Janet Amalia Weinberg + Margaret Karmazin
It had been two years since her husband Allan´s fatal heart attack, two long, lonely years, but Paula was out on her back porch bench, talking to him as if he were still with her.
“I wasted all morning again just sitting here,” she said. “I know you´d tell me to get on with my life, but you were my life.” She stared at the maple in her yard—it looked as desolate as she felt—then dragged herself into the house.
She got as far as the living room and stopped. It had a grand fireplace and large picture windows and she and Allan used to have great parties there. Now the shades were drawn and the room felt cold and empty. Paula thought of calling someone--her neighbor, Greta? Allan had never liked the woman. “She´s just a hairdresser,” he once said, “not proper company for a professor´s wife.” Mrs. Gianetti? Allan hadn´t approved of her either. A widow like herself, Mrs. Gianetti grew the most amazing roses. Well, Paula didn´t feel like talking to either of them anyway.
If only Caroline and I were close, she thought. It still hurt to remember what her sister, Caroline, had said after Allan´s funeral. “You´re going to have to make a life for yourself now; don´t expect me to do it for you.”
Just then the phone rang.
It was her son, Ron. He needed her; she could tell right away.
“Um...Michelle and I sort of broke up. Can I stay with you a while? It’ll be a killer commute from your place to Philly but.... Hope you don’t mind….”
Paula brightened. “Of course!” she said. “I’m really sorry about you and Michelle,” she added, not wanting to sound too eager. “I want to hear all about it when you get here.”
She hung up in a whirl. There was so much to do: fix up Ron´s old room, shop, straighten the house, make that pot roast he likes. It was good to feel needed again.
Ron arrived complaining about the traffic, the weather, the damn truck drivers….
Paula tried to head him off from getting angrier. “How about some wine?” she asked, hovering with folded hands. “I have that Argentine Malbec you like.”
He shot her a look of disgust. It hurt but Paula reminded herself that his wife had just left him; the poor dear was bound to be upset.
“Whatever,” he said, tossing his coat on the sofa. “Oh, there´s my laundry.” He nodded toward a stuffed duffel bag. “I can’t expect Michelle to do it now.”
“I suppose not,” Paula mumbled.
“What´s for dinner?” Ron asked, heading for the kitchen as if he assumed it would be there waiting for him.
A couple of glasses of wine later, he mellowed enough to tell Paula about the genetics project he was working on. She listened, proud and fascinated, just as she used to listen to Allan.
After dessert - his favorite, chocolate cheesecake - Ron leaned back in his chair and gave her a grateful look. “It’s nice being here, Mom,” he said. “Thanks.”
In that look, she saw the little boy he used to be. She saw Allan in it too. “I’m so glad to have you, Ronnie!” she said, smiling through tears. “The old house feels like a real home again.”
The next few nights the same pattern was repeated. Ron would arrive in a foul mood, relax after what Paula thought was an excessive amount of alcohol, and wind up regaling her with tales of scientific breakthroughs and discoveries. She worried he was using alcohol the way Allan had and after a week timidly broached the subject.
“Hon,” she said, trying not to sound judgmental, “don´t you think you´re drinking a bit much?”
“For crissakes, Mom!” he snapped. “My wife and I just split up. I don’t need you breathing down my neck.” His face turned dark red; his drink spilled on the tablecloth.
He’s just like his father, she thought as she shrank away from him.
“You’ve always been like this!” he shouted. “Namby pamby! Mincing around like you’re afraid to make a sound!”
“I’m just worried about you,” she said in a small voice.
“I don´t want your worry,” he snarled. “Keep it to yourself. Besides, you have no idea what I’m going through!”
She shot back with unaccustomed anger. “That makes us even! You have no idea what I’ve been through, losing the love of my life and feeling like dying myself the past two years!”
They sat, looking into each other for a long moment.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just meant--”
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry too.”
Paula hardly saw him over the next few weeks. She always left a supper for him in the fridge, but he came and went, often without saying where he was going or even shouting goodbye.
Having her son around wasn’t turning out as Paula had hoped. She was on the verge of suggesting it might do him good to find a place of his own when Ron announced he and Michelle were going to try to patch things up. And in a week he was gone.
The morning he left, Paula went out to the back porch with a cup of tea and a heavy heart to tell her late husband about Ron´s visit. “I hate to say this about our own son, Allan, but all he thinks about is himself.” She considered the aging, veined skin on her hands for a while then suddenly said something she´d never said before—not out loud. “I love you dearly, Allan, but you were kind of like that too.”
For a moment, she felt free and excited about what life might be like for her without Allan. For a moment.
* * *
It was a rainy day in April when Paula´s brother-in-law stopped by. Kevin had once been fairly good-looking, but now was paunchy and bald. He’d never come before, not by himself. Even Caroline hardly visited and when she did she acted like she was doing Paula a favor. Granted, she did invite Paula to her Christian Study Group and her Tea Party meetings but, as an old Lefty with Buddhist leanings, Paula took those invitations as insults or jokes.
“What is it, Kevin?” she asked.
To her amazement, he began to cry. “Caroline has cancer. Breast, stage three.”
“Oh no,” Paula gasped.
“She’ll have to have chemo. She’s really scared, Paula.” He covered his face with his hands and sobbed.
Awkwardly, Paula laid her hand on his arm. “How is she taking it?”
“Not very well,” he said between gulps.
She handed him a box of tissues and waited while he blew his nose.
“I came to ask your help,” he said. “My job keeps me away so much so I was wondering if you could be with her when she gets chemo and keep her company when I’m on the road. I don’t know who else to ask, Paula. The kids are too busy with their own families. I feel bad asking you; I know you and Caroline haven’t hit it off for years, but….” He gave Paula a desperate, pleading look.
The thought of Caroline sick and scared softened Paula´s heart. She remembered how it was in high school when Caroline was the adoring little sister who’d sit cross-legged on Paula’s bed and ask about boys and life. That closeness ended when Paula went to Berkeley and got into feminism and the anti-war movement and Caroline stayed in Pennsylvania and joined a snooty sorority at Bucknell. Now maybe they could grow close again.
“Don’t feel bad,” she assured him. “I want to be there for Caroline.” Paula had some less charitable thoughts as well but managed to dismiss them. “What is life for if we can´t help the ones we love.”
Soon she was seeing a lot of her sister and became as occupied with Caroline´s needs as she used to be with Allan´s. She had a reason to get up in the morning again and was starting to feel like her old self.
“Could I stay at your house the next of couple nights?” Caroline asked softly. They were driving home from Caroline´s third chemo treatment. Her head was wrapped in a scarf to hide her balding scalp and that gaunt look she always got after a treatment.
“Of course,” said Paula. “I’ll drop you off at home and then go downtown to get us some videos.”
For a while they rode in silence. Then Caroline said, “I wonder why I got this instead of you? I’ve always been the healthier one.”
Paula held back from saying something equally insensitive -- the poor woman was dealing with cancer, after all. “I have some ice cream,” she said, trying to sound cheerful, “Your favorite flavors: fudge ripple and strawberry cheesecake. We can just watch movies and stuff it in!”
“I wish you’d just gotten vanilla,” said Caroline, staring out the window.
Caroline was pretty out of it after her next chemo treatment. Paula, touched by how skeletal and fragile she looked, gently propped her up on the sofa, tucked a blanket around her, and placed the TV remote close by. “I´ll make anything you want,” she said. “How about chicken soup with those dumplings -- like Mom made?”
Caroline looked up at Paula, her blue eyes big in her sunken face, her scarf tied Aunt Jemima style around her skull. “Thank you, Paula. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Caroline´s forehead was clammy but Paula kissed it anyway. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The day arrived when Caroline recovered from her last chemo treatment. She bought a streaked blond wig and looked amazingly young in it. Her skin lost its chalky cast and she bought new clothes. In a few months, she was scheduled for reconstruction surgery and was actually looking forward to it.
“Thanks, really,” she told Paula. It was a humid day in August and they were lunching in a new Indian Restaurant. “I couldn’t have gotten through this without you.” She slid a gift bag across the table. “Pour vous,” she said.
Paula knew Caroline’s grasp of French was elementary but took her use of the impersonal “vous” instead of the more intimate “toi” as an omen: Caroline would again push her away.
Her premonition was confirmed a week later when, in a brief phone call, Caroline casually mentioned a fund-raising party she was throwing for a local scholarship fund. She did not invite Paula. In spite of all they´d just gone through together, Caroline was reverting to the way things used to be.
Paula took a cup of tea out to the back porch and slumped onto the bench feeling wrung out and desolate. After a while she sighed and started telling Allan about her sister´s visit. “And now she cuts me off,” she said. “After all I did for her.”
She sipped her tea; it tasted sour. “That´s always how it is with Caroline; I take care of her but she never takes care of me.” This got Paula thinking. “Ron´s the same way,” she realized. “And even you, Allan!” she exclaimed. “Maybe you weren´t as bad as Caroline but you did take more than you gave.”
Just then, a fledgling cardinal fluttered into the maple and almost fell. Paula smiled at its clumsy, courageous efforts. She used to love watching birds—until her husband removed the feeder because of the mess it caused in the yard. “Allan,” she announced with unaccustomed firmness, “it´s time I put that feeder back up!”
For a moment, Paula imagined how she´d feel if someone thought about her needs and wants. For a moment.
* * *
It was a dreary autumn morning. Paula was upstairs, unpacking winter clothes when she heard a knock on the front door. Probably someone selling something, she thought and went on with her chore. Not till the knocking turned to pounding did she answer it
“Aunt Paula, I’ve been banging away for ages! What’s wrong? You look kinda gray or something!”
Paula was stunned. She’d always felt a special connection with this niece, but no one from her brother’s family had been in her home for years.
“My God,” said Paula, “I haven’t seen you since my mother’s funeral.”
“No, it was Sam’s wedding,” said Erica, dropping her backpack to the floor and gathering Paula in a great bear hug. “I’ve missed you!”
Paula smiled but suddenly felt self-conscious. She must look a fright. Erica was stunning with her cropped blue-black hair, glowing skin and outrageous vitality. Confidence radiated from her, with occasional disconcerting flashes of vulnerability.
“Sorry to barge in like this, but I’m heading to California and wanted to see you on the way. There are some other people I want to see too, but you’re the most important.”
The compliment took Paula by surprise. “Well, come on in then,” she stammered. “Have you had breakfast? I could make eggs... pancakes... or maybe you’d rather go out? You used to like eating out.”
They ended up going to a diner in town. “This is so cool,” said Erica as they entered the curtained glass doors. “Big ole booths, and look, they even have those retro metal ice cream dishes. Let’s have ice cream!”
“For breakfast?” Paula considered talking to the girl about her impetuousness and unhealthy eating habits but discovered she didn´t feel like spoiling their fun.
“Why not, Aunt Paula? Who cares?”
Paula looked at her niece, a flame of youth, and felt the girl’s brightness kindle a long-forgotten part of herself. “Okay,” she said, enjoying an unfamiliar devil-may-care attitude, “let’s do it!”
Ten minutes later they were dipping into their metal dishes. The cold sweetness startled Paula´s stomach this early in the day but it seemed to wake up and enjoy it.
“So what’s this about California?” Paula asked. “Last I heard you were in grad school at B.U.”
Erica averted her eyes and shivered. “I had to get out,” she said. “It just wasn’t what I expected. My adviser turned out to be a lech and the whole department was full of backbiting and conniving. I mean it, Aunt Paula. I don’t want to be around that kind of energy. I’m going out to stay with my friend Megan in Santa Cruz.
“But what about school?” Paula asked.
“I want a fresh start. I’ll get a job, establish residency and then look into grad schools.”
Paula marveled at the sureness of youth. “Your parents must be upset,” she said.
“Upset?” Erica shoveled a huge spoonful of ice cream into her mouth then continued. “My father totally freaked when I up and quit. Like he doesn’t care about me, all he cares about is how I make him look! So he can brag about me to his stuffy friends!”
“And your mom?”
“She´s all worried about me leaving school and is always hovering around, trying to be there for me. Ugh,” the girl groaned dramatically, “You know her, she thinks it´s her mission in life to take care of me.”
Paula had always seen the woman as a model of self-sacrifice and giving. “I´m sure she means well,” she said.
“Maybe, but I can´t stand it.” Erica sighed. “Hey,” she said, abruptly veering in another direction, “let´s do something fun!”
Paula hesitated, hoping Erica wouldn’t propose a long drive or a trip to the mall. “Like what?” she asked.
“Like swimming,” said Erica firmly. Energy seemed to spark from her skin.
“Huh? It’s freezing out.”
“Aren’t there any inside pools around here?”
Paula thought a moment. “Well, there’s a YMCA in Allantown.”
“Let’s go!” said Erica, popping up to slip on her coat.
“Okay,” Paula agreed reluctantly. “But we´re not leaving that pool till our hair is absolutely dry.”
“Yes, mamma,” said Erica.
She sounded playful but Paula clearly got the message to back off. “Okay,” she said with a grin this time. “Why not?”
Erica stayed for two nights. They splashed and took saunas at the Y, looked at family photos, cooked exactly what they felt like eating, and did movie marathons in the evenings. It was more fun than Paula had had in years.
Finally, Erica stood by her little Honda, ready to leave. Paula held her close for a long moment. “It was wonderful having you here,” she said.
“It´s your turn to come see me now,” said Erica as she started the car. “I mean it.”
“I will one of these days, she said. “I´m still getting over losing Allan, you know.”
“I know,” said Erica sympathetically. “We both need a fresh start.”
“Yes,” Paula agreed, “a fresh start.”
And then Erica was waving and driving away.
Paula watched the car disappear in the distance, then went inside. She made herself a cup of the chai latte Erica had left and took it out to the back porch.
No sooner had she sat down then she was up again. Too energized to sit still, she paced the back yard then went into the house. She got as far as the living room and stopped. For a moment, she wished there was someone she could share her excitement with.
Maybe I could call Greta, she thought -- Greta, the “just a hairdresser” neighbor Allan had disapproved of. Why not!
And on a whim, she did.