Last weekend we drove a few hundred miles down the Natchez Trace Parkway to visit my husband's favorite uncle and aunt in Jackson, Miss. The uncle has always been a bit of a mentor for my husband and they email regularly.
They're in their 80s now and not in the best of health. He was always energetic and robust, but developed a lung condition that requires supplemental oxygen at times. She suffered a stroke in January. She's made a good recovery, but is frail with upper arms the size of my wrist.
Their only child lives half a country away in Connecticut.
I've always been aware of his chauvanism and conservative political leanings, but this time they just got to me more than others.
"Hon," he'll say to his wife as we're sitting outside, "the Wall Street Journal is sitting on my desk in the office."
That's her cue to jump up and fetch him the paper.
"Hon, I think some chocolate ice cream" he says while she's clearing the dinner dishes.
Those are the obvious manifestations of his nature. There were others...
The week before, he had been in a traffic accident which very well may have been his fault according to what he told my husband. Now he's nervous about driving. (But won't admit it.) Because of her stroke, my aunt is taking blood thinners and the slightest bump causes her to bleed. My husband noticed that she had been wearing the same bandage for two days and inquired. She told him she was out of bandages, but didn't want to trouble her husband to drive her to the store (she can't drive). Naturally my husband took her to the pharmacy immediately and helped her stock up.
Because my uncle can't stand to be cool, the air conditioning stays at 80 degrees without regard for anyone else's comfort.
They've moved to a downstairs bedroom so we stayed upstairs in the master suite. When I got into the bed that night, I almost rolled right out--the box springs were broken and I hate to think of how long my aunt slept there uncomplainingly. I know that was her side because the air conditioning vent over the other side was closed.
But I think the thing that got to me most was when we were walking to the car on Sunday morning to go to church. He walked right up to my car and got in the front seat like he owned it. It's such a small thing, but it pissed me off beyond belief.
"I'll get in back," I muttered, knowing he'd never hear me because he's deaf as a post. After church we had an amazing breakfast with other parishioners. The men at the table kept up a lively conversation with my husband about his work. No one even asked about my job.
As much as I wanted to challenge him and tell him to get his own fucking ice cream, I didn't. It wasn't worth it. He's been this way for 84 years. In fact, the only time I questioned one of his pronouncements was when he called Clinton a draft dodger. My husband and I both jumped on that one.
What I wonder is whether or not the aunt ever wished for something different. She's never had to work outside the home and has always had housekeepers and gardners to take care of things. Did she trade her ambitions for financial security? Did she ever even have any ambitions? I wonder if he was this way when they first married or did the behavior increase along with his bank account?
This good woman would never, ever, consider herself abused. But I'm not so sure. I believe that if you asked her, she would profess perfect happiness with her husband and her life.
But I'm not so sure.