Agnes at 100
by Richard Luftig
Richard Luftig is a professor of educational psychology and special education at Miami University in Ohio. He is a recipient of the Cincinnati Post-Corbett Foundation Award for Literature and a semi-finalist for the Emily Dickinson Society Award for Poetry. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines including Bloodroot, Front Porch Review, Silkscreen Literary Review, and Pulse Literary Journal. One of his published short stories has been nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize.
When I was a girl, out of curiosity, I wanted to see what God intended for my face. More than anything, I wished to look like my mother, your great-grandmother. You may not know this, but she was beautiful.
I knew, though, that was never going to happen. "You're so plain," she told me throughout my childhood. "I don't know how you'll ever attract a man."
Yet, it turns out I'm the spitting image of her after she became old. I hope she and God both appreciate the joke.
You see, I'm 100 today, but I don't understand this fascination folks have with that. It's as if I've done something special, something talented, by living so long. And I'm expected to be wise to boot.
Well, it doesn't work that way. We're pretty much the same when we're old as when we were young. Just more so.
We've never met, so maybe you want to know a little about me. I was born in Dayton, Ohio. My parents were second generation Irish and very Catholic, and their parents on both sides moved to the United States before the civil war or "The Insurrection" as my grandfather referred to it. He served in the First Ohio Infantry as a quartermaster but never saw action.
We were poor but we weren't Shanty Irish. "There are two types of Irish," my father said. "Lace and Shanty. The Lace Irish are the noses-stuck-in-the air folks who live on the good side of town. That's not us."
Then he'd say the punch line. "The only difference between the Lace and Shanty Irish is that the Lace take the dirty dishes out before they piss in the sink." Of course, we never did that but my mother still didn't think it was funny.
My father wasn't a big man, even by those days' standards, probably not more than 5'6"—and I swear that living with my mother made him shorter. It's as if each year seemed to grind him down more. Maybe if he hadn't dropped dead of a heart attack at 43, he would have simply evaporated altogether.
My father loved me; at least I think he did. To be truthful, it was hard to know for sure. He never spoke much, and he wasn't big on affection. Besides, he worked overtime in the trolley yard and as a hod carrier for the local steel mill.
Yes, my father drank. I tell you that so we can get all the stereotypes about Irishmen and their boozing out of the way early. But he wasn't a violent or ugly drunk and he never hit my mother or me. Besides, being married to my mother was enough to drive any man to a few drinks.
When he wasn't working, he could be found down at the Clover Leaf Bar a few blocks from our apartment. "Agnes," my mother would shout as if his drinking was my fault. "Go down and fetch your father before he spends his entire paycheck on beer and darts."
Years later, I liked to joke that my mother really sent me to the bar so that my father and I could spend quality time together, but back then, getting him home was serious business.
Now, about my mother. To understand her, you have to know that she was beautiful. Not pretty or comely—that was a word people used—but drop-dead gorgeous. They didn't have beauty pageants in those days, but they had lots of parades, and each one would have a queen seated on her throne on the first float. My mother was Miss Mansfield, Ohio, two years running. Don't laugh. Mansfield was a major city and you had to be quite the beauty to head the parade once, never mind two years in a row.
She was tall for a woman but she wasn't awkward. Rather, her height gave her the look of a queen who favored her subjects merely by being present.
But what I remembered most was her hair. I swear it could change color from the brightest red to auburn depending on the time of day. She would brush it at night, one hundred strokes per side, until it glistened in the lamplight.
I'd pester my paternal grandmother to tell me stories about her. "Your mother was the most beautiful girl in the entire city," she said. "She even received offers to travel to New York City to work as a chorus girl on Broadway, but she needed to stay close to home to be with her aging parents."
Maybe that was true, maybe not, but whatever the reason, she didn't go and I think she resented it for the rest of her life.
I always wondered why she married my father. True, he was a good, hard-working man, but even I have to admit he wasn't much to look at, and his family didn't come from money.
There was something unspoken about their relationship, something that was buried under the surface and that I couldn't figure out, no matter how hard I tried. There was some sort of scandal in my mother's past but by the time I was old enough to get wind of it, it had become a taboo subject and never mentioned among my mother's family. Those who knew the real story took it to the grave.
It happened before my parents married, and it involved another man. My mother was deeply in love with him. In some accounts, he was married. In others, he was single. I think my mother became pregnant. I don't know if she had a baby out of wedlock or if she went somewhere to "tend to the matter." That's what they called it, not having an abortion or terminating the pregnancy, but "tending to the matter."
There was a time when I suspected, hoped is a better word, that she didn't have an abortion, and that I was the result of the affair. It would have at least made me mysterious if I couldn't be pretty. But later on I realized that the dates didn't add up. So I guess I was not what people today call a "love child."
Soon after, she met my father. No one knows what became of the first man. Maybe he stayed with his wife. Maybe he left town. Whatever happened, I guess she never saw him again. Shortly afterwards, my parents were married.
Who can tell why two people wed and promise to spend the rest of their lives together? In my father's case, he was assuredly bewitched by my mother's beauty. He probably couldn't believe his luck that she even gave him the time of day much less agreed to marry him. I don't know if he knew about the great secret in her past, but if he did, he didn't seem to care. He must have felt like the average guy in school who gets the prom queen to fall for him. She was his and he wasn't about to question his good fortune.
I don't know if she ever loved my father. All I can say is that I never saw them hold hands, embrace, or do all of those things that people in love normally do. Maybe my father tried to be affectionate towards her when they were first married, and she showed him the cold shoulder. Outside of giving her flowers on special occasions—flowers that she would halfheartedly accept and then plop into the same tired, old vase—he seemed to have given up.
I can say a few things with assurance. First, if my father thought that my birth was going to bring them closer together, he was mistaken.
Secondly, she always blamed him for me. I was an accident. My mother didn't want children, regardless of what the Church said on the subject. After she had me, she made sure that no "mistakes" ever happened again. I was fated to remain an only child.
The third thing I learned early on was that I was a major disappointment to her. I somehow avoided getting my mother's beauty or my father's cleverness.
"Agnes," she told me all the time, "if a girl isn't pretty, she needs to be very smart." She never missed an opportunity to tell me that I was lacking in both traits.
"Don't set your sights so high," she said whenever I had a crush on a boy. "Beggars can't be choosers. Consider yourself lucky that any boy would want to go out with you."
It wasn't like she didn't try to make me pretty: hairdos, makeup, advice on how to capture a man. But she always seemed disappointed with the results. "I don't know why I keep wasting time and money," she would say to my father even when I was within earshot. "You just can't make chicken salad out of chicken feathers."
I silently prayed for my father to take my side, but he had his own issues with her. He wasn't about to risk what little standing he had on me.
Then I met Hank. I was a sophomore in high school. He was a senior and a big-man on the football team. He was everything I dreamed about in a boyfriend—good-looking, popular, self-confident. And the greatest miracle of all, he was interested in me. He seemed to like being around me and, after awhile, started walking me home. He had a car, and he would take me for drives. Once, he even took me to a movie and stole a kiss when no one was looking. For once, I was happy. And, I have to admit, amazed.
But my mother found out and put an end to it. He came to our house one day, just to keep me company, and she told him in no uncertain terms that his intentions were not honorable, and he was never to see me again. He protested that he really did care for me but it was no use. My mother's mind was made up.
"Stop moping and think about it," she told me when she caught me crying over him. "What do you think he wants with a girl like you? You certainly aren't so pretty as to attract the handsomest boy in school. He only wants to get what he can and then he'll throw you aside."
She grew a bit warmer, if just for a second. "I know this hurts, but my job is to protect you, and I'm telling you the truth. Men only want one thing, especially from a vulnerable and not-so-pretty girl like you. A girl with so little prospects like yourself simply has to set her sights lower. Believe me, you'll thank me someday."
And then it was over. I never saw him again. Well, that's not true. I saw him a lot. He just never seemed to notice me. Maybe my mother was right, maybe she wasn't. I would have liked to find out.
So many times, I wanted to go up to him and ask him if he really did like me, if we could see each other like before. But it would have taken me standing up to my mother, telling her what I wanted to do with my life.
I guess I was a coward because I never did speak to him, then or any other time in my life. I later heard that he married "up" and moved to St. Louis. Sometimes I thought about him late at night. I hoped he was happy.
Soon after graduating from high school, I went to work. College for girls like me was out of the question. I got a job with the National Cash Register Company in Dayton. In those days, we had real cash registers, not those computer things they use today. I was put in the bookkeeping department of the company.
Later on, I met George. He worked in the same department as me as a CPA. Based on my mother's assessment of me and my looks, he was the best I could have hoped for—plain, not much to look at, but sincere. Besides, he was a college graduate, which certainly scored points with her. I can't say I was in love with him, even when we were courting. But he treated me well and could provide for us. Also, he wanted children, which was what I wanted, too.
On the night he proposed, I could almost hear my mother whispering into my ear. "Hurry up and say yes. He might not ask a second time." I didn't play hard to get but accepted right away.
We were married right in the middle of The Depression. I remember that he voted for Roosevelt, which drove my mother's family crazy, they being staunch Republicans.
I lost my job because of the bad economy but he kept his, which, believe me, was a big thing in those days. In fact, shortly before Hitler started overrunning Europe, we were even able to put a down payment on a little house. I tried to get pregnant but for one reason or another it didn't happen. Finally, at almost forty years of age, I had my daughter, your mother. After that, with the risk of miscarriages and birth defects, I made sure to never become pregnant again.
They say that beauty often skips a generation, and in your mother's case I believe it. I know I'm biased, but she was the most beautiful baby I ever saw. And I wasn't alone; everyone else said the same thing. Even my mother thought she was beautiful and became the most doting grandmother on the planet.
That beauty stayed as she grew up. All through childhood, it gave her an inner confidence and sense of daring. There was nothing that she wouldn't try, and everything she undertook she succeeded at: music, art, school, friendships. You name it, she did it well.
And then, of course, there were boys. They hovered around her like the proverbial bees to honey. She loved their attention and wasn't shy about flirting and leading them on. The problem was that she was doing all of this in the 60's when sex and free love were all the rage. Paula bought into it hook, line, and sinker.
I found it ironic. Where my mother worried that I would never get a date, not to speak of finding a steady man, I was terrified that Paula could have every man she wanted but might pay the price with an unwanted pregnancy. We fought daily when she was still in high school and living at home, but the moment she graduated, she left for college off in California, and I lost all control. She stopped coming home on holidays, then summers, and finally just quit coming home at all. It nearly killed George and me, but there was nothing we could do about it. A few times she did visit for a day or so on the way to somewhere else. We would end up having a major blowup—it was like she was just waiting for me to say something—and then she would jump all over me. So, I guess we just called an unspoken truce and agreed to see each other as little as possible.
But it was hell. I didn't learn that she had married until two years after the fact. I never would have found out that she had given birth to a girl, you, except by someone else telling me.
It's hard for me to admit, but sometimes I would miss her so badly that I would call her up when I knew she wasn't home just to hear her voice on the answering machine. Of course, I never left a message; but hearing her gave me a small measure of comfort. I loved her so much, and when I lost her, it was like having a piece of myself cut away.
Well, there's not much more to tell. George died in '84. We'd been married over fifty years. Paula and her husband came to the funeral but didn't stay the night.
George was a good man and it was a good marriage, even if we didn't have the passion you read about in those romance novels. I know he loved me in his own way and I cared deeply for him. I guess that has to suffice. But I never stopped wondering about that first love back when I was in high school. What would my life have been like if I had married him? I guess we'll never know.
I was able to live on my own, even into my nineties. My mother was wrong about my not having good genes. But I finally had to sell the house about five or six years ago and move to this nursing home. Been here ever since.
I wish I could have met you, gotten to know you, share some of my life and your mother's life with you. But time somehow gets out ahead of us, slowing us down and speeding everyone else up so that we never seem to be in synch, be in step.
I guess I'm supposed to have some advice to pass along. A body turns 100, and everyone thinks she possesses the wisdom of the ages. I could tell you not to smoke and to eat healthy or to smoke two packs a day and subsist on a diet of Twinkies and Ding-Dongs. Put something out there at my age, and someone will take it as Gospel.
But here's my reality. I look around my room and there's no flowers, photos, or mementos to be found. Just me in this bed, a dresser, and a couple of chairs. No one visits, unless you count the ladies from the church who come over every other week to play bingo. I'm old and alone, and I turn 100 today. I have no one in the world. Except you.
You know, it's funny. Someone told me once that we do everything in our lives because of our parents or in spite of our parents. I spent my entire life trying to stand up to my mother and all my time trying to make peace with your mother. God, it hurts but I know I've failed terribly on both counts.
I guess that's why I'm writing you now. Just to let you know how much I miss your mother and how much I love you.
I wish I had something wise to tell you but all I really know about is time and death. I'm not afraid of death; it's more like I've become uninterested in the topic one way or the other. I've learned that age rests on one's shoulder like a quiet bird, not exactly tame but not exactly timid, either.
I'm tired. You wouldn't hear me argue if the good Lord saw fit to let me sleep out the rest of my days. I'm going to end this letter now. Maybe, someone on the staff will mail it for me, at least I hope so. It's so sad when you have to depend on other people for the simplest things in life.
I've heard the staff just cut up my birthday cake to pass it out to the patients—clients they like to call us—but those of us still with our wits know what we are. I'm not much in the mood for being the star of some circus just for turning 100.
Maybe they'll save me a piece. If I'm asleep and miss the party, chances are either the cake or I will still be around later.
If I get to choose one or the other, I hope it's the cake.
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