My Mom is sitting across from me at Starbucks, waiting for her life to change. Of course, she doesn’t know that’s why she’s here. On the contrary, she’s completely absorbed in her lemon ginger pound cake—has undone the button at her waist, in fact, to welcome it.
We’re both understatedly cool in all-black—my mother, because it’s the de rigueur ensemble for 81-year-old Italian widows. And me, because I‘ve lived in San Francisco forever, and as everyone but the odd tourist from Pennsylvania knows, that’s all we wear here. Our personalities are colorful enough.
She’s pissed off about her appearance, of course. Before leaving her house, she checked herself out in the hallway mirror and scowled, as usual. Her sparse, gauze-like hair wouldn’t cover all of her pale pink scalp no matter how much she played with it. The collar of her black sweater didn’t cooperate either, refusing to stretch and hide more of her chicken neck. A little makeup would have helped, but I was unsuccessful in that department today. It’s important to celebrate the small victories, though. She agreed to go out. And her life is about to take a turn for the rosier.
The coffee shop is pretty quiet; most of the tables are empty. But not the one that counts. I slip a look at it. It’s zero hour.
“Mom, I think that guy over there is checking you out!”
My timing isn’t ideal. She’s just angling her fork toward the creamy, lemon rind-flecked filling, going in for the kill. Her murky blue eyes look up at me, more clouded than usual. My real Mom used to be in those eyes. I’d like to see her more often—at least a wisp every now and then would be nice.
“What are you talking about?” Her eyebrows shoot up too far, as though I ‘m the one who’s nuts.
“That man over there, in the tweedy jacket, sitting by himself,” I say, pointing with my nose. “He’s been staring at you ever since we sat down.”
She turns to look at him—flat out gawks. Subtlety is one of the first things to go. It drifts away … well, subtly.
He’s in his early eighties. His white hair is combed straight back in thin cords that have a faint sheen—Brylcreem, probably. He is peering at his paper through perfectly round, horn-rimmed glasses—when he isn’t sneaking a peek at her, that is. His lips are full and generous, the kind that would bite right into a fresh peach and not mind the juice running down.
“Don’t be silly.” She turns back to me. “I am too old for a man to be interested in me.” She strings out the “o-o-o-ld”. “Men like him, they are looking for younger women … nobody wants an o-o-o-ld lady like me.” She goes back to her cake.
He stands up, folds his paper and walks toward us.
“Mom, he’s coming this way!”
She ignores me, or doesn’t hear me, I’m not sure which. Then again, not many men can compete with the sweet, tart feel of lemon frosting in your mouth, so she probably has a point.
“Excuse me, ladies.” He is hovering at our table; his voice a cheery lilt. “I’m very sorry to bother you, but you look so much like my old neighbor back in Silver Spring, Maryland, I just had to stop and see if it was really you. Are you Gina Giordani?” His eyes are a gentle, dark brown and they are fixed on my mother.
Her sleepy face jars into recognition. “Yes, yes … I’m Gina Giordani.” She says it as though just realizing it herself, emphasizing the syllables with that melodic accent she has managed to keep, sixty years after leaving the old country.
“I’m Carl O’Donohue, remember me, from Linden View Drive?” He has the kindest face.
Carl!” Her lips form a perfect smile, but her eyes are lost.
“You used to play canasta with my wife, Shirley.”
“Oh, Shirley, yes!” She nods vigorously and leans forward. “How is Shirley?”
I invite him to join us and he pulls over a chair. He squeezes his hulk of a frame between us and brings with it an air of warmth that wasn’t there before. And also a tinge of something else from way back when—Old Spice.
“I’m afraid Shirley passed away five years ago. Cancer,” he said.
She sinks back in her chair with a soft moan. “Oh, I am so sorry. She was wonderful, Shirley. When Henry brought me to America, I didn’t know anyone. Shirley would invite me over for coffee. She introduced me to the other ladies in the neighborhood. And she taught me how to play canasta. We had a wonderful time. Each of us would take turns bringing some dessert. They always asked me to bring my tiramisu. I used to make tiramisu from scratch, you know, my mother’s recipe. And we would talk and talk. Shirley was my first friend in America. I am so sorry that I lost touch. And how is she doing?”
Carl repeats his answer and then looks at me, pulling back until I’m in focus. “Let’s see, you must be Margaret?”
“Yes. I go by ‘Maggie’ now.”
“I remember we could see you out our kitchen window, swinging on your swing-set.” He turns back to her. “And Henry? How is he?”
For a moment, she leaves us and floats into the past where my dad lives. Her creases soften. “Henry died …. “ Her eyes search mine. “How many years ago?”
“Also five years ago. Also cancer.”
Carl’s head sinks with the weight of one who knows what it’s like. “Henry was such a good man.” There is an awkward pause, while we each struggle in our own way to find a graceful segue. Carl gazes out the window, watching a scene only he can see. Slowly, a grin begins to form. “I remember when Henry and I were ushers together at Our Lady of Mercy. This one time, a teen-aged girl came in late, wearing a very short mini-dress—strapless, no less. Henry was beside himself. He took it as an insult to the church and everything it stood for. He went right up to her pew, whispered to her that she was inappropriately attired for the service and escorted her out on the spot. I don’t know whose face was more scarlet—hers or his!”
Carl was chuckling out loud now. And so was Mom.
“Yes, yes, he was very strict, very proper, but a very good man. I miss him.” She studied her lap.
I excuse myself to let them talk. A half-hour later, when I return, they are hunched over the table, deep in stories of the past. My mom is pointing her finger at him, her lips wide with glee.
“You are right!”
“Right about what?” I ask.
“Oh, you know, everything. He is right about everything!”
I don’t press—I know she can go no further. Instead, I play my part. “Unfortunately, Mom, we have to get going now.”
Carl steps right in. “Gina, I’d love to get together some time, if you’d like. It’s so nice to be able to talk with an old friend. The truth is, I don’t know many people here.” His lively eyes dance under the thick white forest of his brows. “I found this great Northern Italian restaurant near here. They make the best tiramisu. Well, not as good as yours. Would you like to go there with me sometime?”
“Oh!” She starts playing with her necklace, the one with the mango and banana colored beads, with shiny crystals in between. It’s not the worst necklace she owns. It’s the third worst. It’s twirling in her hand now—a hand with too many bones and veins. I nod and wink in encouragement. It doesn’t work.
Now she is stammering “I, uh …, I, uh …” This is moving too fast. I should have known better.
“Tell you what …” I jump in. “My mom and I come here for coffee all the time. How about if we meet you here on Thursday, at two o’clock?”
And that’s how it starts, at least as far as she is concerned. We meet every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon at Starbucks for three weeks. Carl is Oscar worthy. He weaves the details I give him into memories even I begin to believe. And he does it with heart.
And she … well, at first of course, she doesn’t even remember meeting him. Not ten minutes after getting home that first Tuesday, she asks me why we never go to Starbucks anymore. And that sets her off into her standard complaint that I never take her anywhere. I remind her that we go out together at least three times a week.
“No, we don’t! Maybe once a month—maybe … if you have time.”
It’s useless to argue, I’ve finally mastered that lesson. So I try to change the subject. But she won’t let it go. She ups the ante, moving on to one of her favorite taunts. “You are so selfish, you know.” She draws out the “sellllll-fish”, winding her tongue around it like a noose. “You didn’t have children because you are selfish and now you don’t want to spend time with me because you are selfish.”
No matter how many times I hear it, it never loses its sting. The unfairness just boils there at the top of my throat wanting to bust out and set her straight. It’s the illness, I try to convince myself. It’s not really her. But I’m afraid I know better.
For the next couple of weeks, I show up early each Tuesday and Thursday to help her prepare for our date with Carl. Each time, it’s like starting from scratch. I have to talk her into going and remind her several times who he is and why we are getting together with him. When we arrive at Starbucks, the conversation between them is always the same; a virtual word-for-word replay of that first one.
But the third Thursday is different. I get to her house an hour early as usual. When she answers the door, I do a double take. She’s all made up, dressed and ready to go.
“Wow, Mom, you’re ready!” What was that I said before about subtlety? Maybe it’s catching.
There is a glint of my real mom in her eyes … the one who enjoyed the attention of men and was a bit flirty with them. “We are going to see Carl, no?”
She remembers Carl’s name! I watch as she reaches for her lipstick. She pulls off the cap and nods at the pale coral hue as it emerges from the tube. A relief—some days no color is right. She squints into the mirror, her forehead scrunching, as usual, at what she sees. She stretches her mouth into a distorted smile and with a wobbly stroke, smoothes the tube over her lips, over the boundaries of where they end, making them as luscious and ripe as she wishes they were. She allows me to wipe off most of the excess. While I’m doing it, she takes a good look at me.
“Why are you wearing your hair down in your face like that? You didn’t even comb it! And your shirt is too tight. You look like a prostitute!” She pushes my bangs back so they look like wings taking flight. Suddenly, it is my high school graduation day again. She doesn’t like my up-do; it’s “too old” for me. She yanks back all the carefully formed curls until my hair is flat against my head, and winds it around in an old-fashioned French twist, securing it with bobby pins. My dress is “trashy” because a hint of whatever minimal cleavage I have is visible. She hikes up the neckline of my gown and secures it with a safety pin to make me “decent”. The knot in my throat screams. Tears burn behind my eyes, but I force them back.
Now, thirty-five years later, my hand is clenched in the pocket of my slacks. It has formed a hard fist. … so hard that my fingernails are bending inward, digging into my palm for all they’re worth. Once again, I manage to keep it together.
Thankfully, she loses interest in me and focuses again on herself. One final time she checks the mirror. I can hear her dentures clicking the way they do when she’s concentrating. The widow’s garb is gone. She is wearing a v-necked top that swoops down a couple of inches from her collarbone—downright scandalous for her. And it’s red—a deep rosy red, with little sparkling beads at the neckline. What’s more, she has found earrings that actually have flecks of crimson. And she is wearing a skirt. I haven’t seen her legs in months. And neither has she, apparently. Or more probably, she doesn’t care about the fine bits of skin that rest on the surface like coconut flakes. Months ago I gave up trying to get her to use lotion. You have to pick your battles.
“Hurry up. We are going to be late,” she says, stealing my usual line.
The conversation at the coffee shop follows the regular script. But this afternoon when Carl gets to the part about going out to dinner at that Northern Italian place, she says, “Yes, I would love to go!” I want to hug Carl. And I think maybe she does, too.
Sunday, the day of the dinner with Carl, I call to remind her. Big mistake. God, I should know better. She absolutely can’t go. She has nothing to wear. I suggest outfits. No, she’s not going. I tell her I’m coming over to help her get ready.
She starts yelling. “It is stupid for me to go. I don’t really know him. What if he does something bad to me?”
“You know, what if he kidnaps me—takes me away someplace where no one can find me?”
“Don’t worry. He’ll bring you right back in a hurry, I guarantee it.”
“You are making of fun of me.” Her voice is getting louder. “I don’t really know him. And I am too old to go out with another man. What would your father say if he could see me … going out with Shirley’s husband?”
“He would probably tell Carl to have a good, stiff drink before he picks you up and wish him good luck.”
She hangs up on me.
So I go over there, this time two hours before Carl is to pick her up. She’s a mess. I pull out a lovely green, print dress—her favorite color. Ever fashion-conscious, she advises me that the shade is too bright for an o-o-o-ld lady like her. She stands in front of her closet and starts going through the clothes, slapping one after another to the side, disgusted with their inability to measure up. I know how they feel. She is nearing the end of the rod now and with it the end of her patience. Her swing is gaining momentum, she is beating back each piece with the full force of her fist. Her face is twisted into an awful grimace and tiny pools are forming in the corners of her eyes.
I grab one of the remaining dresses. Too late, I realize it’s green. “How about this? You wore this to the Senior Center the other day and the ladies complimented you on it.”
Miraculously, she forgets about her objection to the color, but she comes up with another obstacle. “I can’t wear this to the Senior Center twice in a row.”
“You’re not going to the Senior Center, we’re going to church.”
“Oh, it’s Sunday?”
“Yes.” At least that part is true. It’s important at times like this to be flexible with the truth.
We spend the next hour in the exhausting, slow motion ritual that used to take ten minutes. Finally, she is ready—at least as ready as she’ll ever be. Both of us are down to our last nerve when the doorbell rings.
“Who is that?” She shoots a wild look from me to the door, then back at me. She reaches for one of her hands with the other and clutches it in a death grip. There is nothing more terrifying than the unexpected.
My way of dealing with it is unconventional. “Maybe it’s the fashion police, coming to make sure you’re outfit’s okay?” I know, I’m pushing my luck, but we all cope in different ways.
She sneaks up to the door, opens it just a crack and flattens her eye in the space. “Carl! What a surprise!” Suddenly, she’s all cookies and cream, her face coloring as she lets him in.
After a few minutes of chatting, Carl says they have to be going because they have reservations in fifteen minutes.
“Reservations? For what?” She says it with such alarm.
He manages to calm her down, explaining again about the restaurant with the tiramisu. He helps her into her coat and pats her on the shoulder. With his broad, steady palm on her back, he steers her out the door. Just before she disappears, she turns back to me. “Honey, thank you so much for helping me. I don’t know what I would do without you!” And they are on their way. This time, the knot in my throat wins.
A couple of hours later, Carl phones me to report that it went well and that he has just dropped her off. Immediately, I call her—to hear the story before it evaporates.
“He-llo-o!” She answers, singing the word. Oh, yes, she had a wonderful time … the evening, Carl, the food—and again Carl.
“So, you like him?” My mouth says it before I can stop it. I have so much to learn.
Well, he’s okay. Not really her type. You know, she prefers men who are more handsome, thinner, with more hair, more distinguished.
“See, you shouldn’t have turned down Cary Grant when he asked you out.”
Plus, he has a moustache.
“Did it tickle?”
She’s appalled. “Maggie, we did not have sex! There are two things I will not do for a man—cook and have sex! I did not even have sex with your father!”
I manage to jam my hand over my mouth just in time. Restraint is an important virtue in dealing with these types of pronouncements, one I need to practice a lot more.
Just as I hoped, my mom and Carl fall into a comfortable rhythm, going out a few times a week. It’s a structured schedule: dinner on Sundays, coffee on Tuesdays and ballroom dancing on Thursdays. Yes, dancing! I really lucked out with Carl. He loves to dance. One Thursday I stop by the Senior Center to watch. I stand by the door where they can’t see me. They are doing the Viennese Waltz, the real waltz, as my mother has informed me many times. She seems to coast above the floor, her feet sliding from one step to the next as though weightless. Her face is flushed, beaming. She’s back in the 1950s—a beautiful young woman, dancing in the arms of my father, oblivious to fate and time and what they have in store.
That night I get a call from Carl. He would like to see me for coffee, just me. For the next two days I gnaw my cuticles and run through the probabilities … he’s had enough. I don’t blame him. I feel that way, too, all the time. He wants a raise. I should have thought about that sooner. He deserves one—he’s surpassed all expectations.
By the time we meet, I’m prepared to give him more money, whatever. I’m prepared for anything—anything, except this.
“I can’t do it anymore, Maggie.”
“I know, it’s really hard. I can pay you more.”
“No. You don’t understand.” His soft, brown eyes find mine. “I love her.” He tells me he can’t accept my money anymore. He would like to continue seeing her and seeing her more often. They understand each other. She is everything his wife was not, talkative, interested in him, well traveled and a charming companion. He doesn’t mind about her memory. E very experience is delightful because it is happening for the first time, and delight is something that’s hard to come by these days. But with her, it’s always there and it’s rubbing off on him.
But the constant repetition? Answering the same questions over and over? The confusion? Doesn’t that get to him?
He shrugs his bear-like frame. He’s a patient man, he tells me. He can think of many other flaws that are a lot more annoying. His very presence is like a hug.
I leave the coffee shop in a daze. A fairy tale ending was not in the script; not in any of the possibilities I had imagined. It doesn’t make sense. It’s fishy. There must be another angle on this. I struggle with the alternatives. He can’t be after her money because she doesn’t have much and he knows it. And it sure isn’t her cooking or the sex, so what else can it be? Unreal as it sounds, he must be for real. The unthinkable has happened. My little scheme to fool Alzheimer’s into remission has worked. In spades.
A few days later, I stop at my mom’s. She’s all blushy and bustling, showing me the new dress she just bought, a delicate, buttery yellow with a jewel neckline. “It’s for the senior prom at the community center,” she gushes. Just like the high school ones, it’s an annual dance, held in the spring, corsages and all, except the attendees are in their seventies, eighties and even nineties.
“I hope Paul likes it,” she says.
“I’m sure he will.” I stop. “You mean Carl, right?”
“No, Paul.” She is looking at her shoes with a coy smile.
“I met him at Bingo. He’s very handsome, a real gentleman, too. I asked him to go to the prom with me. Can you imagine? When I was young I would never have had the courage to do something like that.”
My thoughts are careening like crazy, but I force myself to sound calm. “What about Carl?”
“Oh, you know, Carl isn’t really my type. I told him I couldn’t see him anymore.”
Seconds go by and I can’t think of anything to say. I feel like she’s just thrown freezing water on me … like when I was fifteen and it was her birthday. I had saved up money from my summer job to buy her a bracelet, a really nice one. I spent two hours in Macy’s picking it out. When I gave it to her, she asked where I bought it so she could exchange it. I froze just like now … but nothing compared with the way Carl feels, I’m sure. Sweet Carl. This is all my fault. I tried to re-route fate and fate struck back, big time. Who’s going to step in now and change it for Carl? The least I can do is call him and apologize. She stops me when I get to the door.
I look back—and she’s there, my real Mom. Her eyes are alive and she’s wearing that smart-ass grin she used to lay on me all the time.
“Thank you for introducing me to Carl, honey.”
* * * * *