>The Treasure Hunt

>I subscribe to a blog called “Book Therapy,” which often has helpful tips for writers. A recent one, which you can read here is called “Digging for Treasure.” It’s about the importance of “backstory” … information the writer uses to make the characters more three-dimensional and the story more interesting. I’ve never had a problem not having enough backstory… my problem (and probably other writers) is that I often put the backstory in front… I tell the reader things that I should only show him, by the way I write about the characters and develop the plot.

For example, I just went to Jackson to visit my mother, and I was kind of hoping to do a little digging for treasure while I was there. I had a few questions about my childhood that I wanted to ask her, as “backstory” for my memoir. Now, right here, at the beginning of this story, I could tell you all about why I didn’t ask her these questions before she turned 80. Before she got Alzheimer’s. And then I could tell you how it didn’t work out for me to ask her those questions on this visit. But I would bore you to tears. So, instead, I’ll try to tell you a story about my visit with her, keeping the “backstory” to myself. Here goes:

“The Glasses”

a story by Susan Cushman

“I just can’t get my glasses clean.” Mom was riding with me to do some shopping when she pulled her glasses off and held them up to the windshield for a better view of the smudges.”

“Here, I’ve got a special cloth for cleaning lenses,” I offered.

She fumbled with the cloth for a few minutes. At a stop light, I took the glasses and tried to clean them for her.

“Mom, these are all scratched up… in fact, these are your old glasses. Where are the new ones we got you?”

“Oh, I think they fell under my bed.”

“Well, when we get back to your apartment, I’ll look for them.”

“Oh, no. You couldn’t possibly fit under the bed. There’s only a tiny, tiny space there.”

“But I could at least see if they’re there, and maybe fish them out with a yardstick or something.”

“No, there just isn’t room under that bed, I promise you.”

“Well, I’ll still look for them when we get back.”

After shopping we went to lunch. Trying to read the menu, Mom took her glasses off and said, “These glasses are so dirty, I can’t see a thing through them.”

“That’s because they’re scratched, Mom, remember? I’m going to look for your new glasses when we get back to your apartment.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m sure they’ll turn up some time.”

After lunch, I took her to get a manicure and pedicure. Sitting across from her and reading fashion magazines while a cute Vietnamese guy did her nails, I realized we’d been together for three hours, and I hadn’t asked her any of the questions I’d been thinking about from my childhood. They’d have to wait ‘til we got back to her place now. Or I could just listen as she entertained the employees and other customers at the nail place.

“This is my little girl.” She pointed to me. “She lives in Memphis. She took my car away and sold my house. But she comes to visit me about once a year.”

I smile at the young women in the chairs next to her, fighting back the urge to defend myself. One them of gives me a knowing wink, which helps. And then the young man doing Mom’s nails says, “Now, Mrs. Johnson, your daughter brought you in here just a month or two ago to get your nails done, didn’t she?”

“Oh, I don’t know. She lives in Memphis. Ouch!”

“Sorry, I didn’t realize your toe was tender.”

“Well, it is. Something’s wrong with it. I’ve been meaning to get someone to look at it.”

The nail on the big toe of her right foot was thick and green with fungus.

“Mom, I took you to the doctor last month and she told us what to do about it. Remember? I got you some Vicks Vapo-Rub to put on it twice a day. I wrote you a note and taped it to the Vicks bottle by your bed. Have you been putting it on your toe?”

The giggles the other customers had been trying to stifle just couldn’t be held in any longer at this. So I said to the room, “I know it sounds ridiculous, but Mom’s internist told us that more than one of her patients has had success with this.”

A few minutes later, as we’re leaving the nail place, with Mom wearing a pair of free, disposable flip-flops, she looks at her feet and says, “What’s wrong with the nail on that big toe?”

“You’ve got a fungus, Mom.”

“Oh. Is there anything we can do about it?”

“We can try putting Vicks Vapo-Rub on it. I’ve got some for you back at your apartment.”

“Vicks? Really? Well, I’ll try anything once!”

Back in the car, we’re driving through some neighborhood that had been hit by tornadoes a couple of weeks ago. Mom says, “I think I saw this on the news, but I didn’t realize how bad it was.”

“Me, either. Wow—look at that huge tree completely uprooted over there. And all those houses with blue tarps on the roofs where trees fell on them. My goodness.”

At this Mother took off her glasses and held them up to the window. “I can’t really see them well. My glasses are so dirty. Do you have something I can clean them with?”

“We already cleaned them, Mom. They’re scratched. Those are your old glasses. We need to find your new ones when we get back to your apartment.”

“What new ones?”

“The ones you think might have fallen under your bed.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it, these are fine.”

Back at Ridgeland Pointe, Mom’s assisted living facility, we make our way through the lobby, where she “introduced” me to all her friends. Again. Finally we’re back in her apartment and I’m on my hands and knees looking under her bed for the glasses.

“You can’t see anything under there, Susan. The space is just too small.”

“I can see fine, Mom, but there’s nothing under here.”

Up off my knees, I begin to search her bedside table, and finally the bookcase headboard behind her pillow.

“Here they are, Mom!”

I hand her the glasses, and she looks at them, then at me, and says, “Oh. I like my old ones better. But thanks, anyway.”

End of treasure hunt. For now….


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