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It's Just Lunch: Meeting the Man Who Might Have Been My Father, Part Three


“He’s coming between 8 and 9am tomorrow,” my mom said.

Jesus, I think to myself, why so early? I’m on vacation and not interested in being up and dressed and ready to meet a stranger at 8am.

But he’s 70 years old, so no doubt 8am isn’t early to him. And although we’ve never met (except for the time he visited me in the hospital when I was born), he’s hardly a stranger. He already knows all about me.

He’s my mother’s new boyfriend. New as in they’ve been dating for the past seven months. They dated for years in high school before the military and other life choices drew them apart.

Doug reminds me that he’ll be hiking in the morning and not around for the meeting. I shoot him a look that says both “How could you do this to me?” and “I’m scared.” He sees the fear and feelings of betrayal on my face and comes over to me.

“Do you want me to stay home tomorrow?” he whispers in my ear, so my mother can’t hear him.

A feeling of relief washes over me. Yes, I think to myself, yes, I would love it if you stayed home tomorrow, the voice in my head says.

“No, you should go hiking,” I said. “It’s OK. I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I added, feeling annoyed at him for wanting to go but even more annoyed at myself for wanting him to stay.

I woke up the next morning to the sound of a man’s voice on the deck outside my window. It was 8:30am. Doug had already been gone for an hour.

I heard my mom’s voice too, alternating with the man’s, now fading as the voices moved away from the cottage and toward the lake. I sat up and a wave of anxiety came over me.

I sat up in bed and grabbed my crochet project from the bag next to the bed and stitched a few rows. Hook in, under, wrap, pull through, repeat. Hook in, under, wrap, pull through, repeat. I could control the hook, I could control the yarn, I could control the stitches. I knew exactly what I was making. The certainty of the stitches and rows growing in front of me, in a way that I could predict, was comforting.

Hook in, under, wrap, pull through, repeat. Hook in, under, wrap, pull through, repeat.

I crocheted until I was too nervous that they’d return from the beach and catch me still in my pajamas.

There were so many decisions to make while getting dressed that morning and each one plagued me. Striped shirt or solid? Blue bra or tan? Was the neckline of my t-shirt too revealing so that I actually had to worry about the color of my bra? Should I change my shirt? Purple eyeliner or brown? Sandals or sneakers? Earrings or no earrings?

I would have given none of these decisions more than a passing thought on an ordinary day. But this was no ordinary day, this was the day I would meet my mother’s true love. Her true love from childhood, and her true love now. But with a lot of other stuff in the 46 years that passed by in between.

Would he have feelings about me, I wondered as I worked a brush through my hair. It was a bit wild and crazy, made curly and unruly from the lake winds.

The thought of his feelings shook me. Why would someone my age care so much about something that happened so long ago? And truth be told, something that didn’t much concern me in the first place?

I didn’t know. I didn’t have any answers to my own questions.

I shoved my wedding rings on, wiggling them down my finger, which was still swollen from the beach heat. Although Doug was gone this morning, I took comfort in the 22 years of marriage that those rings represented. My mother had never had that, and probably never will at her age now. Although she had been happily married to her second husband for many years, this new relationship seemed somehow different.

I finally emerged from the bedroom to see my mom outside on the deck. She was alone. My daughter was in the kitchen and said “He’s running late. He called and said he’d be here in about an hour.”

The voice I’d heard outside in my haze of waking up must have been him on speaker phone.

A breathed a sigh of relief over the hour’s reprieve, yet dreaded going through the whole anxious build-up one more time.

I poured some coffee and added sweet creamer, a rare treat. It was his creamer - my mom had brought it for him.

After a slow breakfast, I used the bathroom since the coffee had done its trick. The cottage we were staying in was built in the 1920’s and some things, like the appliances and furniture, had been updated, while others, like the plumbing and ventilation, were less than ideal. I was relieved to have taken care of business before he arrived but the evidence of having done so was unmistakable.

I emerged from the bathroom to my daughter saying “He’s here, he’s coming up the steps now.”

My first thought was the smell coming from the bathroom.

My second thought, upon seeing him out the window, was shock over his grayish white hair. My mother, a still a sassy, brassy strawberry (bottled) blonde herself, is dating a man with white hair? How could this be? I had seen pictures of him over the past several months, so why was this so shocking to me now, I wondered. Plus he’s 70 years old, so what did I expect anyway?

He walked into the cottage and my son stood up and stuck out his hand to greet him. “Wow, you’re a tall one, aren’t you?” he said to my nearly 6’2” son. “Hi, I’m Joe.”

“Hi, I’m Caton,” said my son. “Nice to meet you.”

I immediately liked him, even though we had not yet met.

He greeted my daughter, shook her hand, then came over to shake mine.

I smiled at him and wondered if he saw my father when he looked at my face.

He handed my kids a box of doughnuts he’d brought across the border. He handed my mom a Harvard ball cap (it was legitimate – he went there – and she’d wanted something to shade her face at the beach) and she put it on.

I’d never seen my mother wear a baseball cap. This one suited her.

There was a distinct ease between them, one I’d never seen before. My mom is a fiercely independent woman and from what I’ve observed over the years, not keenly interested in the delicate balance of give-and-take that characterizes most successful long-term relationships.

“Where is Doug?” he asked.

“Hiking,” I replied, “though I’m not sure where.”

He shoots me a skeptical and concerned look. He’s an accomplished outdoorsman himself as well as a nurse practitioner, so he knows the risks of hiking alone.

“I made him leave a note. It’s over there,” I said, pointing to the counter next to the sink. “He wrote down where he was going to be,” I added, “I just haven’t looked at it yet.”

“Smart. That was very smart on your part,” he said.

Phew, I thought to myself, I passed the first test. He thinks I have good judgment.

The kids and I chat back and forth with him about the beach, the weather, and paddleboarding. He looks down and sees an old-fashioned playing card shuffler sitting on the coffee table, and he picks it up, turning the crank.

“Is this the same one your Grandma and I found?” he asked my son. “The broken one?”

“Yep,” said Caton. “I fixed it.”

“I thought you could,” he said. “All it needed was a new rubber band for the gear.”

“Yeah,” said Caton. “It took me some looking to find one that was the right size, but once I did, now it works great.”

My mom walked in from the deck and sized up Caton and Joe talking about the card shuffler. She said “Oh, I see you two are getting along. I figured you would, since you have a lot in common.”

Caton looked at Joe, then shot me a quizzical look just as Joe said “Oh yeah, we definitely have a ton in common. We both know how to use rubber bands! We’re mechanical geniuses!” His words dripped with good-natured sarcasm.

Joe, Caton and I laughed. The butterflies in my stomach were finally starting to settle. I immediately felt at ease with him, on account of his joke about the simplest of things, a rubber band.

My mom said “Come on, Joe, let’s go check out the beach.” They both left the cottage and headed down the gravel path toward the lake.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Caton declared “I like him.”

“Me too,” I said.

“He gets sarcasm,” Caton observed.

“I know,” I said, smiling. “I really like that about him.”

I looked out the front window to see them holding hands, walking down the beach toward the water.

I sat back down on the couch, put my feet up on the table in front of me, and picked up my sewing. I inhaled deeply, gathering up the remaining shards of anticipation and tension from the past two months. I held my breath a few seconds, then exhaled, letting it all go as I sunk down into the cushions.

I liked what I saw in him, I thought to myself. But even more so, I liked what I saw in my mom when she was with him. And perhaps even most importantly, I liked how all of that felt to me. I liked seeing her with “the one.”

The one that only took 46 years to make his way back to her.


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