Mom looked stricken. When my grandmother was pregnant with her in 1943, their bodies rejected one another because of mismatched blood. Mom was born 10 weeks premature, barely over four pounds, the only live birth of Grandma’s three pregnancies. My newborn mother lay untouched in an incubator for her first eight weeks until she was strong enough to come home. Now her face froze, as if shutting her up too closely with Grandma might kill one of them still.
I recognized that look. Our blood matches fine, but I wouldn’t want to be locked face-to-face with my mom, either. In our family, mothers and daughters love from a distance.
I knew Grandma as an undiscriminating lady in hand-sewn polyester pants. She ate scraps off plates. She once downed a full glass of my brother’s orange juice standing up at a restaurant, coat on, purse clutched, so it wouldn’t get dumped. Grandma refilled glass jars from the Sparkletts water company and set them in the refrigerator, where algae grew in their mouths. Her eyes were bad; her health was good. When we drove the 90 miles from San Diego to Anaheim to pick up Grandma for the weekend, my little brother Aaron and I would watch Mom attack her kitchen with bleach.
Mom made me peer into the water jar clouded with soft, green strands. “Grandma drinks from this,” she said. “It’s sad.”
Yet Grandma smiled constantly, walked miles every day until she was 80 and wore holes in the soles of her drugstore-brand Keds.
Mom grew up picking through moldy food, burst cans and spices as old as she was that moved west with Grandma in the 1970s. While Mom scrapped jars and tossed out foil-wrapped leftovers in the kitchen of Grandma’s one-bedroom apartment, her mother would heckle from the sofa. “Don’t throw that out! Why are you throwing it out?” she’d squawk. Then Aaron, Grandma and I would hang out by the pool in her senior complex while Mom wrecked her hands with a new can of Comet.
I don’t know what creates a bond. I was born without incident, but somehow Mom got abandoned in the recovery room and couldn’t hold me for half a day.
Mom jokes about my first steps, saying that kids are supposed to walk toward their mothers, but I walked away. She promoted my independence, transferring milk into a small pitcher so I could pour it myself and keeping stepstools in each room so I wouldn’t have to ask for help. I went east for college at 17, sometimes letting a year or more elapse between brief visits. I didn’t drop my mother, but I didn’t always return her calls.
Mom bought Grandma a small condo in San Diego, where she stayed for nine years until the weekend my brother graduated college, when Grandma fell, losing the last of her eyesight and her sense of direction. Mom, who had just moved after a tough second marriage, took in her blind, 87-year-old mother and tended to her alone for more than a year. Then she visited nursing homes the way she once chose schools for us, grilling the staff about how many times a week residents were bathed and whether there were gates on the stairways. Unsatisfied, she hired someone to watch Grandma in her condo, three blocks from Mom’s new place, while Mom shopped and cooked.