Migration

by

I had spent the entire month of December finding volunteers to adopt each of my one hundred thirty nursing home residents. I like each to have a Christmas present to open from Santa. Churches, insurance groups, home companion services, the local University offices, and kind individuals took an elder’s name, bought a gift, wrapped it, and delivered it to the facility the week before Christmas.

That last week found us sorting, arranging and organizing the main event.  My gangly teenager, in the guise of Santa, visited and handed out presents. His red suit was stuffed with lumpy pillows and his beard kept slipping off his chin.  He mumbled under his breath so old ears couldn’t hear, “Jeez Mom, this stupid suit is hot, and the temperature in this place is turned up to a hundred.”

“Shhh,” I scolded, elbowing him in the ribs. “Santa is jolly, remember?”

“Why couldn’t Ben do it again?”

“I’ve done the Santa bit long enough,” Ben, my 6’6” elf said to his brother. “It’s your turn.”

My skinny Santa rolled his eyes, adjusted his pillows, and hiked up his pants. “Let’s go and get this over with,” he sighed.

My boys are good sports, and although Ryan was game,  his “Ho, ho, ho” needed a bit more bass and volume. For a first-timer he did alright. It’s a good thing the elders love him, and have watched him grow up. They are patient, kind, and found his presentation, “endearing.” The real Santa never received so many hugs and kisses.

By Christmas eve, we were all tired. I anticipated the weekend of Christmas for the days off from work, for a chance to finally put my feet up. My last week of vacation for the year started December 26th; and I was looking forward to some rest.

Then, my Mama sprung her gift, a week’s stay ocean-front on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a four and a half hour drive south of home to the barrier island, a trip, packing, meal planning, driving, family dynamics. She couldn’t contain her excitement as we opened the box to the announcement of her surprise. How do you look a seventy-seven year old smiling grandmother who has outdone herself in what she thinks is the perfect gift and say, “thanks, but what we really wanted was to stay at home.”  You don’t. I smiled, hugged her, and spent the next few hours planning the week away.

“She’s getting up there,” Bruce chastised me later when I harrumphed about my exhaustion and plans ruined by a trip to the beach.  “At her age, you never know,” he said shrugging. “Look at this as an opportunity to enjoy some quality time with your mother.”  After a pause, he said, “You know I can’t go. I have that contract with the doctor’s office to push snow if we get a storm.”

Yes there was a contract, but the extended forecast mentioned expectation of higher than average temps and sunny days. I suppose it’s good to have a handy excuse. He hugged me. “I’ll miss you,” he said.

Mama had rented the condo from December 25-January 1.  She wanted to make the most of our time and her six hundred dollars.  “All we have to do is throw some things into a bag and some food into the cooler and go,” she said smiling, her hands clasped together in her excitement. She wanted to leave that afternoon, on Christmas day.

At least no one travels on the twenty-fifth, I thought. Smart people are home, gathered around the tree, opening presents, or sitting down to a home-cooked meal, Norman Rockwell style. Most people.

Traffic was horrendous. I envisioned clear roads, uncongested tunnels, clean rest stops. Wrong. It seems everyone travels on Christmas day and there’s no place to stop for a bite to eat except the Lucky Mart, ten miles off the interstate. They had stale ham and cheese sandwiches, cold tofu burgers with processed cheese to heat in the microwave, chips and drinks.  5th Avenue candy bars served as our holiday dessert.

It was cold at the beach, and there’s not much to do in the winter time. The second floor condo Mama had rented was nice, with a wrap-around couch, large flat screen television, state of the art stereo system, and ample pots for cooking. The sliding glass doors opened off the living area to a balcony. We each had a bedroom to hole up in when needed and mine faced the ocean. If I cracked the window a few inches and burrowed under the covers at night, I could listen to the waves breaking on shore.

Mama brought her dominos, a double set of playing cards, and her recipe book. She fixed coffee for us each morning with just enough sugar and a French vanilla creamer that made me close my eyes and breathe in deeply over the cup, savoring the aroma before letting the sweet caffeine slide down my throat. She always knew how to make a good cup of coffee.

I slept in Monday morning and lounged in my pajamas all day, like I’d wanted to do the day before. I took out the book I’d gotten for Christmas, Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, and read, realizing I didn’t have laundry to wash, wrapping paper to clean up, or a tree to dismantle. I enjoyed a big bowl of Mama’s homemade potato soup with little round oyster crackers. I wrapped myself in a blanket, tucked my feet under me, and read the rest of the evening.

Tuesday was just as quiet with the exception of a rousing game of Spite and Malice, which my mother won. She’s the competitive one.

 We spent the whole of Wednesday ferreting out the thrift stores in the area, trying on vintage comfortable clothes and eclectic jewelry that we’d only pay a dollar a piece for. Mama picked up a green plaid duvet cover for my bed at home for two dollars and I found her a whole box of canning jars with lids for a dollar and a half. We tried on silly purple hats with veils and almost wet ourselves laughing over a pair of shiny red leather, six inch stiletto heels.

“I think I’ll buy these for Mary Elizabeth’s next gathering,” Mama said holding the shoes by their spikes.  I opened my eyes wide.  Mary-Elizabeth is one of Mama’s church friends. She holds fancy teas and respectable luncheons. Her gloves are white and she dons a lace apron when serving refreshments. Mama showing up in stilettos would cause Mary-Elizabeth to go pale, maybe faint, and attempt to hide my mother from her other, more staid friends. Mama would smile, twirl and dare Mary Elizabeth and her friends to walk a mile in her shoes.  

I held the strappy little numbers by their leather backs and dared Mama to try them on. She never backs down from a challenge. She sat on a wobbly wooden rocker in the thrift store and slipped off her soft loafers. I felt a bit like her prince charming, down on my knees, buckling the shoes onto her feet. I held the hand of my seventy-seven year old mother as she stood and teetered toward the full length mirror.  Her elastic waist jeans and flannel button-down shirt gave her that very aged “Ellie May gone inner-city girl” appearance. She struck a pose with hip stuck out, hand behind head, and the two of us doubled over laughing. I had to hold onto her to keep her from toppling head first into a rack of vintage beaded evening gowns.  

The week came to a close much too soon. I hadn’t laughed so hard, eaten so well, or rested as much in a long time.

On Friday afternoon, the day before we left for home, we were drawn to the window by the sight of a hundred or more gulls and pelicans circling and diving into the water after a school of fish so large and boisterous the ocean couldn’t contain them as they fought for room to swim. The fish seemed to jump up out of the water to meet the mouths of the birds.

In all of our years of coming to the Outer Banks, my mother and I had never seen so many sea birds congregate over the ocean, settle on its surface, or dive in such a frenzy. They looked to have been shot from the sky, beaks pointed down, spiraling into the water with a splash, only to come up again, bobbing on the surface. Then they rose again to the air and repeated the exercise.  

Both of us were speechless. We stood in awe of the hundreds of white winged dots rising, falling, dipping and splashing. Then a movement caught my eye and I pointed in its direction. A blue-black hump rose just above the surface of the ocean and shone bright as the sun glinted off it. I thought it was a dolphin at first, but hadn’t seen a fin.  Then the hump disappeared and was gone, but a few seconds later a large spray of water erupted from the ocean’s surface and several feet behind it, a fluke lifted. It was a whale.  I had heard others speak of the migration of the humpbacks in December, but I’d never seen one.

“Whales!” I said.

“Whales!” Mama echoed.

We stood watching them for the next hour. Every once in awhile, a back emerged, or a fin lifted and hovered parallel to the water, then slipped under again.  They swam and spouted and waved at us as we stood side by side, watching in wonder at my mother’s ultimate Christmas gift.

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3 Responses to “Migration”

  1. OldMack Says:

    This is really a toofer, Margaret-Dawn; two excellent vignettes in one fine story. Marvelous gift and an enjoyable read.

    • train-whistle Says:

      Thank you Mack. I read this story to the elders at the nursing home today and they said some of their best memories came from situations they weren’t expecting or even wanting at the moment. I will try to remember their words in the future.

  2. Migration « Trail's End Saloon Says:

    […] Margaret-Dawn’s posting, Migration, this evening left me near-breathless, seeing how it dovetailed with my preoccupations of late, the […]

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