I have four sets of my grandmother’s dentures displayed on a porcelain plate on my dresser. I carried them back from her funeral in Ireland on my lap in a velvet bag. My mother found the bag of fake teeth while we were packing up my grandmother’s room and jokingly asked if I wanted them. I didn’t think twice before I said yes. When I bring a date home to spend the night, the dentures are a good test: if the gentleman in question is disturbed, or worse thinks it’s a kind of twee eccentricity, then I know he is not to be invited back.
I love looking at the little teeth and sliding my fingers against their shiny plastic gums. Once, or twice, I have even put them in my own mouth and tried to envision what they would have felt like for my grandmother. The dentures are so unreal-looking that they resemble little toys, something you would even discover in a Christmas stocking. After I have slipped a pair in under my lips and wrapped my tongue around the jagged edges of the aging yellow plastic, I am always hit with the hollow recognition that this act is in vain—it doesn’t bring me any closer to my grandmother.
When I asked for the teeth, my mother cocked her head and sighed deeply as she handed over the bag. I often wonder if she had wanted them for herself.
I was twenty-nine years old when I stood in my mother’s bathroom filling vaginal applicators with estrogen cream, making sure not to let any of it get on my hands. It is the type of bathroom that two people who have been married for a very long time have – two sinks, a sunken tub, a shower made for two, and a mini bookcase next to the toilet. My mother had just had a hysterectomy, and I had come down to Florida from New York to help her through the surgery and recovery process. After her surgery, she was given two types of depository cream: one an antibiotic, the other liquid estrogen. They had to be taken on rotating days, twice a day, and I was in charge of making sure they were organized.
I caught sight of myself in the vanity mirror and my reflection was startling — similar to my mother’s, even down to our front right tooth, which curls back in a snaggled way. I edged the tip of my tongue behind the tooth to try and push it back into its proper place. Then I laughed. It was funny because there was such clear symmetry with another scene, when my mother did for me exactly what I was then doing for her.
When I was thirteen years old, my family was living in La Paz, Bolivia, where my father was stationed as an American diplomat at the Embassy. That year I had six cases of strep throat in a period of eight months. With the last diagnosis, the Embassy doctor told my parents it was time to remove my tonsils, but he was concerned about operating at high altitude and recommended that we fly to Miami for the surgery. Though I had been battling a sore throat for the last six months, at that moment I had another problem to contend with: after having been on antibiotics for half the year, I had developed the most painful yeast infection known to man. I hadn’t told anyone, not my doctor, not my mother, and not my friends. I kept my malady a secret because I didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t even know that part of my body existed really, and I just hoped it would go away on its own if I stopped touching it, like a bug bite might.
Eventually, I couldn’t keep it in any longer. While we were in Miami awaiting surgery, Dad made us go to a gun show, of all things, and it was there, in a hotel banquet hall that had been taken over by booths of antique rifles and shotguns, that I almost fainted from the pain. I knew I had to tell Mom. I dragged her out to the parking lot and explained my symptoms. I have no idea why I had waited so long, because she instantly understood what was happening and called my doctor to get a prescription. She also said that we should go to the drugstore and get Monistat 7 insertion cream. She said if I had had it for that long then I would probably need both. We went back to the hotel room, leaving Dad to stay at the gun show to his heart’s content. Mom explained how to fill the applicator, and then “to simply put it in where you get your period.”
It was time for my other big confession: I had been lying about having my period for the past three months. Every one of my best friends had gotten theirs; I felt left out and I didn’t understand how I could be so physically behind them when I was clearly mentally ahead. So I started lying. Whenever any of my friends mentioned they thought they would get their period, I made a mental note to fake mine several days later. I pretended I had cramps, asked for hot water bottles, and even had a box of tampons that I made sure to empty so it looked like I had been using them.
Standing in that hotel bathroom with my mother, my body betrayed me and forced me to admit that I was a liar. I started to cry, and finally between hiccups an admission was uttered: “I don’t know where that is.”
Mom only laughed at me, and said, “Well, I guess I should show you.”
Sixteen years later, I found myself living in a brownstone in Brooklyn that was filled with hardwood floors, Oriental rugs, and an antique Viennese sofa. At that point, I believed I was living a bohemian dream. However, not everything was sunny – Mom had recently been diagnosed with a prolapsed uterus, and a hysterectomy was imminent – the sooner the surgery the better.
A prolapsed uterus means the uterus starts to come dislodged and put pressure on the bladder. “So, is it actually coming out?” I asked Mom.
“Yes, a little bit. The same thing happened to your grandmother, at our wedding as a matter of fact. She didn’t get a hysterectomy, though. Instead they held everything in place with one of those, you used to have one, what’s it called?”
“A diaphragm?” I offered.
“Yes, a diaphragm, but I just wanted to be done with the whole thing, so…”
“And your uterus is really coming out of you?” I asked again, because I didn’t quite believe her.
“Yes,” she said, exasperated with me. “Imagine if you take you tongue and push it against the inside of your cheek – that’s what’s happening.”
After she told me that, I was horrified. Then worried. “Do you think it’ll happen to me?”
“You can prevent it by doing those exercises – what are they called? It rhymes with bagel?”
Well, I had that down.
When they wheeled my mother from the operating room, her fine white hair was soaking wet from sweat. Her eyes were swollen, and her face was glossy; she looked incredibly old, and like a newborn baby all at once. My dad was there too, and I could tell the sight of my mother unnerved him. Dad has an embarrassing and childish habit that comes out when he’s stressed. Mom use to smoke, but she eventually summoned all her willpower and gave it up; my father, on the other hand, has never tried to stop sucking his thumb. He shuffled around uncomfortably in the hospital room for a few minutes, but when we were sure Mom had fallen back asleep, he sat down in the adjacent armchair. He curled his fist around his lips, slipped his thumb into his mouth, and vanished back into his favorite book, another security blanket: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. “I read it every couple of years,” he said. “They’re like old friends to me now.”
Later, when we left Mom to go to dinner, Dad said, “I never really thought about what would happen if your mother died first.”
I ignored his moroseness and tried to lighten the mood. “I guess you would move to New York and live with me – Frasier style,” I said. “ I’ll even let you bring that ole Eames chair you like so much.”
Dad smiled and raised his eyebrows. I had been trying to get that chair from him for years. “Besides,” I went on, “You’d love Brooklyn, we have that cool bookstore and all those bistros and you’d never have to drive anywhere.”
“Yeah,” he said. “But I don’t think I’d really like to do any of those things without your mother.”
Back at the hospital, a nurse came in and told Mom she had to see her eat something. The nurse gave her a pudding cup with a real silver spoon and said she would be back to make sure it was all finished. Licking the spoon clean, Mom turned to Dad and said, “Remember the first meal we had in the hospital when Lacy was born?”
Dad smiled and nodded yes, but didn’t elaborate.
“What do you mean ‘first meal’?” I asked.
“In those days they used to give you a fancy meal after you gave birth. We had Cornish Hen, right, Joe? I remember because I was so hungry I sucked the bones dry.”
My mom and dad were quietly beaming at each other, mutually lost in the memory. Then Mom said, “They didn’t give us anything when we lost the first baby.”
Dad and I looked at each other sideways. Before I was born, my mother miscarried at seven weeks, and she still talks about it. She’s always been blunt about misfortune, especially her own, and surprisingly this puts most people at ease. You would think it would have the opposite effect, that it would alienate and distance her from other people, but instead it gives them the feeling they can talk to her – as though she’s been there, too.
But the way she speaks about her miscarriage always leaves me with a lack of understanding. My mother believes that there was a sibling that came before us, and she always imbues her miscarriage with a mysterious, almost mythical, persona. I don’t share this belief, but I’ve also never been pregnant, so I don’t feel like I have the right to argue with her.
Recently I asked my mother if she remembers making this comment after her surgery, and if she knew why she had made it then. She said she didn’t have any memory of saying it, but bringing it up makes sense to her. I asked her to tell me once more how the miscarriage had happened and why it still has such an impact on her. She said, “Even now, as soon as I think about it, a complete feeling of loneliness comes over me and hits me in my solar plexus. I was thirty-one, we had just left Ireland and were living in Costa Rica. There was absolutely no one for me to talk to. My own mother couldn’t even send me flowers. Thankfully, though, months later we were in DC and a woman at a dinner party told me she had gone through the same thing. It was such a relief to have someone to open up to.”
“Did you cry?” I asked.
“I’m crying now,” she said.
When I stayed the night in the hospital with my mother, she was asleep for most of it, or would open her eyes momentarily and mumble something incoherent. In the very early morning another nurse came in, a young woman with gleaming white teeth and vitamin-induced voluminous hair tied into a high, perky ponytail. If she hadn’t been in scrubs, she could have passed for a yoga instructor. The nurse beckoned me over from the couch, where I had been watching TV on my laptop. She explained that after they took out my mother’s uterus, they had to put in a metal mesh that would hold everything else in place. It was important that Mom not lift anything too heavy, bend down too far, have sex, or walk up stairs, in case it dislodged the metal.
I, too, have metal in my pelvis, but I have an inter-uterine device – a coil to keep me from getting pregnant. My mother and I would now be linked in a new way: we both have foreign metal objects that float in our bodies, but Mom’s metal fills the void where her uterus used to be, and my metal makes my uterus obsolete.
The pretty nurse went on, “Before I can discharge your mother we have to take the packing out. It can hurt, but most women say it’s more uncomfortable. I’ll need you to be here to hold her hand.” I didn’t know what she meant by “packing.” I had an idea, and I hoped it wasn’t the case, but there was also a part of me that was perversely curious. She explained to an incoherent Mom that there could be some discomfort. Mom gave a simple nod of understanding. The nurse pulled back the blankets and revealed my mother’s sixty-one-year-old body. Mom was dressed in nothing but a hospital gown, open in the front, and electronic knee socks that were meant to keep the blood circulating in her legs.
I peeked into the future at what my older, naked, self would look like. My mother no longer had any pubic hair, but she did have spider veins that traveled up her thighs like blue interstate lines on a road map, and yet her breasts were still perfect. Her hairlessness and paper-thin skin, marked from childbirth and over sixty years of constant stress, created even more strongly the feeling that she was both an infant and the old woman I had never understood her to be before.
The nurse did exactly as I had feared. She turned to me and said, “You have her hand, right? It might be a little shocking because there are three feet of bandages.” I held my breath, and watched as this nurse, who was probably younger than I, slowly pulled out three feet of crimson, blood-soaked ribbon from my mother’s vagina. The gauze spooled out of her like a bizarre type of reverse birth.
At that point my mother’s ability to have children had long been gone, but I was seeing the last bit of her maternity leave her – the aftermath of her womb. I had a desire to help the nurse, to put my hands next to hers and work in unison to ease the gauze out, to catch the fabric in my hand. I wanted to hold onto the final thread of evidence of my mother’s uterus, before it was delivered into the world and finally placed into the bio-hazardous metal box by the door to be discarded and forgotten about.
“Honestly, I had no attachment to my uterus. Or my breasts. If they need to go, then they need to go,” Mom said.
But I have an attachment to my mother’s body. Mom is right to feel that she is in no way less a woman or a mother because she had her uterus removed. Still, with its removal, I experienced a loss. As the last of the bandages exited her body, she gave a small shudder, but other than that she was perfectly still, probably asleep. “I didn’t feel a thing,” she later said. The image of the nurse, her gloved hands gently urging the vermillion dressing, will have to be a memory – and a concern – that is mine alone.
“Do you want to visit Grandma?” Mom asked. I nodded yes, though I had no idea what that entailed. I had never seen a dead body before.
When I was twenty-six I flew to Ireland for my last remaining grandparent’s funeral. Mom had been there for the last six months, caring for my grandmother and waiting for her to die. On April 10, a Wednesday, when she did finally pass, I was anointed the one member from our hybrid American/Irish tribe to go to the funeral. I was unemployed and didn’t have any other obligations, unlike my siblings and Dad, so I was free to take care of my mother during the funeral.
It was the day before the funeral when Mom asked about visiting Grandma. I had only just stepped off the plane, but I said yes without hesitation, or at least I kept my hesitations to myself. We made the walk to the funeral parlor, which was conveniently situated right in front of the church. This was a walk my devout Catholic grandmother had made every day, until the end, when her beloved priest brought Communion to her. We entered the funeral parlor and were led down a corridor to a small room with low ceilings and no windows. It was already like being in a crypt. The room was filled with flowers and the perfume was overpowering. I was instantly dizzy.
“She’s wearing her favorite dress. Doesn’t she look beautiful?” Mom asked. The sight of my grandmother rendered me speechless, so I just nodded. My grandmother was wearing a modest blue sundress with cap sleeves and large white polka dots. Mom chuckled a bit, “They must have put something in her bosom to hold those up,” she said. “They were not that high in real life.” I cracked a tiny smile, relieved that she still had her wicked sense of humor. Then I looked closer.
There’s something about dead skin that always looks artificial. I remembered thinking this in biology class when we had to dissect fetal pigs. It was easy because the piglets’ shiny pink skin, preserved in formaldehyde, made them look like toys, and I never had to comprehend that they had once been living things; they looked like they had been ordered and assembled by Ikea. It was the same with my grandmother. She was wearing makeup, which she never did when she was living. Her lips were closed, and I will never know which of her dentures, if any, were in her mouth. Her bosom was indeed very high, as though she were wearing a forties-era corset – the kind that turned breasts into B-cup-sized mini torpedoes. As I was staring at them, something to do with their shape, their height and the large polka-dots on her dress created the optical illusion – her bosom shimmered. It looked like my grandmother was still breathing.
Before I had time to react, Mom noticed the same thing and started crying. My mother fell to her knees and grabbed my grandmother’s hand. My grandmother wasn’t in a coffin; she had been laid out on a large marble table of sorts. Mom was weeping now. “Mummy, please, please wake up. I beg you. Please.”
I didn’t know what to do. I stood there, struck dumb at the sight of this woman, a woman who bore no resemblance to the person who had raised me for the past twenty-six years. I knew my mother as a woman who had lived in Bosnia as a diplomat only years after the war. She had kept the police tape that encircled her Sarajevo apartment – the black letters on yellow plastic spelled out “Pozor Mine,” or “Danger Mine.” My mother is a woman who traveled in and out of crisis zones that were in the midst of revolution. She is a woman who loved the thrill of an evacuation.
I wish I could say that I went to her and picked her up, cradled her in my arms, did anything, but I didn’t. My mother’s demonstration of love forced me to be overcome by an emotional inertia. It was as though I was witnessing something very private and it was wrong for me to there. But then Mom pressed her forehead against my grandmother’s lifeless hand, and I knew I had to take action. I put my hands on her shoulders and moved her up and away. “Mom, the others will be here any minute. Let’s not let them see you this way.”
When I was alone with my mother and grandmother, in that tiny and suffocating parlor, we formed a holy trinity more sacred than the one I had been taught to believe in catechism classes; ours was a bond specifically female, passed down maternally.
I don’t remember much of the next few hours. I had been given the task of saying the opening prayer, but I have no idea if my incantation was spoken gracefully. The page in front of me was a blur and I simply tried my best to get through it without stumbling. My mind was on the scene I had just witnessed, and how I had been brought into our family tradition of daughters taking care of mothers. A few years later, I would try to tell Dad about what happened, but he didn’t want to believe me and I didn’t push it, not wanting to destroy the myth we had created around my mother.
On the ride home from the hospital after the hysterectomy, Dad drove and Mom slept in the backseat, propped up and laden with a blanket and pillows. I watched her through the rearview mirror, asleep with her lips slightly open, our shared snaggle-tooth flaw revealed. Then I turned toward my father and noticed that he had one hand on the wheel and the other in his mouth. I laid my head against the back of the seat, closed my eyes, and listened as the same song we had heard all summer came on the radio. It was a song that had played over and over in elevators, restaurants and waiting rooms; we each knew the tune by heart but couldn’t remember any of the words, so we didn’t sing along. Instead we were quiet, letting the familiar harmony fill the silence between us. I took my tongue and pushed once again against my front tooth.
Lacy Warner is a recent graduate of the Columbia MFA Nonfiction program. She writes theatre criticism for both Brooklyn Magazine and Chance Magazine, and penned the weekly column, "Sex, Love and Brooklyn," for The L Magazine. She is currently working on a memoir about her childhood spent following her American Diplomatic parents from one disaster zone to another. She has great hair. Follow her on Twitter @laceoface.