The Rule of Three
For what Russian does not love to drive fast? Which of us does not at times yearn to give his horses their head, and to let them go, and to cry, "To the Devil with the world!"
Nikolai Gogel, Dead Souls
The rule of three, a principle in English writing, suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. Older than the Rule of Three is the ancient Wiccan three-fold law -- a precautionary rule that says your deeds will be revisited on you three times or your actions affect you on three levels. We use the rule of three in slogans (go, fight, win; faith, hope, charity; stop, look, listen) and in stories (Three Musketeers, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Three Stooges). The rule recognizes a pattern that, when broken, creates an imbalance.
At the Canadian theme park, just across the border from her small Wisconsin town, Betty hoisted her two boys up into the Russian troika, an elaborately decorated sledge drawn by three horses harnessed abreast. "Soon we will feel like birds in flight," she said, referring to the synchronized swinging motion of the ride lauded in literature. In a troika, the center horse moves straight ahead in a forward trot. The two other horses gallop alongside with heads bent outward. The black horse represents sorrow, the white horse peace, as the symbol of conflict resolution, and the chestnut horse symbolizes love that can overcome sorrow.
Betty winked at the young man holding the reins as she clambered into the front seat of the sleigh and offered him a glimpse of her ample breasts in a tight red and green Christmas sweater. Her dark-eyed, dark-haired beauty, often compared to Elizabeth Taylor, not only had made her a pretty baby, but also defined her teen years as a flirt and remained her signature. Like the troika, the spirited race, the excitement, the contest was the goal. The technique, the competition and even the prize were secondary.
She honed her skills daily at the bar she'd kept from one of her ex-husbands in a divorce. The Patsy Cline song, "I Fall to Pieces," an apt song for most bars, resonated in this nowhere town as workers came to shrug off the farm or factory smell. In this smoke-filled "Land of Sky Blue Waters" a stream rolled endlessly through the Hamm's beer sign decorating the east wall. Guys in red flannel shirts with rolled up sleeves surrounded the pool table where quarters waited in a line near the slot. Couples or families, some with babies in arms, filled the booths on the right. Single guys and hopeful girls flirted from the bar stools.
Betty strutted like a peacock behind the bar. Her too-often colored hair, held back from her face by two brilliant yellow dandelion barrettes, had the look of black shoe polish before it's buffed. A cleft in her shoulder from the bra that pushed her generous breasts into doughy cleavage showed through the clingy peasant blouse. Skintight capris and spiked high heels foretold a fashion fad by twenty years. Dark red lipstick against her Mediterranean skin tone imitated a wound rather than an invitation, and severely outlined eyes with drawn-in brows diminished rather than added to her allure.
The customers ordered simple drinks, scotch and water, brandy and coke, vodka and orange, that she whipped up in an instant, bejeweled hands flying. But for some men, the drinks weren't the only reason they came. They came, as men do, for someone to listen, for instant intimacy sans future responsibilities. She played along. With subtle glances, strategically designed bends and reaches, and a sensuous smile, the chase would begin. It worked for them and her. At one a.m., in a voice made rough by years of cigarettes and alcohol, she yelled, "Last call."
One of the men at the bar lit another cigarette and sipped slowly. "Can I walk you home?"
"I live upstairs. Not far to walk. I don't even have to go outside." She grabbed dirty glasses off the counter and upended them over the sink.
"How about a ride in my car, then?"
"Not tonight." For her, game over, race called. She dared not cross the finish line, because what then? Victor or loser she would have to adopt a different role. As long as she kept running, she remained a player. She waved goodbye to the customer and smiled to herself. In her mind, she had won against her older sister, Jean, who had been her nearest competitor those dreadful teen years.
* * *
Jean, who emerged from the swimming pool in her green, skirted-suit with nary a wet hair, elicited an eye rolling from her daughter, Georgia. "Mom, I don't know why you don't just swim. You love the water. Stop worrying about your hair. Nobody cares. Especially at your age."
"You don't have to remind me." Jean wrapped herself in a blue-green terry robe and sat next to her daughter in the shade. "When I was a kid, I was in the water all the time. I should have been the bride of Neptune."
"You mean that three-pronged spear you used to carry? I thought that was the devil's pitchfork."
Jean flicked a towel at her youngest child. "Ha, ha. But I admit that I was quite a devil before I got married. They used to compare me to Marilyn Monroe."
"Yes, you told me, and Aunt Betty was Elizabeth Taylor. Well, Liz got fat and if Marilyn had lived, she probably would have too."
"Thanks. You're really in a good mood today." Jean resembled her grandmother more every year -- shorter, rounder, with wings added to the upper arms and teased, bleached blond hair standing on end. She didn't seek the wild side like Betty, but embraced the tools given her and perfected those "feminine wiles," choosing the mother's path -- homemaking, children, community volunteer.
Her two grown boys raced out from the shower room with the oldest screaming, "Last one in's a rotten egg." One dark head and one blond streaked across the pool mostly under water. Their hands touched the opposite wall in perfect unison. They flung themselves out of the pool and ran over to Jean, water streaming from their long, thick hair.
"I won. He's got to buy me a beer." The oldest always thought he won, not only because of his age, but the strength and speed that he used to play semi-pro football.
"No way. I beat you fair and square." The younger, taller, more slender lifeguard was built for slicing through the water.
"Mom, who won?" They both turned to her.
"What do you think, Georgia? I think it was a perfect tie. A photo finish."
"You always say that." The younger boy flopped into a lounge chair while the older fake-punched him and made faces.
Mother and daughter conspirators exchanged glances. "Hey, Mom, you never told me who people used to compare Aunt Donna to?"
* * *
Donna, the oldest sister, had earned her architect's degree and fled the small town the first out of the chute. Hard science and math, especially geometry, had always fascinated her. Rules and theorems could be proven beyond a doubt. In sixth grade, she ran home from school, "Do you know that since ancient times, architects have used triangles in building because they provide the stability to carry the weight-bearing load?"
"Okay," her mother had nodded, "take off your good clothes and then take Betty outside while I make supper."
Donna had retreated to the room she shared with her two sisters. Her mother had no more interest in building than when Donna announced that she could walk through walls if she had enough mental concentration to re-organize her atoms. Back then, her mother suggested a white coat tied backwards might be in order. But Donna knew about order, and the rigidity yet creativity of architecture had captivated her so that she opened her own office.
The secretary stopped in the doorway of Donna's room just as the phone rang. Donna answered it and maintained a conversation with a client while she gestured for the secretary to sit down. A stack of current files cluttered the desk and another pile, requiring semi-immediate attention, lay on the table. The calendar on the wall showed a hectic schedule of two to three consultations a week. Donna ended the call and turned to the secretary. "Yes?"
"A process server is here for you."
"A process server! For what?"
"I don't know. He just said he had papers to serve on you."
Donna followed the secretary to the front lobby. A man dressed in dungarees and a polo shirt confirmed Donna's identity and handed her the papers.
Donna glanced at them and laughed. A local newspaper was suing her and a host of Jane Doe's for an action they had taken in protest of the sexist content of the paper. The women's group had confiscated all the free papers one week. It just happened to be the same week that the pornography festival had purchased most of the adverting space, so they got a double bonus. The paper sued for conversion -- taking their property, which was free, and converting it to some other use -- in particular, recycling.
Like Betty, Donna needed no intimacy because people were secondary to the cause, which was never redundant. Her work took her to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union where the call from her sister Jean rang into the architect's office. "Come home. Now."
"It's ma. She had a stroke on Wednesday and she's in the hospital. There's a "Do Not Resuscitate" card scotch-taped to her bed and you need to get here before she dies."
"We knew this day was coming. Remember when I was home last summer? She said that seventy-nine was one year past her expected lifetime. She hates that her friends are dying all around her, and those still alive are too sick or tired to do anything but watch television. She's ready to go."
A long silence passed followed by a loud sigh. "I remember. But you need to come home and we'll deal with it."
After the click of the phone, Donna brought her palms together and her fingers to her lips in what some people might have thought a prayer. It wasn't. It was a steeling of her center for what she knew was coming. Thus galvanized, Donna spoke into the phone and then began sorting papers into her briefcase. Soon she was in a taxi on the way to the airport.
* * *
Early summer sunshine streamed into the kitchen as if it had been tossed in by bucketfuls. A fragrant breeze ruffled the blue polka-dot curtains. The sisters sat in their childhood seats, the two younger on one side and the older across the large table filled with familiar dishes. Donna fell into her accustomed role. "Okay, I'll start. We knew this might come sooner or later. I presume we are all stepping up?"
"I'm willing to do my share," Jean said, "but just because I'm living here, don't expect me to take care of her alone. If she stays at home, then we have to hire a nurse or someone to come in and help."
"What do you mean if?" Donna said. "Obviously she is staying here. Our whole lives we have talked about this. She does not want to go into a nursing home, and she has made that perfectly clear. We have no choice. We have to keep her at home. I'm willing to put up some money to pay for it."
"Well, that is just ridiculous," Betty said. "It doesn't matter what you talked about or what she said before, it's different now. I have my bar to run and it's a four-hour drive to get here. We can't expect our kids to take care of us forever."
"Really? That's been the way of the world for centuries. Parents took care of children and then when the children grew up, they took care of the parents. It's actually the law in Russia and many other countries."
"Well, not here, thank God. And I think it's stupid." Betty leaned back in her chair and grabbed another beer from the refrigerator.
"You don't want your kids to take care of you when you're old?" Jean expected hers would.
"I'm not going to need it." All three burst out laughing at the absurdity of the statement.
"We'll all need it if we live long enough," Donna said. "Many lawyers make their living from those who thought they wouldn't need it."
Jean helped herself to a plate of German potato salad. "Well, it's easy for you to say. You'll give money, but you won't be the one to actually put up with her. It's harder than you think. It's more than just paying someone to clean house and take care of the medical issues. It's spending time with her, trying to tune out her meaningless droning, putting up with her complaints and constant criticism."
"I do understand."
"No, you don't."
"Well, you're right. I probably don't and giving money is the easiest part." Donna put two dabs of macaroni salad on a blue Dixie paper plate. "I don't think I could do what you're doing. I can stay about a week, two at most, before I go insane and have to leave. I really appreciate it and want to make it as easy as possible for you."
"Why don't we make it easy on all of us and just put her in a home?" Betty lit a cigarette.
"No." Donna batted at the smoke drifting her way. "And don't bring it up again. We're not doing it. It's wrong. She made her wishes clear. We are her children. We cannot betray her like that."
"Oh yeah, we are her children. Whoopee." Betty rolled her eyes and blew smoke into the air. "She was a shitty mother and didn't give a damn about us unless she wanted something."
"I know she certainly wasn't the ideal mother. Remember, she tried to discourage me from going to college, let alone architect school. But who is the ideal mother? You? I don't think any of us would want to be judged by some of the things we did when we were young. You should treat other people well not because they are good people but because you are."
"Please spare me your slogans. I have wasted enough of my time being somebody's child, somebody's wife or somebody's mother. I have no intention of being anyone's caretaker." Betty blew her smoke directly at Donna.
"No one is asking you to do anything. Except stop blowing your damn smoke at me. You don't live here. You don't have to do a thing."
"Well, I already have."
Two sisters stared at her. "What?" they echoed.
"I reserved a room for her in the nursing home in Shell Point."
"Shell Point? Why would you pick Shell Point?" Jean twisted in her chair to face Betty. "She's never lived there, has no friends there, and there's a retirement home here."
"It's done and I'm going to sell this house." She stubbed out her cigarette.
"You can't sell this house," Donna interrupted.
"I can and I will. You seem to have forgotten that my ex-husband bought this house and signed it over to me at the divorce."
"You seem to have forgotten that mother has a life estate."
"Oh shit, I did forget." Betty sat back in her chair. "What does it mean?"
"It means there are signed documents filed with the country recorder that give her the right to live in this house until her life is ended. You can sell it, but the new owner will be living with mother."
Jean hooted; Betty glared.
"But I need the money! If I don't get it, I'll lose the bar, and then I'll lose my house too."
"Her life estate means you can let it go back to the bank, and the bank can try to sell it, but she'll still be living here. I don't think the market is too hot for houses with little old ladies living in them."
"Oh, you think it's funny."
"No, I think it's pathetic. I can't believe you would do such a thing. I insisted on a life estate when your husband -- the best one you ever had by the way -- bought the house because I was afraid of what he might do. But I never, for a second, worried about what you might do. I guess I overestimated you."
The always-in-the-middle sister repeated her question, "Why would you pick Shell Point?"
"Because they had a space. There's a waiting list here. Besides her sister lives in Shell Point."
"Christ," said Donna, "she hasn't spoken to her sister in probably ten years! I doubt she'd even recognize her."
Jean took back the reins. "Do you know anything about this home in Shell Point? Did you check it out? Did you find out its reputation? Have any complaints been filed against it?"
"I don't know." Betty flung her beer can in the sink. "It's there. It takes Medicare. It must be okay."
Both other sisters rolled their eyes and shook their heads. "You can't be that ignorant can you?"
Betty jumped up, knocking her chair backward, leaned over the table and shook her finger in Donna's face. "Don't call me ignorant. You always think you are so god damned smart. A bunch of paper degrees doesn't make you any smarter than the rest of us."
Donna opened her mouth but Jean said, "Shut up," to her and "Sit down," to Betty. "You used to be a social worker. You know the rampant abuse of elderly in nursing homes. You know when you uproot elderly people from their homes they die sooner. No matter what mother did or didn't do, we can't treat her like that. We can't force her into some home in a strange town where she has no friends and no contacts."
Betty sat back down. "I need the money from this house." She pouted just as she had done with boys at sixteen, but it had no impact on her sisters.
"I'll buy it from you." Donna reached for her briefcase on the floor, opened it, took out a pad of paper and unclipped a pen. "How much do you want?"
Betty coughed from the drag she had just inhaled. "Are you serious?"
"Yes. I'll buy it. Let's call a realtor and get the ball rolling. I'll get an appraisal and pay you a fair price. If you don't agree, get your own appraisal, and we'll split the difference. Then you have your money and you can do as you choose."
"Fine with me." Betty pushed back her chair, got up and left the room.
Donna turned to Jean, "Where did you put the phone book? I'm calling the realtor and you can start looking for a nurse."
* * *
Three may be the magic number but how hard it is to braid the threads together into a balanced whole.