Monday, July 24, 2017


      I buy Milk of Magnesia so Celia can show Jan how to make a prune juice cocktail. When I stop at the desk, Jessica points to the library where my sister is reading—of all things—the Boston Globe. A half-century ago, Jan told me she didn’t read newspapers because she didn’t like getting ink on her hands. This phobia wasn’t an early symptom of dementia; it was just Janeth being Janeth.
      My sister looks up from the Globe and smiles as I sit down beside her.
      “I had my flu shot. I wish I hadn’t signed the form they gave out. It was a list of all the people who are allowed into your apartment. I learned too late that I didn’t have to sign it.”
      Overhearing this comment, Jessica leaves her desk to explain that the list consists of staff members who already are entering apartments for various reasons.
      “I was going to tell her that,” Jan says. “I always know when someone has been in my apartment. They come in and they move things, like my shoes. They take my clothes, too, and put them in the closet.”

“I'd love to have someone picking up after me.” Whoops!  I'm sounding preachy like my Aunt Ruth.
“I don’t love it, I feel invaded. Norma got mad at me again. She was talking about the dinner she had at her son’s and daughter’s house. I asked if her hostess was her son’s sister or her daughter-in-law, and she got in a big huff about that.”
“Maybe she was thinking of Helen Hayes, who referred to her son’s wife as her daughter-in-love.”
“That’s a lovely way to put it, but Norma didn’t need to take offense over a simple question and angrily leave the table.”
      “I guess all you can do is avoid saying anything at all to Norma if she’s so touchy.”
      “That’s what Robert says. She’s touchy.”

I show her an attachment I received in an e-mail this morning, titled “Shhh!” The first page shows a small boy with very blue eyes holding his finger to his lips. The following pages quote the  comments kids make about church and prayer, like “Why are you supposed to keep quiet in church?” Answer: So people can sleep.
Jan grins over each one, and her favorite is the same as mine: A child is asked by a grandparent to say Grace and says he doesn’t know how. “Just say whatever your mother says.” Answer: “Why on earth did I invite so goddamn many people for dinner?”
       We go up to Jan’s apartment, and I put the Milk of Magnesia on the kitchen counter.

Jan points to new evidence of the staff’s incompetence. “When they vacuum, they don’t do a thing about the crumbs in the sofa.”
      “I’ll bring a dustpan and whisk-broom.”

“That isn’t enough. They should use one of those long things you stick down the sides of the sofa and suck up the crumbs. This is where the previous owner used to sit eating snacks and gaining weight. The crumbs attract ladybugs.”
“Dozens of them. I flushed a bunch down the toilet, but with all that air, I thought they could escape in a bubble and get into other people’s apartments and keep them awake all night, too.”
“A plague of ladybugs. Their predators must have become extinct.”
“Yes, a plague is what I have. The next time, I didn’t flush them, I burned them.”
Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home, Your house is on fire and your children will burn if they get anywhere near Janeth. I remember grandson Tim’s opinion of the family’s boiled lobster cookout. Unconvinced by his father’s assurances that crustaceans have little or no nervous system, he denounced us: “Murderers! You’re all murderers!”
This evening Jan rings me to say she’s afraid she’s done something wrong. “A woman from a doctor’s office called and was talking about an appointment I have on Friday.”
“Yes, I’m taking you to my ophthalmologist. You’ve needed new glasses for ages, and we need to find out if you have a problem with . . . with. . .”
“Glaucoma,” Jan says.
“Yes, I never can think of that word. Have you seen any more ladybugs?”
“No, I think I got all of them. I don’t want them flying around and raising families inside my room.”
“I know you don’t have matches, Jan. Did you burn them on the stove?”
“No, I boiled them. I held them under hot water until I scalded my hand. I watched the drain to see if any of them would come crawling back up, but they didn’t.”
I should have spared Kathie. This was the second shock she got today. The first was an article about a child-development study of twins, secretly separated at birth. The psychoanalyst who led the study theorized that twins would fare better if they were raised in different families. Kathie’s e-mailed reaction: “Absolutely shocking. Good grief. I've saved it as a case study in research unethics to share with my classes.”
She was even more shocked by the report of the boiled ladybugs.
“I’m horrified! Ladybugs are beneficial insects. They are great to have in gardens because they eliminate destructive insects. Those poor little ladybugs.”
This is the first time Kathie has failed to defend her aunt’s behavior on the grounds that she is sick. She was too dismayed by the fate of the hapless insects.
I researched via Google and learned that ladybugs are becoming pests. But still. . . .

I spent an hour at Bobbie’s Beauty Salon, watching Bobbie’s daughter shape my new wigs with her fearless scissors. I told Poky about my sister and the ladybugs; and she says she has them all over her ceiling. Bobbie chimes in to describe a customer who was a  very sweet woman until she got Alzheimer’s.
“She changed completely. Her husband was devoted throughout. He came in with her faithfully once a week, held her hand while she had her hair done, used to do her nails for her, bathe her, couldn’t have been kinder. In the end she got violent, died a couple of years later. Then his son died of cancer. Tragic life, poor man.”
I tell them about Sandra, at Paula Young’s showroom where I bought the wigs.
       I have known Sandy for years, through thick and thin hair, from mini-falls like Shirley MacClaine’s in” Terms of Endearment” to the full wigs that are a daily necessity.
      “She said her mother-in-law was a lovely woman before she got Alzheimer’s. Then she turned into someone else. She even hit her a couple of times."

My sister calls to say she doesn’t know why Linda is coming; there isn’t anything for her to do.
       “Jan, you’ve been telling me you don’t have any wearable clothes in your closet. I want you to show her exactly what you are talking about. That’s one thing she can do.”

“The reason I can’t wear one of the blouses is that the bra Linda bought is much too big. It sticks out a lot further than I do, and I can’t fasten the buttons on the blouse.”
      “Then give the bra and the blouse to your mom for the free table.”

I collect Jan at 9:30, allowing extra time for her 10:30 appointment, in case I become disoriented as I often do these days. It isn’t my age, it’s the damn construction and detours that never seem to end.
I find myself driving toward Weymouth Landing when I should have taken Middle Street. I realized later I could have kept going and taken the expressway south to reach Eye Health Services on Route 18. Instead I tell Jan I have to turn around, which I do; drive for a few miles, then decide I was right the first time. Change my mind again, make a third U-turn, and finally see the white church that tells me a right turn will take me to Middle Street. It’s enough to make me a Believer.
Approaching Route 18 at last, I roll down the passenger side window, lean over Jan and beckon a policeman, who is surrounded by huge machines and muscular road repairmen. He is not keen on being beckoned.
“Which way to Eye Health?”
“Turn left, and Eye Health will be on your left, “Right up there where you see that silver car coming out.”
“How are you going to turn left with that big truck beside us?” Janeth wants to know.
“We’ll manage, maybe with the help of the policeman.”
I am mistaken. He’s much too busy managing traffic for any further commerce with me, so I wait until the big truck goes straight toward the Stetson Shoe Building. Then I play a game of Dotage Dodge-Em, twisting and turning and wincing and braking until I successfully make the turn. A moment later I hear Janeth say something.
“What?” I ask.
“You just went by Eye Health.”
The fourth U-turn of the day is accompanied by are-you-crazy-lady blaring horns. The handicapped parking spaces are all van-accessible and filled with non-van vehicles. I find a space near the end of the row, and Jan follows me to the entrance. Here we are at last, the blind leading the blind into Eye Health.
After we’ve checked in at the desk, and I’ve whittled in the Men’s Room, the Ladies' being inaccessible,  (Jan: “You should have told me so I could stand guard.”), we find two unoccupied chairs. I show my sister the latest series of funny animal photographs I printed for her amusement. We particularly cackle over one of a yellow chick standing on tippy-toes next to a curbstone, the better to see a parade of six ducklings. Jan tsk-tsks over a baby biting a protesting kitten’s tail.
Dr. Johnson’s astonishing verdict: Janeth has neither glaucoma nor cataracts, and her present glasses are satisfactory. I have to say something, so she won’t feel too bad about not having glaucoma or cataracts.
“My sister has trouble reading,”
“All right, the reading part of the bifocal could be made a little stronger.”
Janeth speaks up and says her glasses slice her ear and are heavy on her nose. “They keep sliding down.”
The doctor says this is something to discuss with her optometrist.
      I have no difficulty this time with Middle Street. The only difficulty is with Janeth’s answer to my question about the Milk-of-Magnesia cocktail. “Oh yes, it worked all right. After I had the cocktail and the flaxseed meal in chunky applesauce, I got diarrhea.”

Well, of course she got diarrhea. “Jan, you didn’t need to take the flaxseed meal, too. You were supposed to have the cocktail instead. I’ll go up to your apartment and get it, so you won’t make that mistake again.”
“But I don’t want you to do that. I’m afraid I’ll get constipated again.”
Jan tells me she showed Norma the picture of the blue-eyed child saying `Shh,’ then turned the rest of the pages with the children’s comments about church and prayer. “She laughed at all of them. Robert asked Norma to make a copy for him, but I said, `no, no, you can’t do that, my sister’s personal information is at the top of the paper. She won’t want strangers reading that.’”
I tell Janeth not to worry, people exchange e-mail addresses by the millions every day.
      “When I was ordering lunch yesterday,” Jan continues, “I had a hard time deciding what to choose. I knew I didn’t want the hamburger with French fries. Should I ask for the chicken sandwich with a teaspoon of chicken in it, because I always have to ask for more on the side? Norma kept grimacing and making irritated punching motions with her fist. I’d like to punch her right in the face. She always eats everything she orders and says it’s delicious, not caring in the least about how much salt and fat she’s consuming.”

Jan is only fifteen minutes late for today’s lunch. I see Nurse Celia and tell her about the double-dose laxatives that gave my sister diarrhea.
“She doesn’t want me to take away the flaxseed meal.” Celia shrugs and says there’s really nothing she can do.
“That’s my mantra, too.” I say. “Time after time, there’s nothing I can do.”
For once I don’t join my niece during her visit to Jan. I need the break. Linda stops at my condo to fill me in on what took place at Number 253.
“We chatted for a while, and nothing was said about her clothes. Finally, she could see I was getting ready to leave . . . “
Leave? Linda! Help! The complaints about clothes have been driving me crazy!
“. . . and then she brought up the subject. I counted nine pairs of slacks and put together four outfits. She said everything was old and worn to death.
“I said, ‘Mom, there’s nothing in there that’s older than four months. Those clothes are brand new in the general scheme of things. The white jacket I bought you for your birthday isn’t even that old.’
“She said the white jacket wasn’t that useful. I said okay, I’ll take it off your hands for the free table. She didn’t want me to do that, so it stayed in the closet. We stood there looking at the closet, and she kept saying everything had been worn and worn, and then she said, `I can’t hang my clothes up. Barbara thinks everything is so simple’. . . at this point she hung her head very low and said, ‘It isn’t simple for me.’”
“That’s what the aides are for," I said. "She gets upset when she thinks things have disappeared and it turns out the aides hang them up for her when they find them on doorknobs and chairs. What about the bra?”
Oh yes, Janeth had been telling her on the phone that the bra didn’t fit. “I know she’s a 36C, but I said why don’t you try my 34B and see how it is. So we stripped down and swapped bras. Mom liked the fit but not the under-wire because that would stick into her.”
“Get her a 34B and mail it to me. I’ll send you a check.”
“Another thing . . . Mom was sitting on the sofa when the phone rang. It was your phone call; the phone was sitting on the end table right next to her. She sprang up, hoping to get to it before you hung up—but she ran to the bedroom phone. I asked why she did this when she was sitting right beside the phone. Mom said that's not the phone that rings. I said, `Do you have two phone numbers?’
“She gives me a puzzled look. `I don't know how to answer your question.’ So I let it go.
“Mom was a little upset with me before I left. Noticing menus and event listings from previous months, I chucked them in the basket, explaining why this was done.
      "Well...we might as well just throw out EVERYTHING of mine!" She stood there shaking her head as though I didn't understand. I suggested that hanging onto menus from previous months might present some confusion, they were irrelevant; last month will never happen again, reduce clutter, etc. I got that look again. I'm sure she's dug them out of the trash by now.

'I told her I wouldn’t be here on Thanksgiving, but I would on the following Friday and Saturday. She said, Oh, so that’s next week? No, Mom, it’s about four weekends away. I said I’d be bringing Toby to introduce him to everyone. Of course Mom knew him from the first time around a few years ago. I want to show him the little red house where I grew up.”
      Linda pauses and looks thoughtful. “I don’t ever remember Mom saying anything complimentary about me, unless it was when I was feeling especially unhappy about my looks. She’d say, `Linda, you have that lovely apple-shaped face, you’re beautiful.’ She surprised me today, when she was trying on the new knee-highs. She looked up at me and said, `You’re adorable.’”

“You are,” I say. “How can you be going to your thirty-fifth high school reunion when you don’t look a day over thirty-five.” Linda laughs that husky laugh I love so much.
       Before we hug goodbye I ask Linda if she needs any money.

“Your mom is very good about helping out when you need it.” She says no, she’s getting along all right.
“Oh!” Linda remembers she has something to show me. It’s a delicate gold bracelet Toby gave her for her birthday. “He never gave me anything like that the first time,” she smiles.
Sounds serious, I say.
“Yep, we’re planning to keep this going indefinitely.”
I love seeing her glow with the happiness of being in love. I remember the feeling.
I rehearsed several variations of what I would say in tonight’s call. (1) Linda tells me you believe you’ve worn your clothes to death. I’ve worn mine for years, not a few months. . . (2) As Linda and I understand it, you want to buy a new wardrobe every four months. That’s fine, you can afford it. (3) Hi honey .It sounds as if you really need some new shirts and blouses to go with your slacks. If I had to get dressed presentably every day of the week, I’d have the same problem."
I choose version three, and Jan snaps, “I wish Linda hadn’t gone off and left that damn bra here, pardon my French. I never want to see it again!”
       “I’ll pick it up on Monday,” I say, barely managing to keep my cool. . . . 

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