Zenning Toward Joy
That December morning, Liv’s map of errands straightened from a scribble to “the closest distance between two points is a straight line” after she decided to go to Mother’s only after she finished everything else on her list, including a self-indulgent drive up to a holiday craft fair. Liv arrived in the gentrified neighborhood of hipsters and preserved oaks to find her friend Amy’s front yard transformed. Strains of “Silver Bells” urged her through the garlands of fairy lights that led up to the raised wrap-around porch where coffee and muffins waited and where creative middle-aged women peddled their creations. Bags. Jewelry. Soap. Blankets. Comforting things. After hugs and apologies for the pop-in, she left seven dollars lighter and with a key chain, one that now hung around her wrist and reminded her of places faraway.
Aware that she was a tad behind schedule, Liv urged the speedometer to 70 and edged into the far left lane. She made her way back to the southwest side, gripping the steering wheel like a department store mannequin, the speakers blaring “The Christians and the Pagans.” (Thank you, Dar Williams.) Bagged on the floor behind her sat Mother’s newest provisions: water, toilet paper, instant oatmeal, chocolate, disposable underwear, pads, wipes, and meds, lots of them. Prescriptions accounted for more of Mother’s budget than food did. That was a hard pill to swallow. Ba-dum-bum.
Pulling the flimsy roller cart behind her and swinging a burlap recyclable at her side, Liv hauled Mother’s supplies across the parking lot of The Towers where Mother had lived for over a decade. Once in the elevator, she pushed the “7” with her elbow. It wasn’t the first time.
Mother lived on the seventh floor of a federally-subsidized apartment building with a view of an Assembly of God church parking lot and the suburban horizon that settled the distance beyond. On Saturday afternoons, after Liv’s regular morning visit, the Metro van for disabled citizens would arrive at an appointed time so that Mother could travel the mile to her brother’s driveway where she would roll off the ramp and up to the back door to be greeted by her sister-in-law as she bumped inside for pizza and prayer.
As she exited the elevator, Mother’s door stood propped open, so Liv proclaimed “I’m here!” in a three-syllable sing-song. Mother’s wheelchair spun into view at top speed and nearly rammed into the wall. “Oh, Titter, it’s so good to see you!” For the past few years, “Titter” had become the term of endearment she had used for Liv. Short for sister. Liv wasn’t sure how she was supposed to fill her mother’s need for one, but she answered to it anyway.
As her tasks began, Liv kept one ear to Mother’s dramatic monologuing. With the other, she tried tuning out the morning sermon from the “God Listens” station blasting from the radio at Mother’s bedside table. Liv unscrewed the caps on the water bottles, as the baritone preaching burst through (Jesus!). She used a knife to open the bills (said!) and holiday greetings (you!), explained once again how to operate the gently used coffeemaker Liv had given her (good and faithful!), and as always, teased and resprayed the back of Mother’s hair (servant!).
The wheelchair tracked Liv’s every move but mostly hovered around the microwave so that Mother could keep an eye on its clock. “I can’t believe it’s December!” she exclaimed merrily as she took an awkward gulp from her steaming mug, her crippled fingers wrapped like ribbon through the handle. “Christmas is right around the corner,” she reminded Liv with a caffeinated lilt that felt suggestive, but of what?
Mother applied her lipstick, put on her sun glasses as she reeled off the list of waiting chores, and reminded Liv to lock up when she left. “I wish my pick-up time wasn’t so early, but it is!” A cheerful “Bye, Titter!” floated in from the hallway, then the elevator thumped shut and Liv was alone.
Liv rolled her shoulders and rotated her neck, grateful that she had taken the time for a massage the day before. The brimstone bullhorn blared from the bedroom — as it did day and night. Her first act of defiance was to reduce the volume on the sermonizing to no more than a droning smoulder. With Mother absent, the roving wheelchair no longer bit at her heels as Liv hustled the five steps to the bathroom and three to the hall and four the kitchen. Without the hulking presence of her mother’s motorized vehicle, Liv spotted multiple digs in the sheetrock at wheel level. Mother had a running joke with management that they would probably put her out on the street if she made any more “booboos.” If they only knew.
In the quiet and space, Liv breathed easier. As she changed the sheets and added water to the coffee maker reservoir and straightened the rugs that forever needed straightening from the wheelchair effect, she caught herself humming “Angels We Have Heard on High.” She began to think that her mother was right. December was here. That’s when it dawned on her.
Liv groped into the back of Mother’s closet and pulled out the battered box that held the three-foot Christmas tree that Mother had used for at least a dozen years. It took some doing, but finally it stood upright on a crate covered with a crisp white sheet, intended snow. After she plugged up the adapter (noticing yet another chunk of gouged wall), the ends of plastic needles glowed with tiny filaments that changed from green to blue to red to purple and back again. She placed the stuffed snowman and red-scarfed moose at the base of the display and added a cotton blanket to hold the miniature village with its tiny skaters and carolers likely painted by factory workers who had never seen snow and who might have imagined the hand-held houses as temples of gods.
The tree glistened as Liv uncrated a ceramic angel — the size of a toddler — who held pale blue candles in her lifted hands. She positioned the angel near the nativity scene just as Mother liked it — a giant airbound creature casting a protective shadow over the Holy Family. Then Liv primped the angel hair beards on the ornate pair of Santas and set them atop the china cabinet. Between them she placed a crystal bowl filled with a rainbow of glass ball ornaments. A few more accents of perching elves and hanging garland and she was done. Mother had wooed the pagan as much as the holy in her love affair with Christmas. Tinsel and glitter held just as much appeal as infant and star. There was room for everything. Look at the evidence!
Liv left the apartment in perfect order. Fresh sheets on Mother’s bed, emptied trash cans, watered bamboo, and most important, a festive decor that sang “Holly, Jolly.” She increased the radio volume just in time to hear the opening soprano voices of “Joy to World.”
The door locked behind her, Liv made her way to the first floor with a cartful of soiled bed linens and a handful of bills to drop in the mail. Later that afternoon, just after Liv had opened herself a hard cider, she heard the servant’s bell ring tone that signaled a call from Mother. Ding. Ding. Ding.
If she answered, Mother would squeal with glee. “Titter?” she would say. “Oh, my stars! What did you DO?!”
Ding. Ding. Ding. The gentle coaxing of the ring made her smile. She let it go to voicemail. And that made her smile, too.