Come in. Follow me into my sitting room. Ha! It’s only four feet from the door. Not much chance of getting lost. Sorry about the heavy pine scent. They don’t allow us to open the windows.
Yes, I do have a lot of photographs. That’s me and my late husband on our wedding day; that’s my son, and that and that, and that’s him with his wife, Vera, and their two children.
Yes, it is a very nice television, a bit large for this tiny space, but the size helps, given the way my eyes have deteriorated, and I suppose the size is symbolic of the time I spend in front of it these days.
How about a cup of tea? See, I have a place to make it. The kitchenette is a bit cramped, but I use it only to prepare cereal or make sandwiches. I eat most of my meals in the dining room downstairs.
Now, where are my glasses? Oh, right, on my head. Ha! Better not let them hear me saying that; they might decide to put me in the memory wing. I don’t like to think of myself as one of those people – not yet, anyway. Not to mention that it’s more expensive. I need to .. what’s the word? Budget that’s it, of course, — budget my savings carefully — so they last the rest of my life.
That’s a depressing thought, isn’t it? On so many levels. To think that I have very little left – both of money and time, and the question is which will run out first.
Now – where’s that problem I was working on, the one I wanted your help with? Ah yes. How much should I invest per month in this funeral expenses scheme? If I invest too much, I won’t have enough for other little things I need—gifts for grandchildren and hard toffees for myself. If I invest too little, I might not get the expenses paid off in time. Why am I worrying about that now?
I don’t like taking up your time. If Paul were here, he’d be sure to help me. I remember how quick he was as a little one; how I’d ask him to help me with computer issues and he’d tease me about being technologically challenged – but never in a way that made me feel old or stupid.
You don’t need to stay. I should call him again. He could drive up and help me; it would only take him a few minutes. And then we could go to lunch at Bertollini’s. I could offer to pay, but I expect he’d insist – since his income is at least five times mine. It wouldn’t matter who paid. I don’t eat much. I could just drink the water and eat the free bread. The food wouldn’t be the point. Seeing him would be the point. It’s been a while. Hold on. Let me check the calendar. We’re in November now, yes? October, September, August, July. There. I put little blue hearts on the days he comes. No. I had to cross it out when he cancelled. How many months? Five? Six? Too many, I know that.
I left a message on their phone last week. Perhaps his wife heard the message and deleted it. Or perhaps one of the children deleted it – unintentionally. They’re too young for malice. Perhaps Paul listened to it and then put it aside. You know how it is? When you’re busy? You get a message and intend to respond, but something else comes up. Your wife wants you to unplug the toilet or sign some form for field trips. It’s urgent. It can’t wait another minute. And then you forget to go back to the message. Perhaps even his memory isn’t as good as it was.
Perhaps I should leave another message. But that might sound like complaining, whining. I don’t want to sound pathetic. Perhaps if I called his office, there’d be fewer distractions.
Yes. Other people can help me with my financial difficulties but they can’t .. they can’t… Sorry. Gosh! You must think me a ridiculously sentimental old woman.
But it stuns me – when I think of all the things I did for him – I changed his diapers. I taught him to read. I stayed awake at night comforting him when he was sick. I got up early and and found the right clothes and fixed breakfast and made lunches – adding little notes “I love you,” “Ace that test!” “Good luck with Susan,” and then I picked him up and helped him with homework and drove him to soccer practice and swimming lessons, and kept on him about finishing that homework, even when he told me to leave him alone.
Was I too pushy? Sometimes. A little. Perhaps. But nobody’s perfect. They don’t give you any training.
Was I too lenient? Sometimes. It’s hard to find the right line between too lenient and too heavy-handed. There’s some margin for error. If you’re lucky.
I stayed up until midnight to fetch him from the Lock-in at the church. I even drove hundreds of miles to soccer tournaments and chess tournaments and loved him just as much win or lose. I comforted him when a girl broke up with him. This is a very banal list. Probably no more than many mothers do, but still it’s a long list. You’d think I’d get some credit for it. I didn’t do it for the credit. I did it for my son. I wanted him to have a good life. When I was pregnant with him, I swam every day. Back and forth, slowly, praying for him at every stroke, praying that he would be safely delivered, that he would be healthy, clever, kind, holy, happy, and good.
Most of my prayers were answered.
Anyway, he doesn’t stop by much anymore. I think it’s partly the daughter-in-law. She never liked me. Then I corrected her English. One time she said, “I’m really disappointed about the way the children just lay around the house texting.” And I said “Lie.” It was instinctive. I used to be an English teacher. It was just one pedantic vowel. She blushed hard and took it as a rebuke and of course, as an excuse to cut me loose. It wasn’t enough to cancel all the babysitting I did and the money I lent them for their first mortgage, but it gave her her excuse.
The grandkids find me a bit too intrusive and boring, ridiculous with my thick glasses, my hearing aid, my false teeth, my questions. They have their own concerns. They don’t want to visit this nasty, smelly place.
I could let the daughter-in-law go, to tell you the truth. And even the grandkids if I had to. But I miss my son. Why can’t he stop by – take me to lunch – once a week, even once a month?
I miss him. I miss his company. But more than that: what it means makes me sad. If he were in jail (well that would be horrible in itself) but if he were in jail and prevented from coming, I’d miss him. But at least, I wouldn’t be feeling that he was choosing not to visit me. That’s what hurts the most.
Ten years ago he and I had a conversation about a cousin of his who neglected his old mother – my older sister. I was very critical.
“It’s only natural,” Paul protested. “You were the same. You didn’t spend much time with your parents. You moved away, didn’t write, focused your energy on your nuclear family. It’s biology, Mom.”
Biology? What does that mean? That we’re just vehicles for our selfish genes? Carrying the precious fragile next generation with infinite care and effort and discarding the older generation, the useless husks that no longer matter and should have the grace to stop wasting resources? Is that how he thinks of me now?
The biology remark was just a casual add-on. Something else he said was more important. He said, “You were the same. You treated your mother the same way Jack treats his mother.” That’s the heart of it. He was calling me a hypocrite.
Perhaps he’s right. No. No. I don’t think so. There’s a difference.
My mother raised me back in the old days, when parents let their children grow like weeds. She’d be off playing bridge or tennis or drinking cocktails, and I’d make my own sandwiches and walk to school and figure out my own homework and face the consequences on my own if I didn’t do it. She never watched any of my games.
These days, even these last twenty or thirty years, we raise children like hothouse flowers. We watch and water and move them in and out of the sunlight. I invested twenty years in raising this boy. He owes me more than I owed my mother. There’s no comparison. I was just giving her a taste of her own medicine. He’s being ungrateful.
You’d like that cup of tea now? All right. No, I can get it. See everything is already set out. There’s no chance of my losing track of anything. How about this nice mug from Venice? Sugar with that? I don’t have any milk, I’m afraid.
Where was I? Oh right, coming to the realization that my son is ungrateful, that he’s a worse person that I was. Somehow that doesn’t bring much comfort.
Last Sunday in church, the priest said that there are three types of people in the world.
I thought, “Oh boy. I hate this sort of oversimplication.” But I was a little curious.
He said “There’s the type who recognizes that others are as flawed as himself and hates them and himself.” He cited Javert from Les Miz as an example of this. They like these references to popular culture in sermons. Then there’s the type who sees other people’s flaws but who refuses to see his own flaws. Probably the most common type. Jane Austen’s novels are full of hypocrites. And finally there’s the type who sees others as similar to himself – loveable in spite of their flaws — and who understands and forgives. Jean Valjean was the perfect example. “He told me that I had a soul. How did he know?” That line always chokes me up. Of course, I’d rather be Jean Valjean than Javert or Mr. Collins.
It was pretty clear which of the three attitudes my priest was recommending. He’s an Episcopalian: more of a New-Testament-turn-the-other-cheek-type of Christian than an Old- Testament-smite-the-bastards type. And so am I, presumably, or I’d be down the road with the Baptists.
I still think the priest was oversimplifying. Don’t these things come in degrees? Is Mother Teresa really supposed to see herself as being as flawed as Hitler? Can’t I see myself as a better parent than my own mother, a less ungrateful child than my son?
My priest would say that’s quibbling, squabbling over jots and tittles in a way Jesus disapproved of. I should recognize that my son is no worse than me, and loving myself, I should love him, hoping for mercy for myself, I should forgive him.
Perhaps I should call him up and tell him that I forgive him.
Ha! How would he react to that? He’d be bewildered, embarrassed, having no idea that there was anything to forgive.
I should forgive him. I do forgive him. But that’s beside the point. I forgave him before I saw him, when he was still swimming in my womb.
This change of heart my priest recommends: can it take away the sense of loss his absence brings? Can forgiveness salve the pain of knowing he chooses not to see me? What consolation is it to know that he is no worse than I am, that his indifference to me is only natural?