I lost my mother in Wal-Mart last Friday. This sounds less like a true-life event than the first line of the sort of song you might hear on the radio in Smalltown, U.S.A., but it really happened. I dropped her off at the entrance, and as she closed the car door she said, “I’ll meet you inside.” No sooner had I driven off to find a parking place than it struck me that she hadn’t said where she’d meet me. Since the Smalltown Wal-Mart is roughly the size of a football field or two, I realized that I had a problem on my hands.
I started pushing my way through the hordes of shoppers, searching for a septuagenarian with a shopping cart. I ran into three people who knew me, but none of them had seen my mother. After spending ten minutes vainly wandering up and down the aisles, I gave up, went to the service desk, and had her paged. “EVELYN TEACHOUT, PLEASE MEET YOUR SON AT THE FITTING ROOMS,” the pretty young woman at the counter said into a microphone, her soft voice electronically inflated into a Paul Bunyan-like bellow.
My mother showed up a few minutes later, pushing a cart full of presents and wondering what all the fuss was about. I reminded her of the last time I’d had her paged. It was during a childhood trip to the SEMO District Fair in Cape Girardeau, where I somehow managed to slip away from my parents and strike out on my own. Within minutes I knew I’d made a big mistake, and a sympathetic passer-by escorted me to the security desk, where I identified myself and asked for help. That was more than forty years ago, but my mother still tells the tale with the utmost relish at family gatherings. Now I’ve got one to tell on her.
After I collected my wandering parent, we headed over to the grocery department to pick up a few staples. Suddenly I heard my cell phone ringing. It was my agent, calling from New York to inquire about the progress of our current project.
“Do you know where I am?” I asked him. “I’m standing with my mother in the mayonnaise section of the Smalltown Wal-Mart.”
“Uh, that’s nice,” he replied warily.
I rarely have occasion to take long-distance calls while shopping in Smalltown, and this one reminded me of the feeling of disorientation that comes over me whenever I uproot myself from my hectic life in New York to spend a few days visiting my family. I felt much the same way on Christmas morning as I read this e-mail from a Manhattan friend:
new york is 1963 quiet. traffic is very light, sidewalks walkable and restaurants have a certain solitude. their muffled sound reminded me of the automats of the 1960s, when eating spaces were filled only with the low buzz of conversation and clinking plates rather than blaring iPod mixes and the crush of bellowing suburban laughter. no wonder people could think back then. new york just feels less bombarded by everything this past week, the pace cut in half. stood at a red light and watched a woman across the street buy a christmas tree at about 10 p.m. and wondered why and how presents could get under there in time. or perhaps it was a jaded soul who finally broke down after hearing bing, dino or ella in barnes & noble. it was a relatively small one, slightly larger than she was, and she had to put it down once mid broadway while crossing to re-adjust the weight. almost as if the tree was giving her a hard time for her delay.
I’ve lived in New York for twenty years, but I’ve only spent a single Christmas there. One year when I was working at the Daily News, I drew the short straw and had to put out the Christmas and New Year’s Day editorial pages, meaning that I couldn’t make it home for the holidays. (I went to New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker instead.) Otherwise, I’ve always gone home to Smalltown, and been glad to do so.
Alas, the boisterous Christmas-eve parties of my mother’s extended family are no more, for three of her five siblings have died and most of my cousins moved away from this part of the country long ago. Now my brother, his wife, their daughter, and her boyfriend come to my mother’s house on Christmas morning to eat brunch and open presents. It’s not nearly so noisy a celebration, but it’s still a good one.
I haven’t been keeping up with events in the outside world, but I do know that James Brown and Daniel Pinkham died. I can’t claim to have been saddened by Brown’s passing–he was never a favorite of mine–though it didn’t escape my notice that he died of congestive heart failure, the same disease that struck me down last year. Pinkham’s music, on the other hand, has always given me great pleasure, especially the Christmas Cantata he composed in 1957. I sang in a performance of that elegant little piece back when I was in college, half a lifetime ago, and I’m listening to it as I write these words on Christmas night, seated at a rickety card table set up in the bedroom in which I slept as a boy.
I sat in this same room a year ago and reflected on the illness that days before had come close to taking my life:
I already knew one thing that was at least as important: whatever the verdict, I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. I have music to hear, plays to review, paintings to see, etchings to buy and treasure, a book to finish writing, a blog to keep, dozens of friends who claim quite convincingly to love me, and many, many memories, a few dark and desperate, far more full of light.
I lived instead of dying, and now I’m back home again, remembering Christmases past and giving humble thanks for the myriad blessings whose sum is my existence. Some are as deceptively small as a ten-minute cantata, others as unimaginably vast as the Missouri sky, but all are subsumed in the haunting words of Alexander Herzen that I quoted the other day: “Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have.” If Herzen was right, then I am the richest of men.