I call Aunt Francis and Uncle Sam once a week. They’re both in their eighties and live in Florida. I feel badly for them- Sam’s a loving man (Great Aunt Francis- not so much) who always makes sure to ask after Ted, our children, and our fifteen-year-old cat, Cookie. Sam’s been quite infirm lately: a bad heart, a bad hip, and a bit of cancer. So I call to find out how he is. It isn’t easy, but I tell myself it’s a chore like sweeping the deck and getting my old cavities replaced.
“Hi, Aunt Francis,” I begin and stiffen myself to whatever mood she may be in.
“Oh, hello,” she says in a tone that indicates surprise, like I don’t call every Sunday.
“How are you?” I ask but regret my question immediately. I don’t know where else to begin, though, and I want to move the conversation along quickly as her well honed and implicating tones are worst at the outset.
“Oh, we’re still here,” she says. “Sort of.” Then she tells me how coping with Sam is a full time job what with needing to dress and cook for him and she’s awfully tired and her back hurts terribly. And oh by the way, her arthritis is kicking up something awful and she can’t sleep night. And yes, I should never experience the pain she’s feeling.
Sam, he’s actually not well but somehow his very real problems are more about her than him.
Anyway she yells at him (and I mean yell) to get on the phone and then whispers into the receiver, “It will take him a good long time; he can hardly walk you know.”
Meanwhile Sam’s not complaining when he gets to the phone. He takes his infirmities in stride and moves the conversation to the general: toward the coming election, the Iraq war, other world situations and tragedies.
“What did you think of that storm in Okalahoma?” he asks as if there is any response other than sympathy. I think he likes questions like that because they’re safe.
“Jesse still working at Starbucks?” Aunt Francis asks pleasantly enough about our older son, but she asks the same question each week because she knows I think that Jesse should be interning somewhere related to his future rather than working at Starbucks just now. And then she tells me that she’s heard from our daughter Cassie, but not from Jesse which means I’m to urge Jesse to call Aunt Frances.
I ask her if she’s found NPR for Sam, and she says that no, nobody “down here” listens to that station.
I start to make noises like it’s time to get off and say that I need to fit in a run before I go to the supermarket. “Is Ted going with you?” she asks knowing full well that my husband far prefers gardening to jogging. Then she says, “Keep in touch,” which is un-necessary because I do. Sam thanks me for calling and says he enjoyed hearing my warm and friendly voice and that he appreciates that I keep in touch. I hang up hurriedly.
The phone rests safely back in its cradle. I sigh, “That’s over for another week,” and then I congratulate myself. I’m so much calmer post phone call, now that I started thinking of them as Aunt Fran and Uncle Sam, instead of…. Mom and Dad. It is this that I believe: When one’s own parents cannot fulfill our hopes, dreams, expectations and family fantasies (for whatever reason), it’s calming to look upon them as more distant relatives.
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