Even though I’ve loathed my husband many times—I’m convinced that you aren’t truly, happily married until you’ve been so filled with the black bile of resentment, it threatens to blow you apart—I will not live without him. To say I love him seems trite because it’s voicing the obvious, although I do tell him this every day.
So I will go to my mother, as we both knew I would before the conversation even started.
Like many other women who married in the 1950s, my mother is my father’s lieutenant. She protects him from the ditherings of daily life. So she will hear my case first, then make a recommendation to him.
My mother’s father quit school at age 12 to support his family after his father and brother drowned in a lake. Later, he married a beautiful young Swedish woman, started a family and moved into a small two-bedroom apartment on the South Side of Chicago. A streetcar conductor, he rose at 4 am six days a week. My mother and her two sisters grew up knowing the price of everything and distrusting credit or a deal that sounded too good to be true. Their faces were cast by the land their grandparents came from: cheekbones like bluffs and ice-blue eyes. Andersens. Johnsens. Lundquists. The sisters also grew up knowing that having enough money meant they would never have to ask for anything. And if a Swede can die without ever having asked for one goddamn thing, that’s one successful Swede.
I am my mother’s daughter and have learned this lesson well. I’ve spent hours at bus stops rather than ask for a ride home from a friend. I had to be persuaded to call my OB-GYN when my water broke in the middle of the night (I didn’t want to wake him). This pathological self-reliance is probably the reason I’ve done relatively well in an uncertain profession, but it also explains why my shoulders grow taut when I think of asking my mother for help.
She sits at the kitchen table with her calendar. For as long as I can remember, my mother has filled in the squares of each month with family comings and goings, along with deadlines for art contests she wants to enter. In the morning, she consults her calendar and writes down a plan for that day, even scheduling her breaks.
I look over her shoulder to glance at her schedule. Aha: She’s having coffee until she dusts the living room at 10. My pulse quickens. This might be the best moment to ask her.
I figure I should soften things up before launching into my request for a loan. If it leaps out with no preamble, I’ll seem desperate. Of course, I amdesperate. I shuffle through our usual topics: politics, the children, books, clothes. Nothing catches. I pull out a chair and sit down. Just ask her, I tell myself. But my throat is tight, as if it’s trying to prevent the request from being voiced at all. Am I going to have to write it down on paper and slide it to her as if I were holding up a bank?
My mother looks at me, her eyes misty, her fine, high cheekbones evincing her younger self. My throat constricts even more.
“I’m worried about Muriel,” she says. I hear her but don’t fully take it in. It’s a reprieve. A change of subject.
“What’s wrong with Muriel?” I ask— stupidly, because everything’s wrong with Muriel. My mother’s older sister has been in the hospital for more than two years. After spending 10 years caring for her husband, who had advanced Alzheimer’s, and enduring a crippling case of rheumatoid arthritis, my aunt barely eats. She sleeps most of the day, hoping for death to come soon and lift her up, her corporeal self almost ether now, to meet her husband in a world beyond pain.
“It’s so sad,” my mother says. Her jaw goes slack. She looks past me to the lake. I want to reach out and hold her hand. My reason for coming into the kitchen has evaporated. Now it seems that my only reason was to sit with her like this, unable to reach for her because she would not be able to bear it.