“Will you have a minute at the end?” whispered The Professor in my ear. He was sitting next to me in the auditorium where the third and final lecture in memory of my mother was about to start. The faces of her mentors and friends – Piaget, Inhelder, Klein, Trevarthan – were being projected on the screen. “There’s something I need to tell you,” he added.
I was curious. Perhaps he wanted to share memories of the time, the very long time he was a regular visitor at my parents. He was named The Professor by the cook, who complained to my mother he ate her croquettes before they were ready. Besides food, he loved Philosophy, Kant most of all, which he talked about continuously to students and anyone else who’d listen.
‘How have you been?” I asked him. He gave me his other ear and I repeated the question.
“Can’t get what people say these days – even in my own language!” he said. We laughed, remembering how upset he would become when my parents and their friends moved from philosophy to politics. French had become the language for anything political since the secret police had jailed a neighbor after receiving information from his maid. The Professor was not good with foreign languages, and insisted on going back to Portuguese. ”French isn’t safe either,” he argued. “Words like democracy and freedom sound too similar in our language.” By the time I was a teenager, I was convinced he had a point. French was not so hard. The secret police could easily find someone who understood the language to pose as a maid. Did he not think so, I asked one day.
“Harder to plant a maid than a bugging device,” he answered. “I bet there’s one somewhere.”
“What, in the house?”
“Oh, sure,” he said.
“OMG,” I thought, though not exactly in those terms as everyone was an atheist then; my father is the only one still carrying on that tradition.
In the auditorium the first speaker took the floor. The Professor leaned forward trying to hear. It was sad to think of him living on his own. I should visit him, listen to him again. The speaker finished, another one started, and then it was time for me to leave. The Professor came too. I helped him up the stairs and we walked together into the sunlight.
“So,” he said. He hesitated.
“Is everything alright?” I asked.
“Well, you know, not really. I have a request.”
“Yes?” I said, bracing myself. I had had half a day of intense emotion. I’d give anything for some light conversation.
“I loved your mother. No, wait, that’s not true. I love your mother.”
“Excuse me?” someone said. I think it was me, the me about to faint. The other me was busy Being Positive: You can deal with this, yes, you with your gorgeous grown-up daughters, your travels and nationalities, your cultural in-between-ness, your hundred ways to navigate an airport, your skyping, your loves and losses and successes, you. But the me about to faint just wanted to faint.
“Sorry, there was no other way to say this,” he went on. “Would you be kind enough to put flowers on your mother’s grave when I’m gone? I mean, on my behalf?”
So, that’s who they are from, the roses my father finds there almost every Sunday; they have become an on and off topic of conversation in the family.
“The roses – is that you?”
“Yes, but let me assure you, your mother never knew. I never interfered.” He looked thinner and frailer than minutes before.
“I don’t know what to say. Sorry. I need to think. There’s my father to consider.”
“Quite. You must think. But there’s very little time left.”
“You’ll let me know soon?”
“Thank you. Or shall I say, Merci?”
I had to smile. I hailed a taxi for him and saw him disappear in heavy traffic; young people in an open red bus went noisily by, celebrating Portugal and soccer. And all I could think was, Oh Mother!