The problem isn’t that my elderly mother suddenly developed telekinetic powers. The problem is that she’s so negative about it. It’s “Uch, I’m exhausted from moving things with my mind” and “I can’t find anything! It’s all been moved!” Like she wasn’t the one who moved it, with her mind.
I don’t know how it happened. One day she was glaring peevishly at the lamp on the end table, just like she’d done a million times before, and she shifted her head a little to the left and the lamp moved. Not much: About three inches. But it definitely moved. She called me right away, of course, and told me she needed me to come over and move it back. I tried to convince her to get her housekeeper Dolores to do it, but it was the usual: “That one? The contessa? Move a lamp? Please.” So I drove out there, sucker that I am, fifty minutes each way in rush hour traffic, and I moved the lamp back three inches. And of course it was all wrong. She kept squinting at the thing and saying “A little to the left again” and “Not there, there.” And when I finally got exasperated and asked her why she’d moved the goddamned lamp in the first place she told me she hadn’t, that she’d just been looking at it and it had moved all by itself. “Oh,” I said, “okay,” because honestly that’s ninety percent of what I say to her these days anyway. Except then she said “You don’t believe me, smart guy? Ooh, Smart Guy thinks he knows everything about moving things. Look, I’ll show you.” And she did it again. She stared at the lamp and lowered her eyebrows and tilted her head a tiny bit, like an angry Cocker Spaniel, and damned if it didn’t scrape an inch or two to the left.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Dolores frantically crossing herself over and over. “Who knows everything now, Smart Guy,” my mother said, a nasty little whiplash of triumph in her voice. But I barely heard her. I was stunned. I mean, how not? It’s just not the kind of thing you see every day. You know somebody your whole life, you think you’ve finally got a pretty good bead on her, and she turns out to be telekinetic. Go see that one coming.
Anyway, there it was. No denying it. What was I going to do? At first I tried to convince her it was a good thing. “Look, Mom,” I said, “think about the energy you’ll save. You keep telling me how Dolores puts the glassware away all wrong. Now you can do it yourself, and you don’t even have to get out of your chair.”
“That’s not how it works,” she said. “You can’t use it for glassware. Especially not the good glasses. You’ll shatter them. What’s the point?”
“Okay,” I said. “I get it.”
“You don’t get anything,” she said. “You don’t know what a burden it is. I used to like to go look at the monkeys in the zoo, but I can’t even do that now. One little slip and there’d be monkeys everywhere,” she said, adding emphatically: “Everywhere. And they carry disease. Is that what you want on my conscience? Children go to that zoo.”
“Okay,” I said again, “all right,” in that placating voice I use, thinking: Jerk. Idiot. Try to get some people to see the sunny side.
Then the phone calls started. “Larry, I can’t find the remote!” Not the first time I got that one. This time at least I knew what to say. “Ma, did you move it with your mind?” “No, of course not. I know when I move something with my mind and when it’s just lost. The girl must have moved it.” Right. Because it’s always “the girl,” never her own startling ability to influence physical objects without physical interaction. Or: “Larry, you have to come over right away, somebody put the ottoman on the ceiling.” That was a bad day. I had to get her on speaker in the car and stay on with her the whole drive to see that she kept concentrating on the ottoman, and the whole time I’m also telling her to make sure Dolores didn’t accidentally walk under the thing and get crushed. “What about me?” she kept yelling. “Look who he cares about — the one who can’t even make tuna fish.” Long story short, I managed to get there in time to guide the ottoman back into place while she lowered it to the floor with her eyes. And what thanks did I get? “I’m worn out,” she said, shuffling back to bed. “I wish this crazy business never started. Put the trash on the curb when you go.” Put the trash on the curb yourself, I remember thinking as I pushed the bin across the lawn. Just move it with your fucking mind, why don’t you.
But I didn’t say it. I never say anything. That’s me, I guess — deferential to a fault. Because when you really think about it, hasn’t she earned a little respect after everything she’s been through — the Depression, and the war years, and losing my dad, and telekinesis? She’s just an old lady, with all the fears and neuroses that entails, plus an awesome supernatural ability to confound the laws of physics.
She didn’t ask for any of it.
Sometimes I picture her lying alone in the house where she raised her kids, the rooms empty now, silent and still. Is this where she thought it was all pointing — the good seasons and the bad, the dozen days you remember, the thousands you forget? Did she ever imagine she’d spend her golden years staring idly at the ceiling and watching her favorite Loehmann’s handbag hover in the air like a hummingbird? Of course not. Who would? That’s what I try to keep in mind — compassion — when the phone rings in the middle of the night and I sleepily reach for my car keys, hesitating for just a second in the dark to see if I can make the keyring slide across the nightstand of its own volition and nestle in my hand. Waiting.