A Lapse of Memory ~ Lynne Sharon Schwartz


I was horrified to realize I’d forgotten about my mother.  I don’t mean I left her waiting impatiently on some street corner, nothing like that.  I mean I had forgotten her altogether, forgotten her existence.  Or rather it was as if she had died, and died long enough ago that I no longer thought of her frequently.  It’s shocking that I can even articulate these words, but I insist on facing up to the truth–the appalling deeds, or omissions, one is capable of.  I hadn’t thought of my mother in weeks, though normally I telephone every few days to see how she is, and every couple of weeks I drive up to see her in the suburban gated community where she lives with her younger sister.

Her sister never married and has taken on the responsibility of caring for my mother—a task she seems to enjoy; she likes the company, and my mother can be pleasant enough when she makes an effort.  She is not sick but is growing frail and has difficulty walking, complains constantly of the arthritis in her knees, nor is she a presence one can easily ignore.  My aunt, the caretaker, or caregiver I should say, works part time in the linen section of a nearby department store.  But her schedule is flexible and my mother can be left alone for several hours a day.  (She wears one of those gadgets around her neck that you can press for help in case of an emergency, a fall, or any mishap, but so far she has never used it.)  I must say I don’t know what she does during those solitary hours.  There’s always television, but since she doesn’t see too well at this point, I’m not sure how useful television can be.  She has a few remaining friends she may talk to on the phone.  Maybe she listens to music.  She’s always been a music lover and was a wonderful singer in years past.

Anyway, I am straying from the point, which is that I simply forgot about her existence, forgot to call or visit as I regularly do.  She could have called me, I thought, with a pang; maybe she could ask how I’m doing, for a change.  But that doesn’t excuse my lapse.  I wasn’t even extremely busy at work, which might have made me forgetful.  I’m on the staff of a small non-profit for disabled children, and unfortunately we’re never very busy.  Our cause doesn’t have the urgent appeal of environmental issues or political campaigns.  I’m fairly sure nothing too bad happened to my mother during my lapse of memory: my aunt would have let me know.  But that doesn’t excuse my forgetting.

I am aware that people forget things more often as they age, but I’m not yet at that forgetful age, and besides, what people forget are things like where they left their keys or where they parked their cars, not their mothers.  I’ve never heard of anyone forgetting a mother.  I’ve heard people say they’ve lost their mothers, which is a euphemistic way of saying they died, but my mother was not lost in either sense, dead or missing.  Simply forgotten.  I know others who lose touch with their mothers because of some bitter rift, or some ancient wrong that allegedly marred their lives, but that’s not the case with me and my mother.  Indeed, I love my mother, not a consuming love such as some people feel for their mothers, but sufficiently.  I have no simmering resentment for anything she did that marred my life; I take personal responsibility for any marring that may have taken place.  She was—is—a fairly good mother, as mothers go: at this point in our lives I don’t expect a great deal of mothering (though she could call occasionally to see how I am).  Whatever her flaws, she certainly does not deserve to be wiped out of my memory.  Well, not totally wiped out; I did remember yesterday, during dinner with a man I’ve dated a few times.  But wiped out for a period of several weeks, I’m not sure how many.

What finally brought her to mind was that the man I was having dinner with ordered lemon meringue pie for dessert, something that does not often appear on menus lately, I don’t know why.  Perhaps it’s too humble or old-fashioned, and it’s difficult to make well.  My mother used to make the most spectacular lemon meringue pie; the meringue part was always perfect, whipped and airy and light, with just a touch of brown on the tips of the swirls.  Personally I preferred the lemon part.  In any event, when I saw the pie placed in front of my date I suddenly remembered my mother, the continuing existence of my mother, and I must have had a startled look on my face because the man asked what was the matter.  I told him about my mother’s pies and how I had lately forgotten her, which couldn’t have made a very good impression but just then I really didn’t care.  Had I been alone I would have called her immediately.  But I didn’t want to talk to her in front of an almost stranger, especially as I’d have to apologize for not having called in so long and it might be a long conversation while she filled me in on the last few weeks—not that her life is burdened with activities, but she tends to run on and I’m generally content to listen.  I like the sound of her voice, soft and low, what Shakespeare says is an excellent thing in woman.  Also I find it rude when people make or receive phone calls in restaurants and ignore the person they’re with.

The man seemed sympathetic and offered me a piece of his pie.  It was good, but nowhere near as good as my mother’s.  I made a note to tell her this when I called later, or tomorrow: that I’d tasted a piece of lemon meringue pie in a restaurant and it was not nearly as good as hers.

I planned to call my mother as soon as I got home.  My relationship with the man was possibly at the point where I might have invited him up to my apartment, but this business with my mother had so upset me that I simply got out of the taxi and said good night.  I hoped he’d call again, but my investment of feeling was not yet such that I would suffer if he didn’t.  When I got inside I realized it was too late to call.  Not very late, only a little past ten, but I remembered from my childhood how she got alarmed when the phone rang after nine-thirty or ten; anyone calling at that hour, she felt, could only be bringing bad news.  I didn’t want to alarm her.  I’d waited this long, I could wait until tomorrow.

The next day was Saturday.  I got up late and dithered around the apartment for a while, putting off calling my mother.  I’d have to invent some reason for my failure to keep in touch, though I hate lying, especially to people I care about.  My job wasn’t the sort that required unexpected business trips.  I could say I’d been sick, but that would alarm my mother and was, besides, a cheap excuse.  Anyway, she’d see through any excuse I gave; my mother was like that—uncanny at seeing through me.  That had been the cause of some skirmishes between us when I was a teenager; she always knew if I’d smoked pot or slept with some boy or had a few drinks.  To avoid lying I would keep silent, but she could see behind my silence, and I resented that power more than I resented her scoldings.  Still, I couldn’t possibly tell the truth, that I had forgotten her existence.  I hoped she wouldn’t intuit it.

Finally I called, hoping I’d get my sweet-natured aunt, who would be pleased to hear from me and would say, “How are you?  We haven’t heard from you in a while,” but not in a guilt-inducing way.  My mother answered the phone.  Hearing her soft, low voice was a bit startling, as if in some part of my mind I still believed she no longer existed.

“Hi, Mom.  It’s me.  How’ve you been?”

She was fine, except for her arthritic knees.  She told me about a movie she’d seen with my aunt—somehow her knees carried her there—and a good meal she’d had in a Middle Eastern restaurant down the block.  She didn’t ask how I was, which wasn’t unusual, and she didn’t seem bothered by my recent silence.

“I’m sorry I haven’t called in a while,” I said.  “I got busy at work, and then a good friend of mine is going through a divorce and I had to hold her hand.  But I’ve been thinking of you.”  Lies, all lies, just what I wanted to avoid.  But they came out of my mouth nonetheless.

“That’s okay.  To tell the truth, I didn’t notice,” she said.  “I must have lost track of time.  Now that I think of it, yes, it’s been a while.”

Not at all what I expected.

Instead of feeling relief, like I’d gotten away with something, I was disappointed.  I wanted to get off the phone as soon as I could, to think over what this meant.  The rest of the conversation was unremarkable.  I forgot to tell her about the restaurant’s lemon meringue pie that hadn’t been as good as hers, a fact I had saved up to please her.  Possibly I’d thought it would mitigate my long silence.  But my silence needed no mitigating.  She hadn’t noticed it.  I told her I’d see her next week end, and we said good-bye.

Upon reflection, it was only too clear that my mother had suffered the same memory lapse as I had.  She’d forgotten my existence.  Even though unlike me she was at an age when forgetfulness is to be expected, she wasn’t, as far as I could tell, suffering from any mental impairment.  Her chatter had been quite coherent, with any number of small details from the past weeks.  She had simply forgotten me.  It was unforgivable.  Naturally she wouldn’t say so, any more than I would say so to her.

Or maybe it was worse.  Maybe she didn’t ever recall my existence between my routine calls and visits.  If that was so, and more and more I was coming to believe it was, then her defection was more extreme, more shocking, than my own.

To forget a mother is bad, granted, but not entirely beyond imagining; after all, one day my mother would be gone, and there might well come a time when I didn’t recall her for weeks on end.  But to forget a child…  No, that was unthinkable.  My mother had done the unthinkable.  Perhaps I would never call her again.  But that would be a pointless revenge.  She wouldn’t notice.