I admit it was pretty shocking. I looked in the mirror one morning, and my mother looked back at me. Yup. There was Marge.
I knew this day would happen. For years, every phone conversation with my sister has resulted in a commentary of everything I say and how it relates to our departed mother.
“Nnggh. Overslept … coffee,” I say groggily into the phone.
“You sound like Mom,” she says.
“Wha? Huh? What time … ” I mumble.
“Even the way you just say ‘wha’ is like her. You’ve become Mom!”
When she visits, the phrase “just like Mom” is stated an average of 17 times per day. In a one-week stay, that’s (hold on, I’m doing this without a calculator) 119 times.
I don’t particularly have anything against looking like, sounding like, or OK, even accidentally ordering a hot fudge sundae the way Mom did. But these things remind me that time is passing, that we don’t stay forever young, or even alive, which brings to mind all kinds of frightening thoughts, like missing future Hallmark movies. Or the newest Ben & Jerry’s flavor.
But I digress, just like Mom used to, which is what happens when we get a little older.
Mom and I were so much alike. Both klutzy. Neither of us wanted to be the center of attention in a negative way. We both shared a don’t-touch-that-FORGODSSAKE-wash-your-hands intolerance for germs or anything that could cause illness. Or death. Especially death. Death’s threat made us both neurotic about our health.
Last Sunday, I went to church. I’d finally gotten past that cold that was going around these parts, and by these parts, I mean the ones around my breathing apparatus. It did not escape me that as I looked around, I saw the very same people from the previous Sunday Mass who’d been coughing and sneezing. In church, you’re not supposed to feel angry at anyone, even people who should know enough to place their coughs and sneezes into their sleeve. Sleeve, people. Sleeve. There were 54 people making sick sounds, although some of them might have been repeat offenders. Today, I could hear a whole new crop of contagious churchgoers.
I did not personally want to be the object of derision for my occasional post-viral asthma, which produced very disturbing coughing spells, even though I was completely better and not contagious. I also did not want a brand new set of germs to land upon my hands (or eyes, nose, mouth—just a little health lesson here, and keep your own dirty hands out of those places). Neither did I want to draw attention to myself, so, armed with cough drops, water and my inhaler, I sat as far away from everyone else as possible. In the last eight seconds before Mass, a dozen people came to sit within inches of me, clustered around me like I was the after-Mass doughnut table. In those remaining seconds, I tried to do the responsible thing. Just like Mom.
“At the sign of peace, I’m not going to shake your hand, because I still have a teeny cough left over from last week’s cold,” I whispered repeatedly to each small grouping of those in my field of operation, trying not to be conspicuous.
An elderly man and his dripping nose leaned toward me.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“I’m not going to shake …”
“Huh? What’s that? I’m a little deaf,” he said, getting so close I thought I would need to go to confession afterward.
I looked him straight in the eyes. And ears.
“Cough,” I said, pointing to my throat. “No peace sign. No shaking hands.”
The only choice was to turn away—a good idea—because by now, Mass was starting. I thought of what Mom would have done. Of course, her liberal church didn’t feel the need to give a sign of peace because, well, they were pretty peaceful already.
I moved as far away as I could. Down to the end of the pew.
In a Catholic church, there’s a lot of standing, sitting, kneeling, and then it begins again. Just before communion, the most sacred part of the Mass, my conscience got the better of me and when my sniffly neighbor sat back down even closer to me, I wondered if I should have just stayed home. I thought of Mom again. Here I was trying to avoid more germs and trying not to stand out, but maybe I was making it worse. I just nudged myself a tiny bit farther away from my elderly neighbor during the most reverent, quiet, soulful point of the Mass.
It’s surprising how much noise it makes when you try to catch yourself while falling sideways out of the pew. Or when a dozen good people gather ’round to help—dripping, coughing, and sneezing from above, not the anointing I’d expected.
Thank God no one tried to shake my hand.
Kathy Eliscu, a retired nurse, has received a National Society of Newspaper Columnists humor award. She lives in Westbrook.