“How did the visit with Linda go?” I ask.
“I knew that after their long drive someone was going to need the bathroom, so I put one of those new rolls you gave me on the holder. Sure enough, that’s what Tiffany wanted the minute they got here. I hate to think of how much toilet paper she used. I was shocked to see that stud Stephanie has in her lip. Why do they do that to themselves?”
“It’s a fad. The new generation always has to do something to make them look different from their elders, like getting tattoos, or like the young women who cut off their crowning glory in the Roaring Twenties.”
“That’s another thing. I don’t like the way women wear their hair these days, straggly and sticking out in all directions. I don’t think that’s attractive at all.”
“Did your hairdo survive trying on the sweater sets?”
“Linda fixed it for me afterwards. There was one set she presumed was a petite, but it was much too big. She thinks she can exchange it. I’m feeling so sorry for Ray. He came here and left cards for Linda and the girls, cards with money in them. And he gave me two tens. I didn’t even have a Christmas card for him.
“Next time you see him, tell him why you felt sad and give him a hug.”
“And a kiss on his cheek.”
“ He’ll tell you that not getting a Christmas card from you wasn’t the least bit important.”
“The message on his card was very nice, but of course he capitalizes words that he shouldn’t, so I have to overlook that. He said he was my friend, underlined, and he would be my friend to the end of his days.”
“Just what you’ve always wanted, Jan.”
“When I kiss him I’ll have to be careful not to get him stirred up. The last time he took me shopping, we were parked outside, and before I could stop him, he kissed me on the mouth. It was lunchtime and I knew Norma would be looking out the window the way she always does to see whose car it is. I was hoping she didn’t see the kiss because she’d decide Ray was my lover and she’d gossip about me the way she gossips about everyone else.
“I’ve been thinking about our parents and how I used to climb into their bed when I was little and land plunk, right between them. One time I realized—as an adult, of course— that Mother had been joined with him. She was making some adjustments I didn’t understand. They were having intercourse the lazy way.”
“That must have been on a Saturday or Sunday morning,” I say, picturing the twin beds, his nearest the door. “They were always in her bed on weekends.”
“Once I asked Mother what circumcised meant. She used her finger to show me, pulling down on the tip of it. She said the penis was cleaner that way. I remember how Wally cried. I thought it was cruel not to numb his little penis so he wouldn’t feel the pain.”
“Do you remember the day Dad circumcised himself?”
“What? Circumcised himself? I didn’t know about that.”
“It was back at the time when I wasn’t communicating with you. I was fourteen and you were eleven.”
Saturday, August 24, 1935
I can’t believe what daddy did. He circumcised himself. Mother tried to stop him, but he said he’d made his mind up. He was sick and tired of having to clean himself every day, so he was going to take a razor and get rid of the damn, dirty nuisance. (It’s called a foreskin.). With mother begging him not to, he locked himself in the bathroom, sat on the edge of the tub with a razor, and that’s where all the blood came from. He used mother’s Kotex to bandage himself . . .
Before we hung up, I apologized to my sister because her missing lunch was entirely my fault. “I should have kept in contact with Linda, so I’d know she would arrive too late to take you to a restaurant.”
“You can’t think of everything, dear. I’ve been wishing I had a beautiful Christmas card to give you. It would say how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. You are my savior.”
I can’t speak for a moment. “Bless you, darling, I’ll keep trying”.
“Surely they can’t keep you from giving a cash gift to an aide,” Janeth says of her wish to give Hertha five dollars. Hertha, the bed demolisher, the stealer of a flashlight battery. I am pleased to hear that of all the aides, “that Hertha” is the one my sister wants to reward.
“The trouble is, I don’t have a five dollar bill. I have a ten, but I can’t very well tear it in two.”
“I’ll ask Celia about gifts to aides.”
Since it is the day before Christmas, no one is at the desk; callers are asked to leave a voice message. I leave one for Celia and decide to ask Margie Wollam what she thinks about Jan’s gifting a favorite aide. Margie thinks it is perfectly all right. I ask her when she’s coming to see Ruth and learn it will be at 2:00 today.
“Would you be able to change a ten for Jan?”
“She doesn’t want to give her ten?” Margie and I know that five dollars has the buying power of fifty cents on a good day. I wait while she looks in her billfold. “No, I don’t have two fives but I’ll stop on the way and get change. Where is her apartment?”
I call Jan, tell her Margie will be there around 2:00.
“Do I know her?”
“She’s Ruth Reynolds’s daughter. You used to sit at Ruth’s table. We were with them at the Christmas party, when Margie saw to it that the four of us had a table together in the dining room. You’ll know her when you see her.”
“At lunch today I was a little relieved to hear that Norma thinks she’s losing her mind.”
“Oh good—I mean not good, but maybe now she’ll be more understanding about memory loss.”
“She was expecting her son and daughter-in-law but couldn’t remember when they were coming.”
“ It can happen to anyone.”
My sister is in a reminiscing mood I get one call after another in which she goes back to our childhood. She remembers now that our father used to spank her too, “with all his might and main.”
“He left the imprint of his fingers, red with white spaces in between. “
“I can’t imagine why he would be spanking you. I was the one who got punished for being mean to you.”
“He punished me, too. Remember how Mother would tell on us and we would wait all day, dreading what would happen when our father got home? Then Mother would stand at the foot of the stairs calling, `David, David, that’s enough now.’ But he wouldn’t stop, he kept smacking me as hard as he could.”
“If you remember it, it must have happened.” But it never did. You were Mother’s pet.
Another call ten minutes later. “I don’t think I ever told you about how Mother almost smothered me.” No, Jan, you never did.
“She would get very upset when we were quarreling, she wanted us to be quiet or out of the house so she could concentrate on her writing. You know how important her writing was to her. She told me to go to my room and then she grabbed a pillow and put it over my face and pressed down so hard I couldn’t breathe, and I was terrified that I was going to die.”
“Where was I when this was going on?”
“I don’t know where you were, Barbara, I just know about what happened to me. If you think I’m imagining this, you’re wrong.”
In case Mother is in sitting on a pink cloud in Heaven and hearing this charge, I reassure her: “Mother dear, your younger daughter is sick, sick, sick. Let’s just pity her.”
The phone rings again. “I don’t know how I’m going to give Margie ten dollars for the two fives. All I have is a piece of paper that Ray gave me.”
“A check, you mean?”
“I don’t know what it is, I just know I don’t have a ten-dollar bill.”
“You told me Ray’s card had two tens in it. See if you can find it.”
“I’m looking around but I don’t see it. Oh, here it is. Ray’s address is in the corner. I’m looking inside. There are a couple of gray papers.”
Turn them over, Jan. “They’re green on the other side and there’s a picture of some kind of building.”
“Is there a number ten up in the corner?” Yes, Jan.
“So this is a ten-dollar bill? This is what I’ll give Margie for the two fives?”
“So this is a ten-dollar bill? This is what I’ll give Margie for the two fives?”
“That’s right, dear.”
Another call. “Margie has come and gone. She gave me one five and five ones. She apologized about the wrinkled look of the bills. I said that didn’t matter, and I thanked her. And I thank you, darling, for working this out for me.”
“Did you recognize Margie when you saw her?”
“I remember her hair. I’d like to have hair like that.”
“I would, too. She’s a very pretty woman with marvelous hair. She’s pretty and she’s kind.” That’s why I can forgive her for that marvelous, naturally curly hair.
Another call. “I think the gift to Hertha went well. I had a reason for doing this. Hertha is a joker, a prankster. She gets a kick out of my reaction when she comes so late in the morning that I hardly have time to get to breakfast by nine. At first she turned away from the five dollars, but I said I wanted her to have it because she’s such a sport. I hope it will work, so she’ll stop tormenting me. She thinks she’s teasing, but I don’t like it.”
“Jan, any time an aide hasn’t arrived by say, twenty of nine, you go ahead to the dining room. She’ll look for you because that’s her job.”
“I don’t think so. I’m afraid I’d miss out on my medications.”
“Remember the time I took you to an early appointment for a CAT scan at South Shore Hospital? When we got back, Lucy came to your apartment with your pills. Trust me, no aide will skip anything that essential.”
Janeth tells me about a realistic dream she often has. “I’m sitting at a desk, typing. There is a pile of papers next to me. I’m writing a book that I hope to have published. The dream shows me what I don’t acknowledge when I’m awake, that I always wanted to be a writer.”
“Jan, you are a writer. I spent many hours reading drafts of your letters. You wrote pages and pages in longhand, and they were extraordinary.” (“Huh!” says Jan.) "You and I can’t avoid the urge to write, it’s in our genes. I got an e-mail joke about a little boy whose new kindergarten teacher said she’d heard he was very smart. He said everyone in my family is smart; it’s in our pants.”
Jan gets the pun and laughs.
Tim calls, invites me to join his family for Christmas dinner, even offers to pick me up and drive me home again. He’s a dear son, but I think I finally convinced him I am totally happy spending the day with my computer and my books. A whole day with no errands to do, phone calls to make, no Christmas cards to answer, all those hours MINE. I do take the time to call Janeth. For their supper, the residents were given a box containing a hotdog roll with sliced ham in it.
“I think they save a lot of money by not providing a real meal for us. I couldn’t eat either the roll or the ham.”
“This must be what they do on holidays, so the staff can enjoy the evening with their friends and families. The same thing happened on Thanksgiving. I have an idea, Jan. I’ll remind you on December 31st to ask for a chicken sandwich to take with you after you’ve had your lunch. Specify that you want it without celery, and maybe that’s what you’ll get.”
“I’ll try, but they all do pretty much what they want to around here.”
When I phone Jan this evening, she says Celia came up to talk to her about her medications. “I said I didn’t know when I was supposed to take the syrup, and she said I could take it when the evening medications arrive. I said to her, `If they come in a timely fashion . . . ‘”
Jan, please stop finding fault with people who are trying to help you,
“Stephanie was here, she’s the one I never wanted to see again, she puts my slacks wherever she feels like it, and then I can’t find them. I’m not going to have eggs with my breakfast ever again, they never cook them right and I’m sick and tired of them.”
“I have some good news.” (I say when my sister runs out of complaints). “A check came today from Old Mutual. It’s a refund of the penalty they charged for closing your account four years early. I’m very excited about this, Jan. It means that the last of your out-of-state investments will now be safely deposited in a local bank.”
“I don’t know how you did it. I couldn’t have done that in ten million years.”
“Do you remember when Banker Bella warned you what could happen if you gave up your check-writing ability?” She doesn’t, but I have a memory prod.
“When you looked puzzled, I explained that she was saying Linda and I could rob you. Then Bella said, `That’s exactly what I’m saying to the two of yez.’”
“I’ll never forget that!” Jan laughs.
“I’m thinking of sending Bella a copy of your next statement and writing on it, `O, Ye of little faith.’”
“”Oh, don’t do that, Barbara! You’d be giving her an invitation to steal my identity!”
“I was kidding. Something else came in the mail, a pink sweater set from Linda in a smaller size. I’ll bring it to you tomorrow morning.”
“I spilled tea on my white cardigan and the stain was so deep, I couldn’t get it out. I fold the edge under when I’m wearing it. The sleeves are huge; it’s no use trying to shorten them. Norma thought she could do it, but if you turn them up they don’t stay that way because of the huge sleeves."
“ I’ll take it home with me and see what I can do.”
“ I’ll take it home with me and see what I can do.”
Norma is talking to the receptionist when I sign the ledger. She greets me enthusiastically, then whispers, “It’s a shame about your sister; she’s getting worse, isn’t she?”
“I’m right behind you,” she says, following me up the stairs. She points to a bench. “Let’s sit down for a few minutes. Come on over here beside me.”
Norma looks me in the eye and tells me that she wants to do everything she possibly can to be a help to Janeth. I thank her and say, “My sister often speaks of how helpful you try to be with everyone.” What civilized liars we are.