We are home from the doctor’s appointment, so now it is Mom’s bedtime. If it’s not mealtime or bathroom time or appointment time, it is bedtime. I help her change into her comfy pajamas, ones that are soft and stretchy, but not so slippery that she’ll slide out of bed. I roll Biofreeze onto her shoulder and rub Voltaren liniment on her knees, then a dab of ointment on the pressure sore we’ve been tending for five years. I lift her right leg (by the foot because her legs hurt), and her left, and then swaddle her in a sheet, a blanket, and a spread because the temperature’s only 78. “You good, Mom?” I ask her. “Oh, yes,” she says as if she were settling into a spa day.
She is not really my mom, but I have been calling her “Mom” since I was a teenager. “You’re the daughter I never had,” she told me 48 years ago, three years before I married her son. When my own mother died in 2013, she said, “I’ll be your mother now.” And now it seems natural and absolutely right.
Once Mom is all cozied up, I try to get comfortable for the hour-long storytime. I kick off my shoes and go lie down on the other side of the full bed. The bed creaks with my weight, and it sounds just like Mom’s knees and shoulders. The bed isn’t as old as Mom—97—but I wouldn’t doubt if it’s 50. “Maybe you should buy a new bed, one of those fancy Craftmatic ones, the kind that can incline your head or your feet or your bottom with just a press of a button.
“That would be a waste of money at my age.”
“Well, how about a hospital bed. I think Medicare would pay for it.”
“Not a hospital bed!” She is appalled, as if I suggested we install a ramp or convert her bathtub to a walk-in shower, all things you do for really old people.
I try to fluff up her smushy pillows to cushion my back, to no great effect. I finally just sit up, resting my back on the headboard. More creaking.
I pick up the book I’ve been reading to her for a month, Before Oprah: Ruth Lyons, the Woman Who Created Talk TV, and ask, “Now where did we leave off?” because I don’t remember, but I know she will. Her mind is so sharp, her memory so good, I ask her for phone numbers and recipes and addresses that she knows by heart.
“Ruth just had a stroke and she was in Holmes Hospital. They told everyone she was suffering from exhaustion. At a photo shoot, the photographer noticed her smile was crooked,” she says.
“Oh, yes. Okay.” And I open the book where it’s marked with a store coupon and begin reading.
Let me take a minute to explain to you who Ruth Lyons was. If you are between 50 and 100 years old and you lived in Ohio, Kentucky, or Indiana in the 50s and 60s, you can skip this paragraph. Everyone in that demographic knows that Ruth Lyons was a talk show host, maybe the first to engage her audience. She was a talented song writer and a less talented singer, but sing she did. Mostly she talked about whatever came to her mind--her husband, recipes, her beloved Reds, racial discrimination. She did all her own commercials, only endorsing products she used and liked, and she refused to read the ad men’s scripts. Businesses advertised on her show flourished, and companies had to wait in a two-year line to be sponsors. Most American stars —Bob Hope, Herb Alpert, Sid Caeser, Pearl Bailey, Peter Nero, Edie Gorme, Arthur Godfrey —–appeared on her show. Both Dave Letterman and Phil Donahue were guests, and they both credit Ruth for how her innovative approach influenced them. When Ruth revealed that she wore Chantilly perfume, every bottle in the tri state area was sold. If an author appeared on Ruth Lyons’s program, his or her book sold out at Shillito’s that day. Her show was called Ruth Lyon’s 50 Club, because they hosted a 50-person audience for lunch and the broadcast. Then the show became the 50-50 Club when they made room for 100 people.
On Mom’s 97tth birthday, I gave her this book. When she unwrapped it, she looked confused. Due to macular degeneration, she has not been able to read for at least a decade. I explained, “Mom, I am going to read this book to you. That’s part of the gift.” She gave a look that said “That’s nice,” or “That’s weird.” I admit that the thought of reading to another adult seemed a little awkward, and I wondered how it would go.
The next time I brought lunch to her, a Frisch’s fish on rye bread, I said, “So, do you want to start the book today?”
“I guess so. If you want to.”
And that day, we launched bedtime stories with Mom. For just a couple of minutes it felt a little peculiar, but then it got fun, for both of us. I had happened upon the perfect book for us to read. We had shared history, but also unique experiences, related to Ruth Lyons. Mom could relate to Ruth’s early life: a baseball field in the East End; the ’37 flood; tent revivals; the coming of television. She recalled getting a coveted ticket for Ruth’s show and wearing white gloves and hat so she would look nice for the camera during the “Waving Song.” I remembered my mom rushing to get her housework done so she could sit down and watch Ruth from noon to 1:30, and how one time I sat so quietly during the show that my mother didn’t make me take a nap. Our talk around the book became as important to the reading experience as the text. It was so refreshing, after 48 years of knowing each other, to talk about something different, to learn new lessons from Mom, to pass our time in a meaningful way.
The effect of the book didn’t end there. Mom told everyone she knew about the book, and now her caregivers, friends, and family all want to read it. When my husband or I read the book to Mom while waiting for medical appointments (there are lots of them), normally rushed docs and nurses stop and engage with Mom, asking her questions and reminiscing about their own childhoods. One particularly acerbic doctor, who normally engages only with his computer screen, waxed on about his teenage crush on Doris Day, and during the next visit he talked about Elvis Presley.
I shouldn’t be surprised by the positive impact this book has had on so many people. I was a teacher and a librarian, and I am a voracious reader and writer. I know the power of words to inspire, connect, teach, entertain, fortify, and harken back.
And so I have two more books waiting on Mom’s dresser about other Cincinnati entertainers: Here’s Bob, Bob Braun’s autobiography, and Letters to Paul Baby, about Paul Dixon, the “Mayor of Kneesville,” who officiated the famous chicken wedding (you will just have to see this to believe it).
As I finished today’s bedtime story, I pinched the remaining twenty pages between my fingers and said, “Look, Mom, this is all we have left.”
“Oh, no,” she said. I am also sad that there is more behind us than in front of us.
I hope we’ll have many more bedtime stories.
When I’d ask my own mother what she wanted for Mother’s Day, she’d said, “Nothing! I don’t need anything!” After cleaning out my parents’ house, I realize now that she was telling the truth. How I wish I had bought her a book for us to share, even though she had no vision problems preventing her from reading on her own. Why not buy a book to share with your mother? Here are a few books I’ve read that would make good readalouds:
The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Anderson Brower
Anything by Erma Bombeck, like If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits?
My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business: A Memoir, by Dick Van Dyke
This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, by Carol Burnett
If You Ask Me (and of course you won’t) by Betty White