Her mother died in August, when the summer cherries soured and mimicked the flavor of aging, stringy plums. For three years, Nancy had called her mother at least once daily, managed her bills, purchased a cream-colored couch and a drop-leaf kitchen table for the assisted living apartment, and attended to her needs as much as a daughter could from a distance spanning four states. An attorney by training, Nancy could now rattle off both the brand and generic names of at least 25 of her mother’s medications, the direct extensions of the assisted living facility’s director, nurses, health aids, physical therapists, in-house-doctor, and even the podiatrist who attended to her mother’s diabetic feet. She tackled the sticky phone calls to deal with Mr. Horowitz from apartment 312. Her mother’s diminutive and forgetful next-door-neighbor had returned from a hospital visit with a shiny new stent tucked into a constricted blood vessel, and a demotion of his mental status from “moderate” to “advanced” dementia. Mr. Horowitz began daily peregrinations into her mother’s apartment, attempting to use her bathroom, and even once absconding with her wheelchair. Who else but Nancy would make the phone calls and craft the emails with just the correct tone, encompassing gratitude, necessity for action, humor, and kindness? Nancy swaddled her demands in the velvety language of requests, and Mr. Horowitz’s startling visits ceased.
Nancy’s own sense of time had begun to atrophy since her mother’s death and her younger child’s move to college. To distinguish among the hazy, commingling hours, she engaged in a silent ritual on the first day of each new month: a deliberate turning of the page on her mother’s rose-of-the-month wall calendar. When December arrived, Nancy assumed November’s “Frankly Scarlet” roses would give way to a “Tahitian Sunset” finale, thus concluding the calendar garden party. The charitable organization responsible for sending those floral calendars to loyal patrons had other intentions. Their office had not registered the death of her mother, a long-time contributor, and so, as if from the grave, a new calendar arrived by mail with 12 new rose bouquets, commencing with “Teasing Georgia” followed by multi-toned “Cherry Parfaits.”
Nevertheless, Nancy relied on these external signs of time’s passage. For the first time in decades, no teenager required her assistance with Halloween costume shopping, winter sports paperwork attesting to dates of tetanus shots, or standardized test registration. Long ago, Nancy gave up her job when raising the kids seemed full-time work enough and, with her family’s economic stability, it was financially feasible. She had attempted to remain part-time at the firm, but found the least compelling projects passed on to her, as if every other employee gleefully shouted, “Not It” and raced to toss rancid files on her desk. Her paycheck barely covered the cost of the babysitter, adorable and comfortable in her athleisure outfits. Why should the nanny be the one to walk with the stroller in the sunshine, cuddle with her babies, and listen to first-run stories from nursery school when sharing ice cream snacks with the kids? Nancy was not a juggler by nature, and although her husband and the children seemed content with her disappearing act during the daytime, she struggled with sleepless nights, non-stop heartburn, and a painful, mushrooming phantom limb made up of missed parental moments. She put her pinching law firm shoes in the back of her closet and reclaimed her house from the kind-hearted nanny.
The children’s long-expired 100th-day-of-school projects lay inert in plastic bins in the basement. She and her husband had waged and possibly won the parental fight to teach children to say Please and Thank You to other humans and to the universe itself. For the most part, their roles had shifted to paying for airline and train tickets to school, proof-reading resumes for summer job prospects, and keeping enough quarts of milk or frozen Girl Scout Cookies in the pantry for the kids’ school breaks. Nancy’s husband reminded her of an adaptable and serene cat. Excited for their new adventures, he did not mourn the children’s absence and even threatened to clear out some of their old belongings from the attic. Nancy, however, missed their chatter, their endless stream of laundry, their music, their friends, and even their scolding for her brazen use of plastic water bottles. She had yet to adjust to buying fewer groceries or altering quantities for her chicken piccata and banana bread recipes. The children’s schedules had defined the rhythm of the house, and now, all felt museum quiet.
On an early March day, Nancy fumbled to locate the photo she had snapped of her college senior’s course schedule and then pressed the smartphone’s Facetime option. Seeing and conversing with her busy child acted as a blood transfusion, and she perked up. Then the unsolicited advice: “You should volunteer more, Mom,” her daughter counseled. “Do some pro bono stuff. Give free legal advice to immigrants or snuggle with preemies in the NICU.” Nancy considered these worthy options, but it all seemed so overwhelming and baffling to arrange. Just the prospect of parking the car near a strange building felt daunting.
“Well, then, why not take a writing class and publish a memoir?” Her persistent child would not surrender. “You could take the class online, Mom. You don’t even need to leave the house.”
Nancy had not romanticized her mundane, stay-at-home parental duties. “Who would want to read about my memories of potty training, serving pizza at your elementary school on Fridays, or driving you to the orthodontist?”
Through the small screen, Nancy noticed that her daughter’s eyes grew large, gazing at her mother through the phone with a look of utter disdain. “You can’t just dust the houseplants, Mom. That’s a crime. You have to do something. Right? You have an extra life now. You have to live it. Old age is coming for you soon.” Unsure of the camera’s precise location, Nancy avoided the screen to conceal her tears, a storm of salt and sadness that drenched her face at arbitrary times each day since her mother’s death.
“Oh, Sweetie, I forgot I was supposed to pick up our neighbor from the train. Sorry to call and dash. Will work on that extra life. Be safe. Love you.” She grasped for the “end call” button, and felt a wave of relief from the pressure to achieve, create, and interact.
Her younger son had almost finished his freshman year of college, but Nancy continued to cling to his high school senior year schedule, waking at 6:30 a.m. for no other reason than to feel like a useful member of active society. She shopped for groceries, prepared small family dinners for two, tidied her home that no longer required much effort, filled her car with gas, oversaw minor home repairs, and volunteered with the elementary school’s young readers tutoring program. The calendar of roses bloomed in a perpetual summer, but the hours on the kitchen clock lurched forward.
She felt dismayed that she had been reserving opportunities for intellectual growth only for her children, then splurged and ordered several books—a novel, a 400-page concise history of American film and television, a biography, and a humorous memoir—but they remained untouched on her nightstand, repurposed into a ziggurat of language propping up her well-used tissue box.
No matter what activity she busied herself with, her mind drifted back to her mother’s hospital room, to the last moments before the shot of morphine, the clicking, creaking breaths. She sat with the non-denominational chaplain with the soothing voice of a hypnotist and creaked out a lullaby to her mother. Choking on the familiar words, “Mommy won’t go away,” she had wanted to toss out the sweet chaplain glued to her side, but she could not summon the command. She continued to sing the lullaby that had marked the end of each of her childhood days.
Seven months later, her memory replayed this music and a scrambling of scenes from the hospital: an image of the quiet monitors, the dim room, the uncomfortable tan chair pushed up against the hospital bed so she could hold her mom’s surprisingly warm hand.
Nancy tried to push these intruding thoughts down by flooding her mind with stories from other lives and imaginations. What did one call the bounty of streaming services to which she subscribed? A bevy, a murmuration, a swarm? Every day, she stared at her laptop computer and floated away. She did not consider this activity equivalent to sinking into the low brainwave stupor of binging television. She was, after all, on her computer, a sign of her potential for productivity. British television programs oozed with posh accents. Infinite episodes of “The West Wing” prattled on in a background so dark they appeared to have been filmed in an underground bunker. Rapid fire chatter in “Gilmore Girls” blended together until she imagined herself as another character on the margins of these series.
She was the former-attorney, former stay-at-home mom, former manager of parental care, former person with a reason to awaken in the morning and help others. No interesting, dramatic characters resembling her populated these programs. Her life had become so small, she could not find it anymore.
On a grim, March day, Nancy lifted her eyes from her computer screen, where so many of her non-demanding, loquacious, energetic, imaginary friends resided. Perhaps it was the sound of a woodpecker drilling into her home that prodded her to peer outside and notice the green shoots of crocuses and daffodils beginning to push their way through stiff, begrudging soil. Shaking her head, she felt embarrassed that a single flower could display greater ambition than she possessed. At that moment, the sun cast a shadow on her computer screen, and she viewed her own superimposed image sitting among the fictional characters of a cabinet meeting.
There are moments in life when ideas are hatched like newborn spring blossoms. When she would retell the origin story of her next phase of life, the woodpecker served as the messenger to awaken Nancy from her torpor. In reality, the nudge had been provided by Nancy’s dying electric toothbrush. Frustrated, but committed to completing the task, Nancy would continue to brush her teeth manually with the intermittently inert device. Time after time, however, after just a few moments of scrubbing her teeth using full hand, wrist, and arm efforts, the electrical connections in her toothbrush would restart. As she stood in front of the bathroom mirror, bespectacled and wearing her violet pajamas, she understood that both she and the toothbrush shared the attribute of stalling. If she could force herself to take action, she might somehow initiate a rapid, joyful buzzing. If she could not move forward, the time had come to speak with a professional about grief and purposelessness.
Nancy paused the episode she had been watching, purchased a new toothbrush, then set her impressive legal research skills to work. She would find a way to climb through her computer screen and join these busy, contributing, active, souls. She asked the computer the question, “How to become an extra in a television series or movie in New York’s Hudson Valley.” Within minutes, she had completed an online application, included several photos, attested that her dyed hair was a “just brown” hue found in nature without highlights, and that her skin sported no obvious tattoos. Nancy, whose reproductive usefulness, passion for jurisprudence, and support for her mother were now obsolete, was perfect, it seemed, for cinematic time travel.
The April Moon Rose unfolded in its silky glory on her mother’s calendar just in time for the morning of her first shoot. She pulled herself out of bed at 5:00 a.m., bought a large, sweet iced coffee in a drive-thru line for people too busy to leave their cars, and crossed the graceful Westchester bridge that spanned the Hudson River. She had been assigned to film a scene on the site of her children’s old summer camp. A feeling of peaceful confidence descended as she navigated her way to the familiar parking lot. Today, she would be a guest at a rustic, outdoor wedding. Lavish floral arrangements graced the camp’s art barn, and strings of dainty fairy lights cast a flattering glow on the “guests” and the movie star principals, a gorgeous bride and groom with whom it was forbidden to speak.
The matchmakers (also known as production assistants) provided her with an attentive companion, a counterfeit husband who was instructed to wrap his arm around her waist, laugh at her inaudible quips, and leave her side just once to fetch her a drink from the bar (set up with fake alcoholic beverages). Nancy had few complaints with her original husband, who would most likely be boiling pasta for his own dinner later in the day, but the adoring glances from this actor amused her. “I always create my own backstory,” he confided to his ersatz spouse of ten minutes. “I almost lost you after years of taking you for granted, but now we are reunited and effervescently happy.”
“I just assumed you were enjoying the open bar,” Nancy said. She took a deeper interest in the rustling of her pink dress than this extra fellow.
At break time, Nancy sat with the same group of three women she had spoken to in the morning when she pointed out the location of the restrooms. The production assistants referred to their BGs (background extras) as their “background friends,” and by nightfall, the term had become prophetic through the alchemy of film, a shared project, and bonding over the grotesque “Crafty” meal for the non-union workers. Some of the extras had craved careers in show business, while others were writers, or newly retired professionals seeking a diversion. The work was long and repetitive, but satisfying, even exhilarating.
Driving home on the expansive bridge that divided the Palisades from the Rivertowns, she came home feeling that she had helped create something lasting, something a person could refer to, look up. She wondered if her husband resented eating alone after long meetings at work in New York City and how much dried pasta on the side of the pot had escaped his vision when cleaning up. The pretend husband she had danced and giggled with did not view this acting endeavor as a late-midlife, empty-nester existential crisis. He had passed no judgment on her desire to act as an animated prop in a movie that would never merit an Oscar. How could she toss away her legal education for the opportunity to listen to young men sporting hair buns and instructing her to create meaningless background noise? At this moment, however, with the Hudson River rolling beneath her car, she felt awake and curious about her future.
The casting agent informed her that with her all-natural, skin-of-a-certain-age, she would be in demand for background shots in other television series, particularly those set in the past. Over the next few weeks, Nancy found work portraying a nosy aunt sorting through wedding dresses in a boutique. Another day, she wore shiny teal in a 1980s restaurant scene, and a new friend asked her questions about her late mother. She was by no means a method actor immersed in the psychological role of “woman eating a tuna sandwich and sharing french fries with dining friend.” Yet, in 1987, her mother had been alive and hearty, and Nancy changed the conversation from the present to the past in order to conform to the proper mindset.
She relished traveling through time in spite of being unable to alter the course of history. For now, she bounced from decade to decade, farm to factory, church to amusement park. She pretended that she had never touched a laptop computer, used a microwave oven, or obeyed a computer generated voice in her car when following directions. With her body dressed in pedal pushers, mini-skirts, or ball gowns, she sparked her own imagination while safely popping into unfolding dramas. A serial killer might run in her path; a tornado might threaten her faux third-grade classroom; or a bride might scream at a parent in front of her, but she, Nancy Fagelbaum, would return home to her extra life. Nothing would change the reality that her mother had died at the end of a humid, August day, but Nancy’s life would continue.
By July, when the “Queen of Sweden” roses held court on the kitchen calendar, Nancy worked three to four days each week on one or two sets as “core background.” Her aging but timeless face helped create the atmosphere that propelled others’ stories. On one of her long drives home, Nancy called her daughter and confessed that she had not yet sent her resume to gun control lobbies or legal aid societies. “But this is super cool, Mom, even if you’re not allowed to tell me what happens at the end of the movie,” her daughter declared. “I think you’ll have time for all of it eventually.”
For now, though, Nancy was too busy arranging rides with her co-workers for the filming of a movie about the space program, set in the 1960s. In a pile of family photographs she had brought home from her mother’s apartment, she recalled a snapshot from that exact time period with her mother’s teased hair, short skirt, and playful smile. On a soundstage in Astoria, Queens, beneath a false Florida sky, Nancy held her arms to shield cat eye sunglasses and stood with the other extras, witnesses to the rocket launch. For a moment, Nancy and her mother fused.
Over fifty years ago, toddler Nancy and her mother had watched the buffered televised image of a man bouncing and walking on the pockmarked moon. She either remembered or imagined her mother’s young hand pointing to the black-and-white box. From then on, when her mother wished for her to eat something, she placed the food on a spoon or fork, identified the morsel as a rocket and Nancy’s small mouth as the receptive moon. “Look, my Nancy, we are flying this pudding all the way to space. Let’s deliver it to the man on the moon!” An obedient astronaut, Nancy ate her rations.
On set, Nancy resurrected a vibrant version of her mother who witnessed the rocket to the moon with her squinting eyes. At the word, “cut,” Nancy reappeared. Surrounded by a group of castmates, she felt a wave of chills erupt on her arms. For the duration of the filming, she and her mother hop-scotched back and forth.
Once again, the assistant director shouted, “Background,” and Nancy and the extras pointed upward toward an imagined Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket aimed at a cold, dimpled moon. Tears grazed her mouth and tasted sweet like her mother’s summertime banana pudding.