By Alan W Jankowski
She did this every year, so the call came as no surprise. In fact, I had been expecting it for the last few days. The only surprise was that it took so long. I was sitting with my wife having our coffee after dinner when the phone rang. As I got up to answer, my wife gave me a knowing glance but did not say a word. It was as if we both knew instinctively.
“Hello.” I started into the phone, “Oh, hi Mom. Yeah, I’d been expecting your call.”
I talked to my mother over the phone for several minutes while my wife Sandra sat quietly at the table staring down and clutching her coffee cup.
“Yes Mom,” I said into the phone, “Sandra and I will both be there this weekend. Yes, I know it’s Dad’s eightieth birthday.”
I said my goodbyes to my mother and hung the phone back up on the wall. Quietly, I rejoined my wife back at the table. We both sat in silence for a few minutes as we sipped our coffee.
“She wants you to make one of your pistachio cakes, she says it’s Dad’s favorite.”
My wife let out an audible sigh.
“Just do it,” I added, “It’s only once a year.”
When the weekend arrived my wife and I got in the car and started the two hour drive. Sandra looked good in her pretty blue dress as she sat silently in the passenger seat with the plastic cake container on her lap. We were both a bit apprehensive about these yearly birthday parties my mom threw for my dad. We should be used to them by now, yet you never knew quite what to expect.
When we got to the house, we parked the car and walked up to the door. I rang the doorbell as we both stood motionless outside.
“Coming.” I could hear my mother shout from inside. I could also hear her dog Sammy barking on the other side of the door. I knew my mom would take a while to reach the door, as she had been using a cane these last few years.
After what seemed like a long eternity, my mother answered. She was dressed in a floral print dress of pastel shades suitable for any party. Her dog Sammy was jumping at her feet barking.
“Oh you brought the cake,” my mother said with a big smile, “your dad will be so happy.”
She led us in to the simply decorated living room and I noticed the same ‘Happy Birthday’ candelabra on the mantle that had been brought out every year at this time and placed carefully next to the framed portrait of my parents. There were also fresh cut flowers in a clear glass vase on the coffee table in the center of the room. My mother instructed us to put the cake in the kitchen and as I walked through the house the distinct smell of my mother’s beef stew wafted through the air. I knew it was my father’s favorite.
We all sat in the living room making small talk for a while until my mom announced it was time to eat. Sandra and I followed her into the kitchen and helped her bring the various pots into the small dining room adjacent to the kitchen. As I entered the room, I could not help but notice the four place settings with my mother’s best china placed carefully upon the white table cloth my mother reserved for special occasions. There was a polished silver candlestick holder squarely in the middle. Four chairs were arranged carefully around the old rectangular wooden table, and after Sandra and I finished bringing out the food I helped seat my mother proudly at the table’s head. Her dog Sammy made himself comfortable at her feet.
I helped my wife dish out the stew, and then my mother led us all in prayer as she blessed the food. As dinner got underway, my mom reminisced non-stop about the “good old days” and how she had met my father at one of the dance socials that were popular in her small town at the time. She must have repeated about ten times how meeting my father was “the best thing that happened” in her life.
When dinner was over I helped Sandra clear the table and we brought out the cake and served it. My mother again led us as we all sang “Happy Birthday.” When we were done with the cake, my mother got up and went into the bedroom. I knew this part of the evening was coming as she did it every year, and it always made me uncomfortable, though I knew it was harmless. Sandra and I waited in silence as she returned with an old photo album. She sat back down and started slowly turning the tattered pages. As she stopped at every page, she would reminisce, and her reminiscing was accompanied by stories told so vividly you would have thought they were happening at that very moment. Perhaps in her mind they were.
When she was done going through the photo album, my mother turned to me and asked if I would go into the living room and put on the radio. It seemed like an innocent enough request. When I returned, I was a bit taken aback by what she said next.
“Your father and I want to dance,” she said calmly.
“But Mom,” I started somewhat excitedly.
My wife reached over suddenly and put her hand on mine. I thought quickly for a moment.
“But Mom,” I continued, “I really want this dance with you. I’m sure Dad won’t mind.”
The music wafted in softly from the other room as I danced slowly with my mother in the small dining room. As we danced, I wondered what was going on in my mother’s mind these days. She was approaching eighty herself, and her mind was not what it used to be. She seemed to remember details from the distant past so vividly, and yet the present often seemed a blur. I wondered sometimes if she even realized my father had been dead almost nine years, and yet it seemed she never once forgot his birthday.
Afterwards, my wife and I cleaned up the table and put everything away including the uneaten piece of birthday cake from in front of my father’s empty seat. Sandra and I did the dishes, and then joined my mother back in the living room where we made small talk the best we could for another hour or so.
At the end of the night, we said our goodbyes. My mother thanked us repeatedly for coming to the party.
“It means so much that you kids could come by,” she started, “it gets so lonely here for us sometimes.”
As I kissed my mother goodnight and said goodbye, I felt tears forming in my eyes. I told her I’d call her soon, and that she should keep in touch. I realized there was nothing else I could really do for her.
All I could do for her was keep in touch, and show up at my father’s birthday party next year.