Maddenation

A conversation with Lorraine Howard

I got a strange phone call tonight after mom had gone to bed early. A gravel-throated, hesitant voice asked, “Is Mrs. Madden there?” It sounded so strange, so seemingly put on, that I thought it was Dan feigning some feeble old woman. “Is this my son Dan?” I said in that kind of baby-talk, koopertackers voice my father used to use when he was doing silliness better than anybody ever has, before or since. Lorraine would have none of it.

“Is this Mr. Madden? You sound terrific.”

I decided not to press the issue, figuring the phone connection had failed to convey the patently ridiculous inflections of my voice. “Good to hear from you,” I lied. I was actually a little uncomfortable hearing from her, and I always have been. That’s my problem, of course, not hers. In my world, I’m always the gruff father and she’s the little neighborhood girl, older friend of little Kathleen. It’s all right for her to keep in touch with mom, who gave her some extra attention she may have needed in her formative years, or with Kathleen, who became her young friend and didn’t judge her; but it’s uncomfortable (for want of a better word) to have her talking to me, the guy who largely ignored her most of the time, who most of the time wished she’d go away. (Go home, kid, and tell your mother she wants you.)

But I suppressed all those feelings (and I think the bad phone quality helped cover over any leakage of feelings by “tone-of-voice”) and inquired about how she was. I wanted to ask her why she called but was a little afraid that something dire had brought it about. I think she said she was just thinking about our family and decided to call.

“All your kids are out of the house now and on their own, right?” she said. I brought her up to date on how many kids Patrick has and where you kids are located and what you’re doing. “All your kids went to college and are all on their own and doing well, right?” Yes, I said, and told her how lucky, nay, blessed I feel. (I tell this to everyone, once the conversation stays on the subject long enough.) Naturally, I asked how she is doing, and she said OK.

Her story came out gradually, but probably not completely. I have to piece it together from disjointed comments she made. She’s living in Coconut Creek, FL with a friend of hers, whose children she takes care of. She works part-time at their school and (I guess) full-time as a sort of nanny, although she never used that term. She never married (never found “Mr. Right”), and at one point said that, although she has always loved kids, she could not have given them what they needed had she had her own. I wanted to tell her that that was probably not true, but I didn’t get the chance. She kept talking about how good a job mom did in raising you kids, who all went to college and are out on your own, earning a living, contributing to society, making your mark, seeking and achieving fulfillment, and doing all those good things that not everyone has a chance to do. Or the inclination. Or the ability. She didn’t say all that. I might have read some of it between the lines, and in her tone of voice. Had she talked to mom instead of to me, the story would have come out more clearly. But mom probably wouldn’t have been so pretentious as to put it on our web site.

I asked about her siblings, none of whom I really remember except for Michael, who I ran into at Loyola retreat house a few years ago. We talked about his Little League teams, who won some big championship (national level?) years ago. He used to coach in Morristown, but now coaches in Mendham/Basking Ridge, where the athletes aren’t as good. (That’s because their parents are richer, right?) Anyway, the other seven kids (for a total of nine, if I remember correctly) sound like they’re doing OK; about what you’d expect from a family that size. Some doing really great, other’s not so great; some married, some divorced (was it Melissa whose husband just up and left her? I forget.)

Anyway, Lorraine continues to be impressed with our family. Heck, I am too, but that’s different. With Lorraine, it’s more like awe. “I was never very smart in school, Mr. Madden, but your kids were all smart and did so well.” I suppose she wasn’t very smart, but I didn’t really notice back then. Maybe she was told she wasn’t smart, and didn’t disappoint. Maybe she was born a little too far down in the pecking order to receive the attention she needed. (What do you think, Dr. Phil?) Maybe she was meant to be a great dancer, but didn’t get the support. I don’t know. I shouldn’t even be speculating.

What I’d like to tell her, and maybe I will if I get another, better chance, is that she may not be smart in the bookish, IQ sense our society worships, but she’s a good person, a loving person. In God’s eyes (I hope and pray) she’s the equal of anyone, deserving of love and compassion and attention. And not only that, she’s undoubtedly smarter than she thinks. And anyway, does that really matter? What doth it profit a woman if she gain all the knowledge in the world and yet suffer the loss of her immortal soul? Will all that knowledge explain where we come from, why we suffer, where we’re going, what we’re supposed to do in the meantime? (Unfortunately, there is not enough space here to address these questions adequately.)

In the end I took down her number and promised to have mom call her back. I hung up the phone and had an attack of melancholy.

I have trouble seeing Lorraine as a woman of nearly 40 who looks and talks a lot like her mother did thirty years ago. I still see Lorraine as that skinny little girl in the swimsuit posing for a picture next that tiny plastic pool in our former back yard in Morristown. She’s smiling and feeling proud about taking care of Kathleen, who was then a mere baby. “I know I’m not very smart,” she is saying, “but do you see how caring I am?” And I, from my current position 150 mile-years away, am saying, “Yes, I see, I really see.”

DadConnections05/20/05 0 comments

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