Mother, May I? by Susan McDonough-Wachtman


I was 27 last week.

If I tell you this, young mother, you will look at me and say, “Oh yes, it can feel like that, can’t it? I look at my little girl, and it seems like just yesterday when she couldn’t walk!” And you will smile brightly, kindly, at this old woman.

I might then say, “No that’s not what I mean. I mean I was 27 last week. I had a job. I had a boyfriend. He was 25. He still is 25. But I am old.”

And then you might back away. You might go inside and speak to the cashier. They might call the police, check for a silver alert.

But I am not lost, and I am not suffering from dementia. Not yet. I am outside a grocery store I have been to many times before. My apartment is just up that street — there — Cedar Street. It has not changed. I have.

I have become old. My body creaks. My skin drips off my bones like one of Salvador Dali’s clocks. Overnight I became old, and I have no idea why.

No, that’s not true. I know why.

My mother did it.

“Psh!” you would say, loving mother that you are. (I can see it in the way you take your daughter’s hand, the way you adjust her hat.) “Your mother would not do this to you! Pish tosh!” — that is what my mother would say. Pish tosh! And you would both be right. My mother would not do this to me, not consciously.

But on the last day that I remember being 27, the last day my joints were pain-free and I moved with grace and ease, the last day I could see across Sinclair Inlet and count the eagles fishing there, the last day I could hear the shrill chirp of the osprey young calling for food — that day I visited my mother.

And so now, from my aged wisdom, young mother, I tell you to have empathy. Pause in your busy life ( I see you checking your phone!) –pause long enough to understand the frustration of a spirit caught in a body that will no longer operate the way it wishes to. You’ll be there, too, one day, God willing.

My mother always said she could do magic. Good Irish American Catholic that she was, she refused to refer to the spells she had learned from her grandmother as sorcery, and she refused to make use of them. I had always taken her claims with “a grain of salt.” A grain of salt. A tiny speck of uncertainty. I had met my great-grandmother once. I could imagine her conjuring. Bent-backed crone, long-nosed old woman, sharp-eyed harridan — she fit all my childhood stereotypes. She would and could cast a spell, I was sure.

I visited my mother in her retirement home that day, the last day that I was 27, and when she talked about how her new hip hitched and ached, I reminded her that her doctor had told her to lose weight. When she asked me to repeat what I had just said, I told her “oh my god, put in your hearing aids!” And when she said she couldn’t read the weekly menu to order her meals, I laughed — I laughed — and said, “Your glasses are on top of your head!”

She looked at me then. She looked, and just for a moment, I saw my great-grandmother, there in my mother’s eyes — that sharp-eyed crone, that wart-chinned old woman — looking narrowly back at me, judging and condemning.

I didn’t feel anything. I had no clue. But then we have already established that I was a clueless young person, have we not? I had always wished that I was not a “late one,” a not-so-welcome surprise, born when my mother was 45. We had always had trouble understanding one another. Now, I see, maybe, just maybe, I had always lacked empathy.

At any rate, I woke the next day like this: sagging skin and age spots, and my hair — my beautiful hair! — filled with strange, stiff strands of white. Every time I run my hands through it, I shed like a dog on a hot day. I rolled over in my bed, bones creaking. I thrust a foot out from under the covers and wondered why it looked so strange and bumply. Why I felt so strange. I put my hand to my face and felt the soft, wrinkled skin, so loose on my skull. I looked at my hand. I tried to scream, but my throat was dry and the air scratched. I swallowed and there was nothing. I sat up and my vision went fuzzy and my breath came short as I thrust my legs to the floor and tried to stand, and I fell. On hands and knees, I looked into the full-length mirror on the closet door and I saw an old woman with my brown eyes and my mother’s button nose and my father’s wide, full mouth. And I knew she was me, even though her long hair was white and her skin held the creases of decades.

And I knew.

“Mother,” I whispered. “Oh, Mommy, what did you do to me?”

I’ve tried to visit her. Of course, I have! But the people at the front desk don’t know me. Since the pandemic, they have a very strict visitor’s policy. You have to be on the approved list. And, of course, I am on the approved list. But they don’t know this me.

Do you like irony in your stories? That security is one of the reasons I urged her to move in there. I wanted her to be safe. That’s what I told her when I urged her to give up her home. I didn’t want to have to worry about her.

It’s getting late now, young mother. You need to take your child home. I will not speak to you, because I know how it would go. I tried speaking to my boyfriend that first day, on the phone, crying, panicking. He didn’t recognize my voice. He wanted to know how I had gotten his girlfriend’s phone. He came to the apartment, and I hid in the closet (he has a key). He has reported me missing. He has all the neighbors watching for me (the old young me), and the police drive by occasionally. I have been missing for a week now, after all. We know what they would say if I tried to explain, don’t we?

When it is dark, I go to my apartment and slip in the back door. I wash and eat and try to get some sleep, all without turning on any lights. I figure I have until the end of the month. When no one pays the rent, I will lose this refuge.

Early in the morning, I will take the bus to my mother’s and try to sneak in through the kitchen. Or the laundry. Have they talked to her, I wonder? Did they ask her where I might be? Her dementia comes and goes, so there’s no telling what she remembers or what she would say. Does she even know what she did? If I can get to her, will she know me? Will she remember how to change me back?

Will she want to?


Susan McDonough-Wachtman has been a burger tosser, customer service rep, ad taker, curriculum developer, parent, reader, kayaker, gardener, and high school teacher. “Well written,” “quirky sense of humor,” and “doesn’t fit a genre” are the comments she hears most about her books and stories. “Crabby Converse” is published in Fabula Argentea. “I Will Go Gently” appears in Metaphorosis. She lives on the coast in the Pacific Northwest with one cat and one husband. 

Published 10/27/22


  1. Amazing writing! I won’t pretend to understand this story yet, but the writing is so good I didn’t want to stop. And I look forward to reading this again and perhaps again until I get the full message(s) I sense is contained within. At least I think I look forward to understanding. I don’t know why I keep thinking there may be booby-traps I’ve managed to avoid so far in my contented innocence.

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