Oct/Nov 2014 Nonfiction


by Coleen Kearon

Adair's house is small and neat. It is two miles from the beach, and seven from where my parents live. An inexpensive Airbnb, made even cheaper by her offer to honor her off-season price, which was still listed when my sister and I booked the room in March. Fifty dollars a night.

Adair is not home when my sister Dawn and I arrive. Chico, her friendly German shepherd, greets us. His smiling face already makes the place much nicer than a hotel. There are pictures of him on the walls: some show him alone, others show him with Adair. I recognize her from her Airbnb photograph. A pretty woman with long dark hair and a Roman nose that gives her an easy sex appeal. She's around thirty. I recognize her in other ways. Mostly in the stillness of the home. She lives alone, with Chico. So not alone, but to most people's thinking, she's on her own. She mentions Chico in her Airbnb profile. So do most of the reviewers, saying things like "Adair and Chico are the best hosts!" I know Chico is her best friend. The one she does things with, and talks to in passing, in the car and on walks, accompanying her through her days.


Dawn and I dump our suitcases in the guest bedroom. We unpack our fancy dinner attire and take out books and makeup. We have a schedule, all weekend long, and already I'm exhausted by the 3:30 am wake-up for the 6:00 am flight. Now it's 4:30 in the afternoon. Few would believe it takes most of a day to get from Vermont to Virginia, but there's the lurid wake up in the pitch dark and the smashing of clothes into the small airline approved bag because you were too busy leading your other life the day before to pack, followed by the drive to the airport, delays and/or layovers in New York or Philadelphia or DC, depending on which carrier. Today we were in DC, in a small claustrophobic terminal that looked like a dirty and forgotten corridor. Neither of us ate the bagels, pizza, and pretzels for sale, walking past people in long lines once, twice, three times, trying to find somewhere to stand or sit.


"Mom and dad have never, would never, do this for us," I said to my sister, trailing behind her long stride. Occasionally, I met a pair of dull eyes waiting for Dunkin' Donuts or Orange Julius, older chains. The newer ones have forsaken this dingy and overcrowded galley for the new addition.

At this my sister nodded her head and exhaled forcefully. We've had this exchange before. We're in our mid- (Dawn) and late- (me) forties. The yearly and sometimes twice yearly visits to our parents, this staggering number of visits and the equally staggering number of flight delays or cancellations, over the many years, have taken on a dramatic flavor.

"I would be fine never to visit my parents again," I thought, not for the first time. We were on our second pass by the giant pretzel display, its warm bulbs illuminating the clouded Plexiglas. Then I backpedalled because that was too sad a thing to think, even to myself. It would break their hearts to know I've had this thought, and I've never wanted that. But I'm done. I've been done with the visits for a very long time. And yet I can't and won't be done until the time when they are no longer around to visit. Also heartbreaking. A visceral sense of the fraughtness of this relationship grips my heart, whenever I think about how tired I am of visiting my parents, and how sad I will be when they die.


After hanging up a good deal more clothes than I brought, my sister sits down at a small desk by the door and looks at herself in a magnifying makeup mirror. "Turn away, turn away," she says, holding out her arm.

"Those are meant for teenagers," I tell her. "For loving yourself."

Clicking across the wood floors Chico enters the bedroom and leans into my sister. She smoothes the fur on his high cheekbones. She sighs and presses a button and all the little spotlights go out.

"Yes, well, that's been a long time ago now, hasn't it?" she says, raising her eyebrows.

This is something an old German man said to me when I was a mere 35, after I'd mentioned which college I'd gone to. He aimed this comment at me accusingly, as if I'd implied that I'd just graduated, from across a small, carpeted and wallpapered room with tables laid for breakfast, on our year 2000 trip to Dublin. Dawn and I have lobbed it to one another with some regularity ever since: "Yes, well that's been a long time ago now, hasn't it?"

Tempting myself to just never get up again, I lie down on the bed. My sister also collapses, and Chico joins us, gracefully launching from the floor to the bed, almost silently, despite the fifty or sixty pounds of him. His sweet face looks over his shoulder at us as he settles. We have to be at my parents' at 6:00 pm. They live in a vast retirement community, where the kitchen and wait staff are accustomed to hosting parties, and have a hall set aside for families and friends to gather. After a certain age, evidently it's easier to just stay put and have any celebrations in house. With my father in a wheelchair and my mother taking mincing steps to keep from falling, I understand, though it never makes the camouflage that is the elegant lobby and the chandeliers in the hallways and dining rooms any easier to take. It's my parents' 50th Wedding Anniversary. Family from New York has come to Virginia Beach for the party, which is tomorrow night. Tonight is the Welcome Dinner, the first of many meals we will share together. The alcohol will flow emphatically. Free and just a short walk away, from the main table to the bar. For the lunches and dinners, anyway. Breakfast, we'll have to fend for ourselves; sober, maybe even hungover. Coffee and pancakes and the dull prospect of the day ahead.


Four years ago, my parents moved to Atlantic Shores, which is a lot like a condominium complex, an accommodation I already find maddeningly flat and cold, but has the extra added gloom of a facility where people have come to die. My father merrily says so, sometimes listing the funerals they've attended since their arrival. My mother lurks on the edge of whatever frame we happen to be in—the Christmas one, or the Thanksgiving one—as he does so, her presence heavy and frightened of living (always so) and of death, equally. My mother's suffering is vast; my father's, unacknowledged. When Dawn and I were children, "You bury your head in the sand!" she'd scream. She's still screaming. No one hears a thing. Instead I feel her over the phone, in person. Feel her all the way back and all the way forward, the history and weight of her, the drama then helplessness. She's not passive but frozen. Mercy, it would be, if frozen meant numb. I can tell you it never does. Numb is what you hope for. But it's more along the lines of being cold, where any numbness is accompanied by pain, hot to the touch, stinging. That's how I imagine my mother's life.


I will try to reduce my mother to a few bold strokes: she was reared by neglectful parents in a Glasgow tenement. Her sweet father (I remember him, though he died when I was six) worked all day and drank most of the night in a pub. Later in the night, he fell asleep by the coal fire, his dog Whiskey at his side, where he'd be found each morning. Her mother left her and her younger sister with the neighbors until their father's return home at 11, at midnight, when they'd be slung from his wide shoulders. He'd murmur to them to "Go to sleep, now," as he laid them out onto the single bed on the second floor of the cold water flat.

My grandmother wore fur stoles and high heels and went dancing at night, often enough that in my mother's child eyes, she may have or may not have been coming back. My mother was impoverished in all ways and not made strong by it. Quarantined for six months with TB when she was seven and graduated from school when she was 12, showing not enough academic promise. She waitressed in hotels and worked in offices for a time, in Glasgow and London. In 1963 she married my father because she was afraid of what came next. Likely more of the same. Servant's work for poor wages. Always the gray clouds over a loud, dirty city. That, she escaped from, but to another life that had nothing to do with her. One that was all about taking care of my father and me and my sister, and always and again, my father, now that he's in a wheelchair. I don't think my mother has ever felt like a person. Her whole life she has been unable to sit down or to relax. Like her father, my father is a sweet man. Unlike him, he's not a drinker. In some ways, she made a wise choice in him. Plenty of money and nice homes. But I don't believe my mother feels like she exists in the world. Instead, I think she feels like a thing that does things to survive.My father has also lived a life about doing things to survive, but with some choice, however limited. He has his own unfortunate background. My mother screamed at him for years and years; he buried his head in the sand. A good thing. One of them had to. But a lonely thing. I've tried to imagine what my mother's natural habitat is. To see her smile, her limbs relax, like the circus and zoo animals I sometimes watch online, being released into Tennessee and Florida sanctuaries. I don't see any place for my mother where she would feel more herself, whoever that is. She probably doesn't, either. Having had my own glimpses at there being nowhere for me in the world, and nowhere I wanted to be, I see that a lifetime from this view would give you my mother's face as it now appears to me and to my sister: doughy and blank. A big part of coming here to visit my parents is having to see my mother's face. An obvious statement, but one that I start to think of early on, before we've even left Vermont. I feel her. All the way back and all the way forward.


Neither of us wants to come home, but not coming is never in question, not even between ourselves. Not really.


I wake up from my brief lie down at Adair's before I realize I was sleeping. Almost thirty minutes of a dead-to-the-world, time-lapse rest. Dawn is propped up on her pillow, reading a People magazine. She says of my snoring, "You sound like Christopher Reeve when he had the respirator." The magazine flags slightly as she does an imitation of strangled air moving in and out of a mechanical passage, very serious and intent on getting it right. She then moves onto my mother, with whom she has also shared a room on the occasion of their trip to Scotland. "She makes poof, poof sounds, with her bottom lip vibrating out."

"Sweet," I say.

"You don't know the half of it," she says.

Chico uncurls his head from under his arms and looks over his shoulder at us. "I'll go first," Dawn says. Sensing that we're about to abandon the bed, Chico stands and jumps off, following her into the hallway. I watch him walk off as she closes the bathroom door. He'll return to the couch where we first found him, looking out the window, waiting for Adair.


I think about getting up. My exhaustion has evolved into an ill feeling; along with it, a tinge of depression. Historically, I've thought of my depression as the ragged hole located in my upper abdomen. Lately, though, the pain of it is more diffuse and livid. More "go home immediately and lie down, and wait it out." It's unfair, is what I think of this recent evolution. There was some comfort in knowing what to expect of my depression after all these years, having named and pinpointed where it opened in me. This other, more flattening thing defeats me anew.


I walk through the dark hallway, where the sound of water pounds just beyond the bathroom door, and into the living room, where Chico sits on the couch. He looks out the window, waiting for an indefinite period of time. "You're a good boy," I say reflexively. At this his kind eyes meet mine. Whiskey was a shepherd. An Alsatian, as they are called in Great Britain. The little I recall of him was how quiet he was and how slow he moved, lifting his head from the hearth near the fire to see if it was my grandfather walking from the dark stairwell. He was probably an old dog, but I wouldn't have known that.


The water continues to run. Dawn takes longer showers than I ever do. I browse in Adair's living room. Buddha and Goddess figurines perch on the shelves. A peace flag spans one shelf to another, with candles and pretty stones and geodes. I crouch down to look at the few books she has. They are in a small, glass enclosed case on the ground level of an entertainment center. Among them, "How To Be Single," the new Katherine Boo book, and popular fiction—the small paperbacks that you find in airports or at the front of a bookstore, jammed together on display, like afterthoughts. Not what you came in for.


When I stand and turn, I know the sky has darkened before I look out the window. Chico's body trembles and the warmth in his eyes has been replaced by fear. "I'm sorry buddy," I say, frowning in his direction. Before I had dogs, I used to like storms. Along with firecrackers, now they just seem like protracted and warring volleys. Gunshots and bombs going off.


It's not raining, not yet. I listen and I don't hear any thunder. It may pass, like the jets the Navy flies above head, on strict, rotating schedules so as not to continually shake and rumble the same homes.

"I'm done," Dawn says from the hall, on her way back into the bedroom.

I shower and dress. When I come back to the bedroom, Dawn is putting on makeup. The mirror's naked bulbs surround her magnified blue eyes, startled and blinking from her newly scrubbed skin.

"Is this dress okay?" She stands uncertainly. From out of the closet she brings two others, fanning her arms out, an empty dress grasped in each hand. "Which one do you think mom will like?"

"They're all nice," I say unhelpfully. Outside a small, blue wedge breaks through the clouds.

The dresses fall to her side, their hems pooling on the floor.

I try: "You should wear what you like."

This conversation could go on and on if I don't offer something more specific.

"But she never likes what I choose. Help me out."


She is our mother. My father used to scold us when we used the word "she" to refer to our mother. "Who is 'she'? 'She' is the cat's mother. You mother is always your mother." My father very quietly, manipulatively, demands an unquestioning respect for one's parents, and especially one's mother. Honor thy mother and father. We dutifully come home, call every week, sometimes twice, three times. Send cards and presents. Such a show.


At any rate, Dawn is thinking of an older version of our mother as she struggles with her wardrobe decision. Or, the younger version, rather. That critical edge she used to cut us with has long been blunted.


"I like the one you're wearing. Wear the longer, more formal one tomorrow night," I say, pointing as the dress is raised slightly.

"Are you sure?"

I sigh dramatically.

"Okay, okay," she says. She sits down at the mirror, hoists her giant bag onto her knee. "Just go out and wait for me," she says. "I'll be right there."


Back in the living room, I sit next to Chico, the both of us consigned to wait. His body is taut and unmoving, except now he has begun to pant. His alert stare presides over the room, somehow managing to exclude me. Just like it is with my dogs, nothing I say or do helps. He's on his own. Outside, the blue wedge is inked over by a succession of fast-moving, black clouds. The kind of weak, bald light you'd find in a basement intermittently drains through the cloud cover.


Restless, I head for the kitchen, re-reading the Post-It stuck to the bottom of Adair's universal Welcome to Virginia Beach, what-to-do-and-where-to-eat note. Unnecessary tips for us who grew up here and don't care to know more about Virginia Beach. Adair doesn't fit here either, from what I can see. Likely she is a Navy brat, like Dawn and me. Moved here when she was little. Stalled or stuck. The Post-It says she'll be home a little after six.

On the way out the door I tell Chico, "She'll be home soon," noticing as soon as we've stepped outside that the sky has in fact cleared, without the bombing and fireworks.

What's next is the same car ride, the guard greeting, the automatic doors, the elevator to the second floor with the welcome mats that try to simulate the front doors of the real homes they've left behind, and the gathering silence that is its own atmosphere, shrink wrapped, sealed.

At our parents' front door the miniature bagpipe plays the British National Anthem when Dawn presses it. Our father says, "Come in," but the door is locked. Also a repeat from last time and the time before that. He yells to my mother to get the door: "They're here." 

She once told my sister and me, on one of those rare occasions when the three of us were alone together without my father, that she dreamed about him calling her name all the time, as well as having him call her all the time in her waking life, for these fifty years. "I wish I could change my name," she'd said earnestly. It wasn't a punch line. It's not really funny.

The door opens on my mother's slow shuffle. Dad is in the background, in his motorized wheelchair. In the hallways and in the outside world, when we go out to dinner, he zooms around ably. But in here, the fifty years of habit is unremitting, unshakable, and all there is. "Maureen," he calls.

In the apartment the silence of the hallways mixes with the sound of women's saucy voices and men's bemused ones, from 1940s classic films, plus the smells of cleaning agents, air fresheners, and my mother's Chanel No. 5 perfume. The smell of cleaned up urine overrides the various concealments. Lucky for him, my father hasn't been able to smell well since he was in his late thirties, as evidenced by a number of toaster oven near-fires throughout our childhood. He has always said he does not know when or how he lost his ability to smell. I've always taken it to be connected to his "burying his head in the sand," though I never really articulated that to myself until I was an adult. But I believe I've always thought my father had one or the other of not knowing things.

Dawn and I awkwardly take turns kissing my mother's cheek. Then my father's, as he mutes Adam's Rib or Bringing Up Baby. We're not a demonstrative family, but like our visits, there's the obligatory expectation, fulfilled, of a shy, begrudging kiss to kick things off.

The welcome dinner and the party the next evening are mostly what anyone would expect. Surf and turf and dessert tables and the bad vegetarian meals that Dawn and I have grown used to. For the party, on the second night, my father hired a pianist. For the last hour, he requested that he play piano sing-alongs, and provided him a set list of songs he and his family sang on Saturday and Sunday nights, at his grandmother's place, in the early 1940s and into the 1950s. "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "Baby Face" and "Bye, Bye, Blackbird." People danced and sang and briefly the room came alive. At the tail end of the last, the dancing hour, the photographer posed us all together, and then my mother and father, the anniversary couple, separately. Due to the rare form of muscular dystrophy that is responsible for my father being in a wheelchair, his face neither wrinkles nor is he able to be very expressive. And there's my mother's lost face. It was uncomfortable, with "You Must've Been a Beautiful Baby" playing, and the eyes of the room trained on the two of them as the photographer lightly repeated, "Smile, this time."

The end result, received in the mail a few weeks later, brought to mind when the photographer gave up, saying something like, "All right then, that's nice."

On both nights, Adair is home when we return from our dinners, sitting on the couch with Chico, watching TV and reading. Newly showered, her hair still wet and her tawny skin soft-looking. Prettier than her pictures, and unselfconscious about sitting there alone on a Friday, a Saturday night. At thirty I remember feeling acutely aware of my aloneness, even in private, as if the world might be able to witness my pain. I admire her as Dawn and I stand in the hallway, saying hello and good night, on our way to our room.

"Is it weird renting your room to strangers?" I turn and ask on Saturday night, wanting to know something more of her.

"Not really," she says, then thinks of something. "There was one time." She shrugs. "Most people are gone really early and get home late. I don't really see them. But once, even though I say no more than two for the room, these three guys show up, and they didn't leave the house for four days. They were on their way to some martial arts tournament, and they each took two or three showers a day. I had to ask them to leave. I even offered them a refund. But otherwise it's a great way to save. I want to take a couple of years off, travel cross country with Chico, and after, to India and Nepal."

I nod. Dawn has stopped up ahead, where she was about to turn the hallway corner. She also listens and nods, approving of this plan. We both like Adair's solitary, her bold life.

Just before we leave for the airport the next morning, alone with Chico in the living room as Dawn showers, I again survey the room, my eyes glancing on Adair's Gods and Goddesses, the photos of the dog, her books. The books on peri-menopause and then menopause will come in the next ten to 15 years, I think. Not that I ever bought those. I was too proud to be lumped together with everyone else, even in the privacy of my own home and head. Maybe Adair won't admit that she is like everyone else, either. Perhaps her pride is why she's alone, with Chico. Like me. Like Dawn. Our aloneness closely guarded, prized even. No one calling our names.

People often assume our mother must be disappointed neither of us have married or had children. When I was younger, I also thought that my mother's disappointment in us would be a big part of our lives. But my mother seems relieved. I think she must be pleased that Dawn and I, coming from a long line of reluctant wives and mothers, all the way back and all the way forward, have had the opportunity for different dreams and disappointments.


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