Eleven days after Mom’s funeral I returned to work to well-meaning colleagues who said things like, I’m so sorry about your mom, how are you doing? Others offered a reticent Hi, not wanting to stir up old wounds. But they weren’t old, which is perhaps why on my first day back I felt like a delicate flower losing petals to the wind. This surprised me. For eight years Alzheimer’s had formed a plaque around Mom’s memories, first distorting, then decimating them until she was confined to a hospital bed in her living room, unable to talk. I liked to think she still recognized me. I doubt she did. The moment she died, I dropped to my knees and thanked God for she was finally at peace.
I kept my office door closed trying to read emails and answer important phone calls. In truth, I spent more time staring at the photo of my mother holding my infant son. I experienced every mundane working moment through the lens of grief. By the afternoon, I couldn’t stay locked inside my four walls. I ventured out to purchase cookies for my coworkers to thank them for making a donation to the Alzheimer’s Association in memory of Mom.
“Yes, she’s in the lobby… Well, when can you pick her up … “ Pauline hung up the phone. “His mother is downstairs in the lobby and I don’t know how she found her way here because she has some kind of dementia. She retired years ago, but still thinks she works here. Her son said he’s in Brooklyn and he can’t just fly over here. Do you believe this?” Well…of course I could.
I was about to ask Pauline if she wanted a cookie when the phone rang. “A female companion? Okay no problem, I’ll find someone and send her down.”
She had barely hung up the phone when I blurted out, “I’ll do it.”
“No, you don’t have to, I’ll find…”
I cut her off. “You don’t understand. This must be the reason I’m here. It’s me. I’ll stay with her until her son sends someone.” I said the last words as I sprinted toward the elevator not sure if I was rushing because I feared Pauline would try to change my mind or because my mounting fear would immobilize me.
I stared at the blinking numbers as the elevator descended 25 floors and I gave myself a pep talk: Okay, I can do this. I must be strong. I’m sure she’s anxious, worried. I’ll have to distract her, like I did with Mom. And whatever you do, don’t cry.
She sat in a café chair with a security officer standing on her left. I waved the officer off. “I’ll take over. Can you bring another chair?”
“Hello,” I said as I sat on my haunches until my chair arrived. She was dressed in a winter coat, her hair covered in a gray cotton turban, the kind religious women from Borough Park don to keep their hair hidden from men.
“Oh, are you here to help me?” I recognized the anxious grimace, the one I had tried so hard to drive from my mother’s face when she had fixated on something like her missing purse, which was missing because she had hidden it and she had hidden it because she had misplaced it so often that she thought burglars had taken it and so she would hide it on them and when she couldn’t find her purse she would say: Those son of a bitches stole it again.
“Yes, how can I help?” I smiled. Then she smiled.
“This is me.” She pointed to a magazine she held on her lap. I recognized the employee publication; my bank still publishes it. This issue was from 1985 and it was turned to her retirement photo. “I worked here for seventeen years. But I have no money.” Her frown was back. “It’s not right. Can you get me my check?”
Distraction: “Wow, this is you? You look the same.” I meant this. Although her brown hair with hints of auburn peeking through the turban appeared to be a wig, her face had been spared the wrinkles of seventeen more years. It was the same with Mom; at seventy-nine, her olive complexion that tanned but never burned, had been as smooth as the days she had spent soaking up the sun on the beaches of Coney Island.
I scanned the print underneath her photo. “So your name is Santa. It’s nice to meet you Santa. My name is Maria. Your son Sam is very worried about you.” Her eyes piqued curiously.
“How does he know I’m here?”
“Well, he called looking for you. He’s making arrangements to pick you up.” I looked intently into her brown eyes “He loves you very much.” At this her lips curled to form a fulsome smile, just for a couple of seconds. Then the money frown was back.
“I’m on a fixed income and I don’t want to bother my son or my daughters. I shouldn’t have to. But look,” she opened the palm of her left hand, “all I have is this token.”
Little White Lies: “Well, Santa don’t worry. We’ll take care of everything. We’ll get you the money you need.” Lies are the caregiver’s tool of trade. I told them when I needed to convince Mom to change a sweater that she had worn for four days straight: I bought you a new sweater, let me help you try it on; when I needed to get her into the bath: oh look at that dirt on your foot let me scrub that off for you, and when we had a doctor’s appointment: let’s go to the mall.
I glanced at the magazine again, scanning it for fodder—clues to questions that I could use to engage Santa in conversation. Santa moved from Germany to this country in 1936 and when she arrived she taught sewing. My heart pumped against my chest, “You taught sewing?” She nodded. “My mom was a seamstress…”
When Mom was single, she sewed her own clothes: tailored suits, A-line dresses, flowered skirts with billowy blouses. She wore deep red lipstick, slept with curlers so she could tease her fine dark brown hair into the latest style, and owned a pump in every shade with a clutch bag to match. In photos, she looked as if she had stepped out of a 1940’s Hollywood movie set.
I continued blurting, “…she made all my clothes when I was younger.” Pale pink Easter dresses with satin bows tied at the waist, gabardine gowns worn to cousins’ weddings, and bell-bottom slacks, even a leather mini-skirt when they became the rage.
I was giddy with delight at the thought that my mother and Santa had shared the same profession. There was something about this moment that was quite extraordinary, yet I felt its meaning was elusive.
“Did you sew your own clothes?” I asked Santa. She confused the past with the present, “Oh no, nowadays the finished product off the rack is much cheaper.” And I thought, exactly what my mom, the consummate bargain hunter, would have said.
“So can you help me get my money?” Two of my colleagues, Denise and Helen, joined us.
“I remember you. You worked in the other building.” Helen said.
“Yes, I delivered messages between floors.” Santa stared admiringly at Helen. “I like the way you dress. You are very beautiful.” It wasn’t long before this conversation led back to the money.
Humor: “Santa, don’t worry. I never have any cash on me. At least you have a token. Maybe I can borrow it?” We all laughed.
“So do you remember the names of the people you worked with? Maybe I know them,” Helen asked.
“Well, not really. I was just a messenger. But I liked the people I worked with and the people liked me. I always had a smile because, you know, no one wants to come to work, but we all need to work…” Santa’s words seemed carefully chosen, a subtle shift to lucidity. The three of us listened intently, as if we were aware she was going to say something profound.
“…and everyone has their problems, but we just need to be happy.”
Helen, Denise, and I exchanged bewildered glances as we tripped over each other’s responses. “You’re right…”, “Yes, we all do have our problems…”, “That’s right, we just need to be happy.”
About the author
Maria Masseirosato has an M.F.A. in creative non-fiction from The New School and a B.S. from New York University. She completed a 250-page manuscript for a memoir and it was selected as a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition. Her most recent essays were published in Poets & Writers Magazine March/April 2015 issue and Brain, Child Magazine,March 2016. She teaches creative writing workshops and have taught poetry workshops for adults and children with developmental disabilities. She also attended Robert McKee’s Story seminar and the Harvard Business School Executive Education for High-Potential Leaders.