Lawrence Welk Is Dead
i have to break the news to my mother. She has been chatting her way through her usual Saturday evening phone conversation topics: her friend Shelby’s forty-five-year-old son who has lost his job and moved back home with his mother; the new pastor at church and his three lovely daughters, the youngest of whom is named Emily, the same name as my daughter; the unimaginable rise in gasoline prices; and the fact that she cannot remember what she had for dinner this evening. I listen, allowing her to retell the stories she told me during our last conversation, letting the details, in their word-for-word sameness, trickle out, on and on, like a slow leak from a tire.
But this time, a new topic breaks her pattern. “Are you watching Lawrence Welk?” she asks.
My mother is ninety, and I am a bad daughter. She lives alone, cooks and cleans for herself, conducts her own affairs, drives a car. I talk to her once a week on the phone. Just to check on her, I always tell myself. Just to make sure she is still able to take care of herself. Years of contention and mother-daughter resentments have reduced our relationship to this. She is still, after all, the mother who could never be satisfied, the mother whose demands packed a punch. “If you don’t do what I tell you to do,” she often said to me when I was a child, “don’t expect me to take care of you. You’ll come home from school to find the door locked. You’ll be on your own.” I was raised on a diet of disapproval and threats of abandonment. Now, I convince myself that our weekly phone conversation is enough, that our relationship can continue as it has, with Mother at her end of our small hometown, and me, living my own life, at mine.
“No, Mom,” I reply, trying not to laugh, “the Lawrence Welk Show is not something I would be likely to watch.” My mother should know this about me. She should know that I am too young to be a Lawrence Welk fan, that the music of the champagne orchestra is not my music, steeped as I was in teeny-bopper pop and late-era rock and roll. She should know that I grew up with a more cynical view of life than the Lawrence Welk Show promotes, that I would never be a devotee to bubble machine fantasies. I am not likely to turn to old re-runs aired on Hallmark or Lifetime for an evening’s entertainment, unless to recall and chuckle at the show that my parents watched with such delight when I was a child, unless to remember with mild disdain Welk’s signature an-a-one-a, an-a-two-a; the champagne ladies covered from neck to toe in pastel, whipped cream gowns; the gents with their boot-black, pomaded hair.
“Well, why not?” she asks. “It’s nice music. And the ladies are so pretty and nicely dressed. It’s so much better than all that other stuff on TV.”
“It’s not for me, I guess.” I don’t want to engage my mother in a discussion of what makes for worthwhile entertainment, or in any other discussion for that matter. I learned long ago the thanklessness of arguing with her, the penalties for taking my own stand. I learned to let go. I just want to suffer through listening to her pre-recorded reports on the state of her pastor’s children and the travesty of current fuel prices and be done for another week.
“Lawrence Welk looks so nice this evening in his blue suit. It’s a robin’s egg blue or almost an aquamarine. I didn’t know the men were wearing that color this year.” She laughs. “I don’t know what channel I’m on, but I think he’s on live every Saturday.”
This is the moment I have been dreading. My mother’s forgetfulness has now taken a plunge into delusion. For her, the decades since the 1960s and ’70s, the time during which most of my life has been lived and during which her grandchildren were born and raised, have apparently evaporated, or at least they have ceased to matter. Her mind has returned to the days when I was hardly more than a toddler, when our first color television was delivered to our house and we sat in amazement at the vivid hues of Norma Zimmer’s gowns, the dazzle of the brass instruments under the studio lights, Bobby and Sissy’s pirouettes in their color-matched costumes, the graceful sway of Lawrence Welk’s glossy baton.
“Mother,” I begin. And without hesitation I decide to deliver the news with the same tactless weight with which she has always delivered her condemnations of my clothes, my diet, my friends, my career choices, and my right to make my own decisions. “Mother, Lawrence Welk is dead. Long dead. He’s been dead for over a decade.”
No more than a second or so passes before she replies. “Really? Is that right? I didn’t know that.” The tone of her voice reveals that she does not believe me. She has never trusted my judgment or my knowledge or even my grasp of plain facts. But she, too, has learned the futility of arguing. She has let go of the need to prove that she is right. She laughs. “Well, how about that?”
“You’re watching re-runs from the sixties, possibly the seventies.”
“Oh, well, you know how bad my memory is.” She laughs again, but this time the sound of it reveals some discomfort. A sigh betrays a hint of helplessness, as if her mind were a bag of sand with a hole in it, and that all of her memories and the things that she knew to be true were slowly sifting out onto the floor and making a gritty, slippery mess of her life. My mother’s independence and, perhaps more importantly, her confidence in always being right seem to hang in the balance now.
I laugh, too, and hear my own discomfort. “You’re doing fine, Mother,” I say. “Lots of people half your age have trouble remembering things.” Yes, lots of people have trouble remembering. Memory loss is not that serious. People can live fulfilling lives, completely on their own, in the vaguely pleasant fog of dementia. “Don’t worry about it, Mother.” My words have the finality of a locked door. I give myself permission to stop worrying.
“Oh, look. He’s inviting a lady from the audience to come up and dance with him. He does that every week at the end of the show.” Mother laughs again. “Lawrence Welk loves to dance with the ladies.”
For Mother, the champagne orchestra will play and the cast of singers and dancers will provide live wholesome entertainment, just as they always have. And I will continue to call her once a week, just to check on her, just to confirm that she is still there on her side of town, watching her television and fretting over the price of gasoline. I will live my own life, ignoring my anger at a mother whose love was always measured and conditional, believing, for a while more at least, that I am doing enough.
Before I end this week’s phone call, I indulge for a moment in my own fantasy. My mother, transformed back into an attractive forty-something dressed in a filmy Norma Zimmer gown, taking Lawrence Welk’s hand as he escorts her to a place where the two of them can sway among the rising bubbles with the other cotton-candy-colored fox trotters. And despite my own conviction that I have a grasp on reality and can rely on my memory to provide me with the facts, I know that someday I will think of her only in this way. Mother and Lawrence Welk will waltz lightly across a dance floor gazing lightheartedly into each other’s eyes in a world unreachable by cynics. And I will let myself imagine that they always will.
Georgia Kreiger lives in Western Maryland, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Her writing has appeared in PMS, Earth’s Daughters, Third Wednesday, Cobalt Review, and other publications. She is the 2012 recipient of the Backbone Mountain Review Award for Creative Nonfiction.
“I live on a mountaintop on a road aptly named Skyview Drive. My house faces a narrow valley crisscrossed by quiet suburban streets. From my front porch, I see sky—lots of it—above a forested ridge beyond the valley that forms the horizon, the deep blue of distance pines against the pale blue of air. Early some mornings, I look down onto fog in the valley below. Some days when I turn westward where the hills level out into the next town, clouds seem to approach me head-on. A view like mine is what hang gliders see as they sail the currents of air. From where I stand on my front porch, I sometimes imagine myself drawn outward into the limitless reaches of sky around me; and, for a moment, I know, I think I know, how it would feel to soar.”