Late Expectations

Illustration: Brian Stauffer

“Something perfectly extraordinary has happened,” Martha said. “Well, odd anyway. I’m nearly 85.”

“Mother, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. It’s quite wonderful. Well, there are complications. Oh, look out, dear.” As a rule, Martha never would have corrected her daughter’s driving. Jane was an excellent driver. Also, she had never taken criticism well. But Jane’s eyes had strayed from the road. She was staring directly at her mother.

Martha, in fact, had been looking forward to this little car trip. Cars are nice places for a chat. Once they arrived at Jane’s house, which was charming, charming, there would be Joe, Jane’s husband, a little hearty for Martha’s taste, but a great success, and Joe’s dogs, large Labradors who were bought for duck hunting but spent most of their time underfoot in Jane’s kitchen. And the grandchildren. Actually the grandchildren weren’t there just now. They were all off at college, but their presence filled the house—size 13 running shoes in the back hall, dusty trophies on the bookshelves, remarkable posters on their bedroom walls: human skeletons with roses in their teeth. It had to do with rock music. Martha had been quite looking forward to a quiet drive with Jane. She had something to tell her.

“Mother, is it about Aunt Mildred?”

“Goodness, no, dear. Mildred’s dead.”

“Mom, I know Mildred’s dead. We’re on our way to her funeral, for God’s sake. What’s wrong?”

After a certain age, children expect only calamity from their parents. As a matter of fact, Martha was sorry Mildred had died just now, when she needed a big sister to talk to. Mildred had gotten pneumonia and died suddenly, an event that seemed to suit everybody rather well. (“It may be for the best,” Mildred’s son said. “She never had to give up her independence.” “Ninety-one,” people said smugly, as if she’d clipped all the coupons coming to her and had to cash them in now.) It might have been that Mildred was 91 and ready. Martha thought it more probable that Mildred’s doctor was 32 and a simp.

“Mother, do you want me to pull over so we can talk?”

“No, dear, you drive beautifully. Just like your father. Is this one of Joe’s cars? Very handsome. He should do well with it. Japanese, is it?” Jane was a little jumpy this morning. Martha hoped she and Joe weren’t having problems.

“You see, I’ve fallen in love,” Martha said softly.

“What?”

“Quite miraculous, at my age. I wasn’t in the least expecting it. And of course Cyrus is older, 86 in April.”

“Cyrus?”

“Do you remember Cyrus and Pat Bollinger? They rented a house in Santa Barbara for a couple of winters until Pat had a stroke.”

“Why, Mother, that’s lovely. You and Cyrus have fallen in love. That’s wonderful.”

“By correspondence, actually. Cyrus sent some snaps he had taken of the rose garden. I wrote back to thank him. He wrote to say they couldn’t come out because of Pat’s health. I wrote to say I was sorry, and so forth. . . . ” Her voice trailed off. “The most exquisite letters, so tender.”

“Love letters.”

“It’s nothing new.” Martha rather resented her daughter’s patronizing tone. “There is literary precedent: Shaw, Browning . . . I’m beginning to think letters may be the highest form of literature.”

“Mom, it’s terrific,” Jane said gently. “I shouldn’t have been so taken by surprise. You’re a warm, vibrant woman. Tell me about this Cyrus. I don’t remember ever meeting him.”

“Well, he’s a horticulturist, a specialist in antique roses. Do you remember the book on my coffee table? That is Cyrus’s book. You were looking at it last night. I thought you might have suspected something.”

“No, I swear. Not a thing. Where does he live?”

“In Connecticut. He’s English originally. It’s all on the dust jacket.”

“Mother, did you meet him in England this spring, when you were on the garden tour?”

“Well, yes, actually I did see him in Kent. He has a cottage in . . . ” Martha’s sentence petered out. She was suddenly weary. She had planned this conversation for some months. She had planned to try it out first on Mildred. She wished Cyrus were here to come crisply to the point. That was one of the things she loved about him, his directness. Just when her life seemed lost in a haze of gentle obfuscations: overlooking the fact that her dear housekeeper, Hilda, drank quite a lot; rising above some of her children’s discouraging marriages. The fish at Santa Barbara Seafood was no longer fresh. It seemed futile to send it back. Twenty years ago she would have ranted; now it appeared unseemly. She had dissolved into “a darling old lady,” as she had heard her young neighbor call her, the neighbor with the bordello window shades and the white pebbles. Martha sometimes wondered if God gave her age group cataracts as a symbol of their station in life. She had spent so many years smoothing edges that she had lost the knack of slicing straight to the heart of the matter. Martha rummaged in her purse for a handkerchief.

“Mom, I sense that there is more to this.”

The car seemed rather stuffy. Martha cracked her window.

“Here,” said Jane. “I’ll turn on the air conditioner.”

Actually Martha preferred having the window open a crack, but she closed it by dint of a nearly invisible toggle switch built into the door, that worked backwards, it seemed to Martha.

“It’s Pat,” Martha said.

“What?”

“Pat, Cyrus’s wife.”

“Good God, you mean she’s not dead?”

“Why is it you expect everybody over 70 to be dead?” Martha wanted to say, but she didn’t.

“Is she in a convalescent home, paralyzed or something?”

“No.” Martha looked out the window. They were only as far as Oxnard. They had another hour at least to Jane’s house. She already felt twinges in the small of her back.

Martha found funerals fascinating. The dead got lost in the shuffle, of course, but the personalities of the surviving relatives were firmly stamped upon the ceremony. Martha had always thought of Mildred’s children and grandchildren as boiled potatoes. They stood now, all in a row, singing “Rock of Ages,” plump and smooth, with placid faces. They were nice children, always had been. The service was pleasant, the scriptures predictably bland. Psalms.

What did she expect? Martha scolded herself as she peered over her hymnal, appraising the flower arrangements, tight yellow rosebuds, filled in with that feeble fern florists use. What did she expect: sackcloth and ashes? She had been watching too much television. Passion and boiled potatoes don’t generally mix.

Jane shepherded Martha through the reception as if she had a contagious disease. Whenever a niece or an old friend came up to chat, Jane materialized at her elbow, wanting her to sit down or have some lunch. The refectory tables were heaped with a cornucopian excess, mounds of flowers and vegetables, and cheese dumped out onto purple lettuce leaves in the latest fashion, all a little limp. The sliced ham had begun to perspire. It was as if somebody had rendered a still life of the garbage crisis.

“No, Jane, thank you, just a glass of wine.”

Her contemporaries were old. She hadn’t seen some of them for three or four years. Hunched backs, shrunken heads. They said, “Martha, you look marvelous. You haven’t changed a bit.” She found herself repeating the same lies, too, but she was thinking, “Dear God, do I look that old? Oh, Cyrus, do I look like that to you?” She decided she might have outgrown funerals.

Joe walked her to the car. “What’s this I hear?” he asked jovially. “A love affair?”

“Adultery, actually,” she said. An acerbic remark. She regretted it instantly. “You’re looking very well, Joe.”

“So are you,” Joe said more seriously. “Great, as a matter of fact. I’m sorry I can’t say the same for some of your contemporaries.”

Martha hugged his arm for that remark. She was feeling like a schoolgirl. Her cheeks felt pink. Her eyes felt shiny. If she had not had to confront her face in the glass every morning while she brushed her teeth, she could have fooled herself quite convincingly. When she thought of Cyrus, a blush crept up from the base of her spine to her scalp and down her thighs to her toes.

“Mother, what in the world are we going to do with you?”

This was in Jane’s guest room the next morning. Jane was helping her mother pin up the back of her hair.

“We?”

“Mom, what I mean is, I’m worried about you. Don’t get hurt.”

“Darling, at my age, hurt is somewhat therapeutic, like pinching. At least you know you’re alive. Do you think this chignon is too severe? Does it make me look severe?”

“I think it’s stunning on you. Your hair is such a gorgeous color now, absolutely pure silver, and it’s so long. It’s grown.”

“That’s a good sign, I guess, that it’s still growing. It might be softer on my face if it were short and permed.”

“What does Cyrus think?”

Martha blushed. “Oh, he loves it the way it is, but men have no . . . ” Her sentence wandered off. She had caught sight of her daughter’s face behind her in the mirror. Jane’s neck was wrinkled, and she had rather too much flesh on her face. Jane, that round, blonde nymph who grinned from countless photographs on Martha’s stairwell, was beginning to sag. Martha sat horrified at Jane’s image in the mirror.

Jane looked at her cautiously, “Mom, do you miss Dad a lot?”

“What? Oh, yes and no.” Jane was shocked by this, but Martha didn’t know how else to put it. She had adored Dan, the dashing pilot, who had gone off to war, who had written passionate letters to her from the South Pacific. “Your father wrote beautiful love letters, too. During the war.”

“Did he? I’d love to read them sometime.”

Martha made a mental note to find those letters and burn them. That enormous man who had willed her back to health after her own mother’s suicide, who had held her night after night, so filled with love for her that he had finally crowded the nightmares out of her. The cranky old man he became, tethered to an oxygen tank, bitter, frightened, calling, calling if she left him even for a moment. A weak, whining child. When she was left, numb, staring, her friends called it grief. She suspected fatigue. Did she miss him? Yes and no. Lives had to be lived front to back. One couldn’t leaf through again for the juicy passages. “My marriage was a good book,” Martha wanted to say, “with a beginning, a middle and an end. But my life is a different story. It isn’t over yet.”

“What will you do, Mom?”

“I’m not sure. There can be no question of divorce. I won’t be the cause of a divorce.” A memory of Dan flickered, a brief, intense infatuation with a pretty law clerk in his office. Martha had refused to acknowledge it, had cried in the shower so that the children wouldn’t see her. “What will your brothers say?”

“Will’s life is so fouled up, he doesn’t have time to think of anybody but himself. Danny will be shocked. You know how he worshipped Dad.”

“Did he expect me to bury myself in his father’s tomb? The Sumerians, wasn’t it?” She hadn’t forgotten everything.

“Adolescent?” The word stuck in her craw. “Aren’t we being a little adolescent here?” Danny asked. That “we” again, emotional custodianship.

“I mean, I realize Dad may not have been the most romantic guy in the world, but . . . ”

“Your father was very good in bed, Dan. This is no reflection on your father’s sexual prowess.” She hadn’t meant to be sharp with Danny, her baby, whom she adored, but “adolescent” irked her.

Dan collapsed on the loveseat, looking all askew. He had rushed down after a lunch with Jane. He might as well have had sirens on top of his car. One would think she had dialed 911.

“But, Mom, you can’t just shack up with this guy.”

“Why not? You and Deborah did.”

“He’s married, Mom.”

“Milk? Sugar?” Dan had her there. Cyrus’s wife, Pat, was a nice woman. A tad unimaginative, perhaps, but Martha liked her. She handed Dan a cup of tea. It wasn’t ladylike to make off with somebody’s husband. “A brownie, darling? No nuts.” She always made half the batch with no nuts.

“Mom, would you like to have someone live in the house?”

“Yes, dear. Cyrus.” Oh, this wasn’t going well. Danny looked crumpled, hurt. He had one of those faces, like his father’s, on which his life’s story was written, all the hurts and bruises and pain. Dan had been incapable of prevarication, a troubling trait at times. Here was Danny with his confused face, turned toward her.

She gazed out the window at her glowing rose garden. “It is 5 o’clock,” she said quietly.

“Huh? No, Mom, 10 past 4.”

“I mean, 5 o’clock is the trouble. I miss having someone at 5 o’clock, someone to chat with about the tree-pruning man and the dentist and the sorry state of the Los Angeles Times. Someone to watch MacNeil-Lehrer with, over a scotch.”

“Someone my own age,” she wanted to say, but she was afraid that might sound adolescent.

“We haven’t been very good about coming up lately. Things have been so hectic.” Danny squirmed.

“No, Danny, darling, I don’t mean visitors. I get quite enough visitors. I mean the everyday 5 o’clocks, day after day.” And, of course, the 5 o’clocks weren’t the only trouble.

Jane’s daughter, Carrie, was not in mourning. Black was a fashion statement, as was three sizes too big. When she sat down she looked like an inkblot somebody had spilled on the carpet.

“I’ll admit it sounded gross at first. But, hey,” Carrie shrugged, “why not?”

Martha was shocked that Carrie had heard about Cyrus. The whole family must be seething with the news.

“Guys my age don’t write love letters. They text. So tell me about your rose man, Gran. He really turns you on, huh?”

Martha loved Carrie, a sunny child, despite the funereal garb. Strange how, after the fourth or fifth grandchild, one could tell right away the sort of person each would be. There were resonances, shadows, a tilt of the chin, the shape of a walk. Not like strangers on the street, who from afar are Mother, suddenly Mother as a young woman, vibrant, gay and then, approaching, just as suddenly dissolve into somebody not at all like Mother, coarser, with dyed hair. Carrie was a thread frayed from some former fabric of Martha’s own life, her vocabulary notwithstanding. “‘Turns me on’ makes me sound like a washing machine, Carrie.”

Carrie giggled. “So . . . he doesn’t make you feel like a washing machine.”

And Martha laughed, too. No, he definitely did not.

Carrie studied the carpet from her black puddle on the floor. The grandchildren all had this inclination to the formless blob, this propensity for draping themselves over chairs, for sprawling on lawns. They were as inert a generation as their parents were frenetic. (Their parents: the carpool coordinators, the joggers, the social climbers.) It was as if their favorite rock band had robbed the grandchildren of their skeletal structure. They were a generation of vines, Martha thought. Who would hold them up?

“How does he make you feel, Gran?” Carrie looked up sideways at her grandmother from under her shining curtain of hair.

“How does he make me feel?” Martha looked lovingly at the half face before her. “He makes me feel,” she sighed, “alive.”