You Learn To Do Without
An old woman recalls the painful lessons of her childhood and the loss of her husband.
I don’t like to speak ill of the dead. Because if I did I’d have a lot to say about my father. We didn’t have much growing up, you see. There were six of us kids, and we all wore hand-me-downs. My father thought he was so smart, so thrifty, but he never had a thing, except a bad temper.
He told me — on my wedding day — that Tom would never amount to anything. But Tom and I stayed married almost sixty years. My father didn’t even live to see our twentieth anniversary, but I think he knew how wrong he was. He could see how good Tom was to me and our children. But he never said a word. No apology, no praise, no nothing. Just complaints about how bad life had treated him and how he’d been cheated out of what he deserved.
Me and Tom were blessed with four healthy children: Tony, Patricia, Connie, and Rosie. Rosie comes over to see me two or three times a week. She was here last night, even though there was supposed to be another snowstorm by midnight.
I made some roast beef and baked potatoes. I don’t cook much anymore.
So, during dinner Rosie says: “Look, Ma, I’m worried about you. You’ve been cooped up in this house all winter. You’ve got to get out, get a change of scenery.”
“You telling me I gotta move? Your brother was trying to get me to move, too. I don’t wanna go. I like my house.”
“I’m not saying you have to move, Ma. Just a little vacation, that’s all.”
“I can’t walk like I used to. My arthritis is getting worse. The doctor says…” I was going to tell her all about it, but she kept talking.
“Look, Ma, you’re going to have arthritis no matter where you are, so you might as well have a good time. Get a change of scenery, go somewhere warm.”
I frowned. “Like where?”
“Las Vegas? Why would I want to go there? I don’t gamble.”
“Because, Mom, I’m going there and I’m taking you with me. Surprise!”
I eyed her suspiciously. “Taking me there? How much will it cost? I don’t have much, you know.”
She patted my hand. “I bought the tickets, I paid for the hotel room, and I bought you a new dress. You just have to pack a suitcase and be ready to leave Friday at noon. Don’t forget your medications. I'll help you pack if you want.”
“Friday? I think I have an appointment with the foot doctor that day. Or maybe there was a bingo game that night.”
“You can reschedule.”
“And who’s gonna take care of the house while I’m gone?”
“Have Mrs. Douglas next door keep an eye on it.”
“I’m too old to travel. How will I walk?”
“You don’t have to walk. We’ll fly.” She laughed.
“It’s too expensive to travel,” I said. “I have everything I need here. I don’t need to go to Vegas to be happy.”
Rosie pointed to the snowflakes piling outside the window. “You won’t miss that for a week, will you? Think of how nice it’ll be to sit by the pool, feel the sun on your arms. It’ll do you some good.”
“I don’t know,” I said, filling up the kettle at the sink. “I can’t have you spending all your money on me.”
“And why not?” Rosie said. “It’s no big deal.”
No big deal. When I was growing up, my father would tan our hides if we bought a brand-new dress new instead of a secondhand one. He even begrudged us the pencils we bought for school, and yelled at more than one teacher for trying to weasel money out of him for “extras” such as field trips or books that the school didn’t provide.
“You have to save your money,” I reminded her. “It’s the only way to have a good retirement.”
“My business is doing well. I can afford to take you to Vegas for a week. Think of how much fun it’ll be.”
Flying never did bother me much, although it did give my ears a little trouble on the way up and on the way down. I looked out the window and watched the ground change from the white and blue of the snow to the browns and reds of the desert. I asked the stewardess to give me a few extra bags of those peanuts they give away for free. I put them in my purse to save for later.
“We’re staying at the best hotel in town,” Rosie said as we drove in the taxi. “It’s called the Bellagio. That’s Italian for ‘elegant relaxation.’”
I was watching all the scenery as the taxi drove along the street. So many lights and sounds, big posters of show girls in saucy outfits, signs advertising how much money you could win. Rosie pointed out the hotel where we were staying. The outside looked like something out of a postcard. There was a big lake, spread out like a blue mirror, fancy buildings with balconies and lots of flowers, and the giant hotel towering behind it. We drove up the driveway and a man in a uniform with shiny buttons opened the door for us. Another man took our luggage. I held on to my purse.
Inside, there were people everywhere. I sat on the comfortable green-and-white striped chairs in the lobby while my daughter went to the desk to check in. The floors were fancy marble and mosaic, separated by islands of spotless carpets. I’d hate to clean those floors. You’d need a toothbrush to get between all the little tiles.
I look at the ceiling above me. It was hung with what look like big, colorful glass umbrellas, but maybe they were flowers. I couldn’t tell. Somebody next to me pointed to the ceiling and said the name of the artist. Dale Chihuly. Never heard of him.
“Hey Mom.” My daughter suddenly appeared, holding the keys to our room. “Do you need me to get you a wheelchair?”
“Yes, Rosie, that would be nice. My arthritis is acting up.”
She fetched the wheelchair, and then wheeled me through the crowded gambling areas. The boy followed with our luggage on a cart. I heard music, and the sound of laughter and coins falling out of a machine. I turned my head to get a better view, but I couldn’t see who won.
The elevators were beautiful, all mirrors and shiny brass. We went up 11 floors to our room. It had a view of the lake at the front of the hotel. The carpeting was spotless. The two queen-size beds had nice sheets. Probably all cotton. I always buy polyester-and-cotton blends myself so I don’t have to iron them.
And what a bathroom. It was bigger than my bedroom, maybe even bigger than my kitchen. It had a Jacuzzi tub, and a separate glass-and-marble shower.
“I’ll bet this is an expensive place,” I said.
“I’m not putting a price tag on anything this weekend, and you shouldn’t either,” Rosie said, patting my arm.
The boy finished unloading our bags. I was going to give him a dollar tip, but Rosie was faster and she got to him first.
She must’ve given him a lot of money because his eyes lit up and he said, “Thank you ma’am, thank you very much. If there’s anything you need, just let me know. My name is Gus.”
Rosie changed out of her travel clothes and helped me unpack. “Let’s get dressed for dinner. We have reservations.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To a restaurant. You’ll like it.”
I put on my dark blue dress with the orchid print. I bought it on clearance. The first time I wore it was at my niece’s wedding ten years ago. The last time I wore it was at Tom’s wake two years ago.
Rosie fixed my hair. She’s a hairdresser, and she’s very good at fixing hair. Then she did her own hair and makeup looked at herself one last time in the mirror. She’s managed to keep her figure, even though she’s 54. Me, I could stand to lose about 40 pounds, but I don’t worry about it. I’m 79, and I’ll never turn heads again.
She wheeled me back down the elevators, through the gambling, to another part of the hotel. The hallway got quieter and less crowded the farther along we went. I saw the fancy lettering above the door as soon as we turned the corner. Prime. That was the name of the restaurant. On either side of the open doorway waiters in tuxedos smiled at us. Beyond them, I saw people in suits and dresses sitting at white-linen tables. The silverware in their hands flashed as they ate, and candles flickered on the tables next to vases of fresh flowers. Everybody in there looked so rich. I don’t think I’ve ever been in that kind of a restaurant. I’ve seen something like it on TV, though.
I said to Rosie: “Wait. Stop here.”
Rosie stopped before we got to the doors. “What’s wrong, Mom?”
“Nothing,” I said, getting out of the wheelchair. “I’d just rather walk right now. Been sitting all day. Can we keep this thing out here until I’m done in there?”
“No problem, ma’am,” said one of the waiters, folding up the wheelchair and storing it out of sight. I hung onto Rosie’s arm and we followed another waiter inside. Rosie helped me into a chair at a table near the French doors overlooking the lake. Beautiful velvet curtains framed the windows. It looked like something out of a movie. Rosie whispered something to the waiter, but I couldn’t hear what she said.
“What’d you tell him?” I asked after he left.
“Nothing, Mother. I just wanted to remind him to tell us about the dinner specials when he gets a chance.”
We asked for water and a diet soda. They served our drinks in heavy crystal glasses. The waiter came to tell us about the specials. The restaurant was famous for steak. They had eight kinds of potatoes and seven kinds of mustard. I decided to have a peppered fillet steak, garlic mashed potatoes, along with some vegetables and a salad.
“Why don’t they give us menus instead of telling us what they have? It’s hard to keep it all in my head,” I said after we ordered.
“This is a different kind of a restaurant,” Rosie told me.
“But those people have menus,” I said, pointing to a couple near us.
“Ummm, I think that’s maybe a wine list they’re looking at,” she said. I was going to take a closer look to see if she was right, but something else caught my eye. The lake outside the window turned into a giant fountain. Water shot up from the surface, spraying and swaying in all directions.
“It’s the fountain show,” she said. “Isn’t it terrific? Later we’ll go out and listen to the music they play while the water’s going.”
I watched the water until it was over. By then, our food began to arrive. I was hungrier than I thought. And they served nice, big portions. Nothing skimpy about this place.
“How do you like it?” Rosie asked when I was on my second mouthful.
“It’s good,” I said, talking around the food.
“I think its spectacular,” she said.
“Come on, Mom, you know it’s the best steak you’ve ever eaten.”
“Well, I don’t know…” Why was she making such a big deal out of everything? I just wanted to eat in peace.
“Why not admit how good it is?” she insisted.
“It’s good,” I said. “I admit it’s good.”
“You’re something else, Mother,” Rosie chuckled, concentrating on her food.
The waiter came over several times to ask us how everything was and to refill our drinks. We took our time eating, although I know I’m a fast eater. When we were finished, I started scraping the crumbs from my bread plate onto my dinner plate so we could get a head start tidying up the table. I hate a messy table. Rosie put her hand on my wrist. “Mom, please don’t do that,” she whispered.
“Because . . . because the waiter will get in trouble for not doing his job. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
I put down the plate. There was one roll left in the bread basket. I put it in my purse for later. The waiter came over to clear our plates. Then he gave us dessert menus.
“Now we get menus,” I said. I flipped mine open. “Look at the prices!” I gasped.
“Shhhh!” Rosie said. “Just order what you want.”
I looked down the list of prices in the right column. “Let’s see. The sorbet looks good,” I ventured.
“Oh, please, Mother. It’s the cheapest dessert on the menu, right? You don’t even like sorbet.”
She called the waiter over. “I’ll have the chocolate mousse and my mother will have the nut tart with fudge sauce. And we’ll split an order of the berries with cream, please.”
I waited until he left before I said: “Why did you order three desserts, Rosie? We could’ve split one. I’m kinda full. I don’t know how we’re going to eat ‘em all.”
“We’ll take leftovers with us, if there are any,” she said. “There's a refrigerator in our room. Let’s live it up while we’re here!”
“I hope you’ve got a lot of cash on you to pay for this dinner, because I sure don’t,” I said.
“Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of.”
The waiter brought my decaf, and Rosie’s coffee with a brandy. I clapped my hands when he set desserts in front of us. They were a picture. Thin wedges of chocolate were shaped like a fan on the nut tart. The chocolate mousse was served with chocolate curls in a sparkling crystal cup. And the berries—big, luscious raspberries and blackberries—were carefully arranged in a pool of white cream swirled with red berry sauce. It must’ve been quite a job to make such fancy desserts. I never had the time to fuss like that. I used to make Jell-o and fruit cocktail for dessert, sometimes a Betty Crocker chocolate cake on special occasions.
I ate all the raspberries first. I love them. The taste brought back memories.
“I used to pick berries like this when I was a kid,” I said. “On my grandfather’s farm. He was my father’s father.”
“Your grandfather had a farm? I didn’t know that.”
“It was a long time ago. I remember eating as many as I could in the berry patch, then I’d go down by the side of the road and sell the rest. My father made me give him seventy-five percent of the money I made.”
Rosie frowned. “What’d he do that for?”
“He needed it, I guess. He said I owed him the money, and I was lucky it wasn’t a hundred percent. But I was the one who did all the work. Without me, he’d have nothing. He never bothered to pick them himself.”
“You could have told him that.”
“I didn’t want to get into a fight.”
“You should have told him off.”
“Children didn’t do that in those days. It’d earn you a beating. But I used to cheat him,” I said with a mischievous twinkle in my eye. “Used to tell him I made less money than I really did.”
“Good for you, Mom. I’m glad he died when I was young. I never liked him.”
“He wasn’t so bad,” I said, hoping my words would make it so. “He was just worried about getting ripped off. Every penny counted. Not like today where people don't even bother to pick ‘em up off the sidewalk. My father never wasted a cent in his life. Never gave gifts, even.”
“What about on you birthday or Christmas?”
“He never gave gifts, but my mother did. I’d hear him yelling at her that she spent too much on us. To him, any amount was too much.”
Rosie didn’t say anything.
“Made us not want to have the gifts. Never could enjoy 'em when we did get 'em. We all learned to do without. None of us could buy a new thing without my father being jealous of the money we spent. And then he’d hassle us that we paid too much for it, no matter what. Even if it was free, he'd say: 'Why don't you sell it and make some money?' We got to be thrifty. I knew how to save. Not like people these days who spend and spend and never have anything for a rainy day.” I sighed and looked out the window.
Those days were so real to me, it’s as if they happened only yesterday. But to Rosie, they were ancient history, I could tell. I excused myself to go the bathroom. Rosie stayed at the table.
Another beautiful bathroom with gleaming marble and giant mirrors with gilded frames. There were real rolled-up towels by the side of the sink—not paper towels—along with a bin to put them in after you used them just once.
I reached in my purse for the lipstick, twisted the tube, and then stopped, looking at myself in the mirror.
I remembered all those days I had fixed myself up for Tom, after a long day of housecleaning and looking after the kids. Our mirror was above the dresser in our small bedroom. It was the one my mother gave us. The paint was coming off the frame. The face in that old mirror was young. I was a woman in my prime back then, suffering the occasional pains that come with childbearing, not the permanent, creaking stiffness of old age.
Every day, just before five o’clock, I’d stop whatever I was doing (even if I was in the middle of ironing—I burned a shirt or two that way) and I’d rush into the bedroom to put on the lipstick, powder my nose and fix my hair. Tom was home by five- or ten-after. No man wants to come home to a woman who is a mess. And he was faithful to me until the end. So many women don’t care about how they look, and then they wonder why their husband wanders. I was no great beauty, but I took pride in myself. I did it for him.
Now I am looking at my sagging, creased, age-spotted face in the gilded mirror of a fancy restaurant. And Tom is not here to see me now. He is not here to give me his arm for support so we can walk back to the table together and sit with our beautiful daughter, and watch the lake turn into a fountain. I am here to see these things myself, without Tom. Oh, he would’ve enjoyed himself at this place alright, with all the mirrors and carpets. He would’ve wanted to eat at a new restaurant every night, and spend a little money in the slot machines or the blackjack table, maybe even see a show. He wasn’t afraid to have a good time once in awhile.
“Tom, I hope you’re watching us and smiling, because Rosie’s a good girl. She just wants to make me happy,” I whispered, standing at the bathroom sink and shutting my eyes tight against the lump in my throat.
I rummaged in my purse for my handkerchief, blew my nose and wiped my eyes. I’d have to start all over. First the face powder, now the lipstick, now the hairbrush. I avoided looking too critically at myself in the mirror this time. I smoothed my dress and made my way back to the table.
“Everything okay?” Rosie asked with concern on her face.
“Oh, fine. Just a little stiff, that’s all. Your mother is old.” I looked down so she wouldn’t notice my red eyes.
“Oh, Mom, cut it out. You still have a lot of good years left. How about if we go to the casino and see if there’s anything that looks like fun?”
“Okay, but you know I don’t gamble.”
“I know. But I saw a Wheel of Fortune. The man spins the wheel, and if your number comes up, you win. You can win a thousand bucks.”
The waiter had the wheelchair waiting outside the door. I sat in it and put my purse on my lap.
“You can win a thousand dollars?” I asked. “Maybe we should take a look. I’ll even give you a dollar or two and you can try your luck.”
“Thanks, Mom,” she said, wheeling me down the carpeted hallway, past the fancy shop windows filled with glittering jewelry and silk scarves.