The Comfort of Her Old Age
The doorbell rang. 1:00 already? She patted Mother's fingers and slipped free. A floorboard creaked beneath her. Sunday dinner was their only social life. She looked forward to reading to the grandchildren and hearing about Rae's next trial. She hoped to like Rae's latest boyfriend--some kind of therapist, wasn't he? Rae deserved a good man sooner or later, but never seemed willing to bide her time.
Johanna pulled open the swollen door and squinted. She hadn't been outside since taking Mother to the hairdresser's, when, Friday? Now her knees were buried in the grandchildren's arms and her cheeks in Rae's sweater. Then everyone freed her and swarmed over Mother, who was shuffling forward, cane upraised, like a cripple at a revival meeting.
"Come, Neil!" Rae beckoned a silhouette on the threshold. "Meet the matriarchs!"
"Hi." Neil squinted in the gloom. He had grayish eyes and a gentle handshake.
"Why, isn't he handsome!" said Mother. That sort of flattery had helped to embarrass Johanna out of dating after her divorce. But Rae just laughed and wagged a finger. "Hands off! He's mine!"
Neil chuckled and offered a loaf of pumpernickel to Mother. She raised her palms. "Thanks, but Johanna's the hostess. I just help where I can."
"Here." Rae set the loaf on top of a Tupperware in her arms.
"Rae," said Johanna, "you shouldn't do so much three days before a trial."
"No, Neil did it."
"My, he bakes, too!" said Mother.
"And bakes healthy. He took our old recipe for this one and cut the fat in half."
"Thanks," said Johanna. A stranger wouldn't have known it, but there was no need for this sort of help here. She was too busy to gain weight, and Mother was losing too much.
Everyone began to move at once. Rae took her load to the kitchen. The children began to push the squeaky rocker from behind. Mother gave Neil her arm and began to show him the mementos that crammed the living-room walls, relegating the saguaro to the kitchen. Johanna hung up the children's windbreakers.
Then the family settled, in its fashion. Mother let Neil help her into the armchair, directed him to the couch, and continued the tour with gestures. Glenn mounted the rocker, drummed the seat, and made war whoops. Rae brought Mother her tea and sat within an inch of Neil. Alison curled on the floor, nestling against Rae's and Neil's legs, bridging the gap. Johanna took the closest chair to the kitchen.
"Tell us, Neil," said Mother, "how long have you known our Rae?"
He turned to Rae. "What, three months?"
"Of course! You were my Christmas present!" She started to reach toward his knee but settled for hugging him with her eyes, the family's greenest.
The children began to play paper, scissors, rock. "Now, Neil," said Mother, pointing to the built-in bookcase, "did Rae ever tell you about winning the Demosthenes? She was the youngest girl in the contest--" Johanna needed a moment to find the glass bust: on the lower shelf again, within the children's reach. It never failed. Mother needed two hours' help to shower and dress, but could redecorate the house by herself in a minute.
When the story wound down, Rae asked, "How are you feeling, Gram?"
Mother squared her shoulders. "Not bad, for 82." Mother always seemed proud of her age, whereas Johanna just tried to live with hers. People often said how fit she was for 63, which ranked with calling her a model prisoner.
The children began to bicker about the game. "Decided about your back?" Rae said over the noise.
The shoulders went limp again. "Oh, whatever your mother thinks best."
All the grownups looked at Johanna. "Well, Dr. Laszlo wants an answer on Tuesday."
"You know," said Rae, "Neil sees some of Laszlo's post-ops."
"My, what a small world!" said Mother.
"Small town, anyway," said Johanna.
"He could look at the report after dinner," said Rae.
Mother glanced coyly at Neil. "Why, sir, do you know me well enough to see my X-rays?"
The grownups chuckled. Johanna excused herself and went to check the roast: still dripping. The family's hubbub sounded distant here. She tamped her forehead, leaned against the sink, and rested her eyes on the saguaro again. Its limbs were forever in bloom and in parallel, too, close enough to shield each other without pricking.
"Now," Mother's rising voice pierced the walls, "you should see the stone fireplace downstairs." And the April puddles floating the logs. Johanna had tried twice to escape this big, dank Queen Anne. First she moved into a bright little ranch house as a bride but had to sell it as a divorcee. Decades later, with Rae grown and gone, she spent three glorious years in Tucson, working in a gallery, living in a glassy condo, riding on the ridges, dating now and then, but mostly basking in the sun and the solitude. Then Father's heart gave out. It fell to Johanna, the oldest and healthiest child, not to mention the only single female, to keep his widow and his house going. Now, eight years later, she still hoped to move west again someday, but it would surely be with fewer savings, less of her famous health, and longer memories than before.
"Rhubarb pie?" said Rae, glancing at the countertop. "Speaking of doing too much--"
Johanna straightened. "Well, it wouldn't feel like Sunday to everyone--"
"Without a nice dessert, I know. Or a tired cook."
Johanna opened a Pepsi bottle. "I'm not tired, really."
Rae took the ice cube bucket from the freezer. "You really should let me host."
The Pepsi hissed and rose to the rim. "Thanks, but I've told you, it'd be harder bringing Mother."
Rae set ice in the glasses and the sippy cups waiting on a tray. "You know, the operation would help you, too. It'd let her do more for herself, in the long run." But how long could Mother's run last? Long enough to justify her pain? "As for the short run, she could stay at a rehab home."
"Oh," Johanna whispered, "she'd be lost without her house." And it was the one place where Johanna would be lost by herself, without teacups to fill, shoulders to pat, or gazes to weather. She began to pour. "What will Neil drink?"
A splash landed on the tray. "Oops!" said Glenn. He had bumped into her sore arm on a hobby horse. His eyes, hazel like Johanna's, went round and soft like Mother's. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"That's all right, Glenn." Johanna patted his head. He beamed, turned away, and sideswiped her ankle. She tried neither to wince nor to laugh.
"Hey, podner." Neil cupped Glenn's shoulder. The boy shook him off. Neil stood his ground. "I see a book about the West in the living room. Could I read it to you?" Glenn sighed but followed him out.
"Isn't he sweet?" said Rae, tamping the tray.
Johanna poured another glass. "Well, he's clean. He shaves. Give me time to tell more."
Rae laughed and scrunched Johanna's shoulder. "He's the best sitter I ever had."
"Oh, once or twice lately, when I've had to work late." Rae bent over the apple slices and trimmed bits of the bruise that Mother had missed. Then she laughed again. "You should hear his bedtime story about the coyote!"
Johanna set cheddar and crackers on the cheeseboard. So a man she'd never met was spending evenings alone with the children. Did he change them, bathe them, help them into their jammies? He seemed harmless, but you never knew. Rae's ex had seemed honest until unmasked by a creditor. Johanna's had seemed faithful until spotted by a particularly acquisitive curator.
Johanna brought the cheeseboard to the living room, and Rae followed with the tray. "Why," Mother was saying, "my dear Kurt must be smiling down on the both of you." Mother had a child's faith in heaven and probably planned to redecorate it. Johanna, on the other hand, just hoped to rest in peace in an urn, not to rattle around another big old home.
She helped Rae serve the Pepsi's, then sat. "Vroom vroom." Alison wheeled a tiny convertible toward Johanna's foot.
"How's nursery school, Alison?"
"Vroom, vroom." The convertible veered away.
"Why, Alison," said Mother, "you never saw anyone fret more about nursery school than your grandma." She turned to Johanna. "Didn't you, dear?"
"But I loved school."
"No, not the first few days, you didn't. You begged me to keep you home and make you lemonade. Remember?"
"Not offhand." She couldn't remember ever liking to be fussed over.
The timer beeped. Already? The family had hardly touched the cheeseboard. Rae helped her seat the others and serve the meal. "Dear Lord," said Mother, "thank you for bringing the family together and giving us this nice young man."
The grownups praised each other's cooking, especially the pumpernickel, which was really not bad, considering. The children nibbled everything for a minute, then scampered away. Mother ate heartily, for once. Johanna found herself filling up fast.
"So, Neil," said Mother, "where do you live?"
"Oh, near Rae? Why, there's that small world again!"
He glanced at Rae. She took his hand, turned to Johanna, and said, "He moved in."
Johanna set down her water. "When?"
"Last week. We sped things up a little because of the trial."
He was the first man to live with Rae since her divorce. To help raise the children. To get the chance to break three hearts instead of one. "Everything happens at once in this family," Johanna managed.
"Well, I think it's sweet." Mother turned toward her. "After all, you and I live together, dear. Why shouldn't they?"
"Medic's here!" Beneath the tablecloth, an unseen Alison bound Johanna's knee with a napkin.
"Just in the nick of time!" Johanna reached to pat the girl. Alison kissed the knee through the bandage. "Thanks," Johanna whispered, her throat tightening.
The tea kettle began to whistle. "Excuse me." She shed the bandage, fled to the kitchen, and clicked off the burner. Then she fanned away the steam, rubbed a stitch in her side that must have spread from her arm, and gazed at a tiny nest hole in the saguaro. Two baby woodpeckers, barely visible, were splashing about this rare pocket of desert moisture.
She pulled herself away and aimed a can of whipped cream at the pie. Nothing came out. She shook it and tried again. Cream flew onto the splashboard.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, dear." Mother had bumped Johanna's elbow with a wobbly stack of dishes. "I was just trying to help again."
"Mother," she let slip, "I'm too tired for your help!"
Mother stared like a wounded fawn.
"I . . . I'm sorry, Mother. You're helpful normally."
The eyes flashed. "No, of course I'm not! But do you have to remind me?"
"It's just been a hard day."
"Then make it easier!" Mother caught Johanna's forearm. "Wish them well, won't you?"
"That's sweet, Gram," said Rae, bustling in with the roast's remains, "but give her time. Come help me at the sideboard."
Alone again, Johanna wiped the splashboard and squirted the cream on target. Then she tried to fill the teapot. Its mouth wobbled in and out of the water. She was shaking as hard as Mother.
During dessert, she finally managed to ask about the trial but could not seem to follow the answers. Instead, she found herself picturing the eyes that had surrounded her over the years, gazing, blinking, pleading, fading, eventually giving way to new ones.
Soon Neil was looking over Dr. Laszlo's report in the living room. "Now, what do you think?" said Mother with rare curiosity.
"Well, surgery's always risky," he replied. "But he says you're strong enough."
"And just how long will I need to recover?"
"Oh, it all depends."
"On what, now?"
"On the surgery, the therapy--"
"Why, you could be my therapist!" Mother started to reach for his hand. "That is, if no one minds."
The grownups gazed at Johanna again. She gazed at her cupped hands. She had wrapped herself around Mother so long, would she hold the shape on her own, like an old coat?
"Now, don't you spoil this!" Mother said.
"No." Johanna looked up. "It's your call."
Mother blinked twice. "Why, all right, then."
"Well, it's getting late." Rae began to rise. Johanna needed half a minute to do likewise. She almost wished she could take Mother's place in the hospital. It might have been a relief to lie down for a couple of days, eating in bed, using a bedpan, and letting herself be fussed over like a child, or at least like the child Mother remembered.
Alison skipped to the powder room. Glenn clambered to the bathroom upstairs. They returned with dripping hands and wriggled into their jackets with Neil's help. Mother kissed them, pulled up on Neil's shoulders, and pecked his cheek. "Why, I can hardly wait for next Sunday, dear!"
"Me, either." He glanced at Johanna. "I mean, if--"
"Of course," Johanna replied.
"Thank you." He pressed her hand.
Rae pulled her and Mother into a hug. "Love you both."
"Love you too," Johanna found herself saying in unison with Mother. Then they huddled under the awning and watched Rae's minivan pull away in a drizzle. Cleveland's weather ran the gamut from damp to wet.
Inside, Johanna stooped for a darkening slice of apple. Her whole rib cage felt tight. She fought the weight of the day to rise again. "Now, admit it, dear," said Mother, sinking into the armchair. "Isn't he a sweetheart?"
Johanna dropped the slice in the kitchen wastebasket and tried to burrow into the sand. It was not deep enough. She could still hear all the chatter about bread and backs and homes. She could still see all the stares. She turned, not knowing to where. The walls looked blotchy. Her tongue felt thick and dry. Her chest seized up. Her heart lurched.
The next thing she knew, Mother was kneeling above her, toweling her face. How had Mother come so fast? And where was her cane? Johanna ought to help her up, but could not budge. A heart attack? A stroke? Old age?
"Now, don't you worry, dear." Mother rose, her eyes glowing. "I'll take care of my baby!"
At least a baby could cry for water, but Johanna could not make a sound. All she could do was gaze at the saguaro blurrily. Its limbs seemed to be shimmering, and a murky cloud to be gathering overhead. Had some of the family's bad genes been lurking inside her after all? Or had its bad health finally proven contagious?
Mother squared her shoulders and marched toward the phone. "I guess my back will just have to wait, won't it?"
There was something moist beneath Johanna's slack chin. Drool? Vomit? Tears? She should have been embarrassed, but it felt soothing. She breathed slowly and watched the cloud swell. Would the storm pluck the blossoms? Snap the limbs? Drown the woodpeckers? Or would they have the sense to flee their home in time?
Mother called for help with rare authority and started to hang up. Then a voice jerked her back to the line. "Oh, yes," she stammered. "5911 Arrington Road." She began to blink. "Why, I'm so sorry. I guess these things are beyond--" The dial tone cut her off. "Oh, my. Oh, my." Her eyes grew wet enough to drown in. "I just hope Rae and Neil can take care of the both of us awhile. Don't you, dear?"
I'll draw the line at Neil's bathing me, Johanna would have replied. Instead, she lay still, her parched mouth agape, her eyes on the bruised sky, hoping for once to catch a little rain.
Copyright © 1999-2008 by Amarillo Bay. All rights reserved.