My father-in-law, Bob, and his cousin, Aunt Trudy, are the children of first generation immigrants. Their parents came to America on a boat from Germany in the late 19th century and both grew up speaking German as a first language. They both claim to not remember German at all. English was the language of America it was demanded that they speak it. So they did.
Trudy remembers that her aunt, Bob's mother, was given a fresh tomato by somebody working on the boat. She was perplexed by this gift since she had never seen a tomato in her life. So, she threw it at him - thinking it a toy or a piece of a game.
Bob and Trudy were raised as siblings, which was common in those days of the Depression, when families saved money by living together and getting on each other's nerves. She had to take care of him but didn't mind too much. She put him in the buggy and volunteered to go the market, a daily task in those days of iceboxes and milk deliveries. While she was praised as being 'such a good girl' and taking care of the baby, she had an ulterior motive. The baby buggy could hold the groceries and she wouldn't have to carry the heavy bags back to the house. This girl was smart. The problem, according to her impatient father, was that she was a girl.
Aunt Trudy turned 100 on her last birthday. Bob had turned 87 a few weeks earlier. They had a habit of speaking to each other on the phone about once a week, talking about the same old things since nothing exciting happens in your house when you rarely leave it.
It has been apparent for a few years that Aunt Trudy is losing her memory and she finally allowed for live-in companions to keep her safe from heaters, matches, and stoves that won't turn off.
We thought Bob's old age meant a lot of crankiness. It has become shockingly apparent to us that it is much more than that. He is losing his mind in bits and pieces, coherent and mindful one minute and wandering the house and asking for his long-dead parents the next. It is worse at sundown, when he is constantly adjusting the heater, looking for bills that have already been paid, fixating on his calendar of names and dates, and trying to take out empty trash cans at 4:00 in the morning.
Aunt Trudy was a brilliant money manager who worked for the County of Los Angeles. She supervised 80 people and had the eyes of a hawk. She travelled extensively and could carry on a conversation with anybody about just about anything. The first time Aunt Trudy met my mother, they talked for 2 hours about shared memories of living in Hollywood - landmarks, stores, churches, and the famous people they saw. This they did while eating Chinese food at a South Pasadena eatery, with me wedged between them, my eyes going back and forth in this conversational tennis match.
Bob was a supervisor at Western Electric, the company he went to work for before he was drafted in World War II. At the end of the war, they calculated his back pay, gave him a raise, and welcomed him home. He retired after 42 years, disgusted by the lack of work ethic shown by younger, newer employees.
So I think about Aunt Trudy and Bob and I wonder about their weekly phone conversations. When was the last time they had a decent, coherent conversation? Was there a particular date in which all things were normal and then they weren't? When tangled memories meet, where do they overlap? Is there comfort in that? Bob would complain to me that Trudy was "losing it" one minute but brush her lapses off as "an act to get attention" the next.
They've known each other for 87 years, the one and only constant in each other's lives. She lived her first 13 years on the planet without him and then he was there and she reveled in the fact that his little strawberry-blond head fit "right there" in the crook of her shoulder. He was a bright spot in the dreary upbringing and heavy workload expected by immigrant parents.
At which point will that constant be lost? Where do those fleeting, treasured memories go? Can they be held onto for dear life? What happens when one of them forgets? What kind of heartbreak is that?
I wonder these things. I wonder about the cruelties of dementia and the stealing of somebody's mind.
I wonder about their last conversation.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
When I was in the third grade I met my first-ever best friend. She was slow in coming to me but one day she arrived, standing in the door of Mrs. Fletcher's 3rd and 4th grade classroom, accompanied by the principal, a rather imposing woman by the name of Margaret MacDonald. I always swore to my mother that Mrs. MacDonald was in love with Mr. Dieter, the vice-principal, but mom wasn't convinced. "Then her name would be Mrs. Dieter," she said, discouraging my romantic fantasy about these two authority figures at Mingay Elementary School.
"I would like you to meet Debra Pats," Mrs. MacDonald said from the doorway, and my new best friend was led to a desk right next to mine. I was awestruck, to say the least.
I figured that it was MY fault Debra was there, because I had complained to Mrs. Fletcher only days before that I was the "only third grade girl" in the classroom. What power I yielded! Bill and Ruth Pack bought a house on Rose Street and answered my prayers for a best friend.
Of course, what Mrs. MacDonald really said was, "I would like you to meet Debra Pack," but I heard "Pats" and continued to believe that to be Debra's last name for quite awhile. I do believe I argued with Debra about the matter, but she took it in stride.
I had neighborhood friends, of course, but we were thrown together by proximity and the friendships of our parents. I liked them well enough, but Debra was a true friend who loved me no matter what I said or did.
Debra knew how to draw and had the most beautiful handwriting I'd ever seen. She admired mine but it was nothing compared to hers - flowy and wavy, with capital Ds that I tried to copy by the hour. She taught me to draw a horse's head, but I never quite got the body.
We became inspeparable. School ended at 2:50 and Debra and I would join hands and race home to her house to watch Dark Shadows. To say we loved that show would be an understatement. We recited plot lines, acted out entire scenes, and argued over who got to be Sarah Collins, the doomed younger sister of Barnabus, the vampire. The show started promptly at 3:00 and rushing home was critical. We devised methods for getting home faster - skipping sidewalk squares, jumping over squares adjacent to sprinklers, and whiplashing each other up Maple Street, across Jeffries, then past my street, Evergreen Street, and finally - Rose Street.
Debra and her sister Sherrie lived next door to Brian McGill. Brian was in our 4th grade class and played the guitar. We both loved him but Debra agreed to let me be the primary Brian admirer. Sherrie and Brian became addicted to the show that followed Dark Shadows, and new soap opera called One Life to Live. At first, we made fun of them but within a few weeks we were hopelessly hooked.
Early in the 4th grade, Debra had her appendix out and, not to be outdone, mine was removed a few months later. When Debra broke her arm, I was beside myself. Sheer terror kept me from hurling myself off the monkey bars, so I simply called up the Pack residence and announced that I had broken my arm.
The gig was up when I was picked up for an outing. Mr. Pack was driving and Debra and I were deposited in the backseat. Mrs. Pack turned around in her seat, faced me with a smile and said, "Now, Kim, what's this I hear about you breaking your arm?"
I gave poor Debra fits by correcting her spelling and calling her on all manner of errors. She retaliated by never mentioning my abyssmal abilities in math and always complimenting my endless attempts at creative writing.
My life was thrown into turmoil when Debra announced that her family was moving to Orange County. I was devastating and kept trying to argue her out of it. I remember when she stopped by to say goodbye. Mr. Pack overshot my house and Debra came to the door and we were at a loss for words. We promised to write.
I wish I had saved all our letters. We shared everything but a lack of transportation kept us from visiting each other over the years. We excitedly met at Disneyland for my high school's Grad Nite and had the best time. She came back with me on the bus and spent the night. My stepsister had borrowed my car the day before and left a cooler of beer in the back seat. Debra and I were awakened by my mother, screaming at me for having beer in my car.
I have always been sporadic about Christmas cards. Debra is devoted - sending new holiday newsletters each year, replete with family details and the latest research she has conducted into her family history and a nefarious missing link to the patriot Patrick Henry.
Last week I received a package in the mail. It was a signed a copy of Debra's book,
Unmarked Grave: Remembering an American Patriot. I read the book in 3 sittings. My friend's research is amazingly detailed and filled with historical antecdotes that do my history-major heart good. I grew to love these characters and was disappointed when the story ended.
Does my dear old friend know that I have been dabbling in genealogy over these many years and I also have a famous ancestor whose story I would love to tell? How could she know this? She is the one sending Christmas letters - I am the one reading the letters, intending to write back, and never making the time.
My friend wrote a book. I feel pride. I feel pangs. I need to write my own book. Luckily, I won't have to jump off monkey bars or get abdominal surgery.
Tonight I ran my finger over her name and chuckled at the mispelling of her maiden name. It should have read, "Pats."