Recently, I took the train from Boston to Washington, D.C. to work on a writing project and visit my mother.
As my mother is 91, and I am hardly a college student, we both occasionally worry about losing our memories, but my mother shows no hint of this fate.
"Drat," I told my mother when I arrived, "I left my cell phone on the kitchen table in Boston!"
"Shh," she said, "I'm watching a news debate with leading national pundits about what's going on in Syria. See, that's US Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, Obama's aide, explaining the president's request to Congress that it approve a limited strike."
At my mother's apartment, we quickly settled into discussing politics and books. She was reading "This Town," an account of what everybody inside-the-beltway didn't know was happening when it happened, while I had brought a novel about a Boston WASP family trying to hide the family dirt while hosting a wedding. Surprisingly, it seemed that both books had the same plot.
My mother is a lively conversationalist, so we often did not finish discussing our books or analyzing world politics until very late.
In the mornings, I scurried off to work at a favorite D.C. library. Passing through the coffee shops and subway, I overheard quite a bit of native chit-chat from the nation's wielders of power.
"You invited the vice chairman of the American Enterprise Institute," said a think tank scholar, "to your barbecue?"
"No, Scranton and Resor were both college classmates of William Bundy," a historian said, "with Cyrus Vance."
"What's your third book on Uzbekistan about?"
While my mother is very active for her age, she does appreciate help with the chores. On Saturday, I put in a load of laundry for her, and then got groceries at the supermarket. As I walked back, two of the plastic grocery bags split, spilling the contents on the sidewalk. I had to cram the tumbled groceries into the remaining bags, which filled to bursting. To save space, I stuck a few items, including an avocado, into my pocketbook.
"Listen to this," my mother said when I got back, "Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, is saying that the agency has been has been using a SIGINT program to crack encryption protections used by IT internet companies. Critics say the weaknesses can let sinister foreign elements bypass our security codes!"
She added that there was more laundry to do, but it could wait.
The next day, while I was working at the library, I noticed that one of the avocadoes was still in my pocketbook. I sent my mom an email promising to put it in her veggie basket that night.
When I arrived, my mother told me that she had tried to finish the laundry, but the laundry room key was missing. Since I was the last one to have used it, I guessed I was the guilty suspect.
We turned the apartment upside down looking for the key. I queried two young men who had just exited the laundry room, but they hadn't noticed it in there.
"Should I ask at the lobby reception, in case somebody turned it in?" I asked.
"No," said one of the men, a D.C. political strategist. "According to zero-sum game theory, if word gets out that a key is known to be lost, the person in custody might not return it, hoping to keep open the chance of later burgling the apartment."
I reported this to my mother and we searched the apartment again. Eventually, after twenty more minutes of looking, I went down to the reception.
"Has anyone turned in a red laundry room key?" I asked.
"You mean this?" the man said, handing it over.
I returned to the apartment for the laundry.
"You forgot your cell phone," said my mother, "and you forgot the laundry room key. What do you think you are, 91 years old?"
Just then, we smelled smoke, and my mother and I both froze. From the particular fragrance - carbonized green beans -- it could mean only one thing: scorched supper. Had one of us left a pot to char on the stove?
We approached the cooking appliances with trepidation. Would the blackened state of the kitchen confirm that our minds were fading?
However, the stove sat sparkling clean. Not a pot was on it. In fact, the only thing we'd forgotten to do was start dinner.
I opened the apartment door to look out. The smoke was pretty thick, but I could see down the hallway. A teenager stood at the end, swinging the fire door to let in fresh air.
"What happened?" I asked.
"My mom burned the dinner," he shrugged. "You'd think she wouldn't do it on her 40th birthday."
When I got back to Boston, I noticed the avocado was still in my pocketbook.