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"Between You and Me..."

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

She died 25 years ago, November 9th at 1:17pm, while my daughter, sister and I were shopping at Marshalls for festive holiday-themed glassware and shoes that would fit her grotesquely swollen feet when she died. My mother would have been mortified if we buried her without shoes. Excellent at keeping up appearances, especially her own, on the day she died she had fresh polish on her nails. She was beautiful. Stunning. And funny. She looked like a mannequin in pretty clothes and red lipstick, her head tilted as if she couldn't quite hear what you said. She never left the house without “putting on her face” and never went to bed without plastering gobs of Ponds cold cream on every pore. Like other women who raised children in the 50s, she never learned how to drive, but managed to get everyplace she needed to go, spilling a lexicon of silly sayings and funny names for all, quickly scuttling about with sparrow-like curiosity, wearing very high heels and swinging her right arm like an errant pendulum.

Everyone loved my mother.

Like a child impetuously tossing tinsel at a Christmas tree, she enthusiastically scattered pleasantries and praise, shared funny stories with the cashier at Korvettes, brought "bakery" and candy to the nurses who took care of my dad, and prayed daily to St. Jude, ever mindful that no matter what the circumstance, "This too shall pass."

She made Swanson's TV dinners, fruited Jello molds and great meatballs, but not a good meal; kept fastidious financial and medical records and an immaculate stash of her artist supplies, but not a tidy house. Bounding from one room to the next as if fueled by plutonium, her voluminous housecoat pockets belched crumbled tissues and hard candies, while the balky transistor radio always in her hand or under her pillow blared talk radio, even when she slept.

She tipped everyone for everything and had a generous spirit, but hugging did not come easily for her. A former photographer's model, she taught my sister and me how to "smile with our eyes" but never looked directly at me when we spoke, often looking instead over my shoulder, as if searching for a lost friend in an imaginary crowd.

She loved my kids with all her heart - more than enough to compensate for any deficiencies.

"Where's Mikey"? she asked repeatedly, her moniker for "my key" as she once again searched for her missing house key before we headed out to the diner on one of my frequent trips to Long Island from Albany to refill her insulin syringes, tidy up the house, and stock the fridge. My two kids were growing up, but she was growing down, increasingly diminished in every way.

Eventually deposited in Albany by ambulance against her will, she was unable to remember not only where she left her key, but if she bathed, or took her insulin, or what she said 5 minutes before. Disoriented and confused, she repeated "I want to go home now" to no one in particular for years.

As dementia cruelly and incrementally crept through her cortex, I created a book, “Helen’s Book” filled with simple sentences, “Dick and Jane” style orientations to help her find her way. A one inch thick, robin’s egg blue three-ring plastic binder, like a toddler’s primer filled with magazine photos of beautiful birds and cute puppies, family photos clearly labeled in large print with a felt tip marker and enthusiastic affirmations of better-days-yet-to-come-that-never-did. “You are getting better!” “Courtney is driving!” “Greg is working at Grand Union after school!” “Beep-beep here comes the jeep!” one of her favorite silly sayings. I wanted to make it better. Everything changes, but "Helen's Book' hasn’t changed at all. The clear plastic pages have neither tarnished nor yellowed, the binder is not tattered and the blue plastic cover is still very blue. I have only looked at it two or three times over the years but I’ve kept it on the shelf in the guest room closet, next to my high school and college yearbooks, under the wide brimmed now yellowy-once-white-bridal-hat that I wore the day I married my now deceased ex-husband. Last year, after unexpectedly coming across a trove of hundreds of letters she and I exchanged during my college years, I enlisted the aid of my granddaughter Skyler and my daughter Courtney to place each letter in a plastic sleeve so I could begin compiling another book, a three inch, three-ring white plastic binder filled with our correspondence. “Between You and Me..." I entitled it; an historic and intimate chronicle, a time capsule of sorts. I flip the pages slowly now, memories seeping through the once sad spaces, bleaching out the Sad. The letters are lovely. I read and reread them.

And then I read them again. I keep both books on the shelf in the guest room closet next to my chronologically organized photo albums beneath all of those things I hold most dear.

“Hello sir, hello sir, meet me at the grocer!” Love you, Mom.

Helen Young Castellana

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