A tiny piece of memoir about helping my elderly parents get ready for a road trip in July 2009.
“I thought I would take Mom shopping today,” I tell Dad at the patio table, with a glance over at Mom to include her in the conversation, “for some clothes.”
Dad nods. He’s taking a break from picking his raspberries in the sun. I’ve urged a glass of Gatorade on him. I’m afraid he’s going to have heat stroke one of these days.
“Do I need new clothes?” Mom looks down at her gray corduroy pants. Her polyester top is pilled. The garish flowers have faded over the years, but they still hide spots. I suspect she doesn’t notice the little black marks on the knee of her pants. I wonder what caused them — ink? But how?
“For your trip to Florida,” I tell her. “I thought it would be good for you to have some lighter, cotton things. It’ll be very hot there.”
“Oh, am I going to Florida?”
“Yes, honey,” my father says. “We’re going. For the Brechbill reunion. Your family.”
“How are we getting there?”
“John’s going to drive you,” I say. “In your car — the Cadillac.”
“When is that?” Dad asks. “When do we leave? Next week?”
Dad’s not so good with far-ahead plans anymore. “No, in two weeks,” I say. “You’re leaving on the 22nd.”
“Well, we’d better get it on the calendar!” This from Mom.
“Yes, it’s there already,” I say.
“Who’s driving us to Florida?”
“John is,” I say again. “John’s driving you.”
“Oh, good,” she says with relief. “Because we really can’t make a trip like that by ourselves anymore.”
You bet you can’t.
“Do you two feel O.K. about going to Florida?” I ask. “Do you want to go?”
“Oh, sure!” They both nod. “As long as it’s John driving,” she adds.
“So. Later today, Mom and I will go to Kohl’s. How are you set for clothes, Dad? Do you need anything?”
He shakes his head. “Nope.”
“You’ve got plenty of socks and underwear?”
“Yup.” He takes his last sip of Gatorade. “And I’ve got my tan pants.”
I feebly joke with him. “Do you need some plaid shorts?” I’m imagining old men vacationing in the south.
“Shorts,” he says, not joking. “I guess I could use some shorts.”
“Well, O.K. then!” I turn to Mom conspiratorially. “Shopping for men is so easy, isn’t it? There’s a waist measurement and, for shirts, a neck measurement, and that’s it! Not like women’s clothes, where there doesn’t seem to be any standard system at all for sizes!” I turn back to Dad. “I’ll pick something out for you. What’s your waist size?” He’s tiny. They both seem to have shrunk in their 80s.
“Yup. I’ve always been a thirty-six.”
“Dad! You can’t possibly be that big around!”
“I am!” he insists.
I check the tag in the favored tan pants later, before I leave for the store. Thirty-four. And I suspect they’re baggy on him. He always wears a belt.
Mom, it turns out, doesn’t actually want to go shopping. I’m not surprised. She’s relieved that I don’t insist, even though I let her stay home from day care today ostensibly to go on this outing with me.
It’s easier for me anyway. I sweep through the many women’s sections at Kohl’s, all grouped by designer, gathering armfuls of pants, tops, and sports bras in various sizes, trying to imagine them on Mom. At the last minute she asked me to “pick up” a bra for her. She hasn’t worn one in years, preferring less-binding cotton undershirts. But she’s worried that she will look too saggy in her new clothes. Sports bras are stretchy and come in small, medium, large, and extra-large; I figure that’s the best way to go, although I’m not sure Danskin developed its styles with hunched-over 89-year-olds in mind. Everything in the store is on sale.
Then, a very quick stop in Men’s. There’s much less to choose from — that’s refreshing. I pick up the first short-sleeved shirt I see in Medium, a gorgeous, all-cotton, dark blue plaid that comes with a coordinating T-shirt at no extra cost. There are two styles of shorts that I deem appropriate for my 90-year-old father; both have front pleats, and neither is plaid, thank goodness. Yes, there are 34s. There’s even a 33, which I’m tempted to get, because I suspect the beloved pants at home are too big. But I go with 34.
“We’re going to have a try-on-athon!” I announce after dinner.
“Oh?” my mother asks. “What’s that all about?”
“I bought you both some new clothes,” I explain, “for your Florida trip.” We go over the essential facts again. Reunion. In two weeks. John driving.
I send Dad into his room first, with his one outfit. Ten minutes later he hobbles out wearing it. The tails of the shirt are hanging out.
“Well, the shirt is O.K.,” he says, looking down at it. I can’t tell whether this is an enthusiastic endorsement or not. I think it fits fine, and the colors look great on him.
He lifts the shirt tails to show the waist of the tan shorts. Perfect fit. Classy. He’ll look great in Florida.
But he says the shorts are too small. “I need a bigger size.”
“Really? They look fine to me. But if you feel they’re too snug, I’ll exchange them for a 36.”
“Why didn’t you just get me 36 in the first place,” he asks, “like I said?”
One pair of loose cotton pants fits Mom. She likes one of the sports bras, but even in size Large it feels too tight and she has trouble pulling it over her head. And the Danskin T-shirt in Large is cut too close for an 89-year-old with saggy breasts and osteoporosis. The knee-length Gloria Vanderbilt shorts are just wrong, no matter what the size.
I’m in luck at Kohl’s the next day. I return six items for credit on my VISA card, and then, in no time, find an X-Large Champion Double-Dry bra, and an X-Large Danskin shirt in a blue that she’ll like even better than the peach I returned. Over in Men’s, I pick up the pleated tan shorts in 36.
Back at the house, I’m showing Mom and Dad what good luck I had. She suddenly asks, “Are you going to Florida with us?”
No, I’m sorry. I just can’t.
“Well, when are we going?”
In two weeks. John is driving you.
“But you’re not going? Oh, how I wish you were coming with us!”
“I feel so selfish! You’re doing all this work to help us get ready, and you won’t even get to go!”
It’ll be O.K., Mom. I’m here right now. I put my arm around her shoulders.
It’s my last night at their house. I have to leave them here in Pennsylvania and go back to Wisconsin, to my life, my house, my job, my partner. I’m making lists for their Florida trip — lists for them and lists for John, the brother who will finish up the packing and drive them to the reunion. I’m stacking clean clothes on a chair in the guest room — just out of Mom’s everyday view so she doesn’t get too confused ahead of time, but easy for my brother to find when it’s time to pack.
I make Dad try on the new size, just to be sure. Ten minutes later, he shuffles into the living room, the size 36 shorts cinched in and held up by a belt. They’re so baggy he looks like a member of Spanky’s Gang.
“These are too big!” He shakes his head.
I promise to take them back in the morning before I leave town, and get the 34s again. He admits that those had actually fit.
“Like I said,” he’s telling my mother as I leave the room, “I’ve always been a thirty-four!”