I hardly recognized her as my mother when the woman stopped me on my way to find my sister Coral. She tapped me on the shoulder and I had to look at her a moment before I remembered who she was. I just thought she looked familiar somehow.
"Oh, Mother!" I said, "How nice to run into you like this when I was on my way to find Coral. She thinks I should go to work right away."
"Oh, that Coral!" explained Mother. "She is just like your dad's sisters. She does not think of anything besides work. I heard that you had arrived here, so I finally decided to look you up since you did not seem inclined to pay me a visit, even though I am your own mother."
All my reasons for not looking her up seemed flimsy now. "I am sorry," I said. "You must pardon me. I did not mean to hurt your feelings."
"I am so used to my children not valuing me," said Mother, "that I am almost ready to reincarnate again, hoping to get a family next time I can be close to."
"Oh, don't you think you should stick around until the rest of your daughters get here? They surely can't last much longer."'
"Coral is always trying to get me to go to work in a nursery or something. I would rather reincarnate and have another family than I would take care of someone's children who have died young. I would just rather wipe the slate clean and start over."
I wondered if other spirits besides Mother threatened reincarnation when things weren't going well with their current family. I knew very well that Romina and the other girls would be very disappointed if Mother weren't here when they got to the other side. I surely would not want to be the one who had to tell them she had reincarnated, that she hadn't been able to wait for them to get old and die.
"In India people sometimes reincarnate almost immediately. I don't think this American policy of waiting around until all the kids have died is better. It is just a big waste of time."
"But Coral seems to think there is almost too much to do in the hereafter. She says they don't have enough help."
"I should think not. What she wants us to do is clean up after other people's mistakes instead of going back and making our own."
"I don't see your reasoning, Mother. Someone had to take care of Coral in the hereafter. She was only nine when she died, so now she is taking care of other children who have died young."
"I never wanted to take care of other people's children," said Mother. "I could barely stand to take care of my own."
"Well, how do you know you will do any better if you reincarnate now. You might make the same mistakes all over again."
"So be it!" said Mother airily.
I was shocked at the turn this conversation had been taking. I had not imagined I would have to try to persuade my own mother not to go for another life before she had even united with all her children in heaven. But I instinctively felt that Romina and the rest of the sisters would be devastated if she really did reincarnate now. Mother was always so impatient. She had hardly acted like she wanted to be a mother at all before she was expecting us to act like little adults and take care of ourselves.
"It was your dad taking me off to the primitive conditions on his ranches that soured me on motherhood," declared Mother, in the disconcerting way spirits have of reading your mind. "I had not realized that electricity was so vital to child raising. Otherwise we all just as well have gone back to the dark ages and raised our children in caves. It was though your dad had not become civilized at all. He said that there was no way modern conveniences could make ranching easier for him. He still had to tend the water and ride horses to drive his cattle. He was just as happy camped out in a tent as he was in some primitive old log cabin I tried to turn into a home. He even expected me to give birth in these old log cabins. Our children were just like Abraham Lincoln. No modern child should ever have to be born in a log cabin. You were the only one of my children who was born in a hospital and that was because you were the oldest, and Deana, because she was the youngest, and as a special favor to me, your dad allowed me to travel three hundred miles away so she could be born in a hospital, too."
So that was it, the reason why Mother had run away from her family so to speak almost as soon as they were born. She was trying to get away from the primitive conditions she had to put up with.
"Well, if you do reincarnate," I said helpfully, "try to make sure it is in a big modern city."
"Imagine having to heat your wash water in a tin tub on an open fire. That is how your dad expected me to wash our clothes."
"I know," I said. "You set me and Marsha to doing it when we were only nine or ten. We were glad to be your little washerwomen so you wouldn't leave us and go back to the city. I always knew you were trying to escape your fate as a rancher's wife."
"Your dad's sister Mina and I finally saw to it that the town got electricity when you were fifteen years old and already gone away to school."
"I was mighty glad to leave home so I could enjoy electricity. By the time I was thirteen I was a burned out little washerwoman, too."
"Children raised under such primitive conditions often died in childhood," said Mother illogically. "They were worked to death just trying to take care of everybody, especially when their poor mother died in childbirth. If I had not had a doctor who saved me with an operation I would undoubtedly have died in childbirth, too."
"I should think you would not want to return to all that too soon, then," I said. "I think you need a long rest. You had a very hard life, Mother. I was terrified you were going to die in childbirth, too, after you had all six of us just as fast as you possibly could, and Coral died and several of the others nearly did."
"We didn't even know what killed Coral. We had to drive 90 miles to a doctor, so by the time we took Coral to the doctor I knew she would be dead. I never wanted to live 90 miles from a doctor again!"
"Romina, Marsha, Deana, and Deborah are all hardy old souls, but if you will just be patient, Mother, they will all die eventually. What about your grandchildren? Don't you want to wait until they die, too!"
Mother nearly exploded, "Anything I can't stand is waiting around for someone to die!"
"I didn't mean literally wait around. Get busy. Find something to do."
"I have only been here ten years longer than you have, Shadra. Remember I was nearly 90 when I died. You have no idea how hard I clung to life. I had Alzheimer's and life was just a blank to me, but I knew I had to keep living as long as I could. Just in case there wasn't any more. That's all there was. Do you realize that all this gunk gets in your brain and blocks your thinking and talking ability. It takes quite a while for your spirit to recover, even after you die. You have to become convinced that now your body is gone, your spirit doesn't have Alzheimer's, and you will be okay if you just trust and believe. You have to walk a step at a time, Shadra, before you can run. You never had Alzheimer's. I watched you very closely. You were sharp as could be right up until the day you died. I thought well, she will be in great shape when she gets over here. She won't have to learn to walk and talk all over again. I was in that damned wheel chair for years. You have no idea what that does to your faith that you can walk."
"You refused rehabilitation after you broke your hip."
"Of course, I did. It hurt. And those damned nurses made me angry. They thought they were so smart!"
"Deborah and I both thought you became mentally ill in your old age. You resisted everything. You would not talk. You would not walk."
"What? I was mentally ill? Why on earth would I want to quit talking and walking?"
"Because you hated being in a care center, but Deborah could not take care of you in your own home. She had to have help with you. That is why we sisters all agreed you would have to go into a care center, but you had some idea that going into a care center was elder abuse. You always liked to be independent and your own boss. You hated leaving your own home"
"So I got so mad I quit talking. Well, those nurses were pretty rough with me when they changed my diapers. They hate to change diapers you know. It was a nasty business."
We had been walking along talking as fast as possible, which was the way Mother always liked to talk to people, on the go. But when we got to the diaper business I asked Mother if we could not sit down somewhere on a bench. Coral had taken me all over the earth and now Mother was walking faster and faster causing me almost to fall trying to keep up with her, even while she was telling me about her shitty diapers.
"You are very strong now, Mother, and I am just getting my strength back. I don't know my own power yet. I am still walking as though I were 82!"
Mother broke into peals of laughter. "Oh, I had a time getting my walking ability back I will tell you, after having been in a wheel chair for five years. I was practically curled up into a pretzel."
"Before you broke your hip we had you in an old people's jail for violence and you walked so much your legs went all red."
"An old people's jail for violence. What on earth are you talking about?"
"You hit people, don't you remember, Mother? They kept calling us and telling us we had to come and get you and take you somewhere else, because you were so violent they could not handle you. So we took you to a locked facility. I went to see you once and an old man was making these loud noises that annoyed you. You said if they would just let you you would shut him up in a hurry! Your theory was that a good slap or two would bring him around to more civilized behavior."
Mother started laughing, "I was a regular old tarter, then. Well, I have come a long ways. Maybe I was mentally ill who knows, angry about being imprisoned in a wheel chair. But maybe it is a good thing I broke my hip or I might have killed somebody."
We sat on the bench in silence for a few minutes until Mother finally said, "Well, all right, Shadra, I suppose I could try to wait until Romina and the rest of them arrive. I hope they don't take too long. In the meantime I had better get back to my job. I am working in the old people's arrival center. Coral talked me into doing volunteer work there. It is not like a real job. I just work seven or eight hours a day trying to help some of these old codgers who died in terrible shape like I did, get up and get going again. Me and these old men, we have a few laughs. They say I am good with them. Tell Coral hello for me, when you see her. If she has her way she will get you a job in the children's hospital. They always need help. By now."
And just like Coral, she left me. It was as though she was on a schedule and knew her break was over.
I thought about it a while before I was ready to see if I could not use my inner instincts to find Coral again. I could feel her close. I finally got rested enough to struggle to my feet....