Four years after Martin’s very frugal father passed away, his mother sent him a musical birthday card. It was a huge, garish thing. On the front it said, Dude, You’re Fifty, and inside: Rock on! It played a tinny version of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida—a staple of the garage band of his Jersey youth. It was a six-dollar card. His mother had attached eight Forever stamps for postage.
“As your financial advisor,” he said when she called, “May I suggest, next time, words without music—?”
His mother was a silly woman. Martin loved her with all his heart—“She’s my mother, for God’s sake,” he would tell his wife—but he knew this to be true. She was an archetype from a time long past: small and blond, wide-eyed, easily distracted, easily given to fits of laughter or bouts of snuffling tears, helpless and inept in a way that must have been appealing to his large and humorless father who made marrying her, in 1960, his life’s one concession to whimsy. Throughout Martin’s childhood, his mother hit all the sitcom tropes: a fender bender or an uprooted shrub every time she pulled out of the driveway—until his father took her license away. Extravagant credit card bills, her weaknesses being satin blouses and a perfume called Youth Dew—until the credit cards were taken away as well. There were pressure cooker disasters. Misread assembly instructions. The sopping, paper-wrapped neck and gizzards of the Thanksgiving turkey pulled from the bird by his father as he carved.
It would be nice to remember the old man as indulgent of his ditzy wife, fond and forgiving, but that was never the case. Their father didn’t tolerate stupidity or silliness in his children, who, all three, grew up to be engineers with MBAs, each scattered now to serious cities—St. Louis, Atlanta, Columbus—so why would he accept nonsense in a wife?
Martin and his two siblings argued in long retrospect that the man was only being consistent: there was no charm for him in foolishness, no matter who in his household had perpetrated it.
They were a cliché from an ancient past, such parents: the cheap, taciturn, undemonstrative husband and the timid woman who had made herself both his prisoner and his ward. Martin knew this and sometimes, when he was younger, when his father’s dismissiveness had seemed cruel or his mother’s hapless innocence annoying, he wished it to be otherwise. But he and his siblings agreed: you could not call a marriage of forty-seven years a failure simply because it was unoriginal.
When their father died at seventy-five—quickly, efficiently, of a second heart attack the day after he went to the hospital with the first and two hours before an expensive triple bypass was to begin—the three of them, somewhat warily, asked their mother what she would like to do next. The house in Parsippany was mortgage-free. Their father—as he had taken to pointing out in the last years of his life—had never eaten in a five-star restaurant or darkened the door of a Cineplex or bought a car from a dealer, but he had sent three kids to good colleges on an electrician’s salary and had invested wisely enough to make sure “your mother” would “never be a burden.”
She could age in place, her children assured her. She could choose from a number of local “active adult” senior living high-rises. She could even, as his sister put it, kiss New Jersey goodbye and move to Tahiti.
Their mother smiled and nodded and raised her penciled eyebrows to show she was impressed with each and every one of these suggestions. For a while she spoke enthusiastically about a condo complex in Fort Myers where a number of their neighbors had already gone. There was a lake and a café and a community room with lectures and arts and crafts. She had the brochures. But nothing came of it. None of them imagined that anything would. She was, after all, a woman who had never lived alone, or traveled alone. She had seldom even cashed a check or paid a bill. She had not driven a car in over thirty years. The routine their father had set for them both in the decade of his retirement—newspaper with the Today show in the morning, an hour or two tinkering in the garden or the garage, a sandwich, a trip to the store, the evening news, a light dinner and nodding off in front of the TV until bedtime—continued to suit her well enough after he was gone.
Initially, Martin and his siblings were concerned that she would be isolated or lonely in this new, widowed life. Martin also worried (he was his father’s son) about how much money she would have to spend on cabs: to get to the doctor or the grocery store, to the shopping mall and the hairdresser’s. But the sudden emergence of a coterie of generous neighbors took care of this. These were not the neighbors Martin had known growing up in that narrow cul-de-sac but a new population he’d scarcely been aware of in the years since he’d left home.
There was Rosario who owned the house next door. There were the Brewers, empty nesters across the way, and next to them, a young couple—Bart and Shanthi, his mother called them, as if they were old friends—with school-aged children. There were also the Evanko brothers in the house at the turning, Ukrainian pharmacists. Bill and Luke’s yard abutted hers; Sylvie and Maria lived on the corner—“the nice gay people,” she called them.
How his mother had befriended them all in what he thought of as the reclusive years after his father’s retirement remained unclear to him, but they were there from the moment he and his siblings returned her to the house with their father in an urn.
Soon after, Martin learned in his weekly phone calls home, Rosario had made his mother her “Saturday movie buddy” and “happy hour girlfriend.” Bart took her garbage cans to the curb on collection day and mowed her lawn, while Shanthi sent the children over with casseroles or cupcakes. The Brewers bought her groceries, the nice gay couples gave her rides to the mall and to the medical center, and the Evanko brothers knocked on her door every evening as they walked their dogs, to drop off her medications, or her nail polish, or her Youth Dew, or one of those musical greeting cards she loved to send, because, they told her, their own grandmother was so very far away.
When she was diagnosed with leukemia at eighty, Martin and his siblings agreed it was time to find a live-in, someone to take over what cooking and cleaning she still did for herself and also to ensure that these generous friends would not be made to feel overburdened as the demands of her illness increased. Martin called a few agencies, drove to Jersey for the interviews, and hired an Ethiopian woman with an excellent resume and a wide smile.
Her name was Aida. “Like the opera,” he told his brother and sister on a conference call.
There was a brief silence. Although all three of them were well-off, educated, upper-middle class, even, Martin recognized in the silence an innate, New Jersey wariness of pretension: Opera?
“That tells us absolutely nothing,” his sister said.
A full-time live-in was expensive: Aida would be there twenty-four hours a day, six days a week, except for Sundays, when Rosario or the other neighbors filled in. But their father had planned well, the siblings agreed. Their mother could afford it.
Still, there were nights, early on, when Martin woke up suddenly with the comic-book vision of a great hole punched into the fat money bag that was his father’s retirement stash. He saw it all trickling away, coin by coin—or, he thought, ticking away, hour by hour, minute by minute, even as Aida merely slept in his boyhood room back in New Jersey.
But his mother quickly came to love her. Now she confessed to Martin and his siblings that she had been terrified all along, sleeping alone in the house. Over these many years, she told them, she had piled the kitchen chairs against the back door every evening, scattered Christmas bells and tin cans across every window sill. She had put their father’s old work boots, freshly muddied, on the front step. She had never turned out all the lights.
She clucked her tongue and laughed at herself: “I really did. I never told you kids, but I really did.”
But now, with Aida in the next room, she slept as soundly as she had in all the years their father was at her side.
Aida was a Christian woman, she was given to saying. “I will care for your Mommy’s soul, even as I take care of her body.” His mother never mentioned her soul, although Martin often saw a battered and much underlined Bible on the coffee table during his visits home. But the physical ministrations, the back rubs and scalp massages and pedicures and bubble baths, became a major topic of his mother’s conversations in the years of her decline. Aida’s hands were large, with broad yellow nails mottled like seashells. And yet, he saw this too on his visits home, his mother closed her eyes in luxurious contentment whenever Aida touched her, if only to put a comb to her thinning hair or to wipe a bit of saliva from her chin. It was childish, yes, the way his mother poked her head into Aida’s palm, like a purring kitten, or took the woman’s wrist to stay her hand when it brushed her cheek. More childish still, as his mother’s health declined, the way she sat so contentedly in the crook of Aida’s long arm or leaned into her lap.
“Your Mommy loves me,” Aida would tell him when he called. “Your Mommy loves me and I love her. I pray to God for her every day. I am a Christian woman.”
“We’re Christians, too,” he said once, somewhat uneasily. He could not help but feel, at times, that there was something false, even underhanded, in her proclamations of affection—perhaps even in her stubborn repetition of “your Mommy” which, he told his sister, he sort of hated. He tipped her every time he came to visit—every six weeks or so—a couple of fifties left for her on the kitchen table, sometimes even tucked into the battered Bible. His brother and his sister did the same. Of course they were grateful for Aida’s presence in the house, her careful ministrations, her affection for their mother, but none of it was the same as the generosity the neighbors offered. She was an employee, after all. And much as he tried to resist it, there was an unshakeable mistrust—probably racist, he admitted to his wife—tied to his experience of those scamming e-mails that purported to be from other earnest African Christians. I love your Mommy, please send a check.
“I know you are Christian,” Aida had replied, soothingly. “But your Mommy says she don’t go to church. She don’t pray.”
His father had been raised a Lutheran in Pennsylvania but had moved to Jersey as a young man just out of the Army and never bothered to join a church. His mother’s family had been Methodist once, but they, too, had long ago fallen away. There had been, in his youth, a boring week at Bible camp one summer, a season playing baseball with a CYO team. Services, when he was young, at Christmas and Easter, but even that ended when he and his siblings hit their teenage years. Martin’s wife’s family was mildly Presbyterian. They’d been married in her parents’ church, where only his mother-in-law seemed to have any prior acquaintance with the minister. His own two children were religion free. He had among his friends and coworkers in Columbus a good number of Catholics and Protestants and Jews, a couple of Hindus, two Muslims, a Mormon, but the majority of his acquaintances were like himself, content enough with the vague claim to be Christian and the good—frugal, perhaps—sense not to make too much of the matter.
“I’m sure she prays,” he told her. “Maybe you just don’t hear it.”
“I pray for her,” Aida said. “I pray she will see God.”
Another thing that annoyed him (he told his brother) was the way Aida said God with an extra, resonating emphasis on the d—as if she herself had learned the word from some TV evangelist, as if she were pointing out some profundity she feared he would never understand.