Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Outside World December 23rd

Karen, Marion’s 19-year-old granddaughter, visits often from  Long Island. She brings the outside world and the interests of  young people with her.

Her mother has married again. Karen thinks her step-father is a creep. “In my opinion, he drinks too much. And he tells mommy about bad business deals and asks her to take on extra work  to help him out. She should get rid of him.”

Marion is sometimes distraught after these visits but loves her “Karen dear.” She says, “have you never heard the proverb, ‘Don’t tell tales out of school?’”

“What’s school got to do with it?”

“It’s just a saying. It means that if your mother wants me to know about it she’ll tell me herself.”

“So what should I do?”

“Go to that art school you got accepted to—that one in Indiana where you liked the program—and I’ll keep my ears open here.”

“You’ll talk to Mommy?”

“When she asks me.”

And you’re not mad at me?”

“How could I be? My first born grandchild with angel eyes.!”

Just Rude or Paranoid

I am in the habit of saying good morning to residents I meet in the elevator or who are alone in the elevator. One day a woman on my floor, whom I’ll call Eleanor, stopped me before I could say greet her.

“Oh, I know. You’re going o say “hello”.

“Yes I am. Why not?”

“There’s something wrong with it.”

“What could be wrong with it?”

“The other person might not want to be bothered.”

I was flummoxed and thought I  should shut up  right away, but I really wanted to kick her.
Or say go to hell. Instead I thought of something as idiotic as she was).

“What if I just gave you the silent treatment until you said hello first?”

Crazy as it seems, she said that would be all right.
The next time I saw her I waited for a signal. None came.
The time after that she said hello and broke into a grimace that was trying to be a grin.
“I forgot last time.”
“That’s okay. I bet you won’t forget next time.”

The next time, she was at the elevator and came halfway back. To say hello.

It was  truly bizarre. As my friend Marion says, “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs”.

Eventually, this reluctant greeter disappeared. I asked Anita, who knows all, the scuttlebutt, what happened to her.

“Oh, that one.  Around Purim, she began to think she was Queen Esther, so now she’s in another facility. She’s quite senile, but she still thinks she’s Queen Esther. So she’s sort of okay, if you see what I mean.”

I think I do.

Sadie Who Soldiered On

Sadie was an old leftist and Bohemian of 79 when she went into assisted living. In her time she had been active in trying to free political prisoners in Spain and Eritrea and had worked locally as a volunteer in soup kitchens in  Harlem and Detroit. She was noted for her vigor and energy and her pride in being able to take care of herself. She lived alone during the twenty years .after her  husband died, but always made herself available for social activists from out-of-town who needed a place to stay.

Old age was a humiliation to her. An operation for a torn cartilage in her knee was debilitating. She hobbled and used a walker. She could no longer travel alone. After a lengthy rehabilitation it became clear to her friends that she could not continue to live alone in her third-floor walk-up.

After a lifetime of working, she had enough money for assisted living, as she had always lived frugally, but fought any suggestion that she leave her old apartment where she had lived for 53 years. Unfortunately, the matter was decided for her when she fell on the stairs and needed further surgery on that knee. After that, she reluctantly faced the fact that she needed a protective environment.

In assisted living she was not inclined to make friends. She felt fellow residents who spoke of the wonderful years they had spent in Florida were “not serious”.  . As the resident director said of her, she never was “a really happy camper”.

But in an odd way she found her place in assisted living by starting a newsletter. In it there was at least one article per issue about the state of the world.  The work absorbed her and she lived well into her nineties.

Age is No Barrier

My friend, Marion, asked me,”Do you remember when Ruth and Myrtle went to an evening concert in Central Park on their own last year?”

“Of course I do!”

“Of course you do”, she said mockingly, “because you thought it was such a big deal.”

“Well, wasn’t it? They were both over 95. That’s not for sissies!”

“What if I tell you that Robbie Fein and his girlfriend–not from here–went to Germany a few months ago?”

“Really? He must be 86.”

“He wanted to find out what happened to his father’s family during The Holocaust.”

“If that’s true, everything about it is amazing.”

“Yes. He fell in Essen but nothing broke. A few bruises but he went on.”

“Oh, good. What did he find out?”

“He got names, dates, places, neighbors and started the ball rolling Now he’s waiting for  documents from the German government.”

“Whew! If I had a hat, I’d throw it I the air.”

Cruel Nature

Gina and Marla came to assisted living together in their eighties. Their circumstances were unusual. They had been childhood friends, then lost touch with each other when Marla moved with husband and children to Taipei (he was Chinese, an expert on soil conservation). She returned to the United States after her husband died.

Gina and Marla met again in later life. Gina, a teacher, had no immediate family. She and Marla decided to live together in their late seventies. Gina was sometimes a little disoriented and Marla undertook driving and major household tasks. When it seemed to her that they were failing to do the laundry, shop regularly for food, and keep doctors’ appointment, she moved them both into  assisted living,

Living among others, Marla found support. But the situation quickly deteriorated for Gina. She began to give peremptory commands. “I don’t want any cleaning people in our apartment.” “I am not riding in the van anymore.” “I have given up Tai Chi for life.” At dinner one night, she called out to the server, “No dinner for me.”

It was early Alzheimer’s. Marla was stunned and shaken when she heard the diagnosis. After taking responsibility for her friend’s well-being for so many years, she felt that she should have been able to prevent the decline, even though the doctor assures her that she had nothing to do with it. It was only “cruel nature”, no fault of her own.

As Gina has no immediate family, Marla still feels responsible for her and visits her faithfully on the second floor until other arrangements can made for her. But there’s nothing she can do, she says, but watch cruel nature take its course.

The Caretaker

Overheard at breakfast this morning:

“My husband, who was hail and hearty most of his life, thank God, had a stroke when he was 79. Up to that time, I had an active life. I was working part-time in an insurance office where I had been employed for fifteen years. I enjoyed my job and coworkers. But my husband needed  assistance day and night, and we soon ran out of money for nursing care, and so I became  “it”—the nursing care. He kept calling for our son day and night, so his illness was a double  catastrophe for me because our only son had died in Korea. It was a nightmare. As I say, I gave up everything and I came to resent it. I even had to give up yoga—no time. This went on for about six years, although my older daughter would come in from Atlanta for a couple of weeks at  a time and totally take over to give me a break. As you can imagine it was even worse when she left. He died eight months ago, sweet man. Let me tell you: coming into assisted living was a relief!! I’m ready for a little caretaking myself!”

The Schlepper

Sue Ellen was head of the Book Club for two years until she finally resigned in disgust. What was the problem?  Sue Ellen tells her own story freely:

“I love books—don’t get me wrong—but I found myself constantly dragging everyone’s copies back and forth often from the library in a shopping cart, and sometimes there were late fees.”

“You paid them?”

“Yes. It drove me a little crazy.”

“People didn’t buy their own copy of the book you all were reading?”

‘No, it seems like their old habits deserted them.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, they were all accustomed to getting books for themselves, or having their kids do it for them, from their own local libraries. But coming here they acted like they were in another world. They expected me to schlep them back and forth myself. Me, the designated schlepper!.”


“Because I was head of the book club. A punishment,” she said wryly. “I was glad to do it for the handicapped. But even the people who walk regularly expected a service. They were in assisted living after all! And I was the assister. ‘Tote that barge, lift that bail’ should be part of the service!”

“The library is only three short blocks away, and it’s a very pleasant walk”, she said, her voice rising.

“How’d you get out of it?”

“I made an announcement: Those who can, walk. Look at your neighbors and be grateful that you can do it.”

“What happened?”

“It worked. Now they’re paying their own late fees.”

Fleeing Home

Frannie told me:

“I never planned to move to assisted living. My own home was much too comfortable .I’m a very domestic person—a great one for pillows and tchotchkes. It was my son who made me move.”

“A son dictates to his mother! That’s a new one for me.”

“That’s what happened. He returned from the marines gun happy. Went out to the shooting range often, went out to bars with his marine pals. He just couldn’t leave that life.”

“That could be worrisome. What did you do?”

“I asked him not to bring his guns or his drunken friends home. He didn’t listen.”

“You left your comfortable home? Will he be all right?”

“I hope so. He calls in daily.”

“Oh, good. He’s thinking of you but what about the guns?”

“I’m here til he gets the message.”

Life Force

Sylvia is one hundred and one and still going strong. She went with us today to the exhibit of Al Hirshfeld caricatures at the New York Library of Performing Arts where, appropriately, she recognized many of his drawings from when they appeared in the Sunday Times years and years ago. Hirschfield had a long run in the paper and didn’t stop publishing them until the mid 1990’s.

All of the old timers were delighted to come upon so many favorites from a past era. Our era. Sylvia was delighted to recognize Katherine Hepburn and Natasha Richardson. “And that’s always aggravating, when you can’t put a name to someone you saw in the movies,”she said.

“Now you have them to remember”, Caitlin, our leader said.

“I push to keep the gray cells going. But who’s Bradley Cooper? That’s a new one. My sister might know.”

“Your sister’s not here at The Hallmark, is she?”

“She’s still in Florida, a mere baby of 96. And guess what?”


“She just stopped driving last year.”

“What a family!” I said.

“Not only that. We both still  love jewelry. And we both still shop until we drop.”

Mary Poppins Gets Told!

The residents of The Hallmark are usually pretty reserved when talking about their past lives,  particularly if they have been difficult. Lila is different. She is a strikingly handsome woman with henna hair. She says, “When I look good I feel better about myself,” and then she will add bitterly, “And believe me, I’ve had it.”  She goes on:

“My father left us early. What was I, eleven, maybe twelve? He had a lady friend and my mother said he had this “friend” for years before he walked out the door for good. My mother worked  like a  dog to support my sister and me but how much could she make, a waitress in Akron, Ohio?  She beat us when she was feeling mean until our little butts turned red and stayed red. Good thing  I didn’t have to show it in school or they would have put us into foster care.

“Now, you want to know this: she wasn’t mean by nature. She was mean from working two jobs.  It was her own hard life that did it. I understand that.”

“Sounds like you forgive her,” I said.

“Who are you? Mary Poppins?”

“I’m sorry if—“

Forget it. I actually try to walk in her shoes. What are we talking here—half a century and any  damn fool can see that it’s ridiculous to hold a grudge that long when the woman couldn’t help
herself. Didya ever hear of circumstances? The environment?  I know all that and I’ve been around the  block myself a few times and guess what?”


“My first husband walked out on me so I know from experience what she went through. The second one was looking for the exit but he died young.”


“Say no more, Mary Poppins. He left me very well fixed.”