David Whyte’s poem reminds me that Everything is Waiting for You. That it’s a great mistake to act the drama as if you are alone, to feel abandoned despite the intimacy of those around you. That it’s a mistake for us to believe that while we each have a solo voice, we aren’t part of a larger chorus. It is said that we are all one, each a solitary cog in this inexplicable quagmire of a machine. Humans. Nature. The Universe.
And yet. One can swoon at the swell of the ocean, but it can’t swoon back. A tree can’t really hug. Sometimes the only sound one hears is her own foot on the pavement, maybe an even strong step, but single file.
Being alone in a pandemic is claustrophobic.
I’ve been thinking of my exmotherinlaw, alone in a nursing home; like everyone in her situation, she’s unable to have visitors. The residents are now sequestered in their rooms, even for meals. What gives the day a shape, when there is no place to go, no one to see, no one with whom to share a word? When you might not know why your son and daughter no longer show up, and wonder if they just stopped caring about you?
I was never fond of my exmotherinlaw, and the feeling was mutual. The first time I met her, she gave me a quick once over, me in my jean skirt and embroidered top, her in a crisp, belted, whitecollared dress, that might have poofed like Marilyn Monroe’s had she walked over an air vent. She was in full make up, including eyeshadow and eyebrow pencil at 3 in the afternoon. Did I sense disapproval then?
Perhaps I felt her disdainful eye, or maybe it was hope, when she gave me a perfect set of cultured pearls, nestled in a black leather flapped box with a magnetic clasp, the type that glides shut effortlessly. Those pearls looked so elegant, so expensive, perfect for a new debutante or Disney princess. It was a thoughtful gift, except that I wasn’t a girl who wore pearls, so the box has been in my top dresser drawer, hidden underneath my socks, for several decades. Those pearls were for a different daughterinlaw, not the one she got.
My motherinlaw had a way of making order of the world, of trying to assure that things were just the way she wanted them to be. Her wine and aperitif crystal was lined like chess pieces, the tall glasses: kings in the back. If I put a piece in the wrong place, she’d chastise me and then move it: Checkmate. Her schedule was similarly ordered: deep house cleaning on Mondays, grocery shopping on Tuesdays, bridge at the Jewish Community Center on Wednesdays. The same schedule for forty years.
In her garage she had a stockpile in preparation for Y2K or the pandemic none of us ever really saw coming. There was no room for the car, as tables were stacked with dozens of rolls of paper towels and toilet paper and boxes of Diet Coke. We could use all that now.
I wasn’t as compliant as the wine glasses, or her grocery store hoard.
During this time when we are all sequestered, I think of my exmotherinlaw often, in her room alone at the nursing home. I wonder what she sees or notices, whether there are nesting birds outside her window, whether her window even opens to the upcoming spring breezes. I wonder whether anyone has left her beloved Boston Globe outside her door, or if she even has any interest in reading it.
If my motherinlaw were allowed visitors, I’d like to open that black magneticflapped box and put on these translucent pearls, preferably draped over a pressed floral blouse. But, of course, I don’t own a blouse like that. Pearls on, I would drive to Wellesley and surprise her for a visit. I haven’t talked to Vivienne in almost ten years, but I’ve been thinking about her, wanting to let her know that I didn't really abandon her, although I’m sure it seems that way. If I could, I’d visit, to help alleviate the claustrophobia of this pandemic. I can visualize her, lips upturned in approval, at the sight of me wearing her pearls.