“The past is never dead, it is not even past.”—William Faulkner
“Hey,” I said in an attempt to change the subject trying to distract Ma from her sniveling. “I spoke with Susan earlier and she told me Aunt Betty called to check in on you? Wow, that’s been quite a while eh? How’s she doing?”
Betty was one of only four of my mother’s surviving siblings, all younger, and none of whom bothered with her much, especially Aunt Esther. She and Betty had kept in touch for many years, talking on the phone almost every day and visiting each other maybe once a week for tea and smokes and gossip. In spite of that, I’m not sure it could be said that they were very close. Either way, those visits had stopped years ago.
“Oh she’s not doing well at all” she said failing to sound as sympathetic as she’d hoped.
“She’s on insulin, and big as a house she says, and has a tough time driving with her bad eyes. She’s probably going to lose one of her feet.”
“Why don’t you invite her over to visit, that’d be good for both of you to catch up right?” I offered. “I mean, there are only you, her, Esther, Don, and Evelyn left.”
“I don’t fuckin’ hear from anybody!” she muttered, ignoring my suggestion and already having moved on from any idea of visiting with Betty.
Talking about Aunt Betty made me think again of Nana Bovaird who had lived out her last years living with Betty in Quincy, before dying quietly, really stoically, at ninety-nine years old. Nana was famous in the family for her sewing and embroidery skills, and for making beautiful, embroidered patchwork quilts that she gave out sparingly to various favored members of the family. I was thrilled when she presented me with one when I came home on leave one year. Its individual squares were detailed and colorful, and displayed in intricate detail and featured the state flower and bird for all fifty states. I keep it folded in perfect thirds across the bottom of my bed in the winter, ready to pull on its extra warmth during the cold nights.
Nana loved receiving the post cards that I’d be sure to mail to her from the exotic places around the world that I’d traveled to while in the military, so I guess the blanket was her way of letting me know just how much she appreciated such a simple gesture from one of her scattered grandchildren. She pinned the postcards with scenes from places such as the Appian Way in Brindisi, Italy or an aerial picture of Berlin, Germany, to the brittle plastic on the outside of an old and yellowed lamp shade that sat on the cluttered end table next to her favorite rocking chair. She’d sit there and watch her Red Sox and drink her glasses of Budweiser each game day right up until when she went to the hospital for the last time just one month shy of her one hundredth birthday.
Ma didn’t show much emotion at the news of her mother’s death, but simply announced to me that she’d be going to the wake but not the funeral because of her nerves. So to set that stage she stood in the receiving line during the wake with my aunts and uncles and sniffled as the parade of those who’d stopped by to pay respects filed by them offering condolences. Most paused for an extra moment to provide her comfort because she seemed so upset and distraught, but I could only look over and smirk to myself knowing that this was just another one of her performances to show just how this whole thing had affected her nerves, so of course everyone would understand why she didn’t appear at the funeral. To her delight she knew that all the unknowing and sympathetic people would later say at the reception that followed, did you see poor Gerty at the wake? It’s all just too much for her to handle, poor thing.
Like my mother, Nana could hold a grudge against anyone who she felt didn’t give her the respect and attention she deserved or she felt was misbehaving in their lives. But unlike my mother, Nana was strong-willed and self-sufficient, and didn’t give a damn if they ever came around and I’m sure looking down now she didn’t care what Ma did one way or the other. Some might even say she was downright mean at times, but she was always kind to me. Cripes, with Nana’s genes in my mother’s favor she just might beat some of her siblings’ odds and we could wind up putting up with her shtick another twenty years if we didn’t die first.
“So, why don’t you give Aunt Betty a call Ma, I’ll pick her up sometime if that’d help, I wouldn’t mind,” I said, not letting her off the subject.
“I will, maybe soon once I’m not so nervous” she said almost as a reflex. She wasn’t nervous and she didn’t give a thought about seeing Betty or anyone else that couldn’t do anything for her or who didn’t mean anything to her in terms of her ability to manipulate them. In spite of her constant complaints of loneliness and neglect, there really wasn’t any “company” that she wanted other than getting her children back the way she once had them. Not necessarily because she loved them and wanted their company, but more to control them and put them back into their roles as her fearful and supporting cast.
Oh sure, it was handy to use an Aunt Betty, a neighbor, or even a random stranger that might come to the door to try to elicit their sympathy from time to time, but that was fleeting satisfaction, like a quick high. And besides, if they hung around too long she knew they’d see through her façade like the staff had done at the Faulkner Hospital and that would never do. No, it was her scattered and scarred brood of children that she was desperate to reform into a doting circle at her feet.
To be continued…