When I was working on my memoir 99 Girdles on the Wall, my editor blue-penciled several chapters about the end of my mother’s life. He said they sounded crazed and angry. Crazed was the word my analyst used to describe me during that time as well. The legitimacy of anger and crazy feelings aside, I went back to have a look at my words to see if I could make them more entertaining. I don’t like to waste a good story:
The entrance to my mother’s house in the last years of her life involved tunneling through boxes of unsorted mail, towers of envelopes leaning precariously off end tables, and stacks of letters creating a nest for her on the long sofa where she sat for hours watching religious television and drinking coffee. She lived for the mail. She read every word of every letter of every lobbyist that ever set up shop this side of legality. She believed everything they said. She believed them when they sent screeds on stapled sheets of paper saying they couldn’t afford envelopes. She believed them when they told her that she was losing her civil rights at the hand of the Democrats who were secret Communists. She believed them when they said Hillary Clinton, personally, was siphoning off her social security. She believed them when they told her that if Puerto Rico was allowed to become a state, the English language itself was in jeopardy.
Some of the political solicitations came dressed up like urgent telegrams. (I had to admire the savviness of this lure. People my mother’s age associated telegrams with urgent news.) Some called themselves “legal documents” and were stamped “Time Sensitive” and “Do not Tamper.” Some had important sounding returnees like “Public Advocate of the United States.” They issued meaningless membership numbers and asked for membership dues with warnings about what would happen to America if their organization failed in its mission due to –at this point in the letter they were on a first name basis—Mary’s lack of support. They sent membership cards and cheap promotional items: umbrellas, key chains, pens, T-shirts, personalized pads of paper.
They asked for “pledges” of $7 (a study probably found the elderly more likely to send $7 than some other amount because a lot of these borderline criminal organizations asked for $7 pledges.) My mother sent her $7 pledges. Two weeks later, the telegrams reminded her of her pledges and asked her for more. Since she had short term memory loss and the word pledge meant something to her, she sent more checks for $7. Two weeks later, Pete and Repeat went back to the lake. Except this wasn’t a kid’s joke. My mother was giving away $1500 a month, over half her monthly income, to unethical scum, many of which used the same mailbox number in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
The religious ones were just as bad: “The Atheists are on the march. Help me reduce my debt so I can fight them.” Envelopes came with Bible verses on the outside and tales of the imminent apocalypse on the inside. These appealed to my mother because she believed in The Rapture. She and my father had an on-going fight about The Rapture, a word that does not appear anywhere in the Bible. My father said it was a made up event, worthy of Hallmark. My mother insisted it was a Biblical concept exactly as annexed to the Bible by John Nelson Darby in the 1800s. The pertinent thing about The Rapture in my family was its source of conflict. It was weekly entertainment for a while.
My mother believed that Jesus was coming soon, though she was always canny enough to not give a date. She intoned the line from Revelations about “wars and rumors of wars,” and stuff about weather patterns changing. She commented regularly that the clouds looked different. She had never seen clouds like these in her life. Somewhere was a cloud focus group assembled just for her.
All the solicitors: religious, political, medical, charity—sent pages of hyperactive, alarmist verbiage, every second paragraph in caps and every third paragraph in italics, and the summary in red, italic caps. She thought the letter writers were her friends and she looked forward to hearing from them.
Then there were the sweepstakes. Once she responded to their mailings the organizations tagged her as a viable address. Then they accessed her phone number. One day I came in the front door and intercepted her on the telephone.
“Elena,” she said excitedly, “I’ve won a million dollars!”
I grabbed the phone away from her and yelled into the mouthpiece:
“Put this number on your Do Not Call list!”
“Put this number on your Do Not Call list!”
I hung up.
“Why did you do that?” My mother looked hurt.
“Because you didn’t win anything.”
“How do you know?”
“Because no one ever wins anything!”
Another time, my brother intercepted her in the parking lot of the Tumwater Safeway with $700 in cash, ready to hand over to someone who needed it to process her million dollar win.
She gave out her banking information to strangers who lured her with fictitious wins. I had her bank account changed so many times the bank said that if it happened again, they would drop her as a customer. My brother Alex and I hoped that would happen. Six months after my father’s death, more of my mother’s synapses must have started firing because the sweepstakes activity stopped being a problem.
Every time I visited, I sneaked as many boxes of mail out of the front room as I could manage. When my mother went to the bathroom, I got at least two out to the car, leaving another sitting on the front porch waiting to be transported. If she happened to see me with a box, I got very good at whisking them quickly away, calling over my shoulder something like,
“Oh this is that stuff we went through last time, remember?” Or “These are some of my books, good grief, don’t be such a snoop.”
My sporadic visits didn’t make enough of a dent in the mail. One Sunday while my mother was at church, a few of us from Seattle descended on her house and sucked out every piece of mail we could find. We piled the boxes into my neighbor Gwen’s VW bus, floor to ceiling and filled the trunk and back seat of another car. Then I slapped the vehicles on their rumps and sent them back to Seattle while I stayed behind to take my mother to her church’s harvest festival where she had to make nice with me because the priest would be watching.
She was furious but she didn’t say anything except, “You went into my bedroom!” She was angry with me for the SWAT raid until the day she died. She complained to her friends, her priest and to my brother. “Elena took everything away from me.” That was her line.
The mail continued to be a problem. I arranged a change of address. All her nasty mail started being forwarded to my house. I spent hours going through it, partly to make sure there wasn’t anything important, partly out of fascination, and partly to document the solicitors. The final tally of criminal organizations my mother had been sending money to came to over 450.
I contacted all of them at least once. I ticked off the number of times I mailed or called to have her name removed. It was fatiguing. When I was up late, feverishly and determinedly trying to gain control over the mail, I started writing letters that said things like, “Yo, man o’ God. Take my mother’s name off your fucking mailing list.”
I learned that often you had to send a stop mail request to an address that was hidden in the fine print and pale type on the back of a page of the mailing. I also learned that some of that mail was not going to stop no matter what I did. Eight years later, I am still getting mail addressed to my mother.
The business with the mail was a species of the lifelong competition between my mother and me. I was going to win this one though I didn’t know what exactly I thought I would win. Did I think that if I got every single solicitor to stop sending their mailings, I would gain control over my mother’s finances and through some intricate alchemy of money and value, I would finally have a mother? I wasn’t thinking at all. I was obsessed.
My mother reversed her mail. She waylaid the mailman at the neighbor’s house one day and filled out a change of address card. Soon she was hearing from all her friends again. On alternate days she felt she was drowning in mail. She asked me to make it stop. I told her it was her own fault. I had helped her once and she had taken it all back. She received this in silence.
A few weeks later, she asked me again.
“Why don’t you ask Phyllis Schlafly to come help you?” I asked. “After all, you are sending her money. You think she’s your friend. Maybe she’ll help out.”
The third time it came up, I said, “OK, look. I will help you with your mail. But that means it has to all come back to my house.”
“OK,” she said.
I made her sign a statement saying: “I want Elena to help me get the mail under control.”
I filled out a change of address card and signed it with a POA I had forced her to give me. Before long, this came in the mail from the U.S. Postal Service:
“Dear Ms Richmond:
We have instructions from Mary K Richmond to deliver mail to the old address on the change of address card. Without legal documentation proving you have permission to forward Mary’s mail to you, we are unable to comply. It is a felony to fraudulently submit a change of address without the legal right to make decisions for that person. . . etc.”
Taped to the letter was a note in my mother’s familiar handwriting, full of underlines and explanation points saying she wanted all her mail delivered to the Olympia address. The main reason I saw red was because I knew I had walked into this one with my eyes open. I knew I should have made her sign the change of address card but I wanted to use my new POA. It was all part of the competition with my mother.
I was still steamed when I dialed her number. “Do you see what you did? Do you know what a felony is? People go to jail!”
“Elena, did you take those plastic forks I had on the dining room table?”
“DID YOU HEAR ME?”
“Yes, I heard you. Did you take those forks?”
By the time she died, she had managed to amass as much mail as we had once sucked out of her house and I had to start all over again.
Stay tuned for “The Attorney.”