Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The Fifth Commandment


The Fifth Commandment

The two Bender sisters, both unmarried, lived in a little house together with their old mother.

They composed a tranquil, if not particularly cheerful, trio. Preferring solitude, they seldom entertained guests.

Despite their reserved nature, they unfailingly extended a warm welcome to me whenever I visited. And so, I found it surprising when I detected a hint of unease in the sisters as I brought them a visit rather late one evening. Upon my arrival, I sensed that my visit should be brief.

It was because of their mother. She had become senile. She usually sat in a grand armchair, a blanket on her lap, her gaze fixed straight ahead, paying no attention to the conversation nor acknowledging any guests. I was accustomed to this, but what follows I had yet to learn.

It so happened that evening that I had to convey to them a rather sensitive message I had received by telephone. Arriving shortly before ten o'clock, I was brought into the living room. As I sat down, Mother Bender leaned forward to inspect the mantle clock. A moment later she checked it again.

Then, as the clock struck ten, the elderly woman abruptly straightened in her chair, tapped her finger on the table, and said, "Girls, bedtime!"

Her tone, so firm and resolute, startled me. The sisters, aged 54 and 52, exchanged sheepish glances.

The finger tapped the table once more, with greater force.

"Girls, can't you hear me? Hurry along, please!"

The elder sister dared protest, "Oh, mother. . . .”

However, this proved a misstep. Old mother raised her voice and struck the table with some force: “No nonsense, you; obey my instruction."

Feeling awkward, I made a move to stand up to depart, but one of the sisters gestured for me to stay yet for a few moments. They both exited the room, leaving the old woman seated, her gaze fixed upon the door.

The minutes passed in silence, except for the ticking of the clock.

Soon enough, the sisters returned and approached their mother.

"Let me see," she demanded sternly. They obediently extended their hands for inspection.

"Teeth brushed?"

"Yes, Mother."

With this, the aged woman sank back into her chair, her task, seemingly, concluded. Resting her gray head against the back of the chair, the light in her eyes faded and her blue-veined hands sought the armrests.

In the hallway, as I was leaving, the sisters acknowledged that this nightly episode repeated without fail. They admitted, with a tinge of shame, to occasionally adjusting the clock to postpone the inspection by an hour.

"Yet," murmured the elder, "Mother was always so kind to us in our youth."

"Yes," concurred the younger, "and she is still our mother."


“Het vijfde gebod,” Peper en Zout, pp. 68-70, by Ds. M. E. Voila; tr. George van Popta, 2024