Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Elmo's Blackness

"Did you know Elmo was black?" my mother asks, in Rome, at the Villa Borghese, where we are about to rent a little motorized bike for two that is roughly the same size as a golf cart.

I try to think whether we know anyone named Elmo and why, if I did know someone named Elmo, I wouldn't have noticed that this person was black.

"The puppet!" my mother cries, seeing I don't understand.

I blink. "Elmo the puppet is red, mom," I say.

"I know that," she replies. "I'm talking inside. Inside Elmo."

"Inside Elmo is FELT," I say. "And frankly, inside every puppet, it's probably black."

My mother starts waving her hands at me. "I mean the hand that created Elmo," she says, and proceeds to tell me about a recent documentary she watched, The Hand That Created Elmo being the title I guess, in which a young, poor, African American kid from a pretty lousy neighborhood somewhere back East ("I think it was Pittsburgh?") develops an obsession with puppets he learns pretty quickly to keep quiet on the high school playground. The kid gets a great internship to work with some local tv channel, however, meets someone who knew Jim Henson, and the rest is history.

"Isn't that just an amazing story?" my mother says. "I mean, who knew Elmo was black?"

"Not even Elmo, I suspect," I tell her.

We are standing in a little patch of sun, enjoying our first few days of non-rain in basically a week. It's gorgeous at the park, all these villas and fountains and nicely manicured patches of garden, even a zoo that I can't convince my mother to go see.

"Too many children," she says, watching hordes of little Roman children trailing after their daycare providers, screaming and kicking at each other as they clutch their class rope. I find it amusing that my mother doesn't seem to like hanging out with children, considering she spent most of her life as a school educator and that now she collects Tickle-Me Elmo toys (she has three) for her home. Frankly, I should have known she was talking about the puppet. I suppose I just forgot, based on our surroundings--you know, the fact that we're in ROME.

And also, frankly, it's because my mother's conversation these 8 days together has been a lot like this: sudden assertions of personal or cultural facts, half-explained, always baffling, that appear mid-sentence or even mid-conversation stream. My mom has always had a tendency for this. Most of my life has been waiting for my mother to finish one or more of her jokes, which always seem to dead end just at the punch-line ("So the penguin says, and this is so funny you are going to DIE. I did when the janitor at school told me. The penguin SAID, 'Well, don't do it then!' No, that's not what the penguin said. It was much funnier than that, and actually I think the penguin really WANTED to do it, because the penguin was being, what is the word? Not licentious, but worse. Slutty? The penguin was slutty? Anyway, I forget, but it was SOOOO funny!") or waiting for her to actually finish her sentences at all. ("Tom, Pais? Could one of you go get me that.....?" "YES?" we'll prod. "Thing!" she'll shout back. "The THING!")

When I was in high school, to jolt her back to syntactic life, I'd shout random words to help jog her memory.

"We need to defrost the..." my mother would stall, and I'd yell, "GONADS!"

"The lasagna!" my mother would snap back, synapses refiring. "The lasagna, dammit!"

Now, however, my mother seems a little worried about this memory loss. It seems to be getting worse, she tells me. It seems like things are getting fuzzier more often. "I'm worried I have..." she begins, and her eyes cloud over. "SYPHILIS?" I scream, and a pair of Roman old ladies look over at me.

In reality, I don't think my mother needs to worry about Altzheimer's, or at least I hope she doesn't. She has, as I've said before, always been like this. The thing that scares me is the return of her cancer, and though her latest scans are still clear, the seriousness of her cancer before, the fact that she has more and more health problems to worry about (including the heart and cholesterol stuff; one whole day in Paris was devoted to getting her new medications after the NY TSA LOST HER MEDICATIONS AFTER THEY TOOK THEM OUT OF HER BAG), occasionally startles me into remembering that my mother is in fact 70 years old, and what's happening to her now might be the distant, but real, call of doom.

It's hard to remember this, because my mother is still extremely active, still spry and running around and doing all sorts of fun stuff with her life. Including renting a little motorized golf cart/bike with me.

"This is how you do it," the woman renting the carts tells us. "Both pedal but one steer only, one sit and watch. You peddle hard, the motor start, the cart go fast. You stop, pull this hand brake. Easy."

My mother nods, gets into the passenger seat and tells me I'm in charge. "I like that only one person is in control of this," she tells me. This, in itself, I realize again, is a real difference in her. Ten years ago, my mother would never have let anyone else be in charge.

Off we go. We pedal, grunting with the effort of trying to move a miniature golf cart from standstill position up and over a speed bump. The cart moves, we pedal faster, the engine catches.

And then the cart starts to zoom into the parking lot.

"Straight! Straight! OH! Car! STRAIGHT!" my mother yelps.

"I'm going straight! Fuck it! The brakes!" I yell, backpedaling, which is NOT what works in the miniature cart.

"Stop swearing! we are in a CATHOLIC COUNTRY. And you are going to HIT THE ZOO!"

It's true. The cart is now careening straight for a wall of the zoo. I crank on the handbrake, but we're going downhill, so the brakes give a repetitive, puling whine before shuddering the cart to something resembling slower. Two large poles suddenly loom up, evidently put there for people just like us, to stop the golf cart traffic that's gotten out of control. My mother and I give two cartoonish shrieks, like smurfs in peril, as we narrowly pass between the two poles.

My mother and I collapse laughing. "Now," my mother gasps, wiping her eyes, "we have to turn this thing around and go back!"

It turns out that you can't turn this golf cart around easily. It's too wide for the lane, and it's hard to get up the speed on any kind of incline or at a standstill. So my 70 year-old mother gets out to push the cart while I peddle, straining and grunting and cranking the wheel. Then the engine catches, my mother jumps in, and off we go again.

Until the next hill.

At some point during our ride, our engine dies, or just gets too tired of listening to us and quits. It quits just as we are on the crest of a really big hill, and just as the park's miniature tourist train is, we note with horror, coming straight at us.

The little train horn lets loose a menacing tinkle. "Oh no," my mother says, and starts to laugh, "the Italians are coming to kill us!"

The train is, in fact, veering right towards us, and though my mother and I are giving it our all, we CANNOT get the cart engine to catch. The train, going roughly 2 miles an hour, is now looming. We are going 1.6 miles an hour. It is the world's slowest, most agonizing head-on collision.

"Get out!" I yell at my mother. "Get out and push us to the side! I'll keep peddling!" My mother, weeping now with laughter, is out of the cart, heaving and pushing at it while I keep peddling and swearing. Families pass, grinning. Old men with canes hobble past. We are going nowhere.

"Push, old woman, PUSH!" I yell, but my mother is now too weak with laughter. The train is now almost right on top of us. Tourists are leaning out of it, staring at the road blockage that is us, some of them taking pictures--probably for the insurance. The train conductor is yelling something in Italian, probably, "This thing has shit brakes too! MOVE!" but I can't tell. My mother is grunting and shoving the cart with all her might, and I'm practically standing on the cart's pedals. The train horn gives another menacing tinkle and my mother and I look up at the conductor in terror.

At times like this, I like to imagine what the other Amy Lowell fellow is doing. Spenser Reese, I hear, is studying to be a priest. He's probably in some third world nation right now, mopping at the fevered brow of some faithful follower dying in his arms of a wasting disease. Meanwhile, I'm in a Roman park, screaming at my 70 year-old mother to "PUSH THE SHIT OUT OF THIS CART!" before we both get run down by a miniature train.

It's hard to imagine many worthwhile poems will be coming out of this.

Anyway, at just the moment of crisis--when all is nearly lost and we will be, if not killed, at least REALLY REALLY BRUISED AND EMBARRASSED--the engine catches, the cart leaps forward and to the left, and we miss the train.

But I also leave behind my mother. Because she's now a few feet behind, begging me to stop. "I can't stop!" I yell. "It'll never start again. Run and jump in!"

Which, amazingly, she sort of does. Which is when we hear another menacing tinkle, look over at our right and realize, THE TRAIN IS TURNING AND FOLLOWING US. And now we are going to be rear-ended.

"I hate this place!" I shout, as my mother collapses into a giggling fit, and our cart engine speeds us up, wildly, into a tree.

So that's what we did in Rome. Afterwards, we went out and had a wonderful dinner near our hotel close to the Spanish steps, then wandered around the town the rest of the days, watching people get all televisedly excited about Berlusconi's demise while eating gelato and shopping.

I have to say, however, overall this was the best vacation I've ever taken with my mother, and there have been lots of pretty good ones. Over our lives together, we've traveled to Hong Kong, Jamaica, Norway, Mexico, India, France and now Italy. And each time has been--if not exactly consistently amusing--at least an experience, as my mother would say. But this time was incredibly fun, and it was perhaps this way because it was also tinged with the knowledge that my mother's health is finally stable. It's good. She's good. Even if, as she'll admit herself, she can't remember anything.

"You know," she said picking up her original thought, five hours later over a dinner of pizza. "He wanted to create a puppet that loved everybody. That's what Elmo was supposed to be. And he really did."

"Do you feel you have your own personal relationship with Elmo?" I asked. "Is that what you're telling me?"

"I'm saying," mom snapped, "that Elmo was just a very loving puppet. That was his appeal!"

"You know," I said, "In Elmo's honor, I think I'm going to name my next book, 'Elmo's Blackness.'"

"Oh my God, don't you write about this!"

"I would never."

My mother looked at me, then went back to her pizza. We drained our glasses of prosecco. The waiter, noticing we were empty, came over and asked if we would like another. We looked at each other. We told him that we did.


  1. Of course, pupaphobia, the fear of puppets (as you might have guessed), is quite common in the dizzying presence of Italian Renaissance architecture. Romulus and Remus, it is told, suffered from the same ignominious malady. Alas, there is no acceptable medical term for the fear of golf carts. This oversight by the medical community is soon to be rectified owing, in large part, to the undeniable and civilizing influence of golf in our modern economy.

  2. O. Good. Lord. You rented the tourist bike-cart. You're adorable, the bunch of you.

    In all honesty, so delighted to hear that you've been having such a great time w/ your mom. I'm taking my mom and my kids to Italy in a couple of years, and am anticipating with pleasure our own hijinx...

  3. But did you see the Berninis in the Galleria Borghese? The Daphne? Proserpina?

  4. Yes I did. I spent about half an hour staring at the Rape of Persephone. It was truly stunning. Don't think I've had such a, um, complicated set of reactions to a piece of sculpture before.

  5. gg train horns nice blog to read about ( Elmo's Blackness ) i like it and i also wanna thank you for sharing it with us