My mother-in-law, Jane, was known for her pithy comments, particularly about others. Watching a heavy set lady in tight slacks from the rear, Jane would often remark, “Looks like two pigs fighting in a burlap sack.” A lady shopping with uncombed hair, in a baggy outfit and those awful, too-big shoes, earned the comment, “She sold her comb and hair brush to buy a mirror, then broke the mirror.”
Her remarks weren’t confined to just strangers. I was often her target. I’d once said I was grateful that as a young man I played baseball, which kept me out of bars. Jane jumped on that. “I never understood what people see in baseball. You hit a ball with a stick and run to a pillow. Where’s the fun?” When she learned I’d been a Marine, she said, “My Dad always said the Army does the work and the Marines get the glory.”
“Could be. I was a Tinker Toy Marine, serving at American embassies. We provided security for American dignitaries on foreign soil. In my case, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, several senators, many ambassadors and musicians like Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald.”
“Well, la de dah.”
Jane was a popular writer for a San Francisco area newspaper for years, noted for her attention to detail and accuracy. By the same token, all her cards and letters to my wife Nancy, during our marriage were addressed to Mrs. R. C. Peterson. My initials are R.L. I never complained about this, saying, “I made an impression on Jane. Not a good one perhaps, but an impression nevertheless.”
Sadly, Jane’s health declined, and Nancy became her primary care giver, with me as her supernumerary. For the better part of three years, Nancy took Jane to lunch every week, and then to a special event – a tour of Carlsbad’s Flower Garden, or San Diego’s Jacaranda trees in all their purple glory. But, it wasn’t all fun and games. There was a 4-month stretch where Jane was hospitalized 5 times, on the Critical List 3 times. Once, Nancy and I left our house at 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday and returned home at 4 a.m. Wednesday morning – all most all the time spent in a hospital emergency room. The first night Jane was dismissed, Nancy slept on her sofa, never complaining; “It’s part of the job.”
Medical science being the miracle it is, after each hospital stay, Jane showed few effects. Three days after one bout, she felt strong enough to visit the Japanese Gardens in Balboa Park. I went along as Jane’s wheel chair pusher. We opted for lunch at the Japanese House; the menu featured pretty pricey dishes. I jokingly said, “Order what you want, Ladies. I’m bucks up. I sold a short story for $35.00.”
Before Nancy could reply, Jane said, “Thirty-five dollars? That hardly seems worth all your time and trouble. It doesn’t buy many groceries.”
“I don’t write for the money,” I said; “I write for the satisfaction of seeing my stories in print.”
“Other writers have told me the same thing, dear. But money is how we keep score.” I nodded. She had me there.
Being the egotist that I am, you can bet that when several weeks later I sold a story for $450.00, I informed Jane of my success; “That’s nice, dear. Some editors will buy anything.” Then changing the subject, “Did gas prices go up again this week?”
Nancy was out of town when Jane needed emergency dental care. I picked Jane up at her apartment, loaded her and her wheel chair into the car and drove to the dentist. It was a cold, raw morning with a strong, wind that promised rain. Naturally, the dental facility parking lot was being repaved; the Rent a-Cop refused my request to double park so I could quickly roll Jane inside. We found parking a block or so away and beat the rain inside by minutes.
I knew Nancy kept an umbrella in the car, so I ran for it, as a fierce wind blew slanting rain. Jane would need more protection that an umbrella. At a nearby grocery store I purchased two sheets of clear plastic. When Jane came out of her procedure, I tucked the plastic around her, being careful to cover her feet, then pushed her through the driving rain to the car.
A street closure caused another detour. At a red light, Jane touched my hand; “When Nancy told me she was marrying you, I cried for two days. It was the biggest disappointment of my life. After all, you had a failed marriage, three kids, and were an alcoholic.”
I didn’t correct her about the number of kids – my third child was actually her first grandson – nor did I mention my long sobriety. Instead, I said, “I understand. That must have been a bitter bill to swallow.”
“Yes, it was,” Jane said. Then, a smile; “But here we are today in a rainstorm and you’re driving me home, and I’m snug as a bug in a rug, my feet warm and toasty. And this isn’t our first trip together either.”
I nodded and drove. There’s a dynamite ice cream shop near Jane’s apartment. On previous trips for groceries or to the beauty shop, I’d suggested we stop. “No, dear,” she’d say. “You have work to do.”
Today, I said, “The Lordy made Jamoca Almond Fudge especially to eat on rainy days after dental work. Wanna stop?”
“No, Pete. I don’t want to take you away from your writing. You might write something you can sell for $450.00.”
“Or, thirty-five bucks.”
“True. Editors are capricious. What they like today they may hate tomorrow. You never know.” In her apartment, I seated Jane on her couch, stowed her wheel chair, turned on the TV, turned up the thermostat, made sure her walker was near, washed and dried her dirty dishes and emptied trash. Then, I went to sofa, to shake good bye. “Do we have to be so formal,” Jane asked, turning her papery cheek for a kiss.
Outside, the wind had died down, the rain had ceased, and the sun was burning away the clouds. I was at my computer writing within an hour on the day Jane and I made our peace.
Pete Peterson’s work has appeared in over 75 publications and anthologies, “Dead Mule School of Southern Literature,” “Deadly Writers Patrol,” “The Ravens Perch,” “Charles Carter – A Working Anthology.” His “After Midnight – A Short Story Collection,” (Pallamary Publishing), debuted in 2019. HIs novella, “Leave the NIght to God,” (Pact Pact), is due Fall 2022.