The Barbershop Quartet

a short memoir by Eileen Shields

The barbershop quartet had been my idea.

My mother-in-law lives in an elder care home located on a quiet, tree-lined street in a Northern California suburb. Her constant complaint is that she is bored. I feel sorry for her because she is a widow with three sons and no daughters. Whether through love or guilt or decades of female submission, daughters generally make more reliable caretakers than sons. For example, a daughter probably would not, as Jean’s sons do, point out that the reason she is bored is that she is disagreeable and grouchy and therefore has no friends. Granted, the boy’s opinion is hard to debate—even her own grandchildren refer to Grandma Jean as Grandma Mean.

The boys’ solution for Jean’s boredom was to hire a paid companion, a middle-aged redheaded woman who takes her on outings and then dutifully sends us photos of these excursions—to the museum, to the aquarium, and once, shockingly, on a helicopter ride with a helmeted and goggled Jean posing at the controls. When my husband asks Jean about her adventures, she does not remember them. The fact is, these days Jean does not remember much, but she does remember she has three sons, and wants nothing more than to spend time with them, because she is bored.

I know how lucky I am to have a daughter. I love my son and am confident he loves me back, but I can’t conceive of him volunteering to trim my toenails in the autumn of my life. He only moved out of the house about a year ago, and already great swathes of his life are a mystery to me. Unlike my daughter, he does not call frequently just to chat about the minutia of his day.

I try not to let more than a week pass without calling my own mother, but I have to twist my spouse’s arm to get him to phone Jean. Like Jean, my mom is a widow, but she is still independent, so she still has things to talk about. Like the hospital she volunteers at in the neighborhood where I grew up, where there are always people dying, many of whom I might possibly have met, briefly, thirty years ago. The deaths of people you barely know is a topic that never exhausts itself. But my husband’s mother responds to every call like a crabby twelve-year-old. I’m bored. The people here are boring.

So a few months back, when my husband had to go to Northern California for business and asked me to accompany him, I said, “Sure, and maybe while we’re there we can take your mom out.”

He said, “Sure, we can take her to brunch.”

I said, “No brunch.” Reminding him that brunch implies champagne or Ramos fizzes or Bloody Marys. Jean is forbidden alcohol—doctor’s orders. She has some liver damage from decades of ‘high living.’ Watching everyone around you gaily imbibing while you abstain could make even the most even-tempered person unpleasant. Jean has been known to threaten the waitstaff…

Sometimes I wish I’d met Jean in her heyday. I’ve seen photos and heard stories (over and over the stories) and it sounds as if, in her youth, Jean was something like the Dorothy Parker of the midwestern burbs, funny and witty and full of vinegar. Dorothy didn’t age gracefully either. It was her friend Edmund Wilson who wrote of Parker in her dotage, “She lives with a small and nervous bad-smelling poodle bitch, drinks a lot, and does not care to go out.”

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About the author: Eileen Shields is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of California Riverside Palm Desert. In 2013 she was runner-up for the Bechtel prize awarded by Susan Orlean for an essay to be published later this year in Teachers & Writers. Her work has previously appeared in The Los Angeles Review.

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