What's in a Smile?
I never saw my mom wear a hat. An accordion-pleated rain bonnet that she unfurled and tied beneath her chin to protect her latest perm, yes. Ear muffs and headbands that she carefully arranged to cover the hairline that divided her bangs from the hair she brushed back, yes. And a winter hood that she pulled over her curls and tied loosely to avoid crushing her sprayed and teased salon hair, yes. She was vain about her hair but too practical to wear a hat that merely ornamented her head.
When my sixth grade teacher told our math class to use our heads for something other than hat racks, I assumed she was talking about other people—those who perched their thoughts over themselves as ornaments for others to see. And that was not my mother. She was nothing if not practical.
Now she sits in a wheelchair in a nursing home, forced to trust others to get her dressed. Her hair is longer and brushed straight back, sprayed into place to keep it from falling into her face. I creep quietly into her room, looking to see her head tilted slightly toward her chest, trying to judge whether she is awake. Silent, I put my purse gently on the floor next to a table, unwilling to wake her.
As I straighten back up, my eyes fall on a picture of my mother, sporting a jaunty fuchsia hat. She looks directly into the camera, and her lips are so reddish blue that she seems to be wearing my trademark berry lipstick. But despite the uncharacteristic hat, I know that my mom has never in her life worn make-up or lipstick, and I recognize that the color is a symptom of the condition that forces her to wear the oxygen tube stretching across her face, feeding air into her nostrils. The fingers of a gnarled hand rest on her left shoulder, and I know that the picture was taken before Hospice brought the wheelchair that allows Mom to recline slightly so that she doesn’t fall forward.
I pick up the picture and note from the date imprint that it was taken on Halloween. But it is my mother’s expression that captures my attention. Her lips are pursed tightly together, and at first I think she looks angry. But I’ve seen a similar expression when she labors to breathe in more oxygen from the tube in her nose. I put the picture down and lift a chair to avoid waking my mother, but when I lower the chair down next to hers, she opens her eyes in surprise and says, “Well!” and the corners of her mouth turn up slightly in a smile.
I lean down to kiss her cheek before sitting and taking her hand in mine. I rub the top of her hand, always surprised at the silkiness of her skin in spite of years of physical labor.
She chatters, but I understand little of what she says until she points to the television, and the sound that has been background noise enters my consciousness for the first time. Ellen DeGeneres dances down the stairs, giving away Christmas gifts to an audience that claps and squeals in delight. I wonder if the staff member who turned on the program knows that my mom has always liked Ellen. My mom smiles at the television before her gaze returns to me, and I watch her eyes travel to my neckline. She reaches out and touches the crystal with the tiny silver tree inside. I had bought the charm the week before, thinking ahead to this visit and remembering how much Mom loves snow globes.
My sister, who is far more than our mother’s primary caregiver, laughs that I am “the shopping daughter” and “the jewelry daughter.” I am the only one of my mother’s five children who is a practicing Christian, and I am the one who consistently buys our mother jewelry—an act of defiance against her childhood church that forbade make-up and pants and trinkets of any kind. And as Mom has been able to communicate less, I’ve chosen the jewelry I wear more carefully, knowing that she will be able to get out the word, “Pretty,” which she does just as I am mentally congratulating myself that she has noticed the snow globe.
As her hand returns slowly to her lap, I take it between both my own and tell her I love her.
She smiles again and speaks a sentence that is surprisingly clear. “I [unintelligible] kids to church.”
I have heard this many times before, and I know that she’s telling me again, “I should have taken you kids to church.”
But, as I’ve done every time we’ve had this conversation, I remind her again that she actually did us a favor by not taking us to hear the sermons of a flaming hell that has terrified her for most of her life. I ask, “Mom, you do know that God has you wrapped in a hug, don’t you?”
She nods and smiles in a way that reminds me of the picture. As her attention returns to Ellen, I text my sister: Who took this pic of Mom in a pink hat?
Almost immediately, I hear two pings. The first is lol and the second, They took it there at Halloween.
I text back. Can I take it home and scan it? I like it. She looks like, Don’t be messin with me!
You can have it.I put the picture in my purse, and I know that this will be my Mona Lisa picture of my mother. I will never know what she was thinking when the nursing home staff snapped her picture in a hat she would never have worn. But it gives me joy to see that expression and know that nothing can ever take away the Spirit of this woman who has given me life.