Then again, she always warned against the world should.
“Should shouldn’t be in your vocabulary,” my friend Margaret would say. It was one way she coped with the legacy of her fundamentalist Christian upbringing. “Should is bad for you.”
Margaret’s mother was one of those beautiful, frosted ladies who rejoiced in times of trouble. She knew God was watching and that He was in charge. She was a good Christian. That was what she should believe.
Animated by this faith, she had approached her daughter, so many years before we would eventually meet in college, and announced, “I have wonderful news.” Speaking in that awestruck evangelist’s whisper, she proclaimed, “I have wonderful news!” to her young daughter who had known her dad was sick but hadn’t known how sick. “I have wonderful news,” she had said as her daughter was slowly waking up from a deep sleep that is only ever achieved by children.
“Daddy is in heaven.”
Just like that.
How could her mother be smiling? Her expression was painted on, like a clown’s. Her mother’s religion had never seemed so made up as it did then, when it was used to mask such a gruesome reality.
Margaret knew the truth was awful, not wonderful. Funny how wonder and awe can imbue something with such a different quality.
Although she did not move out of her mother’s house for several years, this marked the day Margaret started living on her own. As her mother re-married and started a new family, Margaret held on to her last name with the same fervor with which she clutched her dad’s old monogrammed shirts. These were the shirts she slept in, whose cuffs she rubbed up against her cheek, whose smell she inhaled deeply even as it faded away. These were the only remaining traces of her dad. As much as she wanted to believe he was looking down from heaven, she couldn’t help but think about how his body had been reclaimed by the earth.
Later, she studied biology and learned that half of his DNA lived on in her. While she didn’t believe she was literally an incarnation of him, the bigness of the concept and the order it implied comforted her. It didn’t provide meaning, but it did provide some rules at least.
We met in college, when we were 18 and 20, she then seeming oh so much the big sister and I the swooning underling asking with wonder how could anyone be so “awesome!”
We became friends, exchanged stories of our growing up, became closer friends, ate meals together, studied, went to parties, drank the standard college amount of alcohol, made bad decisions about boys and counseled each other about our boy problems. This last task was made easier in one instance when we had managed to make the same bad decision about the same guy within weeks of each other.
Our tastes were similar, good and bad. Over the four years we lived in the same town, we grew up a lot. (That guy we both dated grew up, too. He is now a doctor who’s married with kids and is generally acknowledged as a successful person. Nevertheless he’ll always be “Mr. Farty” to us.)
We were very good friends and were similar in many ways. But she was (and is) a much better cook.
It made sense to me then, when one day long after we’d both dispensed with the young man of unfortunate nickname, she picked up a cookbook called “Dining on Deck.” It was a compilation of simple, tasteful of recipes to prepare while sailing and boating.
“You never know. Someday…” she had said, leafing through the pages. “For when I have a yacht.”
I nodded in agreement but only because I always agreed with Margaret. I didn’t understand she was doing. At the time, I was just with my friend who was buying a book. I would have forgotten the moment altogether if my mother hadn’t reminded me of it a few years later.
“I just love your friend Margaret!” My mom had said. “How she bought that yacht cookbook. When she didn’t even live near the water. She was just so cute!”
Now I took notice. I had just barely remembered Margaret’s purchase when my mother had mentioned it. I certainly hadn’t remembered that my mother had been present. So when did it happen? My graduation? From college? From law school? So Margaret would have had to fly in from the midwest to be with us? And why were we all together buying books? None of this made sense.
That my mother held onto this memory and with such fondness was likewise confusing. Unless she is talking about her grandchildren, my mother is not one to toss around the words “love” and “cute.” Furthermore, I don’t think she ever voluntarily uses exclamation points unless she is telling someone to get in the car or to get their laundry out of the dryer. She is not not really the type to gush.
So her mentioning “Dining on Deck” like this, made me remember it. But still I didn’t think too much about it.
Margaret and I kept in regular, if infrequent, touch. We updated each other on our moves, geographic and professional. We cheered each other on as we both finally found “that guy” to settle down with and sighed (occasionally in tandem) when the reality of what we had found did not quite match up with what we thought we had discovered.
We were both lucky to have children without much effort, and I still think about one of our last meetings when Margaret, pregnant at 40 with her second child, was so grateful for her good fortune.
“I hoped I wouldn’t have to worry,” she had said, “With my mom having a second family in her 40s, and everything, but still I did. I wondered if it was going to happen for me.” She was suffering through terrible nausea with a smile on her face because she knew how lucky she was.
We fell out of touch after that last meeting, I pre-occupied with my two small kids, and she too, I thought.
I remember waiting for the birth announcement. And eventually receiving the news via email, “Mom and child doing well. Baby will be coming home soon.” I sent quick congratulations and didn’t think anymore about it.
Months later I got a different announcement. It explained that the baby was suffering a great deal and was likely to undergo many surgeries and hospitalizations. “We welcome your replies and messages, but please understand that we cannot respond to everyone at this time.”
Well that didn’t make sense.
That wasn’t how things were supposed to go.
The wonderful news had turned awful once again.
The situation with her second child was very difficult. (As I say that I am reminded of the time when some guy on a date, not “Mr. Farty” but someone similarly clueless, had said to Margaret, “Your dad died when you were twelve? silence Wow. silence That must have been hard.” )
“Yeah. It was hard.” withering laugh… “Check, please.”
Having a baby who may not live? Yeah. It’s hard.
But Margaret continued. She kept up with work, her marriage, the care of her older child, and she even remembered to send me holiday cards and birthday greetings.
So I was not surprised to see a gold/manilla envelope waiting for me this most recent February. I opened it and her old copy of “Dining on Deck” was inside. She had sent the message, “I hope your life is closer to this than mine is.”
I shouldn’t admit this, (there’s that word again) but I figured the book was sent my way as part of a house cleaning effort, and my first impulse was to throw it out.
What do I need this book for? I don’t entertain. I don’t have a boat. I don’t like lobster. And I have SO MUCH STUFF!”
Margaret was good at purging. I was not. Margaret kept a perfect house. I did not. Margaret was a “place for everything and everything in its place” sort of woman while I’ve always adopted the “I will get to that [pile of laundry] when I finish this other thing [the dishes] but in the meantime I really need to research window treatments which I will do after I finish reading about the impeding birth of the royal baby and the new de-tox diet which I will start as soon as I finish this bag of Cheetos” approach.
I remembered envying how clean and elegant her baby nursery had been before the birth of her child (I had seen it on facebook!). Her example offered a perfect foil to my own half-baked plan to have our second child sleep in a pak n’ play in the bathroom until she was sleeping through the night.
I kept the book. Or I should say, I didn’t throw it out, even though I did not properly appreciate what had compelled her to send it.
A few months later I was treated to a surprise visit from Margaret. She was in town for business and had a few free hours to visit. We met at a bar over looking the East river. It was a cavernous space with black granite floors, white couches, and walls of blue frosted glass. It was the kind of place where, in our twenties, we would have looked for well-heeled business men to buy our drinks for us.
She was sitting by herself with a glass of wine. You might say she “looked great!” with gorgeous hair, gorgeous clothes, and a trim figure you’d expect on a cheerleader, not on a 40-year-old mother of two with a demanding career.
She greeted me with a hug and a warm smile.
“Long time.” she said.
“It is so good to see you!” I said, almost squealing.
“It is good to see you, too.” She said, a little more muted.
Over the next hour she explained. Her first child was thriving in pre-school, “very verbal, sweet, calm, plays well with others” etc. Her second baby had made it through his surgeries as well as could be expected. Good news. She was relieved. Now she and her husband were focusing on the next steps, renovating their home to accommodate a child who would never walk and setting up a living trust to take care of him throughout his adulthood.
“That’s a big relief,” she said smiling. “To know that he will be taken care of after I die.”
Over course of two glasses of wine, sipped I will admit, not that slowly, I learned that her second son would have the best life possible, under the circumstances. He would always have someone to bathe him, someone to change his feeding tube, and someone to caress his precious blond hair.
In other words, he would have no use for a yacht dining cookbook. His mother no longer harbored any hope of using it either.
Just like that.
Margaret didn’t mention the cookbook of course, and why would she? She now lived in a space that no longer had room for it.
Now I knew. By purchasing the book she had nourished a fantasy, however improbable, that someday she might be someone different. Not just someone who owned a yacht. But someone else. Someone who lived life with a cool breeze blowing through her hair. Holding a chilled cocktail with ice clinking against the glass. Someone who could watch a sunset and think on its beauty rather than of the astronomical reality: that we are all on giant rock spinning away from a fireball that will eventually consume us.
By giving the book to me, she had passed on something very precious. (Not the book itself, which, having looked through it finally I can assure you is no great work in any measure.) She had passed on a dream and, more importantly, she had passed on evidence that she had been a dreamer once.
This is definitely worth holding on to. As I contemplate the sunset from my disorganized but otherwise gorgeous life, I dream of the day when I can give “Dining on Deck” back to her. In the meantime, I’ll learn how to make seafood salad. Just in case. It is the least I should do.