On Girth and Gridlock
January 8, 2014
If you have been lounging around for the past few weeks eating bonbons with the customary holiday sense of impunity (i.e., being near twinkling lights = no consequences to your actions), you might sober up a little when your 98 year-old mother tells you that, because she’s allowing herself one chocolate from a box of Seroogy’s per day, she has added ten more sit-ups to her daily workout routine.
Alice’s box is still nearly full (and she got hers several days before I got mine).
My box is on the kitchen counter — handy.
Alice keeps her box in her filing cabinet. As I mentioned in And Then There Were Two, she keeps it there so that she has to get up and, as she puts it, “work for it.”
“I figure if I eat these chocolates fast,” I told her, “I’ll get rid of them all before they can do any harm.”
This comment reminded us of a particularly odd fellow from one of the many small Midwestern towns we lived in. After new-fangled parallel parking was instituted on Main Street in the 1950s, Vincent believed that he had to drive through downtown twice as fast as he’d done previously in order to avoid anyone backing out and hitting him.
“I don’t think you’re going to like the results of that logic,” Alice said, referring to the speed with which I’ve been consuming my candy.
“Time will tell,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “It will.”
As usual, she’s been weighing herself every morning. She reports her weight to me almost every night. It ranges from 143 to the latest (shocking) 149, despite the added sit-ups and careful doling out of the bonbons.
She switched to half portions at meals, which gripes her dining partner. Nadine, nicely plump, wants whole portions and gets them. “Tell your mother to eat more!” she ordered after flagging me down the other day on my way out of The Place.
“She’s watching her weight,” I explained, but this only aggravated Nadine.
“Watching her weight! She doesn’t eat enough!”
In fact, I supply Alice with groceries once or twice a week. She snacks on hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter and banana sandwiches (“Just like Elvis!” she tells me), and cereal. She might call me first and say something like, “I didn’t eat my pie for lunch. Do you think it’s okay if I have some cheese and crackers?”
This is a fake plea for permission, so I always give my blessing.
I was in too much of a hurry to give Nadine these details and wouldn’t have even if I’d had the time. Alice calls her table mate “nosey” and I call her bossy. It’s best to hold your cards close with Nadine.
But perhaps I should have said something because Nadine stewed and stewed about half portions vs. full portions until she finally got herself into trouble.
One of the women who sits near Alice and Nadine, Mika, is unlikely ever to finish a meal. She always enters the dining room with a big smile, as if sitting down to eat is going to be the greatest pleasure of her day. Her real pleasure, though, lies in greeting people.
Mika, in her late seventies or early eighties, is tiny with close cut gray hair. She moves carefully. She might have a little arthritis in her back. She’s slightly bent. On special occasions she wears beautifully embroidered Japanese jackets.
When she approaches another diner, she bows slightly. She will reach out to take a hand if one is offered. Beyond that, she doesn’t speak. She only smiles. After she’s greeted everyone at her end of the dining room, she sits down, eats a few bites, then rises and leaves.
Nadine, who later explained she was only trying to be helpful, stopped by Mika’s table a few nights ago and pointed to the food Mika was about to leave on her plate as she gathered up her things to go back to her apartment.
Nadine informed Mika that half portions were available; in fact, her table mate, Alice, ordered half portions for every meal. She suggested that Mika might do the same.
All this happened out of Alice’s range of hearing and sight, so the next day when she passed Mika on what she calls the “runway,” the hall that leads into the dining room, she was surprised when she said hello and Mika turned away from her without answering.
“Mika,” Alice said, “what is it? Are you mad at me?”
Mika walked to her table and sat down. She didn’t smile or greet anyone, and she didn’t look at either Alice or Nadine.
Alice learned from Nadine that perhaps Mika had taken offense at the half portion comment. “I meant no harm,” Nadine said. “I was only trying to help.”
Help what, Alice wondered to herself. Help why? When she got back to her apartment she called me with all this news, quite upset.
I told her about my brief conversation with Nadine regarding the half portions.
“She’s just got to interfere,” Alice said. “She thinks she knows best about everything.”
A staff member tactfully suggested to Nadine at dinner time that she might apologize. Nadine agreed and did so after the meal, but the next day Mika was still turning away from both of them.
After lunch, Alice approached Mika’s table. “I’m sorry if there’s been a misunderstanding,” she said, “but I would never hurt you. I think so much of you.” She wanted to add that she didn’t care how much or how little was eaten and that she wasn’t Nadine, after all, but only sat with Nadine and not by her own choice. But she didn’t say any of that.
Mika put her face in her hands. Alice reached out to place a hand on her shoulder and felt the woman’s whole body trembling. After speaking a few words of condolence, she left Mika alone to cry. There would be no conversation that day, but she held out hope.
“I apologized,” Nadine said to Alice the next day. “I don’t know what else to do.”
But I wondered about this. Nadine leans in to listen to conversations at the next table. She often makes critical comments about others to Alice. She reports on any interaction that occurs at her end of the residence if there’s the slightest whiff of gossip value attached. She can hear well, but doesn’t always get the story straight. Recently, for example, she told Alice that all four of the former directors had held a meeting in the current director’s office.
Alice thought this unlikely. “Why would they do that?”
“They just wanted to get together, I suppose,” Norma said with a shrug. “Maybe the holidays…”
But through one of the aides Alice learned that the four former directors, scattered far and wide, came nowhere near The Place that day. A funeral director, however, had met in the director’s office to discuss a service for a resident who had died the day before.
Things got worse with Mika. Her two adult children appeared at The Place. To Alice’s knowledge, the two of them had never before come there together. They met with the director behind closed doors. When they came out, Alice happened to be in the area fetching her mail. She took the hand of Mika’s daughter. “I would never hurt your mother,” she said. “She’s the sweetest person…”
Both son and daughter smiled. Mika’s son said something that Alice couldn’t hear and they left.
Yesterday after lunch, Alice called to report she was getting “a little peeved” with Mika. She had apologized for doing nothing, and Nadine, the guilty party, had also apologized.
“Mika’s not being very nice,” Alice said. “She walks right past us, her nose in the air, and then she goes and greets other people.”
Having her unacceptable dining habits pointed out by one of the residence’s elders (Nadine is ninety-five) in front of the whole dining room had perhaps caused Mika to lose face, I suggested. Alice showed little patience for this way of thinking. In her world and Nadine’s (raised in Milwaukee), the Midwestern prescription of an apology (if you can get one) followed by forgiveness is the norm. After that, things better get back to normal because everybody is just too uncomfortable otherwise.
But for the moment: Gridlock.
“Have a chocolate,” I suggested after we talked this all over again last night and my few sticks of cross-cultural knowledge hadn’t managed to kindle a fire or even the slightest glow of warmth toward Mika in Alice’s heart.
“I’ve already had my candy for the day,” Alice said.
“I’m having one for you,” I said, biting into a caramel. “I’ll eat it fast.”
“I’d like you to find me a girdle,” Alice said. “I’ve been wanting one ever since I moved here.”
“That’s a long time to want a girdle and go without. Five years.”
“Five and a half,” she said.
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard about it,” I said, patting my stomach, which always feels better with some chocolate in it and with no girdle to cramp its expansive style.
“I want a girdle,” Alice said again. “No matter what I eat, I still weigh one hundred and forty-nine pounds.”
And so she’d better have one because Mika’s not behaving right, Nadine’s incorrigible, and her daughter’s eating too damned many chocolates. A girdle will get at least one thing under her control. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
From Roy Orbison’s Black and White Night (1988)
Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Steven Soles, Michael Utley (keyboard), Alex Acuña (percussion)
Backing vocals: Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes, kd lang
T Bone Burnett: acoustic guitar
And the TCB Band (Elvis Presley’s band)