Yesterday's mother

Dating back to when it was printed on paper and mailed with stamps, long-time readers of this page know that seeing my mom is at least frustrating for me, often disastrous. Well, she'd invited me to breakfast, and I'd put it off for as long as I could, but yesterday we went to breakfast, and… it was quite nice, except for the breakfast.

The restaurant Mom wanted to go to was several miles from her house, and so far into the wilds outside Renton that there's no bus service. That was the worst thing about the morning — having to drive my car. I always prefer transit.

For breakfast with Mom, I drove about 14 miles on three freeways to get to her house, through five stand-still jams on the way and three more on the way back. I wasn't in the best frame of mind when I got to her house.

We chatted, and I yelled — not because I was angry but because she's hard-of-hearing. She asked, "Should I bring my ears?" meaning, should she wear her hearing aid to the restaurant?

"Yes yes yes," I yelled. "It's a restaurant, so it'll be loud, and I don't want to be talking as loud as I'm talking now, not in a restaurant. Please wear your hearing aid." She said OK, and excused herself to put the device in her ear.

Then she put on her shoes, and jacket, and looked for her purse, and wondered whether to bring her bag, and fed the cat, and drank a glass of water because "I need more fluids," and looked for her keys, and then lickety-split, we left.

On the way, she argued with the GPS about where to turn and how to get to the restaurant, but my GPS is often full of crap — screw you, Garmin — so I shut it off and trusted Mom, and she got us there with no confusion.

When I parked and we got out of the car, Mom said, "Oh, shucks, I forgot to put in my hearing aid." And I sighed, but even though the restaurant was quite busy and very loud, there must've been some favorable quirk of acoustics — Mom and I were able to hear each other, even in a busy restaurant, better than we heard each other at her house or in the car.

The restaurant was located nowhere between Renton and Issaquah. The food was less than the best, the service was uncaring, the coffee was bitter and burnt, and the prices were what passes for reasonable these days, but more than I'd usually pay. That's irrelevant, though, because Mom was buying.

And anyway, this was Mom's favorite restaurant, she'd told me, so I said nothing bad about the place. Midway through the meal, though, Mom said that she didn't much care for her breakfast, and that next time we should eat at a different place much closer to her house.

That soon turned into an invitation, and I said yes, because all through breakfast Mom was actually... kind of delightful.

I'd been prepared to steer the conversation away from all her usual topics, but I didn't need to do any steering after parking the car. Our conversation was easy, natural, and generally grown up. She never chided me for my many mistakes in life. There were no reminders that my whereabouts had been unknown for many years, no invitations to church, and none of her usual quizzes about the names of the wives and children of everyone in the extended family. She never even asked about my recliner.

There were several moments where it could've gone bad. Like, when we first sat down, Mom put her bag on the table, and I absolutely knew it would topple over the edge. "Can I hold your bag?" I offered, but she said no, and as she sat down she rattled the table and the bag teetered, but it didn't fall over, all the contents didn't spill out on the floor.

When the food came, I knew she'd say grace, and she'd do it dramatically, like she always does. She'd want to hold my hand, and then she'd pray loudly, very loudly, and everyone in the restaurant would be watching us, and it would be a long prayer ending with "Thank you, Lord, for bringing my beloved son back to me." Nope. None of that. She bowed her head and mumbled a few words, and even I barely noticed that she'd prayed.

The loud people at the next table had been talking about baseball, but for a few minutes they changed the subject to Bible study, and I saw Mom's ears perk up. Here it comes. This was her moment, her cue. She was gonna talk to me about Jesus. She was eavesdropping as they talked about Second Corinthians, but she said nothing to me about it. That's never not happened before.

Through the meal we talked about music, about the trees blooming pretty in springtime, about what she's bringing to the upcoming family picnic, her first and only job seventy years ago, and a few pleasant memories of Dad. She brought up nothing painful, nothing annoying, and asked zero nosy questions.

Toward the end of the meal, she still hadn't scolded me yet, so I decided, what the hell, let's venture into the dangerous territory of asking Mom a semi-philosophical question.

"Hey, Mom," I said, "when I was a kid, you and Dad had a rule that the family never ate at any restaurant that served alcohol. When we walked in here, though, I noticed that there's a full bar in front of the dining room. Six beers on tap, and a cocktail menu at our table. Since when is that allowed?"

"Well," she said, "your father died many years ago, and that was his rule more than mine. I'm here to eat, not to drink, so why should it matter that they have a bar?"

"Wow," is all I said to that. My parents were always anti-alcoholics. Only milk, soda, and water were allowed in the house. They were opposed to the existence of booze.

My sister Katrina was once grounded for two months because they found out she'd had a sip of beer at a friend's house. The rules have changed, though. Now Mom lives with Katrina, who gets stoned several nights a week, and Mom thinks the scent of marijuana is Katrina's perfume.

She paid the tab and I paid the tip, which led the closest Mom came all morning to criticizing me — "That's a big tip," she said, but that's all she said. Mom never worked in a restaurant, never worked full-time, and hasn't worked at all since the 1950s, so tipping $10 on a $42 tab seemed like a lot to her. For me it was borderline stingy, because we'd stayed twenty minutes talking, after our meal was finished.

And what the hell? Twenty more minutes talking with Mom, and I hadn't been itching to leave?

As we put on our jackets, I said, "Thanks for breakfast. Mom. It was lovely, and would you like to join me for a cocktail in the lounge?"

Mom joked back, "Why, that sounds lovely, but not today. I've been trying to cut back on my heavy drinking." Of course, Mom has never tasted anything more fermented than cottage cheese.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

I don't understand my mom, never really have. She's exasperatingly Christian, judgmental, full of prying questions, but — not yesterday. Usually I want to drop acid after seeing her, but I enjoyed yesterday's mother, and I'm looking forward to our next breakfast together.

What went right? I've been trying to figure that out, and here's what I've come up with. I got a new cell phone a few weeks ago, and started getting into the habit of text-messaging people, something I'd almost never done before. It's easy and takes almost no time. Mom and I are trading texts almost daily, and that might be the magic.

All her other kids (except my brother Ralph, who's dead) are constantly in touch with Mom, but I'm the one who disappeared for years. More recently I've often gone weeks, sometimes months without saying half a hello to her. Not because I'm an ass (though I am), but because she's so difficult when I do see her, I'd rather not see her. That's been my policy for thirty years.

When Mom sees me after a long silent spell, she punishes me with scolding, with intrusive questions, faultfinding comments, worried reminders that God will judge my eternal soul, etc.

Ah, but when we've sent text messages the day before, and the day before that, even if it was just a line or three of harmless chat, then she doesn't feel she's been ignored. Which means I don't need to be punished.

That's why breakfast was nice. At least, that's my theory. It's the only factor that seems different, between her behavior at breakfast yesterday morning, and her behavior when we had breakfast two weeks ago. That morning, I hadn't spoken to her in a week, and she made several harsh remarks, and after we'd said goodbye I screamed while waiting at the bus stop.

Yesterday was the opposite of that.

I'm an idiot, for not figuring out years ago that nobody likes to be ignored. So I'm going to send Mom a text message right now. "Gosh, it looks windy out the window." Later I'll check my messages, and she'll have replied about whatever's out her window, and she'll tell me what she had for lunch. Tomorrow I'll reply and tell her what I had for dinner.

A sentence, and then 'send'. Is that all it takes, to keep Mom happy?


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