Petra is a 70-year old yoga instructor who is nothing short of effervescent. She breezes by you as light on her feet as a five-year-old, and tiptoes across a balance bar as if it was the easiest thing imaginable. She likes ruffles and pretty things in her house, and she doesn’t care what other people think about it. She knows it’s not what some people call good design. The hell with them. She’s been listening to other people all her life, and she’s listened plenty, thank you.
Her voice becomes affected at a family gathering as she breaks out into a five-minute speech about her children annoying her. You can tell this is something she’s kept bottled up inside her, and it’s just now coming out. She can’t stop it, might as well try to stop a thundering herd of buffalo, and pretty soon she has laid it all out on the table, like a dining setting for ten, and there it is for everybody to look at.
“Well, Mother,” says Jamie her oldest son, the business auditor. They are gathered in his living room. There is not a ruffle to be seen. His wife made cucumber hummus sandwich bites that go down like slabs of wet drywall. He eats them anyway, but has to swallow before he can continue. “I had no idea you felt that way about us.”
“You could have seen it in my eyes, if you’d bothered to look,” says Petra.
“It’s impossible to know exactly what is going on in somebody’s head by looking through their eyes,” says Paul, her youngest son, the one who lives and breathes office supplies. “They’re not little windows into the brain. Look in my eyes. Can you see my brain? No. And even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to tell what I’m thinking. It’s not like a surgeon opens up somebody’s head, looks at the blob of brain, and says, ‘I see you’re wondering what to have for dinner. I have a great curry recipe you must try.’ No. You must make interpretations based on previous experience.”
“Oh Paul,” says Petra. “For all your knowledge, you’re my densest child. And I mean that in the nicest way. You have a little bit of slobber on your chin.”
He doesn’t, but Petra has ways to throw people off, and this is one that works fairly well. Paul wipes his chin with his sleeve, then feels his chin with his hand. It’s a stubbly chin, and people often use the word “jutting” to describe it, then take it back. Not really jutting. Maybe prominent.
“Mother, you’re not as sociable as you used to be,” says Elly, her middle daughter, the podiatrist.
“How would you know?” asks Petra. “You’re not around me all the time.”
“I never hear about you visiting anybody,” says Elly.
“Well of course I don’t tell you about my poker games and my guided city walks and my lunches and dinners and soirees. I’m afraid you’d show up.”
Elly coughs. The cucumber hummus sandwich bites are truly abominable, but that’s not what triggers the glottal spasm. She had been predicting that her mother would slide into dementia for the last ten years. She has shown up uninvited to her mother’s outings to question her friends and acquaintances about her mental faculties.
“I mean, honestly,” Petra continues. “You don’t know what embarrassment is until your daughter walks up to a man you’ve just met and right in front of your face asks him if she’s had any forgetful spells and how long they have lasted.”
“I’m just thinking about you, Mom,” says Elly. “It’s not easy for me either.”
“Do me a favor, think about the mayor instead.”
“Why, what’s wrong with the mayor?” asks Elly.
“I take it back. Paul is not my densest child. You are.”