"Why are you calling? To cancel? You're not up for a visit?"
It was my mother calling from Forest Trace, where she lives with 250 other seniors. This has happened before. Many times. At nearly 105 it’s not unexpected that how she feels can change quickly.
"I feel fine, thank you for asking, but it's easier for me to have these kinds of conversations on the telephone. After all, you're here for only a few months and most of our important conversations are not in person."
I was glad to have this reassurance about her health but of course felt immediately anxious about what kind of important conversation we were about to have--Finances? The food? "Final plans? The fact that I haven't had a full checkup in more than a year? "You are after all getting up in years," she reminds me frequently. As if I hadn't noticed.
"Nothing really that important," she interrupted my list-making of ongoing anxieties. "But these days my thoughts come to me a little slower and I'm better with them on the phone."
"Not that I entirely agree," I said to reassure her, "I mean about your thoughts coming slower, but if it works better this way--though we plan to be there in a couple of hours--please. Whatever's good for you. We're all dedicated to that."
"Which you know I appreciate."
"Maybe you noticed we haven't been talking about politics? We took a break after the election, which pleased us very much. The election. Can you imagine if that Romeney had won? This is probably my last election and I couldn't live with that."
"I hope it's not, but I know what you mean. I made jokes about leaving the country if he was elected, and before Election Day I did check to see if my passport was still valid."
"Your were planning to move to Canada?"
"Not really, but I did give some thought to leaving the country."
"It's not that I haven't been thinking about political things. In fact, I have been thinking a lot about them. There are many things to be concerned about. The cliff of course, which maybe we’ll avoid going over. But at what cost? And I’m not talking about just money. Though I worry about about that too. How average people will be hurt when all the parts of what they are agreeing to are exposed. I don't trust any of them in Washington to care about us. Romeney isn't the only one ignoring the 47 percent. I'm afraid so do too many in my own party. Even if they say the right things, when the doors are closed, how much of a fight do you think they put up for us?"
"As usual, I'm afraid I agree with you. But . . ."
"But, you are asking," before I could, "why have I not asked you about these things for more than a month when we usually spend so much time talking about elections and the economy and the Middle East? Especially Israel, where I also have concerns about their government. Everywhere too many fanatics are in charge."
"I didn't really ask because I thought maybe you had other things on your mind and . . ."
"I do worry when I wake up in the middle of the night what's to be. About the country, the world, and of course with me."
"We and the world have been through terrible times before. When I get down, you always remind me about that--the Depression, racism, attitudes toward women, and of course anti-Semitism and the Holocaust--and reassure me how in so many ways things are better now than when you were much younger."
"But being much older--though I understand these things, how much change there has been--is not as good as being much younger when it comes to worry. Worry is only good when you can learn from it and use it to get started working on changing the things you were worrying about. Now, all I do is worry. I can’t any longer work on things."
"That's not entirely true. I know you worry a lot about how some family members are struggling and you not only have set a good example for them about how to live a long and productive life but also many of us frequently, including now, turn to you for advice and guidance. And you give it willingly and most times you're right about things."
"Only most times I’m right?" she laughed at herself, which induced a round of coughing.
"Are you all right? Maybe we should hold this conversation until we get there. You can lie down between now and then and . . ."
"You're always telling me to lie down. Do you remember what your father said about lying down?"
"Yes--there will be plenty of time for that when you're dead."
"You talk about being dead to someone as old as I am?" Before I could attempt to take back my words, she said, "I was just making a joke. You can talk with me about anything."
"I know that, mom. But why . . .?"
"Why did I call? Because I wanted to tell you about something that upset me very much. More than the usual Washington shenanigans."
"That would be?"
"What that senator with the curly hair and eye makeup said the other day when he had to interrupt his Christmas vacation and was called back to Washington to be ready to vote about the cliff."
"I'm not sure which one you're talking about."
"Rand Pail. Senator Rand Pail from, I think, Tennessee."
"He from Kentucky and he's Rand Paul, not Pail. Though I prefer your name for him. But I think I know what you're talking about."
“It was in the paper. Your New York Times.”
“I saw that.”
“He complained that this is no way to run the government, but what he was really complaining about—and he said this to the reporter—was that he wanted to be home for New Years so he could play soccer and football and golf in his backyard.”
“That’s indeed what he said.”
“And I was thinking—some nerve. He has a backyard big enough for football games and he doesn’t want to interrupt his sixth or seventh vacation of the year—they call them recesses, thinking that will fool us about what they are really doing—while the rest of us are worried about our taxes and healthcare and need to find jobs or receive unemployment, which by the way people work to be eligible for.”
“I couldn’t agree more. But in his case it’s even worse. He has disdain for anything having to do with government. He’s almost an anarchist.”
“How much does he get paid for that part-time job? Being a senator?”
“I think about $175,000 a year.”
“Plus expenses and benefits?”
“That too. Very generous ones.”
“If he and people in Congress like him are so eager to cut spending are they also talking about cutting their own salaries and benefits? About this I do not think I have heard anything.”
“Me neither,” I said, “But that’s a very good point.”
“Maybe you’ll call George Streptococcus to ask him that next time he has him on his program?”
“Yes, him. You see, I’m no longer good with names.
“Actually, you’re terrific with names. I love yours.”
“The names you call people.”
“Speaking of people don’t think he’s the only one in Washington complaining about having to come back to work.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“One of yours too. A Democrat from New York was also in that article. Chuck Schmoozer.”
“He had to come back all the way from California where he was vacationing with his daughter. I wrote down what he said so I wouldn’t forget. I have no memory left.”
I heard her rustling papers. “Your memory is pretty darn good for someone your . . .” I decided not to complete the thought.”
“I have it. He said, and I quote, ‘I didn't realize how much I didn't want to be here until I got here.’”
“He said that?”
“It’s in the paper.”
“Here’s what I have to say—if it’s such a terrible job there is a solution.”
“He and that other one can resign. And get a real job, like the rest of us. I worked hard teaching for 40 years and so did you. Let them try to make a living as a schoolteacher. Or in an office where you get only one vacation, or recess, a year. And believe me they won’t be making $175,000 a year.”
I didn’t say anything, needing to get a few things done before driving over to see her.
“Since you’re coming could you maybe stop at Two-J’s to pick up some of their rugelach? I love their apricot rugelach. And I promise no more politics. We’ll talk about nice things like your trip to the Everglades where the only snakes are real ones.”