By Stewart Lewis
My mother walked around in a daze for the better part of a year after my father died. For her, the event was crushing and immediate. Suddenly he was no longer there to wipe the crumbs from her shirt, playfully grab her butt, sing silly Italian songs while she showered and he shaved. He had been her only lover, her best friend and husband of over forty years, and she couldn’t get out from under the weight of the loss; there were reminders everywhere. The cashmere sweaters neatly stacked in the closet, his car she still hadn’t sold, the old leather toiletry case he adored and refused to replace. The birdfeeder he’d painstakingly installed outside their bedroom window that he’d constantly congratulated himself on.
When I was in my early 30s, I had moved home to live with her for a while, putting Grad School in California on hold. We watched a ton of movies, and I tried to cook a lot, even though she didn’t eat much. One afternoon I awoke from a nap and caught her staring my feet, which have the same curvature as my father’s, the slight bend in our second toes. I said, “Earth to Mom?” and she sighed, sinking back into her trance. I too was grieving, but I couldn’t begin to imagine how different the world now was for her, the scope of her undoing.
I knew I had to return to my life, but it didn’t seem like she was ready, and the weeks tumbled into months.
It had been nearly a year into her widowhood when the fateful phone call came. It was drizzling and foggy outside, the weather mirroring our states of mind. I was going through the endless mail that still came for my father. As I sorted, she was facing me, holding her coffee mug with two hands, as if it was a delicate thing that could fall away and break at any moment. The phone was shrill, but didn’t do much to erase the far away look on her face. Still, she answered it, which was rare. The moment she heard the caller speak, she turned away from me, sharply, as if she didn’t want me to see her reaction.
“Ben?” Her voice quavered.
It was her former high school sweetheart, and the only other person besides my father she’d ever been romantic with. Hearing only his “hello,” she instantly knew who it was, even though they hadn’t been in contact for many decades. Ben. I remembered the stories she’d recalled to us over the years which now flickered in the celluloid of her brain: kissing and giggling under the bleachers, the warmth of his letter jacket at a beach bonfire, the white leather seats in his baby blue Thunderbird. Then the darker memories: getting on a Greyhound bus during a summer storm. Ben’s twisted face through the rain streaked window, calling her back. The pit-pat of her heart as she watched him recede until he was completely out of view. It was the last she had seen or heard from him. She went to college, met my father, and never looked back.
From what I could tell, they didn’t talk for a full minute, just listened to each other’s breathing. I kept waiting for her to say something. The room felt charged with electricity. As she would tell me later, Ben was explaining that he was a school principal, only forty miles away from where we lived. That he had heard about my father dying, and had been meaning to call. I stopped the mail sorting and closed my eyes, secretly wishing whoever was on the other end of the line would throw her a rope, pull her up out of her grief, give her faith.
My mother looked at herself in the reflection of the kitchen window, perhaps trying to see the girl he last saw, the sixteen-year-old with every hope, who knew hardly anything about the world.
She finally turned and looked at me. I got up to leave, to give her privacy, but she held onto the receiver and motioned for me to stay with the other hand. I could see something had already shifted inside of her. Perhaps my wish would come true.
“Ben, I have an idea. Why don’t you come over this weekend? I’ll cook something.”
When she hung up, she stared at the phone like it had dropped from the sky. She smiled, and slowly shook her head.
“Well, that was strange,” she said.
It got stranger. That Friday, I took my mother to the supermarket. I was waiting for her in the parking lot, in a space right by the front. Through the tall windows, I could see her in the aisles, flustered, changing directions. When we got home and began pulling things out of the bag, we slowly realized she had bought an entire cart of someone else’s groceries. What confirmed it was the tongue. We looked at each other, and then started cracking up, me holding some pickles, her holding the tongue. It had been a long time since I’d heard her laugh and seen her animated. It felt like clouds parting. For a moment, the world seemed brighter.
I arranged to be away so she could have the house to herself for her date, but my mother and I were very close, so of course the next day I wanted all the details.
She ended up ordering pasta from the Italian place in the next town over, which they delivered early, so she heated it up in bowls, acting like she’d made it herself.
When Ben walked in, the only word my mother could use to describe it was, “miracle.”
She told me he had the same smile, the same bright green eyes, the same radiance. Yes, there was a little more weight around his middle, and a few eyebrow hairs with their own area code, but he was just as handsome as she remembered him. He must have been thinking the same thing, because that’s exactly what he said to her. She busied herself with the dinner to avoid blushing in front of him, hiding her giggles like a teenager.
They shared a bottle of wine and a lot of memories, including the time they went swimming in a river and got swept downstream, miles from their picnic and towels. Two-thirds of the way through the bottle, she confessed about the take-out pasta, and the mistake of purchasing the tongue. Like we had done earlier, they laughed heartily, in a way that only people who’ve known each other their whole lives can.
“I’ve never stopped loving you,” Ben said, as their laughter faded. “Ever since that day you left on the bus.” It was hard to tell if the tears he was fighting back were from joy or sadness. Maybe the emotions were one in the same.
While they finished the wine, my mother turned on some music. It was one of those fifty CD changers, so she had no idea what was going to come next. It was a song she didn’t recognize, but it was soft and sweet, with a brush-like drumbeat.
“Are you sure you’re not imagining that brush-like drumbeat?” I asked her as she recounted the story.
“I can still hear it,” she said wistfully.
As the song reached the chorus, Ben stood up, opening his arms, suggesting they dance. She let him lead, and it was as if nothing had changed. The 1958 homecoming dance in an old barn at their high school in Westchester became her modern day living room. This was what dreams were made of.
The song ended and another one started, one she couldn’t recall at all. They had migrated across the living room, and now they were in the hallway, until the music became a distant hum, and they danced right into the bedroom.
I’d love to tell you it was the first night of something bigger, that they began an incredible new life together. But it didn’t work that way.
It had been movie-like up until that point, and though the happy ending seemed likely, real life intervened. You see, Ben was married, and for a while, my mother became the “other woman,” which was ultimately unsatisfying for her. Ben kept confessing his love to her, but never left his wife. Sound familiar? But it still did a lot for my mother. It juiced her confidence, and made her realize that at age seventy she could desire and be desired. She could start again. Why not?
And that’s what she did.
She signed up for a dating service called The Right One. My siblings and I teasingly called it The Wrong One, after hearing her stories about the mismatched men they had procured for her. The way it worked was, for a rather hefty price they set her up with five dates. The first four were duds, including a Russian man who spoke only broken English and a retired salesman who laughed really loud at his own jokes. But the last one hit the jackpot. It was blue-eyed Brad, who played the stand-up bass and was an all-around class act. Their first date lasted three hours and as my mother said, “We closed the place.”
I had returned to my life shortly after the Ben dream/debacle, but got a lot of updates about Brad from her via text messages from her new phone I helped her set up: “He likes to sail and has a boat!” “We go to the theatre every Sunday!” I could feel her delight every time my phone buzzed.
When I married my partner Steve the next fall, my mother was the one who walked me down the aisle. It was a perfect Nantucket day, bright blue sky and the glimmering ocean beyond the bluffs. I had helped her pick out her fitted dress, which only enhanced her newfound glow from living such a full life with Brad. I looked at her, just before we rounded the bend where everyone was seated. It was my moment, but it was also hers. She was worlds away from her grief-filled daze, and I briefly wondered if she still thought about “Ben the Boomerang” as we jokingly called him.
“So Mom,” I said, “Did you ever learn how to cook tongue?”
Her laughter rang out, and she grabbed my hand, leading me on to my own romantic adventure.
Stewart Lewis is a singer songwriter and novelist who lives in Washington DC and Nantucket Massachusetts. He tries to only buy his own groceries.
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