A recent 80th birthday party included new and past/young and old family members. The rest of us were long-term friends. Toni, the birthday boy, greeted everyone with the same charm he possessed 42 years ago in Corporate Canada. Jackie, his wife #3, graciously welcomed Toni’s first wife, the mother of his 5 children.
Jackie’s parents, heading toward their 90s, were both bright and vital with delightful senses of humour. Jackie’s Mom, an artist, and I stood admiring two of her semi-abstract paintings hanging on a nearby wall. I asked, “Do you look at those paintings and see things you want to change?”
“Oh no! Once I’m done with it, I’m done! But the one on the left is not hung the way I painted it. Jackie hung it sideways for the effect of the lines.”
I cocked my head to the left and looked at the painting again. A landscape appeared, in full sunset glory, viewed through a window frame.
“Is that okay with you?” Jackie heard my question. She stood by to hear her mother’s response.
“I don’t care. Once I give it away, it’s no longer mine.” Jackie nodded knowingly.
Later, this same octogenarian and I ended up sharing the couch. I asked how her husband occupied himself when she was busily painting.
“He golfs with a gang of men – has for years. I love Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays! For three fabulous hours, he goes golfing and I have time all to myself. It would be great if he’d go even more often, but his knees won’t tolerate it.”
I said, “Alone time is so important, isn’t it?”
Her emphatic nod seemed to underscore her heart’s sincerity, “I can’t understand people being bored. What’s that? From the time I was a child, when I’d whine about having nothing to do, my mother would put the onus back on me to find something enjoyable to do.”
“My mother did the same thing. She’d say, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ I would bug her for an idea, but she was determined. She raised all five of us to appreciate our alone time.”
Our chat reminded me of Mom saying to my siblings and me, “If you don’t enjoy your own company, what makes you think other people would enjoy it?”
So, at this recent birthday party, I told Jackie’s mother about my mom needing time alone.
During years of Dad working away from home, Mom enjoyed great chunks of alone time. Grandma died when Mom was 16 so she felt responsible for her younger siblings. Then she raised her own children, educated countless school children and welcomed freedom in retirement between visits with grandchildren.
Mother loved her life of reading, napping, cross-wording and catching up on correspondence – in whatever order or amounts she chose. Sometimes she’d read three books a day. To keep herself in a good supply of books, she had a fistful of Library cards thanks to her version of identity theft. I wasn’t surprised to discover some distant grandchildren were members of our local Library.
When Dad retired, Mom’s solitude was threatened. Rather than adjust to his constant presence, she found his ever-growing “being in the house” more and more difficult. We didn’t know Dad’s behaviour was showing signs of early onset dementia. Soon his driver’s license was revoked. He felt traumatized and thoroughly discouraged. He couldn’t even offer breaks from home by being mom’s chauffeur.
Mom asked me to do Library duty. I’d return up to a dozen books and find ones she hadn’t read – a daunting task. She said, “Go to page 100. If the second zero is blacked out, I’ve read it.”
That worked well until the day I brought home her favourite author’s latest mystery novel. As she inhaled the words, she came to page 100 and discovered a blackened second zero. Someone else was using her technique! She agonized over thoughts of all the books she may be missing because of this copycat. She immediately switched to a strategically placed symbol from the Greek alphabet.
My last Library trip for her was in 1996. I still go to the shelf containing her favourite mystery novels to see if I can find one of her symbols in a book.
Jackie’s mother’s responses confirmed her reverence for solitude. So I decided to share mom’s secret: I told her about mom calling me one day.
With obvious decisiveness, mom said, “Just so you know, I’ve packed my bag and called a cab. I’m going to my motel room.”
“Really?! Do you want me to take you there?” I knew this was no time for questions.
“No, I need be independent. I’ll call you, though, when I’m ready to come home.”
A few days later, she called to invite me to her comfy motel room. In fact, she needed some favourite food items. Our visit felt different. As if we were both on vacation, we were more relaxed. Our conversation flowed freer. The atmosphere held the old spark reminiscent of the last year she and I lived together. Humour laced our conversation even though soul talk held the bulk of our exchanges.
We were like a pair of old friends caught in a wrinkle of time. Age held no bearing.
After this first motel visit, I arrived home to a ringing phone. It was Dad – the only phone call he ever made to me. The welcome, familiar and deep voice was saying, “Amy? It’s time you went and got your mother.”
“I just visited her, Dad. She’s not ready to go home yet. Are you okay?”
“I am if she is.”
“She’s enjoying the change of scenery! She’s happy and just fine.”
“Well okay. You don’t have to tell her I called.”
“Okay Dad. See you soon.”
After 60 years of marriage and longs periods of solitude – away from and with each other – I had to trust they knew what they were doing.