Mean as a snake. I hear Dad refer to Mum like that sometimes and I feel a sense of recognition.
We all pile in the car one year to take what some people call a fun family holiday. Mum bitches about Dad’s breathing noises (he has asthma) the whole nine hours in the car. My brother and I hunker down in the back seat and whisper “fly, monkeys, fly” to drown her out. Mum gives us little wicker suitcases filled with toys to keep us from nagging her with “are we there yet?” I draw an invisible line on the seat. My brother crosses it. I hit him with the suitcase. He gives an almighty performance, sobbing as if I stuck him with rusty pins. Mum reaches back and swats me on my sunburned legs. It hurts. I debate throwing the suitcase out the window but figure if I do, I’ll get grounded for life.
She never even calls me the right name. Alzheimer’s? Dementia? On purpose to make me feel unimportant? She goes back to school in her thirties and becomes a forensic psychologist. Interviews serial killers and testifies about them in court. She retires in her sixties, saying she’s tired of all the black-hearted people. I guess they were meaner than snakes.
Dad dies when I’m thirty-seven and I help Mum create an online dating profile. She lies in it though. Says she’s a Buddhist gardener who does yoga and “loves to laugh.” She fails to mention serial killers and scares off any suitable pensioners. Her only date is with an elderly Indian Chieftain with eagle feathers and a stutter. It doesn’t go well.
Mum’s about the size of a stalk of celery and tells me I look fat when I visit. I buy her an Alexa so she can abuse people over the internet, play music and keep herself busy. We fight about it because she won’t use it.
Her doctor phones me. Pancreatic Cancer. I feel relief mixed with guilt. My brother is too busy so I go stay with her. I am shocked by the unaccustomed smell which hits me when I arrive. She wets the bed. I grit my teeth. When she berates me, I whisper “fly monkeys fly” under my breath.
Towards the end, she keeps trying to get out of bed. I hoist her back up over and over. She fights me, cries and says she needs to pack for where she’s going.
“You won’t need a bag,” I say. “You’re going to a very hot destination. They will have swimsuits there.”
I put my back out picking her up and get an idea. The little wicker suitcase. I put her Alexa in for weight. Scraps of kimono fabric she loves. A hairbrush. A photograph of Dad. I don’t put one of me or my brother. “I never wanted children,” she told me once. “You two always wanted something from me that I didn’t have to give.” She stops trying to get out of bed though and clutches the suitcase even in death, her arthritic fingers coiled around the handle like monkey’s paws. I am grateful someone who never loved me is gone. It annoys me that I cry.
Mum’s rejected Alexa sits by my bed. I am shocked on my birthday when it comes to life. “You’re fat,” Alexa says in mum’s voice. “Like I was as a girl. I was bullied and don’t want that for you. Do some exercise.” She shuts up and I forget about it.
One year to the day, Alexa/Mum croaks into life at 3:30am. “GET UP, lard butt,” she yells. “Best time to weigh yourself is middle of the night. Fat cells can’t multiply if you surprise them.” I throw Alexa across the room, which makes a thud against the wall.
Every year on my birthday, Alexa comes to life. Mum must have recorded herself and given it instructions. She tells me about meeting dad and how much she misses him. Her thoughts on serial killers. Dating. Children. When did she do this? I was with her most of the time while she was ill.
I’m paranoid Alexa will die, taking my new mother away. I keep her in the wicker suitcase and barely sleep between calls.
“Yoo hoo,” Alexa/Mum says on my 89th birthday. “See you soon. Pack light.”
Lise Leroux, originally from Montreal, is a long-time jumper from perfectly good aircraft. Parachuting into her wedding; she landed on a sheep (which survived although marriage didn’t). Her first novel was published by Viking Penguin UK; nominated for Orange Prize, and translated by Uitgeverij Arbeidersper. She has had radio drama produced by BBC Luxembourg and a non-fiction chapter on the future of information technology published in an anthology by ASLIB.