My mother’s father quit school after sixth grade to support his family after his father and brother drowned in a lake. Later, he married a beautiful Swedish girl, started a family, and moved into a small two-bedroom apartment on the south side of Chicago. He was a streetcar conductor who woke up at four in the morning, six days a week, to head to work downtown. My mother slept in the living room on a pullout couch that she shared with her sister until she left for college. Her other sister shared a bed and bedroom with her aunt who sang hymns almost constantly and was dying a slow death from untreated breast cancer. All three sisters grew up knowing the price of everything and distrusting credit or a deal that sounded too good to be true. I doubt that any of them ever bought a lottery ticket. No one, they firmly believed, ever got anything for nothing. Frugality was inbred, carved into their DNA. Born in America, their faces were cast by the land their grandparents came from. Cheekbones like bluffs and ice blue eyes. Andersens, Johnsens, Lundquists. The sisters grew up knowing that having enough money meant that they would never have to ask for anything. And if a Swede can die without ever having asked for one goddamned thing, that’s one successful Swede.
The house in Madison is always cold. My mother says that heat makes you soft, which may be what she’s thinking when she says that I have become, “so California.” It is true. I am soft, softer than my mother. Although her core radiates heat and love so fierce that it embarrasses her.
She sits at the table in the kitchen, with her calendar. For as long as I can remember, my mother has filled in the squares of a monthly calendar with family comings and goings, along with deadlines for art contests she wants to enter. In the morning, she consults her calendar, adds anything that’s new, and then writes down a schedule for that day, even scheduling her breaks. She does this, she says, to give shape to her day.
I grab a coffee mug from the cabinet and walk behind her to get a tea bag from the shelf next to the oven. I look over her shoulder to glance at her schedule. Aha. She’s having coffee until she dusts the living room at ten. My pulse quickens. This might be the best moment to ask her.
“Where are Erik and Shona?” I ask. If my brother and sister-in-law are around and might interrupt, I should put it off.
“They took Kiran to the lake. They wanted to get pictures of him in the snow.” She lifts her head from her calendar and looks out at the lake, “Where did Spencer and Murph go?”
“Pat took them to the library.” I fill my mug with water and pop it in the microwave, “Where’s Du?”
“He’s not upstairs?”
I set the timer and the microwave hums, “I didn’t see him.”
My mother shrugs, “I don’t know where he is.”
My father’s comings and goings are puzzling to us all. He disappears and appears without announcing his departure or arrival. Later this afternoon, he will materialize in his rocking chair, reading the newspaper without a word said.
The microwave bings and I open the door to retrieve my mug of tea. My mind scrambles for something to talk about. I don’t want to simply blurt out a request for a loan. If it leaps out with no preamble, I’ll seem desperate. Of course, I am desperate. I shuffle though our usual topics: politics; the children; books; clothes, my father; her painting; my writing; my father. Nothing catches. I put my tea on the table, slide out a chair, and sit down. Just ask her, I tell myself. She’s never said no. She won’t yell or cry or recriminate. She’ll simply pull back. How bad is that? My shoulders ache. My throat is tight, like it’s trying to prevent the request from being voiced at all. Jesus, I’m going to have to write it down on paper and slide it to her like I’m holding up a bank.
My mother looks at me, her eyes misty; her fine, high cheekbones evincing her younger self. My throat tightens even more. I don’t dare try to sip my tea. I might choke.
“I’m worried about Muriel,” she says. I hear her, but don’t take it in. It’s a reprieve. This much I know. A change of subject. A shift in the game plan. My shoulders soften. I pull in a breath.
“What’s wrong with Muriel?” I ask stupidly, because everything’s wrong with Muriel. My mother’s oldest sister has been in the hospital for over two years. After caring for her husband with advanced Alzheimer’s for a decade before his death and enduring a crippling case of rheumatoid arthritis, my aunt barely eats. She sleeps most of the day hoping for death to come soon and lift her up, her corporal self almost ether now, to meet her husband in a world beyond pain.
“It’s so sad,” my mother says. Her jaw goes slack. She looks past me to the lake. I want to reach out and hold her hand. My reason for coming into the kitchen has evaporated. Now it seems that my only reason was to sit with her like this. Unable to reach for her because she would not be able to bear it.
“I know,” I say. This is all I ever say, because there is nothing else. And because this is all that my mother wants to hear. She simply needs to know that I know. Until recently, my mother wouldn’t have shared her sorrow at all. Traditionally, she has suffered losses in virtual silence. In this, I am not my mother’s daughter. I am a chest thumper and a copious weeper who can’t get through the opening credits of ET without wailing. At bedtime, my sons try to avoid books that will make me cry and extract promises that they will never leave their mother. With the exception of Pat, everyone in my family hates my inability to marshal my emotions. I have even been told that my emotional displays are intimidating. My mother, on the other hand, was once referred to by Erik as “six feet of Nordic ice”.
She is not six feet tall, nor is she that removed. Neither am I an emotional terrorist. These, however, are the labels we have both borne for years.
I remember my mother’s habitual remove two years ago, when she called to tell me that her sister, Muriel, had taken to her bed and that her daughter, my cousin, Rachel had said that she believed that Muriel would die very soon.
“How soon can you get down to see her?” I asked her then. Muriel was in Kentucky.
There was a pause on the line before my mother said tightly, “I don’t think I’ll be going.”
“Of course you have to go,” I said. “You’ll regret it if you don’t see her.”
“Brett, I can’t go. She wouldn’t…” my mother took a long pause. “She wouldn’t want me to see her like that.”
Another pause. That was it. Final. She had made the decision. I could hear it in her voice. There was nothing for me to say. I knew the Lundquist women. My mother would be immovable in her belief that Muriel wouldn’t want her baby sister to see her vulnerable, helpless, needy. Any appeals from me would meet with steely resistance and the conviction that I simply didn’t understand.
But I did understand. As soon as I hung up the phone that morning, I called my cousin, Rachel. Our exchange was pragmatic, but kind. We spent more time together when we were younger and while there wasn’t much that bound us together these days, we were connected through these staid sisters.
“I want you to invite my mother down to see Muriel,” I said. “She won’t go unless you ask her.”
Rachel sighed, “I bet Mom would love to see her.”
“I know. But my mother thinks that Muriel will be embarrassed.”
“That’s true. She would be,” said Rachel. And so unbeknownst to her mother, Rachel crafted an e-mail to mine, inviting her to see her dying sister. It was an invitation my mother could not turn down because the Lundquist code had always been clear: refusing a request was worse than making one. This was the kind of circular logic Rachel and I had lived with all of our lives.
Upon her return from Kentucky, my mother said that seeing her sister was good. Muriel’s hand was lighter than paper, my mother said. The soup my mother fed her was too hot for her. But the spoon, Muriel told my mother was too cold.
“Were you glad you went?” I asked her over the phone.
“Oh yes,” she said, as if the answer was obvious. “Oh, yes.”
Muriel didn’t die then and in the months that have followed my mother’s habit of restraint has slightly diminished. She doles her sadness out in small amounts that she thinks I can handle, often by simply evoking Muriel’s name. And each time she gives it to me, I take it. Because I know that sometimes to take is to give.
The emotional landscape in the kitchen with my mother and her calendar and her grief is a topography of stinted impulses. Mine to reach for her hand and weep with her. My mother’s to harden her face into a smile of acceptance, get up from the chair, and apply herself to a domestic task. Hers is the harder job because she has had thirty more years of inculcation.
I wait and she pushes her calendar to the middle of the table.
“Will you give me pictures of the boys on their sleds yesterday?” she asks.
“Of course,” I say, lifting the mug of tea to my lips. My mother has been sending Muriel a package every week. Sometimes it’s an envelope of pictures and sometimes she sends cookies, books for Rachel to read to her, or articles that I have written.
“Good,” my mother says, with a wistful smile. “I’ll send them to her on Monday.” She stands up, walks over to the sink, and looks out the high window there. Her back tells me nothing.
“Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?” she asks. “Do you need something?”
I put the tea down, fighting every synaptic urge to deflect. Instead I hold myself to the chair. She has asked if I need something and I do. It is within her power to help me. She cannot help Muriel but she can help me. And I can help her. To take is to give.
“Yes, Mom, “ I say, my throat catching. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
This is how the request is made and granted. The mother at the sink and the daughter at the table, her hand resting on a mug of cooled tea. Their words are not important because they do not tell the story of what each of them had to give up to be there.