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Ma

[Chapter 21 of the novel The Family Man]

The Family ManFrom the elevator they step into a rose-hued hallway. Every few yards, wet paint warnings are taped to moldings. “Benjamin Moore’s ‘Rhubarb,’” Todd says, then stops, sniffs, evaluates. “I don’t think they used the oil-based.”

“You’re stalling,” says Henry.

“You try it! You take a baseball bat and whack a hornet’s nest that has been co-coexisting peaceably under the eaves of your house. See how you like it.”

Henry gives Todd’s neck a friendly shake. “C’mon. You know you’ve wanted to have this conversation for decades.”

Their destination is 6G, three doors away. Upon arrival, Todd takes no action except to close his eyes.
“Do we ring the doorbell?” Henry asks.

Todd takes a ring of keys from his pocket and opens the door. Four careful steps into the apartment he calls, “Ma? You up? I’m back.”

A little woman, five feet tall and shaped like a Jersey tomato, comes into view. She is wiping her hands on a striped dishtowel and smiling uncertainly. “You must be Henry,” she says. She is wearing a quilted bathrobe, mauve and opalescent, which still has its gift-box creases.

“It is, and he made me call,” Todd says dolefully. “Lillian Weinreb, Henry Archer.”

“I’m the mother,” she answers, and takes the hand Henry offers.

“I guess we should sit down,” says Todd.

“What can I get you?” asks Lillian.

“Vodka on the rocks,” says Todd. “But I’ll get it. Henry?”

“Is a cup of tea too much trouble?”

“What a goody-goody,” says Todd.

“Put some Congo bars on a plate, hon.” Lillian leads Henry into a parlor that appears to be half Todd and half Mom. Its walls are a deep earth brown with stark white trim; the furniture is ice blue sateen. Henry sees Gracious Home in the periwinkle mohair throw and the phalanx of candles on the mantel. An oil painting of a mother, father, and sailor-suited boy hangs above an immaculate white-brick fireplace.
“Your family?” Henry asks, pointing.

“The summer before Todd started school. ” She motions toward the sofa. Henry sits down, back straight, hands folded in his lap. He notices her slippers, elf-wear, toes crescenting upwards, embroidered with forget-me-nots. “Toddy! Bring a tray table,” she yells.

“You’re not his doctor, are you?” she asks Henry.

“Did you say doctor?”

She leans forward. “When your son calls and says he has something important he wants to discuss with you and he’s bringing a friend, your imagination can go a little crazy. You think the worst.”

Henry offers reassurance at the same time he is thinking, maybe Todd does know his mother; maybe her “worst” is a son bringing home a boyfriend.

“Because if Todd felt a lump somewhere, he wouldn’t tell me. He’d go to the doctor during his lunch hour, and he’d keep everything to himself until he was in intensive care. That’s the kind of thing a mother thinks about when the phone rings after nine o’clock.”

“It isn’t my place to reassure you, but–”

Todd enters the room with two mugs, his drink, and a plate of cookies on a tray. “I got you a ginger tea, Ma.”

She accepts the mug and asks, “Is it your health?”

“Is what my health?”

“The thing you need to talk to me about.”

Todd sits down next to Henry on the sofa and says, “No, it’s not my health.”

“Are you sure? Because I think you’d hide it from me. You might figure I’d go first so why burden me with bad news.”

“Ma, I’m fine. I’m healthy as a horse. My blood pressure is ninety over sixty. My good cholesterol is in the eighties.”

Lillian’s lower jaw is quivering. “Are you sure?”

“Positive. Call Dr. Gordon.”

Henry nods his encouragement.

“Thank God!” She fans her face and manages a smile. “So now, tell me anything. I won’t care. See how health puts everything in perspective?”

Todd says, “Okay. Jumping right in….First let me say that I can’t really explain why it’s taken this long–”

“I can tell you why,” Lillian says calmly. “You thought I’d be worried day and night because of the AIDS epidemic.”

“Jesus,” says Todd. “Ma, didn’t we skip a major chunk of this conversation?”

Henry says, “She connected the dots in her own head. Now you have to reassure her.”

“I don’t have AIDS, Ma.”

“You think you don’t, or you got yourself tested?”

“Ma–no AIDS, no HIV.”

Lillian puts her mug down on the ottoman at her feet, covers her face with her hands and releases a wail.

“See,” says Todd. “Did I need this?”

“I think you have it wrong,” says Henry. “I think those are tears of relief.”

Todd says, “I forgot the tray table.” He leaves the room and comes back with a box of tissues. “Ma? Is Henry right? Are you crying because you’re relieved?”

“I’ve been sick with worry!” Lillian moans. “Sick. It was eating me up inside.”

“Did I seem HIV-positive to you?”

“All I knew was that you’ve had fevers and colds. And bronchitis when you missed a week of work.”

“Like five years ago.”

“He had to have a chest x-ray,” Lillian explains. “And he seemed tired to me.”

Henry turns to Todd. “I’m sure it’s not purely rational or scientific on your mother’s part.” Then to Lillian, “Do you believe Todd when he tells you he’s fine?”

She nods bravely then asks, “And you’re fine as well? You’re not one of those people swallowing fifty pills a day?”

“I’m fine. Thank you for asking.”

She picks up the plate of Congo bars and offers it across the ottoman. “Homemade,” she says. “No nuts.”

All three take a cookie. “Delicious,” Henry says.

“I use Splenda, but I don’t think you can tell.”

“Undetectable,” says Henry.

Lillian takes a nibble, then puts the cookie back on the edge of the plate, a sanitary distance from the others. ” I feel the need to say that I am a modern woman. And as much as I hate to pick a fight in front of your friend, I have to say it’s humiliating to be viewed as the kind of parent who wouldn’t love a homosexual son.”

“That was never an issue, Ma.”

Lillian repeats, “I’m a modern woman. And I was a modern woman before my time.”

“I know that.”

“Did you think I wasn’t intelligent enough? Or did you think I was a secret religious zealot?”

“Ma, c’mon. It wasn’t you. It was me. I was a shmuck, okay? And now everything’s on the table.”

“I’m not a prude and I’m a Democrat.”

“I know that–”

“I was a woman ahead of my times. I went to Boston University.”

“I know–”

“At a time when my parents wanted me to live at home and commute to Queens College on the subway.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t. You’re just agreeing with me. You didn’t know me in my youth.” She hesitates, and then says, “I could have been more forthcoming with you.”

“What does that mean?”

She takes her cookie back. “I dabbled.”

“What do you mean dabbled?” Todd asks.

Lillian brushes invisible crumbs off her lap. “Sexually.”

“You did not!” Todd says. And to Henry, “She’s just trying to be one of the boys.”

“Ask Fredalynn Cohn,” says Lillian. “Call her if you don’t believe me.”

“When was this?”

“When do you think? In college.”

“I thought you met Dad in college.”

Lillian shoots Henry a worldly and indulgent smile. “I did. My senior year.”

“I’m supposed to believe you were a lesbian before that?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I dabbled. Nowadays you’d say I was experimenting.”

“Did Dad know?”

Lillian shakes her head primly.

“Because it was just a one-time fluky thing?”

“Because your father and I didn’t sit around discussing what we did with other people before we met.”

“Ma! You just met Henry two minutes ago.”

“Don’t be a prude,” Lillian scolds.

“May I ask what path Fredalynn took?” Henry asks.

“Same as me! She met a man over the summer, a waiter in the Catskills, a college student, Syracuse on the GI Bill, and came back her senior year pinned. No kids. They got divorced and she married his brother.”

“Interesting,” says Henry.

“How come you never told me this before?” Todd asks.

Lillian arches her eyebrows with as much irony as one round face can project. “By ‘this’ do you mean my private life? You’re asking why my private life wasn’t an open book in this house? Is that not the pot calling the kettle black?”

“You could’ve asked me about my private life. I would’ve told you the truth.”

“That’s not what the literature says. The literature says the child will tell you when he or she is ready, and the best thing the parents can do is just keep demonstrating their love and support.”

Henry says, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all parents read the literature?”

“There was a father in the mix, don’t forget,” says Todd. “A father who had only one child and Little League dreams.”

“My husband wasn’t cut from the same cloth as I am,” Lillian explains. “If he were still alive, I might understand keeping this all a big secret. For decades.”

“I came to you tonight,” protests Todd. “Don’t I get credit for that?”

Henry raps his knuckles ineffectually on the side of his mug. “You know what I’d say now if this were a mediation session? I’d say ‘We’re on the same page. You accept him and love him, and he knows he was wrong to keep such a major fact of life secret. The clock is running, so let’s move on.’”

“Are you a judge?” Lillian asks.

“A lawyer.”

“And how long have you known Todd?”

“Three weeks.”

“Three great weeks,” says Todd. “So don’t worry.”

“And how did you meet?”

“A mutual friend gave him my phone number,” says Henry.

“His ex-wife.”

Lillian says, “Todd went through a phase like that, too. I could have made that mistake–pushed him into marriage. He dated plenty of girls, and I was guilty of saying things like, ‘You know, Todd, after a year of steady dating, the polite thing would be to give her a ring. And don’t forget Bubbie’s diamond ring is in the vault waiting for you to pop the question.’”

Henry says, “Is there a gay man in Manhattan who doesn’t have his grandmother’s diamond ring appreciating in a bank vault?”

“We should sell it,” says Todd.

“I already did,” says Lillian.

“Was that hard for you?” Henry asks.

“Hard?” she replies. “You know what it was? Not the ring. It’s the other stuff. What mother doesn’t picture walking her son down the aisle, and gaining a daughter? And then of course the missing grandchildren. I always thought I’d be a champion grandmother.”

“I know, Ma.”

“I’m not saying that to make you feel bad. I’m just being honest. That’s what the literature says you have to get over, the death of the conventional dream.”

“That’s okay,” says Todd. “That’s good. You can say anything you want.”

Henry has a thought, a topic yet unbroached that might appeal to a grandparent manqué. He hands his mug to Todd and stands. “This has been lovely, a wonderful night for all concerned, myself included. And I’d love to stay. But I promised my daughter I’d be there when she got home tonight.” He checks his watch. “Which could be any minute now.”

“A daughter?” Lillian asks. “How old?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“Married?”

Todd says, “No, but she’s very popular. We think there’s no question she’ll marry someone of the opposite sex some day.”

“Only one child?” Lillian asks.

“Just one: Thalia.”

“She’s fabulous,” says Todd.

“And she lives with you, or is just visiting for the weekend?”

“She lives downstairs. I have a townhouse on West Seventy-Fifth, and she lives in my maisonette.”

A lawyer, a daughter, a townhouse. “You’ll come back soon?” Lillian asks.

___
Elinor Lipman has written eight novels, including Then She Found Me, The Inn at Lake Devine, My Latest Grievance, and most recently The Family Man, which was published last month. Visit her online at ElinorLipman.com

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