See if you agree with the editor who, though he published other work of mine in the New York Times, rejected this piece. (Written long ago, it’s now part of Craig Healing Springs, the title I’ve given my memoirs.)
THE GOLDEN YEARS
When I moved to Long Island the first neighbor to introduce herself was an elderly woman living alone. She fussed over my 18 month old, asked after my husband, and delighted me with her dry humor. Of all my new neighbors, she was the one who made us feel our new house was a home.
I’d tear about the yard like a crazy person, figuring I had five minutes to finish clipping before the baby woke, and see my neighbor lovingly caress each rose. I’d race to the car to make a run for milk and juice…and spot my neighbor leaning on her rake to watch the sun glint gold off Northport Harbor.
She worked a lot “on the grounds.” It gave her the opportunity to commiserate with passers-by on how a homeowner’s work was never done. It didn’t take long to decode her complaints: her house was her pride and joy.
Then one day she fell down the stairs. Something was broken. I forget what because what happened afterwards struck me as much more important.
Her daughter, whose distinction it was to be talked about even more than the house, came to care for her. It was decided that my neighbor was senile. Anyway her eyesight was bad, and sometime while recovering from her fall she signed, without realizing it, a power of attorney.
After that the daughter, who loved her, was afraid of her living alone. The stairs were steep, and the next fall could have been a lot more serious, but my neighbor didn’t want to sell her house. “For her own good” it was put on the market anyway.
My neighbor, full of rage and hurt, moved to her daughter’s home. She felt her own home had been stolen and hated to see her possessions transplanted into someone else’s. Her glass collection didn’t look right on a modern bookcase. Her son-in-law mistreated her “color TV.” She felt caged in someone else’s world where she had no function…no life.
The next stop was the nursing home.
Meanwhile the 18 month old my neighbor used to make yarn octopuses for was soon to enter kindergarten. Remembering how this neighbor fussed over my firstborn, I was sorry she wasn’t around when I was pregnant with my second. She would have told me to eat my vegetables and would have predicted the child’s sex.
My second child was six months old when I dressed her in a hand-embroidered dress we only used for picture taking and took her to see my ex-neighbor.
I found the nursing home at the end of a short street marked “dead end.” (Better an occasional driver curse his/her way through a U-turn than to leave that sign posted!)
The building itself was beautiful…a shaded, once-graceful home. But it smelled of urine.
The living room was actually many rooms, poorly lit. People lined the walls in an assortment of odd chairs. Well-meaning nurses talked pleasantries to people who rarely responded.
I wondered if I should disturb this sepulchral setting with a gurgling, giggling, squirmy baby, but just then said baby was discovered. It wasn’t just by my ex-neighbor. Looking down, I found gnarled fingers holding each pink hand, plump foot, and every accessible roll of baby fat. Whether hobbling, in wheelchairs, or clanking along in walkers, each of that nursing home’s inmates was making it over to ooh and ah and coo and tickle. I couldn’t leave until everyone had had their turn.
I’d just brought my baby for my neighbor to see but left with a bittersweet feeling of discovery. Had my infant daughter been a fountain of youth in a place that, no matter how well-intentioned, was little more than a gentle person’s death row? The people in that nursing home were put there because loving relatives were willing to pay for what would appear to be most important: top-quality care. I wonder. Maybe there are things worse than finding your death at the bottom of a staircase in your own home.