A Woman to the Last

It was August and balmy. We were at the Sherwood Inn in Skaneateles, New York − an old stage coach stop, preserved in this upscale Finger Lakes town as a meeting place for young and old, single and married and yes, even widowed. My father had died the last day of June the summer before. I was here on this Friday night with my mother, attempting to help fill her companionless evenings. We were served dinner in the pub part of the restaurant with my friend Cheryl.

Cheryl and I had been blessed with over twenty years of friendship and laughter. Over the years, Mother had played a role as sage and counselor for Cheryl and her sister Pat, as they escaped some of their father's 'craziness'. At one point, when they came in search of refuge, Mother calmed them, sharing what was news to me: her own husband's 'crazy moments'. She talked the girls through what she called 'male menopause' telling them it could be survived.

I listened, putting my own father's 'craziness' together with events that matched things Mother was sharing with Cheryl and Pat. I remembered that upon his return from a particular business trip, Dad brought gifts to each of us, not a usual practice at all. For many years I held onto the small plastic Washington, D.C. pin, never knowing it symbolized not only a visit to our nation's capitol but also an ultimatum from Mother, she revealed later, that he stay away until he could control what she deemed to be harmful emotional displays.

On this night, at the Sherwood, there was no talk of fathers or craziness, yet we were aware of Dad's absence and I was growing more aware of the impact of that loss on my mother, who for all her independence, had counted on his presence for so much. Their Friday night ritual of going out to dinner was difficult to replicate. They had a
routine for many years of going to the Westwood, a neighborhood restaurant filled with booths and low lighting, familiar waitresses, food, friends and drinks. His, a Gibson Martini with House of Lords Gin; hers, a shot of Canadian Club, a glass of ice and a small glass of milk.


On this night, we chose not to attempt to replicate the ritual but rather to do something different, something refreshing – thus, the lake. After dinner, Cheryl and I ordered coffee and Mother, another of her signature CC drinks. The crowd was sizeable and as the lights lowered, the room softened and the band moved into the spotlight. Our chatter slowed and we surveyed the crowd. Cheryl spotted an older, well-dressed man, across the room who was alone. "I think he's looking," she said lightly to Mom. Expecting Mother to dismiss Cheryl's observation out of hand, I was stunned when she excused herself, picked up her handbag and sashayed to the Ladies room. Why this sudden exit? She had a bladder of iron. I chuckled inwardly, almost embarrassed to share my suspicion: Mother was about to flirt.

Within a few minutes, she returned, her lipstick freshened and her sashay a bit overdone. She passed our table and with two more steps was standing at the table of the man Cheryl pointed out. I watched as she leaned toward him, standing on one foot, her red purse dangling over her arm. She was wearing another of her navy blue pant suits, this one with a red, white and blue blouse and matching navy sneakers. Her baby fine hair, colored frivolous fawn, was combed back from her forehead, her most recent perm holding it neatly in place.

I ached for her as I watched, afraid she'd be hurt, afraid she'd embarrass herself, suspecting that her vulnerable widowed self was still grieving. At age thirty-five, I'd had enough experience with similar scenes of my own, to worry about the outcome. She was seventy-two years old and an attractive woman. Her hazel eyes had a sparkle that defied any need for eye make up and her skin remained firm, Pond's Cold Cream, her proclaimed secret. She was petite and though her waistline protruded a bit, she had a lilt in her step that showed vibrancy and vigor.

The longer she stayed at his table, the more I found myself not wanting to look, afraid, like watching a train wreck, of what I'd see. I was glad Cheryl was here as witness and buffer. I felt naked in public...