On a bright Saturday morning in the spring of 2005, my mother and I sat in the kitchen of her apartment eating shrimp salad sandwiches and drinking cups of strong black coffee. Our Saturday lunches had become a habit over the past couple of years, ever since my father died. On this day, as always, it was just the two of us. We ate at the Formica table. My mother served the shrimp salad on slices of rye. We shared a plate of fries.
My mother was seventy-nine years old on that spring day. Wife, mother, grandmother, widow. She wore white slacks, a white pullover top, and her favorite purple slippers. Her white hair was combed into a bouffant style.
The one-bedroom apartment was on the fourth floor of a suburban midrise, just off a busy thoroughfare, a few miles from where I grew up. My parents had moved to the apartment after ending their Florida retirement and returning to their hometown of Baltimore.
The windowless kitchen was illuminated by a fluorescent ceiling light; a table lamp softened the mood. Microwave, toaster oven, electric can opener, and portable TV vied for space on the counter. There were two pantries, one for food, one for all the pots and pans my mother had accumulated over decades of cooking for her family.
My mother took a bite of her sandwich, then ate a potato. Her fingernails were polished in beige. Mouth lipsticked in red. Hint of perfume.
She rarely ventured out on her own during those spring days. I shopped for her groceries, and the gourmet deli around the corner made home deliveries. A nice lady came by on weekdays to help with chores.
My mother had cancer. She had learned the news a few months before our lunch. The disease had progressed, the doctors said. Still, we were hopeful—we had to be. The alternative was unthinkable. She was receiving a new top-of-the-line radiation therapy.
We finished our sandwiches. My mother scooped the leftover shrimp salad into a plastic container for me to take home. She set out a plate of chocolate cookies for dessert, and replenished our coffee cups. We each ate a cookie. I helped her clear the table and stack the dirty dishes in the dishwasher.
We carried our coffee cups to the den. It was just off the living room. The apartment complex called it a solarium, marketing jargon for a tiny nook with windows overlooking a wooded view. My mother turned the TV on—there were three TVs in the four-room apartment. She sat in my father’s armchair, I sat in hers. We watched a TV chef prepare pasta.
My mother and I discussed her funeral arrangements. We talked about what would happen to her personal belongings. Who would get the antiqued gold lamp and the crystal punch bowl. Many of the pieces of furniture in the apartment were from my childhood. I grew up eating supper at the Formica table.
“I’m sorry for all the arguments,” my mother said. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
I told her it was okay. I started to cry.
Like most families, we’d had good times and bad. We had laughed. We had wept. We had bickered. We had yelled. We had swept the arguments under the carpet. My father was the peacemaker, my mother the peace-breaker. That’s why she was apologizing. She had never apologized before. None of us had. We weren’t like that.
There is a line in a poem by nineteenth century Scottish poet Thomas Campbell: “To live in hearts we leave / Is not to die.” My mother worried that she would be forgotten. We even argued about it.
Not a chance, Mom.