Don't Mind Me, I Just Died:  On Time, Tennis, and Unforgiving Mothers (paper)

Don't Mind Me, I Just Died: On Time, Tennis, and Unforgiving Mothers (paper) by Caroline Sutton

The essays in this subtle and wide-ranging collection depict the lasting impact of mothers on daughters, the shifting relationships between parents and children over time, the ironies of marital life, and quandaries in the face of decline and death. Sutton brings startling perspectives to the everyday—from painting a room or getting on the wrong subway, to hitting a dazzling backhand or witnessing a lunar eclipse.

She finds meaning in unlikely places. In "The Fly in the Refrigerator," an errant fly leads the author to question intentionality and will, which are so often foiled by the unexpected in life's trajectory. With wit and humor, "Tennis: Fort-da!" spirals from the geometry of well-played points to patterns of human interaction and perception. Sutton finds hints of her father's identity in "Water on Fire" through letters he wrote to her mother from an aircraft carrier that was torpedoed in the South Pacific during World War II. Other stories depict loss— the scattering of her mother's ashes on an ocean beach—and ways that absence induces us to look again at both present and past. Sutton's insights expose the ephemeral nature of the things we gather and the homes we build while conceding our need to reconstruct the past and be cognizant of its fickle ambiguity.

  • ISBN: 978-1-932727-20-3
  • Price: $16.95 (paper)

Read an Excerpt

Don't Mind Me, I Just Died

When I moved my mother from her independent apartment at the Quadrangle to assisted living, the supervisor handed me a clipboard with reams of papers to fill out. You might help her, they advised. Yes, given that my mother's obsessive efficiency had subsided, I would need to help. Otherwise the papers would languish under the Talbot's catalogs and AARP bills, many lines left out like missing teeth. I dashed off the perfunctory ones—birthday and marital status—but some were more personal. We want to get to know you. Favorite colors, favorite foods. Then it got deeper. Are you prone to depression? they asked. When you're feeling down, whom do you talk to? Chaddy (after her maiden name Chadwick-Collins) was glancing about her one room, which was smaller than the previous and lacking a fire-hazardous kitchenette. Her eyes were like chips of oak, her cheeks ruddy and rough like crushed brick. "Pokie, I guess."

After the insult, I began to wonder what she disclosed. When I was around she kept the banter with her Westie pretty mundane, the usual "good little Pokie," "go pee," "ata girl," "here's a nice biscuit," and so on. Here I thought I was the one. After a glass or two of wine, she would confide in me about my father's drinking, though he had died years before. At dinner parties, especially the ones related to the firm, she'd kick him under the table. Jim. Shouldn't we be getting home? In the inbred network of Philadelphia's Main Line in the '50s, she didn't dare tell even Boo or Mibbs, her best friends, though they'd gossip for hours downstairs while I tried to study. She was saving his career, she later said. She was also saving the family, and that was a matter of pride as well as money. And style. You just didn't go airing the family laundry. We had a clothesline out back where the nanny hung our underwear, after all.

After the insult, I just felt sad.

Despite the kind intentions signaled by the questionnaire, no one in the Holly facility took much interest in my mother as far as I could tell. When I sat with her at lunch, she'd nod in the direction of an aide. Can't stand that one. Yanks the toothbrush right out of my hand. Admittedly, she might have kept brushing for a half hour. Still, there is dignity. As her lucidity gradually slipped away like saliva down a drain, I could no longer tell what was true. They tried to make her walk; they'd heave her up, grabbing under both arms. When they said lean forward, she'd lean back. They had me buy a springy pillow that sort of ejected her as they lifted. And she hated it all. She'd dig in and shake her head, not wanting to stand, this spirited woman who was born in 1918, went to Bryn Mawr College in the '30s, lived through World War II during which a man she scarcely knew asked her to marry him from an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, came home, had a wedding on April Fool's, and left for a year. Who is this stranger, she thought on his return. It was kind of weird, she'd say. They stayed married until his death: 50 years, 8 months. No, she wouldn't get up for them. But if I told her we'd walk around the building with Pokie, sometimes she'd push forward and get her balance on her unblemished Reeboks, slowly moving her chunky legs in tan stretch pants from Lands End. (Oh, for willowy legs like Kate Hepburn's, we used to moan, turning before the mirror.) Now we trudged around, with Chaddy threatening to sit down on the occasional bench from which I'd never be able to get her up alone. After those visits I'd leave her in the dining room, all yellow Laura Ashley curtains and white tablecloths, with strangers who talked while she, the veteran talker, now just listened. Pokie would wait in her room, go out with the dog walker, and curl up on her red plaid bed. What would my mother tell her? That I hadn't stayed long enough? That we'd gone out for a nice piece of fish, though we hadn't? That the woman at her table was an insufferable bore? That she wondered if the primroses planted along the hedge by our old house had survived the unseasonable frost?

Then came an abuse case in Holly. So I figured Chaddy still knew a thing or two. As we received letters of assurance from the Quadrangle, my mother aspirated and nearly forgot how to swallow, so on she went to the final station, the one at the end of the line: skilled nursing. And Pokie went too.

This room was about the same size as the previous but lacked a rug and a chair. Around the hospital bed I arranged vestiges of the old house, her mahogany bureau with brass handles, her rose petal lamps, a big photo of my father on a trout stream, colonial side tables with a single drawer where she used to keep cartons of red Marlboros and boxes with two aisles of matchbooks—as a kid I used to love the quick flinty smell of sulfur dioxide when she lit up in the car, the window half down. (She smoked so much my brother could steal whole packs and get away with it when getting away with anything was rare.) I brought her a chenille throw blanket from Restoration Hardware that remained folded at the end of her bed. I bought her a little tape player and showed her repeatedly how to use it, even writing the directions on her little notepad, but every time I visited the dust had thickened on Brahms' Double Concerto and Mozart's string quartets. When I asked how she was she'd say, "better now," though I hadn't known she was sick and felt bad for not knowing, or simply "I'm fine." I always called before coming and she'd say she wouldn't be there, she had so much packing to do, I wouldn't know where to find her, and I'd say, I'll find you.

Over the next two years she aspirated twice, resulting in pneumonia and midnight ambulances to the ER. I'd race down the Jersey Turnpike from New York, past refineries spewing ochre smoke into the charcoal predawn, under jets descending on Newark airport, green and red lights blinking on the wingtips, listen to rock at loud volumes, and push past the speed limit by twenty or so. Each time they put her through tests, slapped an oxygen mask on her face, left her on a cot in the ER till I negotiated a room. Each time she returned to the skilled nursing, weaker, dreamier, quieter. We wondered if it was enough. Much later a friend of mine confided that at 91, before all the problems began, Chaddy had remarked that she'd had enough but didn't want me to know.

My brother and I signed a comfort care policy saying not to hospitalize her again. At 11 one night I got a call from a nurse at the Quadrangle asking me to verify that document. My mom was vomiting and feverish. They'd given her Tylenol and a Z-Pack. Had we said no antibiotics? Where was the document? For an hour I searched mis-filed files in the cellar, locating only her Living Will and mine. My brother in Hawaii finally retrieved his copy and faxed it, a piece of paper with three possibilities, three little lines, three boxes.

  • No Antibiotics 
  • Antibiotics to ensure comfort 
  • Antibiotics to sustain life. 

On a summer afternoon sitting in my backyard, we had checked number two. Was I to tell the nurse, "no more"? I felt like a murderer. "I'll say it," said my brother.

The distinctions between 2 and 3 seemed as hazy as the vapor-simmering horizon along the highway, equivocal as our knowing her life had shrunk to the width of a wheelchair and knowing that her little lashless eyes brightened even momentarily when we arrived.

Her chances were 20% without antibiotics, 50% with. Where does a doctor come up with these numbers? Does he enter age, length of illness, temperature, and blood pressure in a calculator and times it all by some quantity X and—ping!—be alive or not? Had he forgotten what a fighter she was? Had he factored in will, stubbornness, courage? Fear? All these years and I didn't know if she was afraid to die. She surely wasn't going to some pleasant cloud from which she could watch her grandkids get married and continue the line. Donate my organs, she'd said, and she carried a little card in her wallet with instructions. The woman was always prepared. Don't bury me. The thought of it fills me with horror.

0% That's what I knew. No figuring involved. Zero hit me like a fastball in the jaw, and I made the trip again. Fast. There she lay under the Restoration throw, her cheeks just as rosy as they'd always been, but now I guessed it was fever. I laid my hand on her forehead, so warm. She didn't open her eyes. A clear mask covered her face, which tilted upward and to the side. I sat up close on the bed and put my hand on her shoulder. We WASPs aren't demonstrative. We don't touch much. We don't say "love you" at the end of every phone call. I don't think she ever said those words to me, ever. But I told her. Do you hear me?

I heard "my mother is dying, my mother is dying" while I taught classes the next day. The words swam like fish under ice on which I skated the practiced figure eights.

Pokie was by her bed when she died, but I was not. Did she groan, gasp suddenly, sigh? Did Pokie recognize those sounds or were they something altogether new? Did she whisper goodbye to anyone or did she not know she would only breathe an hour more, a minute? Maybe my words about love had alerted her. Cruel words.

Death is a trigger. Death charges inanimate things. Death is war, death is peace. Death is a strand of hair left in a comb after the body is burned. Death is memory. Death is distortion and re-creation, grotesque and exquisite. It is lips moving in your brain. It is giving up trying to hear it.

When I opened the door to her room, cold hit my nose and cheeks. They'd shut off the heat and stripped the bed where she had lain two days before. The oxygen machine stood gawkily in the corner. Her closet burst obscenely with blouses and turtlenecks stretched on plastic hangers, cotton pants, size extra-large to go over diapers, and a bright red blazer with a black velvet collar that she hadn't worn in years. I yanked at the plastic hangers, pulled off the clothes and rolled them up in clumps and stuffed them into garbage bags. I threw in the spanking new Reeboks, a single snow glove, cable-knit sweaters, her heathery purple overcoat, and a crumpled Liberty scarf. To charity.

Then, a box of brown bobby pins still in her drawer after fifty years, a used tissue, dog treats in a jacket pocket. I saw her standing before her bureau holding up a hand mirror to see the back of her hair, flicking the comb to get each curl just right. I saw her toss a biscuit to Pokie as she left her apartment, lights on, TV on, in case the dog got lonely. Death opens little boxes of useless pins.

Death opens histories, stories told and untold. That's the reason for funerals. Except my mom didn't want one. That may be the ultimate WASP ethos: Oh don't bother. I just died, but don't mind me. Music, I believe, was her religion. At least it lifted her out of her fastidious coping, you could see it on her face. She didn't think much of priests. And all her friends were dead by the time she died.

So I asked my kids to tell me what they remembered most, and I asked my brother, and I read closely for the first time an account her brother Dick wrote about his trip to England to search out the family roots, longing as he was for some claim to aristocracy underlying their long-lost, near-Downton Abbey existence, or to a cousin who might serve as an anchor to the Chadwick-Collins clan orphaned in America since 1920.

Dick wandered a long country lane in Cornwall, searching for Nanscow (Cornish for wooded valley), a dour gray stone house where his great-grandfather, James, had been born. There he found a young farmer couple, who had never heard of the Collins family and probably wondered at my uncle, brazenly knocking on their door. James had left home quite young and started a wool business in Exeter. A picture of him dating from 1860 shows a "tall, well-dressed young man with a pleasant face and a look of quiet desperation." He married Elizabeth Lund, a Viking descendant and great-granddaughter of Sir Andrew Chadwick, who made a fortune in the cotton industry in the 18th century. James and Elizabeth lived in Northernhay house, a mansion in the center of Exeter with grounds of three acres. I went there, too, on a less ambitious foray for my roots. The place is now a public park with rolling lawns and natural English style gardens, the house itself torn down.

Of three phantom houses in our past, I grew up hearing about the last, Howe Lodge in Bournemouth, with its dark secret tunnel to the sea that pirates used to use for smuggling whatever they smuggled. The ivy covered house with crenellated walls dated from the early 19th century. Its morning room opened onto the tennis lawn, which was rolled after every rain by White the head gardener and divided into two courts. Chaddy's parents, James (son of the wool merchant) and Caroline, lived there with a staff whose numbers I can only imagine. Mrs. Wills ruled the large flag-stone paved kitchen, governess Miss Pears lived in a nearby thatched cottage, and a formidable nanny reigned in the nursery, allowing my grandmother to see her kids only at designated hours. My grandparents "dressed" for dinner every evening, meaning it was a black tie event. Caroline, originally from New Orleans, had been studying singing in Paris when James saw her picture on the piano of her teacher and said, "That is the woman I'm going to marry." And so he did, but with an ironic wave of a baton, he blocked her singing career. No wife of his on a stage.

Caroline's mother, Galie, lived at Howe Lodge too. She was a cousin of General Beauregard, the army officer who issued the order to fire on Fort Sumpter in 1860, thereby starting the Civil War. James's imperious mother also moved in, and Dick says she hated him. "I was scrawny and bad tempered and when she thought I had misbehaved, she came after me with a stick, so I would hide in the bushes."

James was "in the military" and basically never worked. He did manage to lose the fortune, which was the impetus to emigrate. Parents and three children (Chaddy then age three), along with Galie and a young farm girl, Eva, set sail in 1920. They all lived in a little house on Railroad Avenue in Bryn Mawr because Caroline went to work at the college. When Dick tried to visit Howe Lodge in the '70s, only the cellars remained. Council houses had replaced the stable block and the walled garden was a parking lot.

Thoroughly uprooted, he wrote: "So the family looks forward to growth and prosperity in the New World—not often living our dreams but trying as best as we can to give a sample of our best."

Like water spiraling in ever smaller circles before vanishing, family histories shrink, individual possibility narrows. Chaddy moved from the family house in Bryn Mawr where she lived for fifty years to an independent apartment to assisted living to skilled nursing to a wheelchair. Yesterday I was searching for snow boots and found a box, roughly 6x10 inches, tucked under a rose scarf. Auer Cremation Services. It's Christmas time and my husband had put her there, out of sight, for now.

But no. At night memories of her dance in my mind like dandelion fluff or encircle me like a swarm of bees. Death is a floodgate, opening too much too fast. I see her in the style with which my grown son sets the table for dinner. I see her in a yellow blouse and penny loafers on the terrace with me, age ten, the day she decided to tell me about sex. I hear her mother when my daughter sings opera. No, Chaddy didn't live her dreams. Over one of those wine dinners she remarked that after fifty years of marriage she didn't know what my father thought of her. But as a kid I never knew, and I'm grateful. She kicked him under the table, after all, and maintained the status quo. She came from an explosive line, a fiery line of Vikings and Generals, and in later years she targeted me with inexplicable anger. Maybe she explained it all to Pokie, who now lies asleep here with me, in one of the chairs from the old house. Maybe she left the lights on for her for good reason.

Praise for Don't Mind Me, I Just Died: On Time, Tennis, and Unforgiving Mothers (paper)

The details in these essays are so wonderfully precise they are at times Nabokovian, the emotions subtle but resonant, and always the intellect is sharp as a knife. Sutton offers a look into a private woman's world with the delicious company of her observant eye, her artist's wit, and her very human affection, whether for her mother, a leopard cub, tennis, or home. Each sentence is a pleasure: it is clear how, in Sutton's hands, the craft of the essay has been polished with care, each a small gem.

Gina Apostol, Gun Dealer's Daughter

Caroline Sutton's voice is distinctive, the questions she asks are elemental, and the answers... well, that's one of the many appealing things about Don't Mind, Me I Just Died: Sutton knows there are neither answers nor destinations, only a voyage she takes with her readers.

Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Sutton's essays are at once revealing and reticent. We completely trust the teller and want as much as she will give us as she takes us on her journey through the deterioration of her formidable mother. These stories are sometimes told obliquely, but always told with inspiring grace and intensity.

Meredith Sue Willis, Books for Readers

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