Bea begins her 98th year by sleeping most of the day. When she wakes up, I read birthday cards from Carl and Mary Krogh, Sally Branch, and the good folks at the Wellfleet Council on Aging. Lisa brings chocolate ice cream as a special treat. Other highlights include a phone call from my brother, as well as a chat with Nick and Elspeth Macdonald. The conversations do not last long since Bea is quite feeble and the phone keeps slipping from her hand. She seems to have forgotten how to talk on the phone and repeats everything the other party says, which certainly does not make for a very satisfactory exchange. After the phone calls, my friend Carolyn, visiting from France, joins me by Bea’s bedside.
“Congratulations!” she says. “You’re 97 today.”
“I can’t catch a man if I’m 97,” Bea says in a sour but very matter-of-fact voice.
“You’re right,” Carolyn responds. “That’s hard, but not impossible.”
“What are you going to give me?” Bea wants to know.
It is not clear whether she is talking food or gifts, so we provide chocolate pudding and company. Sven, Carolyn, and I gather round the bed, which seems to make my mother happy. I can tell from her glow. People is what Bea likes best.
We discuss 90-year-olds who are able to travel distances by car, certainly few and far between. I reminisce about Bea’s trip to Vassar for her 70th reunion: “You wore a yellow suit, since the class color was yellow, and held a yellow balloon. How cute you looked! You got to ride in a golf cart at the head of the parade. Everyone was cheering. Remember?”
Bea doesn’t. I don’t know if Carolyn and Sven can decipher the forgetfulness on my mother’s already blank face, but I can. There is a silence. Her eyes are half closed. She is tired today.
“What would you like to talk about?” I ask, not sure if we should impose after all. Perhaps she would prefer to sleep?
“The price of eggs in China,” my mother says suddenly, then explains, “It’s a silly.”
“Actually China is more and more important to the world’s economy and to the future of the world,” Carolyn begins with some authority. She is using heftier concepts than Bea’s bedroom usually experiences these days. I wonder whether my mother will take them in.
To my surprise, Bea demands, “Give me a good example.”
“They make all we wear. Clothing.”
“I don’t agree,” Bea declares, for some reason quite sure.
Sven tells her, “Oh! China is changing fast.”
“They do things cheaply and offer lower prices than everyone else.” (This information from Carolyn.)
“The price of eggs in China must be rising because of the avian flu,” Sven says, cracking a joke of sorts.
His comment gives me an idea for our conversation: “Why don’t you tell us about the Spanish flu when you were a little girl?”
But Bea is back in zombie-land. Sven and Carolyn wait respectfully for her to emerge. I add a few more details to prod memory: “Remember how the neighbor’s family, across the street, all died and had to be quarantined?’
No reaction. The birthday girl doesn’t bat an eyelash.
“You must have lived in Belleville in 1919, when you were 10.”
“Did you have servants?” Carolyn asks.
“Mabel,” I respond, since Bea doesn’t. “The domestic.”
Just as I am deciding Bea must have fallen asleep, she offers this comment in a soft but clear voice: “I liked Mabel, and she liked me. We were friends.”
“Was there a bell under the rug to call the servants?” Carolyn asks, curious now. “I bet there was. My mom told me she had one like it at her house.”
“Something like a bell, under the table,” Bea murmurs.
“Can you tell us about your birthday party when you were 10?”
“Did Helen come?”
“Did you have a cake and ice cream?”
“Where did you get the ice cream?”
There’s a long pause. I don’t know why I asked the question, perhaps to check if she pays attention. We all hold our breath, not really expecting Bea to answer, but she does: “At Galuba’s. I knew Mr. Galuba and I liked him, but not enough to marry him. He would probably smell.” Bea is focusing in on Carolyn, now. “Did you know I had nice babies?” I take her hand. Bea turns to me and says softly, “You were lovely...”