“Pennie? Your mama, she’s crying?”

“What’s wrong?”

The Before Phone Calls

Five years ago, maybe less, mom called me a lot, some days, several times. She already worried about forgetting.

“Hey! I wanted to tell you before I forget…”

Something about gardening. Something she read in Mother Earth News or Southern LivingOften while she was having a loud snack, chips or nuts in my ear.

“One more thing, I just remembered…” on the second, third, maybe sixth call of the day, chewing on Cheetos.

I miss those phone calls. This time of year, there would be extra. This is the week of the Washington Parish Fair. If she remembered today, she would call to remind me: “The fair starts today.” She likes the first day. There’s a parade, and sometimes dad’s in it. She mostly likes visiting the Mile Branch Settlement for all things old-timey. When they were young, she liked taking the grandchildren to the Midway carnival rides.

If I were at the farm this week, maybe I’d take her, walk with her to the gristmill at Mile Branch, watch the mule walk in circles to make cane syrup, take photos of the cracklin’ pots over open fires. I considered an extra drive to spend a day at the fair with her, but I’m struggling to keep up with work.

I hate when I use those words, see them: keep up with work. Of course, mom’s more important than work, and I’d drop it for a day to take her to the fair if… (and this is where you know the disease is stealing everything):

  • we could park close enough.
  • the walk weren’t so hard on her left knee.
  • the crowds wouldn’t agitate her.
  • there were more toilets.
  • the Covid numbers were lower.
  • (and the big one) she would enjoy it.

Mom and the Fair

This is not my mom from five years ago, who would call to remind me today’s the first day of the fair, the Mama Nick who would buy cane syrup for dad and fair T-shirts for the grandkids if they couldn’t come.

This is my mom who, exhausted from fighting the bull, weeps. She never cried before, at least not enough for anyone to notice. Even at funerals, she was sad with dry eyes.

“You’re mama’s crying. She’s asking for you.”

“Can you put her on the phone?”

The sitter tried, but mom couldn’t hear me.

That’s another thing, insult to injury, compounded cruelty. Alzheimer’s is hard enough, but compounded with sensory losses (hearing, taste, and smell) her day-to-day is atrocious. If she tries to explain to you “do you know what happened to me?” she’ll refer to that day she lost her sense of taste and smell, years before Covid, the day she was carrying the chemicals to the pool, premixed like she always did, except these were new chemicals, a different process. The two sloshing buckets at her sides exploded, and the cloud of chlorine robbed her of the taste of creamed corn and the scent of the tea roses outside her back door.

“Can you hear me now?”


I can hear gravel and weeping in her voice. Tears on her are disconcerting, disturbing, akin to seeing her in a glittering evening gown with a plunging neckline, a flirty slit up her left leg to her hip, and four-inch red heels.

Mom Doesn’t Cry.

Didn’t. She didn’t cry before. Now she does.

How the hell am I going to fix anything over the phone? She can barely hear me, much less follow what I’m saying. What can I tell her to reassure her? Comfort her?

“Where are you?” Her voice is distressed.

“I’m working, Mom.”

“When are you coming back?”

“I’ll be back in a few days. I was just there, remember?” She doesn’t. “Remember, two days ago? I’ll be back at the end of the week.”

“Four days, that seems like a long time.” I’m not sure if she misheard me or miscalculated. It would be six days, longer than the long time.

“It’s not too long. I’ll be there on Sunday.” I try to think of things she can do, likes to do. Something to distract her from this sadness. “How about you walk down to my house, water my flowers on the porch. And the back patio.”

“I don’t want… I can’t go down there.”

“With the sitter.”

“I can’t…” and she breaks off into a jumble of words that I can’t follow. She’s not happy, not happy that dad’s busy, that I’m away, not happy that she has sitters when all she wants is “my people,” her family. “Everybody’s just…”

“We’re doing our best, mom, to keep you safe,” that’s why sitters, “and to keep you happy.”

“You have to do better.” These words roll off her tongue loud and clear.

I chew on my lip. “I will, Mom. We’re doing our best to do better. I’ll see you on Sunday, okay?”

I know it’s not okay.

I miss the before phone calls, “Hey!” when she called too often, “One more thing before I forget,” blowing the extra salt off her tortilla chip, chewing in my ear.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021