Good Chowdah; In Touch; The Lot; Past Voice; Darnedest Thing; Last Week; Carmel; Hunky Dory; The Flight Home; Ahnt Freda; The Red Dress; Keek
The other night Jill made a seafood chowder. Milk-based. I grew up on chowder, where it was pronounced "chow-dah."
My mother used to use canned clams and canned milk and a stick of butter. She used canned potatoes and white chopped onions. She never used bacon. She never cheapened the chowder with flour, for thickness. It dripped freely, and you knew you'd had a good meal of chowder in the recliner, watching "Star Trek," when you got up and brushed the saltine crumbs away and saw at least three spots of white on the front of your shirt.
I eat my crackers on the side with chowder, but my older brother eats his crackers the way my parents ate theirs. He takes about a half-dozen planks of four saltines in his hands, like a kung-fu master about to break boards, and demolish them right into his bowl. Oyster crackers are for people from New Hampshire.
Mum made a lot of stuff. Beef stew, "Crispy" baked chicken, bacon and eggs with the eggs fried in hot bacon grease, Hamburger Helper that steamed up the windows on late fall evenings after high school. Lasagna it took two people to lift out of the oven. But for me her clam chowder remains her signature dish. Buttery as it slid across the tongue, the salt taste of sea all the way down your throat, the warmth and fullness in the belly, the drip on the chin that cooled uncannily quick. I don't want to write like a food writer here, but I can remember everything about her chowder, even how she made it in an aluminum pot that took forever to rinse and used to go "bong" when you hit it against the side of the sink.
My mother was proud in that silent, New England, "I-don't-see-the-sense-of-eating-in-restaurants" kind of way. I know she was proud of her chowder.
My grandmother, her mother, made a mean fish chowder. "You know," I told my mother once, "your fish chowder is almost as good as your mother's."
Mum lifted her eyes off her Circle-a-word and bolted them onto me. "What'd you say?" she said.
I lost my mother's chowder when I moved to New York. She always made a chowder when I came home. "Wednesday night we'll have a chowdah," she'd say. Sometimes it was winter, and it'd be dark as hell at 5 p.m., and outside you could hear the cars whining up the hill in the new snow, and I'd be reclining there spooning chowder onto the front of my shirt, watching Capt. Kirk and knowing, "This stuff will be even better when I eat it for lunch tomorrow."
And it was. By the next day the butter -- I guess it was the butter -- would rise to the top in the bowl in the fridge, and you'd peel it back like a rug and dump the stuff into a bowl and dig out your saltines. The clams and the potatoes and the onions and the milk had gotten to know each other better overnight.
I've never made mum's clam chowder. Of the recipe, mum once said the same thing she said about the lasagna, the beef stew and everything else she made that now I can't forget. "Simple as can be."
After I got married and just before she moved to Arizona, my mother sent me her chowder recipe and Jill ran it in her cooking newsletter, and once I even tried to make it for Jill. But Jill doesn't like clams; I substituted shrimp and fish, and never made it again.
My mother died in Arizona, and sometime later my sister sent me the recipe again. I guess she wanted to make sure I had it. Some kids get the house or a locket. I got the chowder.
Jill didn't follow this recipe when she made her chowder. She used bacon, corn, scallops and some sea bass that her father bought at a big supermarket on 135th Street. I don't think my mother would have known what to do with herself on 135th Street. But Jill's chowder had the rug on the top right on the stove. I ate three bowls, my crackers on the side. "I'm sorry we don't have any of those Oyster crackers," she said. It was an extra-nice gesture because she is from Queens, where chowders are made from tomatoes and people shoot each other when they aren't even hunting.
Next day for lunch I had two more bowls. I'm eating a third one right now. Here on a March day in New York City, what I'm eating reminds me of early on a winter night in Maine. Thicker than mum's, but deep and rich, and sort of like you'd get in a restaurant. Jill says it's the bacon. Maybe it is. (Winter, 2000)
My sister has a birthday coming up. It will be an excuse to send a card and some pictures of Alex, and we'll see. I don't usually send her a birthday card, but the last letter I got from her was a year ago. I sent her some pictures of Alex last June. That's all we've heard from each other.
My sister is 18 years older than I am and lives in Tucson. When my mother was alive, she used to spend my Sunday calls telling me about my sister. My sister later claimed that in her calls, mum would always talk about me and my brother.
In the past 10 years I've been to Tucson half a dozen times, most recently to see mum in her last days. My mother lived with my sister in two stints. The first lasted about six months, I think, before they were ready to kill each other and, reportedly at the recommendation of her own four remaining sisters, my mother moved back to Maine. Of course once my mother got back there, her own sisters never visited.
While they lived, neither of my parents seemed real big on sisters. My father had four, my mother five, yet we only ever heard from a few. When I was a little kid, mum and I collided with a sharp-faced stranger at the shopping center; the stranger claimed to be my aunt. "You're not my aunt!" I piped back. "I have three aunts!" I wonder now what that stranger thought of my mother.
Anyway, mum went batty in Maine. Once she thought about coming to see me in Baltimore. I told her sure, fly to Washington. "Just don't fly into National Airport during rush hour," I warned her. "We'll be forever getting home." She never came. ("Mum said you wouldn't pick her up at the airport," my sister told me later.) Through mum's hollow New England nights, I guess it set in that Arizona wasn't as lonely a place to end a life.
"We'll give it another try," my sister said. "At least when all this is over, I'll be able to look myself in the mirror and say I did my best."
"All this" began to end in May of 1998, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer that soon peppered her major organs. She lasted four months, occupying a bedroom of my sister's house. I imagine my sister tries to not glance in that bedroom now. I imagine she passes that door and remembers those nights lifting mum to the gray porta-potty, and she still hears the soft moans.
My sister declined my help in arranging the cremation, or the graveside services that were held the following summer in Maine. I couldn't go: Alex came home from the hospital that weekend. I'd kept my sister up to date on Alex. I think she found 13 months in a hospital for a baby hard to grasp, and she did point out, at a bad moment for everyone, that Jill "was an older mom." At the time of the funeral, though, my sister agreed that mum would've been the first to say I should stay with Alex. And none my aunts was at that graveside in Maine when they scattered mum's ashes.
In one of our last calls, I told my sister - who has six grown kids of her own -- that I was putting together a box of stuff for her grandkids. An NYPD T-shirt for her grandson, little pink and tan favors for her granddaughters. Why is that package still in the back of my closet? When I mailed the pictures of Alex last June, I thought I'd get a call by July. But nothing. Maybe she's mad. Maybe she just wants the ghosts out of her house.
Jill says I should try to stay in touch with my sister for Alex's sake. And I would, but jeez when I was growing up, my sister's family was all the news, Tucson the Western center of our family. Now I have my own family, and I don't see a lot of that interest flowing East. And if she doesn't care about Alex, what will she do for him anyway? And if she does care about Alex, how come she hasn't called? How come she didn't send him a birthday card? Just like last Christmas, then my birthday in January, that came and went. First birthday in 38 that my sister missed. Still, I can only guess at hers (November 9th? The 2nd?). Somewhere around there.
I'll send a card. Maybe she'll call, before we all run into each other in some shopping mall. (October 2000)
A stone of black and gray granite sits in the shade of a small tree, in a nest of short, sharp grass a few steps from the woods. A plant near the stone has faded bluish flowers in an old plastic pot.
I've been on this spot many times with many different people. I picked the stone at a local monument shop 27 years ago. For most of my life, "LeRoy A. Stimpson, Father, 1917-1974" were the only words engraved on it, in black letters on the gray granite, flecked with brown, dead lengths of mowed grass. I was here many times with my mother, to what we always called "the lot," helping her to lug water from the faucet up the gravel road. Flowers need water.
We bounce down the gravel road of the cemetery, passing white granite slabs with engravings that have softened in the elements since 1810, 1832, 1877, 1919. We bump and bounce past the first Stimpson lot, that of my father's parents. I never met them.
Then we do the gentle left turn and the gentle right turn on the crunching gravel and pull up to the next Stimpson stone. I have come here today with new people, but I still brought flowers. Jill picked them out at a farm stand near where we're vacationing, down on the coast of Maine. Here, near the middle of the state, I lay the flowers. They are orange gladiolas. I think my mother used to say my father loved gladiolas. We have also bought a pot of mums.
New words have appeared on this stone since I saw it last: "Nettie S., Mother, 1922-1998." Actually, only the "1998" is new. They stopped mining this black granite in the 1980s, and a long time ago my mother was told that if she wanted a marker stone that matched the headstone and my dad's marker (which is a smaller stone, usually engraved with one word and laid at the foot of the grave), she would need to get one while she was still alive. She did, and even had her name and birthday engraved on the headstone to save her kids the cost later. My sister called that "creepy," but all we had to do, when the time came, was have the year of her death added.
That turned out to be 1998. My brother and sister scattered her ashes here without me. I couldn't come home then because of Alex, and I have not been here since.
Jill has come with me today. So has Alex and so has Ned. Ned's asleep in the car. Jill takes Alex on a walk in the expanse of mowed grass, toward the shed where I guess they keep the lawn mowers. It's all lovely lawn. This cemetery hasn't expanded as much as I expected it would have by now.
We brought nothing to dig, so I pull out a Swiss Army knife and gouge the dry grass and the dirt, clawing to make a little hole to set the pot of mums. No one else is in the cemetery. The rows of stones stare at me in the slight, hot breeze, as the dirt turns my fingernails black. I guess it hasn't rained here in a long time. I set the pot in the little hole and spy a battered old plastic milk jug hung on the faucet that is still up the road.
I'm halfway to the faucet when I begin to cry. My mother never met Alex, and that has made me feel incomplete for months and months, but I was never inspired to cry before. Here's the milk jug, hung on the tap by a loop of string. That's something mum would have done. I cry now, suddenly and deeply, covering my cheeks with hot water on a hot day.
I fill the jug and bring it back and see Jill laying three pebbles on top of the headstone. "We leave stones," she explains. One for her, one for Alex and one for Ned. Ned is still asleep in the car. She and Alex go for another walk and I go to a trash can to find something in which to plant the gladiolas. Come to think of it, it may have been my mother who loved gladiolas. I don't remember. I keep crying on the way to the trash can and on the way back to the stone.
I don't find a pot, so I pour water into the plastic bag that's wrapped around the stems of the glads. I water the bluish flowers in the old plastic pot, too. I don't know who left them here. Once my mother and I brought a beautiful basket of flowers to my dad's grave, and within a week somebody stole it. Once, on this lot, my cousin said "How you doin', tiger?" and hugged me. I haven't seen that cousin in years.
Jill brings Alex back, and I pick him up. I introduce him to my parents, but of course all he thinks is that I'm talking to a stone. He squirms to get down again to the sharp, hot grass. I begin to cry harder, and to shake. Jill tells Alex that "daddy is sad because he misses his mommy."
I doubt Alex will remember this, and that's good: When I was a kid, I used to hate getting hauled around to hot cemeteries in the woods, left to run between stones while the grown-ups fiddled with pots of flowers. Once a piece of an old white concrete headstone fell on me and scratched my cheek. Cemeteries are no places for kids.
"We can stay as long as you want, Jeff," Jill says. She knows that Maine is a long way from New York, that this spot in the shade of a small tree is a long way from where we live our life. Alex and Jill head off again. I return the milk jug to the tap. I'm unsure what else I should be doing. I'm still sobbing and I can't stop. Sobbing seems as automatic here as breathing.
I look down at Jill's pebbles and the big black granite stone and tell my parents that I miss them, and that I will be back again. I don't say when. It feels like I shouldn't have come, and that I should never leave.
We get in the car. We strap Alex in the car seat and shut the doors, and I steer Jill and Alex and Ned back out over the gravel. Jill asks if I'm sure we stayed long enough. I say yes. I ask her how Ned is. She says he is still asleep. (August 2001)
My mother died two and a half years ago next month, and this afternoon I invented what I think would have been a typical conversation with her.
Mum: "You've always been funny, Jeffrey. Well not funny, you know, but witty."
Me: "'Not funny, but witty?' You know, you're pretty sharp for an old person."
Mum: "Who you callin' old?"
Me: "Mum, did Lincoln have a high voice?"
Mum: (with baleful stare, tight lips, doublebarrel steel blue eyes) "How'd you like your ears boxed?"
Boxing ears, I believe, is an archaic British term, or at least very colonial American. She was always threatening to box our ears or snitch "youse boys" bald-headed. She called the bathroom "mother McGee." The only other person besides mum I ever heard say "Skeezicks" was Mark Twain. Her "no" was a sneering "d'how!", her "yes" an "a-yuh," but with none of that namby-pampy Pepperidge Farm accent. She shortened it to "erh!" with a suck of the breath. It's hard to write. It's hard to forget.
She lived her whole life in Maine, almost, and when she passed, it was another member gone of a vanishing breed of Yankee. A breed that grew up in Depression-era paper mills and logging camps with hard, physical work, a breed that sewed shoes together by hand for a couple hundred dollars a week until nursing offered a better life for her and her younger son after her husband died. A breed that, until they day they went to live -- and die -- with their daughter in Arizona, still shoveled the porch before it stopped snowing.
The way a person like that talked sticks in my head as I get older, as snitching me bald-headed becomes less hard than it used to be -- even if there was still someone around who threatened to do it, which there isn't. (She was also the only one I could tolerate calling me "Jeffrey.")
My brother and I used to tease mum between ourselves when we talked on the phone. "We had fun though, ya know it?" we used to say about some miserable experience (that phrase was how mum described her Depression-era upbringing), or "What with mum getting smaller all the time ... " We stole that from Les Nesmand on "WKRP." My brother and I don't seem to talk on the phone as much anymore, and when we do we never mimic mum. Maybe because we always phone each other on Sunday, the day we used to talk to her. Maybe it's our version of respect. Mum's saying didn't die with her.
Lately, though, I've had to improvise rather than remember. Like the other night when Jill guessed that my mother had never in her life coated a baked chicken with matzo meal. I replied that that was true, mum always used crushed Saltines.
"What would she have said about matzo?" Jill asked.
Funny how quickly it came to me. "'Oh, all the dawtors eat that stuff up ta the hospital. All it is is cracker crumbs. Some of those Jewish boys are awful smart, though, ya know it."
That vanishing breed of Yankee was a kind of reticent, less-hostile Archie Bunker, quicker than Archie to credit minorities for things they never wanted to be credited for, such as musical talent and ballplaying. They were, at heart, as loveable as Archie. Except for Canadian drivers, mum never said a mean word about anybody. At least in her own mind.
What would she say now? Things have changed in two in a half years. Foremost on the list would be Alex and Ned, two grandsons she never met. I can take a stab at how mum would have described them.
Alex: "Ain't he getting' big! Smart's a whip. He looks just like you, though, Jeffrey."
Ned: "He's the spittin' image of you, Jeffrey. Ain't he cunnin', though! Full of the devil!"
I think she would have said that. I wish they were her real words. They're not. And about that regret, mum had another saying: a warning, delivered with mock sternness after some remark by me or my brother, a warning I heard again this afternoon, and one I hear more as the years slip by and the opportunity to snitch me bald-headed threatens to vanish forever:
"Youse'll miss me when I'm gone." (February 2002)
Aunt Freda and Uncle Don called me recently.
They live in Maine. I once had enough aunts and uncles to field a softball league, but for a long time these two were most important. They lived in a neighboring town, a five-minute ride south on what I assumed all of Earth called "the main road."
Freda was my mother's youngest sister. She always loved good times, such as Christmas, and used to bite my cheeks with deep orthodontic love every time she saw me. Uncle Don is from Iowa. He was the first person I ever met who said "dadgum" and "darnedest thing." When I was a kid, he looked calm and wise, endlessly tall, and he reminded me of Lincoln.
They used to baby-sit me. How Aunt Freda slapped my hands for playing with the TV knobs -- I was about three, I guess -- became family legend, and it would still be told if anyone was still alive who remembered it. Aunt Freda probably remembers. Somewhere around that time, I fell off their couch and got a scar on my forehead. These days, I can plainly see the scar again since my hair began to recede.
I didn't see them much in my childhood. We probably would have seen each other more often, but some New England families don't work that way. Once, I remember, they did whisk me to a movie (Tora Tora Tora), and I stayed overnight at their house. That evening was magic with the smell of takeout pizza and older cousins' bedrooms, and they taught me how to paint a model warplane. I remember holding a little Fokker Triplane that my cousin Scott had done in Richthofen red. Dark, authentic red, too, not the babyish red I might have used. Funny what you remember. That may have been the same night Aunt Freda picked me up from Farm League Baseball, a playoff game where the coach wouldn't put me in because I was a terrible player.
"Glad he lost!" Aunt Freda said later. They were always on my side, the kind of aunt and uncle who were like parents you will never yell at.
I hadn't had much to do with them for months, when one July dawn in 1974 I awoke from a dream about someone screaming. I awoke to find it was my mother was screaming, and that my father was dead of a sudden heart attack at 57.
Relatives soon arrived, among them Uncle Don. I wept onto the shoulder of his jacket. I think it was tan. I think he was the age then that I am now. "Do you like pancakes?" he asked me. He took me to McDonalds.
I'd never been to McDonalds. I'd been to maybe three movies. "He's had a very sheltered life," my cousins told their friends. My cousin Scott was seven years older than I was, the twins Richard and Robert four years older. A lot of guys their ages would have looked at me as an occasionally funny but awful moody kid who'd had a tough break and deserved some sympathy, but still a little kid you didn't introduce to your high school friends as "sheltered," or as anything else.
I hope Alex and Ned turn out as well as these three guys, who put themselves far into my life through the next few years. They had a house where you could have fun and then drive to McDonalds. They had all the cool 8-tracks. They had cats, a pet squirrel in a cage, Penthouse under their beds. They built models -- Scott ships, Richard tanks, Robert planes -- and in their cool basement for the rest of the summer of '74 I learned the tricks of brush and glue that kept me occupied almost to junior year. They were photographers, too (don't all sophisticated people have varied passions?), and that fall we snapped the football games of the local high school. They let me handle cameras that cost more than I'd ever, at age 13, had in my hand at once.
After Richard got his license, he was constantly showing up to take me to the movies or the hobby shop. With him at the wheel of a two-tone Oldsmobile gas-guzzler, I rode into my teens. We tooled the wooded roads, 8-tracks blaring, to the streams for swimming, to the gravel pits for shooting (my cousins gave me my first gun, a muzzle-loading, black powder pistol), to our grandmother's for delivering Christmas presents.
One Christmas, I gave Aunt Freda and Uncle Don a case of cat food. Uncle Don tipped back and laughed at the ceiling. They seemed to just like being alive, and they liked me in a way no one has liked me since.
A drawback to being alive, of course, is that you grow up, and often you move away. I went to the guys' weddings (one in each year of each of the first three Star Wars movies - funny what you remember), and a few University of Maine hockey games when I was in college. "Attack, Maine! Attack!" Uncle Don would scream down the ice.
Soon my cousins had kids of their own. They made other friends. So did I. Then I moved to New York City, which is a long way indeed down the main road.
"Nobody up here had any idea where you were!" I heard Aunt Freda's voice say, as I watched Ned and Alex screw with the TV remote instead of pay attention to "Elmo." Uncle Don got on the phone, then Richard. I could see them all on their deep couch. There's a shelf of pictures built into the wall behind their heads. The walls are charcoal paneling, trimmed in black. At least they were the last time I saw them. Funny what you remember. (October 2002)
(I wrote this five years ago. - JS.)
I arrive in Tucson late on Monday night, where, according to my brother-in-law Dave, I will "find quite a change" in my mother. I find two things different about my sister's house. One is a blue bathtub-size plastic box containing four kittens. The other is my mother, laid flat with cancer and who is what a nursing home official will later call "actively dying."
I find her on the bed in a dark room, curled into pink and white striped sheets. Her hair has been clipped. Her arms, which once wrestled with leather and awl in a shoe factory, stick thin from the tan housecoat she will wear all this week. She raises her arms. "Hi Jeff. Hi Jeff," she says, reaching up for me. I hug her -- not too hard -- and she tells me to go to bed. "See ya tomorrow."
My sister Betty makes me a sandwich. "Mum hasn't eaten anything," she says.
Tuesday begins at 6:30 the next morning, when I'm the last to rise in my sister's house. I drink two cups of instant coffee and watch my sister send her lanky granddaughters off to school. I poke my head into mum's room and get a look at her in daylight. There are thick black hairs on her chin. The blue in her eyes has begun to pale. She won't put in her false teeth, and the curve of her shoulder makes a hard, white, right angle. Her hand feels cool but still firm.
"She won't eat for me this morning," says my sister, nodding towards mum's bedroom. "She hasn't eaten anything since yesterday afternoon. But maybe you can get her to take a little something at 10 o'clock when Bob Barker comes on."
Then my sister goes to the bathtub-sized plastic box near her patio door and lifts off the towel and the screen. Something inside goes squeak squeak squeak. "Oh shut up!" says my sister. She pulls out five inches of white and gray fur with a tail on one end and midnight-blue eyes on the other, and mummifies the whole thing in a towel. She sits at her dining room table, picks up eyedropper of cream-colored liquid, and waits for the little pink mouth to squeak again.
"Now you'll see your sister at work," Dave says. She has four kittens - two gray-striped, two striped with patches of white. One can't open his eyes. One won't shut up.
By now it's past 8 a.m., and my sister and I go into mum's room. Snapshots of my baby boy back in New York rim one mirror. The top of the dresser is covered with pictures in frames: aunts and uncles, great-grandnieces and nephews, brothers and sisters, my brother and his wife and his cat and two raccoons on his porch. One corner of mum's bedroom is lousy with stuffed Garfields. In another corner is a recliner. In another sits a white plastic porta-potty.
"Mum?" says Betty, leaning in, "will you eat a little something for me?"
"No," my mother says. She burps.
"Will you eat a little something for me?"
"I don't want nothin'." At last mum agrees that a piece of fish from a nearby cafeteria might sit right. Dave and Betty go out, and I grab a book and sit in the recliner by mum's bed until it's time for Bob Barker. I have a feeling that she'll sit up for Bob Barker, that "The Price Is Right" will unlock my mother's appetite. "Mum, you wanna watch Bob Barker?"
She doesn't move, then her eyes flutter. "You wanna watch Bob Barker?"
"What? No," then she moans. She smells my breath and says, "You been drinkin' coffee!"
I watch TV for a while, wondering when Bob Barker got so old and listening to my mother moan. I remember when she'd no more moan than she'd slam a shot of bourbon. I think about when I was 11 and I hit her in the arm with a dart. She gave me a look like a New York City pigeon, pulled out the dart, and moved on.
After Bob Barker and after Betty and Dave have returned, Dave and I go get the fish and some Subway sandwiches for lunch. Mum eats nothing. She sips water through an elbowed straw. Pretty soon she has to go to the bathroom, and the only one she will let lift her is Dave. The only one she will listen to at all is Dave, while Betty and I look at each other like Curly and Moe.
Dave crows through the kitchen while my sister mixes kitten formula. "The dominant male," Dave says. My sister mutters something not meant for her granddaughters to hear.
Tuesday night we have fried tacos, which was one of the last dinners my mother had the week before. Tonight, nobody mentions taking her one. After dinner everybody except Dave grabs a kitten in a towel and dabs tea on gummy blue eyes and works the eyedropper between minuscule white teeth. One of the kittens, the one that will probably live, squawks like a big parrot. "Hold still!" my sister says.
Mum sleeps. When she opens her eyes Betty or I lean in and ask, "Are you in pain, mum? Are you in pain? Do you have to go, mum?" To potty, we mean. Her meds come in sheets of numbered plastic bubbles, rattling like Mexican jumping beans in a countertop display. Betty has them all straight. Once that night mum tells me, "I'm just glad you and your brother found somebody and got married. Go back and be with your baby, Jeff."
On Wednesday mum won't eat. Betty says she and Dave have been up since 3:30, when they lifted mum to the potty. This day is pretty much like Tuesday, except that for dinner we have spaghetti with meatballs and sausage, and I sneak mum cranberry juice, and from her seat on the porta-potty she stabs me with one of those looks that terrified me before age 12 and has amused me ever since.
Also, Betty and I decide to put her in a nursing home.
Everybody thinks it's the right decision -- Betty, me, Dave, the Hospice nurse who comes in to give her a bath -- everyone except, we think, the person at the center of the decision. At the idea, says one of my nieces, mum will "flip out."
While Dave is getting the tires fixed on his Oldsmobile, Betty and I decide that he should tell mum.
"I promised her," Betty says, "I promised her I wouldn't take her to one of those places." Dave will tell her the next morning, just before the ambulette pulls up. Betty remembers that she'll be baby-sitting another granddaughter, Chelsea, at that time.
"I'm just gonna tell Chelsea that they'll come in with a stretcher and take Nana-Net where they can help her get better," Betty says. That's the plan, or at least the pitch: just for a few days, so they can get the pain under control.
But my mother has come to a special time, a time that's hers, and she fades from our control with breathtaking speed. She stops seeing, hearing and pretty much moving on Wednesday night -- except twice when she sits herself up on the side of her bed and stares. "Scared me to death," says Betty. This might be a good sign except that mum's urine turns orange, which we will later be told is a sign of renal shut-down. That night after the spaghetti we do laundry and play Rummicky. I look in on my mother, watching her chest go up and down, up and down, up and down. It will not simply stop.
Unseen by us and undiscovered until next morning, one of the kittens, the one who never really opened his eyes, dies.
Next morning, Betty, Dave, Chelsea and I wait for the ambulette, which is supposed to come at 10. The phone rings while I'm finishing my second cup of instant coffee and watching Sally Jesse Rafael. Betty gets it. The ambulance will be late. Betty, Dave and I go into mum's room.
"She's not coming back today, is she?" mum asks.
"No, she's not," says Dave. "But we're gonna go over to the Hospice in a little while."
I wish my mother did flip out then. Instead she just says "No we're not," and tries to roll over.
"Yes we are," Dave says.
"It's just for a while mum," I say. I tell her it's to get her pain under control, that she needs some medicine that Betty and Dave can't give her right now. "You need to do this," I tell her. "You need to help Betty and Dave now the way they helped you..." I will never know if she believed me, agreed with me, or just wanted me to leave. She closes her eyes and lays unmoving on the pink-and-white striped sheets.
Sally Jesse is still going on -- I think the show has something to do with the KKK -- when I look out Betty's living room window and at the curb I suddenly see a van. It's a hard white in the Arizona sun, and it has blue words. One of the words is "Medi." I poke my head around the corner where Betty and Dave are watching the TV and say, "They're here."
Paul's our driver. His partner didn't show up for work this morning, he says, so I help him wheel the gurney out of the van. It's a fat padded wheelchair that collapses into a stretcher, and it would sure wheel better with two guys on it. Provided one of the guys wasn't me, wheeling the thing into my mother's view.
"Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Just leave me be."
"OK," says Paul, and he shows Dave and me how to use the sheet to lift my mother onto the gurney.
"Oh no. Oh no. David, no."
"Nettie," Dave says, "don't do this to me."
What we three haul off the bed and onto the stretcher is not my mother. It's too light, and it says "No!" too loudly. She grabs the doorjamb as we flash by Betty's bedroom. Inside I glimpse Betty holding Chelsea, head-down. I think they were rocking.
"Where we goin'?"
"We're going to get you some medicine, mum."
The driveway is already 100 degrees, the sun pounding the cement; I place my white baseball hat over her eyes. "Pretty warm, huh, mum?" How many sub-zero nights did I pick my mother up at work back home in Maine? How many times did we shovel a driveway side by side? How many January afternoons did I see her walk to the thermostat on the wall and "twist the tail on the furnace?"
I know one thing: I will wheel her down this blistering driveway just one time.
Paul gives as smooth a ride as he can. But in a move I suspect will haunt me for years, I've forgotten to bring water or even a cool cloth, and in the van the air conditioning is weak. My mother bounces and moans. "Oh Jeff where we goin'?"
The nursing home smells clean -- which is to say, not of urine -- and as I walk the pink and pale-blue halls and slide my hand along the fat wooden handrails, watching the incredibly old people move their wheelchairs by shuffling their feet, I think, "I'm glad my mom will never be in a place like this." Except she is. They deposit her on a bed and pull the pink curtain to separate her from the roommate she will never know. The roommate's head is shaved; her head lolls to one side. In the hallway a guy in a wheelchair watches them bring my mother in. "Is that guy dead?" he asks my sister.
"She's tough as a boiled owl," I tell the hospice people, "but she needs morphine. I've had morphine and I know she needs morphine." The hospice worker looks at my mother's sheets of pills as if trying to find a familiar name in an out-of-town phone book. Nurses come and go, and my mother never stirs from her left side. Chelsea takes my hand and we walk on to the sizzling lawn to get a hot dog from the guy at the grill. We walk down to the nurses' desk, where a nurse gives Chelsea a lime ice. I see the "Activity Calendar!" confirms that this is Cookout Day. Tuesday will be Pets-on-Wheels Day.
The administrator has questions for my sister. Is your mother querulous? Does she socialize well with others? Does she talk about ending it all?
Is she frightened? "Well I don't know, I guess so," says my sister, looking at me. "I don't know, because I've never been there."
We return to the room, and she's still on her left side, and we know where my mother is going. I tell her to give Dad a hard time when she gets there. I tell her about my happy memories of Christmases in the mid-1980s, when I would come home for two weeks and she'd feed me to a stupor. My brother lived at home then, and he had a cat with whom my mother lost every argument. I tell her I'm sorry I haven't seen her enough over the past few years. Then I lean over the black hairs on her chin and kiss her cheek.
"Good-bye, mum," I tell her.
Her eyes open. "You still here?" she says.
My mother dies a little after 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday, September 19, 1998, three days after her 76th birthday. For some reason, I have only bubblings of sorrow until that Sunday. On that day, I usually called her. I call my sister, who says the mother cat is still taking care of only one kitten. My sister thinks she'll lose another one soon. She says she could faint away right in her recliner, too. "Hope you caught up on your sleep today," she says over the phone.
I didn't. I thought of my mother and cried twice: once in my wife's arms on the floor of our study, and once while mixing tuna fish for lunch. I still can't figure out exactly how I'm going to miss her. I guess I'm also still wondering when Bob Barker got so goddamned old.
Jill's face got a heavy look the other night. "Jeff," she asked, "when your mother died, did you think, 'Now it's been one month?' 'Now it's been two months?' I haven't talked to my mother in a month."
Jill's mom died in early December, about 24 hours after Carmel's older sister died. The sister's death had been expected, sort of. Carmel's end was sudden. But I admit that when the phone rings in the evenings -- the time of day she and Jill most often spoke, to talk about the kids, work, the day -- I don't pick it up and for an instant think it might be Carmel. For six years, I've never thought it was my mum, either, calling on a Sunday.
I met Carmel on an early summer evening in 1991, the night the lovely woman I'd been dating (Jill) took me to meet her parents. I was nervous and a little thrilled, since it was after all Jill I was talking about here. So Jill brought me hand-in-hand into her parents' apartment, deposited me on the couch opposite her mother, and then, without hesitation, fled the room, pages of newspaper fluttering in her slipstream.
"I went to get beer," she recalled the other day, after the funeral. (I didn't buy that 14 years ago, either.)
Jill was gone about three weeks, while I stared at what appeared to be an oil painting entitled "Increasingly Skeptical Potental Mother-in-Law." The details on that conversation have dimmed in my memory - except for my sweat and the sound of my endless voice peeling the ceiling paint - during sometime in there I must have spilled a few facts about my freelance writing "career." I may have even made air quotes.
"He seems to want an awful lot to be liked," Carmel later told Jill. "Can he make a living?"
I like to think the next 13 years gave Carmel her answer (unfortunately).
"She was sick that night!" Jill explained later. "She had gout!" Who gets gout anymore? Carmel was sick with one thing or another, and usually they were serious, for as long as I knew her. As a result, I never had a chance to know the real Carmel, who Jill claims used to do things like freeze the canned soda the night before and wrap it in paper towels the morning of the picnic. Things like juggle moneymaking, art love/career (photography), and kids as a single mom after her divorce.
"He was charming, and I was green as hell," she said once of her first husband.
Tova, an old friend of Carmel's, called just before the funeral. Jill was out, but Tova and I had a long chat. Tova told me much I'd never known about Carmel: her early days as a tennis ace, her teaching English for a while, her math scholarship. She made her living as a librarian; I'm sorry she didn't live to see Alex in hardcover. Tova told me all about when Carmel first came to New York, to Barnard, from El Paso, green as hell. For a moment I could see it, that time that won't come again. "I do know she considered herself very lucky in the matter of sons-in-law," Tova added.
I did strongly suspect Carmel liked me after about 1994, when she gave us a generous check to cover one damned thing or another and I said to her, "Well, Carmel, I like to think you'd do things like this for me even if I'd never met Jill," and she laughed.
I did want to be liked by Carmel. She was sharp, and she kept a lot of things in her head at once, and pulled them out at good times. "The cities of the Northeast supported the cities of the Sunbelt through the Depression," she said once, "and now the cities in the Sunbelt don't want to help the cities in the Northeast." When Jill sparred with one of our first neonatologists and it later came to light that Jill's cousin, also a doctor, knew this guy and had once been reprimanded by him for trying to snitch on a senior doctor, Carmel noted, "And he tells Jill that she's got a problem with authority!"
She was fun to see movies with, and spat her reviews like tacks. "Lousy!" she called The Lion King. "If the French can see them, how come they can't see the French?" she said at the beginning of Master and Commander. The last movie I saw with her was Supersize Me. Before it started, she asked if I wanted to get a hot dog afterward. When that movie was over, I asked if she still wanted to get a hot dog. "Ah, no," she said. She kissed me good-bye after that movie, after every get-together, and I walked her home, as toward the end she'd given up the tennis racket for an occasion metal cane.
Carmel died on a Friday afternoon, of a heart attack in dialysis. Tova found me before the service, put her head into my shoulder, and shook with tears. That day was gray and rainy. So was the next day, and colder. I never saw the best of Carmel, yet another person whose prime I somehow missed.
"Can I do anything for you guys?" Tova asked.
"Call Jill in the evenings now and again, and ask about her day," I replied. "I think she's going to miss those calls most of all." (January 2005)
Grandpa has a new summer house. He has also bought a canoe, a rowboat, beds, and a lot of other stuff to help us give the boys a good time on a body of water in hot weather. The house is splendid, with big rooms and lots of bright wood, a deck and a wine cellar, air conditioning even in the basement, and few spiders. It's also right on a lake, and has a shared dock that Alex and Ned, left unsupervised, can run to in about 20 seconds.
They both found the path to the dock pretty quick on their first visit, sending me and Jill and Uncle Rob scurrying after them through the undergrowth to cut them -- mostly Alex -- off before they dove in. Actually, Alex just stepped in, but then didn't so much fall as slip off a submerged slimy rock, and got all wet. He's more used to pools and beaches than rocky lakefronts.
I didn't think they would sit in a boat with any enthusiasm, and beyond blowing bubbles in the tub, neither boy can swim that well. Aunt Julie and Uncle Rob generously bought both boys life jackets. "Can you swim?" Aunt Julie asked me. "And you can't swim that well, either?" she said, pointing to Jill. "Grandpa and Uncle Rob are certified lifesavers. They'll take the boys out in the boat!"
Outstanding! I think. Where's the beer?
Actually, Grandpa and I rowed out with the boys the first time. Alex kept dipping his hand in the lake and saying, "Water. Water." "Are there sharks in here?" Ned kept asking, peering over the side. Both boys sat quietly. Jill and I took them out next. Alex dumped our bottle of drinking water over the side, looking like Katherine Hepburn dumping out Humphrey Bogart's gin in "The African Queen."
I found it almost easy to maneuver the rowboat, which we took because it's potentially more stable than the canoe when Alex and Ned are aboard. A pull on one side, a pull on the other, and when the bow was pointed in the right goddamned direction I, facing behind ("aft," as we mariners say), got a fix on something straight ahead of my line of sight. That's how you keep a boat pointed straight if you're facing "aft." My friend Patrick's father taught me that. He was in the Merchant Marine, and a brave man: He sailed freighters laden with ammo through North Korean minefields, and he took me on a sailboat.
Jill watched me row and said I looked "hunky." The boys sat quietly. So much for the beer.
We tried to take both boys swimming at the little beach on the lake. Ned happily splashed around. "Cold, cold," Alex kept saying, so he and I got back in the rowboat and shoved off to investigate the underwater power lines down in a back cove. Still Alex just sat, watching the sun sparkle on the ripples.
I wish I'd been the one able to buy this place, but I guess something must be going right in my 43rd summer if I actually "shoved off" from somewhere. "It's easier to row if you don't dip the oar blades so deep in the water," grandpa has said. Yeah, but then I don't look so hunky.
I spent a lot of time around lakes when I was growing up; I remember the flash of the perch, the bump of the canoe's side (the "hull") against the dock. Still, I sort of got the outdoors out of my system in the teen years with Patrick, and I don't have a special place, unless you count certain pinball arcades and bowling alleys in central Maine, now long torn-down but once the type of places I loved and that my mother used to call "dives". Jill has Cape Cod, where she spent some girlhood time, and where we've gone twice on vacation. Alex loves the Cape's incomparable beaches, though he can't figure out why he shouldn't strip to just a swim diaper on a 50-degree day. Ned will get his feet wet, though sometimes he just stands on the sand and proclaims his fear of the seaweed.
Both boys may one day have grandpa's lake house as a special place. The equipment's all there. There's a blow-up raft; Alex crawled into it while it was still in the garage and tried to fall asleep. Aunt Julie and Uncle Rob have also reportedly purchased fish food. For the sharks, probably. (July 2005)
The Flight Home
I'm on the tiny plane to Maine. I'll give a speech about Alex and Alex, then see my brother. The speech is almost an afterthought. God knows I've learned that afterthought speeches can trip you up, but I haven't seen or heard much from my brother in almost four years.
We used to be tight, starting really when I was in high school, after my father had died and my mum (she was never "mom" or "mother," though I supposed once she had been "mommy") had moved to a town near Bangor, Maine. My brother's name is Lee; he used to have a family nickname similar to Bucky. Matters of familial security prohibit my telling you the exact nickname, but I can reveal that I didn't know the origin of the name, but it might have had something to do with a chattery noise he made when he was much younger than Ned is now. In our family, that was enough to brand you for life.
Lee, who is nine years older than I am, used to stand with me in the backyard after his weekly visit for dinner and throw the Frisbee. We'd chat about many subjects except nicknames, but the one I remember was my writing. "You ever write humor?" he asked one evening. He was sharp that way. Still is, I expect. I think he came to dinner on Tuesdays, but it's been a lifetime and I can't remember precisely.
I went to New York for college not long after that, but when my higher education kind of fell apart, I returned to Maine to sponge off my aging mum, clear $67 a week pasting up adds for a community newspaper, and play dizzying amounts of pinball with Lee. Our favorite machines were Haunted House and KISS. More-cultured readers may recall the KISS game. I know I do. The motif stemmed from the large-tongued rock group, and you could make the machine purr and cluck with replays by dropping the ball down the center rollover slot at the top of the playfield. We murdered KISS. A store in New York City actually has a KISS game. Five balls for 50 cents, but no replays. I played it, alone, a few years ago. The store probably doesn't have it any more.
A few years after pinballing, I think it was, Lee needed a kidney operation and I came home for a few weeks to sponge off my still-aging mum and, as part of Lee's recovery, help him watch movies on TV like The Blue Max and limp through miniature golf courses. I was a freelancer in those days, unmarried, Alex and Ned not even a notion, and a month off was just a thing I did.
Years went by. Holidays home, tearing open gifts in mum's living room, then finding a bowling alley with an owner irreligious enough to turn on the pinball machines on Christmas afternoon. Sometimes there'd be football on TV. Lee followed the Dallas Cowboys and, largely because of that, I followed the Washington Redskins. That's not so strange: Lee only took up with Dallas because once in the days when I wasn't even a notion he was watching a Raiders/Cowboys game with our father, who liked the Raiders. The Cowboys came from behind and won, as my brother cheered and my father ground his teeth.
There were a few visits after I'd met Jill, the most significant in the summer of 2001. Lee met Ned and Alex. He'd gone gray. I made him drive through Bar Harbor at the height of the tourist crowds. He doesn't like crowds. He's never been wild about kids, either. Once in the KISS period, a screeching kid ran past us in a restaurant, and Lee turned to me and said, "Makes you want to run right out and have a couple, doesn't it?" Lee put up with it, though, in that last summer of the World Trade Center, and even tried to get Alex to eat French fries. Alex's middle name is Lee.
I guess it was during a call months after that when I crabbed too much about my kids. Lee probably thought I was whining - he isn't wild about whining, either - and pretty soon one of our calls dissolved into him just saying something like, "Read your site every week. Good stuff. Take care." Then, nothing for months. My birthdays came and went with no card - soon his did, too - and the e-mails passed unanswered, and raising my boys made the time and the time and the time melt like the late-April snow of Maine. I was busy and a little mad; I'd been a freelance writer long enough to know what "Good stuff. Take care" really meant. But still, maybe out walking with Jill on an afternoon when the boys had a sitter and some rugrat was having a fit in front of his parents near us, I'd turn to Jill and say, "Makes you want to run right out and have a couple, doesn't it?"
Last spring, my Aunt Freda pushed Maine's biggest daily to run a feature on Alex. Then the March of Dimes Maine chapter invited me to speak, and I thought maybe my name was starting to pop up back home. Soon after, I was giving Ned a bath one evening when the phone rang. Ned was sloshing water all over the bathroom floor and I couldn't get to the phone. Neither could Jill, who was chasing Alex ("Makes you want to run right out ..."). I heard a message being left.
Then Jill appeared in the bathroom doorway, the phone in her hand. She played the message.
"Heard you're coming to Maine," said that ghost from the days of Frisbee and Haunted House. "Just wanted to know what we can do on this end, and hope to see you."
So now I'm on this plane. In about an hour, Bucky/Lee is meeting me at the Portland Jetport. "Looking forward to this trip big time," he e-mailed a few days ago. He'll be standing there, amid the security guards and other people's luggage, and he'll probably be gray, and I'll wonder if we will still find a KISS machine that goes cluck.
(Afterward: This was easily one of the best trips of my life. Lee met me and stayed for my talk. I stayed him with and his hugely tolerant wife, and he had an X Box in his basement, and later we found one in an arcade, too, and blew $10. He's read Alex. "I never understood all you went through," he said. He says any silence was unintentional. He had crippling back problems in 2004, and soon after bought what seems to be a terrific furniture store. We had a steak dinner my last night. He says he has a good life. He makes me think I do, too. It can never be four years again.) (November 2005)
I'd been in Maine maybe five hours when I began pronouncing "aunt" as "Awhnt." For years, in New York, I pronounced it "ant," the way most of the country does, but not the way I was brought up saying it in New England. "I have to go visit Ahnt Freda tomorrow," I said.
Once my pseudo-mum, Aunt Freda re-surfaced in my life last New Year's Eve, I think it was, when I was asleep next to Alex and Jill had stayed up to watch the Times Square stuff on TV. Jill woke me with the phone in her hand at quarter past 12. I learned later that Aunt Freda is up to 3 or so on New Year's Eve, calling people.
If Aunt Freda had been born in Manhattan about 1960, she'd no doubt be retiring from her own PR firm now. She's outgoing, boisterous by the standards of central Maine. It was she, for instance, who pestered the Bangor Daily News last spring to do a feature on me and Alex. Later she suggested I send a copy to the medical center where she and my mum were once nurses, and inscribe it to the memory of my mother. It was she who suggested I send a copy of Alex to Bangor-based Stephen King. "He might read it," Aunt Freda said. "Just cost you a book to find out!" I don't think King read it, but I did wire Aunt Freda a dozen roses.
She's followed the story of Alex and my crew closely, though up until now from a silent distance. "You know, Jeff, you haven't had an easy life," Aunt Freda told me on the phone shortly after the roses arrived. I love hearing stuff like that.
My tough life sort of began in her house. She used to babysit me when I was younger than Ned is now; once Aunt Freda spanked me because I wouldn't leave the knobs of her TV alone. Around the same time, I took a header off her couch (I still have the scar). She and Uncle Don and my cousins would take me out for pizza or the circus. Once we collected acorns to feed their pet Squirrel Shortstop. Through the years, whenever she saw me, Aunt Freda would always bite my face. (I still have the scar).
My family understood that kids did stupid things, though, and Aunt Freda's became my second home after my father died in August of 1974 and mum returned to work weekends at the hospital. I remember Aunt Freda's basement that summer. You got to it through a real trapdoor, down a narrow and steep flight of wooden stairs, and once down there I draped myself on my cousins - three guys, all older - who built great model warplanes, played army in gravel pits with starter pistols, and ate at McDonalds. That basement was like a cathedral, cool with the promise of adventures.
Aunt Freda has never met Jill or the boys. I was without them on this trip, when I swung by her house about 11 in the morning, expecting to find Aunt Freda old. The door opened onto a woman I remembered: same brown hair, few wrinkles, a little shorter than I am.
Out came her arms, on went the coffee. We talked about family - those she'd liked, those she'd never trusted, the latter mentioned with a narrowing of her eyes. She liked my father. "Your father, Jeffrey," said, "sat right on that couch the year before he died, and said, 'We never know when our time's coming, especially if you don't feel good.' He knew he had heart trouble. But you know your mother used to say it was a good thing he went and not her, Jeffrey, because he never would have let you leave Maine." I've heard that story before, and have no doubt it's accurate. I can remember my father's face, sort of, but I can no longer recall a time when he or anyone else might have had such control over me.
Aunt Freda and I spent the afternoon together. We dropped in on her old nursing friend colleague who's now CEO of Maine's biggest hospital. We visited Uncle Don's grave - graves are becoming a bigger and bigger part of going back home - and then we dropped by my old school, where my cousins also graduated and where Aunt Freda had, last spring, pestered the library to carry my book. There was my old locker again! And here was the office, right where I'd last seen it but, like most of where I'd grown up, much bigger now.
I said we wanted to see the librarian. The lady in the office told us the librarian was gone for the day. I explained I was Jeff Stimpson, class of 1980, and I wanted to thank the librarian for ordering a book I'd just published. The woman in the office said she was 1980, too. She told me her name. I remembered it. She remembered me. Small world. Aunt Freda cut in with, "You read his book!?"
We went back to Aunt Freda's house. I toured the basement, where now I had to stoop double to avoid bashing my head on the beams. I saw where one cousin once had a bedroom (washer/dryer now), and another cousin a darkroom (Uncle Don's computer room, still carefully untouched). Then it was time to say good-bye. I buried my face in Aunt Freda's shoulder.
She's slender, and a little shorter than I am, but in her shoulder I could lose the weight of kids, marriage, a job, insurance, and marketing a book. I could again be the brat who played with the knobs of the TV. I was actually tempted to try it again, except I was sure she'd still smack me. (November 2005)
The Red Dress
My Aunt Hope e-mailed me a write-up about my mother. Aunt Hope and Uncle Bud were those obliging relatives who fed me an occasional steak dinner when I went to college near them, before there was anything like e-mail or the serious idea that one day my mother wouldn't be alive anymore. They have since retired, and Uncle Bud has self-published memoirs. It looks like Aunt Hope might be working on one, too, and she has this to say about mum:
"Nettie was born the sixth child of Frank and Annie (Linscott) Severance in Kingman (Maine). She was named Nettie Maria (pronounced Mariah) after her two grandmothers: Nettie Rowe Linscott and Maria Sweet Severance."
My ancestors had kickass names.
"Nettie attended the Passadumkeag Grammar School for her first nine years (they had a kindergarten), and gradated from eighth grade as salutatorian of her class. She attended Howland High School for a couple years and then left to accept a position doing housework for a couple in Bangor."
Pronounced "pass-a-DUM-keg." It's an old Indian name, though it sounds more like an activity you'd play at a frat party. I had heard about the housekeeping, but not much. It wasn't that mum was ashamed of housework - in fact, she revered it - but more I think that she didn't consider her own past worth recounting.
"Though she was paid only $4 a week and board, she managed to purchase a kitchen table and chairs for her mother." That I can believe.
"Your mother was very attractive and intelligent ... She was all business and very responsible for a teenager. The first gentleman I ever knew her to bring home was your dad, and he didn't come in to meet the family until several visits later. As you may remember, he was not a social person, but he was a true gentleman and loved your mother very much. When he and your mother married, your mother wore a full length American Beauty red dress and looked beautiful."
A red dress for your wedding? Jill suggested that mum probably thought, with practicality, that she could use the dress again someday.
"She drove for many years before she finally applied for and got her license. She was an excellent driver, and when the examiner asked her how long she had been driving, her answer was 'Long enough to know how!'" That I can also believe. Once when the IRS asked her to make them a photocopy of a cancelled check, she replied, "No. That costs a dime!" and hung up.
"Nettie never complained to anyone about any problems. She was a very private person. She was a very hard worker, a good cook, and could do just about anything, even cleaning her own oil burners in the kitchen stove. She never wanted anyone to know her business or her problems, but handled everything herself. When Nettie worked in the hospital, it was said that they couldn't assign her to the alcoholic ward because she would strangle the patients! She had no patience with anyone who drank, especially too much."
I never pour a gin without thinking of mum. She did work hard, too hard really. Who am I to complain - her working kept a roof over my head after my father died - except that to say I seem to have inherited her work ethic, and like her I sometimes lean on it when trying to escape that which lends balance to life. I too don't like anyone to know my business or problems, unless you count spilling them all out here.
"You have every reason to be very proud of your mother and your father," Aunt Hope concludes. "They were very good people, who worked hard to take care of their family and who never complained. They were loving, loyal, dedicated, and were there for me many times." Ditto. I do wish I had a picture of mum in that red dress. (January 2008)
Cousin Carol asks us to watch her cat Kiki for a week while she and her husband are in Japan. I only see Kiki a couple of times a year; I remember him as a big gray tiger thinned by living to about age 20. Isn't 20 about 1,000 in cat years? "Is this cat going to die while he's with us?" I ask Jill. "Well," she replies, "maybe."
We have a cat, Toast, who's about six, all black, and of all the people I've ever lived with, she's the biggest cat hater.
Carol brings Kiki over on a weekend. We put him in our bedroom; Toast roams the rest of the house. I visit Kiki as he hides under our bed. His eyes are sunken, his long trunk indeed bony. Carol leaves us with a cat box, a sandbag of litter, and three plastic Chinese take-out soup containers of dry food. She tells us to feed him only a spoonful or so of food every few hours, otherwise he pukes. We put the litter box next to Jill's side of the bed (Carol is, after all, Jill's cousin).
Within a few days, Kiki ventures out from under the bed, yakking at us whenever we come into the bedroom with a meow like a loud old hinge. Jill gets to brush him a few minutes before he growls; she starts calling him "a grand old man." I like him, and start calling him "Keek." He plows his broad leonine face into my ankle. Wouldn't it be something if he and Toast could get along and we could keep him?
"He is a sweet boy," Jill tells me, "but you don't have to clean up his throw-up as often as I do. Just sayin'."
Soon we start putting Toast in the boys' bedroom for an hour or so right after dinner - her scratching post in there with her, sprinkled with fresh catnip - and let Keek wander the apartment. I start to wonder if we should try for a formal introduction. Once, we did have another cat, Jackson, a young male we rescued from being dumped in Central Park and who wanted to play all the time. Toast's pet name for him was, "I Hate You!"
But maybe it would work with Keek, whose eyes have brightened and whose tail has become as plump as a new tube of toothpaste. He's older; he doesn't want to play, but just lay on the rug and hope that somebody figures out he should have more food now.
We arrange for Keek and Toast to come briefly face-to-face around the doorway of our bedroom one night. All I remember is that somebody growled and somebody else lifted their paw. "Waving hello?" Aunt Julie speculated later. Well, not so much "hello!", I think, as "These claws. Your face. You figure it out." Perhaps the moment of meeting had been colored earlier by Toast rounding the corner after escaping from the boys' room and spying Kiki eating out of her bowl. He chews her catnip pillows, too. Isn't that cute?
What do you do when he throws up? I ask Jill. "Mop it up with some paper towels and get on with your life," she replies. She says this time it looked like a hairball, so she tries to give him Petromalt while I listen on the phone from my office. I hear his hinge.
"You want to have this?" Jill's voice asks. "You love this! You are such a good boy! You want more! Oh he likes it! This is great! He's a dream cat!"
So we think maybe, maybe we could keep him, if Carol doesn't mind. And if Toast doesn't mind. So we set up another blind date at the corner of our bedroom doorway.
Somebody hisses; somebody growls; Toast swats. I DO HATE YOU.
Keek leaves after 13 days with us. When Carol arrives, he gives her the same look he gave us for two weeks: head over one shoulder and looking up, then down at his empty dish. Toast creeps over to stare at him in his carrier. Jill says she'll try to clean our bedroom to erase all scent of Kiki. That night Toast stalks the bedroom, her nose to the rugs and floor, between sniffs looking up at us as if things will never be the same again. (July 2008)
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