A tiny, but odd, coincidence for my wife and me is that we each had a grandmother named Mable. They were born on either side of the turn of 19th to 20th Centuries, when that was a fairly common one, along with Agatha.
Her Mable was a slight Southern lady, genteel and nasty rarely and only in subtle ways. My Mable was large and strong (and passed along her big feet to me). She was often openly critical of her husband, her daughters, and her first two grandchildren — my sister and me. She was also a master of the no-win situation, Catch-22 before Heller even coined it.
As just one of many, many examples of the latter, I once got a call from my mother starting with laughter and, “Mable did it again.” My grandparents lived in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, apple country. In college when my grandfather had surgery and was in a VA facility in another county, I took off a week and drove from South Carolina to shuttle her and visit him. She always refused to get a driver’s license.
Before I came, I called to ask her if there were places she wanted to go in the week. She said that she did want to see Dr. Healey, her physician in a third town. I said fine and then she insisted that I pick a day. Of course, I said I’d be there all week and would accommodate her. She said she wouldn’t make her appointment until I picked a day. I said, “Fine. Wednesday.”
My mother was laughing because Mable waited until I had visited and returned to reveal the subtext. I spent the entire week there, feeling particularly familial and virtuous. Despite her prickly nature, Mable had not gotten irritated and I managed to get her to the distant stores she preferred, to the doctors and to visit both her husband and other relatives who seldom saw her.
The day after I left, she did two things. She sent the typical notice to the local newspaper, the Hampshire Review that she had a visitor for the week. She also began telling everyone that I had made her miss her weekly Wednesday hair appointment.
Her son would do no wrong and her daughter no right. They grew up with regular notice of their shortcomings. One became a public-service nurse, serving on reservations in California and New Mexico, eventually head nurse at the State Indian Hospital in Santa Fe. The primary attraction to the west was that it was remote from Mable.
Years later when my mother was in her mid-50s, the company she worked for bought out the entire sales-force after a merger. My mother had that year to invest the money or pay high taxes on it. She and her sister bought a house in Santa Fe and became sisters for real again.
The bad part of that was predictable. They had grown up sharing a bed and bedroom. All the childhood drama and annoyances had chances to re-emerge and flourish.
Not long after, my sister decided this was the time to leave her husband and bring her two primary-school kids to New Mexico. They shared the five-bedroom house with the sisters.
When I would call Camino Chueco, whoever answered invariably had a task for me. Any of the adult women would say that at least one of the others was “getting just like Mable.” I was supposed to speak with her and straighten her out, even though I’m the youngest, the baby in the family. I suspect this was simple sexism, I was the boy.
The irony here was that my mother and I shared her Pittsburgh apartment two summers in my college days. I’d had off from 7 to 5:30 as a carpenter’s helper and she’d go out to peddle her company’s drugs to doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, and warehouses. We became even better buddies than we had been. Family stories, including Mable’, were standard fare at dinner.
Several times during that period, we’d visit my grandparents and after Granddad died, Mable. When Mable became chronically ill, my mother would arrive as needed and every weekend go to care for her, shop for her, bathe her and much more. The beloved son was much closer, in Virginia, but somehow was too busy.
During the summers and then when she cared for Mable, my mother would say from time to time, “If I ever start getting like Mable, let me know. I don’t want to be like that.”
Well, sandcastles melt into the beach or blow away, and we tend to become like our parents. My mother had extra catalysts too. Not only was she forced to move from her job and home a decade before she wanted, she had breast cancer. With the latter, the doctors suddenly stopped her menopause hormones before the radical mascetomy. She had a noticable personality change.
My mother and I had long kept a candid and honest relationship. So, I was not prepared for the response when I told her some behavior was like her mother’s. “No, it is not! I am not becoming like Mable!” was the adamant reply. After a few of those, I accepted that the rules of engagement here had altered.
Likewise, when any of the three women in Santa Fe said that so-and-so was getting just like Mable and I needed to tell her, I would quote my mother or aunt. “You’re all adults there. You can solve it.” Sometimes, I’d even add, “I’m the baby in the family. I’m sure you can handle this.”
Now of course, my sister and I have that pact. We have promised to let each other know, firmly and quickly, if we see the signs.