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After my 90-year-old mother’s right hearing aid falls out and disappears, an otolaryngologist implants an electromagnetic hearing device inside her right middle ear. This implant uses the most advanced technology and really seems to help. Mother’s home health aide Gloria is pleased since the implant can’t fall out and be lost. I, who pay the bills, am pleased because I won’t have to replace it, hopefully ever. Both of us are pleased because we no longer have to shout at Mother to be heard.
Soon Mother starts insisting that a tiny fairy lodges in her middle ear, alongside the implant, speaking to her in schoolgirl French. “The fairy’s name is Nanette,” says Mother. She gives me a sly look, the one she’s used since I was a girl, whenever she suspects I’m hiding something. “Nanette knows things.”
When I was in middle school, Madame Clio gave each student in French class a French name. Mine was Nanette — a name I disliked and often didn’t respond to. That was 48 years ago. I worry about Mother. Is she descending into dementia? But except for this Nanette business, she’s lucid.
Then Mother begins to comment on things I don’t tell her, things I don’t want her to know. “I’ve been looking in Help Wanted,” she says. “There are opportunities even for someone your age.” How can Mother possibly know? That I took early retirement. That I’m not looking for work. Has Gloria seen me around the neighborhood when I should be downtown? I glance at Gloria but she’s busy setting Mother’s hair. When she’s done, Mother will look like a queen.
The next day, Mother brings it up again. “What about BNP Paribas? They’re hiring tellers.” Same as in middle school, I pretend not to hear. I won’t work in a bank again. I’m studying piano in the Juilliard evening division. During the day I frequent a practice room, not an office. At night I take lessons and work on my touch and sight-reading.
“Nanette says you want the Steinway when I die,” Mother says a few days later. “She says you deserve it for taking in me and Gloria. That’s not going to happen, cherie. You and Charles will inherit equally. You two can sell the piano and partager the proceeds.” Charles lives in Paris and visits Mother once a year. He’s completely unmusical – like Mother. Mother inherited the piano (now in storage) from grand-pere, who played by ear. I can’t play by ear, though I tried. When I started lessons at 10, Mother lamented I didn’t inherit this gift. I needed to study a piece to play it.
Today, while Mother and Gloria are in the bathroom, I spy Mother’s old hearing aid, the one she lost, wedged between the seat and metal frame of her wheelchair. Mother’s implant has a 90-day return policy. We could get it removed, and get our money back. Adieu Nanette.
Yet Nanette knows I dream of living with Bach and Mozart, not Mother; dream of Debussy commanding me, instead of maman.
Nanette knows me as Mother never has.
I can’t let her go.
Nancy Ludmerer has stories in Kenyon Review, Cimarron Review, Green Mountains Review, North American Review, Sou’wester, New Orleans Review, and Masters Review’s “New Voices” series. Her essay “Kritios Boy” (Literal Latte) was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2014 and her flash fiction “First Night” (River Styx) is reprinted in Best Small Fictions 2016. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. She practices law and lives in New York City with her husband Malcolm and cat Sandy, a rescue from Superstorm Sandy.