I inhaled my mother like the flowers surrounding my childhood home. She was the lilac bloom in the side yard that I pulled into my face as I passed by and the delicate lily-of-the-valley that blossomed by our front door for two weeks in the early spring. She was like the lady on the White Shoulders box of talcum powder she used every day.
The outer box was decorated with a golden cameo of a woman, her wavy long hair flowing behind naked shoulders, the outline of her smooth breasts exposed. Inside was a pink box containing the fragrance. A molded relief of a nymph-like figure, naked and in repose, adorned the lid. A fluffy white powder puff, topped with a tiny pink bow, covered the treasure within. White Shoulders was distinctly her scent. It was a 1940s white flower blend of gardenias, lilacs, and lilies-of the-valley. The powder was her favorite. As my mother lifted the puff, a scented cloud rose up in slow motion and coated her hand.
My mother was undaunted in her quest for loveliness. As a child, I recall her spending an hour every day massaging creams into her face to prevent wrinkles, to remain young. If visitors stopped by unannounced, as our relatives and friends often did, she’d continue her routine, working her fingers in an upward motion around her cheeks, forehead and neck while sitting on the living room couch chatting.
Over the years, I bought her White Shoulders every birthday, every Mother’s Day, every Christmas. She’d douse herself in the talc at least once a day, lightly dabbing her neck, her underarms, her shoulders, her breasts, her thighs, the roundness of her bottom. A powdery residue would cover the top of her bureau and whiten the carpet below. I’d take my hand and wipe the residue onto the rug and then rub my stocking-clad feet over the spot, removing the visual evidence but not the aroma. I used to laugh with her that she went through that
White Shoulders powder like a coke addict goes through her stash.
During one visit with her last year, she noticed the container on her bureau was nearly empty.
“Honey, I’m getting low on my White Shoulders. Would you please get another one out of the lingerie chest?”
When I opened the drawer, I found three pink boxes lined up end-to-end.
“You won’t be needing any of these for a while, huh, Mom?”
“Oh, yes, I will! I don’t want to run out.”
That Depression-era need to stockpile showed itself in so many ways throughout her life. How many of those pink boxes had I bought her? I wondered about that recently as I gazed at three of them lined up in my laundry room, the room where the last of her belongings sat as I tried to decide what to keep and what should go.
As she aged, she could no longer manage to powder herself, so the aides in the assisted living apartment, where she lived down the road from me, patted her with the soft puff. White wisps emanated around her like an aura.
It wasn’t until then that I even thought about the name, White Shoulders. When you hear something over and over again, starting at a young age, it becomes a phrase without meaning. But I began to wonder what her mostly Black and Latina aides thought of my mother using a powder that seemingly extolled the whiteness of a woman. Did they know that the name merely referred to the white flowers from which it was made? Knowing how much my mother loved the scent, I couldn’t bear to mention how racist the name sounded. She would have been mortified. Did it impact the way the aides thought about her? They seemed to adore her as much as I had as a child. But sometimes during her final years, I struggled to find the mother I adored as a child.
Her decline had been slow but steady since her diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease in the early 2000s and a stroke in 2008. We celebrated her 85th birthday in September 2014. But over the ensuing holidays, I struggled to understand what was happening to her. She had become combative, irritable beyond consolation, irrational.
On Christmas, her favorite holiday, she refused to come over to my home where our extended family gathered. We decided to bring the celebration to her. Later that day, we arrived at her apartment, gifts in tow.
I opened her apartment door. Her room stank of bowel. She had had an accident but was adamant she didn’t want me to clean her up. She didn’t care about the mess. She couldn’t smell the stench.
Then one Friday in early January, I met her for lunch in the dining room of her apartment building. She sat in her wheelchair, her head hung low. She didn’t raise it to look at me when I walked in. She answered my questions with one-word answers and grunted at comments I made. She seemed agitated, but she ate as usual, concentrating on her food, avoiding all conversation as soon as the plate was set in front of her. I felt compelled to keep up her end of the chit-chat with her tablemates.
After we ate, I asked her if she wanted to attend Catholic services. The priest from the local parish came every Friday to say a short Mass for the residents and give Communion. She always wanted to go, and if I went with her, she felt it was a bonus. She’d smile broadly because she had a visitor—her daughter, no less—and she’d reintroduce me to the other Catholic residents. But this day was different.
“No. I don’t want to go,” she said.
Then, two of her friends asked her, so I leaned over the back of the wheelchair and asked again.
“You sure you don’t want to go to Mass?”
“No. I don’t want to go.”
“I’ll stay with you during the service.”
I stepped around to the front of her wheelchair and crouched down to look at her face. Her eyes were fixed straight ahead, determined, but not looking at me.
“No! I already told you, I don’t want to go. Take me to my room. Now!”
I blamed myself for her agitation. I shouldn’t have pushed the point, I told myself.
During the prior few weeks, she had resorted to using a wheelchair to go downstairs for meals and entertainment, saying it hurt too much to walk or that she was too tired. The nurses, aides, and I encouraged her to move as much as possible, but she became adamant. She had begun falling multiple times a day. No fall ever resulted in injury, and there were some discussions between the head nurse and me whether her “falls” were a deliberate attention-getting device. It seemed plausible to me, given my mother’s need for attention and the fact that she, on more than one occasion, admitted to me that she placed herself on the floor, that she hadn’t really fallen.
As I was wheeling Mom up to her room that Friday after lunch, we saw her nurse in the hallway, ready to hand out her noontime pills. Mom screamed at the nurse from her wheelchair perch.
“No, no, no! You can’t give me my pills!”
She stomped her feet.
“Only the priest can give me my pills!”
This went on for minutes. I stood frozen in place. I had never seen my mother act like this. Her fierce and nonsensical outburst was baffling. No amount of logic or consolation worked.
I took her to her room and stayed with her the rest of the day, watching her disintegrate hour by hour. One by one nurses and aides came in to see her but no one could calm her down or make her see reason. And she cried, she who never cried.
At one point during the late afternoon, the head nurse and I sat in her office. The staff was at its wits’ end with Mom.
“If I were you, I’d take your mother to the hospital and demand an explanation for her behavior. I’d insist they give her a full physical and psych workup and wouldn’t leave until they figured out what was going on.”
Not knowing what else to do, I decided to take the head nurse’s advice. But I was too frightened to drive my mother in my car, given her state of mind. I envisioned her doing something crazy like opening the car door while I was driving or reaching over and hitting me in anger. She had never done those things before, but she wasn’t herself that day, and I couldn’t take the risk of her acting out during our drive to the hospital. So, the social worker called an ambulance, and I followed my mother to the hospital in my car.
Nine hours later, my mother was admitted to the hospital psych ward. I felt a heaviness in my gut when they wheeled her to the locked door of the ward. Was I doing the right thing by allowing this? The door could only be opened from the outside via a key card or if a nurse inside buzzed you in. You could hear the click of the deadbolt as the door slammed behind us.
I was startled at the noise. The staff began to wheel my mother down the hall to a room. I followed a few feet behind.
“This is as far as you can go,” a nurse admonished me as the orderlies continued wheeling my mother down the hall.
“Can’t I go with her to her room? She doesn’t understand what’s going on. I need to explain. I want to say good-bye and tell her I’ll see her tomorrow.”
It was all happening so fast.
“You can explain tomorrow.”
But I realized I’d need someone to explain it all to me before I could explain anything to her. I had no idea what my assent to admit her to the psych ward meant, but I soon found out.
The next day, I brought my once-elegant mother some clothes from her apartment, along with her toiletries and her White Shoulders powder. I hung her clothes in the closet and placed her other belongings in the nightstand drawer, where most everything sat untouched during her next three weeks there. During my visits to her, I’d often arrive to find her in a purple sweater and pants. They didn’t belong to her. When I asked, I was told they once belonged to another resident on the floor.
“Why don’t you dress her in her own clothes?” I asked.
Their clothes hung on her. She was rarely dressed in her own flowered skirts, her silky blouses. Her hair was disheveled. There was dirt under her nails.
She underwent numerous tests, from which they determined, in addition to the Parkinson’s, she had vascular dementia. I was told that could explain her bizarre behavior.
They medicated her. She could barely speak, barely eat, barely move. She was confined to her bed or to a chair with a tray and a seatbelt restraining her. The nurses said it was to keep her from falling out. I wanted her out, out of the restraining chair, out of the ward, out of the hospital, but they wanted to keep her for a while longer.
No one there ever powdered her, made her smell sweet, took the time to see her for who she was or who she had been. She languished in bed, drugged, eyes vacant.
After her three weeks in the psych ward, when Medicare would no longer pay her way, the hospital was ready to let my mother go. The hospital staff determined she could no longer live in an assisted living facility. She needed total care. I wasn’t sure what had done her in—the Parkinson’s, the vascular dementia, or those past three weeks. By now, any pretense of dignity was gone, all outward sense of her elegance banished. She was never fully herself again.
After much searching, I found a nursing home that would take her; the only one that would take a patient from a psych ward, and only because I had a friend who exerted some pull to get her in. My mother and I were lucky.
In the less than two months she spent at the nursing home, she continued to decline, but glimpses of her old self appeared on occasion. On a good day, she’d greet me with a smile and call out, “Desirée! My baby!” as she sat in a wheelchair across from the nurses’ station. The nursing home staff got to know her, got to know that she liked to listen to music, liked to write and read poetry, liked to play Bingo—although now she called out “Bingo!” with every number read aloud, and I had to place the chips on her card because she had lost the dexterity in her hands. They knew she liked to wear a bejeweled headband every day. They knew she still insisted on coloring her hair black and painting her nails in a coral shade, and that she liked to smell pretty even though she could no longer smell or even feed herself.
After my mother died, I brought a box of White Shoulders powder to the mortician so he could sprinkle her with her favorite scent one last time. I asked that the pink box be placed in her casket, along with photos of her family and friends.
She looked radiant on the day of her funeral, as beautiful as she had in her best living days. As beautiful as I had always thought she looked when I was her little girl and sat watching her perched on our living room couch. That mother was with us once again for all to view one last time. As I gazed down at her body and that little pink box that sat beside her, I imagined the powder of her signature scent inextricably mingling with the ashes of her body, the two becoming one, as they once were and now would always be—White Shoulders to white shoulders.
One year later, three pink boxes still sat on my laundry room counter—perhaps too common a place, unbefitting their place in her life. I stood still, staring at them. Hypnotized by the lady on the box and memories of my mother, my hand inched forward. I slowly turned one of the lids. The raised image of the lady pressed against my palm. A gentle spray of powder rose into the air. I pulled out the white puff and dabbed a bit of her onto my wrist. Her skin, ethereal on the puff, merged with the fine powder.
A piece of her still lived with me. I raised my forearm to my face and smelled the sweet aroma of her from my earliest memories. And I inhaled her one last time.
Desirée Magney, a Maryland author and attorney, has published in Washingtonian Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, The Writer’s Center – Art Begins with a Story, Bethesda Magazine, and Jellyfish Whispers. She is a board member and blogger for Little Patuxent Review. She lives in Chevy Chase with her husband and two children.
The Spy is pleased to reprint Ms. Magney’s memoir from the upcoming Delmarva Review, Volume 9. The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with additional support from private contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council, with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. It will be published on November 1 in print and digital editions and will be available at libraries, local bookstores, and Amazon.com. For information, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.