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The Hermit and the Hitchhiker

I was always my mother’s favorite. But she was never mine.

Yet, when my father died at the young age of 72, everything had to change. I watched my mother’s face as my sisters and I sat with her at the kitchen table after the funeral and wondered how this woman would ever pump her own gas, stand on a ladder to change a lightbulb, or set the mouse traps in the basement for those couple of weeks every spring.  

I went back to my own home and my own life with such a sense of loss and feeling very sorry for myself. But that night my mother slept alone for the first time in forty-seven years.

Without my father my relationship with my mother was unknown territory.  I suggested we take a trip somewhere. We chose the East coast.

Heading along the highway that first day I began to regret the two-week commitment I had made. I drove while Mom passed the day telling me once again about the time she couldn’t back up the car; the time the church didn’t thank her properly; the time Dad tipped over the china cabinet...

I thought the litany might end when we stopped to eat and she was distracted by her dinner but no, between bites it resumed like a recurring nightmare.

Things didn’t improve with breakfast the next day.  I thought that I could move the conversation along by banning certain topics entirely. It turned out to be a long list. So that day as we drove in silence.  

Then I came up with an idea: For dinner time conversation, when we were in a restaurant and presumed that people could overhear us, we would provide a bit of entertainment.  We’d play out scenarios where one of us would be a hermit, recently returned to a society that was all new to her, who picked up a hitchhiker to help her out along the way. I would play the Hermit, Mom the hitchhiker.

Mom was not at all sure about this. While she had always been a fairly creative person, doing anything to bring attention to herself in public was completely outside of her comfort zone. She had not yet committed to the idea when we pulled up to the restaurant that night. The place was very crowded with tables pushed close together. After we both ordered the fish and chips we sat and stared at each other in silence, as did the couple next to us, and the three women on the other side. Apparently banning topics of conversation was not just a symptom of our relationship.  I sat watching my mother ensure that each forkful contained both meat and vegetable, because she could never eat meat alone and thought, it’s going to be a long trip. So, I dove in.

“It’s been a while since I had fish and chips.”

Mom looked at me quizzically.

“Since I’ve been living like a hermit and all.”

Realization and a bit of fear flashed across her face.

“Thanks for helping me decide what to order. It’s all very confusing.”

“Yes, well, I’m glad to help.” Mom offered, hesitatingly, then added “I should try to be helpful, since you gave me a ride and all.”

And we were off. At first her stories were hesitant and halting. She would also pause frequently to coordinate her meat/vegetable portioning. It was a lot to do while also fabricating a story out of whole cloth. But as I watched her pick at her food and struggle to come up with the fiction, I could almost see her peeling back the layers of housewifely stagnation, reservedness, and apathy.  Bit by bit her stories came alive; stories that had no bearing on the woman I had known as mother.

I could see the people at the next table nudging each other as she fabricated stories of hitching hiking across the country, at age 73. Everyone was so nice to her, she exclaimed. Well, except for that trucker who tried to get her wallet out of her purse. She showed him what for, when she jumped out of the truck as it slowed for a train crossing.

She spoke about having to sleep by the side of the road in the mountains one night when she couldn’t get a ride, and how the wolves’ howling kept her awake. By this time all the people around were transfixed. Then she asked me why I was a hermit and with the tables turned I scrambled to make up some meaningful answers. It was hard. She’d made it look so easy. But somehow, I was able to piece together enough of a story that our cover wasn’t blown. And as we left the table that night, I could see the sideways glances we were getting from everyone within earshot.

Over the next two weeks this was our dinner entertainment every night. Yet within the fictional stories I suspect there were some kernels of truth -- disguised in the plausible deniability of her storylines. Every now and then she would introduce a bit of information that would catch me off guard, make me wonder ‘wait a minute, is that true?’ I never confronted her on the reality of the tales. If there was truth hidden in the storyline it was hidden for a reason.

In the end I learned very few new facts but a great deal of perspective. A person began to emerge who had been buried within the role of wife and mother. And as the trip neared its end and we prepared to return to our separate lives, it was obvious that I was still her favorite. And since she was now the only parent I had left, of course she was mine. Maybe she always had been.



TR Biggar has been published in journals such as Queen’s Quarterly, the Antigonish Review, Voices andthe Nashwaak Review.  Stories of hers have been included in such anthologies as Beach Reads, Gypsum Sound Jails, Auroras and Blossoms, Free Spirit and the upcoming Anthology Christmas Stories.  

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1 komentarz

Great story, TR,

Sensitive, tender but not weighted with gush.

F. Kate Langan

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