“Who are you?” her mother asked.
“I’m your daughter, Alice.”
“I know that. But I mean, who are you?” Her mother’s eyes locked onto hers; she was clutching Alice’s eyes. What did she mean, then?
“I love you,” Alice said. “Don’t you know that?”
“But who are you?”
“How did you find me? How did you know where to look?”
“I’ll always find you. Wherever you are, I’ll find you.” Her mother looked a little easier at that. She always thought she was in prison now, trapped somewhere, for a crime she couldn’t remember. She felt, sometimes, that the charges were false. At other times the charges didn’t matter; it was just the prison aspect that bothered her. The strange people, the rules, the being told what to do. Alice took her mother’s hand. “You’re my mother,” she said. “Isn’t that terrific? To have a daughter like me?” She grinned and winked.
“All my daughters are wonderful,” her mother said.
“All of them?” Alice wondered and paused. “How many do you have?”
Her mother’s focus shifted to a point beyond Alice’s shoulder. “Oh, you know,” she said, troubled.
“Of course. All of us.”
Just then Cora came in, the brightest aide on the floor. “Why look at you!” Cora cried. “You’re looking all bright today. How you feeling?”
Her mother’s face lit up. “My daughter,” she said confidentially to Alice. “Lovely girl.”
Alice looked at Cora. The woman had a pleasant, smiling face. She moved around the room, setting up the lunch tray, putting the teabag in the hot water, unwrapping cutlery. Maybe that was it—the motions of the home, preparing a meal. Maybe that made her seem like a daughter. Alice told herself to fight the flare of dislike; she knew it was jealousy.
She patted her mother’s hand. “Remember that time you came to visit and we went to the auction and you met an old friend?”
“That was Cora,” her mother said.
Alice took this in. “The old friend?”
“I went to visit Cora.” Her mother’s face looked relaxed as she followed Cora’s movements.
“Don’t mind that,” Cora said to Alice, not worrying about what she said in front of her mother. “I’m everything to everybody. Comes with the territory.”
“That was me,” Alice said to her mother. “You came to visit me and we went to an auction and you met a friend you hadn’t seen in 20 years. That was remarkable, wasn’t it? How out of the blue you can be surprised like that. It was lovely.”
“It was lovely,” her mother said, frowning. “Did you come with us?”
She cast her eyes at Cora, who said, “I wasn’t there; your daughter Alice was there.”
“Alice?” her mother said uncertainly.
Alice looked at Cora. Things were being stolen away, bit by bit. Her mother got lost for a while, and then she found her footing and came back. But there were things that got dropped by the roadway; things that were valuable to her and, perhaps, more valuable to Alice.
And Cora was getting them.
“When I was a little girl,” Alice said, “you made me a doll from bits and pieces of fabric. A rag doll. The most beautiful doll ever.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Very traditional. Buttons for eyes. Yarn for hair.”
“I don’t remember.”
“I still have it. I’ll bring it next time. Maybe that will, that will strike a chord!” She raised her hands up, as if she had just finished a keyboard flourish.
Her mother raised her hands up automatically, mimicking the flourish.
“You play piano,” Alice reminded her.
“It’s been a while,” her mother agreed. “I wanted to play more than I did play.”
You remember that, Alice thought bitterly. She watched as Cora left the room, saying a merry “See you later!”
Her mother nearly sat up, her mouth agape. “Cora,” she whispered.
Alice brought the doll the next time she came. Her mother barely woke that day; she opened her eyes, smiled a little and said Hello then closed her eyes again. Alice tried to show her the doll, tried to tell her what she’d been doing, but her mother’s eyes when she opened them, were dull and disinterested.
Alice went in search of Cora.
“Oh yes,” Cora said. “She had a restless night, I heard about it. Yelled all night for Eleanor; who’s Eleanor?”
“I don’t know anyone named Eleanor.”
“Your mother does, I guess.”
“I don’t think so.”
Cora looked at her appraisingly. “Could be. Could just be a name she heard and it stuck in her mind. That’s what happens. Just what comes into her head now.”
“She thinks you’re her daughter,” Alice blurted out. She didn’t say it in a nice way, either.
Cora moved slowly, picking something up and putting it down. Alice didn’t see what it was; her eyes were watching Cora’s face.
“Well,” Cora said, finally. “I’m around a lot and I’m taking care of her. She thinks that means a daughter.”
“I come almost every day.” Alice heard her own voice being petulant; who would want a daughter with a petulant voice? Cora’s voice was sweet and giving.
“She talks about you when you’re not here, though,” Cora said. “She’s always asking me when is Alice coming, and I remind her. I say you just hold on, Alice will be here.”
“But she doesn’t recognize me,” Alice said, surprised. “She doesn’t know who I am.”
“Maybe not when you’re here. She’s thinking of another Alice, maybe.”
“A little girl, maybe. It’s hard to know what she’s thinking, what part she remembers. But yes, a little girl. She saved some candy the other day—just a piece of chocolate—she saved it for Alice.”
Alice thought about this carefully. She was too old to be the daughter her mother remembered; not a comforting thing. There was another Alice in her mother’s mind, crowding out the true Alice. So Cora wasn’t the one she should be jealous of. She wasn’t sure how Cora fitted in, but it was this younger version of herself who kept kicking her out of the picture. She sighed, closed her eyes briefly, it was more than she could handle for the day. She would have to think how she would become the true Alice in her mother’s mind, before it was too late, before the final farewell.
Perhaps, for that, she also needed to connect with who her mother was now, with the mother she saw before her, who wasn’t the mother in her head either.
She nodded to Cora. “So where’s that candy my mother saved for me?”
“Oh, sorry,” Cora said. “I ate it.”