Having vowed (in writing, which makes it serious) to have a more open, less fraught relationship with my mother, I am making time at least once a week to take her to lunch and have a good talk. By that I mean that I drive, and she pays for lunch. If my mother lets me pay for lunch, and we are not sharing a meal to celebrate my new job, bonus, lottery winnings or inheritance, it’s time to begin steering her gently towards a neuropsych evaluation.
So yesterday we ended up at a lovely little sushi place where I could eat sushi, and she could have something else. She had already asked me to take her to Talbot’s, for me the retail equivalent of the Bataan Death March, and I had agreed; the whole point of our time together was that I would not look at my watch, think about what else I could be doing, or patronize her with my opinions of her taste in preppy shifts and cardigans. She is my mother, and it is not only unkind but backwards to assume that age and illness have rendered her a child requiring my guidance. As I dabbed a little wasabi on my spicy tuna, she made a second request: since my brother and his wife were going to New Orleans soon, could we stop by the book store so that she could buy them a map?
Before I could stop myself, before I could re-direct my automatic inner know-it-all, I said “no one uses maps, mom. I mean, I’ll take you if you want to go, but they both have smart phones, and he has GPS on his phone, and I just can’t see them hauling out a map.” She put down her chopsticks, and narrowed her eyes.
“Sometimes,” she said, ” no matter what kind of bells and whistles you have, it’s good to have a map to spread out to see what’s near what. I’m not talking about looking up how to get to a specific place; I’m talking about planning a day, or an evening by figuring out what’s in a certain area and within walking distance. I’ve been planning trips since before you were born.” She was right, she was right, she was right, right, right. She had, however, triggered my competitive inner monster, the one which could, if allowed to emerge, cause me to say the sky was puce if she claimed it was blue.
“They can do that on a computer. There are all kinds of programs for trip planning, they have maps, you can do it on Google. We do it all the time. If they really want to,” I added, taking it the inevitable step too far, ” you can even print it out and carry it around.” She was not eating at all any more.
“There’s really no need to speak to me in that tone of voice.” The Tone of Voice. I was immediately tumbled back to my Marimekko high school bedroom, complaining about some injustice or other, claiming that I was being perfectly rational. She would tell me not to use the Tone of Voice because she could tell that beneath my alleged innocence and righteousness, I was angry, mutinous and sullen. Were I, unaccountably, to fetch up on an abandoned street in Istanbul and whisper something in that tone, perhaps between the posts of the gates to a shuttered mosque at midnight, she would know. She would hear it, she would call me on it, she would be right, and I would feel the tic forming beneath my left eye.
“Okay,” I said, willing my voice to pass the radar, “we’ll go get a map. It would be a nice thing for them to have.”
“Don’t patronize me; I’ll ask your father to take me to the book store. It’s really fine, let’s talk about something else.” I had failed.
“No, really,” I begged, willing her to hear that I was sincere, apologetic, getting back on track. “I think it’s a great idea. We’ll go after we go to Talbot’s.” The tide had turned, as it had every time since approximately 1966. She picked up her chopsticks, contemplating a golden plank of Tonkatsu pork.
“No,” she said as she toyed with the meat, “you’re probably right.” I examined her words for meaning. Did she mean I was right? Did she mean I had been unconscionably cruel and she was wishing she had given birth to someone nicer, like Ted Bundy? Were we past it?
“Really? Because it’s really okay with me,” I focused, and breathed. “I’m so sorry I was snotty about the map. It was a nice idea and I’m sure they’ll use it.” She looked up at me; I knew it was okay. Really okay.
“Thank you. I’m already tired, and I think I’m really only good for one stop after lunch anyway.”
“I can take you another day – maybe after lunch next week?”
“That would be great.” She meant it. She ate her pork and rice, I ate my sashimi, and we were easy again, both eavesdropping on the tables around us, raising our respective eyebrows when the group of women at the corner table burst into raucous laughter. We were okay, and if I needed to take her to buy a map of New Orleans next week, that was fine. If my brother left it behind on his kitchen table, that was life. For two strong-willed women leaving the terra firma of my 47 years and moving gingerly into a delicate boat on uncharted waters, we were doing better than might be expected. If one of us fell overboard, the other would be there (possibly in a tasteful Talbot’s nautical ensemble) to pull her out. There are no maps for where we’re going.