Off the Page: Trading Places: Becoming My Mother’s Mother

Not one chapter in Sandra Bullock Smith’s memoir begins with a tale of her mother’s final years, although that’s exactly what she chronicles in 140 pages of Trading Places: Becoming My Mother’s Mother. Instead, they begin with stories of laughter, pride and the youthful follies that still dominate Smith’s memory of life before the 10 years spent as her mother’s personal caretaker. Before the memory loss set in, the endless doctor visits, the unavoidable fatigue. Before saying a final goodbye after 92 years of living.

Rebie Mooney Bullock, after all, lived decades with little affliction, a mother of five who, by Smith’s account, filled her children’s lives with wisdom, grace and plenty of good cooking. To diminish her life to her feeblest days would do nothing to honor Rebie’s complicated personhood, and Smith navigates the channels of old age with the same qualities taught to her in her mother’s finer years.   

Some of the funniest stories come early in her mother’s route to dependence, like when Smith provided her with her first Life Alert system, which, in Rebie’s words, would send “six good-looking men in my living room within five minutes.” Or when her mother’s failing eyesight led to too many drops of Mrs. Stewart’s bluing solution in a hair rinse, turning Rebie’s strands Marge Simpson blue instead of the powdery white she wanted. Even when more embarrassing moments came to call, Smith remembers receiving a dozen red roses with a note from her mother reading simply, “Thank you for wiping my butt.”

But that doesn’t mean that Smith sugarcoats the experience of watching a loved one slip beyond the realms of help or patience. The chapters about Rebie losing her self-control and mental filters relay Smith’s frustration as the memoir’s title suggests—like a mother trying to reason with a pouty toddler. The bedside narrative of her mother’s final breaths, too, brings with it a mixture of sadness and catharsis.

Watching Rebie grow less like herself as the pages go on—Rebie, who had graduated from college with little more than a sixth-grade education, who made her own clothes and who brought up her children with humor and joy—is certainly devastating. But in Smith’s able hands, the world of the inevitable becomes a bit less like darkness, and a bit more like shedding a light on the true nature of family and love.