It’s late 2009, and we are at my parents’ lakeside condo in Madison, Wisconsin, for a family vacation. The two-bedroom home is filled beyond capacity; finding the privacy to process the marital tensions that attend any gathering of this kind is what my 10-year-old would call an epic challenge. But Pat and I have managed it by pulling up a rug and jamming a bedroom door closed.
“What else can we do?” Pat says after checking the security of our barricade. “You’ll have to ask them to lend us $1,000.”
I’m sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed. My mother is very proud of this new piece of furniture, which is so high, she has to climb up onto it.
“We borrowed money from them last year,” I remind him, my feet dangling like a child’s. I close my eyes, wincing at the prospect of going back to my mother, hat in hand. But a $12,000 check we have been waiting for—one that will cover our rent in January, among many other things—has been held up by a clerical error. It cannot be issued until after the holidays. Meanwhile, we have no money to see us through until that check arrives and no real credit to lean on (we rolled our many cards into one to get a lower interest rate). A thousand dollars would tide us over. I am a writer, Pat is an actor, and most years we make six figures between us. But the recession hit us hard, halving our income and drying up our reserves. We used to fill financial gaps with odd jobs, but there simply aren’t any to be had now, especially for 50-year-olds.
“We’ll pay your parents back,” Pat says, stepping on the edge of a leaky air mattress on the floor, which hisses back.
“We didn’t repay the $600 we borrowed last time,” I respond tartly.
“We didn’t?” Pat says.
“You know we didn’t.”
“I thought we paid them back last spring,” Pat says.
“No. We didn’t. Remember? Mom said not to worry about it.”
“Then why are we worrying about it now?”
“We’re worrying about it because when Mom says not to worry about it, what she really means is, ‘Don’t worry about it this time. But I will remember. And I will worry that you can’t make enough money to care for yourselves. I will stay awake nights agonizing about how you are going to survive.’ That’s what she means, Pat.”
“Brett, if you’re so worried about worrying her, then let her help.”
Pat and I have been married for 18 years. We know what to say and what not to say—although we’ve said the unsayable and withheld compassionate reassurance plenty of times, with painful results. The thought that visits me now is one I have suppressed for years: Why is it myfamily that rides to the rescue? How come Pat got to marry someone whose parents have modest teacher’s retirements but can manage the occasional thousand-dollar bailout—while I married someone whose parents divorced when he was a year old and struggled to cover basic living costs most of their lives? (Proving that drops of blood can indeed be squeezed from a few stones, his mother is so strapped, she often depends on us to help her out.)
Tears sting the inside corners of my eyes. I feel ungenerous. Unloving.
“Look,” says Pat on a slow breath that means he’s going to use the reasonable, officious tone I hate, “if you have a better plan, let’s hear it.”
Although my mind races through possibilities, I know the exercise is futile. We’ve explored financial options already, and we know there are none except emptying my puny IRA or raiding the kids’ college funds.
“I’ll think about it,” I tell him.
“Thank you,” says Pat, as though I’ve finally come to my senses.
He walks over and gives me a kiss on the top of my head before leaving and closing the door.
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.
“I know,” I say. This is all I ever say, because there is nothing else. And because this is all that my mother wants to hear. Until recently, my mother wouldn’t have shared her sorrow at all. Traditionally, she has suffered losses in virtual silence. In this I am not my mother’s daughter. I am a chest thumper and a copious weeper who can’t get through the opening credits of ET without wailing.
I remember my mother’s characteristic restraint two years ago when she called to tell me that her sister had taken to her bed and that her daughter, my cousin Rachel, had said she believed Muriel would die very soon.
“How quickly can you get down to see her?” I asked my mother then. Muriel was in Kentucky.
There was a pause on the line before my mother replied. “I don’t think I’ll be going,” she said.
“Of course you have to go,” I said. “You’ll regret it if you don’t see her.”
“Brett, I can’t go. She wouldn’t . . . ” My mother took a longer pause. “She wouldn’t want me to see her like that.”
That was it. I knew the Lundquist women. My mother would be immovable in her belief that Muriel wouldn’t want her baby sister to see her so vulnerable. Any appeals from me would meet with the conviction that I simply didn’t understand.
But I did understand. As soon as we hung up, I called Rachel.
“I want you to invite my mother down to see Muriel,” I said. “She won’t go unless you ask her.”
And so, unbeknownst to her own mother, Rachel crafted an e-mail to mine, inviting her to see her dying sister. Because the Lundquist code had always been clear: Refusing a request was worse than making one.
“Were you glad you went?” I asked my mother upon her return from Kentucky.
“Oh, yes,” she said, as if the answer were obvious. “Oh, yes.”
Muriel didn’t die then, and in the months that followed, my mother’s habit of restraint diminished slightly.
The emotional landscape in the kitchen with my mother is a topography of stinted impulses—mine to reach for her hand and weep with her, my mother’s to harden her face into a smile of acceptance, get up from the chair and apply herself to a domestic task.
I wait, and she pushes her calendar to the middle of the table.
“Will you give me some pictures of the boys with their new haircuts?” she asks.
“Of course,” I say. My mother sends Muriel a package every week: pictures, cookies, books for Rachel to read to her.
“Good,” my mother says with a wistful smile. “I’ll send them to her on Monday.” She stands up, walks over to the sink and looks out the high window there. Her back tells me nothing.
“Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?” she asks. “Do you need something?”
I fight every synaptic urge to deflect. Instead, I hold myself to the chair. She has asked if I need something, and I do. She cannot help Muriel, but she can help me. And isn’t it possible that being able to help is what she really needs right now?
“Yes, Mom,” I say, my throat catching. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
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