It must have been a dream, probably caused by the pressure of graduate study and teaching.
Yesterday, I took a break from my teaching assistant duties in the history department at Notre Dame to call my mother and wish her a happy 60th Birthday. Before I could get the words out of my mouth, she blurted out, “I quit my job today.”
“I quit my job today.”
“I heard you. I just can’t believe it. What are you going to do? You have a good job as a legal secretary. You were going to retire from Smith, Adams, and Klein, you said. How could you just quit your job?”
“Your Dad and I are moving to Arkansas.”
“Huh? When were you going to tell me this?”
“Well, I’m telling you now.”
I sat down on my couch, picked up a notebook, and started drawing a woman. Drawing always helps me calm down under duress…and this was duress with a capital D.
“But I’m going to school in Indiana,” I said.
“I’m fully aware of that, Honey. You’ll still be able to visit us in Arkansas. It’s not as close as Michigan, but it’s not as far away as Florida, either. Your grandparents moved to Florida. That was 1,200 miles away.”
“How could you decide to move without telling me?”
My mother and I have always been close. She always tells me what she is thinking, even when I don’t want to know. Stunned, I started tapping my mechanical pencil, and outlining a face – a few more taps – then adding the nose, the mouth, and the eyes.
“Is it too late to change your mind?”
“Well, we already sold the house, and we closed on the house in Arkansas last week.”
“What?” I sputtered. “Last week! You didn’t breathe a word of this to me. How could you decide to move without telling me?”
“Your Dad retired in October, and we decided we could move anywhere we wanted. Dad went to college and worked with rural churches in Ozark, Arkansas. Remember? He fell in love with the mountains, the hot springs, and just plain folks down there. You know what they say – You can take the boy out of the Ozarks, but you can’t take the Ozarks out of the boy.”
“They do not say that. That is not a saying.” I stopped tapping my pencil and added my mother’s earrings, then the necklace she always wears. “What about Lizzie? Is she going to Arkansas, too?”
“No. She’s staying in Michigan, of course. She has a great job, and she bought one of those cute one-bedroom condos downtown. One that allows cats. She’s taking Henry with her. That’s one problem solved. Cats really don’t like moving, you know, especially not three states away.”
“But Lizzie has cerebral palsy.”
“When has that ever stopped her?”
“But she was always going to live with you. How can you abandon her?”
“Lizzie doesn’t want to go to Arkansas. She’s an adult, dear. She can make her own decisions.”
“You know she can’t drive. How is she going to get to work? How is she going to get groceries? I’m going to school in Indiana.”
“She’s very capable, you know. That’s why she’s moving downtown. Work is only a few blocks away, she can shop at the Downtown Market, and most of all, a lot of the entertainment is free. She loves Festival and Art Prize. Your aunt, uncle and cousins live in Grand Rapids, and your brother Eric lives in Lansing. She can call them if she gets in a tight spot. She’s worked so hard to be where she is right now. We have no right to stop her from living the life she wants.”
I drew her sweater, over a black turtleneck and black pants, shading them in furiously. My mother always wears black pants because she’s says they’re slimming. That’s her opinion.
“How can you leave your Word Weavers Group?” I said, grasping at straws. “The feedback, encouragement, and fellowship of other writers are priceless. The critiques are a gift. You’ve been meeting with them twice a month for the last eight years. How can you give that up?”
“I’ll miss all of them. But there may be a Word Weavers chapter in Arkansas. And if there isn’t, I’ll start one.”
Drat. I added her glasses. “What about your grandchildren?
“What grandchildren? None of you are even close to marriage!”
“Eric has a girlfriend. They want to get to get married and have kids after he finishes his PhD.”
“When he finally gets around to having kids, he can bring his family down to Arkansas to visit Grandma and Grampa on the farm, just like I visited my grandparents on their farm.”
“A farm! You bought a farm?”
I heard Dad laughing in the background. Apparently, he had been listening on the speaker phone the whole time.
“Just when did you start thinking about moving?”
“On my birthday. Last year.”
“Honey, I’ve got to go,” she interrupted. “The moving company is calling, and I’ve been waiting for them to call back. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Bye Mom. I love you.”
“I love you, too, sweetheart.” The phone went quiet.
I added her flats to the picture and paused. These big decision on my mother’s birthday shouldn’t have been a surprise.
When my mother turned 40, she said to my Dad, “No more presents. I want tickets to concerts, plays, comedy acts, and I want you to go with me.”
The year she turned 50, we all went to see the Fiddler on the Roof at the Civic Theatre. The evening before she had gone to a Contra Dance at the urging of their friend, Zelda. My parents came home exhilarated and repeating out loud to each other, “Then grab your partner, dosey, doe, swing them around and don’t let go.” And laughing. My parents are so clumsy. Their dancing is awful, always has been. But Contra Dancing is fun, they said. However, twirling often triggers my mother’s episodes of vertigo so they never went again. They did, however, start going to folk music concerts and sing-alongs.
After the Contra Dance, my mother announced, “From now on, I’m going to try something new on my birthday every year.”
The next year was the year Mom bought her first new car, a red Chrysler 200. She said, “As long as I can choose a color, I choose red.” I couldn’t believe it. My mother always chooses blue cars. Blue is her favorite color. But Dad confirmed that Mom had always wanted a red car, but when buying a used car, color is secondary. The red Chrysler 200 was her answer to her midlife crisis, she said.
Thinking about that car, I remember that it came with a free year of satellite radio. Mom found a bluegrass station and listened to it, even when I was in the car, to my disgust. Ugh.
“Why can’t you listen to Casting Crowns or Third Day?” I moaned.
“I like this music. When I was growing up, I sang songs like this with my family. At my grandparents’ house, we sang folk songs and my uncles played their electric guitars. It’s my car, and I can listen to bluegrass if I want to.”
Screeching hyenas and twang, I mumbled under my breath.
“I wonder what makes people pick up a banjo or guitar and practice enough to become good at it.” My mother is always wondering about things out loud. She likes to regale me with her favorite bluegrass groups during our weekly phone calls now.
Putting my drawing down on the couch, I walked to the kitchen to get a cup of tea. Thinking.
When she turned 55, Dad bought both of them fly fishing poles and fly-fishing lessons. They couldn’t do much fishing in March, but she said, “Anticipation is part of the gift.”
I went away to grad school the next year. On her birthday, she called to inform me that she had started taking ukulele lessons from my best friend’s sister. She even played a song for me. The next project was to find a group to play with.
At 57, she took up weaving. She gave all of us one of her projects for Christmas that year. “Did you hang it up?” she had asked during one of our phone calls.
“Yep, I did,” I said. In the hallway…where no one can see it.
If I had been home, I might have realized she was changing. She always told me about her new birthday adventures. I should have seen it coming. While I was off living my life, she was reinventing her own. I suddenly remembered when she went back to college at 42, she said to us, “I need to find something to do when you guys don’t need me anymore.”
I sat back down with my tea and looked at the picture. I drew a ukulele by her side and called her back.
“So, have you been looking at paint colors for the new house?”