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It’s statistically impossible that my mother is always right. So why doesn’t she seem to know it?
Besides, it’s demonstrably true that I’m not always wrong. I have twenty-one Emmys for investigative reporting—won number twenty-one after I was stalked by murderous thugs, threatened by insider-trading CEOs and held at gunpoint by a money-hungry sociopath who I proved was mastermind of a nationwide insider-trading scandal. Every one of them is in prison now. So I must have been right about a lot of things.
But at this moment, struggling for balance on a cushily upholstered chair at Mom’s bedside in New England’s most exclusive cosmetic surgery center, somehow I no longer feel like the toast of Boston television. I feel more like toast. Once again, I’m a gawky, awkward, nearsighted adolescent, squirming under the assessing eye of Lorraine Carpenter McNally. Two months from now, provided her face heals in time for the wedding, she’ll be Lorraine Carpenter McNally Margolis.
“Charlotte,” Mother says. “Stop frowning. You’re making lines.”
Millions of viewers know me as Charlie McNally. I’m not Charlie to my mother, though. As she’s repeatedly told me, my news director, my producer Franklin Parrish, my ex-husband Sweet Baby James, admirers who hail me on the street, and certainly Josh Gelston when she meets him: “Nicknames are for stuffed animals and men who have to play sports.” After that pronouncement, she always adds: “If I’d wanted a child named Charlie, I would have had a boy and named him that.”
Mom and I do better by long distance. Most of our conversations begin with me telling her about something I’ve done. Then she tells me what I should have done. Then I ask why nothing I do is ever good enough. Then she insists she’s not “criticizing,” she’s “observing.” As long as she stays in her skyscraping lake-view condo in Chicago, we do a good job pretending we’re a close-knit pair.
But here she is in my hometown, swaddled in a frothy peach hospital gown, surrounded by crystal vases of fragrant June peonies, reclining against down pillows. She insists that I shouldn’t come visit her every day, saying she’s sure I have better things to do. Patients “of a certain age” who have “extensive surgery” stay here through recovery, minimum fourteen days. So this is going to be an interesting couple of weeks. And by interesting I mean impossible.
At least Mom doesn’t look as bad as I expected for a few hours after surgery. No bruises yet, no puffy eyes. She’s got bags of what look like frozen peas Ace bandaged to each side of her face to keep down the swelling, and I can still see the little needle marks where her precious Dr. Garth injected Restylane to erase the lines in her forehead.
“All the pretty girls are doing it,” she says. She would have given me her trademark raised eyebrow for emphasis, I’m sure, if she could move her eyebrows. “And if you don’t make an appointment with the plastic surgeon at your age…” Her voice trails off, apparently rendered speechless by my continuing refusal to face reality. She settles into her plump nest of pillows, adjusts her peas and pushes harder. “Charlotte, you know I’m right, and…”
Keeping my face appropriately attentive, I begin a mental list of all the things I should be doing at nine-thirty on a Monday night instead of babysitting with my mother. Thinking about a blockbuster story for the July ratings. Calling Franklin to see if he’s come up with another Emmy winner. Making sure I have a bathing suit that won’t freak out my darling Josh, who has only known me since last October and has not yet encountered my forty-six-year-old self in anything but sleek reporter suits or jeans and chunky sweaters or strategically lacy lingerie. Under dim lights.
“And local TV is so—local.…” Lorraine is reprising one of her favorite themes. Why is it, she wonders, that I’ve never wanted to move to New York and hit the networks? Or at least move home to Chicago, where she could set me up with a handpicked tycoon husband who would convince me to abandon my television career and become a tycoon wife? For the past twenty years I’ve told her I’m fulfilled by my career and am comfortable being single again. Mother makes it clear I’m wrong about this.
I look dutifully contemplative, nod a couple of times and continue my mental should-be-doing list. Feed Botox, who’s probably already ripped the mail to shreds and tipped over her litter box to prove who’s boss. E-mail best friend Maysie, who’s at Fenway Park covering the Red Sox, and see what I’m supposed to bring to her annual Fourth of July cookout. Call Nora and make sure my younger sister will take her turn at mom-sitting when Mother finally goes home. Dig up a book about adolescent girls and see how experts suggest I deal with Josh’s daughter Penny.
I’ve been to war zones, chased politicians through parking lots, wired myself with hidden cameras, even battled through the annual bridal gown extravaganza in Filene’s Basement, but spending my summer vacation days with a surly eight-year-old and her blazingly attractive father? This may be my toughest assignment ever. Not counting the bathing suit.
“Look in the mirror,” Mother urges. She starts to point, but then, after a quick scan, apparently realizes the flatteringly lit pink walls of her posh little room—which looks more like plush grand hotel than sterile hospital—don’t have any mirrors.
She forges ahead, undaunted by reality. “Well, find a mirror, and look in it,” she says. “Charlotte, this isn’t a criticism, it’s an observation. I’m your mother. If I don’t tell you, who will? Your neck is, well, worrisome, and you’ll instantly see how your cheeks are drooping.”
Happily for our relationship, there’s a soft knock on the door. As it opens, Mother’s expression softens from imperious to flirtatious. Talk about worrisome. Still, I’ve got to give her credit for believing she’s alluring in that frozen pea and Ace bandage getup. Wisps of her newly reblonded hair escape in a way she’d never allow if there were mirrors, but she’s still got the McNally brown eyes and Gramma Nell’s good posture. If it’s true we become our mothers, I guess I’m not going to be so bad at sixty-eight. Plus, the nursing staff at the New England Center for Cosmetic Surgery is certainly used to women in the awkward stages of transformation.
“Miz McNally?” A romance novel cover-model wannabe in a white oxford button-down and even whiter pants consults the chart clamped to the foot of Mom’s bed. His smile is snowier still. “I’m Nurse Justin. How are we feeling?” He clicks some switches on a bedside contraption, checking the heart and respiration monitors the center requires for every patient. Mom coos at him as he muscles a rolling bed table across her lap, pretending she doesn’t want to take her latest round of pills because the painkillers make her “silly.”
Nurse Justin is just one of the pill-dispensing glamour boys I’ve seen in the center’s modishly fashionable nursing whites. Some are older and gray-templed, some younger with panache-y little ponytails, but they all look like they’ve just come from shooting the latest Ralph Lauren catalog, and only do this nursing thing in their spare time. I don’t know how the center gets away with this obviously discriminatory hiring practice. Plus, who’d want a hunky guy seeing you as a before? Mother, apparently, is all for it.
I tune back in to her chitchat. It’s about me.
“On Channel 3,” I hear Mother explaining. “Charlotte, dear,” she says. “I hope you’re going to be on the news tonight. We’d love to watch you.”
Not a chance, of course. It’s now almost ten o’clock, and the news goes on the air at eleven. But Mother has never understood how television works.
“Nope,” I say, smiling as if this isn’t a ridiculous question. And, I grudgingly realize, she’s just being a proud mom, which is actually very sweet. “I do long-term investigative stories,” I explain to the nurse, just an amiable daughter joining the conversation. “I’m only on the air when we’ve uncovered something big. So, nothing tonight.” I shrug. “Sorry.”
Nurse Justin’s face suddenly changes to a scowl, which is baffling until I see he’s pointing at my tote bag. Which is ringing. “No cell phones allowed in guests’ rooms,” he says, still scowling. “Strict rules. We’re all about patient privacy. And quiet. Cell phones are allowed only in the outer lobby.”
I cringe. “Forgot to turn it off when I left the station,” I say, which is true. I whap it to Off without even checking the number, figuring Justin will forgive me my first transgression, and whoever is calling will call back. His face begins to soften—and then my purse starts beeping.
I dive for the beeper they still make me carry, knowing full well I forgot to turn that off, too. I push the kill button, but the illuminated green letters that pop up are inescapable. CALL DESK, it demands. RIGHT NOW. And if that weren’t attention-getting enough, a second screen flashes up at me. NEED U LIVE FOR ELEVEN PM NEWS.
Mom was right again.
Copyright © 2009 by Hank Phillippi Ryan