On the nightstand in Ille’s room, my husband Dan lines up four bottles of chocolate Ensure. “I want to go home,” Ille says. She can barely walk and hardly eats, though a drug called Risperdal has increased her appetite and calmed her. She’s ninety-six years old.
Home. Does Ille, Dan’s mother, mean the apartment she’s just left, across the lawn at Meadowlane Retirement? Or, does she mean the woodsy house in Bayport, Long Island, where she lived for 60 years, near the shore of Great South Bay?
“Remember your sailboat?” she says to Dan. So she’s thinking of the shore. Two years ago, Dan and I were there, in Bayport, arranging to ship here to Boston all of Ille’s things. We tried to make her “independent living” apartment at Meadowlane feel cozy. And, for two years, it was. But then, last week, Ille was moved to Meadowlane’s Health Center; she needed treatment for a urinary tract infection and extreme weight loss; her ability to live on her own had been greatly diminished.
Just yesterday, it was settled: Ille would not return to her apartment; she would now live permanently in the Health Center.
In this bare room, she is separated from her wonderful things: An original oil painting by her friend Suzanne; the white linen dish towels that traveled with her from Berlin when she left Germany in 1939; a bronze sculpture that looks like a Giacometti but is really by an artist named Russin whom Ille has known since the 1930’s—is he still alive? Very few names are not crossed out in Ille’s address book, a small black volume that sits beside her bed.
Her house in Bayport is now sold, likely to be razed. But it stands vividly in Ille’s mind, as if the clapboard shingles and the rugged porch beams are a mere two inches from her fingertips. So close she can sense under her feet the gravel driveway, the flagstone walkway from the front door; so close she can see the willow tree in the side yard swaying its delicate leaves, catch the shadow of the tool shed off the north side of the house.
Dan and I take Ille on a tour. We show her the television room and the reading room; we take her on the elevator to the auditorium where, if we had noted the schedule posted in the hallway, she could have attended a harpsichord concert just an hour before.
“You’re not confined to your room,” Dan tells her. “You can push the red button by your bed, and a nurse can take you to a concert upstairs, or a lecture. Or you can go with your walker to the front desk and find a nurse there. Easy as that!”
Ille seems to search in her mind for a map of the place. I tell her, “You don’t need to memorize the floor plan. Plenty of nurses around to show you the way.”
The patio off the dining area is large, surrounded by an ivy-covered trellis dotted with pink flowers. Graceful wrought iron tables, chairs decorated with plush pillows. Lots of potted plants. The patio is open to the sky. One imagines the terrace of a villa, say, in Provence.
“This patio is something!” I exclaim, a little too enthusiastically.
“You can eat out here, Mom,” Dan says. “All you have to do is ask.” Meals are brought to Ille’s room by Luzanne, a pleasant, middle-aged Haitian woman who converses with Ille in French. “Ask Luzanne. She’ll take you to eat on the patio.”
Back in Ille’s room, I see a darkening autumn sky through the window. It’s already 5 p.m. Luzanne rolls in with a cart carrying dinner. Ille says, “I want to eat outside. On the patio.”
“Tonight it has already turned cold,” Luzanne says. “Already dark. Tomorrow, at lunch, ma cherie, we will go out.”
“I want to eat on the patio,” Ille says again.
“Demain. I promise. For lunch,” says Luzanne. “Tomorrow will be beautiful. Le soleil!” Luzanne signals to the heavens.
A deflated look on Ille’s face. She takes Luzanne’s refusal as proof of her own impotence. For Ille, the refusal for immediate accordance with her wishes seems global. There is no tomorrow. There is only now. And in the now, only No.
Dan wakes up next to me in bed, asking, “Do you think it’s the angle of the drain pipe, or the sloping roof?” Rainwater has been leaking through our living room wall— Dan’s obsessed with it.
Lying by his side, I nod, and nod some more. Then I say, “I’m getting up to take a shower. We’re due at Meadowlane at 10.”
“Let’s go a bit later,” Dan says. “I want to work on the wall. Could it be the gutter over the deck, do you think?”
I throw on my robe and hurry to the bathroom, hoping that as I shampoo my hair, the water will wash away the curses swirling in my head. I resent Dan’s thoughts filling my mind before I’ve had a chance to mull over my own, before I’ve had a chance to recall the dream I awoke from.
The hot water cascades from the shower spout and pours down my body. Little by little, the dream resurfaces: I’m at the corner of Markham and Lovett Avenues, in front of my elementary school. It’s humid and warm. I walk toward my car, a little black car, and see it’s been hit by another car. A large crack runs down the door on the driver’s side. Three people on stretchers are being shuttled to an ambulance. Suddenly the scene changes: I’m in a crowded convenience store attached to an inn. I want to buy coffee and a bagel. But I find only a slice of muffin. I have keys to a room. I want to go there to eat my breakfast in privacy, for it is so crowded, so public, in the store. I know no one.
That lonely feeling is familiar, a cinder-block grief pressing my chest. Sometimes I think I was born lonely. Perhaps my loneliness dates back to the death of my mother when I was seventeen. No, it goes back much farther than that. Perhaps my mother sensed her fate and conveyed it to me when I was an infant, a foreboding, an aura of alienation. I hope no such transfer has been made from me to my children.
After emerging from the shower, I dress and go downstairs to find Dan in our living room, tearing gypsum board from the soaked and damaged wall. I watch him, transfixed. I admire his go-to attitude, his zest for problem-solving, his industry. By contrast, I am an incorrigible sloucher. I watch as he removes from the wall all the fiberglass batting. He tells me he’ll replace it with waterproof foam; then, he’ll reconstruct the wall with plaster. His tools are sprawled out on the carpet and next to them, for use later, a can of Benjamin Moore paint; the color, Calming Cream.
I am not calm. Stirred up is what I am. I search in my mind for an image of my mother, try to evoke her tenderness, even her timidity—it’s like making my way through mist. Yet Ille’s presence is—has been for decades—vivid, forthright. She’s been here, alive, for a very long time, so much longer than the seventeen years I had with my mother.
After a few more attempts at getting remnants of batting from the wall, Dan stops his work. “Let’s go,” he says, brushing wooly pieces of fiberglass insulation off the front of his shirt. “Are you ready?”
Things are in disarray, time is short. Am I ready? I’m not sure.
En plein air
This day, we are the first people on Meadowlane’s patio. The table we choose is dappled with light. The sun is too bright for Ille; it bothers her eyes. I notice a set of straw hats stacked on a bench. I bring Ille a hat with a green ribbon-tie. When Ille places the hat on her head, the effect is fetching—she looks like a young girl.
This is what Dan and I have placed on the table: three plastic glasses, a bottle of red wine, a tub of hummus, a few slices of dark-grain bread in a Ziplock bag, a corkscrew, and the box of Kleenex I grabbed from Ille’s room for our napkins. We are making it a thoroughly civilized happy hour.
We settle down to pouring glasses of the Bordeaux. Ille toasts, “A votre santé!” Dan raises his glass. He already looks tipsy, swept up in the heady anticipation of wine. Look at them!—Dan and Ille, dappled by sun, both reclining lazily into their seats, each with an arm dangling over the side of a chair. This could be happening twenty years ago—Ille and Dan indulging in wine, schmoozing it up. With my iPhone, I snap a photo.
Conversation at our table? Let’s just say it’s repetitious. But who cares? In the middle of answering Ille’s questions, for the third time, about the size of the classes I teach, I hear my iPhone bing.
My son Josh, from his new apartment in Chicago, has texted, YOU’LL BE HAPPY TO KNOW, I GOT MY FLU SHOT. I’d been bugging him about this. I attach the photo I’ve just taken of Ille and Dan and send it in a text to Josh: WE ARE CRUISING ON AN OLD OCEAN LINER, HEADING OVERSEAS. In a fantastical way, the scene before me has transformed, become historic, epic.
NICE PIC, Josh texts back.
IF YOUR ARM HURTS FROM THE SHOT, I respond, TAKE ADVIL.
Ille tastes the bread with a dab of hummus. Suddenly animated, she references the year 1963, a time Dan loves to recall, too. He was a high school senior, and he and Ille and his father, Morrie, spent the year in Paris. Fresh croissants in the morning from a bakery on rue Didot. Bicycling the city streets. Afternoons in Les Jardins de Luxembourg. Only one trauma: the concierge banging on the door of their flat to announce with alarm that President Kennedy had been shot.
Maybe it’s the French wine or the patio’s continental atmosphere. Whatever triggers it, Ille’s vivid memories of Paris lead her to remark on a culinary treat, a special casserole featuring tons of champignons. In an excited voice, Ille tells us of a scene from her childhood in Germany, where she hiked in the countryside outside Berlin, stalking chanterelles.
That night, I dream I am sitting on the front stoop, waiting for my mother to come home. It is dusk. I expect she will arrive with my father, but it is she I am waiting for. When I awake, startled, I realize how seldom I dream of her, how clear she has been in this dream, how palpable my longing.
We are rummaging around in Ille’s half-emptied ex-apartment. There are four of us: Dan; me; Dan’s brother, David; and David’s wife, Jackie. Cardboard boxes are everywhere. Piles of books. A disassembled stereo. A stack of paintings leaning against a wall. A box of envelopes, pre–stamped with 25-cent postage, perched on a window sill. A teak dining table on its side, its legs extended like outstretched limbs reaching for rescue.
My assignment with Jackie is to sort Ille’s clothing. As we survey the bedroom, hands on hips, Jackie says, “Ok, we’ll choose what we think Ille can wear. Give away the rest.”
We look through piles of pants, skirts, blouses, sweaters—mostly ancient, ugly and moth-eaten. Jackie has found the most enormous plastic garbage bags I have ever seen. I’m about to toss a tattered cardigan into one of the bags when Jackie cries out, “Jane, no! We have to fold everything, and stack them, count them, itemize. Then we can put them in the plastic bags.”
Jackie’s authoritative voice activates old insecurities. It brings to mind something Ille said years ago, when Dan and I told her we had moved in together. With a haughtiness that stung, Ille said, “You know, Jane, we aren’t quite sure about you.”
“Oh,” I say to Jackie now, dumbfounded. “I don’t usually do that. When I give to Goodwill, I just throw stuff in and estimate the worth of the bag’s contents—one big lump sum.”
Jackie scowls. “Really? That doesn’t seem right.”
I should keep my mouth shut. Follow orders. There’s an advantage to being Jackie’s henchman—it frees me up. No deliberations about what matters and what doesn’t. No opinions about what should be sold and what should be stored.
After we finish with the clothes, Jackie and I make our way to the kitchen to help our husbands. Jackie holds up the first edition of The Silver Palate Cookbook. “This is a great one,” she says.
“Do we have that cookbook?” David asks.
“Yes,” says Jackie.
Dan looks at me. “Do we have it?” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Ours is beaten up,” says David.
“So is ours,” says Dan.
“Ours is definitely more beat up than yours,” David says.
I’m sure the others have noticed that I display no acquisitiveness regarding Ille’s things. I float in feelings. Am I the only one here feeling sad?
In the kitchen cabinets we find Ille’s bone china shipped from Germany years ago, its elegant, eggshell porcelain rimmed in silver. Twenty dinner plates, twenty side plates, twenty saucers, twenty cups, and much, much more. Neither Dan nor David wants it. Should we sell it? David and Jackie can’t decide. The whole set will have to be stored in Ille’s locker in the basement.
David insists all the pieces be packed with special paper he’s brought along. We shroud each piece, and then we slide from the handling of the sublime, the china, to the sorting of the mundane: six sets of stainless steel measuring cups. Then we find ourselves examining five nearly identical, rusted, battered kitchen knives. David says, “Don’t bag any knives until we inspect them to see if they’re Henkels. Henkels are worth a fortune.”
Henkels seem to matter. I wouldn’t know. Should I?
Jackie looks at me. “Did you have to go through all this with your…” She catches herself.
I look away. “It was different,” I say. “I was in college. My mother died the year before. And my father, he had remarried. He and Jean—his new wife—cleared out our house and moved away. I really didn’t ask for anything.” I wonder, Why hadn’t I claimed some of my mother’s jewelry? Her Majorcan pearl necklace, or her jade bracelet?
1965, October. It’s mid-afternoon and I am in chemistry class. I’m called on the loudspeaker to the principal’s office. There, waiting for me, is Rabbi Wetzner. I am told to get my books from my locker. We go straight to Monmouth Memorial Hospital. My mother has been there for weeks, but now everyone expects the end is near.
The day before, Aunt Sarah and Aunt Adele arrived from Brooklyn. I remember them standing with the rabbi around my mother’s hospital bed. My father, too, though he might have taken a few breaks, gone once or twice to the cafeteria for coffee. I was scared by my mother’s appearance—tied to tubes, her body yellow from jaundice, her heavy, sour breathing. I wanted my presence to comfort her, but she was barely conscious. I remember nothing of what she uttered, except her words to me as I was leaving: “Janie, drive carefully.”
Where was my car? Had I driven it to school but left it there and taken a ride with the Rabbi to the hospital? I don’t think I was driving that day, but maybe I was. It wasn’t Aunt Sarah or Aunt Adele driving, they never got their driver’s licenses. It might have been Dad in his Oldsmobile, or the Rabbi in his Ford sedan, driving me from school and then driving the seven miles from the hospital to my house in Little Silver.
When we got home, I went through the motions of homework. My aunts hovered. They cooked my favorite dinner, spaghetti and meatballs. They broiled my father a steak. Saved for him the stem part of a head of lettuce, because he liked to munch on it. They baked potatoes for him. Steamed string beans. For desert, he got two scoops of Howard Johnson’s maple walnut ice cream. He ate sparingly—he was like a man in a trance. But he tried; he ate as if to provide an example for me.
5 a.m. A heart-splitting ring. I stumble out of bed, rush to lean on the banister, hear Dad on the phone speaking in sotto voce. I cannot make out his words, but I know the call has come. My mother is dead.
As I enter the kitchen, I see Dan making coffee. He was up early, rattling around; he still seems edgy. “I have to call my mother,” he says. “Will you listen in, Jane? I’d like your opinion.”
So I go upstairs and get on the extension line.
“Mom? This is Dan. How are you?”
“I’m ok.” Ille’s voice sounds scratchy.
“Well, I spoke with your Health Center nurse yesterday. She asked me to talk to you about something.”
“It seems that yesterday, at breakfast, you did some things that were, well, not acceptable.”
“Yes, I wrote them down. Let’s see. First, you dumped yogurt into your fruit juice. And then, you poured coffee over your pancakes.”
“No, I didn’t do that. No, David, I didn’t do that.”
“Mom, this is Dan.”
“But I would never do such a thing, David!”
“Mom, this is Dan, not David. The nurse said you did those things. She also said that when a man sitting at your table stood up to move away, you shoved his walker into his leg, yelling out, ‘That’s mine.’”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Are you sure, Mom? Did you do any of these things? Is it possible that you have forgotten?”
“Well, will you try to think about what happened? Try to remember?”
“No. Yes. Ok.”
“Maybe we can talk more about it later.”
But Ille is off the phone. These days, she hangs up abruptly.
After Dan leaves for work, I run my fingers around the rim of a large, ceramic platter on the sideboard, recently rescued from Ille’s storage area. It has white zig-zags painted on forest green glass. Dan created the platter himself when he was 10 years old, at Kabian Summer Camp in Maine. For more than fifty years, it sat center stage in Ille’s dining room in Bayport, beside a Tiffany lamp. Ille and Morrie designed their house with an architect and closely supervised its construction, plank by plank, tile by tile. Over decades, additions were made, like a carport, a wine cellar. Nothing in their home was flimsy or ephemeral. Everything was solid, built to last.
When the platter landed in my kitchen, I felt—and this was a surprise—a deep gratitude. My husband, the nester. Me? I’ve always been un-nested, un-grounded. Floating, but not in a good way. Before I knew Dan, I never felt at home. Even before my mother’s illness, our family home was a tomb. Our living room was always empty of friends or guests. The playroom on the lowest level of that split-level was a cave where I huddled in the evenings with Butterscotch, my cocker spaniel. I was often alone. My parents toiled at their store ten miles away, working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Our furniture and decorations, untouched, unused, uncherished, were strangers staring back at me.
I think of the many years Dan and I have spent together, and now the years ahead. I don’t want to grow old. I don’t want to be in need of repair. I want time to go backwards. I wish Dan and I were on the very first walk we ever took together, in Vilas Park, by Lake Wingra, sweeping our hands over cattails, breathing in the coolness of the pines, gazing at the sunlit skyline of the town in the distance. I wish we were back to our young selves, to the moment when we met, a couple who felt so independent together, fitting perfectly with one another, back to that suspended moment, to that sliver of sweet romance, just a sliver, like a brand new moon.
Today we’ve brought her a bunch of yellow roses. When she sees us enter, Ille drops The New York Times. We all hug each other. Ille asks about my teaching, the same questions she asked the last time. While I try to spin my answers in new ways, Dan picks up the Times. “Listen to this,” he says, and begins to read aloud:
“Starting early next year, any adult with a craving or curiosity will be able to stroll into a strip mall of a downtown shop in Colorado or Washington State and do what has long been forbidden, buy a zip-lock bag of legal marijuana.”
Luzanne pops into the room to deliver Ille’s lunch tray. Ille regards the food skeptically but begins to eat. A seafood sandwich, mashed-up broccoli, pound cake. Dan continues to read:
“After landmark votes made marijuana legal for recreational consumption, users in these two states will no longer need doctors’ notes or medical reasons to buy the drug.”
Ille interrupts him and looks at me. “What’s it like, that stuff, the Mary Jane? Have you ever smoked it?”
I’m impressed she knows the term Mary Jane, but I’m not sure what to say. Ille is always so direct! If I tell her the truth, what will she think of me? The worry about being judged disappears quickly, though, as I think of her spirit. I’m curious how this conversation will go. So I tell her the truth. “Yes,” I say, “I’ve smoked it.”
“What’s it like?” she says.
“It intensifies experience,” I tell her. “It makes sense impressions more vivid.”
“You mean like good sex?” she says.
“Well…” I begin, unsure how to answer.
“I have had plenty of that in my life,” Ille says. “The very best thing is being with a good friend and having a good talk and a good time with them, knowing that they love and understand you.” Ille goes on, waxing poetic, and ends with a somewhat crude remark about the great feeling of a penis going into a vagina. She’s pushing the broccoli around on her plate. “Yes,” she concludes, “I have had that. I have had that many times.”
At this point, Dan rolls his eyes and looks exasperated. I engage Ille, or try to, with a weak, “Oh, that’s interesting…,” but she cuts me off, saying, “So, what’s so good about pot? What does it feel like to smoke Mary Jane?”
I imagine Dan regrets reading the article aloud. Though Ille is working her way through the pound cake, she complains, “How awful, this green plastic plate. This stupid plastic cup. Ugly, ugly. I would like a sterling silver fork. And knife. Food should be served on beautiful porcelain plates. One takes great pleasure in beauty. But his stuff! Look at this knife!”
Where does she think she is, The Ritz? Am I being unfair, even cruel? I think of Ille’s extensive collection of china, each piece wrapped and stored. My shoulders sag. But wait, perhaps we could pull some of her fancy plates out of storage and arrange to have Ille’s meals served on them—why not?—with a sampling of her good silver.
For the umpteenth time, Ille asks, “So what does it feel like, this Mary Jane?”
Ille doesn’t want to miss out. Not on anything. Not while she’s still breathing, not while she’s still on this earth. She persists in reaching out—for something new, something valuable, whatever she can, before it’s too late. I wonder, Should I bring her some pot? Maybe roll her a joint, or put marijuana in her pound cake, mix it into her chocolate Ensure?
“There are so many great things in life,” Ille says. “Look at these roses you brought me! And the necklace you’re wearing. I’m happy when I see a pretty necklace like that, Jane. It means that a person has taken time to dress up to come see me. If you love someone, you dress up for them. That is a great happiness.”
She pauses briefly, then adds, “And when somebody you love dies, that is a great sadness. So, Jane, what does it feel like, this pot? Do you smoke it?”
JANE KATIMS, from Arlington, Massachusetts, has published a poetry collection, Dancing on a Slippery Floor (2007). Her short story, “Until Now,” appeared in Pearl Magazine (2009), and “Without a Hitch” appears this summer in The Coachella Review (2014). For her writing work in radio, Jane won a Peabody Award. She teaches at The Cambridge Center for Adult Education and Tufts University.