(“Lydia” is available online and in bookstores now)
My mother, Lydia Callahan, walked out of the Dublin, California, federal women’s penitentiary at noon on Mother’s Day 1993, a free woman, with nothing but the clothes on her back and a Lands’ End fanny pack full of credit cards. She took a taxi to the Holiday Inn in Walnut Creek, where she checked in as Lydia Elkrunner and gave her address as hell. Then she washed her hair in complimentary Pert and fell asleep. Lydia was fifty-eight years old; in her dreams, she was twenty.
The next night, she telephoned my daughter Shannon in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Lydia said, “I’m out of stir.”
Shannon said, “Stir?”
“Prison. They let me go.”
“That’s wonderful, Lydia. I can’t wait to see you.”
“I want you to pick me up at the airport Thursday afternoon. I don’t know what flight I’ll be on, so you’ll have to meet them all.”
“Which airport is this where you want me to meet every flight?”
“Jackson Hole. I want you to be the one waiting when I come home. No one else.”
“Lydia, Dad lives right there, almost next door to that airport, and I live two thousand miles away.”
“Are you going to do this for me or not?”
Shannon said, “I was being practical.” Then there was silence. In the past, before going underground, Lydia would have flown into a tirade at the suggestion that practicality might take precedence over her will. But prison had taught her the power of silence. Noisy intimidation works on men; women respond to a quieter approach.
After twenty seconds, Shannon said, “I’ll be there.”
Lydia said, “I would also like you to organize a community get-together. No use sneaking back into town.”
“You want a welcome home party?”
“Put up a notice at the GroVont post office. Tell them chicken wings and shitty beer for all. That’ll bring the yokels out.”
“Anything else, Grandma?”
“Dress nice. This is my triumphant return. I don’t need to come off the airplane and see a slob.”
Lydia’s phone call came while Shannon was in the process of breaking up with her tenth boyfriend in ten years. This one’s name was Tanner. They had made love with a device Tanner bought for seventy-five cents from a machine in the truckers-only washroom at the Dixie Land Service Center near Highpoint. Tanner was proud of his device, and in his mind, he had just given Shannon the sensual experience of the epoch.
Tanner kissed her left breast and said, “My God, that was great.”
Shannon rolled over on her back to face the ceiling. “I don’t feel the way you’re supposed to feel when you’re in love.”
Tanner said, “Yeah, but the orgasm makes up the difference.”
“There’s more to love than orgasms.”
Tanner was confused. His belief system was based on the concept that sexual prowess and popularity go hand in hand. “What the hell does that have to do with us?”
“I do not love you, Tanner. You’re interchangeable with others.”
“But I’m here now.”
Shannon rolled back to look at Tanner, who had a little scar on his chin she was fond of. She realized the scar was why she had chosen him in the first place. It lent Tanner a sense of fragile danger, but fragile danger is not enough in the long haul. “Tonight was fun,” she said. “I want you to move out tomorrow.”
He said, “No.”
At that point, the phone rang.
Tanner pouted throughout Shannon’s conversation with Lydia. After they said their good-byes and hung up, he said he was sorry he wasted his youth on a woman with the emotional capacity of a mud flap. He asked her if their time together meant nothing to her, and she said, “That’s right.” He asked her if she was made of stone. Shannon realized Tanner would not leave her until tears flowed and glass shattered. She would have to make him believe the breakup was his idea, and at the moment she simply didn’t have the energy. Instead she telephoned her father, Sam. This is where I enter the story.
I answered midway through the first ring.
Shannon said, “Grandma’s out of the slammer.”
There followed a moment of silence as I adjusted to the idea of a free mother. It’s not as easy as you would think. “I knew it was happening this month; I wasn’t sure when.”
“They let her go yesterday. Seems strange to do it on a Sunday.”
“We express mailed her a loaf of pumpkin bread for Mother’s Day. Do you know if she got it?”
“Lydia didn’t say.” Tanner flounced off to the bathroom and slammed the door. Shannon knew he was angry, but it was hard to take him seriously with a condom dangling between his legs. “She did say I’m supposed to pick her up at the Jackson Hole airport Thursday afternoon.”
I said, “I can be there.”
“She said I have to be the one. Nobody else.” Shannon could hear Tanner’s electric toothbrush. First thing after sex, Tanner always brushed his teeth. “Grandma’s nuts. Prison hasn’t changed her.”
“I didn’t think it would.”
“She wants me to organize a party at the GroVont house.”
“Am I invited?”
“I guess so. She didn’t say invite everyone but Sam.” Tanner came from the bathroom, minus the condom. He picked his jockey shorts off the floor, snatched the seventy-five-cent device from the nightstand, and left the room.
I said, “Will you need a ride from the airport yourself?”
“Leave Lydia’s BMW in the parking lot with the keys behind the gas cap cover. I’ll pick it and her up at the same time.”
“The BMW hasn’t run in ten years.”
“Better have someone look at it. Grandma’s coming home.”
The next day I drove out to the TM Ranch. I found Maurey Pierce sitting on the top rail of a buck-and-rail fence, watching a pasture filled with pregnant mares named after movie stars. It was an ideal day—high-altitude blue sky, room temperature, no humidity to brag about. Days like this are rare in the muddy, sluggish springs of the West. I should have been basking in the glory of good weather, but Maurey had permed her hair over the weekend. Changes of any kind, and especially in Maurey Pierce, throw me for a loop. You should know that about me. I hate change.
“How long till it grows back out?” I asked.
“I’m glad to see you too, Sam.”
“I mean, your hair looks nice and all, I just like it the way it was—when you were a teenager.”
“That was twenty-five years ago.”
“What’s your point?”
Maurey patted the rail, indicating that I should climb up beside her. Maurey’s been my friend since I came to Wyoming. We’re so close, we don’t have to talk to communicate. She said, “Lydia called this morning. She’s a free bird.”
I settled in next to her. “She phoned Shannon last night. You think by calling everyone in the family but me, that she’s trying to make a point?”
“Lydia’s not in my family.”
I started to disagree but decided I wasn’t going to convince her of anything new. Maurey is Shannon’s mother; I’m Shannon’s father; Lydia is my mother and Shannon’s grandmother: that makes the whole bunch of us family in my book. And this is my book. One of the mares knelt on her front legs and flopped sideways. Since Maurey didn’t seem concerned, I figured it was normal behavior.
Maurey said, “Uma Thurman will drop first.”
“Which one’s Uma Thurman?”
“The sorrel. Drew beat her by ten hours last year.” Maurey nodded toward a black horse with white feet and a white wedge running down her nose. “But my money is on Uma. She’s set to pop. God, look at her. I’m glad I’m not pregnant.”
We watched Uma for a while, expecting her to pop at any moment, although I wasn’t sure I was watching the same mare as Maurey. I know brown and pinto, palomino in a good light, but sorrel is beyond me either as a color or a horse.
“What did Lydia say this morning?”
“She’s in San Francisco on a shopping spree.”
“Shannon told me Lydia’s coming home Thursday.”
Maurey nodded. “That’s why she called. She’s throwing a prodigal mom party. Pud’s supposed to barbecue a pig.”
“Shannon thinks she’s supposed to organize the homecoming bash.”
“Lydia changed her mind. She doesn’t trust Shannon to get it right, not that she thinks we’ll do better.”
I said, “Lydia has high standards when it comes to parties thrown by other people for her.”
“She wanted a fatted calf on a spit, but that’s where I drew the line.”
My eyes went from the horses in the pasture, across the river line, to the red mountains in the distance. Somehow, the older I got, the less I was able to deal with the difference between nature and people. I’d recently been feeling almost paralyzed by the unlikelihood of life.
Maurey said, “Pud’s over in Idaho Falls now, looking for a butcher who sells whole hogs.”
“Why not buy a live one and slaughter it yourself?”
Maurey’s nose wrinkled. “Yuck, Sam. Do you want to stick a pig?”
“That’s one of the many reasons we run horses instead of cattle—I don’t have to kill the inventory.”
“You’ve raised cattle before.”
“No need to throw the past in my face. Do I throw the past in your face? Do I say, ‘You once owned a golf cart company,’ which is sure as hell nastier than feeding cows”?
“You never know when to back off and let it alone. When I met you, you wore Dickeys and thought hooters were people from Indiana. But do I hold it against you? No.”
After decades of multiple apologies per conversation, I had adopted a policy with women of saying I was sorry once, then keeping my mouth shut till they ran down. In my job, I dealt almost exclusively with women, and the policy served me well.
“What are you going to do about Lydia?” Maurey asked.
“Nobody can do anything about their mother.”
“Got that right.” She grabbed my arm and pointed. “Michelle Pfeiffer’s water just broke.”