And Then There Were Two
December 27, 2013
On our way to the eye doctor last week, a toe-freezing day, I noticed that Alice had squeezed herself into the far corner of the passenger seat and was pressed against the door.
“Are you trying to escape?” I asked her. Certainly the eye appointment for her macular degeneration that we were headed for was nothing to look forward to.
“It’s the heat!” she said. “It’s blowing right on me. I don’t know how to work those thingamajigs.”
I adjusted the vents and turned down the heater. She relaxed but a few minutes later she shivered in her thick red wool coat.
She shook her head.
“Why are you shivering then?”
She gave me an angry look. “You’ll think I’m silly, but I don’t want that heat on. I can’t have it blowing on my wig. It will ruin it.”
Now I understood why her apartment was colder than I’d expected it to be every time I’d visited this past week. She wasn’t turning the heat on, or at least she wasn’t turning it up.
When I asked her to explain what heat had to do with her wig, she told me that the woman who’d sold it to us warned against hot air. “Like the dishwasher when you open it,” she said, “or the oven.”
Alice has not been near either of these appliances for over five years. I tried to reason with her. Blasts of air from a dishwasher or an oven would be much hotter than the car heater.
So began, as you can imagine, an argument. Heat vs. wig. Daughter vs. Mother. I remembered her determination to opt for this wig over the benefits of being able to hear better with the new hearing aids that didn’t fit well under the wig, and I decided this was not a winnable argument.
“It’s the fibers,” she said. “They’re not real hair. They’ll dry up and fall off.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“You don’t need to have the heater blowing on you,” I said.
“But you don’t believe me and you’re wrong!”
“Okay,” I said again. I opened wide the vents on my side of the car and changed the subject.
A couple of days later Alice called with a request. “I’ve been thinking. I want another wig like this one. Then I’d have a back-up in case anything happens. I lie awake nights worrying about it. I do. Could we go out there to that wig place and get one today? I know it’s far but I can do it.”
I had doctor appointments of my own and social commitments for the next few days and over the weekend. I told her I couldn’t get all the way to the far east side of city. (To get a sense of the importance of the original wig purchase and the distance we traveled, see WIGGING IT.)
“You just don’t want me to have another wig,” she said. “You don’t think it’s necessary.” She hung up.
A few days passed with this sort of conversation coming up regularly. Sometimes taking care of Alice is like taking care of a small child who thinks that adults can put aside whatever they’re doing, move a mountain, then go back to their boring lives.
But of course I’d decided to get her a new wig for Christmas. I just didn’t want to tell her that.
She got more and more tenacious about getting me to do her bidding immediately. “You know,” she said one morning, “I have been wearing this wig every day since August and I can see where it’s starting to stretch out.”
Naughty Santa took control of my tongue. “Well that’s too bad,” I said. “Four months isn’t a very long time. We’d better not get another one of those if it’s wearing out so soon.
“Oh!” she said. “You! No, it’s not wearing out.”
“But you just said…”
“No, it’s fine. It’s really a good wig.” This time she changed the subject. Quickly.
The next day she called to tell me that all she wanted for Christmas was a wig. “But you don’t want me to have one. You think it’s too expensive. It’s way over some place you don’t want to go. You just make up excuses.”
“Wigs are expensive,” I said. “And that shop is far away. Far, far away. And I’m just so busy. Ketzel wants to go for a walk and my neighbors invited me over for egg nog and…”
Actually, I almost did have an excuse. I couldn’t find the receipt for the wig and couldn’t remember the name of the place where we bought it. I remembered only vaguely where it was and didn’t want to drive all the way there on the off chance they still had this particular wig.
Finally I found what I thought was the right shop on the Internet, but it seemed to have two different web sites and two different phone numbers for only one location. Confused, I left messages at both numbers.
Nobody returned my calls. Other engagements, important commitments made a long time ago, came rushing in and filled up my time, but wherever I was I wondered about this wig shop. Many such small wig stores had closed during the recession. Maybe this one had closed, too.
Days passed. Then, late in the morning on Christmas Eve, a call came from east Portland. “This is Debbie. You left a message about your mother’s wig?”
Blessed be Debbie. She clicked through all her records from last spring until she found the date that the shop had sold Alice her wig, which for some reason bears the name “Kate.”
“I have one Kate left,” she said. “Shall I hold it for you?”
“Please!” I said. “I’ll be right there.”
I called my friend Kathy, my accomplice in many things since our friendship began in 1967, and off we went in fog dense as steel wool to the faraway store where Kate waited in a small black box with gold lettering. As Debbie rang up the sale, I asked her about the car heater. “Nothing to worry about there,” she said. “Tell your mother I said that. Sometimes what a third party says can make a difference. I have a mother of my own that I take care of.”
Kathy and I rewarded ourselves with cocoa at a nearby Starbucks packed with shoppers and web-addicted idlers. Every table was occupied. Although Kathy approached two young students to ask if we could share their table for four (they had laptops and other devices spread out, etc.), we were turned away like two Marys at the inn. Two old Marys. Two old Marys in a strange shopping center on the other side of the moon in a thick fog and bearing a wig named Kate in a black box to give to an ancient woman who wanted nothing more, nothing less for Christmas.
And lo, so it was that we left Starbucks carrying our cocoa and got into the car and drove slowly and carefully back toward the city where great rejoicing would soon surely rise up to the heavens from one tiny corner of this world.
To be continued…
Meanwhile, many thanks to artist Esther Podemski for this brilliant seasonal gem from the University of Oxford.