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Orange and mustard and plaid. Oh my.
The fact that I wore orange to a fourth-grade Christmas pageant might have said that I was Jewish and didn't know any better. But that wasn't why. I wore orange, because it was the first time I'd ever dressed for anything important without my mother's guidance. If she'd been home, I would have been instructed to wear my green velvet jumper with a red top - because my mother was nothing if not a good sport. She taught 2nd grade for over 30-years and, every Saint Patrick's Day, marched off to school with a leprechaun pin on the lapel of her jacket. She wore orange on Halloween and if she'd known what Kwanza was, she'd have found a way to combine red with black and green. She was not one to rain on another’s parade.
But on the night of the pageant, my mother was in the hospital. A mole on her leg had gone from odd-looking to scary-looking. The result was melanoma surgery that left her with a quarter-inch indentation on the back of her calf, and me, with a giant hole in my heart. Getting home from school and not seeing her handbag placed neatly on the floor to the left of the sideboard in the kitchen was as lonely a feeling as I knew.
"What should I wear tonight?" I asked my father, as we finished the chicken cutlets my mother had made the day before and left in the fridge, with a note that said "Heat 15 minutes at 350."
"What you have on looks nice," he said, looking at his watch. He told my brother and sister to wash the dishes and announced that it was time to go. He was punctual in the way that all fathers seemed to be in those days. In other words, we got everywhere half an hour early.
Backstage, my faux pax was immediately apparent. Girls wore red velvet hair bows and twirled to each others' delight, the skirts of their red and green dresses floating around them, like polyester lily pads. The boys, in their tartan clip-on ties and well-combed hair looked like overly-excited little men.
I tugged at my mustard-colored turtleneck, wishing I could run home and change. I wondered if taking off the plastic hairband would help, but really, the only thing that would have helped was my mother. She would have helped me choose an outfit, given my hair a brush, reminded me to use vaseline on my patent leather shoes and told me how pretty I looked. She'd have made me feel special in ways I'd taken for granted every day of my life. Until this one. I missed her so much, I wanted to cry.
When it was my class's turn to line up, my teacher touched my shoulder. "We're switching your place," she said. I was flooded with relief, assuming she wanted to move me to the back row. Instead, she moved me toward the front.
"We want Mr. Fried to be able to see his daughter!" she said, and stood me between a pair of best friends who were wearing matching red cardigans and plaid taffeta skirts; outfits befitting their front row status. They looked perfect. Until my orange plaid was plopped between them. They stared ahead, looking livid, and I didn't blame them. We were instructed to file onstage, by a class mom, who spoke into a bullhorn with quiet authority that I found impressive.
The lights went on. We swayed gently, and began: "City sidewalks, busy sidewalks..." I thought one of the cardigan girls glanced resentfully in my direction at the phrase "dressed in holiday style."
My eyes adjusted to the lights. You couldn't see most of the audience, but you could see the front row. And there, sat my father. He looked handsome in the charcoal suit he'd worn to work that day, but also strange, somehow. As if, he too, was performing. His legs were crossed in a way that didn't seem typical, and I wondered if that was what was off. As we sang "greeting smile after smile," he beamed at me. I loved the song so much, I forgot how wrong I looked. When we finished, and the parents clapped, I realized what was odd about my father. He had no one to turn to. Without my pretty mother, who would have whispered something funny into his ear, he looked as alone as I felt.
The next day, when I got home, my mother's handbag was back where it belonged and she sat at the kitchen table, her leg propped on a chair. I crumbled into her, trying not to cry. By the weekend, she was pushing a fork through chopped meat, and slapping it into the meatloaf we'd eat on Monday. She was a working woman who baked on Saturday, cooked for the week on Sunday and graded papers at the kitchen table on which she put dinner each night. She sewed, painted, crocheted and knitted. Even the “D. Fried” on my gym uniform was hand-embroidered. Until I became a working mom who hardly ever had dinner on the table, I didn't understand how hard it was to do the job my mother never complained about.
She's 92 now and lives in a gated community, in the bright airy house she moved into after my father died. Her bedroom is beautiful, but to her, feels too big, because half the bed is empty. The second bedroom is called the art room, because it's where she set up a folding table, on top of which were neat piles of "all my crazy projects." She hand-painted birthday cards. Did oil paintings. Made platters, vases and menorahs from glass, using a process I never understood. She knitted more afghans and sweaters than any of her three kids or seven grandkids could count.
But now the art room is called "Betty's room" because it's where her full time healthcare aide lives. More and more often, she refers to my husband as "that handsome guy of yours" because she forgets his name. She sometimes answers the phone without saying hello because she gets "a little lost," as she puts it.
Sometimes, when I call, she cries. And then feels ashamed. "I have nothing to cry about. I'm fortunate,” she says. I tell her she's spent 92 years being the least dramatic person I know. That she's never fallen apart - even after losing her husband. So now, maybe it's her turn.
She says things like "Today is Sunday and it's a bit cooler" as if she's making conversation, but she's asking for verification. I say "yes, that's exactly right," or sometimes, more gently, "It is cooler, but it's Wednesday." Sometimes she realizes she’s forgotten one of our birthdays and becomes frantic because keeping things in order makes her feel right. "I don't know what the heck is going on," she confides softly into the phone, and her voice begins to waver. I tell her she knows more than she thinks. "I'm trying so hard to..." she says. and I cut in, saying she’s doing great, in a voice that I hope sounds as reassuring as hers. Neither of us finishes the sentence because we can’t say the words “to not slip away” aloud.
We keep talking until I get her laughing or she gets me laughing. That’s our rule. But when we hang up, I cry. Because, I too, am trying to hold on. To every bit of this woman who makes me feel special. So I cling to our phone calls and shared tuna melts. And, with all my might, to her.
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