When my mother turned ninety-two, she fell in love for the first time.
Although my mother and my father had been married for over thirty years, theirs wasn’t even remotely a love story. Before she met him, she had thought she was in love with the son of a butcher. He courted her for a year, and one night, he had even scribbled out their wedding announcement in mustard on a napkin, giving it to her to put in her purse for safekeeping. Then he left for Chicago, promising to come back to her. He kept his word to return, but not until six months later, and then, he was holding the hand of a pretty, very pregnant wife. When his wife excused herself to powder her nose, he cornered my mother in the kitchen, hotly whispering against her neck, “Maybe I made a mistake.”
“No,” she said. “I did.”
As soon as he left, my mother let her heart break. It wasn’t so much that she cared about this young man, whose character was clearly lacking, but, it was more that she saw her future leaving her. A family. A home. All the things she wanted so desperately. She was living with her parents and she lay in bed crying, so long and so hard that her father began to plead. “You have to live,” he urged. He sat by her bed, coaxing food, insisting that she get up, and try and be happy again.
And so, because she loved her father, because she didn’t want to be a disappointment to him, and mostly because she was twenty-eight, which was as close to spinsterhood as she could allow herself to get, she let herself be trundled off to what was then called an adult day camp, where single men and women could spend a month, living in cabins, enjoying swimming, boating and arts and crafts, but really looking for their mates. There, as if she were choosing a cut of meat for dinner, she had her pick of men. She settled on two of the most marriage-minded: a sturdy looking guy who was going to be a teacher and my father, who was quiet, a little brooding, but who already had a steady, money-making career as an accountant. She wasn’t sure how she felt about him, but she believed that love had already passed her by, like a wonderful party she had somehow missed. But even so, she could still have the home, the family, the life she wanted if she were only brave and determined enough to grab it. My father asked her to marry him, and she immediately said yes. But later, she told my sister and me, that when she was walking down the aisle, her wedding dress itchy, and her shoes too tight, she felt a surge of terror. This isn’t right, she thought. But there was her father, beaming encouragingly at her. There was her mother, her sisters and brothers and all her friends, gathered to celebrate this union. Money had been spent on food and flowers and her white, filmy dress. And where else did she have to go? So she kept walking.
My sister and I grew up knowing our mother wasn’t in love with our father. She told us all the stories, like cautionary tales, making us her confidantes, even as we squirmed to be with our friends, or be by ourselves, rather than to hear her secrets. We knew about the butcher’s son, and how our father was second helpings. She told me things I didn’t want to know because they felt like problems I had to solve for her, and they often kept me awake, worrying over her, feeling panicked and scared. And sometimes I was the solution. When I was seventeen, on the cusp of leaving home and starting my own, brand new life, she whispered to me that she needed me to go to the Cape with her and my father on vacation because she didn’t want to be alone with him, not then, not ever. She wouldn’t go unless I went, too. She admitted though, that sometimes, she still liked to sleep with him.
“Mom!” I cried. “Don’t tell me that!”
“Well, who else am I going to tell?” she asked.
My sister and I didn’t need our mother’s stories to know exactly what her marriage was like. My mother and my father rarely talked. They certainly never touched, and there was a big nightstand pushed in between the two beds. I didn’t blame my mother because I kept away from my father, too. He never kissed or hugged my sister or me, and when he spoke, it was usually to scold, sometimes to yell, or sometimes to shut us off with silence. He had a hair-trigger temper and everything set him off, from a spilled water glass to the way my mother forgot to ask his mother about her arthritis. He didn’t know my mother’s favorite flowers were daisies, and he didn’t know the names of any of my teachers or the books I loved to read. I was glad that he left the house at six in the morning, happy that he didn’t come home until eight most nights, and I did my best to stay out of his way.
The only advice my mother ever offered on marriage was, “Choose someone kind. That’s all that matters.” She never said anything about love. We knew that “kind” was code word for “unlike your father.” She didn’t love our father, but it didn’t matter to us, because the truth was, we didn’t love him either.
My father died young at fifty, felled by a stroke, the potato chips and candy he wasn’t supposed to be eating anymore because of his riotously high blood pressure, stuffed in his pockets, his medicine still on the top of his dresser. I was twenty-four then, and I came home from college and heard my aunt tell my mother, “Well, you didn’t really love him anyway.” And my mother said, “Well, maybe I liked him.” At night, she cried, but then she picked herself up and went to work, teaching school a block away, making friends with the other teachers and with the principal who seemed sweet on her. She was still beautiful, and I felt responsible for her, the way I always had been, so I asked her, “Do you want to meet someone good this time around?”
“I’m done with men,” she insisted. When my aunts tried to fix her up, she bristled. But I saw she was lonely, and I saw, too, that she was fabulous, and why shouldn’t she be happy? So, for her fifty-fifth birthday, I gave her a personal ad in Boston Magazine, which my mother laughed about and ignored. “Who needs it?” she scorned. Still, she read all the responses before she tucked them into the trash.
She didn’t trust men. She never liked the boys who hung around my sister and me. She didn’t like my sister’s husband, whom she didn’t think was kind enough to my sister, and she criticized my husband Jeff for his driving, for his clothes, for his job as a writer, which she refused to consider real employment. “Does he have work?” she asked me, every time she saw me or called. Once, when my husband Jeff and I were dancing at a wedding, she criticized us for dancing so close, for kissing on the floor. “We love each other,” Jeff told her. She scoffed.
Still, she filled her time, which made me happy. She taught school into her seventies, socializing with friends and her sisters, but if any man paid attention to her, she swatted him away like she would a housefly. She was in her eighties when my sister and I began to worry about her being alone in her rambling Waltham house. The basement kept flooding. The icy walk to and from the house worried us. The last time I drove with her, she ran the car up on the sidewalk. We began to send her brochures for independent living and the arguments started. “I’ll die in my own home,” she insisted.
She burned with rage. Life had cheated her, she said, and now it was ending. It was a terrible thing to think of, my mother being old and unhappy, and facing death, but no matter how desperately I tried to make her happy–with books, and dinners and flowers, her anger still boiled. The last time I came to visit her, she had taken every picture off the wall, leaving blank spaces where they had been, like accusations. She had cleaned out her closets and given away furniture and the one thing she wanted me to look at were the folders about how she wanted her funeral to be held, and where her money was. When I left her, I sat in the car and cried. Not only was I losing her, but her long life had not been a happy one, and that seemed tragic to me.
That spring, She finally agreed to move. Her apartment a bright, sunny apartment in an independent living place that looked like a hotel, filled with flowers and people. She slumped on her new couch, resigned. “End of the line,” she said bitterly.
She called me every day, her voice tight with rage. “I hate it here,” she said. “How could you put me here? How could you do this to me?” She had no friends. The food was terrible. The people were too old. She didn’t want to go dinner at night and she didn’t want to go to the activities during the day. She should have stayed where she was, in her home. One night, she was sitting in the hall, brooding, when she overheard two women talking about her in Yiddish. “That one never smiles,” one woman said. “She never talks. Like a stone, that one.” My mother turned to them. “I talk,” she said, angrily. “And don’t you talk about me like I’m not even here.”
She told me later that those women had got her thinking. If this was her life now, then maybe she was going to have to make an effort. She was going to have to at least try to talk to people, to maybe have a friend she could take walks with. “I might as well,” she reasoned. “What else is there here?”
That night, she got dressed up for dinner, carefully combing her hair, putting on lipstick. She sat at a table, talking brightly to the woman across from her, who invited her to play cards the next afternoon. And even though my mother was not a card player, she said she’d try to make it. It wasn’t so bad, she thought. And then a man sat next to her and he asked her if she was going to the New Year’s Eve party. “Of course not,” she said, and he smiled and he said, “Then I’m not going either.” She told me later that something switched on in her, like a light. Impulsively, she took his head between her hands. “Then I’ll have to kiss you now,” she blurted, and there, in front of everyone, she did.
He called her the next day. “How are you today, Sunshine?” he said. She sat up in bed, her heart galloping.
From that moment on, they became inseparable. They ate all their meals together. They watched TV in her apartment or his. They walked outside and talked. He became her best friend, her confidant. And even better, they kissed.
What was it about this man that opened my mother’s heart? I asked her that and she said, “He calls me every morning at six to say good morning.” She was now so busy that her daily, angry calls to me stopped, and I began to miss her. I was the one who called her now, and she began to sound different on the phone, as if there were bells in her voice. All she wanted to talk about was him. “I’m in love,” she told me. “For the first time.”
I was stunned. Imagine going through your whole life and never feeling love until you were in your nineties. Imagine my mother, so furious about her life, being so happy.
My mother became busy with love. Now when I called her, she’d cut our talks short because her boyfriend was calling. “Goodbye, darling,” she’d say, her voice as bright as a splash of pennies. When I visited, wanting to see her, she wanted to see him instead. “Can’t I have you to myself, just for an hour?” I asked. “Of course, you can,” she said, hugging me, but the whole time we were talking in her apartment, she was looking at the phone, waiting for his call.
They were the best of friends for four years. And then she began to have dementia.
She wasn’t eating. She forgot names. She wet her pants and she began to be obsessed about fire drills. She would go down to eat with her boyfriend and stare at the food and mumble. She told us it was over with him, that he had a new girlfriend, a woman who was 44 and would pick him up and sleep with him, and then bring him back. “Love,” she snorted. “I don’t even care.” My sister and I were terrified, but we knew we had to move her into assisted living.
She was tiny and terrified, shivering and enraged. “How can you do this to me?” she shouted, and the truth was, I didn’t know how I could. I didn’t recognize her. She was here and she wasn’t here. “Come with me in the bathroom,” she said, using her cane. She needed help pulling down her pants, and she had on Depends.
She didn’t understand the move. The other residents stared at her and she lowered her head shamed. I knew they must be thinking, what’s happening to her? Or worse, will it happen to me?
I was so upset that I called her boyfriend that night, to tell him what was happening. “We were the best of friends,” he said. “I really really—“ and then he paused. “I really like your mother.”
When I hung up, I kept thinking about that pause. He liked her. Was that it? Was it really just like? I wrote to him. I told him that my mother had said she fell in love for the first time with him. That she loved him. And I sent it off.
Two days later he walked the hall from his apartment in independent living to hers in assisted living. It was as if he had awakened, and that made her do the same. He held her hands. He kissed her. He said, “Would you love me if I had no teeth?” because he was going to the dentist. Love. He used the word love. I watched the two of them together. He didn’t care that she was forgetful, that she couldn’t walk so well and wore depends. When she started getting anxious about the fire drills she was sure were about to happen any second, he soothed her. “I’m here with you,” he said. He just wanted to be with her, and when he was, her dementia softened. She calmed.
The last time I spoke to my mother, her boyfriend had just left. “But he’s coming back,” she said. She couldn’t remember my son or my husband’s name. She didn’t know what she had eaten for lunch. But she remembered him. “I’m so glad you have each other,” I said, but my joy wasn’t just for her. I realized that my mother was giving me something important. She was showing me that love can find you when you least expect it, that love doesn’t care about your failing eyesight or your foggy brain. That love sometimes just needs to be spoken out loud, like an invitation, a light even in your darkness.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You.