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Her son David wasn’t any better. He was a successful dentist, living in an appropriately large modern house in the suburbs, with his overbearing wife and yappy little dog. Eloise was pretty sure he didn’t really want to visit her as he did every other Sunday afternoon, but she could understand if he wanted an occasional break from his own life. (Maybe that’s not a fair thing to say, Eloise thought, but she never much liked her daughter-in-law, and she felt pretty sure the feeling was mutual.) On these Sundays she would often heat up some of the homemade lentil soup or beef stew she always had on hand in the freezer, or sometimes David would bring take-out fish and chips or cheeseburgers.
“Mom, you don’t have to live like this,” he kept telling her, which sounded to Eloise like she was living under a bridge in a tent, instead of in the bungalow David grew up in, on a quiet tree-lined street. “Phillipa and I would be happy to have you move in with us, or you could go to one of those retirement communities, where they cook and clean for you and you could be around more people your own age.”
Eloise scowled. “But I like living here, you know that. The house is a little big with all of you gone, but I have always loved it. I am independent, I have my own routines. And you know as well as I do that your wife would rather gouge her eyes out than have me move in with you.” She smiled in order to hide her clenched teeth. “And a retirement community?” She shivered. “Good lord no. That’s where people go to die, or where their children put them so they don’t have to think about them any more. Besides, David, those places are horribly expensive — my Social Security wouldn’t even begin to cover the cost — and Phillipa would have a conniption if you spent money on someone besides her. Even if it was me.” She patted his hand and smiled again as he finished his coffee.
Eloise had been squaring off like this with her children for years. She used to take a certain enjoyment in the banter, the challenge of it, but now she was beginning to find it tiresome. Pointless loops of angry argument and frustrated accusation that never changed any of them. She didn’t have the heart for it any more. It made her wonder where she had gone wrong raising her kids. They had seemed to have fun gardening with her when they were little, helping her glean windfall apples, making and canning applesauce and jelly; going to the Goodwill every Thursday morning to rummage through the new arrivals, always on the lookout for interesting clothes or toys or maybe some of those blue-green canning jars they used for drinking lemonade in the summer. They thought it was an adventure. They had fun together.
Living this way had also meant Eloise could stay home with the kids before they were old enough to go to school, and be there when they got home. It meant she didn’t have to work beyond the mending and alteration piecework she took in from time to time. Charlie’s commission as a door-to-door salesman could easily stretch the entire month, no problem, with even a little left over to put into savings. She remembered her own mother being at home when she was little, remembered the smell of cookies baking when she ran into the farmhouse kitchen after the school bus dropped her off at the end of their lane. It was her mother’s thrift and abilities at making do with whatever was available that got their family through the Great Depression so much better off than many people they knew and others they heard about. Eloise had felt ill-equipped to deal with her teenage children and a world she felt was too complicated and dependent on store-bought things. When her children started junior high school — first Priscilla, then David a year later — everything about them and about their relationship changed. All those comparisons with their friends — why did they always compare themselves with the richer kids and not the poorer? — all those arguments about why they couldn’t buy new clothes and had to wear the things she sewed for them. Eloise shook her head. She was tired too of this conversation she had so many times with herself. What might she have done differently? Her mother would have explained mothering to her if she had lived to see her grandchildren be born into the world.
Really, Eloise was tired. She wouldn’t admit it to her children, but some evenings she wished someone would have dinner waiting for her when she returned from her late afternoon walk around the neighborhood, she wished someone else would have done the dishes, the laundry, the dusting...