The three of us were eating turkey sandwiches at my kitchen table. It was the summer of 1974, and I was 33. My mother had driven to my house in Charlotte, North Carolina, from hers in Rock Hill, South Carolina; Mollie, my mother-in-law, was visiting from Miami. Newly widowed, Mollie was talking about buying a condominium. She and her late husband had always lived in rental apartments, but now she wondered if she had been throwing her money away. Mother, the world’s best listener, began weighing the benefits of renting vs. owning. When she came to the word condominium, she stumbled.
“If you buy a condo-nim-i-um…” she said, not quite able to unroll the syllables. I took a big bite of my sandwich. The bread stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Mother was determined. “I mean, condo-nim-i-um…” She stopped and started again. “A condo…” she said. “Condo… Uh, a condo…” Then she was silent. She stared out the window at a bush in the backyard, as if she were mentally rummaging through its leaves to find the word.
I swallowed. “Condominium, Mother.”
She had always been an unusually bright and articulate woman: the only female enrolled in the CPA program at her university back in the 1920s; a diligent accountant who kept the books for my father’s clothing stores; an expert completer of crossword puzzles. Why was she having such difficulty connecting the vowels and the consonants of this ordinary noun?
Soon I noticed other troubling signs. When the two of us stopped by the grocery store, she managed to pay with the right number of dollar bills. But then she dumped all the change from her wallet into her hand—dimes, quarters, pennies loose as copper fish—and held out her palm for the checkout girl to take what she needed.