“Yes, I was in a hurry when I got here. Do you want me to cross it out and write it properly?” Jan whimpers that she just doesn’t know.
Ruth speaks up and says it isn’t necessary. “We know who you are.”
“Jan, I wish my penmanship were as neat as yours. I’ve always admired your handwriting.”“I don’t admire it,” she says. “That tiny printing of mine is impossible to read. It used to drive me crazy.”
How does she do it? How does she spy the two barely visible dents that resulted when I pulled away from the pump with the hose still attached? I tell her once again the story of the long line at the gas station with the bargain price, how I was only trying to be considerate of the drivers behind me when the attendant went into the office with my charge card. Another customer came to my door and told me he’d done exactly the same thing the week before for exactly the same reason.
My sister wants me to look at her nose. I see a perfectly normal little nose with no defects, but she says the skin is dry.
“You could put the CVS lotion on it,” I suggest.
“No, I can’t do that because the instructions warn you not to get any of it in your eyes. I am constantly having to do this” (She demonstrates by running a finger along the lower rim of each eye.) “and if I had any lotion on my nose, the chemicals could be a danger.”“Okay, we’ll add your nose and your eyes to your list of problem body parts.”
“I always loved my little sister,” she would say, as if repeating the assertion would make me love mine. I’m glad my mother lived long enough to see her daughters become friends in their twenties, but not long enough to see them estranged again in their seventies.Kathie, aware of how stressed I’ve been getting because of my sister’s constant negativity, suggests that I ask her to focus on pleasant topics.
“But there is nothing pleasant in her life. She still insists she wants only to be non-existent.”When I stop at the desk to register, Jessica points toward the room where an instructor is showing residents how to line dance. None of them want to try it. I see Jan among the elderly men and women lining the walls, but she doesn’t see me until I join the teacher and her assistant and motion to her, “Come on!” She is at first surprised, then immovable. She shakes her head adamantly.
The assistant takes my hand and I stumble over my feet a few times, but then begin doing better. Jan keeps shaking her head, no. At last, to please me, she rises from her chair and makes the effort. By now my eighty-six-year-old back is saying enough already, so we say thank you and leave for Jan’s apartment.
“That dark blue blouse is impossible, it takes too long to button it, I want nothing more to do with it.”
“Okay, we’ll give it to Linda.” This time she doesn’t protest when I retrieve it from her closet floor.
“The knee-highs you tried to stretch didn’t work out either. They are still tight.”
“Mine are too, always have been, and they haven’t cut off my circulation yet.”I show her the flaxseed meal, my regularity remedy. “You could bring this down to breakfast and have it with a dish of cereal, but how about having some now?”
“She looked at me coyly and asked if John and I were sweethearts. She saw him grab me by the shoulder and plant that sloppy kiss on my mouth before I could stop him. Just because he gave me the cane, that doesn’t mean he can take liberties!”
The phrase takes me back to our mother’s warnings about boys, when we were pre-teenagers.
“Now people are gossiping about me and John, and I hate it!” She takes a last mouthful and puts down the spoon. She makes a fist, draws it back, and plunges her skinny arm forward, as if it held a weapon. “I’d like to kill him,” she scowls.She accompanies me to the elevator. Halfway down the hall, I feel a hand touching my shoulder, gently moving back and forth. “I’m sorry I’m not better.”
I am almost too moved to answer. Then I say I’m sorry, too, as sorry as she is. What has happened to her isn’t fair. Why can’t life be more fair?
New carpeting installed in my condo day before yesterday. Ted and Frank were a great help in moving furniture out of the way and returning to put the furniture back. One problem, a lamp I can’t find anywhere. May call on Tim, the finder of mysteriously disappearing things like a favorite photo album labeled “Jack and I.”
I know what my sons will say: “Poor old mom, she put that lamp somewhere or she gave it away. Lamps don’t just disappear.” Meanwhile I am way behind on what’s going on with Janeth.
So I go to Advantage House this morning, am told by Ruth that Jan is playing basketball. I watch for a while, unbeknownst to her, see her get two out of four baskets in the box placed between two rows of residents. Her nemesis, the kiss stealer, is sitting across from her. It’s nearing Jan’s lunchtime, so I corral her and we go up to her apartment. She shows me what some fool has done to her calendar.
“They put the check mark here on the 23rd, and now you can’t see the time of the entertainment on the 29th.”
I can see that there will be a pianist at 2:30, tell her that must have been last Sunday.
“No, the check mark is covering important information.”
It’s like the old days: she’s sure she’s right, I’m sure she’s wrong. Jan gives a sigh of exasperation and says all right.She brings out the shirt with its loose thread on the verge of unraveling into a heap of filaments. The thread is in the middle of what was once a small white diamond shape. I secure the pattern on the back of the fabric with needle and thread and tell my sister the embroidery is now safe from demolition. “No one would ever notice it except you.”
A new statement from Old Mutual Insurance Company is in today’s mail. The date of issue for a five-year contract was Feb. 2, 2002. Wouldn’t this mean that it matured last February? I talk to a rep at Old Mutual and learn that because Janeth failed to sign a surrender form, the annuity was automatically renewed for another five years.A recollection comes to me. Janeth was in a panic over a phone call from a bad man who kept trying to tell her she should do something she didn’t understand about her Old Mutual annuity, and when she wouldn’t do it, he punished her by taking away the account.
“I was wondering if this Watson was related to a Watson I knew in Cohasset. He played the piano magnificently and gave lessons.”
“If I go, I’ll ask him.”
I urge her to go. “Remember the lovely time you had when you heard a woman who sang so beautifully, she brought tears to your eyes? This man might also be worth listening to. Please go, Jan. Please don’t sit there in the dark when you could be missing something worthwhile.”
My sister gives me a report later.
“I got there too late to get a seat at the back so I could leave early if I wanted to. I had to sit up front. When he played a piece that seemed to have some intentional discords. I told him I thought I detected humor, and he said I was right.” Who else, I thought, would notice a thing like that and correctly interpret the discords as musical mischief?“Then he played a tune that was melancholy,” my sister says. “We talked about that, too. He was a fascinating man.”
“Why did you do that?” she asks. “Now I’ll have to lace them all over again.”
Sorry, I say. This is how she broke a hole in the lacy fabric of my “dressy” sneakers, slipping out of them without undoing the laces. She was showing me that her swollen feet were still smaller than mine. (Ted would say I’m as paranoid as my sister.) I have to keep mending the hole. You’re a royal pain sometimes, Janeth.“Look at the soles,” I say. “See how thick and grooved they are? They would be safe on a rainy day.”
“I’ll see you after my bridge game. If your toes are screaming by then, I’ll return the shoes.”It’s nearing Janeth’s lunch time. As we take the elevator to the first floor, she tells me again how terrible the meals are. We look at the lunch menu outside the dining room. “Shrimp Scampi,” I read aloud. “You ate several shrimps at the tenth anniversary party. Remember how delicious they were?”
“They use fancy things that fry your brain if you eat them.”
“You mean the garnish? So don’t eat it.”
She condemns the vegetables (greasy) and the rice (oily).
“It could be olive oil, and that’s good for you.”
Janeth fixes me with a look and says, “Barbara, do you really believe they wouldn’t hesitate to use peanut oil?”
I say I really do believe they don’t use peanut oil, but maybe she should go to one of the meetings where such things are discussed.On my way back from the Monday duplicate bridge game, I stop in Hingham to make a dental appointment for Janeth with Dr. Shelsy. I tell Janet, the receptionist, that my sister broke a tooth last Friday.
“She’s a new patient?” She sets up an appointment in November, then decides a broken tooth should be attended to sooner. I will be taking Janeth there next week.I arrive at # 253 at 4:15 and am flabbergasted when my sister says I don’t need to return the black shoes; they aren’t bad. I wish she would say the same about this evening’s supper, but I know that’s expecting too much of the fates in one day
“I know, darling, this is what your illness is doing. It’s mean, mean, mean! I wish I could make you better. All I can do is tell you how much I love you.”“Thank you,” she says. Then . . . “I’m going to have to hang up. I don’t have a single thing in my head I can talk about. Hugga hugga.” Click.
During this evening’s phone conversation, Janeth doesn’t sound as despairing as she did last night. She is concerned about wearing the same knee-highs day after day.
“Rinse them out, squeeze out the moisture with a towel, and hang them up. They’ll dry by morning,”
“You believe that, but I do not.”
“Jan, I gave you three pairs of knee-highs.”
“I can’t find them.”
“I’ll look for them tomorrow.”
I notice in Dr. DeSouza’s records, obtained for her new doctor in Cohasset, that Janeth allegedly quit smoking in 1953.
“Jan, I think your doctor made a mistake. You didn’t ever smoke, did you?”"Yes, remember how our brother taught us how?”
“That was kid stuff. I don’t ever remember seeing you smoke. What period in your life was that?”
“It was before I had Lindy. I thought I should stop when I got pregnant.”
“If you were able to stop that easily, I’ll bet you didn’t inhale.”
“No, Dick didn’t teach us how to do that.”“It used to worry me that Jack was a smoker.”
“Jack, my boyfriend back in the seventies. Sure enough, he got emphysema and died at his daughter’s house in California.”“Jack who?”
“Remember how you were sure someone had stolen your filing cabinet drawer? And I broke up with Jack because he didn’t believe the drawer was stolen? And then you found it?”“Oh dear, I’m sorry,” says Jan thirty years later.
“It’s all right. We broke up forever many times.”
My agitated sister calls at 9:15 this morning to tell me there will be a sweater sale going on at ten o’clock.
“They’re being sold very cheaply, I don’t have any cash or a single check. How would I pay if I buy anything?”
“I’ll be there at 10:30 with a check.”
“By that time dozens of people will have come rushing down with checks or cash in their hot little hands, and nothing good will be left.”I hurry to get to Advantage House by ten, look into the activity room, see three or four women going through cardigans and pullovers. Jan won’t want a pullover that would spoil her hairdo. I ask the salesman if there are any petites. He says no.
“Please be careful not to get Janeth’s hair wet,” the note says. “She is having a shampoo and set tomorrow, but she would like her hair to look presentable for tomorrow’s breakfast.” Signed: “Janeth’s sister.”We go to the sweater sale, although I expect a small size would be much too big for tiny Janeth. I’m wrong. For twenty dollars each, she buys a black cardigan and a white one, both with the pockets she likes. I fill out a check for her signature and hand over a twenty for the black sweater I bought for myself.
“Oh, those brown ones? They are too dark.”
“Jan, when you unroll them and put them on, they’re just as sheer as the one’s you have on.”
“I’m whittling in my pants,” she says.“So go,” I say. I sit on her bed while she complains from the bathroom that she’s running out of toilet paper. “The last time I had a shower, the aide said not to worry about my hair falling out and clogging the drain. Before I could stop her, she goes whirr, whirr, whirr and uses a big handful of my toilet paper to clean the drain.”
“I’ll bring you a couple of rolls tomorrow, a lovely soft brand.”
“I don’t like it too soft. If it’s too soft, the sheets tear unevenly.” One time Janeth saw me tear the tissue carelessly and cried out, "Look what you just did!" An odd hang-up, courtesy of Al Zheimer.
Call Jan this evening, ask if the aide was careful not to get her hair wet.“Oh, I told her not to give me a shower because I’m having my hair done tomorrow.”