Mother Knows Best
by Steve Slavin
My father almost never had a good word to say about anyone he knew, while my mother was nearly the opposite. But he reserved a special hatred for certain people whom he had never even met. Heading the list was Elvis.
One day, to see if I could provoke him, I asked my father whether he favored using a portrait of the young Elvis or the more mature Elvis on a postage stamp. And I got the desired result.
His face turned beet-red as he described what he would do to Elvis:
First Id decapitate him! Then Id lock the door and go a few rounds with him.
But Elvis is dead! I pointed out.
It doesnt matter! he screamed.
My father had a more nuanced reaction to the college students on spring break, who often stayed near his Florida retirement community.
Students? he yelled. Those arent students: theyre animals!
If you had a machine gun set up on the beach, would you mow them down? I asked.
He scowled at me and then replied conspiratorially, That would just be a waste of good bullets!
In comparison to my dad, my mother was sweetness and light. But on rare occasions, she stepped completely out of character. When I was fifteen, she brought me to her cousins wedding. Helen, who was pushing thirty, was quite tall. By convention, the groom should be taller and somewhat older. Mike was about six inches shorter than Helen. But what he lacked in height, he more than made up for in years and then some.
This was the first time my mother had met him. She kept referring to him as the little refugee. The man was flitting around taking photos of all the guests. It turned out that he was a professional photographer; he either didnt trust anyone else to take pictures, or he was trying to save money. Perhaps he took the first wedding selfie.
Mike had a very thick accent, although he had been in this country for decades. Still, it seemed unnecessarily cruel for my mother to keep calling him the little refugee; even after I observed that Your parents and their entire families were refugees. But she would call him the little refugee till the day she died.
Years later, when my sister got married for a second time, my parents, who were living in Florida, were unable to attend the wedding. A month earlier, the bride- and groom-to-be visited our parents. The trip seemed to go fairly well, although my sister suspected that Mother was somewhat less than pleased.
My future brother-in-law was between jobs. He had just been denied tenure at a branch of the State University of New York, and was trying to find another job. When they had a moment alone, my sister asked our mother what was wrong.
Hes a fortune hunter!
Yes, but wheres the fortune?
Mark my words: hes after your money.
The wedding went off without a hitch. My sisters friend Dorothy advised the happy couple who were in their early fifties to wait a few years before you start having children!
After all the guests had left, my sister called our parents and then put Alan on the phone with Mother.
Your daughter made a beautiful bride.
Why dont you get a job?
When my sister told me what Mother had said, I called her and asked how she could say such a terrible thing. But she kept asking, Why doesnt he get a job?
I love to use analogies, even if they sometimes dont exactly apply. Remember how hard it was to get a job during the depression? Of course she did. Well, in college teaching, its just like it was during the depression. Alan is trying very hard to get a job, but there are so few openings.
But she wasnt biting. If he wants to work, he could find a job. It doesnt have to be at a college.
She really did have a point. But still, she had been so rude to Alan. He was a very likable guy, and I was pretty sure hed find a job even if it wasnt teaching in college.
My mother died just a couple of years later, still believing that Alan was a fortune hunter. My father, who hated people for even lesser offenses, had seemed much more tolerant. In fact, my sister and I had never heard a word from him about Alan good or bad.
As things transpired, my mother had been right about Alan. While there was no fortune to hunt, the man turned out to be monumentally lazy. After settling down in my sisters home, over the next eighteen years he managed to get just a couple of part-time jobs, and was quickly fired from each of them. I would tell everyone that Alan had won an award slacker of the year.
But that was the good news. He had no interests except for eating large quantities of food and he turned out to be a complete bore. It got so bad that when he entered a room, everyone would flee.
One day, many years later, I got the phone call I had long been dreading. My father, who was now ninety-five, said that he could no longer care for himself. My sister and I flew to Florida, packed up his clothes, and brought him back to New York. As we were driving out of his housing complex, I asked my father if he wanted to take one last look. No! Just throw me in that dumpster with the rest of the garbage.
Back in New York, we settled him into an assisted living facility, but a few months later, he needed to move into a nursing home. He was angry virtually all of the time. In fact, when we visited, his greeting was always the same: Just give me a gun and a bullet! This went on for a couple of months.
He was increasingly frustrated with his physical and mental deterioration, and often complained that he had become useless. When people reached that state, he said, they should just kill themselves.
My father never told jokes, and in his later years, he stopped telling funny stories. He never laughed, and seemed to have an almost perpetual scowl. And then, when I least expected it, he said something so funny that I almost fell down on the floor laughing.
He was sitting in the hall and saw me coming. When I was a few feet from him he muttered, Just give me [two] guns and two bullets!
Why two guns and two bullets? Are you afraid youll miss?
I wont miss!
Then why do you want two guns and two bullets?
He just glared at me as if I were missing the obvious. And then he said, One for me and one for Alan.
I couldnt stop laughing. When I told my sister, she was less than pleased. He had said the same thing to her.
Several years ago I took on the job of family historian. I managed to get almost everyones contact information; I was missing two cousins. They were the daughters of Helen and Mike. Helen had died a few years before, and I had been given Mikes number.
I called Mike, told him I had been to his wedding, and had put together a family tree. I needed to add his daughters contact information and the family tree would be complete.
Mike kept going on and on about his condominium and the swimming pool, his accent even thicker than I had remembered. Look, Ill tell you what, Mike. Im going to mail you the entire family tree, and then you can just mail back your daughters contact information.
When I had not heard back from him, I gave him another call. He had gotten the family tree, but instead of sending me the information I needed, he wanted me to come to see his condominium with its swimming pool, and then, maybe he would give me his daughters contact information.
I thought back to the wedding so many years ago, when he and Helen had gotten married. And I realized that my mother had been right about him after all. The man was a little refugee".
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