"Why'd you put this away, Mom?" I'd ask, genuinely baffled. After all, it was a picture of Dear Jesus, and Mom was normally big on pictures of Jesus and Mary and Joseph and the whole Calvary Hill Bunch, as long as they weren't too bloody. (She explained that "The Spanish and Italians like those gory statues of Christ, but we don't.")
And Mom would say something like, "Oh, I got tired of looking at it." Which made no sense as you couldn't walk two feet in our house without tripping over a crucifix or an Infant of Prague or a painting of Our Lady. We had literally dozens of religious doodads, most of them a lot worse looking than this plaque. Once the priest came to call and mom had to move the chalk statue of the Sacred Heart, chipped and noseless from falling off the top of the refrigerator 400 times, off the chair where I'd put Him down for a nap and covered Him up with a blanket, figuring He must be tired from saving the world and fridge-diving. My mom was obviously not sick of looking at any of those and would smack me if I ever said I was. But I never got to ask more, because she would change the subject really fast.
Once or twice she did add, "You know Betty gave that Last Supper picture to us." I knew "Betty" as Daddy's nice secretary who always fussed over me when I visited Daddy's office. As did the other secretary, "Julia", and most of the rest of the office staff who had been there for years, since I was tiny, since I was born, even in some cases since before Daddy met Mom. I'd go down there to pick up Dad's paycheck or sell Christmas cards (school fundraiser) or Girl Scout cookies, and the office people would all say hello and buy some of whatever I had. They were all nice, at least I thought so then. And Betty seemed especially sweet and solicitous. Daddy spoke of her frequently, and she (along with the other office people) would come to my parents' very infrequent parties. She was our friend, so it made even less sense that Mom would keep putting her gift away. Oh well, I would think, Moms are weird. Then I'd forget about it till the next time it happened.
At some point when I was a preteener, Betty got married and I had to remember to call her by her new last name. After that she had some kids and eventually stopped working to stay home full time with her family. And at an even later point, like when I was in the last throes of high school, after Dad had his stroke, my mom began to tell me Things about Those Nice People in the Office. How that dashing-looking man, "James" who worked next to Daddy all those years, who always wore a nice suit and posed with his pipe like a movie star (Daddy would be hunched over the typewriter in shirt sleeves with his head in a volume of Moody's) - James never did a lick of work and was always jealous as hell of the attention Daddy, who did all of his own work plus James's, got from the bosses. How the fellow from the file room was a drunk and a gossip. How Julia, the cute longhaired secretary who looked like a sexy Mary Tyler Moore and dressed in the latest boots and minis and maxis from Winkelman's boutique, had been having an affair for years with one of the big bosses. And how Betty, the quiet, mousy Catholic secretary with the prim outfits (jumpers, like a schoolteacher or a lay nun) and big bouffant, had always had A Yen for my father.
Ohh, I thought, the light went on in the icebox, so that's why the Lord's Supper plaque kept ending up in the drawer. (Last I looked, I think it had migrated clear up to the attic.) I wasn't too surprised. My dad wasn't a bad-looking man in his forties. He had a full head of reddish-brown hair with little or no gray, nice blue eyes, a nice medium build, nice suits and ties for his frequent trips to Washington. His ears did stick out, but people took that as boyish charm. That was my dad, Jimmy Stewart all over again, right down to the drawl, nice and polite and, aside from my mother, completely oblivious to female wiles and charms. As far as office women went, he was strictly business to the point of more or less ignoring that they were female, which probably also kept him from feeling nervous around them. He tended to largely ignore the fact that I was female too, except when it related to some labor statistic like hiring for female MBAs being up this year and if I would just study business administration (yuck, said 12-year-old me) I too could get a Good Job someday. His general ignorance of gender is probably half the reason why I get startled whenever anybody else starts making a big deal out of it.
Daddy was rather a contrast to other men of his era, at least to the ones he went down to Washington and up to New York with. Many of them were like Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, married but with their Julia-the-Secretary stashed away, or with a little black book of Fun City Girls they foned up on business trips. That was how Mom met him. She wasn't a Fun City Girl, she wasn't any "fun" that way, but some of her friends were, I guess, and she wasn't averse to hanging out with dudes on business trips, friendly-like, if they paid for the dinner (they were all on expense accounts) and didn't hit on her too hard after. Eventually, some cog in the vast Married Guys' Network introduced her to his bachelor buddy, Daddy, and she spent the first week asking all his pals suspicious questions, because she was sure a guy his age was lying about being single, he had to have a wife or an ex-wife stashed away somewhere.
Last time I was home I found an old photo of my mom in her 20s at some fancy dress dinner with a date and a bunch of other couples. I asked, "Who's this guy?" She said, "Oh, just some fellow I dated. He became a big executive with some oil company. Lives down in Florida now. "
I said jokingly, "Geez, why'd you break up with HIM?"
She shrugged. "He was boring. He wrote me a letter a few years ago, all about the great things he was doing. He's still boring."
"How come you didn't think Daddy was boring?" I was genuinely curious about this, as Dad was interesting in some scholarly respects, and could be fun company especially after a drink, but overall he was pretty quiet and not exactly a ball of fire, and Mom is the antithesis of a scholar.
She thought about it for a minute. Then she replied, "Your father was...different. On our first date, in Washington, he wanted to go for ice cream sundaes. The other men all wanted to go to a bar and then see how far they could get." My mom was 35 when she met my dad and had spent about 15 years fending off the unwelcome advances of not only creepy dates, but also bosses, married men, an armed rapist and at least one determined lesbian. I'm sure after all that, ice cream seemed rather refreshing.
Women frequently hit on my shy, polite, quiet father, right in front of me and/or my mother. It was the era of women's lib and I guess women were into flaunting their sexual power, or maybe they thought of him as a challenge because he didn't act at all interested in them. The next-door neighbor, married with a son my age, who nevertheless spent entire summers lounging in the yard in a teeny bikini, told Dad he had nice legs when he went out to mow the lawn. Some woman in a restaurant or maybe it was a plane (you could smoke on planes then) slunk up to him and purred, "I am enjoying the aroma of your tobacco" like a Muriel Cigars ad. (It was expensive tobacco and did smell pretty good. ) But I couldn't imagine Betty, who was hardly the slinky bikini type, pulling anything like that. Still, she must have done something to set off my mother, who was not the jealous type but has a detector finely tuned to wimmen's bullshit. Betty probably acted just a little too helpful, a wee bit too adoring. I've met women like that (the last one I met even worked as a secretary), who gush, "Oh, he's SOOOOO nice," starry-eyed over someone else's guy. Subtle groupies, basically.
At any rate, I was sure nothing had ever "happened" between Betty and my father. She was younger than my parents, and didn't start her job till after they were married, and she would have been too shy to make an outright move and he would have chosen to ignore anything short of a forward pass. I can just hear the likely exchange between Dad and Mom over this. "Bob, do you mean to tell me you can't see that enormous torch Betty is carrying for you? Come on!" "Betty? Oh, that's silly. She's a good secretary is all, and a nice girl." Betty was a Good Catholic Girl, in the "wimp" sense of the term, who, unlike Julia, wouldn't be flashing any thigh or casting any come-hither looks beyond a simper. She probably "liked" Daddy for the same reasons a lot of Good Catholic Girls "like" priests - they're safe. If she had really felt like "doing anything", there were plenty of willing men where Julia's boss came from. My mother was also a Good Catholic Girl, but she was the Maureen O'Hara "Quiet Man" fighting-Irish kind, who never backed down from a conflict and would not have hesitated to tell another woman to Butt the Fuoco Out if the need ever arose, in fact she did it at least once with somebody else. I have no idea if she ever said anything to Betty or if she got the point across in some indirect way, although I'm pretty sure she got it across somehow. By the time I was old enough to be observant of such matters, Betty was long gone.
Eventually my father left his job too. After a back injury, two heart attacks, and a stroke followed by a year of physical therapy and ten years of work while partially paralyzed, he had finally gotten too worn down to continue, and he was past the usual retirement age. He didn't want to quit working, but after much encouragement from my mom, he finally announced that he wanted to retire. The bosses handled it badly. Somebody else wanted his job, and those Nice People at the Office who had worked with him for 20 and 30 years stabbed him in the back and forced him to retire several months earlier than he wanted to go. A few months either way wouldn't have been a big deal, but it broke his heart that they didn't want him around anymore. (The Lesson: Employers are heartless bastards. Take their money, but don't ever get attached to an employer or a job. Don't think those people are your pals, 90% of 'em will throw you in the trash in a heartbeat, don't trust 'em, don't be surprised by anything they do.) They told stories, insulting and hurtful stories about how he fell asleep at his desk, didn't know where he was, might have fallen down an elevator shaft. Probably there was a grain of truth to it, but lawyers know how grains of truth can be slanted into great big gigantic boulders. There was no need, he was going to leave anyway. There was no need. He was going to die anyway and they just made him get on with it faster. For the rest of his life, which was brief, only a few months, he thumbed his nose at Lakewood Center North every time mom drove him past it in the car.
Of course all those Nice People came to his wake, and being all numb and grief-stricken and polite like you get when someone you love dies, my mother and I were Nice to them. Two weeks later you come to your senses and go, "God, why was I nice to those ASSHOLES!!" And you want to turn back the clock and chase the Assholes from the viewing room brandishing an upraised folding chair. But you can't, it's too late. It's over.
Anyway, we got through the two days of viewing and the funeral and then out to the cemetery to put Dad in the ground. Finally the burial service was over and I was sitting in the fine Corinthian leather backseat of Nickels's limo, fidgeting to go back home and hang out with my buddy Jack Daniels. Waiting for my mom, who'd stopped to thank the priest or talk to her sister or something, to get in the limo so we could leave. I saw her coming through the back window, and then I heard this voice from the past calling my mom's name. "Rosemary! Rosemary! I just found out! I'm so sorry!" It was Betty, ten years older than the last time I saw her, but unmistakably Betty. She hadn't been at the wake or the funeral. Just showed up at the grave site, all alone, at the very end of the service. And she was hanging on my mom's arm and crying to beat the band. Just totally bawling into a Kleenex. And all I could think was, Holy cow, it was true, I guess she really did love my dad.
My mom got in the car and I think a little while later or maybe the next day I said, "I can't believe Betty showed up at the grave like that."
"I know!" exclaimed my mother in an incredulous voice. And that was that. We never saw Betty again, although she probably sent a condolence card or something. My mom got dozens.
Sometimes I wonder whose grave I might show up at, like that. Well, not exactly like that. Like, I'd be more private about it and not bother any widows or anything. You know me. You know what I mean.