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The Key

Author Margaret Peterson gives a narrative of a mother struggling to cross a generational divide in this touching short story.

I looked up from the map Bruce had drawn with his meticulous instruction list next to it. Where was the loop I was supposed to be on by now? I pushed my sunglasses up into my hair and squinted in the sun’s blaze. This Golden State was well named.

I scrutinized the map. If I missed the loop I would be late for my lunch date with Bruce and Kathryn. I did not like to keep people waiting, especially not my son and his wife.

I pulled my sunglasses back into place and caught a stray curl in the frame. This was to be a leisurely stroll but it was not turning out as I had planned. Just like my visit.

My idea of coming from Seattle was to get to know my new daughter-in-law and smooth out the wrinkles in the relationship between my son and myself. The visit was half over and I was no nearer my goal than when I left. I rubbed the muscles at the back of my neck. I was running out of time.

I glanced at my watch; the hands pointed to Roman numerals that made me sigh and turn away.

I did not know where the loop was and I did not have time to find out.

My feet slapped the white sandals in a steady beat as I walked along the sidewalk, but my thoughts did not match the rhythm. They swirled about as if in a whirlpool. What had gone wrong this week? Why had I been unable to bond with either one of the couple?

I recalled the previous night’s incident at the dining room table. I had commented on the floral arrangement as Bruce brought in a basket of biscuits and a platter of ham. He had ignored me and turned back toward his wife who followed with a dish of steamed rice and another of green beans. “Hon, I did manage to get tickets for the game.”

“What game is that?” I had asked.

Bruce had set the food down and moved a bowl of carrots to accommodate Kathryn’s dishes before he had responded. “Baseball.”

“Wow! You got tickets for the Padres? That’s great. They’ve been doing well this year. You two must be excited to go to the game.”

Bruce had glanced at his wife. “Yeah.” They returned to the kitchen.

I had shifted about in my chair to feel more comfortable.

Kathryn had served chocolate cake for dessert. “How do you make it look like a cookbook illustration? Mine never turn out that way. Yours is amazing with the icing cascading down like that.”

“It’s nothing special, Estelle, I just plopped the icing on and it dripped like that.” She had turned to Bruce. “Please bring in the coffee.”

I had said little else for the remainder of the evening.

Was I trying too hard? Could aloofness be the answer? I shook my head. That was absurd. Where had I read lately about communication? I stopped to recall.

“Excuse me,” I turned to see a white haired man, stooped against his walker.

“Oh, I am sorry for standing right in the middle of the sidewalk.” I spread my hands wide.

“Forgive me for being in your way. I hope you haven’t been waiting long.” I took off my sunglasses. “I guess I was oblivious to him where I was.”

Wrinkles deepened in his face as he smiled. “Then I’m not the only one who sometimes forgets where I am.” We laughed together as his walker thumped by. I would like to have kept him company but I had to hurry.

Bruce and Kathryn were waiting for me as I ascended the slate steps. Bruce was in dress pants and a tailored shirt. Kathryn stood nearby in a lime green dress that accentuated her dark eyes.

“I’m sorry. I hope I haven’t kept you waiting. I…”

Bruce cut me off. “Skip it, Mother. Just get changed. We’ve made reservations, but they’ll be cancelled if we don’t get there soon.”

I ran toward the guest room, unbuttoning my cotton blouse with unsteady hands. Minutes later I was back, wearing a coral linen dress. I was glad I had pressed it earlier.

Bruce started the car and I leaned toward him from the back seat. “I will feel terrible if the reservation is gone. I can’t believe I got lost after the good map you drew and the instructions you wrote. I’m so bad at directions that…”

“There’s no need for dramatics. Calm down, Mother. We’ll be there in time.”

I slumped against the seat and tried to breathe normally. Bruce hated emotional scenes of any kind. One mistake after another. I put effort into making my response soft, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s no big deal.”

Kathryn broke the prolonged silence. “Bruce, did you find out about your shift change yet?”

I did not hear his low answer nor the conversation that they carried on for the rest of the drive. I was reminded of the police car I’d seen at the airport with a glass partition between the two officers in the front and a man in the back.

In the restaurant I picked up the leather covered menu. ‘Leg of lamb, roast beef, steak…’ What could I say to these two at this meal? The waiter asked for my choice, and as I had not thought about it I blurted out the item next to my fingernail.

Kathryn looked around. “Good choice, Hon.”

“Yes, it’s a beautiful place and it was sweet of you to bring me here. Look at the velvet drapes. The color matches perfectly the rest of the décor. You must love living in a city with restaurants like this.”

“Umm,” Kathryn said.

“It’s an okay place but there are lots of other cities I like, too. It’s not something to get all excited about.” Bruce’s blue eyes focused on me. “Don’t you ever chill out and not get hyper about every little thing? It tires me out listening to all your non-stop enthusiasm.”

I sucked in my breath. I stared at his impassive face for a moment and then dropped my gaze. My hands seemed glued together; my fingertips were white. There it was. Again. Bruce’s bluntness and my sensitivity created the distance between us. I was unable to confront him;
I feared a further rift if I did.

I had read of older women in the far north who, left alone by their families on an ice floe, had drifted off to sea. Bruce and Kathryn had set me on one, and the space between us was widening with every remark. I pushed back my chair. “Excuse me. I’m going to the ladies’ room.” In its shelter the tears came. I let them spill out the way my feelings could not. On the way back I watched Kathryn and Bruce, heads close as they talked. They jerked apart at my approach and conversation ceased. “Am I interrupting?”

“Uh, no, it’s nothing,” Kathryn said but I saw her cheeks flush.

I nodded and sat on the edge of my chair. I reached for a napkin and folded and refolded it in my lap. The waiter served us; we picked up cutlery and concentrated on the food. When he came to refill water glasses and ask if everything was satisfactory I said, “Yes, thank you very much. It is delicious and…” I looked at Bruce’s face and stopped. I forced a piece of chicken down my throat. How could I say that when I could not taste a thing? But I had wanted to express appreciation to the man. His would not be an easy job.

No one wanted dessert or coffee. In Seattle I was always the one who ordered a chocolate delicacy. My friends teased me that I did not know the meaning of ‘diet’ and I always laughed and said, “There’s perks to being a skinny Minnie.” I rarely ate at home as I had a variety of friends with whom I relaxed, joked and shared my heart. Here I had been unable to do that even once.

“We’ll drop you off on our way home as Bruce and I have a few errands to do,” Kathryn said.

“You go right ahead. In fact, I can walk from here so you won’t have to go all the way back.”

“Mother, we’ll take you home.” I clenched my hands around my purse at his tone.

I jumped out of the car as soon as it stopped. “Thank you for the lunch.” Bruce nodded and the car pulled away.

I walked up the steps and turned the doorknob. It did not move. Locked out. How fitting. I dug in my purse for my sunglasses, sat down and leaned against the slate step behind me. How long would I have to wait before they returned? I smiled Not having a key to Bruce and Kathryn’s house gave me time to find the key to my relationship with them.

They returned an hour later, both with frowns, as they rushed up, “Mother, we’re sorry. We forgot about giving you a key.”

“You must be uncomfortable and hot, Estelle. Do come inside.”

“I’m fine, really. I enjoyed relaxing here, admiring your lovely flower garden and the trees along your street.”

Bruce snorted. “You’d make the most of being stuck on a desert island. You’d probably befriend all the natives and pitch in to help them hunt for food.”

Kathryn laughed and I joined in.”What would be wrong with doing that, son?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.” He laughed with us.

“I just like to have good relationships with the people in my life no matter where I am.” It was the opportunity I needed. I had come up with the answer while waiting for them. I had to be…bold. I took a deep breath. “This is one of the reasons I came to see you both. I want to build a close relationship with you and I admit I’ve been puzzling over how to do it.”

Kathryn bit her lip and Bruce cleared his throat. A breeze blew a few yellow blossoms across the steps and the palm fronds clicked. “Thank you for being honest. Bruce and I also want to get along with you. We can see you are making an effort and we need to do the same.”

“Yes, we are used to being on our own and it is an adjustment to have you visit. But we’re glad you’re here.” He ran a hand through his hair. “If we’re going to be honest here.…”

Kathryn interrupted. “We do need to be honest. That is the basis of all healthy relationships.”

Bruce agreed. “Frankly, you have a different perspective on life than we do, but we have to accept you as you are. The way you have obviously accepted us.”

My eyes filled up and I reached out to hug them both. The three of us had not solved the whole problem but we shared the key to working through to the solution. I noted how the shadow of my son, my daughter-in–law and I all blended in the sun’s blazing brightness.

Non Fiction Short Story



“Retirement has brought me the freedom to enjoy times with my grandchildren.
Another pleasure has been to write stories with the anticipation they might be accepted!”


Margaret Peterson

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Published inNon-Fiction

One Comment

  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    Touching story about trying to bridge the divide between older parents and their offspring.

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