Last night I met a woman with a past.
She was seated in the corner of a living room at a friend of a friend’s home. It was the woman’s 96th birthday and she had just won the betting pool for the Kentucky Derby. The family, bedecked in elaborately decorated straw hats, said they let her pick the favored horse, as they had done every year, so it wasn’t surprising to anyone that she had such a long winning streak.
I happened to get to this Birthday/Derby party because my friend Mary invited me to a performance of her friend Erin’s singing/comedy act. Erin had started performing with a group of woman in their sixties and seventies after retiring from her teaching job. The act was quite funny. Erin was a standout – singing many solos and delivering some of the best lines. The woman in the corner was Erin’s mother.
Erin insisted we all come over and say hello to her mother. I have to admit that I expected a simple nod in acknowledgement of our introductions. I think this was the first 96-year-old person I had ever met and was sufficiently impressed that she was alive – sitting up and breathing.
But Mother shook our hands, one by one, and asked each of us how we knew Erin. She listened attentively and asked appropriate questions. Then she let us know that she had won the Kentucky Derby pool. “I always win,” she said. When I asked her the horse’s name, she told me, “Always Breathing” without hesitation. She and the horse both, I thought.
Then she said, “I have a funny story to tell you. Earlier this evening we had Chinese carry-out for dinner. Do you know what it said in my fortune cookie?” We all shook our heads. “It said within five years, I will have my dream job.” We all laughed, thinking of this very old woman making her way out into the world and working her way up the ladder of success. But the look on Mother’s face, as we stood there laughing, told me she may have been looking for another reaction.
We moved back into the kitchen and gathered around the island, drinking wine and sharing stories. I could see Mother in the corner of the living room. She had put on a headset and was watching TV. When Erin saw me watching her mother with the headset, she said, ”She can’t hear shit.” We all laughed and went back to the task at hand, finishing the wine.
After probably too long a time to be accused of being considerate, I suggested we move into the dining room so Erin, who had been standing behind the counter the whole time due to a shortage of stools, could have a seat. She quickly agreed.
Once we were seated, Mother came shuffling over and told Erin she was ready to go to bed but first she needed to take her medications. Erin asked Mother to sit down at the table with us while she got her a bedtime snack and set out her pills. Erin suggested her mother tell us a story while she was waiting.
Mother looked around the table. We must have looked interested, so she began.
“Did you know I once lived in New York City and was studying to become an actress? This was just after the war.”
I searched her chubby, wrinkled face for evidence of Bette Davis eyes, Bridgett Bardot lips, or a Marilyn Monroe beauty mark. But my limited imagination could only see a lovely 96-year-old woman – someone’s great grandmother. No country’s sweetheart. This was a truly surprising revelation.
When we shook our heads no, she went on.
“When I was twenty-three, my girlfriend and I set out to New York to make our careers. I had performed in many local and school plays and, not to brag, but I was considered quite good. My friend, an accomplished pianist, was going to study at Julliard. “
“When we got off the train at Penn Station, we hailed a taxi for our trip uptown to our rented rooms in a large boarding house on Riverside Drive and One Hundred and Twenty Second Street. We couldn’t stop staring out the windows of the cab as we passed the tall buildings and crowded sidewalks. Two small town girls in the big city. It was overwhelming. “
“When we arrived at our destination, my girlfriend tipped our driver a dime. Even in those days, we could tell by his reaction, this was not an adequate tip. But, with only a few bucks between us, it was the best we could do.”
“We settled into our new lives quickly. I got a day job at the French Embassy and attended acting classes in the evening. My girlfriend, who was supported by her parents, had the luxury of not working and attending Julliard by day.”
“My parents didn’t support my chosen vocation. In their small town, amidst their fellow deeply religious immigrants, acting was considered a job for whores while singing or playing an instrument was a job for angels. Well, I was no whore and my girlfriend was no angel. But I knew trying to convince an old-world community of this would be a futile task.”
“I completed two of my three years at acting school. According to my instructors, I was very good, maybe even great, but none of them went so far as to say they would help me make the kind of contacts that could give a girl a real break. “
“My mother came to the last show of the school year. They cast me in a role in which they knew I would shine. Not to brag, but I did shine. I never felt so good about a performance.”
“After the show, I met my mother in the lobby. I couldn’t wait to hear her reaction, which I knew would be good. I just knew her heart was filled with pride. Finally, I would be vindicated. Finally, she would admit I had made the right decision by coming to New York.”
“Instead of praising me, my mother was silent. After an awkward silence, she said we should get something to eat. She was hungry. I searched her eyes for some hint of appreciation but saw nothing but a blank stare. My own eyes began to tear up so I turned away.”
“As we said goodbye at the train station, my mother told me I should come home. My sister was pregnant with her fourth child and was bedbound. My father said I should take care of her. My mother said it wasn’t fair that I stayed in New York “playing around” while my sister was sacrificing so much to be a good wife and mother. I needed to do my family duty.”
“I told the embassy and the school I was leaving for a year but would be back. Both assured me I could resume my place when I returned. But somehow I knew I would never return.”
“After months of nursing my sister, I was happy to see the baby born healthy. My sister was grateful to be able to move around again – even if it was to care for 4 kids and a husband.”
“One evening, after my sister had begun to feel good enough to get cabin fever, she suggested the two of us go out to the bar together to celebrate. It would be fun, she said. We needed a night out.”
“I was reluctant to go because I had a big zit on the end of my nose and would have preferred to stay hidden until it went away. But my own cabin fever eventually won out and I went to the bar.”
“We sat at a table in the darkest corner I could find and ordered drinks. Shortly, we were joined by a local man whom my sister knew. My sister entertained him with stories the entire evening while I nursed my drink and tried to hide the zit behind my glass. When the man finally said good night, I couldn’t wait to go home and cry.”
“I was miserable and this is what my life had become – one sacrificial day after another. But then I heard a voice. Was it God? The voice was telling me this man, the one who had spent the entire evening ignoring me and listening to my sister, was the man I was going to marry.”
“About a week later, I got a call from the man in the bar. He asked me out to a movie and dinner. I was surprised, to say the least. We hadn’t said two words to each other in the bar. Why did he want to go out with me?”
“We went out the following week. To say he was comfortable with silence would be an understatement. Luckily, I could talk for the both of us so the night was not totally awkward. Eventually, I was able to get enough one-word answers from the man to determine he was a decent person and fit my minimum criteria for a mate.”
”Sometimes, God has other plans for you.”
“We got married and I did everything I could to become a good wife and mother. He was good to me and the kids although he never learned to express himself in words. He was a quiet man but I grew to love him. We were married fifty years when he died.”
“I have been happy living with Erin and enjoying my grandchildren. I would never complain about this life. But today – when I read that message in the fortune cookie, telling me to pursue my dreams – it was like once again hearing the voice of God.”
She looked around the table to gauge our reactions. I think we were all too stunned to speak or even smile. Then she went on,
“Maybe God has other plans for me.”
Mother ate her snack, took her pills and said good night. It was late and we had a long drive so we all departed soon after. My husband drove so I closed my eyes and tried hard to remember the features of Mother’s face. I think now I could see her Bette Davis eyes.