Mom and Dad sit at the kitchen table arguing over which makes a better grilled sandwich, provolone or cheddar, and whether or not they had relations, that is to say sex, before they were married.
She doesn’t like to hand over the chore of making lunch, but Mom is enjoying the conversation about the premarital relations they did or didn’t have so much that she can’t tear herself away from the table.
I’m hungry. I rummage through the fridge.
“Not until the wedding night.” Mom shakes her head and smiles like she’s both denying and encouraging Dad for the first time. “Your memory is playing tricks on you again.”
I tend to believe Mom if only because she’s maintained a relatively consistent version of the story since I first heard it, which, not coincidently, coincided with the onset of my puberty over forty years ago. I’ve long since stopped being disconcerted by their well established sport of taunt and flirt.
The bit about waiting for the wedding night wore itself out as a cautionary tale decades ago. I lived with my future ex-husband before we married. My sister wore a maternity gown to her wedding. But Mom didn’t hold up her own virtue to chastise us, exactly. Mom’s virginity tale has more to do with pride than virtue. Early on, we kids were made aware that sex is a hard thing to contain. If Mom’s children weren’t able to control ourselves, well, at least we have a mom who was. Pre-marital virginity is one of Mom’s accomplishments, like producing daughters who became nurses and teachers and a son who owns lake and beach front property.
Dad aims his grin, insistent and teasing, at Mom. There is a pillow behind him, under him, and on both sides of him, to keep him supported and upright in the chair. “The Buffalo Club. You couldn’t stop kissing me. It was embarrassing.”
“Never in the Club.” Mom grins back, flirty but resolute. The eighty-year-old skin surrounding her eyes crinkles up a bit more. “After. On the steps. With the porch light on. And you couldn’t stop kissing me. I was barely eighteen. You were twenty-eight.” She states these last two lines as definitive points for her side. She rests her case for the moment and sips her coffee.
Dad is expressionless. His eyes get heavy, like he might doze off, but his hand pops up off his lap and wakes the rest of his body. “What? Are you saying we never kissed at the Club?” He’s missed a beat in the banter but he’s back with his signature smirk. “Taking advantage of an old man whose memory is shot to hell?” Dad makes a show of his disappointment. “We got pictures somewhere.” He looks around the room trying to remember where the pictures might be.
The pictures are a fact. I’ve seen them; Mom and Dad kissing at a corner table. All of their “kids” have heard the story that goes with the picture and could identify the location as the Buffalo Club. The Club is still open and not five miles from this kitchen.
Mom’s eyes narrow in concentration. Her memory, while much better than Dad’s, is not what it used to be. She had forgotten either kissing in the bar or that there was a picture of them kissing in the bar. Either way she’s lost this point to pictorial evidence.
“Kissing a man in a bar.” Dad turns to me. “Imagine that, she was barely eighteen.”
I shake my head mechanically. “Disgraceful.” There’s not much to get excited about in their refrigerator. I’m side tracked from my cheese quest by a piece of dried out corn bread. “How about Swiss? You don’t have Provolone or Cheddar.”
“Swiss?” They grimace in unison. “For grilled cheese?” Mom says. “There’s Provolone in the freezer.”
Dad gives the Provolone a dismissive wave of his hand. “Who eats Provolone for breakfast?” We’re about to have lunch but we’re flexible about the proper naming of things. He frowns. “What was it?” This is the phrase he uses when he’s lost his place in the conversation.
“Kissed.” Mom steers him back. “Never the other, not before we were married. We kissed and necked a little. It was a different world and I wasn’t that kind of girl.”
“That was a long war,” Dad says. I take him to mean World War Two not the battle to get Mom to do “the other” before they were married.
“There are only a couple slices of bread left,” I say.
“Freezer,” Mom says, mildly irritated by my inability to comprehend that what’s not in the fridge is in the freezer.
“Pete Rowstowski let me borrow his car.” Dad nods with satisfaction at having remembered this.
“Back from the Philippines. No job yet. Keeping a young girl up half the night. And I had to go back to the factory the next morning, didn’t I? But what did you care?” Mom crosses her arms over her chest, daring him to disagree.
Dad leans back with his eyes closed the better to enjoy her indignation. “You were a cute little thing. Made me forget that war. Better than a sleeping pill.” He pulls his head back and purses his lips like he’s refusing some bitter medicine. “Why can’t I remember what I want to and forget that damn war? All the pills I take now.”
“Pete Rowstowski let you borrow his car,” Mom prompts.
“Big green car. Big back seat. Always hay or something all over that back seat.”
Mom squints, narrowing in on a memory or an argument maybe.
Not so hungry after the stale corn bread, and interested in how the hay got in the back seat of the green car, I close the freezer door without even looking for the loaf of bread and take a seat at the table.
Mom says, “Must have been someone else in Pete’s backseat, because it wasn’t me.” If I had to bet, I’d say she’s lying now.
“It was you.” Dad grins from ear to ear. “In that little jacket with all those buttons.”
“It was a little green car and it didn’t have a back seat. It had a rumble seat.” Mom slumps, making it pretty clear that Dad’s on to something. “You can’t remember if you had breakfast.”
“Little mother-of-pearl buttons.”
Mom holds her hand to her mouth. “You remember those buttons?”
They’re both quiet for a minute. Buttons, that’s a new twist in the old story.
“I married the little Briere girl,” Dad says, like the wonder of it happened yesterday. “A spit of a thing. Prettiest girl in Fairview. She was something.”
“I’m still something.” Mom fingers the single snap on the neck of her sweatshirt.
“The prettiest?” I ask. “You remember them all, Dad?”
“As long as he remembers the prettiest,” Mom says with the satisfaction of a woman who knows what it means for her husband to think she’s the prettiest girl in town. “My brother thought you were too old for me.”
“We’re both too old now,” Dad says. “How did we get so old?”
“Lucky,” Mom says.
Dad is starting to lose his way. It always happens like this; first he gets this anxious look then he starts fidgeting and looking around like he’s lost or he’s lost something.
“You asked ‘How did we get so old?’” Mom says. “And I answered, “Lucky.’” This is one of their seasoned exchanges. It doesn’t seem to orient him. Mom pats his hand. “It’s okay. I said ‘My brother thought you were too old for me.’ And that made you a little nervous, I think.”
Dad nods his understanding. “‘The old bastard’,” he says, referring to the term his dead brother-in-law pinned on him over sixty years ago. Or possibly, because of the way his grin has returned, Dad is turning the phrase on the dead brother-in-law himself. “I was an old bastard. Ten years older than you. Should have waited.”
“We did,” Mom says.
“Lotta buttons after a long war.” Dad delivers this line with confidence, like he’s practiced it all his life.
“Your daughter is making our lunch.” Mom raises her eyebrows, this time to let him know he’s about to cross a line.
“She’s not moving too fast,” Dad says. I’m still seated at the table. “You think the stork brought you?” He asks me.
“Yes.” I put my hands over my ears. “Children in the room.”
Dad covers his ears too. “How old are you?”
“Fifty-five.” He frowns like I’m trying to pull one over on him.
Mom says, “She’s 55 and I’m 35.”
He nods and smiles as if this statement makes perfect sense. He gives me the smirk and whispers to Mom, “She still thinks the stork brought her.”
Mom whispers back, and deaf as he is, Dad hears what I don’t. They both laugh.
“I’m too young for this,” I say.
“We picked you out of the cabbage patch,” Dad says.
Mom leans across the table to whisper something else in his ear. She grins.
Dad’s expression verges on anger. “Before we were married,” he says stubbornly.
Mom sighs. “Oh, don’t get mad. It wasn’t a cabbage patch. It was a corn field.” Up go her eyebrows. “You remember the corn field?” She sits tall and lifts her cold cup of coffee like she’s about to make a toast. There is no doubt in my mind that somewhere in their shared past there was in fact a field of corn. “And the wedding was the next day.”
First there’s a flash in Dad’s eyes, then his body straightens up, then his face gets taut and alert like he’s listening hard for some far off sound. “The corn field,” he repeats. “Old Man Regnier’s corn field.”
“The corn field and the front seat,” Mom says. “No hay. Itchy little bits of cornstalk.”
“You’re making fast and loose with your facts, Mom.” Maybe I am a prudish fifty-five-year old who wants to believe a stork delivered her, but I don’t believe my mother. A virgin on her wedding night, that’s been Mom’s story, and I think she should stick to it.
Clearly, at this moment, neither of them is interested in what I think. They grin at each other – both teary eyed. I look at them hard and I can almost see them at that corner table at the club. I can almost make out the time bubble of memory surrounding them now. I sit in a chair between them but outside the stretchy membrane that holds them and watch Dad take Mom’s hand.
Never mind that she is the genius of her own old age, Mom, it seems, has found a way to give her self to Dad, again.
I feel a shiver and see that I was wrong. I have not completely given up being disconcerted by their well established sport of taunt and flirt. I move away from the table to the stove. With luck, Dad will forget that he hates provolone on a grilled sandwich and Mom will be too busy creating the rest of their world to worry about cheese.
Bellerose, Sally. “Mother of Pearl” Per Contra, summer 2008. http://www.percontra.net/11contributors.htm