He looks like someone’s grandfather. We are, after all, in Washington Square Park, in a playground fueled by the energy of cooped-up city kids desperate to climb plastic treehouses, while their parents, grandparents, and nannies watch on. Slightly stooped in a well-worn but tidy blue blazer, he smiles as he admires the children. My five-year-old daughter likes him. So does my 86-year-old mother.
“Some people think he’s dangerous,” says my friend Anne, another mother and the old man’s neighbor. “But he likes to come to the park and be around children. He lost his wife two years ago, and he’s been devastated.”
My mother spots an opportunity. Even though the man has come to the park to be cheered by children, my mother is hoping he’s ready to meet an octogenarian who is fit, far from feeble, and alone.
“He seems awfully nice,” she tells me later, back in my apartment.
I thought his hair looked greasy and his teeth were in bad shape. “My friend says he’s a very sweet man,” I say.
“I’d like to meet him,” says Mother. “I miss companionship, you know.”
For forty-nine years she was with my father; after his death she spent the next decade living with a man who turned her into a lovesick teenager with mushy cards and flowers. A year after his death, Mother is unsatisfied attending the ballet with groups of women; she’s always preferred the company of men–from selecting golf foursomes to what she now calls “companions.”
I call Anne, who lives around the corner from me in Greenwich Village. This is going to sound odd, I apologize, but my mother wants to meet that old man in Washington Square Park.
“Mr. Meltzer?” Anne is slightly amused. “At least I think that’s his name. I called him Ned for a long time. I can’t always understand him. He doesn’t hear well.”
“Neither does my mother,” I say. “How can I get in touch with Ned? Or whatever his name is?”
“He lives on the third floor. I’m almost positive his name is Meltzer.”
“I’ll write him a note,” I say. “The doorman is sure to know who he is.”
That night, as Mother reads a book she’s brought on meditation (ever since she saw the Dali Llama she claims, “Meditation can cure lots of things”), I struggle with a letter to Mr. Meltzer:
My mother, Sylvia, and I enjoyed meeting you in Washington Square Park. She’s visiting from Florida. She used to live on Fifth Avenue and East 10th Street. She enjoyed talking to you and was wondering if you’d like to–get together? Talk? Go to the movies? Date?… She said she would enjoy your company.
I feel foolish, but I prod on. He lives in New York and Florida, like my mother–they have a lot in common already!–I list both phone numbers. “Have a nice day,” I sign off cheerfully.
There was a time when my mother and I barely spoke, when I was a teenager and she was in menopause. Now I am her matchmaker. On the way to Gristede’s to buy dinner, I leave the note with Mr. Meltzer’s doorman.
Every morning Mother soaks her ginger crystals in water to remove the excess sugar, repeating how marvelous ginger is for digestion. She swallows a dozen vitamin pills, including gingko. Holding up the pill, she says, “It’s for memory–that is, if I remember to take it!”
She laughs. I hide in the corner of my kitchen, surreptitiously smearing butter on my toast as if inhaling some illegal drug.
“I never eat butter,” Mother says. “You shouldn’t either. Haven’t you put on a few pounds?”
She points to my multi-vitamin bottle, which I keep on an open shelf so I don’t forget (I need gingko, too). “Vitamins should always be kept in cool dark places.”
She removes the now sugar-free ginger crystals from the glass of water. I remember feeling unnerved when I saw my grandmother’s false teeth in a glass, which she always left out on display; thanks to dental implants, Mother still has teeth. It’s a new world. I have a mother who sits with me at my computer as I retrieve weather forecasts, stock prices, and e-mails. Yet she speaks with regret about the world gone by.
“We all lived close to each other,” she says. “Every Sunday we had dinner with Aunt Mimi in Bayside.”
She lives thirty miles from her grown grandchildren in Florida, yet they see her only on holidays.
“Maybe it would be better if you moved closer to them. That way you could see them more,” I say, tearfully thinking of my mother eating dinner alone on Sundays.
“They have their own lives. And I have mine. I can’t make new friends at my age.”
But what about Mr. Meltzer? He hasn’t called. I think of friends who tell me how hard it is to meet available men in this town.
“It must be difficult to meet male companions,” I say.
“You mean ones who are walking and above ground?” Mother nods.
“Maybe you should look for younger ones,” I suggest.
“They want younger women….Have you heard this joke? This 90-year-old man marries a 20-year-old woman, and he tells her, ‘No sex.’ So they take separate bedrooms, but every night he crawls into bed with her and has sex. Finally she says, ‘I thought you said no sex.’ And he says, ‘Oh…was I here before?'”
Mother laughs, I politely smile. I glance at the phone. What must he have thought when he read my match-making letter? I haven’t told Mother about dropping off the note. I don’t want her to be disappointed.
She has been trying to buy the studio apartment next door to mine, even though the owners aren’t ready to sell. “Move to Florida,” she tells them while waiting for the elevator. “You’ll love it there!” She yearns for the security of being near me, of returning to Greenwich Village where she once rode around the streets on her bicycle and hit tennis balls against a wall behind P.S. 41. “If I ever get my hands on that apartment,” she says, “it’ll be my old age home.”
She sighs. I’ve been spoiled all these years with my strong-willed, strong-bodied mother, racing from The Met to The Modern to Lincoln Center. I’ve always had difficulty keeping up with her energy, but lately when we walk together on crowded Manhattan streets, I must decrease my pace, reminding myself to back up into first gear. I’m used to chasing after my five-year-old daughter, who sprints to every corner; it’s a race I always lose.
Now Mother lags behind me, as she once used to when I was a child. When she was tireless. After an afternoon gallivanting around the city, she needs to nap. I peek in on her, in the rocker where I once nursed my infant daughter. The meditation book is open, upside down, on her lap, and her mouth is agape. I can see every bone in her face and she suddenly looks much older in sleep. Tiptoing inside, I listen for her breathing and am relieved to hear the regular rhythm. I look to the phone, wondering why Mr. Meltzer never called. And I can’t help but to wonder who we might meet in the Washington Square playground tomorrow?