“… the assiduous cruelty of children and grandchildren
in suppressing old people’s vivid hunger for bother.”
Michael Chabon. “Citizen Conn”, New Yorker, 2/13&20, 2012, P.90
Ellie, alive, had managed to deflect most of their kids’ and their kids’ kids’ well-meant efforts to free her and Hal from daily ritual. The children, a trio, individually and severally urged them to take time off, to get out and away, to enjoy life. To relieve the oldsters of the burden of tedious routine. Ellie had handled those suggestions by saying “uh, huh” and going right ahead with what she was doing, had been doing for well over fifty years and counting. The counting had stopped a little over a year back. Ellie passed quietly, politely as it were, continuing, in death, her disposition not to be a burden to others. Hal took her death hard.
He dealt with it in all the ways that those left behind do, entertaining a welter of feelings – grief giving way to chronic sadness, denial, guilt, remorse, anger, pervasive loneliness, the loneliness that Ellie had managed to dent some over their fifty-plus years together. With Ellie gone, Hal’s loneliness made a strong comeback and brought something else with it – a steely determination to manage everything – house and everything that went on inside it and around it -- on his own. “Dad, don’t be silly,” Francesca, their oldest child, says to him. “Let somebody else do that stuff, Dad. You can afford to have somebody come in and do the cleaning, the laundry, some of the cooking, the upkeep on the place.” Frannie went on to push the idea of getting out more, doing, seeing things. “You’re hermitically sealing yourself in here, Dad, you should pardon the pun.”
“No way, Frannie. Neither the expression nor the idea,” Hal said mildly.
“Why ever not?”
“Frannie, I appreciate your concern and your suggestions very much but I don’t think I need them right now. Maybe later on, but definitely not right now.” Still mildly, off-handedly.
Frannie decided not to push the idea any more just then but the kids must have been talking about his situation and the need for the old boy to loosen up, live a little, get some fun out of life. Edith, Edie, the middle one came by one afternoon not long after. Unlike Frannie, Edie lived in the old home town so she came under the cover given by what looked to be a cubic yard of still-warm-from-the-oven Eggplant Parmesan. “This’ll be good for a couple of meals, Dad, if you back it up with a nice green salad and some good crusty Italian bread.”
“Hope you saved some for yourself, you and John. There’s a lot there, “ Hal said., looking uneasily at what seemed to be an infinity of purple.
“Trust me,” Edie said. She had always liked food, fixing it, and eating it and never being concerned enough to do anything about her congenital plumpness other than nourish it. “I’ll stash this in the fridge for you,” she said. “All it’ll take is some time in the oven and it’ll be ready any time you are.” She sailed by him on the way to the kitchen, found plenty of room for the casserole in the fridge, returned to Hal in the lounge aka TV room. “So what’re you up to these days, Dad?” she asked brightly, planting herself in one of the TV- facing lounge chairs.
“Not all that much, Edie. Keeping busy. Staying our of trouble.”
“Getting out at all?”
“When I need to.”
“And, when do you need to?”
“When I need something,” Hal said, not bothering to add that had to be glaringly self-evident.
“How are you getting along otherwise?” Edie had never shied away from tautology.
“I’m feeling good, if that’s what you’re after, Edie. I keep busy around here, what with the house and the yard and a heavy dose of routine stuff, bills to pay, fixing things, clearing out Ellie’s things
Flip, the only son, the youngest of the lot ran the string out late one afternoon. He turned up just as Hal had sat down for what Ellie had called tipple time – gin over for Hal, wine for Ellie. Hal fixed a martini for Flip and they took their drinks to the family room- “The old homestead looks pretty good. Takes some doing to keep it up so well. You doing OK with it, Dad?”
Hal took his time before answering, giving his gin over his rapt attention before taking that always the best first hit. “Damn, that’s good,” he sighed.
“Sooo?” Flip prompted.
“Let’s get this straight, Flip. The girls think I’m smothering myself in minutae, and by doing that I’m denying myself life’s manifold pleasures. Things like meals in restaurants, books, the arts, movies whose titles I don’t understand much less the films themselves, television, public or private, novels on various forms of crime that may stay on best-seller lists for as long as three weeks whose protagonists are multiple violators of social or legal norms. And Facebook. And Twitter, whatever the hell that is. Am I right?”
“We want to keep you connected, Dad. I wouldn’t put it the way you have. Kind of sweeping.”
“How would you put it, Flip?”
Flip took a healthy swig of his drink, put the glass down on the table alongside, the chair and table Ellie had always claimed. Seeing somebody else in Ellie’s chair was a wrench for Hal.
“All we’re saying , Dad, is that you don’t need to and maybe you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff any more.”
That brought a two-swig silence that Hal finally broke. “I love all of you and appreciate what you and the girls are thinking and doing. It might make things easier for all of you if you came to understand that the small stuff is what us geezers are left with, its what we’re all about. If it weren’t for the endless string of things that need attending to life would be as empty as a politician’s promise. Take driving. The guy in his thirties needs to go someplace so, what does he do? He gets into the car, buckles himself in takes off for wherever he’s headed, happy as a clam, maybe filling in the tedium of driving with a phone call, whatever. No big deal. But, what does the geezer do? For him – or her-- driving’s no fun any more, even when possible and you can get where you need to go just using right turns, sleep’s a problem, eating, too, keeping the goddam raft of medications straight is a constant nag, memory goes quirky, especially for names, embarrassing, or the stubborn pain in the gut traces to fifteen unwanted pounds and undershorts now too tight. Here’s a little bit of small stuff to chew on, when do you decide to go for shoes with Velcro straps instead of laces when you know that new foot covering is going to change how you’re perceived, bring out the knowing looks and the reflexive urge to clumsily help you up the stairs or over the curb. There’s a raft of little things like that, poking their heads up like gophers, any one of them enough to ruin the day. I’ve said farewell to most of my old friends and colleagues; talking with the young one’s difficult even when they talk loud and slow enough on topics I understand or, worse, start telling me what it is that I’m trying to say to them or, even worse, what I ought to be thinking or doing. And there’s always the internal struggle when it comes to deciding which one of the myriad of small things screeching to be done actually get addressed. Flip, all of this is sketchy, off the top of my head, but what I’ve said applies to every last one of those of us who are lucky enough to be connected to reality and striving to stay that way and you’d better hope it plays out the same for you over the long haul. For the disconnected, those in what we used to call the second childhood, that’s another and sadder story for all concerned. Maybe you and the girls need to get together, talk about what you’re going to do when the old boy loses his marbles, when the small stuff , so-called, overwhelms him. And remember this is all in a context. You all have in-laws. I’m just the tip of one iceberg. And right now the way it’s going, for me its a slow melt in a relatively placid sea and it suits me just fine. OK?”
“What else can I say?” Flip asks, shrugging.
“Nothing would work,” Hal says. “How about another tipple?”
“Fine. A little easier on the vermouth this time, if you please.”
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