The neighbors two doors north were rocking their car back and forth, stuck in the driveway.
If the wind chill hadn’t been minus-23, I might have left my living room couch, walked the 30 or so yards, and given them a push. As it was, their car wasn’t blocking traffic and no lives were in danger.
My wife and I watched until, as luck would have it, the car surged forward and disappeared into the garage.
“There goes my excitement for the day,” I said.
That’s a phrase I learned from my mother, who died two months ago at age 96.
Mom had lived alone west of South Bend for a decade after my father died in 2001 and then with my brother Tom in Lafayette for her final years.
Before she moved, I would visit two or three times a week. Sometimes she had saved chores for me to do or I would bring lunch. Other times, we would just sit at the kitchen table, watching as wrens battled with robins for space in the small birdbath outside the window.
A blue jay would land and the punier birds would scatter. “There goes my excitement for the day,” Mom would say.
Or I would be replacing a light bulb in the basement stairwell. The old bulb had made a big popping sound when it expired. “That was my excitement for the day,” she would say.
Sometimes a talkative neighbor would catch her in the yard and spend an hour or so reciting all the gossip he knew. It was exasperating, but “that was my excitement for the day,” she would tell me later.
As time passed, I accepted her catchphrase as an acknowledgment that her days were becoming too ordinary. She didn’t join clubs or a church, she had few hobbies and it didn’t require a lot of time or effort to cook or clean for a household of one. She did some traveling with her brother Jack and she had occasional visitors at her house, but there wasn’t a lot of drama.
At any moment, anything at all might have to qualify as the biggest thing that happened all day.
That changed when she moved to Tom’s house in Lafayette. She had space of her own there, but she also saw a steady stream of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was going to basketball games again and dance recitals. She was responsible for feeding two dogs, baking cookies by the dozens and, occasionally, preparing full meals, just like the good old days.
I would drive down to see her for an afternoon every month or so. But a lot of what I knew about her life came from her emails.
I had promised her that I would keep in touch with an email every day. Every night, before I signed off from my desktop computer, I would type three paragraphs and send it to her.
In some ways, the emails held us accountable. If Mom’s note said she hadn’t done anything productive, I would ask her whether she had been to the library lately or if she had written a letter to her friend Barb or her nephew Dan.
I once asked her to put in writing a story from her childhood, about the ladies from her Lutheran Church. When she finished her essay, I sent a copy to the newspaper in Lima, Ohio, and they printed it in their Memories section.
This worked both ways. If I was procrastinating on something, Mom would prod me. Were the brakes still squeaking on the pickup truck? Did I get a plumber to look at the water leak in the basement? Did Judy and I finally decide on whether we were getting a cat?
Eventually, those daily dispatches let me know when the calendar and clock were becoming her enemy. As her health began to decline, she rarely wrote about the future. Her time was short and her days were long. She had little to report, and she hated being idle.
I slowed down but not as much. My emails told her I had cut back on my volunteering. She would remind me how much I had enjoyed working with Alfredo at the ReStore or the finding of odd facts while doing research for the genealogical society.
Now that she’s gone, every time I shut my computer off for the night, I feel an itch. It’s as if I’ve forgotten something. Then I recall. I haven’t sent Mom my daily email, and then I remember why.
They are important, these ordinary things we choose to tell each other. Without those emails, I can overlook the things I haven’t done and the things I still need to do. I can get a little lazy.
Sometimes, I can be satisfied, just waiting for something to become my excitement for the day. Those times can be good too.
My time doesn’t seem short, and my days don’t seem long.
Still, when I feel that itch, I benefit from Mom’s subtle nudge, that it wouldn’t hurt to go do something so I would have a better story to tell.