By Diana Kapp /NYTimes 02/14/2019 /RITES OF PASSAGE essay
I have arrived at a life phase in which my dad is crushing on a silver-haired grandmother, and I’m giddily becoming his girlfriend’s girlfriend.
His one-finger-peck technique meant he was perpetually bent over his screen, loafing at the breakfast table amid drained coffee cups or lingering in the car long after the rest of us had gotten out.
His phone was set to ping loudly — for the benefit of octogenarian ears — with each text’s arrival. Ping! Ping! Ping! His e-chatting was so prolific that I got him a pocket acronym dictionary as a gag. “
Pops, maybe LYLC (‘love ya like crazy’) might save some finger time,” I joked.
His texting habit peaked on a single night this August. We had managed a near-full family gathering: me, my sister, our two brothers and seven of our 10 children. And my father. We’d come together from all across the country to spread my mother’s ashes in a blue Idaho lake.
We planned to dedicate a bench to her, too, cut from a strong old-growth Douglas fir. We were ready to eat, napkins in laps, food steaming. But Dad’s chair was empty.
Through the window we could see him on the deck, hunched, tap-tapping. “Papa, look up,” my nephew texted from the table.
It was a spirited, wickedly articulate 71-year-old named Jane, a lawyer like my father, who had turned my favorite Luddite into a texting monster. Jane is my father’s “girlfriend,” a term that feels preposterous for someone who wears orthopedic shoes and travels with a baggie of bran — let alone spent the last 61 years utterly entwined with my mother.
But, yes, I have arrived at a life phase in which my 84-year-old father is crushing on a silver-haired grandmother (of 14 grandchildren!) just as hard as any teenage boy. And, just as strange, I’m giddily transitioning into his girlfriend’s girlfriend.
My father met Jane in March, six months after we left my mother behind in a frigid hospital room. She had fallen and hit her head on the way out of the movies, the one about the Boston Marathon bombers. My father was with her. She had spent two years battling a rare, terminal heart disease, and she’d died from a literal misstep.
Standing outside the hospital, my father stared at the sidewalk. “That was really something,” he said softly, leaning into the stick that steadies him. It really was. No one said anything more.
“If you meant it, Jane would very much like to use your writers’ conference pass,” my father called to say one evening early in the spring. I had bought two passes — one for me, one for him — to a July literary event, imagining it might ease the sting of the first summer without Mom. We both needed new traditions in places now filled with her ghosts.
Just the day before, I’d casually mentioned that maybe Jane would like to take my ticket. It was a reaction to news that she was planning to visit him in the Idaho mountain town where he spends vacations and where the conference was, and my fear that he would have no way to entertain her.
It wasn’t like they could cycle the bike path, not with his numb foot (neuropathy from degenerating discs). No. If my father was going to woo a gal, I wanted it to go well. A writing confab doesn’t require steady stepping and would put them on equal footing — two brilliant bookworms.
My proposal didn’t feel like a betrayal to my mother, more like we were in on the scheming together. My father is the kind of widower for whom procuring his lunchtime turkey sandwich is a significant victory. Whenever my mother prepared to leave town without him, she all but poured his breakfast Cheerios. Their union had distinct roles, and they both thrived in them. She wasn’t supposed to die first. My father was. And my mother — tough, independent, social — would be solid alone.
Then, in May, the mojitos. My father and Jane were headed to my brother’s house in Philadelphia for a first meeting. “Dad says, ‘Don’t worry about getting wine because, well, I’m not really drinking wine,’” my brother said. “I’m like, ‘Dad, you’re going on the wagon?’ And he says, ‘No, but I’m mostly drinking mojitos. I mean, we’re drinking mojitos.’”
My brother and I burst out laughing. Sure enough, Jane and my father mixed like pros, with her measuring the rum and him squeezing the limes.
I figured out about Jane in three days flat. My father and I talked most days after work, timed for his dreaded lonely return to his apartment after dinner out. He was on an exhausting, six-nights-a-week looping dinner circuit through a roster of couples (God bless them). The invites were both relief and curse. He hated eating alone but being a third-wheel stunk.
He called back a few hours later, which was unusual. “You were asking whether it’s romantic. Well, I’m here to say, we are very much alive.” I don’t think I said anything. Hanging up, I turned to my teenage daughter. “I’m pretty sure my dad just called to tell me he’s having sex,” I said.
The first few months of Jane, I felt floaty, almost as if I was reeling from a new amour. I phased among incredulity, wonder and relief. He had been bound for mere existing, biding his days with great effort and terror at the edge of a lonely abyss. Then, suddenly, his eyes twinkled in a way I have never seen.
Jane went to the writers’ conference and then stayed a little while. Days after she returned home, a box arrived for my father. A framed photo of them from the visit. A book of poems. A totem she’d made. I swear my husband sent the identical package when courting me (minus the totem).
They planned a final summer hurrah in August to a Rhode Island inn. Jane texted me photos daily. There was my father, grinning, sunning himself in a beach chair. “This is so crazy,” I said, showing my husband. “Dad hates the beach.”
I teased Jane, texting back that his seaside seating was, yes, a feat, but couldn’t she get him to ditch the black therapeutic clunkers on his feet while sunbathing? “I did suggest the sand would feel really good on his toes. He wasn’t convinced,” she shot back.
The exchange was a revelation. We weren’t just texting, Jane and me, now we were conspiring. This was fun.
“Is that black tee the only one he packed?” I said. He had it on in every photo. Her reply: “Generally, I’ve confined my ‘tips’ (as my kids call my advice) to matters of safety (as in, are you really attached to that throw rug that’s bunched up on the bathroom floor waiting for you to trip on it? Or, I think the shower would be safer for both of us with grab bars,” she wrote. “Techniques learned through 40 plus years of marriage.”
She’s funny. I loved her parenthetical poke at herself and her “tips.” And, duh, yes, she stays over because how else would she know about his bunched bathroom rug. She worried about him slipping in the shower, so surely she had no illusions about his physique.
My mother’s ashes turned part of Sawtooth Lake a milky turquoise color, refusing to dissipate. Dedicating the bench, my nephew and son played a Black Crowes song, “She Talks to Angels,” softly on the guitar and French horn.
Later that afternoon, my father and I had a chance to catch up. I talked about fall approaching, a new book, sadness with my son leaving for college. He shared his and Jane’s coming plans: a family bat mitzvah, two theater weekends in New York.
A warm breeze fluttered across. At least I believe so. I definitely felt something. Mom’s approval, I think, her little sigh of relief. I can go. Dad is set.
By winter, my father and Jane’s scheme of living together on the weekends — switching back and forth between their houses — had evolved into a plan to move in together. I never thought the routine of them toting over their rolling suitcases of weekend essentials would last.
“Did you and Jane dance?” I asked my father after Jane emailed a photo of him gussied up for a wedding, looking sharp in the new Brooks Brothers suit she had helped him buy. “Nope,” he said.
“Well, have you two ever cut a rug?” I asked. “We did,” he said proudly. “In the kitchen once. The music came on, and she just basically grabbed me.”