Sunday, May 1, 2011

Farewell to S

An old friend died last week. She was indeed old: 94. She was my friend H’s mother, and she lived in the same retirement home that my mother-in-law lives in. Her name was S. There were a couple of things that were particularly endearing about her. One was that she could never get my last name right. It’s Rutherford. But to her it was always Witherspoon, a substitution that was better than the original. And the other was her transparent, totally uncool sincerity. You have to understand that the retirement home seems sometimes to be populated largely by Stepford seniors. It’s a society of women—widows mostly—who maintain a veneer of upper-middle-class propriety that can feel impenetrable to an outsider. There are moments when they seem like mean girls with wrinkles—not actually cruel, perhaps, but looked to as arbiters of acceptable comportment. In fact, S once told me how touched she was to be included in my mother-in-law’s circle, since my mother-in-law was so “popular.” So we were sitting around the table in the dining room one night when I was visiting about seven years ago—my mother-in-law, S and several other elderly ladies—discussing the Sarasota opera or some such thing, and suddenly S sighed and said wistfully, “Don’t you just long for a man’s touch sometimes?” The other ladies exchanged horrified looks, and after S left for the evening there was much clucking about how much she had deteriorated. But the thing is, I knew that every single one of them totally knew what she was talking about.

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