By Dagne Forrest
My hand hovers over a stick of butter in the fridge, hesitating. The brightly lit shelves of the fridge seem full, but I know how quickly that can change. Abundance is reduced the moment the stick of butter or the cup of sugar is committed to the bowl, abundance is reduced just by living.
I’ve always loved the final steps in baking, of taking a rubber spatula and scraping the last of the batter from the bowl. It’s satisfying to think nothing will go to waste, although there are always some paper-thin remnants that even the spatula can’t quite resolve. It would take a tongue to ensure that truly nothing went to waste, a step I always stop short of.
It’s been months since I could hug my mother, but we talk on the phone and share snippets on Whatsapp when she doesn’t forget how to use it. The pandemic has been merciless to so many, but it’s different for someone at the end of her life. Losing friends at a regular rate could be somehow absorbed when my mother could still meet up with her pals for tea, for walks, for laughter. My mother is a profoundly social person, her life has been all about other people in a way that I can’t say my own has been. I’m far more solitary; friendships are sparse but meaningful.
Our very different temperaments can’t help but show at times and it’s led to friction, a friction that I end up feeling somehow rests with me. Why can’t I be softer, less judgmental? Her frequent assertion that she and her peers lived at the best possible time on the planet can’t help but grate. She doesn’t seem to understand that her children and grandchildren really don’t want her pity and I still haven’t worked out a kind way of explaining this. Born in 1942, she’s too old to be a boomer, but she has the boomer’s sense of entitlement, of always wanting and expecting more, including of life itself.
One day when we talk she’s tearful, down about a dear friend who is dying of cancer. She complains that her friend is only 78. This irritates me profoundly. Is it possible that she’s forgotten that my youngest was born with serious, complex heart disease? That every milestone in his short life has been a kind of miracle that reshaped the very idea of life expectancy for us? "Only 78," hits a nerve, a deep and sensitive one, though I don’t take her to task for it. I just briskly remind her that to make it to nearly 80 is pretty great, there are no guarantees of more, and certainly no promise that extra years will be enjoyed in rude good health. Advanced age brings with it a certainty that things will start to fail, even for the most ebullient among us.
In late February, a year into the pandemic, I drive to the hospital where my youngest child was born nearly twenty years ago. It’s a milestone hospital for me, the place where that same child was diagnosed with a murmur that turned out to be serious heart disease, the place where my father died suddenly at 63, two weeks before my son’s first open heart surgery as an infant.
I’m a year overdue for a mammogram and not looking forward to it. I have no idea what it’s like for someone more abundantly endowed, but, as someone with small breasts, I’m keenly aware of how hard the tech must work to scrape the breast tissue into position, to be able to catch it properly between the plates.
It reminds me of that rubber spatula circling the bowl in ever tighter arcs, the search for leavings that shouldn’t be missed if it can be helped. I feel inadequate somehow, reminded of my own waning abundance. A life lived is always reducing, waning, thinning, and there is nothing like a medical test to remind one of this.
I’m conscious of not having chatted with my mother in a while, I get too caught up in work and wrangling, as I call the time I spend helping my youngest to stick to routines and finish high school online. I’m spread too thin as I also try to find time for my own interests.
She surprises me by revealing that her partner had been hospitalized with pneumonia recently. Why didn’t she tell me? I scold her as gently as I can, realizing that she’s just been doing what she can to cope.
Her partner is still in rough shape, undergoing tests and struggling with feeling unwell, so we agree we’ll talk more regularly, she’ll keep me in the loop. I say “Mum, you know he’s nearly 86,” wanting to open up that conversation, but it’s not the time, it’s almost too late to be the time. When we’re faced with an end we can see coming, we just want to keep scraping the bowl. I understand that.
If you look up at the night sky, it’s odd to think that cosmologists have been concerned that our universe is expanding too quickly. Familiar stars seem so stable, perched right where they should be. How can our universe be picking up a little too much speed, like an uncontrolled freight train or a run of bad luck?
Many of those same people now also believe that our universe is lacking in abundance, that it’s somehow too thin. More specifically, they see our universe as decidedly less clumpy than it should be. This immediately makes me think of batter, brings me back to the kitchen and that bowl.
Seeing the fabric of our universe as though it could be the perfect pancake batter, not to be overmixed, some small lumps absolutely a good thing, is odd but is something I can grasp. It’s almost comforting to think of our own small planet and the other bodies in our solar system suspended in some wider cosmological batter or dough.
The search for “enough” matter in the universe is an undeniably strange one. It reminds me of my mother and her love of what’s recently become known in pop culture as Swedish death cleaning. For as long as I can remember she has lived to throw things away, culling cupboards, drawers, and shelves on a regular basis.
Once my brother and I had moved out and made lives of our own, she took to gathering up the contents of waste baskets and the kitchen garbage in our homes when she visited, only able to settle for a visit once she'd taken a full bag outside. It was as though she'd recalibrated the weight or mass of our home universe, and balanced it in a way that she could accept.
More recently she took to shifting the leavings from her own home into mine. She'd show up for a short visit and leave behind a bag with various bric-a-brac from her home that she thought we might need. A tea towel from a trip she took to Newfoundland several years ago. Kitchen gadgets, tools, an extra jar of something from her pantry she feared wouldn't get used.
The pandemic forced a pause on this redistribution of her stuff, something I welcomed as I’d run out of ways to tell her we didn’t need anything, which I dislike having to do. It all feels a little too much as though I am saying I don’t need her, when that’s not what I’m trying to say at all.
The pandemic has stolen a year or more of the time I have left with my mother, who is nearly eighty and clearly starting to slow down. While our relationship is complicated, we’ve been close in our own way. I’ve always had her in my life and she was a huge help when our kids were small.
It’s not just the unnaturalness of staying in touch only via phones and screens, with the odd outside visit when we could make it work. It’s the skipping of key milestones, like the loss from an injury when you sense a permanent slipping away of something you’ll never quite get back.
The first Christmas under Covid was also the first time in fifteen years that we didn’t have my mum and her partner along with his three much younger sons from his second marriage over for a day-long feast full of conversation and games. When we can come together again, it won’t be the same. One of the sons now lives on the other side of the country, and all three have reached phases in their lives where visiting us won’t make sense in the same way.
The December before the pandemic began my mum and I were able to take a weekend away together in a small town near where I live. We went to craft fairs, window shopped on the town’s main street, and enjoyed meals together, catching up to the point of silence. The heritage inn that we stayed at is about to close its doors, reverting to a private home. A shop where she bought a red woolen hat for me on impulse now stands empty, a victim of the pandemic’s brutal treatment of some small businesses.
It feels a lot like the carpet is being rolled up behind us. We’ve reached a point in our relationship where abundance no longer lies ahead of us, it only exists when we look back. I guess that’s something we’re both having to reckon with, each in our own way, and neither one of us wants it to feel as though we’re scraping a mostly empty bowl.