My mother-in-law didn’t know she was moving. My husband said they were just going out to lunch. It was the only way. Angie had refused to budge for decades, but now she was roaming her Pittsburgh street in a robe with nothing on underneath. A note taped to her front door read: “I live here.” A little X on a treasure map to guide her home. In West Virginia, I waited for the moving van that had gotten a three-hour head start to the assisted living facility. Told the men where to put her cream sofa in the cute little apartment. The wingback chair Angie’s husband had had his final heart attack in. I scattered photos of loved ones on various surfaces. Hung her cherry-picked clothes in the closet. But just outside Pittsburgh, when Angie finally got wise, she opened the car door on I-79 as the odometer needle tagged seventy. She was making good on her threat that if we ever put her in a home she’d jump off a bridge. Don hauled Angie back in and clicked the safety locks, though she yanked at the door handle the entire ride. When they finally arrived, she pulled out a cigarette and took a few shaky puffs. She was momentarily resigned, in another state. Inside, the director confiscated Angie’s Marlboros. She could still smoke outside with an attendant who would dole out cancer sticks like candy. The first week, Angie cut herself while trying to release those photos of loved ones trapped in their frames. There was also the mystery of lipstick smears coating her fingers, her clothes, the arms of her cream sofa, until attendants took the tubes away. The stay lasted two weeks until Angie got evicted for biting and scratching. The facility was not a good match.
I always liked playing with matches. Little wooden sticks that could snap in my fingers. The sandpaper feel when the head scraped the striker. The sulfur smell and little swirl of smoke. I’d draw treasure maps with gang-planked ships in the middle of a blue-blue ocean. Palm-treed islands where a red X marked the spot. A treasure chest buried beneath it where the jewels would be safe. I’d burn the map’s edges to make it look ancient. My father caught me once, by smell. “Marie!” His feet clomped up the wooden steps. When he saw the charred paper, the match in my hand, he said: “I forbid you to ever play with matches again!” Maybe he was still seeing the flames of our neighbor’s house that had caught fire a few years before. Christmas tree lights left on. My siblings and I had stood at the hall window and watched as firemen doused the flames. “I thought it was us,” my oldest brother had said. No doubt that was my father’s first thought, too. I never leave Christmas lights on.
Angie preferred lighters over matches. So many times I’d heard the flick-flick-flick as she lit her cigarette. She smoked only on her porch after Don complained about hauling the stink home in his suitcase. She’d snub the butts in a Folgers can left by her front door. Movers unpacked some of that stink in her cute little apartment. After she got booted out, she landed in a psych ward until Dr. Park’s cocktail kicked in: a drug combo that would make her docile enough for admittance into a memory care unit—a euphemism for Alzheimer’s ward. We had to learn a lot of new words: elopement risk, noncompliant. They also put Angie on a nicotine patch. Memory care units do not accept smokers. Still, her hands remembered. One day when I visited, she rushed at me, eyes manic. She held a plastic coffee stirrer between two fingers, kept bringing one end to her lips. “Marie!” She still knew me then. “Do you have a lighter?”
“No, Ang. Sorry.”
The caved-in look, the confusion, followed by odd clarity. “Do you have anything that looks like a lighter?”
Her question solved the mystery of the lipstick tubes that flicked pigment instead of flames. I marveled at the ingenuity buried inside her plaque-coated brain.
My Italian grandfather’s brain was also plaqued-over. Aunt Sara tended to him the last years of his life. Grandpa’s decline was hard on my father whose need to please the little tyrant invoked nausea. Seeing Grandpa reduced to a toddler, smearing his feces on the linoleum, was too much for Dad. Maybe that’s why he spent so much time in our basement, wine-pickled, smoking stinky White Owl cigars. He was forecasting his own possible future, forestalling it. Mom never complained about the cigar smell. We kids did: sweaty tube socks, we’d say, pinching our noses as we raced by. We preferred his pipes, especially the cherry one that felt smooth in my hand. The corncob one I smoked pot in once when my parents were out of town. I loved the aroma of pipe tobacco, moist in the pouch, tacky. The way Dad struck the match and held the flame to the bowl, sucked the fire in once, twice, the breathy inhalation through the pipe stem until the shreds crackled and glowed. My father’s final heart attack was in a parking lot. He fell on his umbrella, broke it. Still, the hospital returned it in the paper bag that also contained his cut-off clothes, still damp from the rain. Plus his wallet and watch. Dad was only sixty-eight when he died.
Angie was eighty-seven when she passed. Her entire Pittsburgh life, she’d only lived in three houses, all within a three-mile radius. In West Virginia, she got booted out of three facilities in less than two years and they were thirty miles apart. More stints in the psych ward to tweak her drug cocktail. Angie was still a flight risk, still a biter/hitter/scratcher. No medicine could curb her defiance, her need to get out, though she’d never find her way home even if she had a map. Pneumonia took her out, all those years of smoking. She died while napping on the lipstick-smeared sofa in the last cute little apartment of her life.
Decades after my father died, my mother moved into her own cute little assisted-living apartment. We didn’t have to pretend we were taking her to lunch. She’s a staff favorite because of her independence, her affection, plus she never bites. Takes her own drug cocktail, not to make her compliant, but to relieve chronic pain. Her apartment might as well be marked with a giant red X where our treasure is safe. Still, she misses the home she shared with her husband. When I visit, Mom and I often wonder how Dad would have fared in his nineties. If he would have gotten his dad’s dementia. No telling, but we know he would have liked the big back porch where he’d sit after dinner if his mind was right, or even if it wasn’t. Maybe he’d hold a coffee stirrer to his lips, strike a toothpick against his chair arm, and hold the flame to an imaginary bowl. His brain, and Mom’s, would conjure the rich-rich smell, the glowing tip, the smoky wisp drifting into the sky.