“Mom, Jim’s offered me a job.” I stood with the phone up to my ear as I looked out the beveled glass window of our front door, watching our elderly neighbor as she watered her lawn across the street.
“Mom?” Only in the last few months had I been telling my mother anything that would upset her in the least.
Dorothy had given me strict instructions about that after Mom’s two heart attacks. “Your mother won’t tell you, but I will. She gets upset when you kids casually toss out the problems you’re having. Don’t do that anymore. Her health is too fragile.”
Dear ole Dorothy. She was my mother’s business partner, live-in companion, and reason for much speculation in our little town.
“Mom?” I said again. “Did you hear me?”
My mother’s voice was quiet. ”Yes, I heard you. Your brother has decided to steal you away from me.”
Oh, dear God. “He’s not stealing us away. He needs us and we need him.”
“I need you, too. Have you thought of that?”
Walking into the front parlor, I sat down on the Victorian settee. ”Mom, you know our business is in trouble and you also know Jim’s going to get sick.”
“You two can bounce back, I’m sure of that. You can find a job as a psychotherapist again, and Ray can finish up his degree. As for your brother, I’ve been reading about these new drugs they’re exploring. The researchers say it’s only a matter of time.”
I thought of my brother John. There had been no miracle drugs to save his life. “I hope those come soon.”
“Me too…but I don’t suppose we can count on that, can we?
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m sure your brother has offered you a good amount of money to lure you away like this, hasn’t he?”
“Yes, he has.”
“No doubt Ray’s excited about the possibility.”
“Yes, he is.”
She paused for just a moment, clearly resisting the urge to take a dig at Ray, then said, “Okay, give me the details.” She was a money person, through and through, with a love for the stock market as well as Blackjack. I could just see her turning on her desk-top calculator as we spoke.
“A hundred and fifteen thousand a year, plus a housing allowance, health insurance, and the spare Jaguar to drive.”
“And where would the girls go to school?”
“In the Beverly Hills public schools.”
“What about the business?”
“I’ll get Jim’s half when he dies in exchange for protecting his interests and being there for him while he’s sick.”
“He doesn’t have any more symptoms, does he?”
“No. He says he’s feeling better than ever and so is Dave. That’s why they want us to come now.”
I definitely heard the hum of her calculator as she plugged in numbers.
“It’s an attractive offer,” she finally said. “I can understand why you two would want to take it.”
I leaned back and closed my eyes. Thank you, Jesus. Maybe she was going to be supportive of this choice after all.
“When would you go?”
“Two months. We think it’ll take that long to wrap up enough details to leave.”
“And Cody, what about him?”
“Jim said he’s excited to have family nearby.”
“Of course he is. Your brother has never, not once, misjudged someone’s character.”
“At least Barney’s long gone.”
“Well, that’s the relief of the century. Why is it your brother had such great taste when he was dating women but only picks complete losers when it comes to men?”
“It could be argued that Cody’s a successful model.”
“With the aid of copious amounts of your brother’s money.”
“But he does work every day.”
“Now that’s a high bar.”
“Dave isn’t too bad.”
“For a polished version of a New Jersey dockworker who’s never read a book in his life.”
“But he has helped Jim build a successful business…”
“Which brings us back to where we started.”
Mom sighed. “This is a lot to absorb. Maybe we should say good-bye for now and talk again tomorrow?”
Dread hovered. It was a lot to absorb. Maybe I had made too quick a decision. Maybe we should take more time to consider. “Okay, Mom, you’re right. Let’s talk again tomorrow.”
I walked into the sitting room, sat down on the Queen Anne sofa and traced my finger over a swirl in the burgundy upholstery. The ceiling fan whirred overhead and light filtered in through the lace curtains on the windows. I loved this room with its twelve-foot ceiling and dark green wallpaper. On the far wall stood the Victorian side table Ray had brought back for me on one of the New England buying trips when I’d been too pregnant to go. My throat went dry.
We had so many memories here. Rachael was born in our bedroom upstairs just a little over two years before. Born on a sleeping bag on the floor with a midwife in attendance. Sarah and Liz had grown up here. How could I leave a home I thought I might live in until I died?
The phone rang. It was Dorothy.
“How could you? Did you think for a second what this might do to your mother?”
I steeled myself for the onslaught. “Sounds like you’re upset.”
“Upset? Your mother is in her bedroom with angina and has already had to take nitroglycerin. Do you think there’s any reason I should be concerned?”
“She’s having heart pains?”
“This is what always happens. She acts like she’s fine, but she’s not.”
“What’s she doing now?”
“She’s resting.” Dorothy’s voice went soft for a moment, then back to stone hard. “So you’re leaving me with the sole care of your mother? Do you think that’s fair?”
Didn’t people who were partners expect to take care of each other when they got old and sick? I was surprised that was the tack she was taking.
Dorothy didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she lambasted me with arguments on why it was ridiculous for us to consider this move and then ended by saying, “Let me just say I think this is the most selfish thing I’ve seen you do so far. I hope you’re happy.” She hung up before I could say another word.
So far? I wasn’t aware that I had done anything that merited that level of criticism, but, then again, I was very familiar with Dorothy’s temper. Between her and my mother, they had ten kids, collectively, or rather nine now that John was gone. My brothers, with their tendency for too much drinking and experimenting with drugs, had not made Dorothy’s or Mom’s life very easy. Periodically, I felt as if I got thrown into the Leatherwood “bad behavior” pot even though Ray and I had stopped drinking almost immediately after we got married. We were the teetotalers in the family, hellbent on stopping the substance abuse merry-go-round that seemed to come with both of our family names. We wanted to break that self-destructive cycle for ourselves, but, most especially for our kids.
The back door opened and slammed shut and in walked Sarah, her short blonde hair still wet from swim team practice, followed by Liz, dark hair up in pigtails. “Hey, Mom,” they said in unison as they came over to hug me. Ray followed, carrying Rachael.
“Hey,” my heart was still thumping hard. I looked over at Ray. “I talked to Mom.”
“Finally got the nerve up, eh? What’d the ole bat say?”
“She’s at home with heart pains at the moment.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No. Dorothy just called and ripped me up one side and down the other.”
“I guess your mom will be in the emergency room before this is over?”
“Mama,” Sarah said, “is Grandma Helen going to be okay?”
I looked over at my green-eyed oldest daughter. “Yes, honey. Grandma has already taken medication. She gets these pains every once in a while and then they go away.” I hoped that was the case, at least. Mother was capable of being a good deal more dramatic than having palpitations in her bedroom.
“How about you?” Ray said as he came up and put his arms around me. “Are you and your mother going to need to share a hospital room before this is over?”
I lay my head against his chest. “It’s possible.”
Mother called early the next morning.
“Len, I’ve thought about it all night and have decided you and Ray have to do this.”
I was surprised her voice sounded so strong. “But what if…”
“No. There are times in a couple’s life when they have to grab opportunities that present themselves. Your dad and I did that when we decided to buy the new sale barn. We had to sell our farm to make it happen, but we knew we had to seize the moment or else our competitors were going to drive us out of business.”
The Leatherwood Livestock Commission Company. The sale barn that my Dad built into one of the most successful livestock businesses in North Texas.
“I understand that, but your health isn’t that good and Jim is…”
Mother cut me off. “I’ll be fine. It’ll do Jim good to have you, Ray and the girls so near.”
“But, I’m worried about you. I’m not sure this is a good time…”
“Len, stop right now. I know Dorothy called you. I’m telling you, I’m fine. I absolutely want you to go.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay. Now get off the phone. You have a lot of work to do.”
The minute we decided to leave Texas, our lives took on the look of one of those ‘feel-good’ movies where everything is shot with a soft focus lens: the heat was less oppressive, the mosquitoes fewer, and the Baptists more liberal.
I dreaded going to St. Stephan’s Episcopal church that last Sunday before we left. The congregation knew we were moving and had been quick to tell us in the preceding weeks just how much they would miss us. And, of course, my mother would be there.
I walked into the old stone church five minutes before the service and saw Mom sitting in her usual front pew all alone. She looked so small and old, her snowy hair contrasting sharply with the dark green suit she wore.
Settling in next to her, I leaned over and kissed her cheek.
Instead of looking at me, Mother smiled at Ray and the children then picked up her prayer book and began thumbing through the pages.
I felt a wave of hurt followed by indignation. I wasn’t even gone yet and she was already pushing me away.
The organ struck up the chords of a familiar hymn and memories of Sunday Masses, potluck suppers, my father’s funeral, and John’s memorial service washed over me as I watched the acolytes and the priest process to the altar, the smell of pungent incense filling the church.
I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity…
Mother stood, staring at her hymnal, tears flowing down her cheeks.
I put my arm around her shoulder and my cheek against hers. Our hot tears mixed as we cried – for our leaving, for John’s untimely death, for Jim’s uncertain future.