Is one's essence defined by the age of the body, their culture, economic status, or gender? What are we without the context of time, gender, and culture?
Tara's mother underwent a metamorphosis. Mildred wore different costumes of the mind. Each costume was unique, stemming from a different time in her life and drawing upon various life experiences. Alzheimer's disease sponsored Mildred's time travel.
Tara remembers Mildred as being the sole provider for her family, thanklessly working two, sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. Tara felt helpless as she observed her mother's life turn upon its head. Mildred became completely dependent upon Tara for her basic survival needs.
Tara was painfully aware of her mother's constantly changing context of time, emotion, and libido. The self Mildred had the most problem with was within the glare of the here and now. Although Tara felt relieved each time the mother she knew briefly returned, ultimately, in Mildred's moments of lucidity, Tara would see her mother's face fill with angst from the awareness of her debilitating disease...like she had been transported inside someone else's nightmare. Tara experienced her mother's grief in waves. She saw Mildred's life's memories slip away one by one, like dissolving photographs forever irretrievable. Sometimes both of them would quietly sit together for hours. Tara could almost feel her mother desperately trying to cling to the echoes and shadows her fading memories left behind.
One day, Tara went to the mall to buy a birthday present for a friend's four-year-old daughter. She spotted a Raggedy Ann doll in the front window of Woolworths. Tara dodged and weaved her way through the store, passing headless mannequins, saleswomen spraying perfume in the air, and a herd of giggling teenagers. Tara managed to make it to the register to purchase the doll. It was only then that she noticed the signs everywhere announcing a closeout sale. (No wonder everyone is going nuts), she thought. Tara made a mad dash for the door that emptied her out onto the sidewalk.
As Tara walked to the bus stop, she smiled at an idea that she thought was brilliant. She would give her mother a makeover! Tara quickly made her way to the nearest cosmetic counter and bought some makeup, lotions, sprays, and hair styling tools, all inspired by imagining Mildred's joyful and excited expression. Tara saw herself as a skilled surgeon, about to rescue her mother's libido.
When Tara arrived at her mother's door, she knocked for what seemed like fifteen minutes. Tara was always nervous about the possibility of confronting yet another unknown version of her mother. Tara's favorite version of Mildred was her at thirty-five. It was nostalgic, yet it was more. It made Tara a wide-eyed, innocent eight-year-old once again. At thirty-five, her mother was a real dynamo. Back in her day, Mildred was a combination of Audrey Hepburn from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and Elizabeth Taylor from "Butterfield 8"; a powerhouse of elegance.
When Tara was a little girl, she saw her mother as possessing all the secrets of womanhood...of life. Now, at forty-three, Tara talked to Mildred, frozen in time, and realized there were no secrets to her greatness; she was merely experiencing her "essence". Her relationship with her mother was one that dealt with variables of the conscious mind and the psyches of one another set in a maze of time.
Mildred finally cracked the door open just enough to peer outside. She squinted at Tara like a mole struggling to see within the glaring sunlight. Tara entered the house. Her mother walked slowly back to the couch, stooped-shouldered, head hanging in quiet sadness, except for her mumbling softly to herself. Tara watched her increasingly small frame as she sat down on the couch. Mildred's body seemed fragile and was dwarfed by the huge portrait of her twenty-two-year-old self that hung on the wall behind her, mocking her. In the painting, Mildred wore a stunning emerald green, floor-length evening gown. Its Dracula-like collar stood high behind her neck. Her ivory, porcelain skin was set against the stark blackness of her hair. Now, as Mildred sat below her portrait, her gray skin looked washed out, blending into her dull, lifeless gray hair. She wore a hairnet with a few dangling bobby pins. Her pink terrycloth robe was faded, matted, and stained.
Tara opened the windows as she always did. She often wondered whether she was trying to let the sunlight in or trying to let the darkness out. Tara felt the thick, malodorous funk of depression. She started to feel the musty darkness wrap around her throat. She sat down next to her mother and told Mildred about her makeover idea. Tara spoke, careful not to be either insulting or condescending. She asked herself who she was really doing this for. She saw that her mother tried to appear pleased with her idea, however, Tara thought her mother was just happy to have the company.
Tara started to remove the bobby pins from Mildred's hair. She asked her mother if she'd like to have a manicure. Mildred nodded. Like a zombie, she stared at her feet that were nestled within two pink fuzzy slippers. Tara stood behind her and picked up the hand mirror and placed it in her hand. They both found their reflections. Mildred turned away, her eyes wild and frantic. Tara gently removed her mother's hairnet and started to brush her hair. Tara kept flashing back to when she was a child watching her mother's skilled hand as she painstakingly put rollers in her black hair; every roller planned, every pin in place. But now her mother's hair reflected the absence of color from all of her.
Suddenly, Mildred bolted forward. She stood up and raced to the bags Tara had left by the door. Her body language had clued Tara in on a shift in psyche. Many mistakenly thought Mildred suffered from multiple personalities. Mildred's "personalities" were all her, just at different times in her life...different ages; multiple contexts.
With Mildred's back to Tara, she sat down on the worn, carpeted floor. Tara watched her mother start to rock back and forth, making a cooing sound. Tara rushed fearfully around to face her. Mildred cradled the Raggedy Ann doll with her eyes closed and smiling.
Suddenly, Mildred opened her eyes, frowned, and looked at Tara. "MINE!" she protested. "This is MY dolly!" She put it under her robe.
"Mom! Are you O.K.?" Tara said, already realizing the absurdity of the question. Her mother slowly took out the doll and began to undress it, all the while keeping a very watchful eye on Tara. It finally sunk in that Mildred was herself at about five years old. Tara didn't know how to deal with it. But she smiled as she watched her mother and became aware of the irony. When Tara herself was five, she wanted so badly for her mother to play with her.
"Do you like my dolly?" Mildred asked Tara.
"Yes. I know you are a great mommy too!" Tara told her.
Mildred giggled like a little imp. She took the brush from Tara's hands and asked if she could brush her hair. Mildred told Tara that "just yesterday" her mother had taught her how to braid hair.
Mildred brushed Tara's hair as she had done millions of times before, but this time she was singing little girl songs all the while. Tara could see that although her mother was dependent and felt powerless most of the time, that afternoon, Tara realized that her mother was teaching her with tools that no other mother would have. She was teaching a lesson that transcended Alzheimer's disease; that transcended time. That afternoon Tara realized that she now had a unique opportunity to connect with another person's essence, regardless of any specified context of mother/daughter, adult/child, or decade in society. This exceeded the boundaries of the normal human-soul connection.
Tara felt that if she could be unselfish long enough to stop mourning her mother, she would see that she was thinking too small. Mildred would no longer be defined by the restraints of age. Tara was in awe of the fact that she could know her mother as a seventy-year-old woman confronting her own mortality, a thirty-something emerging feminist of the 1960s, an awkward adolescent whose naiveté knows no bounds of the 1940s, or a bright-eyed child of five; pure and un-jaded of the 1930s. Tara thought that fate had struck a deal with her mother...she was only allowed to have a glimpse at a memory if she surrendered to it with complete abandon.