On the way to her day-after-cataract-surgery eye doctor visit, Mother and I stopped by one of our favorite restaurants where the women who work there know what the regulars want before the regulars do. “You take care of yourself, Miss Ada,” Mindy Sue told my mother as we checked out. “Don’t be bending over or anything. There wasn’t anybody around to stay with my mama when she had her cataract surgery, so to remind herself about not bending over, she cut off a broom handle and put it down her pants leg.”
The eye doctor is an old friend of mine. Our children played together. We vacationed together. We walked into each other’s house without knocking. Then the kid started to different schools, and parenting commitments caused us to drift apart.
I had dread in my bones this morning. I noticed it, sure enough, but decided I was probably just tiredness and a reluctance to get out again. “Y’all come on back here,” his assistant said as she ushered us from the waiting room, motioning us to sit in a couple of waiting chairs in the hall outside the exam rooms. Two. There were only two chairs. Two chairs and two women – Mother and me. That’s it. Two.
“Hey Mike,” I said cheerily when he appeared, and I was relieved to be sincerely glad to see him. “See,” I hissed to the dread, “it’s not so bad.”
Apparently the happy reunion was a party for one. He said nothing. Didn’t even look at me. Didn’t even look in my direction. Didn’t even look at my chair leg. Just told Mother how glad he was to see her, took her arm, helped her into the exam room, never once acknowledging in any way imaginable that I even existed.
I took a seat in the small exam room, cramped with three people inside. He proceeded to talk to Mother, continuing to ignore me as much as he ignored the socks on his feet. As much as he ignored the hairs on his face. As much as he ignored the box of tissues sitting on the counter.
It’s been a while since I felt so overlooked, so thoroughly invisible, so totally and absolutely dismissed.
“Hello Mike, I’m Jeanne,” I eventually said, giving him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he didn’t recognize me. It has been an age since we saw each other. “I know who you are,” he said without even turning his head in my direction.
“Oh well, then,” I said, “so you really were being rude.”
Now this is tricky because my mother is so nice – NICE, I tell you – and she gets very upset when there’s friction and disharmony.
“No,” he said. “I was just focusing on your mother. I didn’t want her to stumble or fall. She had eye surgery yesterday, and one eye is bandaged and when you’re used to having two eyes, you might fall.” Like I didn’t realize she had cataract surgery yesterday, like I couldn’t be trusted to help steady her.
To keep from upsetting Mother, I declined to say anything further and swatted away the insult I felt. He continued his examination of Mother’s recently de-cataracted right eye. Wanting to smooth things over, Mother said, “Well, I thought you probably didn’t recognize Jeanne. Thought maybe you haven’t seen her with red hair.”
“That’s right,” he said. “I didn’t recognize her. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her.”
I remained silent, not wanting to embarrass Mother, not wanting to upset Mother, not wanting to be a bad girl. He talked with Mother about his wife and his grandchildren. When he pointed to the grandchildren’s photos, I didn’t even turn my head for a peek, a small rebellion. “Tell your wife hello for me,” I said as we made ready to leave. “Perhaps she will be glad to hear from me.”
“I guess I hurt your feelings,” he said flatly while making notes in Mother’s chart. “Didn’t mean to,” he added, still making notes.
“You did hurt my feelings,” I told him, desperately wanting to add “but more than that, you made me angry and you lied and you trivialized me and you were rude and you gave me as much attention as you did the chair I was sitting on and for all you know, I was a customer. And which is it anyway: you wanted to help Mother (because I am apparently incapable of helping her) or you didn’t recognize me?” . . . but I didn’t, of course, because Mother was looking anxious.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she told me in the car at the bank’s drive-thru window on our way home.
“I know,” I said, sounding calmer than I felt. Then, speaking in a voice that amazed me with his calm, quiet, matter-of-fact tone I said, “This man was rude. He was wrong. He was obnoxious. Mother, I love you, but I can’t join forces with him and erase myself. Far too many times in my life, I’ve been dismissed, cast aside . . . and I realized today, that I’ve dismissed myself as much as anybody else has dismissed me. Yes, I still want you to be proud of me, to love me, but I will no longer stand for being treated like an object. Not ever again. There’s plenty I long to tell him, but the fact that I called him on it – no matter how small my words – is enough. Instead of overlooking his dismissal, instead of excusing it or being quiet or staying calm or refusing to wrestle with pigs or taking the high road or imaging how busy he was or how much he had on his mind, or minding my words, or not saying something for fear of regretting it later, I spoke up. The tiniest bit, but I spoke up and in my own respectful-of-my-Mother way stood up for myself, and I can feel a deep unearthing, a subtle shift. Is it enough to salve over all the other times I’ve been treated by myself and others like lint on the back of a jacket? No, but it’s a start.”
Annie worked the bank window today, and as I turned to see what was taking her so long to cash one little check, she pulled the microphone down to her lips and asked, “How would you like this – are 10s and 20s okay?”
“Yes, that’s fine,” I said. “Sorry for the delay. I’m a bit upset.”
“I could tell,” she said. “That’s why I gave you some time.”
Later there was Skype call with Sally and Karen. There were text message conversations with Julie and Angela. There were brief exchanges on Twitter and Facebook. There was a hot stone massage and reflexology with Marcia, and after supper, an impromptu visit with three girlfriends from high school.
Women holding space for other women, witnessing the brilliance of other women. Women reclaiming their own glorious genius. This is what we do, this is what we need, this is what 365 Altars is all about . . . this and more. Much more.