Comeuppance seems to come along when we least expect it.
My mom died suddenly in 1992, when she was only 69. Of a heart attack or stroke, we were never sure. At any rate, after the funeral the family gathered at her house and it was the usual: food and tears and seeing relatives that we hadn't seen in a long time. I'm one of 22 first cousins and dozens more of the shirttail variety, and most, with their spouses, were there to pay respects to my sister and me, and to my mother.
One of my cousins, who I'll call Hector for the purpose of this post (Hector wasn't his real name) was married to a girl named Sheila (also not her real name). I wasn't close to Hector or his wife, for no real reason other than we lived in very different worlds. Hector and Sheila were sort of poor, and sort of backward. I was living in New York running with business types, building a career, traveling. Hector was a bit older than I and lived here in central New York. I don't know what he did for a living and never thought to care. I considered Sheila of even less interest. In fact, whenever I was home for a visit and Hector and Sheila stopped by to see my mom, I managed to slide out the back door while they were coming in the front. I think it's accurate to say I was a bit of a snob when it came to this branch of the family.
The day of my mother's funeral, as I mentioned, there was a houseful. Hector and Sheila were there, in a corner someplace I guess, I honestly don't recall even seeing them. After several hours of chatting with family and paying absolutely no attention to Hector and his wife, Sheila approached me. Up to that point, I don't think I'd ever said more than three words to the woman. She was slow mentally and not terribly clean. And hey, I wasn't going to waste my time with Sheila. I was a big shot New Yorker, living a big shot New Yorker's life.
Sheila wanted to speak with me. In private.
We went outside and in her very country way Sheila began talking about my mother's will. Asked, in fact, if the will had yet been read. I recall standing there with arms crossed, scowling at poor short Sheila and thinking she'd watched too many episodes of Murder She Wrote. I was aghast that this bumpkin, who wasn't even a blood relative, had the nerve to discuss my mother's estate (such as it was) and imagined that Sheila was looking for a handout. Peevish, I informed her there would be no "reading" of my mother's will, that my mother hadn't had much to leave behind other than the house, which technically belonged to me, and about two hundred Tupperware bowls with mismatched lids. As I stared her down there in the driveway, eyebrow raised, Sheila said this to me:
"I'm asking because, well, I was wondering if you could give me something, like a doily or a blanket she crocheted. Whenever Hector and I came over she made us feel so important. Like we were, you know, somebody special. I loved your mother very much."
I'm not sure there are enough adjectives to explain the emotions that ran through me at that moment. Humiliation. Discomfort. Remorse. Guilt. Profound shame. I was so ashamed of myself. Here I thought Sheila was going to ask for money, and all she wanted was to own something that my mother had crafted with her own hands. Sheila wanted to take away a piece of my mom because mom, unlike her arrogant New York daughter, had made this girl feel special when nobody else ever did.
I hugged Sheila and we both cried. Then we went back to the house and I gave her an afghan, one of the granny-square types that used to be so popular for ladies to assemble while watching TV. Sheila went away smiling, clutching those granny squares as though I'd given her a trunk full of gold.
There are so many reasons, of course, that I'm sorry my mother is gone. The biggest reason, though, is because I can't look in her blue eyes and tell her that the greatest lesson she ever taught me was to treat every person like they're someone special. Because in their own way, even though we may not see it, they probably are.
My mom would have turned 89 this week. A great lady. I miss her every day.