Us vs. Them, Poolside with My Mother

You can sum up everything that’s wrong in the world,” my mother said, “by the fact that some people think they can put a towel down in the morning and own a chair all day.”

She was lying on the lounge chair next to mine at a Cancun hotel where our family had gathered to celebrate her 65th birthday. I looked up from my book, squinting into the Yucatan sun.


“I came out to the pool after breakfast,” my mother explained, “and every chair had a towel on it. Every single one. So I went to the front desk and asked, ‘Are people allowed to reserve chairs by putting towels on them even though they’re not at the pool?’ And the woman tells me no, the policy is that you’re not allowed to save a chair. So Andrew, if you come out here and all the chairs are claimed with towels, just ignore them and sit down. Anyone complains, tell them your mother asked and it’s the policy.”

I had just turned 42.

For vacation reading, I had brought along The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, which is about how people in traditional societies tend to enjoy a sense of abundance.

That afternoon, at lunch, I asked my mother, “Do you think your anxiety about the chairs reflects your fear, deep down, that there won’t be enough for you?”

“Enough what?” she asked.

“You know, stuff,” I said. I meant love.

“Listen,” she said. “There are 850 guests here and 75 chairs. So there aren’t enough. Plus some chairs are positioned worse than others. This is about fairness.”

My dad, returning from the all-you-can-eat buffet, agreed.

“It’s about right and wrong,” he said.

Next, my brother-in-law chimed in. “It was the same when we were in Curaçao. You couldn’t sit down.”

My sister related the story of a woman whose towel-on-chair had been ignored.

“It was that French lady in the orange bikini. She puts a towel down, goes to breakfast, and when she comes back, her towel’s gone. She’s like, ‘Who would do such a thing?’”

Who would do such a thing?” my mother repeated in disgust. “The real question is, who goes around thinking they can violate hotel policy by saving a chair?”

A few days later, I had just started eating breakfast when, through the hotel restaurant’s window, I spied an older woman draping a white towel over an unclaimed chair by the pool.

Even at that distance, I recognized the way she wore her fanny pack in front, and how she walked on her toes.

It was my mother.

“Everyone’s doing it,” she explained at breakfast, “so we have to do it too. It’s like when I was in Brownies.”

I didn’t know she had been in Brownies.

“Grandma Millie was the den mother. And whenever she called on someone to do something fun, she never picked me because she didn’t want to play favorites with her own daughter. But then, when we graduated to Camp Fire Girls, there was another den mother who always picked her own daughter.”

“Still,” I said, “you don’t feel hypocritical?”

“No,” my mother said. “Because I know and respect the policy. If someone comes along and moves my towel while I’m away, I won’t make a fuss. I’ll just say, ‘Good for you. Enjoy the chair.’”

The last day of our vacation, I spied what looked like an empty lounge chair by the pool. But when I got closer, I noticed a baseball cap wedged into its cushions.

Someone had put the hat down as a claim on the chair.

“What if the cap’s owner comes back?” my mother said, looking on.

“I’ll say I thought the cap was here from last night,” I answered.

“Sounds defensive,” my mother said. “Anyway, the real question is, will you get up, or will you stay?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the hat’s owner will be nice about it.”

My mother shook her head. “Unlikely. I mean, that person probably came out here at five o’clock in the morning to save that chair. For nothing!”

We were both laughing now, which I considered a victory: for a moment, at least, my mother’s mind seemed free of the tyrannical grip of the Brownies story.

Just then my sister approached, pushing her newborn son in a stroller. She said that a taxi was waiting to take us to the airport—which was odd, since our flight didn’t depart for another four hours and the airport was only 15 minutes away.

Turned out my mother had asked the cab to come early.

“The airline’s policy is to give you extra legroom if you’re traveling with an infant,” she said. “But for some reason we didn’t get it. Let’s go early and see what we can do.”

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