How to be a Dutiful Daughter


A Memoir by Karen Zey

I phone my 87-year-old mother, steeling myself for the loop of complaints. The stingy servings of bland food at the residence. The stupid chair-exercise class she threatens to skip but never does. The crappy bingo caller who mumbles all the time and nobody, nobody can hear the numbers. 

My sisters and I tell each other Mom’s still feisty, still speaks her mind. But lately, a faint sadness seeps into our words. Mom’s lost so much of herself. The maternal warrior who battled a school principal so my six-year-old sister could write with her left hand. The political firebrand who campaigned for decades against Quebec separatists. The world is so much wider, girls, than the provincial patch where we live. 

Now Mom’s world has shrunk—and her cantankerous grievances land on me. I live in the same city and visit every week. I can’t give her the adventures she craves so I offer to take her to Walmart. 

On Saturday I pick her up after preparing the car with an old towel laid over the passenger seat. Just in case. Leaning on her walker, she shuffles out of her building dressed for an outing. Aquamarine slacks and floral-patterned blouse, wispy hair curled and sprayed in place, rosy lipstick brightening her smile. 

“Nice outfit, Mom.” I tug the seatbelt across her upper body and snap her safely in. 

She claws at the belt. “It’s choking me,” she says. “Argh! You have to undo it.” 

Gritting my teeth, I remind myself she’s in my care. “You have to wear it, Mom. It’s the law.” I add a pathetic white lie.  “I can’t afford a ticket.” 

She grimaces, pulls the belt away from her chest and holds it there for the entire ride. At the curb outside Walmart, I wrestle her walker out of the trunk and help her wriggle out of the car. 

“Mom, please wait for me inside the door while I park. I won’t be long.”  

She hobbles across the sidewalk at a surprisingly brisk pace for an elderly woman. I swerve into an empty space and jog to the sliding doors. My mother is not in the entrance. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. I grab a cart and scan the aisles near the front until I spot a flash of aqua polyester disappearing around a corner.

I join Mom as if nothing has happened. As if her small rebellion is of no concern at all. As if her growing confusion and angry episodes are not a constant worry. As if I can’t imagine a loudspeaker announcement about a lost senior wandering the store in a daze. As if I can’t picture her fallen body on the floor, blood pooling under her head after hitting the cement. 

“There you are,” Mom says. “You took long enough.” 

Deep inhale, slow exhale. “Let’s head to the shampoo section, Mom.”

I pretend not to watch as she checks shelf after shelf, picks up one bottle after another, mutters and puts them all back. Picks up yet another bottle with her pale gnarled fingers. The brand she wants, the familiar clear bottle with green contents, is not there. Sold out. And for my mother, taking care of her thinning hair with the right shampoo is all-important. 

“Where is it?” she says. “The one with herbal ingredients.” She snatches another bottle from the shelf and slams it down.

“I can’t find it!” Mom is shouting now, hurling out curses I’ve never heard her use before. “Damn it. Goddamn it to hell!” She gives me an angry glare.

I’m failing her. She lifts her walker and bangs the detested thing up and down on the floor. Once, twice, three times. I sense onlookers hovering nearby. Mom’s lost in a storm of frustration—and I need to get us out of there. 

“Let’s leave, Mom.” My voice becomes louder, strained. “We’ll leave the cart. I’ll take you to Pharmaprix. They’ll have your shampoo there.” 

I nudge her walker in the right direction. ”Come on, Mom. Let’s go.” My eyes prickle. More cajoling. Another little push. 

People are staring. At the old lady throwing a tantrum in the aisle at Walmart. At the uptight daughter trying to manoeuver her agitated mother out of the store. No patience or dignity on display here. 

When we finally reach the exit, I breathe easier. And I carry something no one else can see. A tiny flutter of pride. My mother is 87 and she’s still a fighter.

                                                                  *   *   *

Karen Zey is a Canadian writer from la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Her CNF has appeared in the Brevity Nonfiction Blog, Five Minutes, (mac)ro(mic), Potato Soup Journal and other fine places. Karen leads the Circle of Life Writers workshops at her community library. You can read more of her work at or follow her micro-musings about life and writing on Twitter @zippyzey


  1. Very moving, I can picture it so clearly and feel all the emotions, even had me shedding a few tears for your mom. You write so beautifully Karen. Looking forward to reading more.


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