“Howard Hughes is dead, Ma,” I tell her for the third time today. “I know you’re mad he sold the airline, but he got his just desserts — he died.” She isn’t sure whether I’m lying to her or not, but it doesn’t really matter — she’ll forget he’s dead and bring it up again in an hour or so. Trust Howard to be resurrected every two hours.
The Howard thing is just her way of being anxious. She’s afraid Matt won’t show up. She won’t say this, probably because she can’t remember his name — calls him “that kid” — but that’s what it is. She’s been afraid he wouldn’t show up ever since he wrote to us that he’d be flying in today. Well, he wrote to me, because Mother doesn’t get e-mail. She’s still not sure how he found her, or who he is, or what he wants; I’ve explained it to her over and over, but it doesn’t stick very well. Still, it’s so much better than talking about her cremation plans and whether I want the gold out of her teeth — a few of her favorite alternate subjects.
“That kid” isn’t that far off, either, as it turns out. The first few letters we exchanged, I had no idea Matt was only 32. Restoring an old airplane seemed like much more a hobby for an older man. That’s what I assumed when the first e-mail came.
“I read about your mother on an aviation history site,” Matt wrote. “I am restoring an old Stinson Gullwing, and I would like to know if she flew one. Is she still alive?”
Well, that was a good question, I thought crossly. My mother had been the farthest thing from my mind that particular morning. Unusual, because she’d been taking up more and more of my thoughts — and my time and energy. But that morning I’d had a fight with my daughter on the phone, a bad one, and I was trying to remember where I’d put my directory of meetings. I needed a meeting. “We didn’t ask you for Thanksgiving dinner because of how the last one went, ” Cheryl had said. “I know you’ve been doing really well this year, Mother, and we’re proud of you, but I just felt it would be better if we didn’t put you through that.”
“Oh, come on, sweetie, you can’t bullshit an old bullshitter. You don’t want to put YOURSELF through it. And don’t say you’re proud of me, it makes me feel like some sort of recalcitrant child. This has nothing to do with you at all.” I’d made my amends — done that step months ago. Would I have to keep doing it and doing it and doing it? I didn’t really care about Thanksgiving, but I did care that they kept trying to take care of me, treating me like the littlest bump would toss me right off the wagon.
“I was afraid you’d take it that way, Mother. This is the kind of thing I’m just trying to avoid. We’ll have you another time, when there are less people there, and it can be just us.” And when they won’t serve wine, I thought. And started looking for my list of AA meetings. When I couldn’t find it on the desk, which was littered with unanswered correspondence and unpaid bills, I went online and started looking for a site I remembered had the list. That’s when Matt’s e-mail arrived.
So was my mother still alive? It was a good question, kind of a stopper. I’d just been through it again with her earlier in the week.
“Ma, you’d like the Springs. I know you would. It’s not the old bingo-and-tapioca stuff. People do things, they go places. You’d have things you could do, but you wouldn’t have to. You’d have your own apartment.”
“I don’t like old people, they’re nasty. I want to die in my own house.”
“But you aren’t happy here.”
“I wouldn’t be happy there, either.”
She was dying, slowly, in that house — dying for no reason I could see. Just wasting, in a slow irritating slide, not really clinging to anything. It didn’t much matter to her if I changed her sheets or I didn’t, mopped the floors or left them alone. She never remembered that I’d been there, preferring to think that I never came. Every hour was pretty much a slate wiped clean these days.
It was as though she’d silently gotten finished with something, and never told us.
I wrote Matt that she was still living, although not in very good health. I asked him about the plane, and told him that I’d ask her what she knew, but not to count on her memories. And I thought about whether she was still alive, really, and what being alive meant, and wondered whether talking about airplanes would spark her interest in something. And I didn’t have the drink I wanted, not that hour, not the next, not that day.
Matt — it turned out — knew something about mothers.
I’m sorry your mother’s not in good health. I know that’s hard. Mine died last year. She had cancer. I still miss her.
Yeah, I guess I felt a little bit that way too. I was going through a lot, that was when I lost my job. I was kind of pissed off at her for being so sick right then. I knew she couldn’t help it, but I just wanted her to get well for a while until I could handle her being sick, you know?
She hadn’t gotten better, though — she’d gone on and died, and left Matt living in the house by himself — but with enough money to buy the old Stinson Gullwing he’d found parked in a field alongside the local county airport. He wrote that airplanes and photography had always been his two loves, and that now he thought he could do both. Hartwing Aerial Photography was being assembled, bit by slow bit.
“I found a cowling in Minnesota — it’s on its way here!” he wrote. “He has the cowling now,” I told my mother, as I picked the used Kleenex up off the floor. “Who?” she asked.
She did remember the Gullwing, though. I typed her recollections verbatim, and sent them to him.
I flew one out of Roosevelt Field on Long Island. They were wonderful airplanes. We had a beautiful Gullwing. It didn’t belong to me, it belonged to the hangar I flew from. Do you know how many years ago that was? Roosevelt Field is a shopping mall now. I don’t know what became of the aircraft. I thought it was the most beautiful airplane that was ever built and it flew like an angel. It cost 15 dollars an hour and in those days fifteen dollars an hour was a lot of money, and when I could afford it I flew it. It was a beautiful; beautiful aircraft…I wonder what became of it. I didn’t do very much flying in it, I was usually a passenger…a co-pilot…because I couldn’t afford it. Fifteen dollars was a week’s salary, but when I could do it I rented it. I went a lot of places in that aircraft. I handled the navigation and the radio. Gray Kitten was the name of the aircraft, I knew I’d remember. She was gray and blue. She was a dream to fly, an absolute dream. It was a wonderful aircraft. Everybody that flew Gray Kitten was in love with that aircraft. I can’t tell you how many meals I missed so I could fly her. I was a tail-wagger, anytime someone wanted someone to go somewhere and wanted some ballast, I was available, I couldn’t afford to fly, really. Whoever this guy is, tell him it was the smoothest, easiest airplane to fly, anyone who ever touched the controls fell in love with that Stinson. God, that was a long time ago. So many of the pilots that flew it are dead, it’s been a while. I was just a kid.
Matt kept in touch as he assembled his beloved plane all summer; we wrote of planes, and photography, and a little bit about mothers. Matt was hopeful that there was a good enough market for aerial photography that he’d be able to make a living at it; I picked up a camera for the first time in years. I’d forgotten how absorbing photography could be. I entered three photographs in the County Fair, and won a second place with one of them.
I wanted to take my mother to see them, but she didn’t want to go. Cheryl went, though, and said they looked good.
The anniversary of Matt’s mother’s death came and went. I wouldn’t have known, but he mentioned it afterward — said he’d been busy working on some sheet metal, and hadn’t thought about it much. It was the same day I decided to stop paying the bill for my mother’s cable television, which she didn’t watch and really didn’t even know she had.
I asked Matt out for that next Thanksgiving, but he didn’t think he’d have his plane in the air yet, and he didn’t want to spend the money on an airplane ticket. I thought he might also have had other plans, even though he didn’t say so. He’d mentioned a girl, not by name, but as a friend he’d taken to an airshow a few weeks before. I held a refugee Thanksgiving, cooking a small turkey myself and inviting friends from the program to potluck the rest. We had an odd assortment of food — jello molds and taramasalata — and a sweet assortment of friends, drinking cranberry juice from burgundy glasses, laughing, relaxed. We were probably all headed somewhere different, but we’d also been in the same places — it was family in a new way that I was coming to understand. Matt really wasn’t a refugee any more, and my mother preferred to be home by herself. Cheryl had called.
“So are you coming for Thanksgiving this year?”
“Nope. I’m cooking for friends here.”
Pause. “Oh, Mom, is this because of last year? I don’t see why you’re still mad about that. Even you have to admit you kind of ruined the one before. Can’t you get past it? Everybody said they wanted to have you. Ren said he wanted you to bring those angel rolls you do.”
Angel rolls; sweet Mother of Christ. “Honey, if Ren wants the angel rolls, I’ll give you the recipe. I’m not mad, and this isn’t about you. I just want to host a dinner for my friends, and that’s what I’m doing.”
“Well, if you change your mind, call me. We’ll always have room. Thanksgiving is supposed to be about family, you know, Mom.”
I did know.
She’s done. She’s done and flying. We took her up for a checkride last week, and she’s just like your mother said she’d be.
I got my mother to go to a luncheon at the Springs the next month. It was one of those sales tours, hosted by a very nice woman in a red blazer who looked like a real estate agent — and of course she was, selling a small safe corner of the universe to people who weren’t planning on hanging around much longer. Or, more accurately, to their anxious progeny.
“Oh, this is beautiful,” my mother said.
“I thought you’d like it.” She’d always loved hotels, loved the luxury of room service. We walked very slowly through the lobby, which was violently floral, and featured chalkboards with menus and activity schedules. We visited the library. Mother was charming, and admired the piano, and the tablecloths, and the chandeliers. I knew partway through the luncheon that she’d forgotten where exactly we were, and why.
“What do you think, Ma?”
“It’s very nice.”
“Do you think you could live here?”
“Live here?” She was puzzled. “No, I wouldn’t live here — why would I want to do that? I have a house.” Then she frowned, clearing. “Is that what this is all about? Are you on that kick again? I’ve already told you, I’m not moving.”
The sales agent smiled brightly, and changed the subject. “Did you see the rose gardens yet? They’re not in bloom this time of year, but you can imagine how they look in the spring.” Later, she took me aside and told me, “We have many residents who feel that way at first. They really do get over it. We’re used to hearing these things.” She had teeth like a shark, and I wondered if she really knew anything about wanting to finish your own life in your own way, or if she only knew about women like Dottie, who was 100 years old and stone deaf and allowed herself to be presented to us like a Springs trophy.
I took the contract packet, and laid it carefully on the back seat of my car, and drove Mother home.
In the spring, when the roses would be blooming at The Springs if we’d been there to see them, another e-mail came:
“I have a contract out your way next month. It’s in Camden. I could get down and visit, if you wanted, and show you Gray Kitten. Maybe your mother would want to see her, too.”
The menu for the airport cafe is pretty limited. They serve wine, but not hard liquor; after an hour in the car with my mother, the thought of a drink comes unbidden, sudden. I’m tough enough now to allow that thought in: “I really want a drink,” and to know it’s just a feeling, not a fact. I can let it go and order coffee, my second drug of choice. Mother says she’s too nervous to eat.
She doesn’t walk very well, and she needs my arm to steady her. It feels odd to have this much contact with her, but when she reaches for me, I give her my arm. She’s such a lightweight these days, little frail bird-bones.
“I’m Matt,” he says. He holds out a hand. “I’m so glad to meet you, Mrs. Aldrich.”
“Penny,” my mother says. “Call me Penny — they always did when I was flying.” Penny. I haven’t heard that before. Penny — my mother was called Penny. She’s taking this young man’s hand, she’s let go of my arm and she’s standing quite steady — and she’s smiling. “That’s a beautiful aircraft you have.”
Matt turns around to look at the plane — the aircraft; my mother has never called them planes — and smiles. “Yes.” he says. “She is.” He says nothing for a moment, and I get nervous — has the plan changed? Has he changed his mind somehow?
“Penny, would you like to go for a ride?”
Nobody says anything at all for a very long minute. I look at my mother’s face, and I see the most incredible thing. I see hope. Raw, naked hope, more real than anything I have seen or felt in a long time. Her eyes are wide and I can see that they’re brimming, and I can see that she is trying not to let them spill over, and I can feel that she wants to talk but doesn’t trust her voice, doesn’t trust that this is real, that Matt will really take her. I see her swallow, and it makes me swallow too. “Mom?”
She turns that naked look on me. “Mom. Go on — it’s okay. He wants to take you.”
She still doesn’t speak, but she reaches for him. He offers his arm in a kind of an old-world courtly gesture, and she takes it. She doesn’t say goodbye, doesn’t say anything at all. I know why. I can feel it. She’s going, back to the skies of so long ago, in an aircraft of her past. They say you can’t go home again, but she is, she’s going. I watch her go, watch the two of them walk across the tarmac. He boosts her up into the right seat. I can just see the fluffy edges of white hair through the tiny window as she settles in, and I watch him hop down and walk around the plane; he waves to me as he rounds the tail. Then I watch them taxi out; I have to shade my eyes with my hand, because the sun is in them, making them smart. The little gray Stinson taxis down toward the runway, and turns on a dime at the end. It sits there, running up the engines, for a moment it’s as still as if it’s parked. Then Matt lets up the brake, and the little plane goes, faster and faster down the runway until the nosewheel lifts, and in a roaring soaring swoop my mother is off, up into her skies.