My mother has a sharp mind and blunt principles. She and my father were together, I think, for the same reason that electrons and protons are together, attracted by their mutual opposition. My father believed in the truth. This belief was the closest he came to religion. It was the closest he came to something he didn’t question and couldn’t really defend. My mother attacked this faith of his daily. Her assaults on the truth demanded that he step in to defend it, lest it be outgunned and outmanoeuvred, but his resistance was futile. Facts, it turned out, could not compete with drama.
My mother stretched and shrunk numbers to fit whatever story she was telling.
“I’ve told you four hundred and three times,” she’d say.
It was never thousands of times, or a hundred. It was specific, as though she’d counted these instances and there had been, in point of fact, four-hundred-three of them.
“You didn’t,” my father would counter. “It was more like—” he’d say, trailing off as he saw how he’d been suckered into doing the same thing, only with smaller numbers, “more like ten.”
She recounted things in such a way as to completely alter them. She did it so convincingly that my father’s insistence on the truth seemed, if anything, misguided.
“Then your father said,” she’d say, “you have a strong chin for such a weak face.”
“I didn’t say that,” my father would object, “I told you that afterwards.”
Yet, now and then, she bent the truth in a way that even my father was willing to overlook. Once, on some Sunday when I was perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old, my father’s oldest brother and all my cousins were over for lunch. My father and my uncle didn’t like one another much, and my aunt was always looking for things to find fault with. When she did, her insults were delivered in a near-Victorian manner.
“How lovely,” she once said of a new dress my mother was wearing. That’s always suited you.”
On this particular Sunday, my mother had made a leg of lamb. As she came from the kitchen toward the table, carrying the leg of lamb on a tray, she tripped and the whole thing bounced into a corner of the dining room. There was a sharp intake of breath from my aunt as my mother scooped it up in a fluid movement. No one said anything. As my mother was about to head back to the kitchen, she stopped, turned, and made an announcement. “Fortunately,” she said, “I have another one.”