4 hours ago
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
I chatted with my neighbor the night before because he’s older than me and has far more life experience to share - his parents are in their nineties. He knows a lot about Alzheimer’s. He had lots of siblings and ten children. I only have two, one brother, one sister, piggy in the middle. I wore my new cardi, a voluminous grey affair that the shop assistant described as ‘fashionable.’ I was advised that it wasn’t a cardi but a duster, as I still have a lot to learn. She asked me a great number of questions, unusual at the check out, until the penny dropped, as it often does, occasionally, eventually. I was happy to advise her that my accent was British, happier still to tell her that British people speak English too, delighted to explain that England is a tiny little island and is jolly close to Europe. It could be sarcastic but it’s not, just a wee private joke. It made me smile. It always makes me smile. It’s a smile I recognize from my Dad, the most polite, courteous and considerate man I’ve ever met, although my emulation falls short of the mark. I suspect you need to be a Victorian or an Edwardian to match; bygone eras are the yardstick and don’t allow for millimeters.
She was a lovely young thing, fresh faced, apple cheeked, huge dark eyes, and silky haired, ripping off security tags with a vengeance, although it doesn’t do to type cast, even though we all do it. I do it today because my smallest baby is nine, which means it is my mother’s birthday too, eight hours ahead, back in England. I could have phoned at midnight, but octogenarian’s don’t appreciate early morning calls, so I waited. I waited until after all the presents here at home, the excitement of his last single digit birthday: Lego, cats and gold-yellow-orange, he’s so easy to please; the positive reinforcement of the first window on the Advent Calendar.
So much hopefulness amongst the festivities.
I wonder if the shop assistant was the eldest in her family? So forthright. Or the youngest – so girlish. Or the middle child – so pleasing. I wonder if birth order really has an impact? If you’re typecast as the baby of the family, does it stay with you forever? My brother was the baby; he was the brainy one. My sister was the eldest; she was the beautiful one. I was the middle child; the amiable fool. We knew our place, content with the pecking order.
My parents talked in code, made reference to a different cultural age: my brother was the heir, because he was the only boy, fee simple, absolute but not yet in possession, my sister was the eldest unmarried daughter, spinster of this parish, at 12, because it was amusing. I remember the staff at the bank being very amused when I turned up at the window with a hand written missive from my father, my authorization to collect his money, in his own unique style. There could be no mistake. I might as well have had it tattooed on my forehead – my gene pool. It might have been humiliating but it wasn’t – just plain funny. No other customer was likely to describe their emissary in such terms, as marital status is a thing of the past.
It was difficult for him, my dad. I was the first person to ever be divorced in our family. It was a shameful disappointment; the mark of parental failure; it was a heavy blow. It was a long time ago. Divorce did not exist within my parent’s circle, unheard of, unprecedented, unbelievable. The bank tellers were indulgent as they wiped away the tears of mirth – ‘your driver’s license would have been fine!’ they beamed as they passed the note around, colleague to colleague, so that each could read it, glance in my direction to check, see if we were a match – we were – the offspring of an eccentric. There were many ways he could have described me – I was glad it wasn’t age, height and weight, another chattel. He was old school. Whilst I was unmarried, I was his responsibility. Children can be so unwittingly cruel.
When I was divorced I returned to the family fold, soiled goods.
‘This is my daughter – see we have the same eyes.’
‘This is my daughter – she’s skinny like me.’
‘Don’t know where she got her height from – must have been the postman when I was away at sea.’
‘This is my daughter, the dud, divorced.’
‘She has the same wicked sense of humor and an eye for detail.’
All such a long time ago as I listen to the telephone - one ring and he picks up. I can see him sitting in his winged backed chair as we exchange the formal pleasantries that are customary, a script. We practice the script every Sunday before he finishes with the same line, “would you care for a word with your Mother dear?” because that’s all he can manage these days. Today is my mother’s birthday, not Sunday but Monday. The drugs keep him docile, manageable. If my mother is home my father and I exchange two sentences first, before the hand over. He sounds exactly the same. If my mother is not home we exchange three sentences. No-one would ever know. Always the same exchange, two lines or three - so I can tell if she’s home or not. He used to be ten feet tall, magnificent. Now he’s nearer 5. Three sentences means phone again later, as he doesn’t function as a message center. He can legitimately claim deafness when required but I’m still startled when he asks, just one extra question that changes everything and I wish I hadn’t heard –
“who are you?”
I remember, just in time, because I’m good at time travel, back to the 70’s when everything was so much more simple, “it’s me dad, your youngest unmarried daughter.”