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A Crazy Mother 

And looking for your younger self

My neighbor Dolly doubts that hitting her mother in the head with a hammer would help much, and I have to agree, even though I have limited experience dealing with crazy mothers. My own mother died before she ever went completely crazy, she was just relatively crazy -- and incredibly strong-willed -- which might explain why I'm never alarmed when I hear screaming coming from Dolly's place next door. But Dolly is not at all accustomed to being attacked by her mother, in fact she's very put off by the whole experience.

"I tell you I have had the worst couple of days," she laments. "She thinks the house is full of strange babies and yesterday I caught her trying to escape down the street with the dog in her arms."

Dolly's a good neighbor, and hardly ever imposes on me considering she lives with a person in the throes of dementia. If I were in her situation I'd probably be a lot more intrusive on the surrounding households. And for a woman suffering advanced Alzheimer's, Dolly's mother Dot is still pretty deft at keeping the craziness within the walls of their home, or Dolly is good at secluding it there. It's only been occasionally when I've had to usher Dot's barefoot, nightgown-clad butt out of the street and back to her doorstep.

One time I caught her in the middle of the road collecting industrial trace material that had fallen off the back of a truck, but that did not seem crazy to me at all, except that it was 60 degrees and Dot was wearing one of those 50's-era, Lucille-Ball type ruffle-neck negligees, but it would not be the first time someone rushed out of the house in their pajamas to deal with a dire situation. I remember a man did just that once when I was seven and I'd found our dog Bonnie stuck butt-to-butt with some mutt up the street. I bawled sorrowfully in my ineffectual attempts to pull them apart until a man in pajama bottoms, obviously roused from sleep, took it upon himself to save me by throwing a bucket of cold water on the dogs, which caused Bonnie to pop free and commence gestating the seven puppies she'd have a few months later. I did not think that man was crazy at all, just a good Samaritan.

So that's what I thought about Dot when I saw her in the street that time, collecting hose valves and coiled piping that had fallen off the truck. To me it all looked easily dodge-able until the person who lost it would discover it was gone and retrace their route to retrieve it. But Dot insisted on clearing the road that instant. I led her out of the street and finished hoisting the debris to the side of the road myself, with her pointing out where I missed a spot, even though I didn't miss any spots. I didn't think she was crazier than me, just more thoughtful. Crazy, after all, is relative.

Dolly finally admitted her mother to a treatment facility the other day, the screaming and histrionics having reached a point that was intolerable for her, especially after Dot took to insisting Dolly was a dangerous stranger who'd kidnapped her (long-dead) husband and real daughter, hence all the attempts at escape lately. I'd just seen Dot out and about recently. She did not look like she was making an escape, she just looked like a little old lady tottering around in her pajamas. "I can't wait to get old," I thought at the time, "so I can wear whatever the goddam hell I want and dance a jig in a rain shower if I feel like it."

Though I have always known Dot to be cantankerous, it's only been a year since we met and evidently all this screaming and viciousness is not a normal trait of hers according to Dolly. Also it's very disconcerting to constantly have to dodge attacks from a tiny little old lady living in your house, and to regularly sustain accusations from her that you have kidnapped your younger self. How hard it must be, I think, to hear your mother wail for the child that you were, to look at you as though you are a stranger, as though you don't miss your younger self enough as it is -- as though you don't question your reflection enough as it is.

My own independent mother used to tell me all kinds of things about myself I didn't believe. She used to marvel at how strong I was while I swore I didn't know who the hell she was talking about. I thought she didn't know me, because most of the time I felt more helpless than a hermit crab without a shell. I used to look in the mirror and wonder if she was confusing me with herself. I used to think she was a little nutty for seeing herself in me like she did, but again, crazy is relative. The late novelist Sheila Ballantyne once said, "You can always trust the information given to you by people who are crazy, because they have an access to truth not available through regular channels." So maybe Dolly did kidnap her younger self -- don't we all eventually? -- and maybe my mother was onto something as well. Because lately, I swear this is true, when I look in the mirror these days I sometimes see her looking back at me.

Hollis Gillespie authored two top-selling memoirs and founded the Shocking Real-Life Writing Academy (

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