Learning to Give Thanks

Learning to Give Thanks November 26, 2013

After my father’s death, about a dozen years ago, I picked up the habit of asking my mother to call or e-mail me the minute she and Bob return from an out-of-town trip. It doesn’t matter whether their itinerary includes a flight across the Atlantic or a drive across the George Washington Bridge. Like many Manhattanites, the two of them seem like rare flowers that draw their sustenance from concrete, so it’s a stretch to imagine them transplanting themselves, even for a few hours, without inviting disaster.

Both of them play along. My mother’s cooperation, I always assumed, came with a certain pride that I’d inherited her nerves of glass. One evening when I was about 14, I stepped into the hall to find her sprawled in front of the bathroom door like Maderno’s St. Cecilia. “You left your underwear on top of the laundry bag,” she hissed. “Again.” A few months later, on my first day of high school I wrote, “TODAY, I AM CAST INTO THE PIT” on a sheet of legal paper and taped it to the refrigerator door. Or so she swears. Shared neurosis was what made our little apartment feel like a home.

Over the years, my mother and Bob have turned into first-class world travelers. One year it’s Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, the next it’s Agra and Delhi. They send back digital slideshows of themselves caked with Dead Sea mud, or beaming over bowls of fried crickets as fish nibble the dead skin from their feet. They synchronized their slides of Brazil to Django Reinhardt and published the video over their own YouTube channel, so tens of thousands of people have seen them dressed as a Candomblé priest and priestess.

But this new adventuresome spirit failed to register with me until yesterday afternoon, after she and Bob had gotten back visiting her Uncle Butch in Hamilton Township. “Guess what?” she began. “Bob and I didn’t get to see Uncle Butch, but we got to take a very exciting ride in a tow truck.”

She sounded bright as a button, so it took me a minute to get it. I didn’t know whether to feel horrified at the thought of my 69-year-old mother in a wreck, or astonished at the thought of a George Eliot scholar in a utility vehicle. As I weighed my options, she continued in the same cucumber-sandwiches voice: “Yes, indeed! Bob’s car broke down just after we’d turned off the — what do you call that enormous highway in New Jersey that leads south through the bad-smelling parts?”

“The Turnpike?”

“Yes! Such a name! Bob’s work makes him carry a cell phone, so he was able to call Triple-A. We only had to wait for a few minutes before a very nice man came in a tow truck and drove us to the mechanic. He turned out to be right around the corner, so it was like getting sick in front of a hospital.”

At hearing the words “Bob” and “cell phone” spoken in the same sentence, my imagination seized up again. Bob cares less for technology than any other mechanical engineer on earth. Until practically yesterday, his home Internet connection was dial-up. He roller-bladed to work in all seasons until a limousine came within inches of mashing him flat on Riverside Drive.

For his Shaker-like simplicity, my mother had loved him. She refused till 1994 to allow an answering machine in her home, explaining, “If you’re not there when the phone rings, you don’t deserve the call.” First Bob complicated their lives with a car, now he’d doubled down with a cell phone, and my mother, playing Neville Chamberlain, had done absolutely nothing to stop it.

Now she was describing the Meineke Car Care Center like it was the Angkor Wat. “They had so many magazines, Max — so many. They let you read them while you wait, and I realized for the first time in my life that I’d never really read through an issue of Architectural Digest. And when I was done with that, I read through a Rolling Stone, and then an Inc. And then the car was fixed, but it was getting late for Uncle Butch — Bob called him; he wasn’t worried — so we drove home. And we’re keeping all the lox and prosciutto and biscotti we’d gotten him from Zabar’s and eating it ourselves on Thanksgiving.

“And that,” she said serenely, “was our adventure.”

Maybe it was the thought of her guilt-free eating — in a piece for Salon’s food section, I’d described her as a “woman of high and inflexible principles, who didn’t believe in food.” Or maybe it was hearing her utter the word Inc., which sounded like Inked, the title of a tattoo magazine, and made me imagine her getting full sleeves of the characters in Middlemarch. Either way, I could no longer contain myself.

“Who are you, you insouciant woman?” I demanded. “My mother does not think private citizens should be entrusted with motor vehicles. She does not hang around auto-repair shops, leafing through magazines like a common hoodlum. Her father managed a service station; she spent years in psychoanalysis. The very sight of a name like ‘Chip’ embroidered on a pair of coveralls should trigger some repressed memory that should reduce her to tears.

“In fact,” I said. “My mother can’t so much as step foot in the state of her birth without being prostrated by existential dread. So, please, madam, let’s keep this amicable. Put my mother on the phone, and I won’t involve the police.”

By this time, we were both nearly choking with laughter. But I was genuinely afraid. The mother I’d known forever, whose image I’d engraved in my mind and heart as a model for decent human behavior, had evolved or mutated out of existence. In a sense, my worst fear, orphanhood, had come to pass.

The stranger on the other line seemed to feel the gravity of the situation. After a long pause she said, “Now that I’ve lived for this many extra years, avoiding the disasters that kept me up nights worrying, and surviving the small setbacks that did come my way, I’m finally learning to see the bright side of things. I count my blessings now. We could have broken down on the Turnpike. Bob’s cell phone signal could have faded. The mechanics could have been rude or dishonest. We cold have had to hitchhike and been picked up by a serial killer. I could still be living in New Jersey and making day trips to New York. Listen to me – I’m getting morbid. Does that make you happy? Shall I go on?”

“Yes, please.” I said.

She sighed. I could tell she was racking her brains. Finally, she said, “It could have been raining, it could have been snowing. I’m afraid that’s all I have. Read W.S. Merwin’s ‘Thanks.’ I assign it to my students. I’ll talk to you next week. I love you.”

She made a kissy-noise and hung up. I found the poem online:

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you…

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

It read like a mashup of psalms: Happy are we who cry from the depths. The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; may all people praise you, God! It made me reflect that, sure enough, it is nice to be alive and have nerves to feel stress with and words to say so with. A pit isn’t such a bad place to be cast if you’ve got all those nations in there with you…

Good grief, listen to me. This is my brain on poetry. I still don’t know how my mother transformed herself from Virginia Woolf into the Happy Wanderer right under my nose; maybe it’s a Buddhist thing. But giving thanks is a proper Christian thing, and on this holiday it’s an all-American thing. Now, while I’m still under the spell of W.S. Merwin, I’ll do it, and hope I’m still welcome later.

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