Sunday, July 16, 2017


       "Mrs. Maddox used to bring containers of gruel and soup that she would leave on my porch.  Then whoever came along that wasn’t too frightened would pass the food into the house.  For awhile the grocery boy obliged until he learned how contagious the flu was.
       “I had fixed up a bed on the couch in the dining room, near the back door.  Mrs. Maddox was kind about preparing little meals for me, but she was very frightened.  She wouldn’t ever allow her children to bring anything over.  She’d give the food to the grocery boy, and he’d stand outside and yell to let me know he was there.  Then he would open the door a crack and place the container on a table next to the door.”
       Before Vaughan recovered she used to see the hearse going by several times a day, and she realized the people of Lynwood were dying at a shocking rate.
       “I was so bull-headed, I was bound I was going to get up.  I think I wouldn’t have been sick so long if I’d stayed in bed.  The only human being who ever came anywhere near me during those two weeks of vomiting and diarrhea was the doctor.  He visited me faithfully every day, and I used to wonder why doctors didn’t get sick.  I was disappointed in close friends like the Quackenbushes, who were so afraid to have anything to do with me that they didn’t send me  a word of any kind.  I understood their fear, but it seemed as if they could have at least sent a card. 
       "When I had fully recuperated, my house was closed up and fumigated with something powerful that smelled like burning sulphur.  Harold came back from the Maddoxes and stayed home, since the schools had all been closed for the duration of the epidemic. I spent my days, as did other flu survivors, going from house to house to see what I could do for the inhabitants. 
       “I used to knock on strangers’ doors, and almost always I’d find people in desperate need of help.  First I’d ask if they wanted anything to eat, but as a rule they were too sick. There were very few telephones in town, so in order to get the doctor I’d go to the grocery store and call him from there.
       “In one house there were two very sick little children on the same bed together.  I went into another room and found their mother lying there dead.  One of the children died in the hospital.  I remember taking all the bedding and putting it in a washtub outside with disinfectant and boiling water.
       “The hospital in Whitinsville was overflowing, but a big mansion in Lynwood  became available.  It was owned by a millionaire bachelor, who had closed it up years before and moved out west, but now he wrote that he wished to have it opened and used as a hospital.”
       Vaughan never saw anyone as panicky about the epidemic as the Quackenbush women.  When Harold came to their house with a bouquet of flowers he had picked, they refused to open the door.  Sally Quackenbush went to work as usual on the bus from Lynwood to Whitinsville, but she carried a piece of camphor wrapped in a handkerchief that she kept pressed against her nose and her mouth.  Other folks didn’t carry their fear of contagion to that extreme, so she was a conspicuous figure.  People gossiped about her and made fun of her, especially after she came down with the flu in spite of all her precautions.
       “Sally got sick soon after I got better,” Vaughan said.  “The first time I went to see her she was sitting on a pot and vomiting into a basin.  She and her daughter lived near me, on the top floor of a three-family house, and I visited her every day until she was well enough to take care of herself.  One time she thanked me for helping her and said she was ashamed of the way she had neglected me when I was sick.”
 April 22, 1962
       I invited Vaughan over for the day and first drove to the market to get eggs for the Spanish omelet Kathryn was planning for lunch.   I continued on to Ravenscraig, and when Miss Grassie asked if Vaughan was going to spend the night, I said she could if she wanted to.  “No,” Vaughan said, shaking her head, "everything's right here."     
       After she was settled on my couch with her pillows and a blanket pulled over her sore shoulder, I called Elsa and said, “How about some tennis?”
       “Who’s this?” she asked incredulously.
       “Your friend Barbara Malley,” I said.
       “I don’t know any Barbara Malley” 
       Then she said she’d be delighted to play tennis with me even though she’d been up all night partying.
       “With whom?” I asked.  (Now that Ed’s a student pilot, we never stay up all night partying.)
       “With that most terrible of terrible couples, the Thaxters.”
       We agreed to meet in half an hour.
       I went out to the kitchen to see if the pie for the church bakery sale was ready yet.
       “They better not tell you this pie is stale,” Kathryn said, as she took it out of the oven.
       “When are you bringing Vaughan home?” Mom asked.
       She and I proceeded to have one of those confusing cross-purposes conversations we seem to engage in every once in awhile.
       “Oh, around 3:00, I guess, same as last time."
       “Three o'clock?  You mean you’re going to give her dinner?”
       “I’ll do the same as they do in the nursing home—they have their main meal at noon.”
       “Oh.  You’re going to give her supper, then.”

       “Supper? At noon?”
       Looking more confused than ever, Mother said, “Well, when are you going to get Vaughan?”
       “Vaughan’s already here.”
       If I had paid closer attention to Mom’s impeccable grammar, I would have realized her original question meant, “When are you going to bring Vaughan home to 143 Atlantic Avenue?” not “When are you taking her back to the nursing home?”
       Left the pie at the Parish House, got to the club a little before eleven.  Figured I’d have a few minutes to hit the backboard, but when I turned around to reach for my racquet in the backseat, there were Kathryn’s groceries staring me in the face.
       As I drove home again, instead of admitting to myself what a jerk I was, I could hear my mind sullenly asserting that it was all Vaughan’s fault.  Her pillows had been on top of the bag and I hadn’t noticed it when I removed them from the car.  How childish and irrational one’s thoughts can be sometimes.  It’s a good thing we have more control over our utterances than our thinking processes --or most of us do, anyway. Timmy is an exception.  [Who grew up to be the most devoted son any mother could ask for.]
      Twenty minutes later -- and three months to the day since I had my bunion operation -- I took my racquet in hand and batted the ball back and forth with Elsa.  My foot held up pretty well, although I banged my toe once during the game and it hurt like the devil. 
      In the afternoon, while Vaughan watched her bowling program, I sat in the sun in a two-piece swimsuit and relaxed for an hour or so.  It felt good just to lie there like a blob, doing nothing.  Then Kathryn came out and said, “Mrs. Malley, I have a bone to pick with you,” and I thought, “Good grief, what have I done?”  But this was her way of telling me she had something important to discuss with me -- her vacation.  My days of lying around like a blob are numbered.
       I took Vaughan back to Ravenscraig at 3:30, helped her get into her nightgown and her bed.  She told me for the fourth time about the night she watched the Celtics, in defiance of the night nurse’s orders. 
       “She said I couldn’t have it on after eight o’clock, everyone in the house was complaining about the noise.  Well, I knew better than that, but I didn’t say anything.  I just reached over and turned down the sound and held the earphone you brought me up to my ear.  She stood there looking at me for a minute and then she went out of the room and I didn’t see her again for the rest of the evening.  My, what a game it was!”
      And for the fourth time I heard a play-by-play description of that wonderful game and “the wonderful basket that big colored fellow made, bless his heart, in the last five seconds!”
April 25, 1962             
       Monday Ed had to go away on a business trip, and yesterday he called me to say he should go on to Washington, as he had planned, but he was worried about me.
      “I could see Sunday how much Big Vaughan has failed, and with Kathryn away, I don’t like to think of you facing all these problems by yourself.  You just say the word and I’ll come home and postpone Washington until next week.”
      I told him it was lovely to be worried about, but to go ahead and go, I was getting along fine.
      Mom thinks Vaughan’s illness is beginning to affect her mind.
      “When Jan and I went to see her yesterday she was terribly crochety and dictatorial.  She waited until it was nearly time for Janeth to leave, then asked her to water the plants.  When Jan started to pick up her water glass, Vaughan said no, the water in the glass had been standing, she wanted her to take all the plants and vases, pour off the stale water, and replace it with fresh water.  That meant your poor sister would have to take several trips back and forth to the utility room, so in order to get the job done more quickly, I helped her. 
        “As I was setting down a vase that contained three jonquils, I absent-mindedly placed it so that the flowers were turned away from Vaughan.  `Turn the vase toward me,’ Vaughan said.  `I want to be able to see the flowers.’
       “I walked back and turned the jonquils toward her bed, and she said, `I said, turn the vase!’  She’s not at all like the dear, patient Vaughan we’ve always known.  I suppose pain does that to people.”
        Janeth’s version of their visit was just different enough to be interesting.  For one thing, she told me Mother was mistaken in thinking she was in a hurry to leave.
       “I had planned to stay at least an hour but apparently hadn’t said as much to Mom.  I didn’t mind watering the plants; it was a lot easier than trying to make conversation.  Vaughan’s so deaf, I always go home with a sore throat.  I did get a little irritated over a mildly insulting dig she gave me when I was only trying to please her by doing things her way.
       “I held up her drinking glass and said, `Is there something that will hold more water than this glass -- a little watering can of some kind, maybe?’ Vaughan didn’t hear my question and Mother was only half listening, so between the two of them I was in a state of confusion.  Vaughan said, `I want the flowers to have fresh water,’ which hardly answered my question, and Mother said vaguely, `Use the water in the glass, dear.’ 
      “Not at all sure that this was what Vaughan wanted me to do, I held up the glass again and said, `Should I use this?’  She didn’t say anything for a minute but just looked at me as if I were some poor half-witted creature who couldn’t understand the simplest instructions.  Instead of answering my question, she asked me another that effectively called attention to my brainlessness.  `If you pour the water from the glass into the vase, that will still leave stale water in the bottom, won’t it?’”
      Given a little lip, Jan said, her impulse ordinarily would be to give a little back, but she finds it easier to control herself with Vaughan than with anybody else.
      “If I’m going to be nasty, I want to be done with it.  The knowledge that I’ll surely have to repeat myself nips my naughtiness in the bud.”
       I was glad Jan was able to visit Vaughan yesterday, as I didn’t have time to stay very long when I went over later in the afternoon.  I had to take Georgette to Dr. Kearns’ for a shot, so I figured I might as well take the kitten along, too, for company and a checkup on her health.  I put the two babies in a carton and headed first for Ravenscraig, where they were loved half to death by all the lonely old ladies, then drove on to the vet’s.
      The kitten had a Houdini-like talent for escaping from the carton.  I didn’t even know she was out until I stepped on her instead of the gas pedal.  I put her back in the box, closed the flaps, and covered them with a magazine.  She worked her way out in a jiffy, so I stopped the car again and this time locked the flaps the way you can if you take awhile to puzzle out their proper juxtaposition.  Thinking the kitten was surely safely incarcerated at last, I was driving along when I heard a plaintive mew. I glanced down at the box beside me, and there she hung, her head squeezed through the tiny space between the flaps.  She looked like a Cheshire cat, only not as happy.  I had to drive the rest of the way with one hand, keeping the other firmly on the flaps.
      Dr. Kearns said the kitten was loaded with fleas.
      “Fleas transmit tapeworm, and if the puppy were to eat one, she would become seriously sick.  You’d better treat all three of your pets with flea-powder.  Sprinkle it on a line along their backs between their tails and their heads, so they can’t lap it off.”
      Vonnie helped me apply the powder to the squirming animals according to the doctor’s instructions, and when we were through, we both began to laugh.  Instead of two poodles and a kitten, off ran three indignant little skunks.
April 27, 1962
      There is an elderly lady in the nursing home who dresses always in blue and shuffles around, visiting the other patients and “cheering them up.”
      “If I see her coming I close my eyes and pretend I’m asleep,” Vaughan said.  “All she talks about is God and the devil and the Bible.”
      “And the weather,” I said.  “I heard her telling Mrs. Gilman the same thing over and over about the sun and the clouds—how bright it was when the sun came out from behind the clouds and how shady it was when it went back.”
     “She’s a very tiring person,” Vaughan said.  “Last night she came in and caught me just as I was taking my glasses and my earrings off.  Well, if she took one minute, she took six, trying to decide just how to set those glasses on the stand.  `Do you think they’ll be safe like this?’ she’d say.  `Yes, that’s fine,’ I’d say.  `Maybe they’d be safer this way,’ and she’d move them an inch or two.  She kept moving them from one place to another and asking me if I thought they were all right here or would they be better here.  She put them lens side down, then she turned them over, then she turned them back again.
      “There was a letter from Harold on the stand, and finally she placed the glasses just so on the envelope and asked me if that was all right.  I said that was fine.  Then she took my earrings and spent another four or five minutes deciding where to put them.  She was trying to arrange them --well, artistically, I guess, because she’d set them on the letter and then stand back and look at the effect.  In the end she put one on either side of the envelope, just so, with the glasses exactly in the middle, and that seemed to satisfy her.  `Are they all right this way, do you think?’ she asked me.  I said they were fine, and thank goodness, she finally went away." 
April 28, 1962
     Vaughan tries to remember the names of the people in her new surroundings, but at her age this seems to be almost impossible.  It took me two weeks to teach her how to pronounce Mrs. Twomey’s name correctly, and then the lady foiled me by marrying a Mr. Harrington.  Every day Vaughan asks me what Mrs. Harrington’s name is, and every day I go through a procedure guaranteed by memory experts to be infallible.
      “Think of your son’s name,” I say.
      “What does Margie call him?”
      “I mean, what is his nickname?”
      “Oh . . . Harry.”
      “Good!  You remember how I told you to visualize him eating a fish that sounds like his name?”
       Vaughan thought for a moment.  “Haddock!” she said.
       Mrs. Bongarzone giggled and Vaughan laughed too when I reminded her that the name was “Herring”ton, not “Haddock”ton.
      The mercury rose to 91 degrees yesterday, a record for April.  Vaughan was uncomfortable in her long-sleeved winter gown.  I asked her if she wouldn’t like to reconsider the visiting nurse’s offer of two summer-weight gowns she had stored away.
      “She said they were short.  I like them long so I can walk to the bathroom without a robe.  But maybe they would be nice in weather like this.  It’s been hotter than hell-with-the-door-shut in here!”
       I called Mrs. London, told her Vaughan had changed her mind, and she promised to bring the gowns later in the afternoon. 
       Dr. Cline paid his weekly visit Friday night.  Vaughan told him she had a lot of pain that she could hardly stand, but she hesitated to ask for a shot because she felt as if the nurses were reluctant to give her one.
       “You can have a shot any time you want one!” he said.  “You tell them that’s Dr. Cline’s standing order.”

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