“The Geometry Lesson,” Ensign, Aug. 1986, 65
Had I known that both the diagnosis and cure of Mother’s condition were contained in one short geometry theorem, I’d have taken up mathematics sooner.
She was Irish, and before my experience with geometry, I thought that explained why she did things differently from anyone else I knew, including my German father. He serenely accepted her ways without comment. It wasn’t as easy for the rest of us because, being at least half Irish ourselves, we were given to temperamental turns and impatience. In short, Mother drove us wild. It was virtually impossible for her to pursue a simple, straightforward direction in anything she did.
For instance, she would spend five minutes tightening a screw with a table knife when a screwdriver lay idle in the same drawer. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the screwdriver was never put to use. Well, at least not unless the knives were still unwashed from supper and no fingernail file could be located. Simple errands worked the same way.
“I’m going to the store for a root beer. Do you need anything, Mother?”
“No, I don’t think so. No, not a thing.”
Only later, when we were headed in another direction would she nonchalantly mention, “As long as you’re going to the cafe anyway, why not stop by the store and pick up ten pounds of flour? And see how poor old Sister Andraesen is doing while you’re there. Take her this pan of cinnamon rolls and make sure you fill her coal buckets and sweep her kitchen floor before you come home.”
She was always throwing monkey wrenches into the middle of our plans. We smoldered in exasperation at her lack of organization and her resistance to common sense.
Take the case of Mother and Wellington Hobbs. Mother was the drama director for our ward that year, and we were amazed and horrified to learn that she was about to offer a role in the one-act play to Wellington, a confirmed bachelor. She could insist all she wanted that he had a sweet spirit; the fact was, he was downright bashful and going bald.
“Mother,” my older sister moaned, “Wellington is the worst, the absolute worst job of casting you could possibly do. He just grins and shakes your hand and doesn’t even dare say hello to anybody. How do you expect him to do his part?”
“You wait and see,” she murmured. “He’ll make a fantastic Mr. Kindright. Anyway, most of his time onstage he’ll be in a dentist’s chair with his mouth open.”
“The better to put his foot in,” I replied. Anyone in the ward could have told you Theron Clark was perfect for the role, and good-looking, too. He’d have been the choice of any other drama director.
“Wellington won’t even be able to get to the dentist’s chair without falling over his big feet,” I added. “And his hair always sticks up in the back. We’ll be a laughingstock.”
“But what you don’t know,” she said briskly, “is that I intend to get that new second-grade teacher to tutor him with his talking and walking.”
We stared at her in disbelief as she absentmindedly picked out a seam that had gone a little wild in a shirt she was sewing. Poor Wellington would never survive such exposure! Everyone knew he shook like a leaf if a woman came within ten feet of him.
“Besides,” she added, pausing from her work to gaze into space, “listen to the music of the words ‘Wellington Hobbs.’ Think how distinguished it will look on the program. Wellington Hobbs. Wonderful name!”
Wellington Hobbs did indeed sit in the chair, delivering three wooden lines and ruining the play as we had predicted. But he and the second-grade teacher flabbergasted the whole community by getting married the following spring. Mother was really surprised.
The number of jarring inconsistencies in her nature included this: although it seemed she never stopped talking except to chew food and sleep, something happened the minute we started up the weather-bleached steps of the one-room country church house. As if the simple gray building or the lightly blowing cottonwood leaves provided an invisible cue, her mouth clamped shut and stayed that way. Her arms folded and froze. All that moved were her pupils and irises, which occasionally slid to the corners of her eyes during sacrament meeting to see if our mouths were clamped shut and our arms folded. They always were. And it didn’t do any good to complain that almost everybody else whispered and squirmed once in a while. She’d merely remark, “I don’t care who whispers and wiggles unless his last name is the same as mine. Then I care.”
Once she created a particularly outrageous entanglement, giving my sister the courage to back talk, a practice our father never tolerated. “Mother,” she cried, “you’re always running around in your do-gooder circles! Just running around in circles!”
Mother stopped still in her tracks, a shadow of pain flitting to the surface of her eyes and away again like a dark hummingbird.
“Circles, is it?” she said. She walked to the window and studied the horizon for a long moment, as if searching for something. Then, with a strange, sad smile, she added, “Oh, well, this life is just one big circle, anyway. From our Maker back to our Maker.”
None of my friends’ mothers said things like that.
So the geometry theorem, when I finally heard it, was music to my ears, a balm for Mother’s perplexing malady. What my teacher said was, “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points.”
A window shade rolled up in my mind. Throughout the rest of the hour, I forgot about geometry and thought about Mother’s favorite activity—her rides.
During our childhood years we frequently went on short trips with Mother while Dad stayed home to irrigate our small potato farm. Our drives always had a fixed destination—my grandmother’s farm thirty miles away. Naturally, we began at another point—home. The shortest distance between those two points was the main road. Some of it was paved, some a combination of spotty patches of fine sand and gravel. Nevertheless, all of it was the well-traveled road, and every single one of our organized neighbors stuck to it like glue.
And this is what Mother didn’t understand about geometry. Invariably, at some point when it was least expected, she’d abruptly turn off the main road onto a sort of path consisting of two ruts and a grassy strip which concealed numerous somethings destined to ruin the oil pan. Did the Robertsons turn off here? Did the Leebys? Did they humiliate their children? No, they didn’t. But Mother did.
“This,” she’d announce, “is the old Hanaway cutoff. Been here for years. Did you know that some of the pioneers crossed right by this place pulling their carts? Did you know there are arrowheads out in that sand? Do you want to look for some right now?”
Overcome by her pioneer spirit and her description of past events, she’d press forward until the unforeseen occurred. The unforeseen often meant getting stuck in the blowing sand where the dusty trail evaporated into pure desert. We never had a shovel in the battered ’49 Ford, but we had a lot of pioneer spirit. We’d dig with our broken fingernails and spread wisps of straggly sagebrush under the tires. We’d push while Mother furiously spun the wheels. But it usually ended in a nice hike, as she liked to put it, to the nearest farmhouse, which was never very near.
A perfect stranger—Mother’s favorite kind of person—pulled us out of some very nasty mud on one of our spring jaunts, with the help of his two grown sons. It was a wicked day in late March and the air was flailed by mixed sleet and snow. This rescuing stranger insisted that we warm up inside his tiny weather-beaten house while they freed the car from Mother’s trap. Several small children romped on the worn linoleum floor, and, as we waited in embarrassment, she gaily romped with them.
“Lots of people in that little house,” she muttered to herself once we had been salvaged and were continuing our precarious journey. She turned sharply toward the back seat where my brother sat in stony silence and inquired, “If I bake a big fruitcake and drive back here, will you leave it at their door and knock and run?”
She straightened around just in time to avoid hitting the jagged lava rock by the side of the road.
“Beautiful children! Nice family!” she exclaimed. Getting no reply, she added, “Now, just think a minute and see if you aren’t glad for the chance to meet those interesting people taking care of Riley’s ranch. I always wondered who lived in that little place. Now I know.”
The unforeseen sometimes took the form of a flat tire on the bank of a deserted creek four miles from the closest ranch, whose only inhabitants were a couple of vicious dogs. And, to our dismay, part of the unforeseen was that the jack had mysteriously disappeared from the trunk. Nobody ever knew how.
So the lesson in geometry was indeed amazing. I eagerly took it home and read it three times to Mother, who listened inattentively and replied, “That’s nothing new. Everybody knows that.”
Obviously, she failed to understand the nature of her problem. While I patiently tried to illustrate with the help of a crudely drawn map that the main road was the shortest distance between two points, she wiped flour on her apron, snatched the pencil from me and said, “No, this is the shortest distance between two points.”
She’d drawn a dark, heavy line, ruler-straight, from our house to Grandma’s.
“Wait a minute!” I cried, “This doesn’t make sense. That line goes down the middle of the river and right over the top of the buttes. You can’t drive a car there!”
“Over the river and through the woods,” she sang in her lilting soprano, “the shortest distance between two points.”
Not long after this we became too grown up to bother with the nonsense of rides to our grandmother’s farm. In a very adult way, we’d politely decline.
“I have a date tonight, but tell Grandma hello. Do you have a spare tire and some good walking shoes?”
And Mother would comb her short curly hair, hold her mouth in a tight circle while she touched it with lipstick, raise her eyebrows at the finished product and reply, “Everyone used to tell me that I looked just like Gloria Swanson. Which reminds me, would you put this package in the back seat? I’m going to wallpaper Ma’s living room while I’m there.”
And fluttering back to get the purse she’d forgotten, she’d add, “And I wish you’d heat up the soup in the refrigerator and take it over to Grandpa Jones with a piece of that rhubarb pie.”
I’m sorry to say that from that point on I became so engrossed in my own life that I all but lost track of my mother’s excursions. More and more her comings and goings faded beyond the periphery of my own experience, only touching it from time to time. But I have been drawn sharply back, now, in a hospital corridor, thirty years later, where scientific progress keeps her alive despite a series of cardiac arrests.
“There’s always hope,” the doctors tell us. “She has a great will to live.”
For several weeks she has held steadily and I have noticed something new in her character—a quietness, a sweet sort of acceptance I had never guessed was there. It is as if she holds within herself a valuable secret.
“How is she today?” I ask the nurse.
“About the same.”
That’s what they always tell me. Today I walk into the room where she lies and immediately realize that this time they are wrong. She has begun to slip. I smile, though it is a difficult thing to do, but she doesn’t smile back. Locked in a long and silent communication, her eyes tell mine as gently as they can of her impending death. But there is something in them, too, a luminous quality that causes me to hear soft wind in the cottonwoods above the old gray church of my childhood.
The slight pressure of her fragile hand becomes too heavy a burden to me in the silence, and in an effort to lighten it and to make amends for my youthful foolishness, I say, “Do you remember that silly geometry theorem we argued about that year I was a freshman?”
She tries to smile.
“They say now,” I continue, my voice strained, “that a straight line isn’t always the shortest distance between two points.”
I’m not sure she’s listening. Her attention is on something else, and the expression on her face somehow reminds me of the plum-colored curtains we used to pull to separate the one-room church into classrooms. I can hear the curtains sliding along the wire. I can smell the faint dusty smell and hear the singing wind in the trees above the chords of the untuned piano.
“When you get away from earth,” I struggle on, “when you get out into space, they say a curved line is the shortest distance between two points.”
For a long moment she studies me, beads of perspiration creating a soft sheen on her pale upper lip. Her hand relaxes in mine and she lightly withdraws it, as if even now she is making ready for her departure.
“I knew,” she says, so softly I can barely hear, “I knew you’d discover that, sooner or later.”
Her eyes don’t waver. They seem to fill me, to penetrate my heart and move slowly beyond, following the wind in the cottonwoods, following the sweet, invisible curve to her next adventure.