In January I was driving my octogenarian friend, Maria, to the Albany train station. As if wanting to impart wisdom during our last few moments together, Maria began talking about Picasso’s goat, which stands in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
“Have you seen it?”
Maria had just spent a month in my home, knitting on her favorite corner of the green velvet sofa, her petite legs—Maria does not quite hit 5 feet tall— resting on an embroidered footstool my mother-in-law bought at a junk sale a few months before. She busied herself on my sofa like a ladybug on the end a long, green leaf. The light from the Chinese lamps was good there, for knitting, checking emails, writing notes to friends.
Feeling the need to contribute and to be busy, Maria (we sometimes call her Madame, Maria Adelina or Oma) assigned herself to the kitchen chores. She became the “dish goglet”, a phrase bestowed upon me some 25 years ago, when visiting Rita at her parents strawberry farm in Minnesota. Then I, too, wanted to appear busy and useful, useless as I was, raised in Scottsdale and Cave Creek with no chores, a listless, introverted endomorph plopped on an industrious Minnesota strawberry farm.
If I overslept, Rita’s father bellowed up the stairs, “Breakfast!!!” I woke having broken farm etiquette without ever having left my bed.
Between farm chores and between meals, Rita’s multiple, single, farmer-brothers moved slow through the house like swaying trees. They didn’t speak to me. I didn’t speak to them. I wore an apron, hid my face in the dishes. Rita and I picked blueberries and made a pie. My first time picking blueberries. My first pie.
My slow-motion dish gogletting inspired no romance whatsoever. Rita’s brothers all married other women, started their own farms. Rita was a bridesmaid in my wedding in Arizona a few years later, the trajectory which brought two lifelong friends together, Rita and Maria, Maria dancing with a groomsman, a rose in her teeth, to the song “Maria.” A few years later I landed back on the strawberry farm for Rita’s wedding; my husband helped her brothers paint a wedding arbor. My then 2-year-old son picked his first strawberries. Guest, host, guest, host, guest.
Fast forward 25 years. In a rural upstate New York town, in an old barn the beauty of which only sometimes compensates for loneliness and displacement, I buy the same brand of sour cream I bought in Arizona and watch Midsomer Murders over and over for the lazy reassurance of the familiar. Better than sour cream and English country folk killing one another was Maria’s month-long presence in my house. I worked from my room to the soothing clink of Maria in the morning kitchen.
At one point, Maria told me, “Stop telling people my grandfather was Prime Minister. It is ridiculous.” She encouraged my daughter in her veganism, “I’m for the animals.” Her response to any unexpected kindness shown her—a throaty, disbelieving, “Oh!” When she was present for the inevitable marital spat or cussing teenager, and I turned to her to apologize, Maria would say, “What? I didn’t hear anything. I don’t have my hearing aids in.”
Maria felt self-conscious staying a whole month. I reassured her repeatedly. Friends of mine would startle, “She must be like family!” Well, yes. And writing this I had a bit of an epiphany. This blog gets explosive traction with the “Surviving a Narcissistic Mother” posts, a bitter-sweet blessing as I never wanted my writing to be about sickness, about that woman. But it’s also about spirituality, gratitude, friendship and hospitality, the tincture that heals daughters of narcissists.
Friendship is the antidote to being taught from birth you are unworthy of positive regard. Hospitality is the outgrowth and mission of friendship. Staying together under one roof is the reward of harmonious relationship, and a chance to make that relationship stronger, a sign you actually aren’t too flawed to be loved.
I offer these rules to make a long, healing stay work:
Rules for Guests and Hosts
- Go easy on broadcasting famous relatives.
- Observe the rhythms of the house. Don’t wait for the farmer to yell, “Breakfast.”
- Let the dish goglet wash dishes.
- Kiss cheeks and hug.
- Appreciate Picasso’s goat. Or whatever your friend loves.
- Retreat when tired.
- Staying together is intimate and vulnerable. This is not a time for constructive criticism.
- Turn off your hearing aids, metaphorically or literally.
- Remind your guest often how much she is wanted.
- Reciprocate: guest, host, guest, host, guest.
At the kitchen table the other night, my 19-year-old son said, “How do people like Maria become so interesting?” And I felt the thrill of parental victory, that my teenaged son appreciated an 82-year-old woman living life well. And I felt gratitude for a whole December with Maria, so that my son might know her better.
I told Maria what my son said. I’ll close this story with her humble response, used with permission, her counter-argument to my son’s compliment.
Cannot understand why he thinks I am interesting…
I only have high-school and a secretarial course, thus I am lacking lots of knowledge.
I was never a reader —practically only read what I was required to read.
I love knitting. And my knitting does not use imagination. I just do straight stitch on blankets.
I have the complex of being almost a dwarf, and will always have it.
I also have the terrible complex of being Latin in the U.S. It has become too racist.
And I am also shy—a disease I could never conquer, and it eats you up.
But I am extremely honored by Isaiah’s comment. Thank him very much from me. He made my day.
Big Kiss, M.