Escaping to Old Vegas
When I was in Kindergarten I asked my mom where the craziest place she ever had sex was. She was watching The Oprah Winfrey Show in the living room while dinner simmered on the stove. I sat at her feet and listened to the television. It was a Valentine’s Day special and, in a cheeky game of 20 questions, Oprah had posed the question to the studio audience.
When she first read the question from her cue card, the guests howled. A few arms shot up to answer, but Oprah didn’t call on them. She ascended the rows of the crowd, bypassing the confident participants, and stopped in front of a young woman with a beet-red face. The woman looked painfully embarrassed, but Oprah pointed the microphone toward her tight mouth anyway: “In a tree!” the woman shrieked, then buried her face in her hands. The crowd roared.
Oprah’s performance was masterful—the way she picked out the shy newlyweds who stammered as they looked to each other for reassurance, “The kitchen table!” or called on the southern grandmother figure who delivered her line with self-assured specificity, “The church parking lot of Christ the King, baby!” Each time Oprah approached someone, she elicited from them a location more outrageous than the last one.
I looked over at my mom who was sitting on a pink slipper chair, sipping a cup of coffee and chuckling at the TV. I wanted to make her laugh, too.
After I repeated the question to my mom, she swallowed her sip of coffee hard. “Sarah!” she gasped.
“What?” I shrugged.
She immediately got up from her chair and went to check on the spaghetti sauce.
Later that evening, my aunt came over to visit. I was underneath the dining room table, where I often set up my toys, and could overhear my mom telling her what I had asked her earlier that day. I was happy I had made them crack up together as they sat at the table eating Entenmann’s coffee cake.
Do you consider your childhood to have been a happy one?
I had forgotten about that story until recently, when I purchased a subscription to Storyworth for my mom as a Christmas gift. The program auto-emails the recipient one question per week for a year. At the end of the year you can assemble the fifty-two responses into a hardbound book.
There is a screening feature where you can see the list of upcoming questions and swap out, reorder, or omit a question altogether. Some of them were softballs: What are your favorite movies? What foods do you dislike? Or What were your favorite subjects in high school?
But other questions made me nervous.
As close as I am to my mom, we tend to avoid talking about anything uncomfortable. My mom is a self-proclaimed optimist, and, if I am feeling especially down, she will tell me to stay positive, it will all work out. If we do wade into complicated territory, she will short-circuit the discussion with a cliché. “Actions speak louder than words.” or “Life’s too short!” are favorites of hers.
When I saw the question, Do you consider your childhood to have been a happy one? I was tempted to delete it from the queue. I knew it was going to put her on the spot and make her uneasy. But in a flash of bravery right before the queue closed for edits, I left it in there.
The weekly question went out on Sundays. I almost always had a response from her by Monday.
The email notification that signaled her response chimed when I was at work. I decided not to open it until I got home and could read it privately. I thought about it all day.
I expected her to say yes—her childhood was happy—but part of me wanted her to tell me the truth.
As a kid, I never understood why my mother seemed to keep my grandmother at arm’s length. To me Grandma Stephie was one of the funnest people in the world. She loved parties, church festivals, and casinos. She had a magnificent collection of costume jewelry—emerald, ruby, and opal parures, gold flower brooches, and a coveted vintage owl necklace with diamond eyes. She always hosted holidays, and while the adults drank VO whiskey and smoked Winstons at the kitchen table, I would sneak into her bedroom and go through her jewelry armoire, trying on all of her rings, necklaces, and bracelets.
My grandmother had a tendency to self-mythologize. She would often tell me about all of the marriage proposals she turned down before she married my grandfather. How hard he had to work to win her over. She would recreate the illusion of this romantic chase many times during the course of their marriage—which my brother and I later dubbed “going to Old Vegas.”
The legend of Old Vegas started because my grandfather bought my grandma a faux diamond ring for their thirtieth wedding anniversary. When he gave it to her, he let her believe it was an authentic gemstone.
She used to take me on errands with her and at each one of our stops she found an opportunity to flash the cubic zirconia. She drove a white Volkswagen Rabbit with a Bakelite ashtray velcroed to the dashboard. When we got to the bank I knew what was coming. “Look what papa got me!” she’d say, extending her bony hand to the teller.
A few weeks passed and she decided to have the ring appraised and insured. She was devastated to learn it was worth next to nothing. My grandfather had humiliated her and she decided to make him pay.
So she escaped to Old Vegas for the weekend. Grandma loved Las Vegas, and often vacationed there with my grandfather and their friends. They always stayed at The Golden Nugget, one of those iconic hotels in downtown Vegas on Fremont Street a few miles north of the more modern Las Vegas Strip.
It is amazing to think my grandma booked that flight on a whim, pre-cell phone era, without telling anyone where she was going. I don’t remember how the rest of the story unfolded—how we came to learn that she was in Old Vegas—but I remember the night my mom and I picked her up from the airport and she was drunk.
My mom woke me up at what felt like the middle of the night to tell me that we had to give grandma a ride home. I put my winter coat on over my pajamas and got in the car. My mom stayed quiet the entire ride. I stared out the window at the high-mast lighting whipping past us, unraveling into the distance.
We parked the car and headed through the glass doors into the desolate airport. It was cold and clean and expansive. It felt like a hospital. We took the escalator up to the second floor and headed toward the terminal. I spotted my grandma deboarding her plane. I remember she wore a red sun visor like Hunter S. Thompson. She spoke loudly, which immediately tipped my mom off to her drunkenness. “Hi Michie!” she slurred before we had reached conversation range. “Hi Sweetie!” she said as I ran toward her. I gave her a hug and noticed she was unsteady on her feet. My mom grabbed her by the elbow, “Let’s go.”
I was aware of the tension, but couldn’t pinpoint the source of my mom’s anger. She continued to usher my grandma toward the escalator, never loosening her grip.
“You know what sounds good?” my grandma said as we descended the second floor. “Bray’s Hamburgers. How about some hamburgers?” She lingered a beat too long on the “ham.”
My mom shot her a death stare. They shared a single silver step on that moving staircase. I was one step behind them with my grandma’s suitcase. “Yes!” I said.
I remember thinking how cool it was that I was out that late. Going out to eat was a novelty all on its own, and my grandma’s suggestion to stay up even later and go out to eat made this adventure seem even better.
But we never got the hamburgers. Instead my mom drove her directly home. My grandma talked the whole way and I don’t remember anything she said.
We pulled in the driveway of my grandparents’ house. The kitchen light turned on. My mom exited the driver’s seat and walked around the front of the car, eclipsing each headlight as she passed. When she unlatched the door, my grandma’s purse spilled out of the car, the contents scattered on the concrete. She told Grandma to sit tight while she put her purse back together.
My mom reached out her arm and my grandma latched on to it. She hoisted her up out of her seat. They walked arm in arm up the driveway, my mom wheeling the carryon behind her. My grandpa met them at the side door. Mom handed her off to him and he took her inside.
When I opened up the email to view my mom’s response to the question, she had written a very short response, but generally it was what I had expected. ”I did have a happy childhood,” she wrote. “My parents loved me and worked hard to provide a good home for me, my sister and brother. They sent us to a Catholic school, made holidays special and encouraged us to do our best in everything we did.”
Do you have any regrets?
After a month of low-stakes prompts that led to some funny, lighthearted responses from my mom, I checked the queue again and saw that the next question was Do you have any regrets? I felt that familiar flutter in my stomach that signaled this one might be close to the bone. I left it in and forgot about it for a few days.
That week I happened to watch the movie adaptation of The Glass Menagerie. Katherine Hepburn played the Amanda Wingfield character. My husband and I cracked up about all of her “gentlemen callers.” “That’s so Grandma Stephie!” he said.
There is a scene towards the end when Amanda Wingfield is frustrated that her son’s friend, Mr. O’Connor, isn’t the family man she thought he was for her daughter, but suggests, hopefully, that he might be, sometime in the future. I see. Plans and provisions, he replies. Amanda shouts back: You are the only man I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present becomes the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!
I remembered that I had sent my mom the question about regret and I checked my phone to see if I had gotten her response. She had responded with a quote by Anonymous.
Never regret anything that has happened in your life. It cannot be changed, undone or forgotten. So take it as a lesson learned and move on. ~ Anonymous
I have always hated anonymous quotes because they are impossible to locate. They risk nothing. Without attribution they feel evasive and ephemeral, like they can slip right through your memory. They also give you no choice but to assign them to the person who shared the quote, which made me hate this one even more—I didn’t want to assign it to my mother. It felt nothing like her at all. She would never end on a flippant, “move on.” It was so cold and disembodied that it stung.
But I guess on some level it was unsurprising from a woman who offered everything of herself in terms of affection, but very little of her real story. There was one anecdote she told me, though, that I thought of as revelatory.
She once told me that when she was a child my grandmother asked her to put away the laundry. When she started unloading her clothes into her dresser she found an empty bottle of vodka. She realized my grandma had been hiding the extent of her drinking. “Now I can’t stand the sight of laundry baskets,” she said.
This or that?
In the following months, I left the queue alone. Storyworth continued to generate more softball questions and I continued to read her responses each week. She revived some hilarious stories from the family archive—most I knew, only a few I didn’t. The subscription was set to end in January, which is the same month as her birthday. This January she turned 70, a milestone.
With pandemic restrictions in place, my sister hosted a small birthday party for my mom at her house. My husband and I FaceTimed into the party to watch my mom open her gifts.
I had ordered the finished Storyworth book a few weeks earlier and decided to hold onto it until her birthday so she could unwrap it as one of her birthday gifts. She had texted me about the subscription and asked if she needed to do anything to get her book. I told her I would take care of it.
I used my mom’s Facebook profile picture, a picture of her and my dad looking at a sunset together, as the cover photo. The book looked beautiful and I was excited to see her response to the finished product.
When I answered the FaceTime call my sisters appeared on the screen together wearing green Las Vegas sun visors. I couldn’t believe it.
I remembered a picture of my mom as a child with her siblings and my grandma in my grandparents’ backyard. It was summertime. The four of them were wearing bathing suits and standing next to a plastic baby pool. The sun was blinding them so they squinted into the camera, trying to hold their smiles. My grandmother had a head scarf tied around her head and she had kneeled down to my uncle’s height. He was the youngest of the three kids. Grandma Stephie had one arm around his shoulder and the other hand cupped above her eyes like a shield from the sun.
“We did a casino theme!” my youngest sister said. She took me on a virtual tour of her house showing me a casino backdrop for selfies, giant playing cards dangling from her dining room ceiling, and poker chips spilled out on the buffet table.
My mom came into view with her visor on, “Do I look like Grandma Stephie?” she said striking a pose. “We always knew she was blasted when she wore the visor,” she added, laughing.
They moved into the living room and my mom sat down on the stairs that led to the second floor. She took off the visor and set it down next to her on the step. My sister handed her my gift. “I know what this is,” she said, sizing it up and smiling.
My mom unwrapped the book and started to cry. She held it up and I took a screenshot on my phone. Taking a picture of the FaceTime call created a strange effect. My face is suspended in a tiny square to the right of her head, both of us looking forward toward the lens even though, at that moment, we were looking right at each other.
She finished opening her gifts and we said goodbye and I ended the call. Almost immediately I got a picture text from my sister. It was a photo of 22 pairs of words and at the top of the page it said “This or That!”
“Text me your answers!” she wrote. “Winner gets a $25 Amazon gift card.”
The list of words represented things my mom liked. The object of the game was to guess which one she liked more. It included things like Coffee or Tea; Marshalls or Target; and Cruise or Cabin.
My strategy for these kinds of party games was to never think too long about a choice. Go with your initial response, I told myself. Go with your gut.
I went down the list rapidly but couldn’t help myself. I got to Fritos or Bugles. Not fair, she loves both of these! I thought.
Mona Lisa Smile or Across the Universe
Christmas or Thanksgiving
Traverse City or Ludington
I made it to the end of the list and texted back my responses.
Thirty minutes later my sister wrote back, “Wow, dead last. 9/22”
LOL, I wrote back, but really, I felt a combination of embarrassment and sadness.
I sat there alone on my couch and thought about the past year, wondering about all the ways she has kept herself unknowable, as if by design. Football or Hockey. Bacon or Sausage. Ridiculous choices between two superficial things that don’t tell you anything about a person.
I thought about the time I chickened out and didn’t ask her about her response to regret. Had she just moved on like Anonymous? Or was her non-answer a pint bottle in the laundry basket? After Amanda Wingfield delivered her line about regret she talked about a formula for avoiding the missteps that cause it: The only way to find out about these things is to make discreet inquiries at the proper moment. To which Tom replied, Then how did you manage to make a tragic mistake?
I pictured my mother at her casino party dancing with my sisters in her sun visor, all of her grandkids around her singing and dancing, too. I wondered if it hurt for her to put the visor on, why she took it off when she opened her gifts. I wondered: Sorrow or Despair. Forgiveness or Redemption. Pain or Shame. Celebration or Joy. Or was there another question I didn’t know how to ask?
Sarah Pazur holds a PhD in Educational Leadership. Her work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, JMWW, Exacting Clam, Porcupine Literary, Connotation Press, English Leadership Quarterly and elsewhere. She lives in Michigan.