In a flurry of recent e-mails, my friend Ann and I have compared notes on middle age. What could she know, youngster that she is? But she writes about the new and annoying ritual of taking reading glasses on and off, misplacing them, calling out plaintively, “I can’t find my glasses” and finally finding them on top of the refrigerator, just where they belong, of course.
Ann is in that frightening, tentative place that follows a serious health scare. I have written and called after her surgery and during her six-week recovery at home, hearing myself sounding artificially chirpy and supportive, not letting on that the thought of anything happening to her fills me with an abject terror. We have been friends since we were in our 20s, when we didn’t worry about much at all, not our health, and certainly not where we’ve left our reading glasses.
I had a sudden idea right after I read Ann’s message about finding her glasses on the refrigerator. “Do you want a really neat chain for your glasses?” I wrote. I have a lovely eyeglass chain that belonged to my mother, strung from elegant black and white ceramic and glass beads, not old-lady looking at all. My mother, whose name was Ann as well, shunned anything that smacked of senior citizenship, even as she reached her 80s. “She’d love for you to have it,” I told Ann.
I bought Mom the eyeglass chain years ago at Rexall onMain Street inSeal Beach when it stocked fun, touristy souvenirs. Actually, the black and white chain I offered Ann was the second one I bought for her at Rexall, the first one parti-colored and even jauntier. My mother loved it so much and got so many compliments on it that I went back to buy her the more sedate black and white chain for dressier occasions.
I don’t mention to Ann that I draped the multicolored chain carefully, glasses still attached, next to the simple wooden box that holds my mother’s ashes, on the shelf in the coat closet that serves as a makeshift little altar. I can’t bring myself to get rid of the glasses, or to put the ashes anywhere more lasting, at least not yet, even though she has been gone a year and a half. I also don’t mention to Ann that Rexall now houses medical supplies like walkers and bedside commodes.
Ann’s tone is cautious when she writes back that she isn’t sure she’s ready to put her eyeglasses on a chain. I can tell she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings; she knows how deeply the pain of my mother’s death has cut into my life. It’s just as well. I’m relieved, actually, because right after I hit “send” with the offer of the black and white chain, I couldn’t remember where I had put it. I rummaged through boxes and drawers, growing more and more anxious. What if Ann wants it, I thought. I’ll have to write back and say I don’t know where it is. This not being able to remember where things are is another hallmark of middle age, along with my pleated upper lip. I even thought of looking for the chain on top of the refrigerator, just in case. I decided to stop looking for it before I became frantic.
“Good,” I wrote to Ann, explaining that I couldn’t find it anyway. “Now that you’ve said you don’t want it, at least not yet, I know it will turn right up.” And it did. I found it this morning, right in the jewelry box where it belongs. I fingered it for a minute, remembering when it lay in the glass display case at Rexall among seashell magnets and sand toys, when it was around my mother’s neck as she was absorbed in one of the weighty biographies she loved. It still smells faintly of her favorite perfume, “Angel.”
I considered putting it on but decided not to, feeling, like Ann, that I can’t be chained to my glasses just yet. I put it away again. I’ll get it out—if I manage to remember where it is, that is—for whomever is first to accept that certain things are gone for good: keen eyesight, an eidetic memory, our mothers. When that time comes, the glittering jet beads will be a little bit of armament against losses to come, a way of bejeweling ourselves in defense of what we cannot help.