before I learned that the planter was in fact my old man.
Have you decided? my mother asks me again. No, I say, I haven’t decided yet.
I place my suitcase into the trunk of the rental car and turn to hug my mom. We linger in the embrace.
Do you think that you could live with yourself? she asks. Can you live with yourself if you don’t dance?