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November 23, 2010

(This is a periodic collection of blogs about an 855-mile road trip I took with my 86-year-old mother to see her two dearest childhood friends. First we drove to Central Connecticut and then to a beautiful little lake in Norwich, New York that looks like God’s country. This was a perfect summer weekend to catch up with close friends. I was just an observer.)

The air was cold at 6 a.m. when I awoke. The old blanket on my bed was long past its prime as bedding in a lakeside summer cabin in upstate New York.

I shared a bedroom upstairs with my mother: each of us taking a twin bed layered with matching polyester bed spreads covered in psychedelic circles. I would have loved it when I was seven years old in the early 1970’s. There were several paintings on the wall done by someone in the family: A vase of daffodils; the lake; a house down a country road. I curled up twice, hoping to stay warm in a fetal position. The cabin wasn’t winterized. The white walls of this bedroom were simple plywood panels. Without insulation, a cold summer morning wakes you up instantly, like someone putting ice down your shirt.

I hoped my little blanket and my favorite pink sweatshirt would keep me warm enough. Instead, I just stared at the paintings for a while and then the tall Federal-style mahogany dresser that Helen and her husband Jack bought at auction decades ago. Its tall rounded brown frame stuck out like the big built chest of a lumberjack. A stack of antique post cards lay on a hammered pewter tray on top. For a few minutes I tossed uncomfortably before deciding to tiptoe down the crooked stairs with railings made of 16-inch wide tree branches and head to the kitchen to make coffee. 

It was 50 degrees on the lake this morning. Goosebumps covered me.  The stairs creaked. I didn’t want to wake my mother and her two college friends. Although they all slept soundly – talking in their sleep and snoring rather loudly – they were still mothers who could jolt out of a sound sleep at the slightest inkling that someone might be walking around their home in the middle of the night.

Instead, I found our host Helen shuffling in the kitchen. The cigarette lying just slightly in the ashtray warmed the room with a thin line of smoke twirling up to the ceiling, like a snake being charmed.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Good morning,” she growled, her throat not clear yet. “The coffee’s cooking and we have English muffins and fruit for breakfast. Get yourself a plate.”

Helen stood about 5-feet tall. Her back is hunched now with age. At 87 she looks tiny and frail. Her spirit isn’t, however, but she misses her sweetheart. She’s been having breakfast without him for 10 years.

I looked at the back of her head. Her curly black hair is all grey now. It looked as if she hadn’t done her hair in a few days.

“Let me help you carry these things to the table. The ladies will be up soon.”

The kitchen looked like a room you’d find in an old cabin in the woods. It was an 8′ x 8′ room housing a stove, the water heater, a sink and a few wooden tongue and grove paneled cabinets. The room was freshly painted the shade of sunrise on the lake. The antique cast iron hinges and door handles are all original. It is enough. The counter, while tiny, is just large enough for Helen to lean on while she cooked or smoked. This morning she seemed to need it to keep herself up.

She stood in the corner of the room between the sink and a side wall of cabinets, leaning on her left arm as she opened the cabinet door to get plates for breakfast. The room darkened as the cabinet door blocked the morning light from the side window that was lined with antique syrup and liquor bottles. Reflections of cobalt, green and brown danced on the ceiling.

I watched her.

For a moment, she didn’t move.

“I’m coming Mamma,” she said impetuously with the lingering resolve that most young girls have with their impatient mothers. After an uncomfortably long silence, she moved toward the living room with a handful of Fiesta ware plates.

My mother’s dear friend. Someone I had known my whole life, even if I only saw her every few decades. Someone I got updates on regularly. Someone I cared about. Someone I looked to like a distant aunt, suddenly sounded like she’s slipping into old age. The kind of old that invites dementia. The kind of old that says “I’m still here”, but reminds you that time is short. Sometimes she’s really on her way home.

For a moment that was only awkward to me, this dear woman was helping her mom set the table.

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