Miss Mary is my notoriously chatty mother-in-law. Although these days she remains pretty silent. Elderly people often do. Most days she spends her idle hours gazing out her family-room window, seated in a wheelchair, sipping from an insulated cup, in perfect quietude.
Today is no different. Our silence is only broken by the occasional sounds you often hear in an old woman’s house. A cat meowing. The faint music of Perry Como on the hifi, singing “For the Good Times.”
Mary’s hair is carnation white. Her eyes are brown. Today she wears a cashmere blouse that is only for visitors.
It’s almost hard to believe this woman can be so silent. Twenty years ago I remember this woman frequently telling her life story to various cashiers in the Piggly Wiggly. But today, however, the act of talking takes a grandiose effort. The late stages of COPD are not for wimps.
So we both remain quiet in Mary’s living room.
A cat purrs.
Perry Como is now singing “Papa Loves Mambo.”
Suddenly, our non-talking is interrupted when out of a clear sky Mary says: “Oh, I remember this song.”
Then she abruptly falls silent again. I give it a few moments to see if she says anything else. But nothing.
The clicking of a clock pendulum.
An air conditioner compressor kicks on.
The cat whines.
“Yes,” she goes on. “I used to have a forty-seven Ford with a radio, and this song always played. The Ford was gray, like a whale. My granddaddy gave the car to me when I was thirteen—thirteen—if you can just imagine.”
She laughs privately then coughs.
The refrigerator hums.
The ceiling fan is rattling faintly.
The cat is rubbing against my leg.
“Yeah, I started driving that car at sixteen. But I could never start that dumb engine, was too tricky to crank. Needed someone to do it for me.”
Mary’s face is overcome by an immediate smile.
“Heavens, it was quite a car, sometimes I’d get all my girlfriends together, six or seven of us, and we’d pile into that Ford, and I’d try to get the finicky engine started.
“Sometimes we’d try to start it by putting it in neutral and pushing it down the hill behind Mother and Daddy’s house. But it still wouldn’t crank. So all us girls would be coasting downhill, doors open, screaming, like we were about to wreck.
“My mother would find us at the bottom of the hill, stuck in that stupid car. She’d be so aggravated with us for acting so silly.”
The drone of a distant lawnmower.
The sound of a cat digging a preliminary hole in a litter box.
The sound of a cat filling this hole.
I notice Mary is staring into the middle distance. It’s almost as though her mind is weaving through another era. Her eyes are bright. She is grinning.
“Oh, I was so young. So very young. When I left Brewton for Huntingdon College, about ten of us girls said goodbye to our parents and piled into that old car and rode Highway Thirty-One all the way to Montgomery.
“That same day, we drove past a chain gang working on the side of the highway. We saw guards standing watch over the workers, holding shotguns, it was somewhere near Greenville. And all the young laborers were swinging pickaxes, wearing stripes.
“‘A chain gang!’ yelled one of my girlfriends. ‘Slow down!’
“So I slowed the car down. Then all my girlfriends started digging around in our pocketbooks.”
“What were they digging for?” I ask.
Mary laughs. “I’ll tell you what they were rummaging for. Our smokes. When we drove past the prisoners, we leaned out the windows and threw all our cigarettes to the prisoners and waved at them.
“Lord’a mercy, our cigarettes went flying like confetti, but we made their day. We bent out the windows and blew kisses to them and tried to make them smile. And we heard the prisoners cheer and holler back at us. We were so young. So pretty. So dumb.”
Paul Anka is singing, “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.”
The cat is still in the litter box, exhibiting symptoms of gastrointestinal distress.
Mary sighs and says, “I drove that car all through college. People in Montgomery knew my car when they saw me coming. Whenever the policemen saw me driving, they would halt traffic for me because they knew my piece-of-junk engine would stall and shut off at stop signs”
“The cops would stop traffic just for you?” I ask.
“Mmm-hmm. Blew their whistles and waved me forward with a wink. Montgomery was a different place back then.” She shakes her head. “The whole world was different then.”
Eddie Fisher is now singing “Dungaree Doll.”
The clock chimes.
The AC fan kicks off.
“That was a long time ago,” she says warmly, staring into a sun-filled window. “Long, long time ago.”
Mary’s skin is thinner than it used to be, flecked with dark spots and visible veins. Her arthritic hands have a difficult time grasping small objects. Life is getting harder. She is on oxygen. Hospice keeps tabs on her each day.
Yet she is smiling. It’s a unique smile that only the elderly are afforded. A smile that involves more than just one’s face. This particular smile is located within the chest region, and it indicates a life lived. A life filled with beauty, but also grief, humor, fun, joy, and loss.
“You know,” says Mary, “when I close my eyes at night, I’m still her. I’m still that same young girl inside.”
Then we go back to perfect silence.