“Did I tell you about the man who fell for me lately?” My mother pats her auburn hair into a round smooth shape while she gazes at her reflection in the mirror above the hotel dressing table.
I’m incredulous. My mother is about to turn ninety. “No. You didn’t.”
She drapes a white, terry-cloth towel across the shoulders of her silk blouse and reaches for her compact. “I needed someone to frame some pictures for me, so I called a man who does that.”
“How old is this man?”
“He’s elderly. Married. Gentile. Very nice.”
How elderly can he be if he’s still working? He’s got to be at least a decade younger than she.
My mother powders her nose so deliberately that I realize that she’s going to take as long to tell this story as she is to make up her face. To stave off my impatience, I slip off my shoes, sink my feet into the soft mauve rug and begin a round of Tai chi chuan. She’s unfazed—I often stretch while we talk.
I bend my left knee, extend my right leg and put my foot down slowly, imagining the picture-framer entering my mother’s apartment. He notices the dust-free, unscratched seventy year old mahogany dining room set, the African violets and healthy philodendron in ceramic pots, the antique lamps, candy dishes and family photos which cover every wall and end table.
My mother tells him what she needs, her manner both demure and precise. He listens, his focus drifting to the small golden globes in her ears and then to her baby blue eyes. His knees soften slightly. He has the urge to sit down on her Queen Anne couch and spend an hour or two there, listening to her stories about the faces that surround them—young and old, in sepia, black and white and faded Kodak colors.
I shift my weight from one leg to the other, as methodically as my mother applies her rouge, transforming her spotted, deeply lined face into a more appealing version, the one her grandchildren see when they visit and which they have come to expect as much as the tuna and egg salad she serves for lunch on her green and white china platter. My mother prepares meals the same way she grooms herself, keeps her books and cleans her apartment, at times so thoroughly that she aggravates her sciatica or angina and has to spend the rest of the day in bed. “I get ambitious,” she tells me. “That’s my problem.”
Keeping my weight on my right foot, I move my left foot forward, my left arm up, palm facing forward, my right arm in back in Ward Off Left. “So what makes you say he fell for you?”
“He had an operation a few months later. I heard about it, so I sent him a card. He called me from the hospital. I thought he was just calling to thank me, but then he said, ‘I’m lying here thinking about you. And do you know what I’m thinking? I’ve met a lot of wonderful people in my life, but no one more wonderful than you.’”
I stop my round, walk over and ask her reflection, “Mother, what did you do to impress him so much?”
She widens her eyes and shrugs her shoulders. “Nothing. I was just myself.”
My mother is pretty, considering her age, but still. Can this man see straight through to the red-haired, petite, blue eyed beauty she was at twenty-two? Or is he drawn to the quality of her presence, the way she brings all of her attention to whatever she’s doing or to whomever she’s with? Her company can be so calming that my brothers and husband have often been overcome with the desire to nap in her guest bedroom for an entire afternoon, a phenomenon they have dubbed “The Bertha Z’s.”
I resume my Tai Chi. “What about his wife?”
My mother takes a soft brown pencil and fills in the sparse gray hairs of her eyebrows.”I think he’s fallen out of love with her. He admired my outfit the last time he came by to hang some pictures. He said he wished his wife would wear a dress once in a while, instead of slacks all the time.”
It’s true—even around the house, my mother wears a skirt, matching sweater, earrings and some kind of necklace. I am sure she dresses that way even when she’s alone. I imagine the picture-framer’s wife in navy slacks, a tailored blouse and a grey wool cardigan. Her white hair cut short, her reading glasses perched on the edge of her straight nose, she does the bookkeeping for her husband’s business with little interest in the subtleties of what he does, which is largely to frame portraits of young children, high-school graduates, brides or candidates for city office as artfully as he knows how, considering the color of their hair, the shape of their facial features, the event involved until he comes up with a frame that might elevate the ordinary into something that matters for all time.
“Is that it?”
“No. It’s not. A few months later when Uncle Nuni died, I was sitting shiva at Alan’s house, and he walked in. I figured he must have read about it in the newspaper. ‘I didn’t know you knew my brother,’ I said. ‘I didn’t,’ he said. ‘I came to see you.’ I didn’t know what to say.”
Imagining the surprise on my mother’s face when she sees him, I move backwards, slowly placing one foot behind the other while I rotate my pelvis slightly, bringing one arm forward and then the other in a sequence called Repulse Monkey. He drove over to my cousin Alan’s and waded through a houseful of mourning Jews just to see her? He must be as taken with her as the Portuguese boys from the South End were with my Jewish girlfriends in high school.
My mother lifts her chin a little and applies mascara to her eyelashes. “He called me once more after that. ‘I know it’s not easy for you to get around,’ he said. I just want to tell you that if you ever need a ride someplace, you can call me. I’d be happy to take you.’ ”
Would he take her to the market, help her pick out her groceries and then brings them into the house for her? Take her to her doctor’s appointment and read a magazine in the waiting room? Or would he offer to drive her out to Dartmouth, just for fun, beyond the limits of New Bedford, where it becomes green and rural, and the road narrows along low smooth slopes until it reaches the Gulf Hill Dairy, where my father used to take us for ice cream cones on hot evenings in July.
I finish my round, aware of the contact my feet make with the floor, of the slowed rhythm of my breath, of an equanimity from head to toe. I glance down at my mottled palms, indicating that I have circulated my “chi” and then up at my mother who has removed her towel-shawl and replaced it with a white, modestly beaded cardigan sweater. She turns to face me, the expression on her face like a school girl’s expecting her teacher to place a gold star on her forehead. “How do I look?”
The color on her cheeks and lips—a cheerful, but not too bright pink—seem to signal an inner vitality, as though she has circulated her chi as well. I imagine the picture-framer thinking she’s no older than seventy-five. “You look great, mom. It’s true what they say. It’s amazing how good you look for your age.”
We take the elevator to the first floor. She places her hand through my arm, and we walk slowly down the long corridor. A wedding celebration in one of the ballrooms spills loud pop music into the hallway each time a guest opens the door. When we reach the dining room, my husband and daughter, my two older brothers and their families who have gathered at this Connecticut resort to celebrate my mother’s milestone, stop their chatter and look at us with wide smiles. I feel like I’m escorting a bride to the altar.
After we are seated, my brother Joe, the eldest, stands up with a glass of wine in his hand. In an uncharacteristic display of feeling, his face reddens, his eyes water and he clears his throat several times before managing to speak. We all laugh, except for my mother, who shifts in her chair, turns to face him, and patiently awaits his toast.
“Did I tell you that Uncle Ben planted trees in Israel in honor of my birthday?” my mother asks six weeks later over the phone. “I’m having the certificate framed.”
“Did you call the same guy to do it? What’s his name, anyway?”
“Yes I did. Mr. Whitworth.”
I try it out: “Mr. Whitworth. So how did he act?”
“He’s always very polite. But he was more businesslike this time. He read the certificate, and he didn’t say anything. It has my age right on it. I don’t know what he thought. But I’m just as glad. I don’t like it when he starts in with the compliments. It makes me uncomfortable.”
I see the picture-framer reading the certificate. He notices the number 90 and senses a sudden shift inside, like an airplane has had a sudden drop in altitude—nothing dangerous really, but unsettling enough to a passenger who’s dozing, reading or opening a bag of nuts. His fantasies of driving her around on her errands evaporate. She’s a museum piece, he thinks, to be preserved under glass, protected against too much light and heat. His good-bye is courteous, neutral.
And that is probably that, I think, while I do Tai Chi later that day. Because of the slow dance nature of this soft martial art, sometimes I put on Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra, who know all there is to know about timing and grace, and I let the ineffable smoothness and longing in their voices fill my living room and accompany me in my own adagio. Today, when Cole sings, “Embraceable you,” I realize that my mother’s story of her latest suitor is a ballad I’ve been listening to all my life. When I was a girl, she told me about the men who pursued her in vain: the successful lawyer in our town; the rich furniture store owner from out of town; the Harvard grad who turned Communist. After my father died, she told me about the men who tried to win her attention. She was shocked at first that they considered her available. Later, she found them “ordinary” or “unable to hold a candle” to my father.
Cole sings “…my irreplaceable you,” as I side step to the left, lifting one arm in front of my chest and then the other in a movement called Cloud Hands. I remember the story of how my parents fell in love: My mother had gone with her brother Herman to a dance on Cape Cod one summer evening in 1928. When Herman asked my father’s date for a dance, my father, in his blue seer sucker suit, his fine black hair neatly combed back, his brown eyes relaxed, ready to be amused, turned towards my mother in her white linen dress and asked her to dance with him.
She had barely known him in high school. He had been a member of a rowdy, athletic crowd a couple of years her senior. She had dismissed him as foolish and hadn’t thought about him since. But as they moved together to the music of the time, she was surprised by the gracefulness of his small but sure steps. “I felt so comfortable in his arms,” she told me, moving her shoulders this way and that as she recalled the unexpected pleasure of dancing with him, as though it transformed her linen dress into silk.
The romance lasted. In a black and white photograph that now sits on my piano, they stand side by side in their forties, dressed up for the annual Thanksgiving Ball sponsored by our synagogue’s Sisterhood. My father wears a tuxedo and tails. My mother has on a floor-length evening gown with one shoulder and long black silk gloves that reach above her elbows. Her thick hair sits in wavy piles on top of her head. She holds a small sequined evening bag in one hand, her other hidden in my father’s palm. When they came home that night, she said, he told her that she was the prettiest woman there.
A few years later, when I was in my twenties, she confessed to me once while she stood at her ironing board that right up until my father got sick, when he was fifty-seven and she was fifty six, that he liked to make love at unpredictable times, when he came home for lunch, say, and in unusual places, like on the dark blue and cranberry Oriental rug that covered our hardwood living room floor. He would tell her afterwards that “…every time was like the first time.”
No wonder no other man stood a chance.
The following March, my mother’s voice brightens over the phone. “Remember Mr. Whitworth? He called me recently. He found a picture of dad’s store in his shop. He offered to frame it for me as a gift, and he brought it by.”
So I was wrong. He didn’t stop thinking about her after the day he hung the certificate announcing that trees have been planted because she has lived so long. He may have told himself, Ninety years old. Leave her alone. He may have decided to honor her keen sense of what is fitting and what is not by keeping his compliments to himself. But months later, he finds among old photographs a picture of her husband’s store in 1954, not long after it opened, full of the economic promise of that decade; and he convinces himself otherwise: She will want this. He will surprise her, frame it for her, and hang it for her on any spot that she chooses.
My mother shows me the photograph on my next visit. In sepia tones, bordered by taupe matting and a chestnut frame, a five-story building sits on the corner of Purchase and Union streets. The store windows display broad-shouldered, headless busts modeling handsome suit jackets, dress shirts and ties. Sweaters, sport shirts, hats and belts lie in careful arrangements on small stands. Outside, men in felt hats stand on the sidewalk peering in, their hands in their pockets.
“He gave this to you, and he wanted nothing in return?”
“He said that he misses our talks. He suggested we have lunch some time.”
I picture my mother and Mr. Whitworth sitting across the table from each other in a booth at Friendly’s. She orders a tuna sandwich. He does the same. The talk turns to my father’s store, how he had inherited it from his father before him and had moved it from the South End when that part of town declined to downtown; how he had fixed it up to look smart and contemporary. She doesn’t tell Mr. Whitworth how soon the malls and discount stores took business away from the smaller stores in the center of town; that although my father had a great gift for gab, he did not have the business skills necessary to keep it afloat; that within ten years the store went bankrupt; that she spent night after night nursing a bad back, reading in bed by herself after supper while my father dozed in front of the TV in the den.
But she does tell him that in the last five years of his life, before cancer took him, my father went back to what he did before he inherited the store—selling insurance. He was so good at it that Mutual of Omaha sent both of them to Hawaii for a week, the most luxurious vacation they ever had. She had felt like a queen.
“I told him that wasn’t necessary.”
Of course not. Such a lunch would never happen.
“How did he take it?”
“I think he was disappointed. He left quickly after that, in a huff. But he did say through his teeth, ‘You know, I am very fond of you.'”
What, if anything, did she feel for this man? Why is she telling me how he fell in love with her, how uncomfortable she was with his compliments, yet how excited she was when he showed up again with the picture of the store? Did she simply enjoy the sweet reunion with her youth, when men couldn’t resist her beauty and her intelligence? Was she shocked to meet a man who still can’t?
“Mom, what do you think of him?”
“He makes a nice appearance. He’s tall and thin, like a Yankee.”
“But if he weren’t married, and he weren’t Gentile, would you ever go out with him?”
“If I were in the frame of mind to spend time with a man, he’s very nice. But I’m not.”
Whatever small thrill he may have provided her, her attitude, in the end, is no different from the other widows’ in my family—my grandmothers and my aunts—or her friends. Few of them sought the company of men or cared to remarry. They mourned the loss of their husbands, found comfort in the achievements of their children and grandchildren and avoided loneliness through the company of each other.
Which is why my brothers and I have never had to think about what it would be like if my mother had shifted her loyalties from my father’s memory to a man we would have had to get to know, accept, respect, enjoy or endure; or to imagine the countless changes, large and small, that a stepfather would have caused in our lives. Instead, our family has remained “intact,” and my parents’ romance and marriage has remained as immutable as a constellation of stars.
On the second day of the weekend we celebrated my mother’s 90th birthday, we asked a stranger to take a picture of the seventeen of us standing on a grassy spot on the hotel grounds against a backdrop of trees and sky. My mother stands center-front, smiling, in her tailored, powder blue suit with mother of pearl buttons. The shortest one of us and yet the most erect, she faces straight ahead, her weight balanced equally on her two feet, which she has placed closely together. Her arms hang evenly from her shoulders. She doesn’t tilt her head, bend a knee, or angle her torso, expressing not a whit of ambivalence about who she is, her place in this group or how she has chosen to live her life.
I sometimes describe my mother as a Jewish steel magnolia, her femininity belying her inner resolve. But I see now that she is also like some ancient Tai Chi warrior, both graceful and fierce, who refused to let an elderly gentleman’s advances disturb her deeply rooted, long held position. With only a few quiet words, her breath barely disturbing the air between them, she tossed her last suitor out of her apartment.
I imagine Mr. Whitworth driving away, the sting of my mother’s rejection softened by the thought that whenever she glances at the photograph of Davidow’s Clothing Store, perhaps she will remember not only her late husband, but also the man who framed the image for her.
Lisbeth Davidow‘s work has appeared in Mandala, Prime Mincer, Pilgrimage and Alligator Juniper. Her essay, “Separation Anxiety,” was nominated to be included in Best of Creative Nonfiction, Volume 2. She also co-wrote Ryan and Angela, an original screenplay, for Universal Pictures and edited and assisted in writing Women in Family Business: What Keeps You Up at Night? She lives with her husband in Malibu, California.