My mother has always been quite a talker. She's gregarious and is never happier than when her house is full of children, grandchildren, pets, ringing telephones, and neighbors dropping in. She likes music on the radio or a talk show on the small countertop TV when she's in the kitchen fixing a meal.
When she talks, she doesn't necessarily expect to be answered. Not always, at least. In fact, a good part of the time she's probably unaware that she's talking aloud. I suspect one reason she likes having a dog is that a pet can always provide her with an excuse for a monologue.
My father, in his usual living-room chair, lowers his newspaper a moment to cock an ear toward the kitchen for a few seconds.
"Mary, are you talking to me? 'Cause if you are, I can't hear a word you're saying."
"No, Bill, I'm talking to the dog."
Most often, she actually is talking to the dog, who's a patient listener, especially when Mother is mixing up eggs, ground beef, and onions for a meatloaf.
But occasionally the dog is fast asleep on the far side of the living room. Hearing her explanation, my father just looks at me, rolls his eyes, and raises his newspaper again.
It's never a sure thing, however, because at times Mother does indeed expect a human to respond. On those occasions, she can become a little testy when she discovers that everyone has been ignoring her.
She walks to the kitchen doorway with egg, breadcrumbs, and sticky bits of ground beef on her hands. Then she stares at my father for a minute or two before saying, "Bill."
She says that single word with a certain tone in her voice, and my father looks up.
"What? Were you talking to me?"
"Of course I was talking to you. Do you think I've been out here talking to myself all this time?"
"Have you heard a single word I've said for the last 10 minutes?"
"No, I wasn't listening. I thought you were talking to the dog."
Big sigh and a long stare at the ceiling. "Never mind. Just never mind."
My husband and I long ago reached the point where we could anticipate these exchanges almost word for word whenever we visited my parents, and we'd always smile at each other.
But recently, I thought I saw my two oldest children looking at me and giggling as Mother's chattering spilled from the kitchen and my dad began his "What? I can't hear you" refrain.
My youngest child turned to his father and asked, "How does she expect us to know if she's talking to herself, or to the dog, or to us?"
"Do you mean your grandmother or your Mom?" he said. "It runs in the family, you know."
I gave him a look.
One day not long after that visit, my husband sat at our dining-room table, brooding over some financial statements that he'd spread across the table's surface.
I stood at the kitchen counter, opening a can of tuna fish to make tuna salad for our lunch. I had dumped the oily fish into a metal bowl and was chopping celery and a hard-boiled egg, when I felt something brush against my leg.
I looked down and found our cat doing figure eights around my ankles.
At the first sound of the can opener, she had given up watching the birds play hopscotch on our neighbor's roof and was reminding me that she lived in this house, too, and that tuna fish happened to be one of her favorites.
A few minutes later, while the cat crouched with a smile on her face and licked tuna oil from the inside of the can, Rog called to me. "What? Are you talking to me? Because if you are, I can't hear a word you're saying."
"No, no, I'm, uh, just talking to the cat."
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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor