“Don’t you remember?” said Gerald as the family sat down to dinner.
“Remember what?” said Rosie, returning for the umpteenth time to the kitchen, this time to take off her apron.
“The way my mother used to make macaroni and cheese,” said Gerald. “When most people make it, it’s a stodgy, gluey mess. She used to get it just right, with a nice crusty top.”
Marie winced as she heard plates clattering in the kitchen.
“Dad, this is not the time to be going on about Gran’s cooking. You know it always annoys Mom,” she hissed at her father. “You haven’t even complimented Mom. Look at how nice the table looks. She’s been working all afternoon.”
“What?” said Gerald. “Oh, yes, this looks fine. But my mouth still starts to water when I think about that mac and cheese…ouch.”
He jumped as Marie jabbed him with her elbow. Marie’s son Jack, watched with big eyes as Rosie stalked in and sat down. Marie sighed. The atmosphere felt as thick as a gathering storm.
“Thank you, dear,” Gerald said. Rosie glared at him as she passed the out the plates, tossing her head.
“I do remember how your mother couldn’t cook a roast to save her life. It was either cooked to leather or half-raw. But she always had the nerve to criticize my cooking whenever she came here.”
“That’s not true,” said Gerald. “She was just trying to be helpful. You weren’t that great a cook when we first married. You just didn’t want to take the advice in the spirit it was offered. I don’t know why you were so defensive.”
“Stop!” said Marie loudly as Rosie drew breath to respond. “Enough. Time out. No more.”
Tabitha, the cat, shot out of the room, bristling. Gerald and Rosie were momentarily startled into silence. Looking across the table at Jack, Marie was suddenly transported back to all the mealtimes in her childhood where she had sat as he was now, trying to gauge which way things were going to blow up. She jumped up so suddenly that her chair flipped over backwards.
“I’m sorry,” said Marie. “I can’t do this. These arguments are triggering me.”
“What arguments?” said Rosie in surprise. “I’m just pointing out that your father is looking through rose-colored glasses. He doesn’t remember what it was really like when his mother came to visit. She did nothing but find fault with me and he was such a mama’s boy that he never said a word in my defense. Stating facts is not an argument.”
“Triggering?” said Gerald scornfully. “What kind of politically correct nonsense is that?”
“I am feeling nervous and tense and sick to my stomach, the way I used to as a kid, when you two started bickering. It upset me then and it’s upsetting me now. At least I don’t have to stay and listen to it anymore. Let’s go, Jack. Get your things.”
Jack scurried out of the dining room, gathering his toy cars and stuffing them into his backpack.
“I’m sorry. I love you both, but I can’t live through this again. I don’t know how you can stand it, but I suppose it’s been that way for so long that you’re used to it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Gerald.
“Where is this coming from suddenly? I don’t understand,” said Rosie, as bewildered as if Marie had started speaking in tongues.
“At last, something you both agree on,” Marie said, smiling wryly as she and Jack left.
“…and then he brought up the mac and cheese again,” Marie said to her best friend Helen later that week as they sat in their favorite coffee shop.
“No, not that,” said Helen, laughing. “Gosh, I don’t remember how many times you’ve told me about all the fighting that started with that mac and cheese story. Why do you always think it’s going to be different when you go back?”
“I don’t know,” said Marie with a sigh. “I suppose it’s because I remember what I want to. Memory is such a weird thing. I keep hoping things will have changed. They are not bad people but somewhere along the way they’ve got stuck in this rut of pushing each other’s buttons and having the same endless argument. They don’t even notice it. And that is why Rob and I have split up.”
“What? That came out of the blue,” said Helen. “What happened? What do your parents have to do with you and Rob?”
Marie wiped a tear away and stirred her coffee furiously.
“I realized we were doing the same thing. Fighting constantly about totally trivial things without understanding what’s really bothering us. I saw I was recreating my childhood for Jack, and I don’t want him to live through that. I tried to get Rob to go to therapy with me, but he wasn’t having any. So, I decided to make a clean break and I’m seeing a therapist on my own. I don’t want to keep repeating the same mistakes.”
Helen reached across the table and squeezed Marie’s hand.
“You know I’m there for you, whatever happens. What have your parents said?”
“Oh, you know, marriage vows, till death us do part and so on. They genuinely don’t understand. I’m making a fuss over nothing as far as they’re concerned. It’s all this modern, snowflake, politically correct nonsense according to my father. My mother worries about how I’ll manage on my own, as if I’d suddenly lost all my faculties now that I’m not half of a couple.”
“It’s a generational thing,” said Helen. “Marriage was a different deal then, especially for the women. Give them time to adjust.”
Marie was standing back trying to decide where her bookcase should go in her new apartment when her phone rang. It was her father’s number, but his voice was so weak that for a moment she thought it was a prank call.
“It’s your mother,” he said, choking on sobs. “She’s in the hospital. They say she’s had a stroke…”
Marie stared at the phone screen as if it were radioactive, her thoughts whirling in an uncoordinated jumble.
“Hello? Hello? Are you there?”
She swallowed and took a deep breath.
“Yes, Dad, I’m on the way.”
She drove to the hospital in record time and raced down the gleaming corridors, frantically searching room numbers. She almost passed her father in the hallway without recognizing him. He seemed shrunken, old and feeble; all trace of his former ex-military bearing gone. He looked at her blankly for a second before recognition dawned.
“Marie, love, it’s too late. She’s gone.”
He began to cry, rasping sobs which shook his whole body. Marie hugged him close, awkwardly stroking his back, shocked to feel how bony he was. They were not a hugging family, so she had no idea how long he had been this thin. A nurse guided them into a small waiting room, proffering tissues and glasses of water. Gerald slowly composed himself and straightened up, wiping his eyes and clearing his throat.
“Sorry about that,” he said brusquely.
Marie shook her head, mopping up her own tears.
“Dad, don’t apologize, for goodness’ sake. Can we just show normal emotions for once? We’ve just lost one of the most important people in our lives.”
“Hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” he said. “We did love each other, you know, in our way. I know you might find that hard to believe. It’s different nowadays, all that touchy-feely stuff.”
Marie took his hand.
“I believe you did love each other,” she said.
“I hope you remember the good times,” said Gerald. “I’m sorry if it wasn’t always what is should have been. Try to forget the bad parts.”
“I want to remember all of it,” said Marie. “The good times to treasure and the bad times to avoid repeating them. You and Mom did your best and I love you both for it. Let’s go home.”
She took his arm and they slowly walked away.