Evelyn sometimes thought she had left her husband after almost thirty years of marriage because she didn't want to be a cliché. Friends blamed "mid-life crisis," but she was too old for that. Didn't that hit in the late thirties or at the magic four-oh? And mostly men. Men who were losing their hair seemed especially vulnerable. Others said she was going through "the change," but Evelyn knew that wasn't it. A few hot flashes didn't lead to divorce.
Greg was, she had to admit, a perfectly good husband. Strangely enough, this helped alleviate any guilt. After all, according to magazine articles and TV talk shows, there was truth in that old cliché. A good man was hard to find and there were plenty of women out there looking. Surely one of them would latch onto Greg and accompany him through the golden years.
Perhaps the relentless approach of those golden years was the crux of the problem. Not the approach of old age which, despite Cher and Jane Fonda, was inevitable; it was those damned golden years. She tried to remember when she had started noticing older people. Not like Mrs. Lake, the sweet little gray-haired lady who had lived next door when she was a child. Not like grouchy old Mr. Jessup who had lived up the street when her own children were small. The old people now seemed to be organized into a cadre of senior citizens. They usually had tan cars. Tan cars a bit larger and cleaner than most cars on the road. It was the couples she noticed. Where all the widows and widowers, bachelors and old maids were, she couldn't imagine. The couples driving along or stopped at roadside picnic areas, or in seafood restaurants always looked just a bit tan, like their cars. Light tan.
At the supermarket or at K-Mart, the men scrounged through coupons, searched for the shortest lines, and looked slightly irritated, as though they had forgotten something. As though they had left something at the jobs they'd been so glad to retire from and didn't know what it was, or didn't know what they were without it. Like hollow tan gourds. She occasionally felt a ridiculous urge to go up and shake one of them to hear the dry seeds of his life rattling around in the hollowness.
Yet, and Evelyn pondered the contradiction, in other places and at other times, many of these tan couples looked happy, the men and the women. But the happiness seemed a smug sort of thing, a satisfaction, a sitting back.
That was it, perhaps. Evelyn didn't ever want to sit back from life. And she began to sense a hollowness in her own life. Perhaps that was why she saw it in these people. She saw it and wondered why they had done nothing to change things. Why they had let themselves become walking, talking clichés -- senior citizens. She felt chilled, for surely her own life was headed on the same path?
If one was truly happy, Evelyn had to admit to herself, one never reflected upon clichedom. Happiness was never a cliché to the happy themselves. She thought back. Her traditional wedding, the Plaza Casino reception hosted by her parents. She and Greg glowed throughout it all. The glow was evident in the picture of the incredibly young couple which had hung on the wall of their home. She had danced like a princess in the long white gown, royally attended by her subjects, in reality her sister and three girl friends all rustling in taffeta.
She and Greg talked seriously of how they were going to be different. Their marriage would be a romantic odyssey, never to settle into the rut of daily existence. And then the birth of the two children. The small puckered face of a baby held vast promise. Greg gazed with devotion at her and at the child. "He'll be somebody special. Maybe even president." And then, "She's beautiful. We won't let her date until she's seventeen." When said by Greg at the first sight of his children, amazingly enough the comments seemed as fresh and new as the slicked strands of hair on the infants' heads. The joys, the fears of parenthood, the pride when one of the children achieved a goal, these were major events, at the time. Evelyn had never wanted to live in a subdivision, no such conformity for her. Upon the move to Oakhill Estates all such thoughts were forgotten. The smell of a new house, the expanse of polished wooden flooring, the clear uncovered windows, seemed to open up and let the world in, not close it out, at least at first.
As a teen, Evelyn had resolved not to work in an office, one more drone inside a cubicle inside a high-rise. Yet the job she left, when little Greg was almost due, was in an office, typing letters someone else had written about some business that was obviously important to someone somewhere. After the children were in school, Evelyn returned to finish her degree. Those days shone with exhilaration, enthusiasm. Going back to college was exciting and different to Evelyn, despite the hordes of others, from early twenties to early sixties returning to school, filling the classes day and night. Before long, Evelyn was back at work and it took time for her to realize the truth. She now had someone to type her letters, but the letters were still about some business that was obviously important to someone somewhere, someone other than Evelyn stuck behind a desk in her own office inside a low, modern office complex.
She and Greg had a few upheavals. Well, didn't every couple? They lied to each other, lied to the marriage counselor. Then finally told the truth, cried, forgave and were happier than ever. They even went to Marriage Encounter and their bumper carried the sticker with the heart on it until rain and sun reduced it to scrap.
Their son was not to become president, but he was earning a living as a computer programmer. And their daughter started dating long before seventeen and was on the pill by eighteen. After Greg and Evelyn had seen them both successfully through the state university, the children moved away and had their own lives, which still included a lot of collect calling to their parents.
Greg and Evelyn gave up smoking, began exercising, eating whole grains and yogurt and were becoming fit. The sun gave their skin a healthy vital glow; not quite a tan. So when did Evelyn start noticing the seniors, the tan couples in their tan cars? She wasn't sure, but at first she thought, surely her own colorful life could never be reduced to this blah, this tan which covered whole lives the way butterscotch syrup covers a scoop of ice cream, running down the sides and then congealing in the bottom of the bowl?
Nonetheless, at some point she began to chafe at the routine of her life, the humdrum, the, yes she had to admit it, the tanness of it. If she had been truly happy with Greg would this sinking into the world of cliché have been apparent to her? Probably not. And so she ended her marriage. With money from the sale of the family home she bought what might, if viewed romantically, be called a cottage.
Actually, it was just a small house on a country road, in an area too unfashionable to be labeled a suburb.
She worked at various jobs, but never again in an office. She did volunteer work, teaching youngsters to read and bringing meals to the elderly, many of whom did remind her of old Mrs. Lake and grouchy Mr. Jessup. She conscientiously recycled, collecting cans along the country road and the highway two miles away. Her friends were an eclectic group and, though living alone, Evelyn seldom felt lonely. She enjoyed time to look at the world through her own eyes, scrutinizing even the weeds and trash along the highway as she searched for cans. The weeds were interestingly different; a distinction not noticed when whizzing by in a tan car. The trash, the discarded packets, the occasional sofa or chair, the remnant of clothing, the car parts, told stories, or encouraged Evelyn to make them up.
Once she found a corsage, still pinned in the florist's box, like a butterfly pinned in a display. An orchid. What had happened? A prom date gone awry? A heart broken? She pondered for days. When a forlorn orange kitten mewed hungrily at her door, she took it in and fed it from a can of tuna. The cat, rubbing softly against her and lying on the throw rug purring, added something to her life. Something to talk to, which shouldn't at all give the impression that she was peculiar. Many people converse with pets, after all. She did begin to wonder if perhaps cats themselves have a secret message system because after Ranger (the name she gave the red cat) settled happily in, others began to appear at her door. Most of them were no doubt abandoned by people who fall for a cute kitty only to find it turning into a cat. Soon she had to switch from tuna to bulk bags of cat chow, but the cats didn't object. When Evelyn had bought her house, land that far out had little value. So even as the suburbs grew, as though a pebble had been thrown into the city and an ever widening circle lapped closer and closer, Evelyn had enough property to avoid run-ins with officials who might have considered nineteen cats excessive. For that is what her menagerie had grown to, since people never did seem to learn that kittens turn into cats.
Her children were concerned about her for a while. They spent hours on the phone discussing "what to do about Mother." Father was fine, for sure enough, Evelyn had been right; he'd been snatched up almost immediately by a little washed-out blonde who had been on her own long enough to appreciate a good man when she found him.
When the children flew in to visit Evelyn, they were both relieved and disappointed to find that, although her marbles might be a bit scattered, she definitely had them all and was enjoying life to boot. Relieved because they wouldn't really have known how to handle their mother, yet disappointed because, like most people, they had an occasional urge to take over and do good to someone.
Over the next few years Evelyn's number of cats continued to grow. It had reached the point where perhaps some arm of local government might, after all, show an interest. But then, quietly, without fuss and without ever sitting back, Evelyn died. A reporter for the local paper heard that the old woman had kept thirty-four cats and wrote a small human-interest story. There are those compulsive newspaper readers, those who can't pass up even the horoscopes or Heloise, who often read even the classifieds though they are not buying, selling, moving or looking for a free puppy. Perhaps they read the story, but most people just skimmed the lead and skipped right by to the editorials, the funnies, Ann Landers or the sports. After all, an old woman with lots of cats? It was so old hat, so ordinary, such a worn-out cliché.
Next to my large and lively family, reading and writing are the joys in my life. I've had poetry published in Tributary and The New Jersey Journal of Poets. I usually write essays (have appeared in The Denver Post, Spotlight and Children's Literature) or juvenile fiction (Highlights, Ladybug, etc.) and have one early reader, NOTHING IN THE MAILBOX published by Richard C. Owen, Inc. Cmottford@aol.com
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