The last time I had lunch with my mother had been fifteen months ago—in other words, before the pandemic.
A few months after the pandemic began, I came to see her at the assisted living facility and sang “Happy Birthday” to her. She came out to her fourth-floor balcony, and I stood on the ground below. My voice, as it turns out, doesn’t carry as well as I thought it did, and so I sang into my phone while my mother listened to hers. When I was finished, she said I sounded “wonderful.”
No one has ever complimented me on my singing before, but a 94-year-old woman, living alone in a one-bedroom apartment, with her phone and TV as her only links to the outside world, can be forgiven for enjoying the sound of my voice, which regularly wanders off pitch.
I called her nearly every week during those fifteen months, not to sing, but to check in We talked about the news—the national news, as well as our family news. She kept me up to date on the lives of my sisters and their children, but it was an election year, so there was also a lot of politics to talk about. She tried baiting me a few times by calling me a “Democrat.” I tried not to take the bait, though one time I couldn’t help myself and blurted out that “Trump is an idiot.” I could hear FOX News in the background as we talked, so I was pretty sure she didn’t think Trump was an idiot.
Surprisingly, she let my comment go, as if she didn’t hear it. She refuses to get her hearing checked, for fear of being fitted with hearing aids, so it’s always possible that she didn’t hear me. When I was a child, however, she never missed anything I said, so I have a hard time believing she didn’t hear what I said this time, but whatever she heard she quickly changed the subject.
My mother sometimes shakes her head with regret about how I’ve turned out—a Democrat in a family of Republicans, a Presbyterian in a family of conservative evangelicals. Still, I’m her son, and she seems genuinely glad to hear from me. “I’m so glad you called,” she usually says. And we do our best—or I should say that I do my best—to keep politics and religion to ourselves.
Last week, after both of us had received our vaccinations, we went to the restaurant where we have often gone over the years, Rose’s on Reeds Lake, and we ordered the same thing we always order, even though my mother made a show of getting reading glasses from her purse and studying the menu. In the end, we both had the chicken salad, which is served with banana bread, a tiny dish of raspberry sherbet, and some greens, a treat I always look forward to. After fifteen months, it tasted even better than I remembered.
The server who usually takes our order didn’t seem to be there, and my mother looked around the restaurant and asked a few employees if Sandy was working that day. I was happy that Sandy wasn’t working, because my mother loves to tell Sandy that I’m her son. And then she typically adds a detail that Sandy doesn’t know how to respond to. For a few years, during the time I lived in Europe, I would visit in the summer, take my mother out for lunch, and listen as my mother said to Sandy, “Did you know that he lives in Switzerland?”
Sandy would smile and pretend to be interested in this news, but I could see that she was unsure what to say. “Oh, that sounds interesting” was her most frequent response, before she hurried away to “check on our order.”
I once told my mother that these details about my life were embarrassing, but telling her that, I’m afraid, hurt her feelings. She is “so proud” of me, she always says, in spite of how I had become a Democrat and a Presbyterian, and she wanted “so much” to tell other people about me. I imagine that many people I’ve never met have also heard curious details about my life.
I’m proud of my daughters, too, and I probably mention them in conversation more than is necessary. With accomplishments in my own life dwindling as I age, I may have to talk more about my daughters’ accomplishments as a way of keeping up my end of the conversation. In this way I am becoming more like my mother.
After lunch I drove with my mother to the Dairy Queen at the other end of town. She likes the small hot fudge sundae with Spanish peanuts, but what she really likes, I think, is re-enacting something she used to do with my father who died a few years ago.
Following their custom, my mother and I would go to lunch, then drive across town to get our hot fudge sundaes, and finally we would drive a short distance to John Ball Park, where we would sit in the car and eat our dessert with plastic spoons. My sense is that this ritual was deeply satisfying for my mother, in the way that most rituals are. It was familiar, and comforting for that reason, and it usually led to some wistfulness and reminiscing about my father.
She and my father nearly made it to 70 years of marriage before he died at the age of 88. Soon after he died, my mother mentioned to me that she wouldn’t be dating, which seemed like a good decision, though it was interesting to me that she understood how her marital status had changed and how others would see her. She seems more than content to live with the memories of my father.
As it turned out, the Dairy Queen wouldn’t be open for another hour or so, and therefore our routine had to change. I suggested that we drive through old neighborhoods, an idea that my mother seemed to like, probably because it filled the same need as the hot fudge sundaes.
First, we drove past the house on Dunham Street, where my father grew up. I recognized the front porch, but not much else about it. Most of the houses in the neighborhood have been changed and updated. When we drove past the True Light Baptist Church, however, I suddenly remembered having gone there for Vacation Bible School when I was nine or ten years old.
Every June my parents would go to Aspen, Colorado, for a design conference and a couple’s getaway (not how I would have described it then), which meant that I stayed with my grandparents on Dunham Street for a week. My grandmother must have walked me over to the True Light Baptist Church each morning, where I remember hearing Bible stories, making crafts, and meeting “Brother Nickel,” who was the pastor then.
The church was, and still is, an African American congregation, and my mother seemed surprised to learn that I had gone there. It’s a good memory for me, though as an adult I’m surprised, like my mother, to realize what I had done. I didn’t spend a lot of time with African Americans in my childhood. The first African American I remember getting to know was my next-door neighbor at seminary, Hendricks Davis, but clearly there was more to this earlier experience at True Light Baptist Church than I was aware of at the time. I wonder how much more there is in my childhood that would be surprising to recall.
The next destination was not as easy Dunham Street. After driving a few miles further, to what used to be a neighborhood of newly built homes, my mother and I turned down Woodward Avenue, where I lived for the first 18 years of my life and where my mother and father lived for more than 40 years before they downsized to a condominium later in their lives.
As we drove down the street, I remembered how many of these houses had been on my newspaper route, and my mother correctly identified the names of the people who used to own these houses, our neighbors back in the day. When we came closer to our house, however, the car became quiet. The four-bedroom, one-bath, red-brick ranch house that my parents had designed (and paid cash for) was now painted a dark gray. As we gaped at the painted brick, I could hear my mother make a sound like keening. “Oh, oh, oh” was how it sounded in the car. It was not a sound I had ever heard her make, and I suddenly felt guilty about suggesting this drive. I worried that it would be too much for her. It was very nearly too much for me.
We turned around, made one last pass in front of the house, faster this time, and then drove to the church where my family belonged throughout my childhood and where both of my sisters had been married.
The vast parking lot was nearly empty, because it was a Thursday afternoon, but we saw one car close to the entrance and figured someone had to be working inside. “Let’s ask if we can go inside and see dad’s windows,” my mother said.
Eager to get the images of our old house out of our minds, I agreed, and I took my mother’s arm and walked her to the door. I rang the bell, and a few seconds later a man who looked to be in his mid to late 50s opened the door a few inches and eyed us suspiciously. He was the pastor, as it turned out, and I apologized about the interruption. But, I wondered, “would it be okay if we went into the sanctuary to see the stained-glass windows? My dad designed them.”
With this, the door swung open, and we went inside, giving our names as we followed him in. The pastor, Steve DeVries, was very gracious and seemed to be more forgiving about the interruption than I would have been. He led us into the sanctuary, which I had seen often throughout my childhood, morning and evening services, every Sunday until I was 18.
My parents were not charter members of the church, but close to it. And because my father was an artist, he was pressed into service to design windows for the new church as it was being built. The window I remember best, the one in the front that I stared at during all those services in my childhood, was known as “the Easter window,” and featured an angel sitting on a stone outside an empty tomb. The angel appears to be gesturing to the onlooker, as if to say, “What, can’t you see that no one is here?”
My mother slid into a pew and was quiet. The pastor disappeared briefly, and there was silence as we looked around, lost in our thoughts and memories. A minute or two later, the pastor reappeared with a booklet from 1957, when the new sanctuary, along with its stained-glass windows, was dedicated. I would have been four years old at the time, and I don’t remember anything about it. But my mother did. She asked if she could take the dedication booklet home and spend time with it, and the pastor agreed.
I was ready to take my mother home at that point, thinking that the last half hour or so had been emotionally draining, but my mother said, “I have one more place I want to go.”
“Woodlawn Cemetery,” I guessed aloud, and my mother nodded. We left the church, thanking the pastor on the way out, and I drove down Plymouth Road, past the high school I attended, though it was unrecognizable to me. With its new “performing arts center” and enormous football stadium, I could not imagine ever having spent time there. But I did, a long time ago.
The cemetery was unexpectedly large. I didn’t remember that it covered so many acres, even though I had been there many times and had even played Little League baseball at a field directly across the street. As we drove in the cemetery entrance, I remembered exactly where to turn next, even though I had not been back since the day of my father’s funeral. Instinctively, I remembered where to find his grave.
It had been a cold and snowy day, the day of the funeral, and we learned that there would be no commital service at graveside. Instead, after the service, my mother asked me to follow the funeral coach, which I think is the preferred term these days, to the cemetery. She wanted me to make sure “everything was okay.”
I accepted the assignment, which turned out to be one of the most memorable and sobering of my life. Following the funeral coach, which contained the casket with my father’s body, I drove by myself along recently plowed streets, streets I had traveled many times over the years in the backseat of my parents’ car. I had lived away from my hometown for more than 40 years, but there I was driving along as though I had never left.
At the cemetery, two employees from the funeral home, plus a couple of cemetery workers who were waiting for us, took the casket up a small hill to a hole which had been recently dug. Dirt had been piled neatly on a nearby tarp, ready to be shoveled back into the hole.
I stood by myself and watched as the casket with my father’s body was lowered into the ground. I felt as though I should salute, even though I have never been in the military and didn’t know exactly how to do it. Instead, I stood as erect as I could, thinking that would be a way to honor my father in that moment.
When the winching device had been switched off and the nylon belts used to lower the casket had been removed, we were finished, and the funeral home employees said to me, “You can stay as long as you like,” making clear that they were leaving as quickly as they could to get out of the cold and snow.
Last week, there was no cold or snow. It was a lovely day in May, following a long pandemic that had dampened the spirits of everyone I know. My mother and I drove up to the small hill where my father’s body was buried, and I knew she wanted to get out of the car and walk with me to the grave. But I told her she couldn’t. She hadn’t survived 15 months of isolation, I said, only to fall and break a hip while trying to walk up a grassy slope to see my father’s grave.
Surprisingly, she agreed with me and didn’t complain about my decision. This might have been the first time in my life that I told my mother in clear terms what she could and couldn’t do. Instead, I got out of the car and walked up the hill by myself, as I had the day of the funeral. I took a photo or two with the camera on my cell phone, and then I noticed that my mother’s name was on the granite marker, along with my father’s, and that her date of birth was there—1927—but not the date of her death.
That will be filled in later. As it will be for all of us, at some point. I decided to think about that another time. What I wanted to think about in that moment was this: my mother and I had somehow survived a pandemic and our lives seemed to be getting started again.