Stenciled With Palm Trees and Flamingos – Francine Witte

When I see my mother after six months, she is in a Florida retirement home where she will eventually die. I have flown down from NYC, from my busy, busy life. I have taken a cab and gotten queasy, part window sun, part yammery cab driver, part everything.

We pull up to the facility, as my mother’s therapist calls it. I walk in. Not bad. Peach-colored walls, stenciled with palm trees and flamingos. My mother is not in her “apartment” but in the little beauty parlor getting her hair colored.

My mother did this for years. Her weekly trips to the beauty parlor were part of my growing up. She’d come home every Thursday, teased and sprayed and untouchable in time for the weekend. That time when she and my father would go out to dinner with other mothers and fathers. The closer she got to the weekend, the more she spoke on the phone, making arrangements, exchanging bits of gossip, being the part of her that wasn’t only my mom.

When I walk in, the “girl” as my mother always lovingly referred to hair stylists, is painting my mother’s thinning hair with brown dye. In the six months since I’ve seen my mother, she has gone droopy and plump, and I almost don’t recognize her. The tiny salon, is filled with the scent of hair spray, cups of metal clips on the counter, and a row of hair dryer chairs. I wonder why my mother is doing this. There is no more weekend, and her second husband has just died.

Six months from now, she will have stopped dyeing her hair. She will be in the nursing home part of the facility, her room will smell like urine, and no one will be calling anymore.

“Your mommy is beautiful,” the stylist says, giving my mother’s hair mountain a final spray. And she is. In the hallway, I take my mother’s hand, a loose bag of twigs. I try not to squeeze too hard.

We walk slowly. My mother has to stop. Then go. Then stop. I’m still wound up on New York time. Come on, I want to say. Be my mother, I want to say.

In her apartment, I scan the kitchen counter. The mug she always drank from, an opened bag of vanilla cookies. The phone is ringing. Friends checking in to say hello, is she adjusting to widowhood? Yes, she is still my mother.

I stay for two days. We go to Bingo and eat in the dining room. When I leave, I kiss my mother’s paper cheek.

The next time I see her will be another six months. She will have fallen in the hallway and been moved to the nursing home. She will cave in on herself. Her hair will go gray. She won’t know my name anymore. And the phone on the night table next to her skinny bed will be nothing but a silent stone.

Francine WitteFrancine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks, two flash fiction chapbooks, and the full-length poetry collections Café Crazy (Kelsay Books) and the forthcoming The Theory of Flesh (Kelsay Books) Her play, Love is a Bad Neighborhood, was produced in NYC this past December. She lives in NYC.