Today, my mother and I took a wander through Elizabeth Park. Twelve weeks ago she quit smoking, and we were celebrating. Well, I was celebrating. Mom was just wandering through the park, looking at the varieties of roses and grasses and wildflowers and not-so-wildflowers. Under the pergola, where friends of mine got married some fifteen years ago, a little group of plain clothed people were gathered.
“Wedding rehearsal,” I declared, not knowing or hearing or really paying much attention. I’ve never been fond of weddings.
“I don’t know,” Mom said, peering at them, squinting a little. The sky was bright with overcast clouds, if you can imagine that. Bright white. Great light for a wedding. “They’re all looking at their phones.”
I glanced at them as we rounded the corner outside the pergola, then put my attention back on the catmint and the alliums and the phlox. Everyone nowadays is always looking at their phones, whether they’re at a wedding rehearsal or not, I thought to myself. How lucky I am to be walking through a garden with my alive mother, I thought next.
Twelve weeks ago, Mom called 911 because she couldn’t breathe. She hadn’t been feeling well and the more she tried to nap and get her rest back, the more tired and rundown she was feeling. Ever since Dad died four years ago, Mom’s been living alone in her ranch-style house in West Hartford. And ever since her cat ran away a month ago, she’s been utterly alone.
“Remember when Brendan and Andrea got married here?”
“Mmm hmm,” Mom affirmed, stopping short in front of a lady sitting alone on a bench.
Here she goes, I smiled to myself.
“There’s a chipmunk right underneath you,” Mom called to the lady. The lady didn’t respond.
Now here is something my mother is really good at. Talking to strangers.
She will talk to just about anyone about just about anything, just about anytime. Grocery store, cafe, in line at the bank. She’s not one to launch into something uncomfortable and inappropriate, that’s not at all my mom’s style. She’s just happy to point out something that’s happening in the environment, like the amount of snow that has fallen, or the type of car someone is driving, or the fact that there’s a chipmunk sniffing your ankle.
“Ma’am? There’s a chipmunk right underneath you and he’s sniffing your ankle!”
The lady smiled from behind her sunglasses.
“Yes, and if I sit very still, he’ll jump into my lap and take food right from my hand.” Her lunch was all around her, or the remains of it anyway, in five or six different tiny containers. She looked like she was in no rush to get back to her job or her family or her at-home wedding planning business. That’s what I decided as I looked at her. She’s waiting for this current wedding party to be done with their rehearsal because in a half hour her clients are arriving and she wants to be able to walk them through who is holding which bouquet and where they will stand and how they will have to arrange for more lighting for the photographers because the light in the early afternoon isn’t that good under the pergola and the last thing she needs is another bridezilla refusing to pay for her photographs because she insisted on getting married under a damn pergola.
I turned around and saw that the group of folks under the pergola weren’t being shepherded by anyone in particular and they were still, as my mother had immediately noted, all looking at their phones.
“Oh!” my mother laughed delightedly, as the chipmunk scampered back and forth between the lady’s feet, sniffing the ground, then cocking its head and dashing for cover in the bushes, and then dashing back out to sniff the lady’s big toe. “And here I was telling you something that I thought you didn’t know, and you already know full well about this little chipmunk and his game!” She chuckled.
I inhaled deeply at the sound of my mother’s laugh. Thirteen weeks ago, she was too tired to go for a walk through Elizabeth Park. Thirteen weeks ago, she was severely hypoxic; her lungs were so full of carbon dioxide that her body and brain were so starved for oxygen that she could barely get to the bank or the grocery store or to her mother’s assisted living community without feeling utterly exhausted and in need of a long rest. And for years up until thirteen weeks ago, every time my mother laughed or as much as inhaled sharply, she would cough so hard and so long that I would get scared that she would never catch her breath again.
Thirteen weeks ago my mother was packing her mother’s things to move her from one assisted living community to another, one down the street from her sister’s place up in Needham Mass, which would be an immense relief to my mother, but the packing and the arranging and the urgency of doing all of this under a time-bound deadline was stressful and beyond my mother’s physical capabilities. And I had not a clue any of this was happening because my mother is not the type of person who asks for help, at least not from me. And so when I got the call from my uncle that my mother was in the Emergency Room, I bought a ticket to come to Connecticut and be with my mother, whatever the outcome.
“Yes, I know his little game,” the lady said.
My mother giggled softly as the chipmunk flashed its black and white tail, scampering and scavenging and playing its little game. Chipmunks were the saddest of the dead presents that Mom’s cat used to deliver. Buttons was a hunter, the most brutal of all the cats Mom ever had. While she was in the hospital and I was alone in the house, refilling his food dish and emptying his litter box, Buttons just hid and sulked at first. He had never liked me much, and to be honest, the feeling was pretty mutual. He wasn’t cuddly or sweet with me, and he randomly sank his claws into my flesh. He would follow my mother into the kitchen anytime she passed through that room, crying loudly as if he were starving, as if he were wasting away, as if he weren’t a husky fourteen pound beast.
When my mom returned home, after a month of hospital and rehab, Buttons didn’t quite know what to think. She called for him, holding onto the porch railing and aiming her voice out and over the back yard. Then a rustling from beneath the hostas along the edge of the house. Buttons slunk slowly towards the sound of her voice, his tail low, creeping and then stopping and staring, first at me and then at Mom.
“It’s me, Buttons,” she coaxed. He fixed his wild yellow eyes upon her, and then looked at me. His stare said, “It doesn’t sound like the creature who feeds me. This one doesn’t sound raspy and phlegmy enough. I don’t believe it. Not my creature.” And he crept back into the hostas to continue what must have surely felt like a dream. The next day, once his creature’s smells and sounds and habits were assuredly confirmed by his secret feline checklist of existence, an express delivery of decapitated birds, mice, shrews, and baby bunnies resumed. The most unfortunate gift from Buttons was the dead chipmunk, Mom’s favorite garden visitor. How mysterious that he up and left just as her health has returned, I thought. Perhaps he felt his job of protecting and sustaining her was complete.
“You eat here often?” my mother asked the lady on the bench, and they chatted just a while longer. I spied a bench in the shade further down the hedge.
“Maybe we could sit down there and maybe the chipmunk will come and sniff at our ankles,” I suggested. We decided to give that a try.
From the bench in the shade, where we hoped to encounter an alive chipmunk with its head firmly attached to its body, Mom surveyed the group under the pergola again. “No, they’re doing something, I’m sure of it,” she declared. “All of them looking on their phones. Maybe its a geocache kind of thing.”
See, it’s things like this that keep me on my toes. How does my mother know about geocaching? As I wondered this to myself, two men from the group broke off and headed in our direction. “Looks like you’ll have your chance to find out what they’ve been up to, Mom.”
“Now, what… what is it that you are all doing under there?” she asked, smiling in that way she does, when she strikes up conversations with total strangers in that way that she does and has always done, unselfconsciously.
“It’s Pokemon Go,” said one man, smiling at us from his bench.
I nodded. I’d heard of this game. “It’s like a treasure hunt game, but for collecting imaginary cartoon creatures,” I explained to Mom.
“Oh that’s neat! So how does it work?” she asked.
“It’s an app and it tells you when and where they’re going to pop up. So you can kind of plan ahead to find them and go on raids with people.”
The other guy looked up from his phone. “It’s fun because no one ever talks to each other anymore, you know? It’s like, this way you get to meet people and actually have a social experience, because that never happens anymore.”
I laughed. “Yeah, that never happens anymore. Except…” and I waved at them from our bench.
“No one looks each other in the eye or says hello anymore. It’s like, I wish it could go back to being like how it was when I grew up, when people would say hello to each other.” I looked at this guy. Was he aware that he was stating the opposite of reality in that moment?
“It’s funny,” I offered, “because like, here we are actually doing that, you know? I guess I try to not think of it as ‘everyone’ or ‘no one’, because that’s pretty black and white, and that’s not always what’s going on, you know what I mean?” This was my clumsy attempt to say to him, what you have decided upon is simply not the case. Here were are, a few people who don’t know each other who have just jumped into a conversation, the topic of which is that people who don’t know each other don’t jump into conversations. And isn’t that funny. And can we all laugh about that?
“You know, I’ve been playing Pokemon since I was in eighth grade, and now it’s like this fun social thing that I get to play, and meet people, and I get it, you want to come over here and judge me and be all pretentious, but you know what? I lost thirty pounds because of this game.” The guy who had been looking at his phone was leaning forward now, practically spitting with force and resentment.
“So you can just relax, you can just calm down over there,” he continued, and dove straight back into his phone.
“I can? I can relax now? Ok, thanks!” I looked at Mom and shrugged. “I’m just happy to be here with my mother, we’re celebrating twelve weeks of no cigarettes for her, and I’m just really happy about that.”
“That’s why I put out my cigarette, to come sit over here,” the angry guy said. It struck me as odd, that this guy was so firmly fixed in his individual experience that every offering made in this exchange was instantly and completely about him. It felt like speaking to someone on the other side of a wall.
The smiling man laughed one of those knowing laughs and looked at his angry friend and back at us. “I got into Pokemon Go because of my kid, but she doesn’t play it anymore, and now I’m into it.”
“There goes one right now, right behind you, do you see him? It’s a chipmunk!” Mom called out. The smiling man turned to look. The angry man seemed to take pleasure in ignoring her. She was playing her own actual, real life version of Pokemon Go, based on nature and mammals and plants and things that actually exist. Would pointing any of that out to these guys be interesting to them? Would they take it as an insult? As a judgement? Would the angry guy think that I was being pretentious by pointing out that we were sitting in the nation’s oldest municipal rose garden, a gift given by over a century of philanthropic nature lovers, whose only wish was that people would sit in it and simply enjoy it for its own, beautiful sake?
“Oh well, that’s just what I like to do, and I like to make a game of it,” Mom smiled, ignoring all of the previous disturbing comments. This angry guy was simply no match for her. Mom’s ability to pave over bitter accusations and unstable emotional outbursts is absolutely unrivaled. The only person less flappable than my mother was her father, who could sit and quietly enjoy watching an entire golf tournament while my grandmother ranted and raged throughout the house. “I like to say hello to people I don’t know.”
“Yeah, she’ll talk to anyone,” I laughed. The vibrations of the angry guy’s words were still hanging in the humid air. Ever since working the Tenth Step, I can’t sit with that kind of vibration for very long.
“I’m very sorry you feel that way, that you feel judged about playing your game, that’s not what I intended,” I offered to the angry guy. He didn’t look up from his phone.
“Yeah, well, that’s all that I wanted to hear,” the guy said loudly, to his phone.
“Nowadays, it’s like no one knows the difference between right and wrong anymore,” the smiling friend continued, smiling and looking at us.
“Well, and the government right now is the perfect example of that,” my mother agreed, kicking the conversation into an arena that felt like going from the frying pan straight into the fire.
“I’m a total independent, I’m not affiliated with any party whatsoever,” the smiling guy proclaimed proudly. My stomach turned. “And it’s like, everyone is moving so fast nowadays, here in Connecticut even, it’s like, everyone’s moving as fast as a New York minute.
“Not this one, not her,” Mom laughed and patted my hand. “She’s in California!” The smiling guy’s smile dimmed.
“Now what is that grass over there, it looks like it is practically cascading, do you see that?” Mom pointed behind the men.
“Mmm,” I agreed. It was practically cascading. Light green long blades, lush and waving, not having any use for things like blame or ego. Ah, to be as cascading as that, to be as letting go as that, to be as flexible as that. Yes, yes, yes.
“I think we’re going to have to go and investigate what that stuff is,” she exclaimed. “Shall we?”
“Absolutely,” I agreed. And as we passed the men, I said, “Congratulations on losing all that weight.” The smiling friend said, “I lost a bunch too!”
“Ah,” laughed my mother, “Well, that is just terrific.”
Sarah Elovich is a writer, performer and humorist based in Oakland, CA.