|This is my personal favorite story about Grandma Betty and me – along with my favorite WinnieToon – in honor of Mother’s Day. Enjoy…
LUNCH WITH BETTY AT THE CARIBOU CAFE
Parents are people you intimately know nothing about. Mothers in particular. Mothers try very hard to allow only a certain view of themselves for their children to see. You might call it leading by example or you might look at it as a diversionary tactic to distract you from catching on to the fact that they often don‘t know any more than you do.
When I was growing up, my mother, Betty, drove home the point, that I needed to keep myself occupied and quiet, while she spent most of her life begging for attention, I wasn‘t wise to it at that age, and I have no idea what sparked this personality trait in her. I thought everyone‘s mother was like that. I wasn’t one of those little boys prone to sports, so my mother gave me paper and pencils and told me to draw pictures in front of the TV. She would then tell me to stop making “such a mess in front of the TV“, and go sit quietly in a chair. I never knew what to do. But if I received attention when my pictures was good, mom (under the guise of the ‘proud parent’) would frequently turn it around to be all about her. She can still do it, going on about how I got my talent from her, and so on and so forth… But when I was a little kid, I accepted all that as the natural order of things. Whatever any adult told me was irrefutable truth.
Granted, everyone needs a little bit of attention but hopefully one tempers their outcry with a modicum of dignity. Sweet as she can be, my mother’s spent her life nurturing insecurities you’d expect a person to have gotten over by age ten. She would never have considered therapy, as that meant ‘scandal’ by her lights. So her sense of authority was derived from having absolutely no idea on earth what she was doing, or skillfully making it look that way.
Later in life I found our roles reversed with me as the parent, and that’s when I got real a taste of my mother as a child, and me having no idea what I was doing. Early one Saturday morning the telephone rang, and I made the mistake of answering.
“B-i-ll….(?)” – my mother crooned into the phone sounding indecisive while completely sure of her mission.
“Yes Mom…” I said, still half asleep.
“I hope I didn’t wake you, dear, but you’ve always been an early riser.“
“Not on weekends…“ I eked out.
“Are you taking me to the hairdresser this morning?” she said with a slightly argumentative tone in her voice, it was like storm clouds gathering on the horizon. It wasn’t yet raining but the threat was in the air. I was still shaking the sleep out of my head thinking, of course I am, its Saturday. “I always take you to the hairdresser on Saturdays, but you aren‘t due there until 10AM – same as the Saturday before, and the Saturday before that. Its barely ten after seven, my alarm hasn’t even gone off, can I please go back to sleep now?”
“There’s no reason to take that tone with me. Its disrespectful.”
“Duly noted, “ I said, “but I’d like to go back to bed”. My mother lived down the street, and the hairdresser was only another block away, but Mom refused to walk, let alone go anywhere by herself. I’d moved her to Philadelphia from the New Jersey suburbs, and all she’d ever seen on TV where Philadelphia was concerned was crime. She felt much safer in Jersey even though the new owners of a house down the road had found a body in the cement in the kitchen when they were remodeling. Jersey may be the ‘Garden State’ but its no walk in the park.
However, I’d moved her to be closer to me for other safety concerns following a couple minor falls – mostly orchestrated in such a way as to ruin dates, dinner parties, plans with friends, business engagements and even destroy the opening of an exhibit of my own artwork. As a non-driver, I’d have to beg rides off friends to look after her, because her home wasn’t anywhere near public transportation. Mom’s timing was uncanny regarding these ‘spells‘. When I‘d arrive all out of breath, disrupting the lives of my friends, she‘d be sitting up having tea, perfectly fine, having fully recovered. Mom was lonely after my father died, but instead of making new friends, or volunteering, I became the primary focus of her attention. My brother, moved her up from after she kept inventing emergencies that pulled him from important meetings where he worked as an agent for the FBI. She’d get a receptionist on the phone and say “Its his mother, I need to talk to him right away!“. The newer secretaries would fall for this, bring him to the phone, only to find she was trying an trap him into small talk. He brought her up on the auto train depositing her in an apartment complex near absolutely nothing, a good hours away from me, and as he turned to leave, he whispered “hot potato in my ear.” So now mom called me continually, waking me from a sound sleep on one of the only mornings I could sleep in.
“Are you going to return that microwave you bought me last week?” She asked.
“If I have time,” I replied. “But I have GOT to be home no later than 2PM for a portrait sitting. I haven’t had nearly enough time with that client, and the piece is starting to drag on.
I’d thought that once she was living near me in Washington Square, she’d see what a safe and walk-able city Philadelphia really is. I placed her so she was less than a block away from hospitals, drug stores, shoe repair, tailors, little restaurants, theater, and above all, A hairdresser. Not to mention, ME. I decorated her cute little apartment in advance of her arrival to resemble all the things she had liked from her youth, photos of loved ones gone before were positioned where she could see them, and I surrounded her with her furniture and memories in such a way that her apartment was more like a shrunken version of larger homes from her past. I built her an elaborate dollhouse to transport her memories to a place where she could recall that past in the way she chose to remember it.
I remember looking forward to her moving into town. Optimistically I’d imagined myself taking her to the Academy of Music or one of the plays around town. But mom had no interest in doing any of that. She watched television, and fussed over her nearly perfect silver-pearl white hair and complained about a city she made no effort to learn to know. She stayed in and coordinated little outfits everyday, but only the television got to see them, unless she invented an emergency to lure me over.
I tried to get her involved in senior activates or even go to the movies, but to no avail. Her new doctor at Pennsylvania Hospital urged her repeatedly to become more active – to walk, and take advantage of her golden years. But he cautioned me, “Your mother would like nothing more than for you to give up your entire life and spend all your time reading to her.” I knew he was right. I’d seen her stare out the window with her back turned to him while he’d offer her sound, practical advise about trying to be more independent. “You have your work cut out for you.” He said on more than one occasion.
But while on the phone with her pleading for one more half hour of sleep, my mom kept on talking, as if I were mute. Perhaps that’s why dad had started to go deaf…?
“Last night I made myself a baked potato.” She forged ahead with no apparent segue.
“OK, Mom, I don’t quite know how to respond to that. But does this mean I have to introduce you to my friends as ‘Mrs Potato head?’ Can you turn yourself back? Consult your book of spells”.
“I’m not prone to spells, I‘m ‘sharp-as-a-tack”. ‘(Attack being the operative word…) I don’t like that microwave. The potato wasn’t good. Maybe if you’d gotten me the black one instead of the white one?” (As if the color of an identical appliance had anything whatsoever to do with how it functioned).
Betty has made a science of nagging and wailing on me until I’d cave to her will. So I got up, showered and did all the puttering I needed to do before pouring her into her wheelchair for our jaunt to the hairdresser. At the time, she didn’t really need to be in a wheelchair, but I’d once made the mistake of putting her in one when we visited Longwood Gardens. I was thinking a woman in her early eighties would tire and miss seeing some of the further reaching gardens and displays.
I realized my error I when people started fawning over her.
My mom has always been a pretty little lady, but no one ever paid her the attention she felt she deserved until after she took to the wheelchair. There she’d sit pretty as you please, almost regal in her chariot, fresh from the hairdresser like a duchess on casters. Truth to tell, I’ve always thought my mother’s hair looked better when she left it alone. A fresh styling often made her resemble Johanne Sebastian Bach. But my venerable little mama is a member in good standing of the ‘hairdresser generation of proper American ladies’. A woman from Moorestown never went longer than a week without getting her hair done. More importantly, it’s a lifeline to fresh, gossip while decrying the sins of others indulging in such.
I’d wheel her to the salon and transfer her to the shampoo chair like moving a weighted stocking doll from one spot to another. There was nothing wrong with her legs other than getting a broken a blood vestal in her calf after someone bumped into her with a shopping cart. That, plus a trip to Longwood Gardens, and my mother was completely sold on the benefits of disability. Not to mention, a wheelchair came with a son attached to it. She’d never deign to using her arms to propel the thing – that might be mistaken for exercise. Offering independence, I suggested a motorized wheelchair but that was completely out of the question. “What it if goes haywire and injures someone?” she’d cautiously point out.
The doctor refused to write a prescription for a wheelchair, in fact several doctors did, but my mother made me crazy until I got her one paid for out of her own pocket, while she vehemently decried the shortcomings of Social Security.
Wheeling someone else about takes a little getting used to. We had a ‘Benny Hill’ moment early on, when I first put her in the damn thing. I accidentally pitched her out of or the chair, neatly depositing her in a mud-puddle. It wasn’t my fault. The front wheels got caught in a crack in the sidewalk, turned sideways stopping us dead and catapulting her into the air. We weren’t even going all that fast, it seemed to happen faster than lightening in slow motion. She landed without so much as a scratch or bruise. But before I could register what had taken place, a passing male nurse lifted her light as a feather and placed her back in the chair. He advised me to get a seat belt installed. Apparently tiny seniors often go airborne from wheelchairs.
I was always careful with my mother when she was in the chair after that. I kept her strapped down for safety. Sure, once in a while I’d kid with her by wheeling about pretending to chase pigeons making the chair follow their paths, saying, “Go get ‘em Betty, get ‘em”, She’d cluck mild disapproval, as the chair wove back and forth causing the birds to scatter every which way. Secretly she enjoyed that little game even though she always protested. Oh well maybe she didn’t lie it. who knows…
After the hairdresser, mom and I would make our weekly appearance at the Caribou Café, a quaint, dark wood paneledFrench restaurant not far from the salon. But while she was being rinsed, set, and placed under the dryer, I dutifully ran a marathon through the entire city on foot, picking up her dry-cleaning, prescriptions, and deciphering shopping lists all the while trying to track down products long since discontinued. I’d deliver the goods to her sweetly decorated little apartment, putting everything away where she could easily reach what she wanted. Bear in mind, she walked perfectly upright around the apartment, she just never appeared in public on foot. Sedan chairs required more than one gay son, so a wheelchair had to do.
I’d been trying to be a good son, when I’d installed her in the tidy new senior apartment complex less than 100 feet from my front door. I thought it would be easier on us both. In hindsight, I have no idea what I could have been thinking.
I Suddenly found myself running back and forth to loosen lids and unclasp lockets. But I wasn’t thinking, I was merely following script. A script that had been written for me long before I realized I even HAD the buttons my own mother had installed deep within me. There wasn’t a youngest daughter’s life to destroy, so who better than an aging gay son to look after her? Once a mother gets over the horror of having given birth to a socially un-conventional sexual deviate, the wise older parent begins to note tremendous advantages in having an unmarried-adult/child-slave to do one’s “biddy-ing“. Yes, a mean ‘biddy-ing’.
Without stopping to breathe, I’d wind my way back to the hairdresser, and whisk the old gal off to lunch at the Caribou Café, where things generally went pretty much just like this…
…I’d be sitting across from her at a little table-for-two smack dab center of the restaurant. We choose that spot for the ease of gliding her wheelchair tableside. It was our regular table, marked ’Reserved’ every Saturday at noon. Even before I took my seat, my favorite waitress, Susan would already have a glass of Shiraz waiting for me. I’d down the first and be waiting for a refill, as Betty’d begin to craft the odd and revealing things we were going to discuss that day. She wouldn’t start the conversation. She’d make me go first to see what kind of material I’d provide her to pounce-on.
“I ordered you a new microwave in black”, I said, initiating the first round. “And I dropped off your cameo on Jewelers Row to have the clasp fixed.”
“That’s nice dear, but what have YOU been up to?
“Nothing really. Oh, by the way, I got you the mini chocolate cupcakes you like“. Mom preferred doll-sized portions of everything.
“Yes dear, but tell me what you’ve been doing during all that time when I don’t get to see you.” I was trying to think of a day when she hadn’t fabricated something that ate a hole in what precious little free time I had to myself… But like a man being led to the gallows, I started telling her about a commission I‘d been awarded to paint a portrait of two lovely young girls. Feeling it was safe territory, I started telling Mom how the younger girl is immediately pretty upon first glance, but the older sister seemed plain, and bookish. But I after spending time working on the study drawings, I’d come to realize the older sister wasn’t a pretty girl, but rather a young woman on the verge of becoming beautiful, it just required a deeper second look. Both sisters were reaching that moment in youth when each was transforming into her own unique beauty.
“I wish I’d been beautiful.” Mom interrupted as a way to re-direct the conversation to what she considered a more agreeable topic. My mother does that. Off and running she stated, “I’ve never been considered to be very pretty. My brothers and sisters always teased me about it. They would chant ‘Betty Boop is full of poop’. It always made me cry, but now that I’m older, people are forever telling me how beautiful I am, and I just don’t understand why…(?)” She stressed the word, “why.”
“Mom, maybe its because those people, genuinely find you to be pretty. Just thank them.” She was itching to start something, I could feel it coming on. There never needed to be a reason, but my father was no longer around to spar with, so she’d turned to me. I think she did it for the stimulation, and after enough bating, like a properly trained codependent, I’d eventually take the bait. It was part of our dynamic. But it was never how I wanted our relationship to be. So in an effort to diffuse her, I suggested, “Be gracious and accept the compliment.”
“I wouldn’t know what to say. I’ve always been ridiculed for being too skinny, or not good-looking enough to be married to your father”.
“Mom, you’ve always been a good looking woman. Stop fishing.” I said trying to make light of it all.
“I’m not fishing,” she snapped, “and don’t accuse me of things! You’re always accusing me of things! When I was younger, I tried to bake the best cakes and pies so my sisters would tell me I was pretty and nice”.
“It might have helped if you’d been marginally civil to them, and slapped-on some lipstick…” Oh god, I was already in too deep… “From where I sit, I see no connection between baked goods and beauty…” Long after her brothers and sisters had all passed away, mom was still bearing old grudges and fighting old fights, while nostalgically missing them all in the very next breath.
“I had a wonderful childhood growing up in the depression. We never wanted for anything.” She missed being part of a big family. “Now everyone is scattered all over the country.” (Fled was more like it).
“I tried to keep the tidiest home, but my sisters pretended to never notice. And Helen would bristle if anyone said we looked alike. You have no idea how that hurt…”
At this point I thought better of making a comment, deciding to allow her to derail that train all by herself. I looked around at the vintage turn of the century French poster collection on the walls and let her go on about things. Whether it was how many Swedish meatballs she had shaped by hand for my cousin Barbara’s wedding, or when three of her five sisters went to Winterthur for the day without inviting her to come along, the old battles kept being fought over and over. I’d attempted to diffuse her on any number of occasions, but thinking back instinctively I knew she wanted the fight more than any olive branch. It was our family dynamic.
Traditionally we discussed family problems at the dinner table, but you could onlyleave the table once you’d cleared your plate. Once after dinner when I was still a little boy, II wandered into the kitchen and took a piece of cheese. I sat on the floor savoring it, allowing it to slowly dissolve in my mouth.. My mother, watching me from the door, said, “Will you please chew that the hell up and swallow it!“ As a result, I eat in record time to this day except when I try really, really hard not to.
But as I daydreamed, back in the Caribou Café, Betty was dredging up topics I’d heard countless times before.
“Edna and Helen once knitted a suit for Elaine. Helen knitted the skirt and Edna knitted the jacket. Why couldn’t one have knitted something for me, and the other knitted something for Elaine?”.
Nothing I was going to say was going to be right, so I jumped in feet first,
“Mom, Aunt Elaine was the baby – that’s just how people think”.
“I was the baby once…” she declared. (…And always will be, to this observer’s eye… God, I hope I only thought that, and didn’t say it aloud. I’d had a couple glasses of Shiraz…)
She continued, “…Your Uncle Burt said, when I was born, a teacup could have fit on my head”.
(I fought the urge to hail our waitress and have her bring one over, if only to try it on for size).
“But my sisters never paid any attention to me. Couldn’t they have just once told me I was pretty – even once?”
“Mom, you are pretty, and you always have been”.
“NO I’M NOT…!!!”, she barked a little too loudly, causing people at a nearby booth to glance over at our table.
I took another sip of my wine. “OK, Mom, have it your way. You’re the ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’.”
“Didn’t Brooke Shields star in that picture?” She queried. “You‘d think they could at least keep the soup of the day hot.”
(Why can’t I stop myself from replying…? Why can’t I just let it go?)
“Its supposed to be cold, Mom, its Vichyssoise.”
“I don’t care what they think it is, I still think its cold.”
“I’ll have them heat it for you. I’d like another glass of wine any way”. “Ahhh, look, here comes your entrée.” The waitress placed a platter in front of my mother, piled high with roast beef and melted Swiss on a mini-baguette with a side of pommes frites. It was an upscale French restaurant’s version of a Philly cheese stake. It was a cute little sandwich, NOTHING like the monster sandwiches atPat’s steaks.
“I don’t understand why everything has to be so big anymore.” She stated. “Will
you just look at all this meat!! Who can eat all this? Why I can barely get my mouth around all this meat. I like beef as much as the next person, but this is ridiculous. Its way too much food.”
“Would you like me to send it back, have ‘em scrape half off, and courier the rest to Bangladesh?“
“No, but I think you should have some.”
“I’m perfectly happy with my salad. You eat it”.
“You used to like beef when you were a little boy, don’t you like it any more?”
“Yes, I prefer my beef on a different kind of bun.”
“Well that isn’t going to be enough lunch for you. A grown man picking at a salad. You should at least have some desert? They have those little chocolate puffs you like, served with ice cream.“
“Preferiterols? Thank you, no, I’m trying to loose weight”
“If you ask me, you’re too thin now.”
“No one’s asking you”. I said, trying to smile at the adjacent table.
“Why are you doing this all of the sudden?” she queried, “I just don’t think its healthy.”
“I’m doing it FOR my health, Mom. I hired a fitness trainer, and if I don’t do what he tells me, then why am I hiring him?
“Why indeed?! You’re paying HIM, you should be telling tell HIM what you’re going to eat”.
“That isn’t how it works, Mom. If I’m going to benefit from his training, I have to eat how he tells me to eat”.
“I still say it isn’t healthy, I don’t understand why you’re doing this all of the sudden. Why do you even care how you look this far along in your fifties?”.
“Its not entirely about what I look like, Mom – I’m doing this so I won’t end up in a wheelchair when I’M eight-five”.
“You’ll never make to it to eighty-five – you don’t have the grit!”
“People are looking at our table, Betty…” I whispered.
“Don‘t call me Betty, I‘m your Mother”. (After a drink or two I’d get bold and start calling her Betty to her face). “let them look.” she said in a hushed roar, mocking my whisper. “When you’re eight-five years old you’re allowed to do or say anything you want. I‘ve earned it”
“Outliving the rest of the known world carries no particular perks.” I replied. “As far as I know proper etiquette still applies, age notwithstanding”.
“I won’t have you treating me like a child!” Mom blurted, “Now have some desert.”
“I will, but only if you’ll walk home. The doctor tells me you can. Besides, it would do you a world of good if you did.”
At that very moment, with no warning, a tremendous clap of thunder caused everyone in the café to jump. In an instant all the outdoor diners rushed to grab plates and glasses as waiters scurried to help everyone inside. Damp patrons filled-in every available seat in the already crowded dining room, leaving a bit of a circle around Betty and me watching us, stunned, like polite theater goers who’d mistakenly found themselves holding ring-side seats to a cockfight. Betty rivaled the storm outside.
“How are you going to get me home in all this weather?” she snapped. “Did you think to bring along an umbrella?”
There was always a compact umbrella in the back pocket of her wheelchair, but an umbrella would never do. The rain was coming down sideways pounding the sidewalk. The restaurant staff were closing the floor to ceiling French doors, and rolling back the awning fighting against the wind.
“My hair is going to be ruined. RUINED!!” Betty hissed, “I paid two hundred and forty five dollars for this perm, plus tip.”
“You paid WHAT?”, I said with a dropped jaw.
“Well the girl gave me a cut and did my nails too”.
“How long have you been spending that kind of money?” I asked.
“My entire adult life, dear” she answered. “It’s my only luxury now that I’m a shut-in”.
“Good lord, woman, if you’d put that money away over the last six decades, you could have invested in income property and owned the very building you’re living in. Instead you’ve thrown it all away on your hair.
“How dare you insult my hair”. She shrieked.
“Give your hair my apologies, and while you‘re at it, have your hair remind you to do more walking like the doctor told you to.” The both of us were bickering like professional full grown children, stepping up to the plate, and honing our sparring skills.
“What does that old fool know any way?” She snapped. “I’m the one who knows whether I can walk or not,” drawing in a breath for her next assault, “And the INSOLENCE of you insulting my hair! Besides, if you’d used your money more wisely, you could have bought a larger house, and then I could be living with you instead of hidden away in an apartment building full of old people.”
“YOU, LIVING WITH ME…?!!! You’ve got to be kidding! I’d be dancing around with scarves on my head while raccoons ate the wallpaper. Flawed as it may be, our present arrangement is just fine”. Reaching a saturation point, I glanced at my watch none too subtly, when it hit me, it was well past 1:30, and my portrait clients were due at 2 o’clock rain or shine.
“Come on Betty, we’re going. I’ll pay the check, and we’ll be on our way.”
“In all this rain, not on your life. I’m staying put. Don’t you think for one minute, I’m going to allow your selfishness to ruin my hair.”
“We’re going. Period. I have an appointment. End of discussion.”
“And just exactly HOW do you plan on getting me home DRY in all this weather? My shoes are going to get ruined and my blouse will get soaked…!!!”
I hailed the waitress. “Susan, do you have any garbage bags back in the kitchen? Heavy duty industrial strength garbage bags?” She promptly went off to find me some.
“Stand up Mother. Unhook your seatbelt and STAND.”
“I’ll do no such thing.”
“Oh yes you will.” I said as I unhooked her seatbelt, lifting her to her feet. “Remember when you visited my brother’s family down in Florida and your grandchildren all locked you out of the house for hours, giggling while you beat on the windows with a wooden spoon? Well Betty, this is another one of those moments where you’re up against forces far greater than yourself. Now STAND!”
Susan arrived with a couple of large dark green plastic bags. I turned one inside-out placing it on the floor at my mother‘s feet. “Mother, step ONTO the bag.” Stunned, she did what I said. I wasted no time pulling it up to just under her under her sagging bodice, and tied it off.
I took another bag and ripping a hole in the top I lowered it over my mother’s freshly coiffed head. “What are you doing CHILD?!! This is assault!!!”
“You have no idea how tempting it would be to NOT give you an air source, Betty.” I said as I pulled the remainder of the second bag down over her flailing arms, tying it tightly just below her knees. ‘God, I wish I had duct tape’ I thought as I observed my Mother’s plastic ensemble transform from deranged empire to a ’restrained’ flapper.
But still, her freshly coiffed hairdo was potentially exposed to the elements. Without missing a beat, Susan produced several smaller plastic shopping bags, one of which read “Imperial Cheese – We deliver”. Taking a second bag, I twisted it and fed it through the handles of the first making a bonnet sporting a tidy, fashionable Chloe bow right under Betty’s chin. Her indignant little face poked out below the inflated cheese bag containing the white lacquered pile of cotton candy on top of her head, as she stuck out her tongue at me.
With a wheezing fluff of trapped wind, my tiny mother sat all of her 87 pounds back down into the wheelchair, hissing and leaking air as she settled in. It was then I realized the entire restaurant was completely transfixed by our escapades. People could barely contain themselves at the sight of that feisty, little old lady whistling wind as she sank further down into her seat. The room erupted into spontaneous laughter and applause. She was a vision.
Fighting to shake her tiny constrained fist through the green plastic straight-jacket, she said, “My own son has made a spectacle of me!”
“No Mother, I’ve only designed the consumes.” With that said, the weekly ritual of lunch with Betty began its standard conclusion, as the staff of the Caribou Café standing at attention like palace guards, pulled chairs aside and held open doors so we could wheel our way out into the storm.
I leaned into the rain, sailing through deep puddles as Betty remained dry as a bone. We flew past Moriarty’s Irish Pub taking a short cut down the service ally where The Bike Stop Bar meets the restaurant dumpsters. Slowing down for a moment in front of a dumpster, I quietly dismissed the thought, pushing ahead with Betty chattering about something I’m glad I couldn’t hear. Suddenly I started giggling like a madman, sailing down the street with Betty in tow and rain coming down at us from all sides. To this day Betty has no idea how close she came, or how lucky she was that I actually delivered her to her cute little apartment, totally dry, still in one piece, and with nary one single hair out of place.