Parrots mate for life, I’m told. I don’t know how parrots show love, whether they crowd and peck, or groom and chatter with adoration. My parents pecked at each other in a partnership of endurance for most of their forty-five years together. My mother craved order, but my father loved a soiled nest, cluttering the house with newspapers, bus transfers, receipts, notes on napkins, Torah passages, and pamphlets from Jews for Jesus and Mary Baker Eddy. My mother forced him to take it all to a closet in the basement.
When we children had fledged and flown away, my parents sought new shelter. Their overheated one-bedroom in a subsidized high-rise, where the odors of curries and sofritos wafted through the hallways, offered no basement and no room for his clutter. Like a bird gathering twigs and leaves to construct its nest, my father gathered magazines, newspapers and letters along the walls and piled beside the couch. Dust-balls hovered like cumulus clouds around the litter, a noxious environment for two weary birds. My mother, beside herself, screeched, “I can’t keep up. “Why can’t you clean up after yourself?” Order had never been his priority. She exhausted herself tidying their shared space and grooming his toes and finger-nails, those hard sharp pointed claws. She felt captive in his clutches.
When they met, he had charmed her with his good looks, big brown eyes in a round face. Fond of the Big Bands, he’d swing to Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie. He’d break into song and croon with Frank, “Fly Me to the Moon”. My mother, shy and awkward with herself, won him with her tall and bosomy body. He wanted sex. She wanted security. Basking in the shine of a diamond ring on her finger, she ignored his admission that once, at sixteen, he had swung so low he put his head in the gas oven. He was the man who could fly her to the moon.
Over the years of their marriage my father took to flying both high and low, making him an unreliable provider. I remember my mother vacuuming around the Lazy Boy where, clothed in a bathrobe, unshaven, depressed and unemployed, my father lay for days on end. She would mutter under her breath what a good-for-nothing he was. Finally, after a bout of lithium toxicity in his sixties that nearly killed him, my father refused lithium and all medications for his crippled body. Now, he swung only high.
I migrated south to escape, with my own mate far from their Toronto cage. Still, my father called regularly to report the exact time of day, the weather forecast, his visits with Jews for Jesus, escapades with my mother, updates on my siblings. My mother would follow with her medical and marital complaints. Then, on a solo visit to Toronto when I was forty, I flew straight into my parents’ marital turbulence.
“They can’t continue to live with each other,” my sister shuddered. “You should have seen the bruises on her arms when he threw the phone at her.”
“You don’t remember. You were only two. I saw her push Dad into the bathtub, yelling how dirty he was.” I said.
Suddenly, the phone rang. My sister handed it to me.
“Hello, is this Susan Mon..as?” a gentleman asked.
“Yes,” I said hesitantly.
“This is Officer Dempsey from the police department. We received a phone call from a Norman Monas in the matter of a domestic dispute. He has given us your name as a contact.”
“Yes?” I repeated. I had not been in Toronto longer than a day and my father was pulling me in to settle their marital spat. Why me? I no longer lived there. I wanted to flee again.
“Are you related to Mr. Monas?” the officer asked.
“Yes, I am one of his daughters,” I replied. “I don’t understand, though. He called your office, not me.”
“We have been to your father’s home on many other occasions. We think it best that family members intervene.”
Furious with my father I got off the phone with the policeman and dialed their apartment. My sister, smirking, sat beside me in her sparkling kitchen. I wondered if she cropped her grey hair because she was drained by the many skirmishes she’d been called in to mediate. Older than she, I could crow that I looked younger, with my thick wavy hair and thin waist, but in Toronto I quickly became an emotional wreck. I coiled the cord of the landline around my fingers.
“Dad, what the hell is going on?” I shrilled when he answered.
“Your mother refused to let me out the door. I don’t know what’s the matter with her. I can’t stay in the house all day. I have people to see.”
“Dad, what happened? I got a call from the police.”
“She grabbed my arm and then stood in the way of the door. I grabbed the candy jar and threw it. There’s glass all over the place. She’s crazy.”
I’ve heard that you die in character. My parents aged in character. As he struggled to bend, my mother balked at having to tie his shoelaces. “Why don’t you do it yourself?” She could only hear in one ear so he deliberately spoke softly. She would shriek. “What? What did you say? Speak up.” For years my mother trekked to doctors for relief from gas, a burning stomach or pain in her gut. We dismissed her as a hypochondriac. Tests finally revealed a cluster of tumors in her colon.
“They got what they could,” my sister reported after the surgery. “The doctors say it will come back in a few years. She’s too weak. She can’t live with Dad any more. If the cancer doesn’t kill her, he will. I found a group home for chronically ill women for her and she wants to go.”
She wanted to go? She wanted to leave the nest? After all their years of pecking and shrieking at one another, she would finally have the care she had sought in all those doctors’ visits. My father had never dreamed she would fly away alone. Abandoning his chatter about freedom, he puffed up in fury. No one had the right to remove his bird from him, no matter how caged he felt and no matter how ill-equipped he was to nurse her.
I let my siblings tend to them, with my sister taking the lead, while my husband and I, three children in tow, took flight to Israel for a year’s sabbatical. While we were adjusting to life with our children in a whitewashed home in a border town, my mother crossed over into the land of decline and dementia. My father joined her. His joints had always been swollen and gnarled but now his rheumatoid arthritis spread to his wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders. In his mania, he borrowed heavily to create his own company: “God and Monastersky International Ltd.”
Cut off from the day-to-day clatter of their lives, I admitted I missed the landline’s tether. Within days of our phone being connected in Israel, I left a message giving my father our current number. He called back within a day. “Hello from Toronto, mayne tochter,” he crooned, sprinkling his language with Yiddishisms. “Today is a special day. I’m spending it with my beautiful blushing bride. She’s sitting on the bed right by my side.”
I bit my lip. Blushing bride, on the bed, code for telling me that he was being or trying to be sexual with my mother. My father crossed the lines when it came to sexual matters. He liked to talk about women’s knockers and recite dirty ditties. I thought he was fun, my sunny parent, until I grew up and realized just how inappropriate he was.
“Would you like to speak to your mother? Here, Lily,” I heard him offer her the receiver.
“Who is it?” she screeched.
“Your daughter. In Israel.”
“In Israel? What’s she doing there? I thought she was in Seattle.”
“For now she’s in Israel. Here, speak to her.”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know when I’m going to see you again. How are my beautiful grandchildren?” she chirped. Beautiful grandchildren? Who was this woman? This was not my mother. My mother was never effusive or complimentary.
I’ve heard many stories of shifts in people’s personalities following memory loss, frightening tales of loved ones suddenly turning abusive, irritable, mean-mouthed when a curse word had never before entered their vocabulary. In my mother’s case, the erosion of memories had the opposite effect. She was now miraculously happy, loving, even funny.
Where are you?” she asked over and over in the span of two minutes.
“In Israel,” I repeated.
“In Israel? What did you say? In Israel, did you say that before?” she laughed at herself. She never laughed at herself. “Oh, don’t mind me. I’m deaf in one ear and don’t remember a thing. I don’t know when I’m going to see you again. How are my beautiful grandchildren?” she cooed. I had never heard her coo.
My father interrupted us with his usual tune, the weather report, his Bible quote of the day. I heard my voice turn flat.
The phone calls, the insistence of my father’s pleas to bring his mate back to him,
the visits that kept them united, despite my sister’s success in winning my mother’s legal freedom from my father, continued throughout that year. Three months after we returned, the colon cancer killed my mother. Before that, her Alzheimer’s freed her from the grip of disappointing and bitter memories. She spent the happiest year of her life away from him, though he didn’t back away from visiting and she didn’t send him away. She laughed at herself as if looking through a mirror, joy and love reflected back at her.
After she died, my father turned to me and asked, “Do you feel liberated?”
My father leaned in closer. “So do I.”