I wrote this piece in 2001. Today is my Friday to visit Mother and Dad. I take turns with my magical older sister Paula, traveling 110 miles from Lexington to the farm every other week. I take Dad to town to buy groceries and run errands, and I do a few other little things to help out.
On this brilliant and frigid March day I arrive to find that all is well, or as well as all can be when Dad is 90 and Mother is 86, now in the ninth year since she lost her health and vigor to a rare form of tuberculosis. I stand in the living room where I grew up; my arm rests on Dad’s shoulder as we stand facing Mother in her recliner chair. I am 52 years old. I have been an inch and a half taller than Dad for 40 years now. We may both be shrinking a little, but the size difference remains.
When I greet him after not seeing him for two weeks, I usually say, “How are things today”, or “How are you?” His standard response for the last couple of years has been, “I’m still short.”
As Dad and I stand together, I caucus with Mother about lunch. She is a fussy eater lately. A year ago we went through a long stretch when she wanted pizza for lunch each time I came home. In those days Dad and I bought pizza as we left town after our errands, and brought it to her. For the last several months, though, through the winter, she has asked for fried oysters. I have been able to meet this request since late November, though sometimes only with considerable front-end planning in Lexington. I warned her two weeks ago that I doubted that I would be able to find oysters much longer, and we might have to switch to another favorite, fried chicken livers.
Today I say to Mother that, sadly, there are no more oysters. She looks dismayed, much as a three year old would. It is not just disappointment; I see confusion as well. After a lifetime of enjoying a keen, quick mind, she has lost the ability to string together several pieces of information such as these, “Oysters are easy to find in winter months. But it’s March now, and spring is coming. Remember about the ‘R’ months? We are almost at the end of the “R” months, and I’m having trouble finding oysters in Lexington. We just can’t have oysters again until the next oyster season begins in September.”
I explain that I have brought homemade lasagna, already cooked, and that I will freeze it if it does not sound appealing to her. I have also brought my usual bi-weekly bag of sweet frozen organic soybeans, a treat from the Good Foods Coop that all three of us enjoy for lunch on many of my visits. I offer to buy chicken livers and cook them, but this does not seem the right thing today. Mother looks unhappy and uncertain of herself.
I have never been able to bear it when she looks unhappy, so I try several questions about alternative lunches. “Do you want us to get Chinese food? We haven’t liked it that much the last few times we’ve tried it” -- I remember how she says it is both too sweet and too greasy -- “but maybe it would taste good today.” She is shaking her head before I finish the first half of the sentence. I do not mention pizza, for some reason. She says, “I want something different, but I don’t know what I want.”
During this conversation, Dad wanders off to pick up his checkbook and the grocery list in preparation for our trip to town. He walks back up to me as Mother and I are trying to find the solution to the perfect lunch. I say to him, “Dad, I’m trying to talk with Mother about what the lunch options are.” He has trouble hearing, particularly since he has lost his left hearing aid and none of us has been able to find it. I repeat a version of my explanation about oysters, and tell him what I have been suggesting as alternatives. Then I say, “What do you want for lunch, Dad?”
Both of us are laughing a little bit at this question because we know that Dad eats virtually anything and likes all foods except garlic and mustard. He is never the person who has a problem figuring out what lunch should be. We both know he will not be the one to rescue us from the what’s-good-for-lunch conundrum.
He hears my question clearly and leans away slightly so he can look me in the eye: “You.” I am giving him a sideways hug again, and laughing with him, at his small, sweet joke. He says, “Your mother and you. That’s what I want for lunch.”