LUNCH WITH TWO WOMEN NAMED JOAN
When she was ten, my mother met a girl who shared her first name. They quickly became best friends and stayed so for the next 75 years. Together they shared schoolyard memories, weddings, and years of family get-togethers.
But in the year and a half since my father passed away, my mom had not been able to see her best friend, Joan, because they live an hour apart and neither could drive on the freeways. (Though unfortunate for them, likely countless lives have been saved by their motoring absence.)
My brothers and sisters and I felt badly about the situation especially because this was when my mom needed her friend the most, in the lonely time that followed the loss of her husband of sixty years. So first my brother and I decided to reunite the two Joans through email.
But as much as we tried to simplify the process, our Joan could not, or rather would not, embrace the use of a computer. At each tutorial she would play along and pretend to listen to us, while refusing to let anything sink in. Though my mom would nod or respond occasionally with an “Uh-huh,” I knew she was secretly worrying if we’d finish the tedious exercise before the start of Dr. Oz. Frankly, we could have gotten more genuine cooperation from my cat.
Admitting defeat I finally suggested, “Why don’t we go meet Joan for lunch?”
My mother was thrilled with the idea. Once the wheels were set in motion, the weeks that followed mirrored the negotiations for the Paris Peace Accord with the two Joans alternately rejecting every proposed date because of either a doctor or hair appointment or an important tennis match on TV.
Once we were finally on the road to Joan’s, my mother looked happier than I could remember. She recalled that the last time she had seen Joan she was still living in her large house at the beach. Only recently had Joan’s children put the family home on the market after they realized that her stay at the retirement facility had to be permanent.
While I drove, my mother reminisced about their early friendship. She and Joan lived on the same street, and perhaps because she was an only child and Joan only had a much older brother; they quickly became inseparable, spending nearly every night at one another’s house. Though they ended up at different high schools, they always remained best friends.
As I listened, I became filled with a sense of self-satisfaction for what a wonderful daughter I was to be bringing such joy to my mother. I also looked forward to lording the day’s outing over the heads of my brothers and sisters and knew that I could cash in on the experience by “guilting” one of them into taking mom for her license renewal test at the DMV next month.
We pulled up and parked, arriving extra early because “all the handicapped spaces will fill up,” and found our way to the lobby of Joan’s new home. A worker in the office immediately called up to announce our arrival. This was a high-rent facility.
As we made our way down the hall to Joan’s room, I fantasized a bit about their pending reunion. I imagined, oddly in slow motion, their warm embrace and then the hours of happy reminiscing that would surely lie ahead.
In hindsight, I regret that the warm fuzzy feeling of anticipation could not have lasted longer because their reunion, it turned out, was not the Hallmark commercial I had imagined.
The door opened and my mom’s friend Joan cheerfully welcomed us. Awkward hugs ensued, as each Joan had to return to her cane or walker quickly for fear of collapsing to the floor. The other Joan appeared much older than she did in my mind’s eye, likely an image held from my wedding long ago and clouded by a lens of champagne.
After a quick tour of Joan’s living area, the ladies decided to chat for a bit. I sat lamely, feeling like a chaperone of teens on a date or maybe like a chauffeur who doesn’t know enough to stay in the car. I worried that my presence might add a formality to their visit or inhibit them somehow.
“I thought you would have preferred a room with a view of the pool,” my mother said. “And, where are your shoes? Don’t you have something for your feet?” she demanded of her best friend Joan in a tone once reserved for a misbehaving child. Clearly my concerns were unfounded.
“My feet swell so I take my shoes off when I’m home. It’s my home and if I don’t want to wear shoes, I’m not going to wear shoes,” Joan barked back.
Okay. This was going to be fun.
We sat for a bit more and talked about what life was like at the retirement community; the socializing, the exercise classes, and the variety of dining choices. My mom had an endless set of questions, seemingly fascinated by how the day-to-day aspects of life were handled.
Joan mentioned that her grandson had brought his dog for a visit recently and my mother was horrified. “Why did he bring the dog? I’m shocked that they would let pets in a place like this!”
“I like seeing the dog. Bobby brings the dog because I like dogs,” Joan explained matter-of-factly.
“Well it just seems unsanitary somehow,” my mother insisted.
After a bit of catching up about the kids and the grandkids and what they were, or in some cases, were not doing with their lives, it was time to go downstairs to the dining room. My mother turned to her longtime friend and bluntly asked, “Are you going to put something on your feet now?”
“Yes, I’m going to put shoes on my feet,” Joan replied sternly.
As we entered the elevator, a nosy Gladys Cravitz type stuck her head out the door to check out Joan’s visitors. I prayed that my mother didn’t catch a glimpse of her cat standing in the doorway, for fear of another discussion about unsanitary house pets.
As we arrived in the dining room, many things struck me: first the bland décor, then the amazing ratio of women to men, and last an irrepressible giddiness at suddenly feeling young again.
We couldn’t sit at Joan’s “regular” table since it wouldn’t accommodate a party our size. Maybe I should have stayed in the car? Clearly this disturbed Joan because throughout the meal she looked longingly at her table, annoyed that others had taken advantage of her absence and had swooped in to steal her special spot.
I inquired about the man to our left, a frail looking gentleman in a wheel chair who, though hooked up to tubes and heavily bandaged, had what looked like a harem of women flirting with him as he dined. “Oh, him? He used to be the Mayor,” Joan boasted. Proof that women are attracted to powerful men, even if they’re barely alive.
The food came. Joan reached for the saltshaker and my mom lobbed another one. “You’re not still using salt are you? Don’t you have high blood pressure?”
“What did you say?”
“The salt! I’m talking about the salt!” my Joan yelled. “Hasn’t your doctor told you to stop using it? Why, I haven’t used salt in two decades . . . and you keep asking me ‘What?’ all the time. Maybe you should get a hearing aid?”
If either of them were more mobile, I would have feared that they were about to throw down right there in the cafeteria with fists flying and fingers grabbing at the remaining strands of one another’s hair. But instead, they simply moved on to the next topic, unaware that their friendship seemed like anything but.
My mother then complained about the abnormally large size of her sandwich that shared the plate with potato chips and a pickle. “If I had to eat a sandwich this big every day I’d gain twenty pounds.”
“You could have just ordered a half like I did,” Joan observed coolly.
After a tour of the grounds and the swimming pool, about which my mother commented, “It’s much smaller than you’d think it would be for a place this size,” we walked Joan back to her room. I was prepared to say goodbye, but apparently the two Joan’s weren’t done with their festive visit.
The Joans decided they wanted to watch a DVD that my brother made; a compilation of black and white shots of our families frolicking at the beach, wonderfully adorned in 1960’s swimsuits, hairstyles and glasses. I reached for the DVD player as Joan reprimanded me, “Don’t change any of my settings. You better not mess up my TV!” Apparently, my career spent working on television shows did not qualify me to operate her all-in-one entertainment system.
After mastering the DVD player we were treated to photos of my dad and Joan’s husband aboard the family speedboat, happily instructing their eager sons at the wheel. Nearby on the sand, my mother and Joan handed out sandwiches to their daughters while I looked on from a playpen. It could easily have been a vintage ad for Southern California’s tourism industry.
“Oh, there’s Davey, driving the boat,” Joan announced proudly.
“No it’s not. That’s my Kevin!” my mother argued.
“No, I’m sure it’s Davey. Look at his glasses,” Joan insisted.
“I think you need your glasses. That’s Kevin. Look he’s with Craig and he’s only slightly taller. Davey would have been towering over Craig back then.”
My mom was right. I could recognize my brother’s goofy smile and black glasses anywhere, but I was not about to get into the middle of this debate.
Watching the images of my youthful parents and brothers and sisters, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. Seeing my parents, so young and in charge, made me long for the time before the tables turned.
A check at the clock confirmed that I needed to end our visit because I had to get back home in time to pick up my kids from school. After proving to Joan that her TV was in working order, we thanked her for lunch and said our goodbyes.
My mother and I walked to the car in silence. I couldn’t help but worry that the visit hadn’t meet her expectations either. I assumed she must have been regretting some of their jabs. Or maybe too much time had passed since their last visit?
As I took her cane and helped her down into the passenger seat of my car, my mother turned and said to me, “Have you ever seen so many old people in one place?”
“I could never live like that,” she continued, “having to eat every meal together, and it was so loud . . . and they let cats in there too! Did you see that? That’s just unsanitary. I know it gets lonely sometimes on my own, but that’s not for me. I need my own space.”
As I settled into my own seat it dawned on me that my mom had a hidden agenda that day. She wasn’t just there to see her old friend, she was trying Joan’s place on for size; deciding whether or not she should move into a Shady Acres of her own.
Of course I knew she had been lonely since my father died, but how did I not know she was considering such an option? I felt horrible because she must have pinned hopes on liking Joan’s place. Clearly her disappointment was the cause of their bickering.
I started to say I was sorry that the day was such a disaster when my mom exclaimed, “Well, that place is not for me, but it was so wonderful to see Joan again! We had such a lovely visit!”
Really? That was a lovely visit? Perhaps next time I can take her for a lovely visit to Afghanistan?
How did she think that two hours of criticizing and chastising her friend was enjoyable?
I was baffled. But then again, how could I hope to understand a 73-year relationship, one that has withstood separation, loss of their spouses, and now declining health? I can only guess that after all these years together my mom and her best friend don’t have a need for couched phrases or time for the clever dance of white lies. They just want honesty.
For Joan and Joan, somehow that works.