And Then There Were Two (continued)
December 28, 2013
On Christmas morning I packed up Alice’s Christmas loot and took it to The Place.
But then she wanted to hurry to the dining room for lunch. I managed to slip the box with the wig in it, the box three times the size of the actual “Kate” box, into the closet without her notice.
We headed to the dining room for Christmas lunch (advertised on the menu as “Christmas salad” followed by turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie).
A man in his sixties whose mother had lived in The Place for the past four years was helping serve the meal. I hadn’t met him before but immediately felt kinship.
“Mom died last week,” he told us when he filled our water glasses. “She loved it here. This is where I wanted to be on Christmas.” His mother, Viv, had been nearly blind and quite deaf, much like Alice. “I just feel like she’s here,” he said. “So I’m here too.”
After he left, Alice said she hadn’t known Viv, and we spent a few minutes trying to figure out who she was based on who was missing, but many people were missing from the dining room that day.
The meal did not get off to a good start because I didn’t want to touch the small dish of soupy cottage cheese that the kind man had set before me. I thought I’d heard him say, “Enjoy your salad.” But this looked nothing at all like salad, although it was green.
“Eat that,” Alice said, digging in to her portion. She and my father, poor as children and for many years poor as adults, had parented from the “Eat What’s Set Before You” school.
I got as far as raising my fork but then stopped. “Why is it green?”
“It’s ‘Christmas salad’ like it says on the menu.”
“No, I mean what is it that makes it green?”
“Broccoli, I bet,” Alice said after leaning in for a closer look. “They’re always trying to find ways to give us broccoli. Eat it.”
“I would prefer not to,” I said in my best Bartleby tone. I managed to distract her with a nod toward The Big Man, who entered and sat down at the table behind Alice. “The Big Man is here,” I mouthed to her.
“Oh,” she said, nodding. “Good. Is Mr. Fickle here?”
Mr. Fickle sat alone at a long table. Once again, Alice scorned the five children who could have come to join him but did not. “Where are those kids?” she asked me.
Maybe those kids, probably grandparents and even great-grandparents themselves by now, were called to spend Christmas somewhere else and would show up later with a stack of presents.
I tried to believe this as I looked away from Mr. Fickle sitting all by himself and saw that the green soup had been cleared away and the turkey, mashed potatoes, and green beans plus a little cranberry sauce had shown up. Viv’s son was a good waiter.
Alice always orders only a half portion of whatever the meal is because she’s watching her weight, which she has been watching and watching now since she was a young woman, so for about 72 years, all the while eating what has been set before her.
A woman rolled up to our table in her wheelchair. She had short gray hair and downcast eyes that turned out to be a startling blue when she looked up. She introduced herself to me. “I’m Calista.” She nodded at Alice and then turned to me. “She doesn’t know what I’ve been through,” she said.
“What have you been through?” I asked.
“They’re testing me. I might not be able to stay here. I have to pass the tests or I go to a nursing home.”
I asked Calista about the tests. This was the first time I’d heard about them. She said they were both physical and mental. She seemed in no worse condition than many others in the dining room. She was clearly worried, but then she looked at Alice calmly eating her turkey, unable to hear anything that was being said between Calista and me. “She’s so pretty,” she said. “Tell her I said so, will you?”
Calista went to her own table and later squeezed my hand as we passed by on our way back to the apartment. I wished her well with the tests and looked around. It was not a very merry room. There was the grieving waiter, trying hard to smile at his mother’s old friends as he moved from table to table. Mr. Fickle was staring at his pie. An elderly man sat kitty-korner from him but they weren’t talking to one another. Many others in the room ate without speaking to each other. The dining room was less than half full, and, other than the reason for Viv’s absence, that seemed to be the only brightness. Surely all others who were missing had been invited to the homes of friends and relatives.
But there was one other bright spot in all this. When we passed the Big Man he uncharacteristically motioned for me to come closer. “I’m going to my son’s today,” he said. “Later on he’ll be coming to pick me up. I’ll be over there for dinner and presents. The whole shebang.”
Phew! Somebody was happy.
It took a bit of a skip to catch up with Alice. She was hurrying back to the apartment to open her gifts.
And this is how that went.
She got penguin socks and a penguin glass from Salli.
New flatware from Ikea, which she is trying, as you see, to accept graciously but really does not think she needs even though the “silverware” she has is as old as most, if not all, hills and looks depressing to eat with.
Chocolates from her nieces, Marty and Karen, in Wisconsin (and a red and white arrangement of flowers from her niece Shelley, which I forgot to take a picture of – sorry Shelley!).
Uh-oh, more chocolates. More weight watching.
That stocking was filled with many little gifts of no consequence but were fun to open. Also, she got lotion from Katharine and Alan and many other gifts from friends. And cards, too.
She thought she was done and started to clean up, but I mentioned Santa.
“Santa came,” she said, pointing at all the gifts.
I retrieved the big box from the closet. She had forgotten that it was part of the original stack I’d walked in with and she reached out for it now, curious.
And then all this happened:
“Now I can sleep at night,” she said. “I have two wigs.”
Two Kates. More even than the future King of England.
She looked at me and winked. “I thought you were up to something. You cannot fool your old mother.”
Well, you can try.
I told her that Debbie at the wig store assured me the car heater would not destroy wig fibers, as Alice has been fearing. All she had to say to that third party advice was this: “You can never be too careful.”
She leaned over and showed me a tiny dark spot in the middle of the wig she was wearing. How on earth did she manage to see it? I could barely find it.
“I think something’s happening there,” she said. “That could have been caused by heat or by the stretching. I don’t know which.”
Or it could have been a flaw in the wig that had been there all along, but I didn’t mention that.
She instructed me to put all the chocolates in the filing cabinet across the room from her chair. “That way if I want a piece of candy I will have to get up and work for it,” she said.
But first we ate some chocolates. Then we had some of my friend Julia’s apple cake and other treats she’d baked and sent over because we couldn’t resist. We weren’t watching anything. It was Christmas.
One more penguin. This happy fellow is from Meg. He’s visiting his new friends on the refrigerator.
Ring in a really good new year for yourselves, dear readers. See you in 2014, if not before.