August 3, 2008

Hearing voices

Filed under: family,forty quarters — Duchess @ 1:30 pm

My father keeps calling my cell phone, which is not a good way of getting in touch with me, because the phone mostly doesn’t work. I’ve told him that, but though he likes to talk these days, he never was much good at listening.

His recent messages say:

“I don’t know what you’re doing out there.” and

“Someone told me you’re running a Bed and Breakfast out there.” (Thank you, brother, dear) and

“It’s 11 here in Virginia, so must be 8 am out there. I don’t know what your schedule is. Are you running a Bed and Breakfast or something?” (well, if I was, 8 am wouldn’t be a very good time to call me, would it?) and

“I’d like to talk to you about what you’re doing out there.”

My father hasn’t learned the names of my children (and no, that is not because he is suffering from senility – though he’s 84 he retired only a few years ago; up until then he was running a prestigious university programme). So I guess it is not all that surprising that he didn’t pay much attention when I told him what I am doing “out here”.

The short answer is I’m house sitting for my mother and her husband while they are hanging out in interior Alaska. The official answer is (as advised by my former boss and reported to the local head hunter firm back home) that I need to spend a few months in the US looking after the affairs of my elderly parents.

I guess the real answer, if there is one, goes something like this:

I have lived pretty much all my adult and working life in England, though for a while I’ve wanted to return to the US. It never was the right time, mainly because of the children, but twelve months ago everything seemed to be coming together. I thought I had sold my house in rural Oxfordshire. I was one of three candidates about to be interviewed for a prestigious job in New York. My youngest child had declared she wanted to finish high school living with me near NYC, and the man I loved was negotiating to buy a beautiful home where we could be together.

By New Year every one of those plans had been smashed. Nevertheless, it was pretty clear I couldn’t carry on living the way I was. My elder son had long since moved to the US. In September I had put my elder daughter on a plane to Uganda. My younger son was in his final year at university and rarely home, and my younger daughter, at school in Oxford, preferred to be at her father’s house in the city and near her friends, than out in the country where there were no shops or cinema and where she no longer knew the local kids. My job was more often tedious or frustrating than engaging. I came home every night to an empty house and cooked the same solitary meal. I watched real estate television obsessively. When I didn’t go to work I often spoke to no one except the dog all day long. I used to wonder, if I died, how long it would take to find the body.

Reader, I did not die; I came to this little island instead. My mother needed a housesitter and I needed to change my life. I got a part time job with a local non profit (now winding down) and yes, I am renting out part of the house to tourists, though the economy is so lousy there aren’t many of them (and it’s Bed Make Your Own Damn Breakfast). Otherwise I have been walking the dog and writing (mainly this blog – not much fiction yet).

I bought a return ticket I’m going to be using soon.

Meanwhile I have been rehearsing in my head the conversation with my father and I am not enjoying it. I’ve tried calculating when he’s likely to be out, so I could call and leave a message and get the credit without actually having to talk, but he’s always in.

When we talk my father will say over and over as if it’s some mantra, “Forty quarters! Forty quarters! Forty quarters!”

I know that I need to pay into Social Security for 40 quarters. Not that I’ll ever get much in the way of government cheques with only ten years’ credit, but because 40 quarters is the minimum to be eligible for Medicare. There is no way I can live in the US when I am old unless I sort that out.

My father will say, What are your plans?

It won’t be okay to have no plans.

My father will say, I think you should consider finishing your PhD.

Now this is big and this is fairly new, though it was the theme of our last conversation. My whole life he has told me that one thing no one should ever do under any circumstances is get a PhD. I can’t tell you how many times he shouted at me for even considering it: Why don’t you do something that will keep you out of the Poor House?

He must think things have got really desperate.

If you finish your PhD, he says, some little college would hire you, even as old as you are.

Thanks, Dad.

Because you need forty quarters. How long will it take you to finish?

I say I don’t know.

He says, Where will you live?

I don’t know.

How will you live?

I don’t know.

Well, what are you going to do?

I don’t know.

You need forty quarters.

I’m assuming that it is better to keep telling him I don’t know than that I am drawing up a short list of elderly American friends whom I could marry for their Social Security. (Widows get benefits.) Or that my latest “plan” is to live part time on my narrow boat, illegally moored on the Oxford Canal, and part time in a van in the USA as a peripatetic cleaning lady.

Because I have worked out that only 12 hours a week at $15 an hour, 25 weeks a year for 10 years gives me the minimum income to qualify for 40 quarters. I’ll be 64 and a half, ready to retire right on time.

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