My Mother Lives in Her Own Minimalist Version of ‘Grey Gardens’
Grey Gardens, the documentary about Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy, could be a film about my mother — minus the hoarding.
Like the Bouvier-Beales, my mother is more than an eccentric or a colorful character. I suspect she’s been mentally ill for decades, and her willingness to sacrifice her own and any visitor’s comfort over an intense concern for animals is a type of dementia.
In the film, we see Little Edie and her mother cohabitating with a collection of wild and domesticated animals in their decaying and garbage-filled mansion — living their lives oblivious to their surroundings.
Animals come and go through broken windows, free to pee or shit wherever they please, and generally act as if it’s not the Bouvier Beale’s house but their wildlife refuge.
My mother’s house isn’t in East Hampton, New York, but in a small town in the Sacramento Delta. Her open-door-policy for animals is similar to the Bouvier Beales.
My mother would never willingly go to a therapist or seek help for her strange behavior — she believes she’s doing fine, living life according to her terms, and if she wants her home to be a shelter for all animals, then it’s her choice.
I’m a huge animal person and have three cats myself, but unlike my mother, I know the difference between caring for animals, and a manic need to protect them at any cost.
During my last visit to my mother’s house, I was vacuuming when I found a cluster of dead wasps, their bodies cobblestones on the hardwood floor under the front window. The surviving wasps’ buzzed around the windowpane and clung to the sheer curtains framing the window as if their lives depended on it.
Their wasp’s hive may have been on the outside of the house, but they instinctively knew they were much safer living inside my mother’s house.
“You have wasps,” I told my mother.
“They don’t bother me, and I don’t bother them,” my mother said as if gearing up for a fight. “I rarely use that room anyway. We can all co-habitat together.”
My mother wasn’t being contrary; she truly feels as if she’s required to be a warm and gracious host to her animal and insect friends. I wondered if she’d feel as magnanimous if her dog or one of her cats got bitten.
The Bouvier Beales drew the line at housing anything with a stinger.
The house my mother lives in has little furniture, is freezing in the winter, and scratching hot in the summer. She’s uninterested in how her human houseguests react to extreme weather.
She’s furious if anyone tries to sneak in an electric fan when the weather reaches triple digits.
“In the evening, a breeze comes off the river and cools everything down,” my mother explains when asked what she does to stay cool.
It doesn’t matter to her the CPAP machine I use to sleep doesn’t function if it gets too hot or cold. It hurts knowing my mother would care more about my wellbeing if I had fur or more than two legs.
She uses her ex-breakfast room as a shelter so her outside cats can come in from the rain. She tried to jerry-rig the door with an open umbrella as a deterrent to keep the water out, and the cats in, but it didn’t work. Now the room is covered in mud, fur, vomit, and other unappetizing substances.
I’m all for giving her stray and feral cats, food, water, and shelter, but giving them a room to do with how they please — is excessive.
The documentary of Grey Gardens spawned a movie, a musical, other documentaries such as That Summer, and several books, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit my mother inspires me with her peculiarities.
I’m able to care about humans, which I’m not sure the women in Grey Gardens or my mother can do.
When psychopathy goes unchecked and untreated, it resembles a weed that covers the land and suffocates the plants in its path until it’s the only creature that survives.
My mother insists on living on her own, and she’s aware enough to stand her ground. She has a caregiver, neighbors who check in with her, and occasionally family, but her life revolves around her animals and insects, and she admits they are keeping her alive.
When Grey Gardens first came out, people had a difficult time believing it was non-fiction. If my mother’s neighbors hadn’t seen her house for themselves, they might think everything they heard about the eccentric old lady living on their street was fiction.