What Goes Around


Mom is 90 and she hasn’t a tremor in her limbs. Her mind is still sharp and her memory is as good as ever. She complains about all the meds, but there are only nine (and as far as I can tell, none of them are crucial). I hope to age as well.

That’s not to say she’s easy. My mother is as judgmental and impatient and harsh as ever. She’s been without Dad’s filtering for a decade now, and she’s experienced what appears to be the condensation of old age, when personalities become more concentrated and inward-facing. So she can be tiresome, petulant, obnoxious, and simultaneously caustic and cold. She tests my patience.

She still travels. She takes a tour once or twice a year. Her companion is dear old Gussie, whose late husband was Dad’s closest friend. The two couples were close throughout their prime, and the widows now reside in the same retirement complex. Mom and Gussie eat dinner together (with selected others) three times a week at their residence, and they are each other’s regular date for Sunday night, when the place doesn’t serve a meal.

Every time they return from a tour, Mom declares that it’s the last one she’s going to take with Gussie. She doesn’t mean it in an enduring way; she always comes around and agrees to the next tour plan, but she loads my ears with Gussie-complaints. It’s like when she used to say “never again” after my ex-patriate brother (and family) would visit for a month in the summer, throwing towels on the floor and otherwise abusing her hospitality. And then she’d open her home to them again the next year, for the same sort of visit.

Mom complains about Gussie’s tardiness (“I have to tell her we need to be somewhere half an hour before we really do, or we’d be late all the time”), her memory loss (“I can’t believe how often I have to remind her about things we’ve already discussed”), and her hearing (“It’s getting to where I have to do all the talking, make all the arrangements, for both of us”).

I know. I know. Harsh complaints. I’ve worked with some disabled individuals in my time, and have experienced the inconvenience. I had to open all doors, carry most stuff, slow down, and/or do all the talking to others. Yes, it’s a bit of a drag. But it’s nothing compared to what the individual endures all the time. And it’s just not okay to express the complaint. But Mom doesn’t suppress herself. She subscribes to the philosophy that if she feels love in her heart (or an absence of ill-will), then it’s okay to say whatever enters her mind.

I don’t think she’s complained to Gussie. Even with the hearing loss, Gussie may have overheard.

But that’s not the idea I had last week, right before the old women left on a tour of eastern Canadian cities, Mom asserting that this would be the last time with Gussie. No, my penetrating glimpse into the obvious went something like this: Mom talks like she’s the only one with a problem in the relationship. Mom doesn’t seem to imagine that Gussie might find her an imperfect travel companion. Why is Mom so aware of her own complaints and deaf, dumb, blind, and unimaginative about any complaints Gussie might have about her?

Really. My mother is hard to take. She’s abrupt and judgmental. She uses words like “nonsense” and “stupid” just like my son-in-law uses “shit:” as a catch-all from a vocabulary-challenged individual. At best, Mom collects compliments about how good she looks for her age, how much she just accomplished, and what a character she is. She notes those. She never catches the facial and verbal expressions about her cruelty.

So, yeah, I’m sure Gussie has her issues with Mom. But I can also generalize the chemistry. I’ll bet that the combination of respect, contempt, love and disapproval I feel for my son-in-law is mirrored in his feelings about me. I’m sure my brother, who irritates me weekly, is just as frustrated by me as I am by him. I’m developing a theory.

We humans have more than five senses. We own a sense of place: where the body is positioned relative to surfaces and itself. And we have a nonverbal sense about others. We know when someone is staring at us across a room. We can tell when someone on a bus is reading over our shoulder from two rows back. I submit that we can read another’s emotional reaction to us, and that encourages us to respond in kind.

I decided to share my theory with my best friend Cass. She has issues with her brother-in-law. His name is Jeff and he’s been married to Cass’s sister for almost 40 years. Jeff and Cass have a decent relationship. He’s a good man. Cass “loves him to pieces, but…” he drives her nuts. She says he’s a know-it-all. She complains that he condescends to her. A couple of weeks ago, when she and he and her sister were hosting a visiting cousin, Cass says she tried to advise Jeff about a driving route. They were traveling through her part of Oakland, where there’s been all kinds of recent road work, and from the back seat she tried to tell Jeff which street to take. At first he acknowledged her words and may even have been listening. When he didn’t make the lane change she expected, she reiterated her advice. Cass says he snapped at her.

It hurt her feelings. She even commented to her sister and cousin, when they arrived at the restaurant and Jeff was parking the car, apologizing for causing tension, and both women reassured her, saying Jeff had been an asshole. That’s how she told me the story.

So the other afternoon, when we were walking across campus to our favorite bistro, I described Mom’s complaints with Gussie, and my theory about mutual contempt. Cass stopped walking. She looked at me with shining eyes (but that may have been her new, post-cataract lenses) and said, “That’s brilliant. You’re really onto something. Of course Gussie has complaints too.”

Then I tried to bring it home. I conjectured that my brother Gary has as many issues with me as I have with him. Then I said I’ll bet my son-in-law’s attitude toward me mirrors mine toward him. And I likened her relationship with Jeff to mine with my son-in-law. “I’ll bet Jeff feels a mixture of love and resentment toward you,” I offered. She agreed. I stepped further into it.

“I want to tell you something.” I said. “You know how much my brother Gary loves you. You guys get along great and he really enjoys spending time with you.” She nodded. “Well, I have to say: Gary has complained to me about your back-seat driving.”


“No. Really. Gary’s a good driver. But I’ve been in the car when you have gasped at a lane change from the back seat. Or recommended a route when he knows the roads better than you. It’s like if you gave me advice about how to write a sonnet. Surreal.”

“Wow.” Cass took a breath as we walked. “I never realized.”

“Yeah. So I’m guessing Jeff was annoyed when you suggested a driving route.”

“But my sister and cousin…”

“I know. They backed you up. Privately. I think that was the only way they could respond to your ‘apology.’”

She got it. I could tell Cass was listening.

I was satisfied. I liked it that she understood and agreed with the theory. But I was mostly proud of the way I delivered the message. I’m learning that the direct approach rarely works. It’s like bopping someone over the head with logic. Couching the subject in the anecdote about Mom got Cass in a narrative mood. Encouraged her to leave her ego out of the discussion. Made room for her to learn.

She got the message, but not the manner. Last night we met for a quick dinner in a local café and she told me about her interaction with Jeff, the day before.

Her sister is away at a spa, with girlfriends. Cass took Jeff out to lunch for his birthday. As they were enjoying coffee and shared cheesecake, she opened the subject.

“You know I love you,” she began, and I’ll bet he felt a little stab of apprehension, because no one starts a happy conversation that way. “But there’s no denying I get snippy with you sometimes. I don’t know what it is, but you can really push my buttons. And I know that you get annoyed with me at least as often as I do with you. It’s a mutual thing. I can’t tell you how to feel. But I want to say that I’d like to put that annoyance stuff behind me. Behind us. I think it’s time we acknowledged that we can each get on the other’s nerves, and found a way to stop it. Or at least laugh when it happens.”

Of course he agreed. According to Cass he appreciated her taking the initiative. She says they enjoyed the rest of their time together (a 15 minute drive to her place). She feels quite satisfied that she spoke up and cleared the air.

But I wonder. My BFF tends to grab the bull by the horns sometimes, and be so direct she’s almost in his face. She’s been known to speak with such assertiveness she’s been called draconian. I wonder if that’s one of the buttons she pushes on Jeff. He may just have had an ironic experience.

I’m not proposing indirectness, exactly. But the older I get, the more I appreciate suggestion instead of statement. And the more I notice how much everybody likes a story. If a point can be made with narrative, it tends to stick.

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