My Mother's Hands
“My colorless career‘" writes ROBERT FONTAINE, “includes everything from a window dresser’s assistant in Ottawa to a comptometer operator in the National City Bank of New York. A little over a decade ago I discovered I could write and that writing was the ideal occupation for a man who liked to get up at noon and watch the bluejays go to bed. I have been at it ever since.”Theatergoers will remember Mr. Fontaine’s play, The Happy Time, which was such a success on Broadway a few years ago.
by ROBERT FONTAINE
UNTIL a short while ago I wondered how elderly people who had been married for decades could still find in each other sources of surprise and wonder, even elements of excitement and provocation. I would visit my father and mother every day in their small apartment, for an hour or so, and chat about baseball and hockey and prize fights on TV, with maybe a few words about the latest scandal in our small city, or who had died and married and been born.
Now and then, sitting there, drinking the tea my mother inevitably brewed for me and helping my father out with the New York Times Sunday puzzle, searching for the highest peak in the Philippines or the name of an obscure Swiss commune, I would wonder with part of my mind how it was with them in their hearts; how they picked up and juggled the days and made them sparkle, or if they did.
They were in their late seventies and their lives were as quiet outside as one could imagine — as quiet as the snow or the rain or the rustle of trees in midsummer.
I would go home to where my wife and children were bustling and bickering, growing up and growing older, partying and dining and hoping for Paris or Broadway or Cape Cod, dreaming of yachts and sleek motors and brave deeds, impulsively finding life filled with twists and turns and fascinating reflections of unseen lights beckoning toward some adventure or other.
I loved them and encouraged them. Life is to be lived, savored, salted and consumed. But what do you dream about when you are almost eighty and have been in line for fifty years? Is not every avenue long ago explored, every lake sailed, every wave broken across a finite and decided shore, every star discovered?
Now and then my wife and I would take my father and mother on short trips. These trips excited but did not overwhelm my parents. They were pleased but not moved. “It’s good to get home,” my mother always said with a sigh, at last. My father said, “ I don’t sleep right in a bed that’s not my own.” “I sleep all right,” my mother said, “but I eat too much.”
“It’s nice,” I would observe, “to get away for a while. I mean, for the change.”
“It’s nice to get back,” my father would say.
My father gets up at seven-thirty and takes a brief case and goes for a long walk, all dressed up as if he were an attorney about to stage his most thrilling case. He goes to a downtown hotel and sits in the lobby and smokes a cigar. He likes it there in the lobby early in the day.
After that he walks for miles through stores and shops and the public library. He knows many people, small people, or, I should say, working people; clerks, butchers, newsboys. He talks with them about the weather and the latest sports events. Then he buys a half-dozen doughnuts, puts them in his brief case, goes home, and takes a nap.
My mother markets and plays canasta with her three girl friends once a week. Otherwise they watch television or listen to the radio. They never go to the movies. Years and years ago my father played in movie theaters for silent pictures and afterwards for pictures and vaudeville. He is just as happy if he never sees a motion picture again. I don’t believe he has seen one in ten years, with a single exception we shall come to presently.
So the life of my father and mother has flowed on, with me always wondering, “What do they think about? Do they notice each other? Do they have strong emotions about each other? But how could they?” The blood has slowed down. The arms are inelastic. The eyes are dim. The fingers of my father which once rippled along a violin can barely make unpleasant squeaks on that instrument any more. My mother walks carefully, for her glasses do not focus properly where her feet meet the stairs and sidewalks.
Yet one morning I came on my usual call, bringing a New York paper, as is my custom, and some Cape scallops, which are a delicacy both my father and mother appreciate but cannot afford.
When I got in the apartment they were fighting. Now this in itself was most extraordinary. They were bickering and shouting about some obscure matter. As I recall, it had something to do with an event some twenty-five years previously and they had different ideas as to how the event had turned out or where it had occurred, and the discussion got hotter and hotter. At first I was amused and then I was alarmed. My father said, “That’s the way you are, always so sure of yourself.
“I ought to know. I was there.”
“I was there, too.”
“Well, you don’t remember then.”
“My memory is perfect,” my father shouted.
My mother said, “Don’t shout at me.”
“I’ll shout at who I please.”
“Not at me, you won’t shout.”
It went on like this with me standing there holding the scallops in my hand and wondering. They kept at it like newlyweds for about fifteen minutes. Finally my father got real angry and took his hat off the bed he sat beside and rushed out of the apartment slamming the door.
“Let him go,” my mother said.
“I guess I’ll have to. What were you fighting about?”
My mother shrugged. “I don’t remember. He’s just so stubborn. I keep hoping he’ll outgrow it.”
“If he hasn’t now he never will.”
“Well he better. I won’t put up with it much longer.”
I sat around for a while and then I put the scallops in the icebox. I was beginning to smell like Gloucester, Mass. I told my mother not to worry. She said, “Humph!” I left.
Around dinnertime I began to wonder again, so I called up. I was all alone. My wife had taken the children to visit her mother. My mother answered the phone and said my father had not come home yet or called on the phone. I did not expect him to call on the phone. I don’t believe he has used a telephone for fifteen years. He just does not seem to trust them.
I hopped on a bus and went down to see my mother. She was not as crisp as she had been. She had wilted a little and looked gloomy. “I hope he doesn’t do anything foolish,”she said, “He’s not a young man, you know.”
“I know. I’ll go roam around downtown. Maybe I can find him.”
Now about ten years ago my father had been disconnected from the last real job he held. He had been head of a music school and the school had disbanded. For the first time in his life he had decided to soothe himself with alcohol and he had chosen half-pint bottles of the worst sherry ever made in California. These he drank regularly, after which he became very talkative and a little belligerent, especially for a man five feet six, weighing 130 pounds neat.
After a while he had got over it and never touched the stuff again, not even at birthday parties or Christmas. Yet I had a notion he had probably gone off again, just like a young, rebuffed lover. It was rather amazing to think of him, at his age, being sulky and irritated with my mother and she, for that matter, being wistful and lonesome like a girl at her first quarrel. In a way it was rather refreshing. I did not think they had it in them.
At any rate it had begun to pour rain, so I began walking around the city, starting with the cheery hotel bars and working my way to the North End and the more disreputable places. In each one I expected to find him, full of poor sherry, relating his woes or his boyhood adventures driving a butter wagon or taking violin lessons, to a group of patient souses.
Once or twice I thought I had a glimpse of him, but when I got in out of the rain, into the smell of hops and brews, it was not he but some other sad old character reeling about with a sad, silly grin on his face.
I began to worry. He is an old man, I thought. I must remember that. If he got full and roamed around in the rain it might be dangerous. Of course I was getting soaked myself, and drinking a little too much due to the excessive number of bars I felt I had to patronize.
At about eleven-thirty I gave up. I had enough to drink that I was alternately frightened and full of unexpected laughter. Imagine, my father, almost eighty, having a fight with my mother and running away from home! With hardly a dime in his pocket, too, probably. Running away! I thought. I went down to the NY, NH and IH station, He was not there either. At last I went home — or, rather, to my mother’s place.
She was weeping gently now. “I believe he has really run away.” She would stop weeping, square her shoulders, and say suddenly, “I’ll fix him.” Then she would slump and weep some more.
I sat there with her, drinking tea, for a long time. We talked of all the old days. She spoke as if they were all over and my father had deserted her for another woman.
At last the door opened and my father walked calmly in. He had a small package in his hands. He smiled quietly and said, “Hello.”
“ Where’ve you been?” I asked. My mother was forced to smile. She was so glad to see him.
“I went to a movie.”
My mother was stunned. “A movie?”
“The Arcade. All in bright color. It hurt my eyes.”
“What was it about?” I asked, to make conversation.
My father shrugged. “A lot of young, foolish girls and their mushy love affairs.”
“Oh,” I said.
“You want some tea?” my mother asked.
“The movie was out at eleven,” I said.
My father shrugged. “I went to Walgreen’s to make a purchase.”
“I’ll make some nice warm tea,” my mother said. “You must be tired after all that color and those mushy girls.”
“Sentimental stuff,” my father said. “Movies don’t change. They’re just bigger and louder. Here!”
He handed her the package. It was a bottle of hand lotion, the sort that is guaranteed to make your hands as soft as silk. My father handed it to my mother and hung his head a little and blushed. It was quite touching.
My mother beamed. Her eyes gleamed behind her thick spectacles. “What a lovely bottle.”
“They say it keeps your hands like velvet,” my father said.
My mother’s hands have worked for me and others for many, many years; washing, baking, scrubbing, digging in a garden . . . they are gnarled and the veins are prominent and they are rough from years of work. To my father, though, they must have been the hands of a young woman, of a woman he loved, a woman who had stayed for a long time in his heart as precisely the same woman . . . and her hands were as velvet to him and he wanted to keep them that way.
My mother was weeping again but this time with pleasure and love.
I said, “Well, I’ve got to get along and you better go to bed.”
So I went and left them to make up and to smile and to be alone. It was a moment, I am sure, when they preferred no company.