I awaken, making the transition from sleep. My eyes open and I get reacquainted with the details of the room around and do a quick evaluation as to whether or not this is a school day—which background level of tension is called for?
It’s Mother’s Day. My whole being inside groans. Mother’s Day means Darlene. Mother’s Day means a long car trip since Gary has a restaurant in North Portland in mind. She lives on the west side. The restaurant Gary has in mind does not take reservations. It’s a tiny place that’s really kind of a take-out for bicyclists. He wants us to show up there at 11:00, on Mother’s Day, without reservations. I ask him if he remembers last year. Last year we picked her up and drove over to Elmer’s, to find a crowd spilling out into the parking lot and at least a 90 minute wait. We piled back into the car. Gary had failed to pack the stepstool his mother had used to get in the van, so she couldn’t get into the back seat. I surrendered mine. We drove to an I-HOP and were greeted by a similar crowd and wait. First, though, we had to drive through a maze of parking lots that led to a dead end, and wind our way back. Then we had to cross a busy street against a flow of edgy drivers, all looking for a place to take Mom. We may have checked out one more restaurant before she suggested a place that she likes for lunch. A little Italian restaurant, which we were able to walk right into and sit down. I told Gary he must have enjoyed last year’s scenario so much that he wanted to reprise it.
Darlene and I have a troubled history and I won’t go into it now. Suffice it to say that there is a nails-on-a-blackboard feeling that I have in her presence. Therefore I don’t like being around her. Whenever I do have to be around her I sense the prospect as a looming shadow, or a weight in my heart. Suffice it to say that long ago I resolved that she is the mother of my husband, grandmother of my children, and I will treat her with respect and courtesy befitting that. I don’t have to do more.
Thus there has been a tension that I’ve been aware of: that of the ideal (which is that there is mutual love and pleasure in each other’s company so that we drop by each other’s houses, we see each other often, invite her on family outings, to dinner), and the reality. This requires a certain amount of decision about how much effort to extend and fill that gap—the gap between love-and-pleasure-motivated frequent contact, and dutiful (infrequent) contact. To me it’s seemed glaring, and I’ve felt that a responsibility rested on me to close it. How far do I need to go to act ‘as if’—as if our contact is motivated by pleasure. As if the intrinsic emotional infrastructure is there that provides that motive force?
We arrive at her house. She walks through her attached garage to meet us. She has a sling on her right arm because last week she fell back on it and broke one of the forearm bones adjacent to her wrist. It’s still splinted; she’s supposed to have it casted this week. Gary’s clearing a space for her in one of the back captain’s chairs. She said she needs the stepstool. I tell Gary she needs it. She tells me that she’ll get it, and then says, “unless you want to”. She gives me detailed directions where to find it. When I return with the stool I hear the tail end of something Gary says, “Debora knows how to do it”.
“Debora knows how to do what?”
Gary: “Trust me.”
Feeling the prick of annoyance of having my question unanswered, but Darlene provides it. There is cat hair on her black sling and she wants me to clean it with a lint brush. I put out my hand to take it but have to wait while she shows me there is an arrow on it that points the direction to brush. I’m a frequent flier with lint brushes at home with two copious shedders, so I’m surprised that the brush doesn’t seem to pick up much—it just sort of smooths the hairs so they point in a uniform direction. She’s telling me that I can do it harder without hurting her. I pause to look at the brush; it’s two-sided. I wonder if maybe the other side has a finer nap in order to pick up more efficiently. As I start to verify this with my fingers she takes it from me and says, “Debora, you do it…” I am anticipating detailed instructions on how to brush with the arrow down, that I need to do it this way, and I anticipate it will be endless, and a waste of time, because I already know how to do it. I wasn’t hesitating because I didn’t know how. I’m reminded of my days in home health care when I’d ask an elderly person what the major cross streets were near their home and they’d give me a rambling set of instructions that I had to wait patiently through—sometimes still without getting the cross-streets! My kids are beginning to get a bit restless in the van. I raised my voice to preempt her, in theory to save her from having to waste her time giving me instructions, but mainly to spare me from having to listen to her and speed the process a bit. In the meantime she raises hers to preempt me and momentarily I feel that red flash of anger. That pulse is beneath our relationship, and I actually wondered if it was about to surface.
She just wanted to demonstrate how firmly I could apply the brush. And I felt a little ashamed because what she’d wanted was reasonable and I’d been ready to flare because of an assumption that wasn’t true. And it was only later that I realized that in demonstrating to me how to do it, she was doing it herself!
I brush. I put the stool down in position for her to climb in. I pull the seatbelt out for her so she can latch it with her left arm. I close her door. I take the stool and load it in the back.
She talks only to me on the trip over to the restaurant. She tends to do this in groups, cut one person out of the crowd and talk to them about something that the others aren’t a part of. The subject is her arm, the already multiple visits to the cast clinic. I’m preoccupied at my own chagrin at having nearly snapped at her. I’m thinking about it, wondering what set me off. I’m sorry because it was just barely on this side of disrespect. I decide an apology is in order, even while unsure. Wouldn’t an apology just call attention to the edge in my tone? Is it possible she hadn’t heard it? It still feels like an elephant in the room to me.
We arrive at the restaurant to a crowd spilling out on the sidewalk. We disembark from the van and mill with the mill-ers while Gary checks the likelihood of getting a seat. I use this opportunity to put my hand on her shoulder and say that I’m sorry for the tone that I used when I was going to brush the cat hair off her sling. She smiles beautifically, saying, “Oh, Debora, don’t even think about it. Don’t be worried about it. I didn’t even notice. I don’t even notice things like that.”
A very gracious acceptance of my apology. Why do I feel so creepy? Why do I now feel an added heaviness on my heart that’s now two-pronged: my near flare-up, and my apology? I nod and smile to accept her acceptance, but something inside me feels tight and uncomfortable as she assures me again that I shouldn’t worry.
Gary comes back shortly to say it’s not going to work and we should get back in the van. I fetch the stool for her. Place it on the ground so she can climb in to her seat. I pull out the seatbelt for her so she can latch it. I close her door and stow the stool in back. I get back in. We drive, down into the heart of the little St. Johns neighborhood. There is a restaurant there which had anticipated the gentrification of this formerly working-class neighborhood. For the longest time St. Johns was flavored like the late 50’s and early 60’s and resisted the modern world. Some people who’d owned an extremely popular restaurant in a trendy district of town had sold the former and opened a new one in St. Johns. It’s generally a place with crowds milling on the sidewalks, and I’m thinking we’ll probably be turned away there too, if that’s Gary’s destination. “Does it look crowded?” asks Gary, even though he can see it as well as I, perhaps even better since it’s on the driver’s side of the road. I’m a little surprised to see there aren’t people on the sidewalk, but I can’t really see if people are standing inside. He’s showing no signs of stopping anyway, as he cruises into the downtown proper looking for another café that recently opened. Stopped at a stoplight, he wants me to get out and go see if they offer brunch. I get out as the light changes and wave them on. I go inside to a rather dark space with all the tables except two taken. I see they do have a limited sort of brunch menu, and the man there says he can put the two tables together. I walk out onto the sidewalk and presently Gary walks around the corner with a questioning look. I said, “They do have brunch and they’re putting a couple of tables together for us.” He said, “Do you think the John Street Café is better?”
It actually is the better of the restaurants in terms of the setting and atmosphere. However it was classic bird in hand worth 2 in the bush dilemma. To extricate ourselves from this cafe would have involved some effort—me to go in and say thanks anyway (because I’d thought the guy was putting together two tables for us), Gary back to the van, me back to the van, drive again because Darlene can’t walk that far, and then maybe by then the John St Café would be more crowded—the classic leave-one-situation-to-go-to-a-‘better’-only-to-find-the-spaces-taken-so-go-back-to-what-
-you-just-left-only-to-find-it’s-filled-up-while-you-were-gone. So I was feeling the scarcity anxiety, I think and the fear-of-being-foolish. Still, I kind of thought that breakfast with Darlene was going to be breakfast with Darlene regardless of where we went; I didn’t really want to pick up the responsibility for coming up with the best thing since this was mainly Gary’s gig anyway, and so I thought, let’s just stay here and get it over with. So I said we should stay where we were. Then went inside to wait while he got his mom and the boys. And then it turned out they hadn’t even put the tables together yet, and as I waited I was aware that there was still time to say thanks anyway and stop them from getting out of the car and try the other one. I decided this situation is a consequence of Gary's style of leaving to go to a restaurant at peak time on a peak day, and I didn’t want to take on rescuing it. The two tables together were pushed into a wall which was kind of weird too, because it meant we were oriented with one on each long end and three of us on one side facing the wall. Darlene took one of the end seats and I was beside her. So it turned out that it was mainly me and Darlene with her talking to me and the other 3 left out. And since I was sitting beside her I was the taking care of her-er.
Funny, the vestige of that fear of ironic timing thing—the imperative to choose correctly, right now; the certainty that whatever I’d pick would be wrong anyway. No matter what I picked I should have picked something else. It appeared that this was going to be the case. The coffee wasn’t very good, and it was a long wait before the food came. Scott got restless and so I took him for two rounds of the block. The relative quiet allowed me to feel the weight of the two interactions with her that troubled me. I also felt the weight of the feeling that I’d chosen poorly again. The food arrived and it was delicious. I saw Darlene trying to push through her sausage with her fork in her left hand and asked if she needed some help to cut it up. She said she thought she could just cut it with her fork, so I turned and cut Scott’s food. As I turned to mine she said that hers was more difficult than she thought and could I cut up hers too? It was French toast, made from bread that had a fairly firm crust. She finally said she’d just use her hands to eat it and dip it into the syrup.
We finished and left. I fetched the stool for her to climb in. I pulled out the seatbelt for her to latch, and I closed her door. I stowed the stool in back.
Gary decided he’d drop me and the boys off at home and take his mother on home.
Yeah, the whole thing was kind of an exercise in discomfort, and I’m left with lingering discomfort. I have a tendency to assign the discomfort to me; assume it means I have failed in some way…or that something was wanted from me that I wasn’t providing, but ‘should’ be. And feeling uncomfortable about that. The hole of seeing that something is needed, and my offering to fill it would be gladly received, and that it’s obvious that there it is, key and lock, need and me, and so I SHOULD offer, and I don’t. It's a tension that I feel and so think the other person feels too—the elephant in the room. I tend to ‘blame’ it on my reluctance and worry about what that means about me, and so the pressure to relent and offer in order to prove something to myself. I see that I believe that the discomfort is my ‘conscience’ telling me to do it, that it is the right thing. But that pushes up against my resistance. And so it goes. Somewhere in there comes that feeling that I’m somehow responsible for the whole situation and that I have to make ‘just the right’ choices. Or be a screw-up forever.
We arrived at the house. I face a choice of how far to go to bridge the gap between ideal and reality. In a world motivated by love and good will I'd ask her inside. In the world motivated by love and good will I would get out and ask her if she wants to ride in the front seat for the rest of the journey home. I would get the footstool for her to facilitate this. Or, if she chose to remain in the back seat, I'd have her slider door open so that she's accessible for farewell hugs and kisses. I feel the pressure that this is the right thing to do. Instead, I stand in my own opened doorway, where I can see her and she me, and bid her a happy mother's day and goodbye. Pressured by Gary, Connor approaches opened front door, leans in and says goodbye. In the ideal world, the sliding door would be open and he'd reach in to hug her, and he'd want to. How far should I go to make the gap between ideal and reality less glaring?
Gary gets in to drive off so I close the passenger door. As the van pulls away I again call, "Happy Mother's Day" through the open window.
And I'm left to feel a bit hung over for the rest of the day. Being with her has me exposed to so many choices about what I choose to do for her; how far I go, and feeling exposed to a pressure that says it should be more.