Steve and I received our first wedding present shortly before Christmas. Steve’s mother Judy, a widow who lives in a retirement community outside DC, asked us to visit so she could give us a special wedding gift, a crystal wine decanter. The decanter had been a present to her and her husband Jack, Steve’s father, when they were married in Tampa in 1954.
In a note she sent to Steve, she indicated she wanted to give us the decanter now while she still felt in reasonable control of her health. Her vision is failing, as is her memory, and she’s aware of her fading faculties. We’d wanted to make a visit anyway, as her 85th birthday fell in early December, and we knew we’d be away for the holidays. So we drove up to take her out to dinner and sit for a while.
Petite, with short gray hair, Judy welcomed us warmly with hugs when we arrived. Despite her frailty, she carries herself with poise. After dinner at an Italian restaurant, she gave us the decanter, wrapped carefully in a towel and tucked into a handled shopping bag. It is a striking piece with family history, and I felt honored she wanted to pass it on to us. As we chatted, her frustration with her increasing limitations became evident. She struggled to see the particulars of the engagement photos we’d brought her as a gift, and when she’d begin to tell a family story she would often frown and pause a few sentences in, shaking her head. “Now, where was I going with that?” she’d say, and give a rueful laugh. She held significant events fairly clearly in her mind: she knew we were soon headed to England, and that she would be spending Christmas day with her daughter’s family. But the finer details frayed at the edges, and sometimes the thread was lost altogether.
Perhaps I found it especially poignant when she urged me to try on her magnifying glasses or wrestled with her recall because the first two obvious markers of aging in my own life echoed her challenges: declining vision (hello, reading glasses) and an uptick in awkward memory freezes. The latter usually take the form of me standing in front of my class and saying something like, “I have two things to tell you before we move on to the next task. The first is (X). The second—” And poof, the second is gone. I stand there making a guppy-face, my mouth moving up and down, trying to form the now missing words. On a good day the delinquent thought shows back up again before class is over. More often than not it makes a dramatic re-appearance at 3 AM (though it crawls back out the window before the alarm), or it pulls the mental equivalent of missing sockmates and Tupperware lids and disappears into the ether, never to be recovered again. I can only imagine how disorienting and maddening it must be to experience these losses to a far greater degree.
Before we left, Steve promised to send his mother a postcard from our travels, and she was pleased at the prospect. We said our good-byes, and headed out for new adventures.
Purchasing postcards was already on my radar, since I’m an old-school snail-mail aficionado and always send a few when I travel, in addition to buying some as keepsakes. Almost as soon as we arrived in Oxford, I picked up several postcards, then a few more in London. As I sat down to write notes one evening toward the end of our stay, Steve saw me at work and said, “Oh, I keep forgetting, I’m supposed to send my mom a card.”
One of his sons reassured him, “If you forget, she probably won’t remember you said you would.” And that was true: Steve’s mother might well have already forgotten we’d promised a card, and there was a good chance she’d never miss it if we didn’t get one sent.
“Yes,” I said, “But we’ll remember whether we kept our promise or not.” Given her struggles with memory, I knew Judy might not be able to anticipate the pleasure of receiving a card, nor recall it in any detail after a week had passed. But it still mattered. “And when she gets the postcard, it will give her a moment of pleasure in that instant.” I stuck a stamp on a card to my parents. “At this point, moments of happiness in the here and now are all she can count on.”
I confess it took my brain a few days to absorb the full import of what my mouth had just said (ahem). But it caught up eventually.
The wine decanter is lovely and will, in its use, bring us many moments of pleasure. But the reminder it holds is richer and more potent than any vino we might fill it with. The real present is the present. It is, in some ways, the only present. It is all we have, and all we have to give.
My heart, I think, understood what my mouth meant immediately. Sitting there at the table in our rented flat, I pulled a postcard featuring the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London from my stash and handed it to Steve. He sat down beside me and penned a note to his mother.