My 92-year-old mother owns a little desert island far away from where she lives. It has white sandy beaches and aquamarine water that glistens in the sun. The water temperature is warm enough to bathe in. It never rains there. My mother owns this island, but she's never been there. Neither have any of her family members. We've just heard an awful lot about it.
My mother's desert island is a figment of her imagination. She created this island years ago, when I was just a child. "It's a beautiful place," she told me. "I'm going to go there, some day, when I die."
"Can I come too?" I asked.
"No, I don't think so," she said solemnly. "You have to earn a spot on my island. You haven't earned it yet, Jule."
My mother wanted to live on a desert island without me, her youngest child? I admit, this hurt. "Is Dad going to get to go to your island then?" I asked.
"Dad?" My mother laughed. "Oh my gosh, definitely not Dad! You have to know how to do things to live on my island. I love Dad but he can't live on my island. I might let him visit from time to time, though."
My mother's island confused me greatly as a child. None of the people she loved were invited to live there. Not me, my three siblings, or my dad. One of my sisters hovered on the cusp of an invitation, though. "Jane never causes any trouble," my mom admitted. "She's very cozy too. But, I'm not sure yet. Her room IS a mess."
To be invited to my mother's island, you have to be reliable, efficient and drama-free. You have to know how to do things like change lightbulbs and replace car batteries. My dad was a great writer and reporter who provided for his family well. But he didn't know how to fix anything. My sisters, brother and I were just plain and simple too much work to be allowed on the island. My mother wanted to relax there—not cook, clean and drive around a bunch of kids. She loved us all, but no, we were not island material.
My mother's choices for her island inhabitants have always surprised me. Mr. Deluca, the house painter, came first. He painted several rooms in our house over the years. I had a really hard time imagining him lounging in a beach chair next to my mother in his paint-splattered coveralls. Plus, I knew he was married and had several children. But my mother insisted upon his invitation. "I can count on him," she said. "He shows up on time and he works hard. He never complains and he does a wonderful job. Yup. He's invited to my island for sure."
Next came Mr. Shaw, my best friend's father. "But, Mom, you barely know Mr. Shaw!" I complained when she announced this latest island addition.
"I don't have to know him that well!" my mother responded. "That's not mandatory. You get on my island you have to do something above and beyond the call of duty. Mr. Shaw did that when he showed up at the house to carpool you guys around on that horribly rainy day. It was my turn and I just dreaded even going outside. That little toot-toot of Mr. Shaw's horn was the answer to my prayers. He deserves a spot on the island."
OK, then. We had Mr. Deluca, the painter, and Mr. Shaw, the carpool driver. And my mom. The island still did not make a lot of sense to me. "Who else, Mom?" I asked.
"Lula's in," my mother answered. Lula was a kind of housekeeper who took care of my grandparents when my mom went to work. She cleaned the house, made lunch for my grandparents, helped them in the bathroom, let the dog in and out, and got started on dinner before she left for the day. She appeared out of the blue in answer to a desperate ad my mother had placed in the newspaper for help.
"Lula? Why Lula?" Lula and my mother didn't really seem to have that much in common. They didn't even chat when my mom was home with her. Why would my mother want to live on a desert island with Lula?
"She's reliable and efficient. I can count on her. She's never called in sick even once. She deserves to come to my island."
Over the years, my mother has added to her list of island invitees, but it's still not very crowded. In fact, she can't quite remember all the people she's invited. "There aren't many, though—I'm sure of that," she told me. I think my dad finally did make the cut when he died. "I miss him," my mom said. "I think I'll let him on the island. We can always get Mr. Deluca to do the hard stuff." My sister, Jane, also made the island, through her dedication to my parents as they aged. "Jane's a must," my mother said. "What would I have done without Jane?"
My mother is a practical person, even in her imagination. She's fanciful enough to create her own desert island, but she knows the truth about life: Someone has to do the work. For every person relaxing on a desert island, there's someone behind the scenes, gathering coconuts from trees and starting the fires. She wants those reliable people around her because she doesn't want to have to do all the work herself. She wants to get some time to relax someday. Now that I've taken over as primary caregiver for my mother, I think I've finally made the cut. I'm invited to the island. But if I have to go as a worker, I'm not going.