“YOU don’t know what it’s like,” my aunt said, staring hard at me across the dinner table. “That old man is about to run me out of my mind.”
Of course, I knew whom she was talking about; her father and my grandfather, on my mother’s side. I knew also that my grandmother was included in the “you don’t know what it’s like.”
They were both old. At this time when it is a fetish to be young, when the most you can be is 29 (God forbid if you have had the misfortune to reach your 30th birthdate) and still be with it. They were so old that their true age isn’t important; by all logical reckoning they were so ancient they should have been dead instead of alive, as they were, being several times over 30 and still alive, at least, not dead, as they decently could have been expected to be, since they definitely were not with it any longer. They were in what is generously referred to as their “golden years.”
I wasn’t paying much attention to what my aunt was saying, I guess because I was eating a piece of fried chicken and trying to keep the grease off my chin, but mainly because I had already heard several times before what she was telling, if I can offer that in defense of my bad manners, which I don’t suppose I can—there being no defense for bad manners.
“You ought to see that old son of a bitch at the table. It’s enough to turn your stomach the way he reaches into the food with his hands like he didn’t know what a spoon or a fork is used for.”
Son of a dog, I said to myself. So that’s what the old man has come to, eating off the table is he?
“You might expect a kid like Dorinda to do something like that,” my aunt said, mentioning my two-year-old daughter, who at the time had her hand buried past her elbow in the mashed potatoes.”But she doesn’t know any better, she’s not a grown man.”
“Get out of the potatoes, Dorinda,” I said somewhat harshly, expecting her to tune up and cry, but she eyed me rather quizzically and licked her fingers.
“It’s not just solid food he grabs with his hands either. He dives into everything . . .gravy, pudding and bean soup— bee-aan soo-uup. Why if we’d done anything like that when we were kids he’d’ve slapped us away from the table.”
Dorinda was back in the potatoes, but I pretended to be giving my undivided attention to this thrilling account of my grandfather’s regression into his second childhood.
“That’s right,” my mother said, affirming her sister’s pronouncement.”We were daresome to make a mess at the table for fear we’d be sent away without finishing.”
I might explain that there are strange alliances in my family, as there probably are in all families. I imagine they just seem strange because it is my family I am more familiar with most of the time. It seems that alliances are made and broken with little or no apparent effort, but always with the same results, the right-minded gravitate to the same side very easily and there is never any doubt, morally speaking, of who is in the right. As I have said, these alliances shift and change as easily as the sand at the bottom of a swift-flowing stream.
The alliance of sisters against their parents doesn’t appear to be unusual, since children usually side together against parents, but this alliance is strange if you know the whole story, the way I do.
It wasn’t too long ago that my mother was allied with my grandparents against my aunt. Some of you will probably think I’m talking out of turn, this being a family matter, but it’s my family, after all, and I don’t honestly think it’s that much different from anybody else’s; of course, I don’t know about your family, all I know about is mine, which I’m stuck with, so I don’t think there’s any cause for anyone getting upset if I tell a few things about it in all honesty.
When my mother and grandparents were allies and my aunt was the enemy, so to speak, my aunt was doing some pretty unusual things, I guess, for a woman her age, she being over 50 at the time and recently a widow on account of my uncle, her first husband, dying suddenly of a heart attack. My aunt was never what you’d call a wallflower, but after my uncle died she began to run around with this fellow who was young enough to be her son, although he didn’t seem such a bad guy, and that’s why everybody kind of got upset. I guess the reason everybody was upset wasn’t because my aunt was running around with this young fellow, but was because she was enjoying a connubial bliss without benefit of holy matrimony. Well, I don’t have to tell you everybody was kind of touchy about that.
My grandfather, he of the drippy fingers, said she wasn’t anything except a common whore even if she was his daughter and threatened to shoot her and her lover if she had the gall to bring the sonofabitch to his house. If you knew my grandfather you’d know this wasn’t an idle promise. But as you’ve probably guessed, my aunt didn’t do too much visiting at the parental home for a while. She did come to visit my mother, who treated her civilly enough, but made a point of making up separate beds when it became apparent my aunt was going to stay the night.
Of course, my grandfather raised a lot of hell when he heard about it and said that anyone who’d let that “goddam whore” spend the night in her house wasn’t welcome in his, so my mother got excited and told him that while she certainly didn’t approve of what her sister was doing she was still her sister and she supposed her home was still her home and she’d let anyone stay she chose to, which my grandfather didn’t exactly take to too kindly, so the alliance changed again with my mother proclaiming that there were others in the family whom my grandfather had welcomed to his bosom when their linens weren’t exactly the cleanest in the world, and that “he damn well knew who she was talking about.” These charges and countercharges got to flying around pretty thick with everybody damning everybody else, and just when open warfare was about to be declared my aunt got married to the young man and was welcomed back within the open arms of the loving family.
Naturally, while all this was going on I took sides, too, with my aunt. I figured it was a status symbol to have a “whore” in the family, especially if you weren’t absolutely sure what a whore was. It wasn’t every kid in the neighborhood who had a 50-year-old aunt who was still interested in “that.”
You’re probably wondering why I’m telling all this. I just thought I’d show you the lengths my family will go to sometimes with their alliances. I knew why my aunt was telling me all this about my grandfather. She and my mother were allied against me because I hadn’t been to see the old man in quite a long time. I guess I ought to feel bad about that, but I don’t, not going to see the old folks, I mean. It’s just that I can’t stand being around people who are in their golden years, especially when they’re mean sonsofbitches like my grandfather. I guess I ought to be a bigger person than I am, but I can’t help remembering the time when I was going to school barefoot and my father had to beg that old man for enough cash to buy me a pair of canvas tennis shoes. You’d have thought he’d been asked for his last drop of blood, and him with enough money to burn a wet dog. Since then I never have had much faith in blood being thicker than water when it comes to relations, and I haven’t had much to do with him. Of course, I ought to be a bigger person. But I get angry to the tip of my six foot four, 200 pounds everytime I think about it.
“Why, what would you do with the money if I gave it to you?” he whined.
“I’d buy the boy a pair of shoes,” my father said.
“How much do you reckon a pair of shoes would cost, the kind you’ve got in mind?”
“Five dollars you say? Seems like that’s kinda high for a pair of shoes for a boy his size. Couldn’t you get ‘em any cheaper?”
“If you ain’t got the money forget it,” my father said.
“To tell you the truth I’m running a little bit close this month, but I might be able to let you have it.”
I wriggled my toes in the dirt, partly from anger, mostly from a sense of shame and frustration at my father having to ask this old man for any kind of help.
“Sometimes I don’t know if I can put up with it any longer,” my aunt said.
“I suppose getting them to go to a nursing home is out of the question?”
“Why you know it is, He’d die before he’d be put in one.”
So you’re stuck with them, I said to myself, seeing how they’re unable to take care of themselves.
I guess I ought to explain why my aunt was saddled with the responsibility of taking care of the old man and woman, who had entered their golden years, albeit the years had turned out to be a little tarnished.
The trouble started when my grandfather, who had always seemed like a giant, had his first stroke. It changed him, more than physically; there was no doubt that he was no longer the same rowdy, cursing, irreligious individual he had been; it affected his mind, too. The gray haired hulking shell of his former self retained certain undeniable traces of his bad tempered disposition and outright orneriness. After his stroke I guess his mind was affected, although the only way anyone who knew him could tell it was because he was a little meaner and he cried a lot because he was scared of dying. Then my grandmother got sick and they developed between them a list of complaints and ailments that would have filled the heart of a young doctor with gladness. I couldn’t figure out why nobody had told them they were in their golden years.
Maybe I sound kind of disrespectful, but I don’t mean to sound that way at all. It’s just that I’ve seen all these ads from Florida about these perfectly delightful retirement places where all the old people are enjoying their golden years by going fishing and playing golf and bridge or just sitting around lapping up sunshine, and I can’t figure out why somebody doesn’t tell my grandparents about these places. Especially my grandmother, who is stuck in a wheelchair and paralyzed on one side and complains with heart trouble, high blood pressure, diabetes, foot rot, and large running cancerous sores the doctors haven’t been able to diagnose the cause of. I figure if someone told her she was in her golden years she’d just get up out of that chair and go to Florida and take her place in the sun. Of course, I don’t imagine it’d do my grandfather any good because he’s simply a mean old sonofabitch any way you look at it.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” my aunt says. “They don’t think I ought to get a minute’s peace.”
Keep talking, I say to myself, I know what you’re up to and it won’t work. I’m not going to see them. I wore out that pair of tennis shoes just as fast as I could. I used to wade water in them hoping it would make them rot faster, and it must have worked because they fell apart pretty fast.
“They’re going to run me out of my mind,” my aunt says. “I came in the other night and poor old Mom’s sitting there crunching away on a Peter Paul’s Almond Joy complaining that she hasn’t had a bite to eat all day. Well, I took one look at that Almond Joy and I said, “Mom, you know that’s a lie because I left the refrigerator full of food this morning and it’s sure not full now.” “Well,” she says, “it must have been your daddy because I haven’t had a bite all day.”“
“I don’t suppose they’d consider going to a rest home?,” I say just to devil her a little, knowing that when she gets wound up like this she doesn’t even hear when you ask her something.
“They let on like I won’t fix them anything to eat and all I get done is cook for them. All anybody’d have to do is look at my grocery bill for a week and they’d see that I spend plenty for food.”
This fact isn’t lost on me and I can tell by glancing over at my mother it isn’t lost on her either, I know what she’s thinking; my parents live in the country and my aunt lives in the city, and my aunt kind of got stuck with my grandparents when they were both having their bad spells and everyone thought it would be more convenient for everyone concerned if the old folks stayed in the city where they’d be handy to the doctor and everything. Well, on account of that, my mother hasn’t had to keep them yet, although she’s told them that they’re perfectly welcome to come and live with her and my father if they want to, which they flatly refused to do.
For a while, before they both had their real bad spells, they lived in the country in a perfectly lovely little house my mother rented for them because my grandfather said he wanted to live in his own house, and my mother practically ran herself silly trying to take care of them and work and keep house for my father, too. Finally, my mother told them she just couldn’t take care of them and hired this very capable girl to live in with them and take care of them.
I can tell you that didn’t last long. My grandfather soon reduced the poor girl to a state of severe shock with his bullying and threats and insults, and she quit for her health. I can’t say that I blame her, because he’s a mean one when he wants to be, which is more often than not.
I guess I should explain that my grandfather gets this relief check for 78 dollars every month and my grandmother gets almost as much and it really gripes their souls to have to spend one penny of it. Everyone knew why my grandfather ran that girl off. He was having to pay her 15 dollars every single week and he didn’t have to give my mother anything. He’s a tight old devil, but I will have to say this in his defense, he knows how to take care of his money and he’s got plenty. I don’t know what they do with it now that they live in the city, but they used to bury it in a Prince Albert tobacco can in the backyard.
As I say, I guess my grandfather was addled a bit when he had that stroke, but it didn’t make him as crazy as he lets on that it did. At least, he didn’t forget where he had his money buried. I know that for a fact because I spent the better part of a week digging up the backyard, and I can tell you it didn’t do my asthma one bit of good, and I didn’t find a thing. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea; I wouldn’t touch his money with an asbestos pad, but I figured if he really was boffo there wasn’t any use letting all that money go to waste if it was still buried. So that’s how I know his mind wasn’t affected too much. I’ll bet you if he was stone blind with deaf and dumb thrown in for good measure he’d still be able to find that money where he hid it.
I guess I knew it wasn’t just an idle remark when my aunt said that about anyone looking at her grocery bill. She was making sure that we all knew that she was stuck with them and she didn’t want anyone to forget it. It hadn’t been any longer than three months before that she had said she couldn’t put up with them any more and that she thought it was about time for someone else to take them off her hands. As I’ve said, my mother said she was perfectly willing to take care of them if they wanted to move in with her, but that she sure wasn’t about to find them another house and another girl to look after them, not after the way they had acted the last time she found them a perfectly darling girl and they had run her off. My other aunt, it’s funny but I never think of her as the third sister, has about a jillion kids, and she said she wasn’t about to take the old people, and besides she needed looking after herself instead of having someone else to look after.
Well, I can tell you things were pretty strained for awhile there. There weren’t any allies to speak of then; it was every man for himself, with the name calling getting pretty strong on all sides. After the situation calmed down a bit my aunt said she’d take care of them because after all they were her parents and she owed them that much, but she made it plain that she considered her action a supreme sacrifice and nobody had better forget it either. So far as I know nobody has forgotten it.
“While I was fixing their suppers,” my aunt said, resuming her monologue, “I could hear them talking in their room and poor old Mom says to Dad, “I think she’s hinting that we ought to pay her more for taking care of us.”“
“Have you ever thought of putting them in a nursing home?” I throw in again, looking at my mother to see if she is paying any attention to the conversation.”You ought to be able to put them in a fairly nice place with the checks they’re getting.”
“Why, yes,” my mother says. “They would be better off in one of those places if we could get them to go.”
Well, as I said, my aunt hasn’t been listening to a word anyone has said, so she just picks up where she left off, going on about what she overheard. I mean once she gets started on her favorite subject there’s no stopping her until she’s been drained of every last bit of self-pity.
“So,” she says, “Dad starts crying and whining that he doesn’t know what they’re going to do and that they’re practically down to their last penny, and me knowing all the time that Mom’s got this wad of money big enough to choke an elephant stuck down in a tobacco sack in her bosom.”
Well, I say, that explains where they keep it now they live in the city; buried, still buried, but buried deep in the bosom. When it comes to money they really know how to play it close to the chest.
“We’ll just leave if we’re not wanted,” Dad says pitifully, so I stepped inside their door and I said, “What did you say, Dad?” And Mom says, “Why, honey, your daddy was just saying maybe we ought to find us a place of our own to stay in.” So I said, “Well, where were you planning to go?”
I started to say something again about a nursing home, but I could see my mother looking at me with that” I wouldn’t say anymore about that” warning in her eyes, so I just naturally kept my mouth shut, not that I always do, but I figured it was a bad joke anyway, and that probably I’d gotten all the fun out of it I was going to get.
So I said, “Let’s forget about going anywhere then. I know you’re hungry and I’ll have your supper fixed in a little while, and Mom says, “I don’t know where you got that idea,” kind of sarcastic like. “I don’t think I could hardly eat a bite,” and all the time she’s sitting there munching on this 25 cent Hershey bar with almonds.”
“How’s her diabetes?” I ask, but my aunt just gives me this look and goes right on talking like I didn’t even say anything,
“I was run to death, so after I got their suppers on I sat down for a minute to catch my breath—I’d been on the go all day, and I hear Dad saying, “Here we are starving . . .staarvving to death and she’s sitting in there not doing a thing.” Well, I was so mad, so mad I tell you when I heard that old sonofabitch say that, that I just sat there and bawled.”
“You can’t do enough to satisfy some people,” I say, trying to sound sincere. I thought she was going to say something about that, but she didn’t. She just kind of gave me this little look to see if what she’d said had made an impression on me and then she starts talking again. She sure can talk sometimes.
“You don’t know what it’s like. Sometimes that old man makes me so mad I wouldn’t care much if he would die. But I guess there’s not much chance of that, because that old sonofabitch is too mean to die.”
I wink at my mother and smile when I see that we are both thinking the same thing: I’ll bet I’ve heard her say a million times that the reason my aunt and my grandfather can’t get along is because they’re so much alike.
“Well,” I say just for pure meanness, “I guess he has to go sometime.”
But she didn’t hear a word. “They don’t want to do anything except sit around and feel sorry for themselves. I bought them a television and that old bastard threatened to smash it to pieces. Said he’d not have one of the goddamned things in the house. He threw such a fit whenever I turned it on after I put it in my room I finally moved it to the basement,”
“Why, I’d just let him gripe if I wanted to watch it,” my mother said.
“Well, you don’t know what it’s like,” my aunt says. “That old sonofabitch won’t give you a minute’s peace once he gets his mind set on something. You couldn’t hear the TV anyway with him huffing and puffing and muttering that he didn’t see what anybody got out of one of those goddamned things anyway. I tell you, you just don’t know what it’s like.”
“Yes I do,” my mother says. “They’re the selfishest people I ever knew. They don’t want anybody to have any pleasure out of life if they can’t have any either.”
“But you can’t help feeling sorry for them,” I say. Boy, did that fall flat.
“You ought to see my phone bill. Since poor old Mom’s learned to use it she’s talking to somebody all the time.”
“I know. She calls here long distance and talks for an hour sometimes,” my mother says.
“I guess you’ve noticed she doesn’t call as often any more. I started charging them.”
“I don’t blame you. They might as well be spending their money on that as hoarding it so it doesn’t do anyone any good.”
“I wonder how much they’ve got hidden away?” I ask.
“Nobody’11 ever know,” my mother says.
My aunt says, “I don’t think they’ve got as much as they used to have.”
“Don’t ever kid yourself, they’ve still got a few dollars put away. Not that I want it,” my mother says.”I don’t want a nickel of their money, but I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. They’re going to get scared that someone will come in and rob them with it hidden on Mom and they’re going to hide it where nobody’11 ever find it when they die.”
“I don’t mind telling you it doesn’t make me feel bad to take their money to help pay their expenses.”
“Why, no, I don’t blame you,” my mother says. “That’s what they’re getting it for. They might as well be paying you as sticking it away someplace where it’ll never benefit anybody.”
“They have some nice nursing homes these days,” I say, not wanting to admit defeat.”Sometimes old folks are happier staying in one of them instead of having to live with their children.”
Well, they both give me this look as if to say, “We’ve already explained that to you. Can’t you understand they won’t allow us to put them in one of those places?”
Sometimes I get these crazy urges. I let on like I’m really serious.”Well, sometimes they’re better off in a nursing home because they don’t have anyone around to feel sorry for them,” I say, but they didn’t get it. I could tell that it went right on over their heads.
“I just hope I never get that way myself,” my aunt says. “That’s why I can’t help feeling sorry for them sometimes.”
I don’t mind her using my words if they suit her purpose. I suppose she knows where she heard them first. It’s all right with me if she wants to let on like she thought of them all by herself.
“Like the other day I came home and poor old Mom says, “Honey, you’re probably going to want to shoot me.” And I ask her why and she says, “Well, I had an accident in your bed and messed the clean sheets up.” She wasn’t kidding either. She was covered with it and the bed was covered with it, but I said, “That’s all right, Mom, anybody could have a little accident.” She looked so embarrassed about it I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her.”
“We ought to be grateful, I guess. They probably won’t be with us much longer,” my mother says.
“Yes,” my aunt says, “I guess we ought to thank the good Lord we’ve been able to keep them this long.” She really bawled then.
Don’t think they fooled me for a minute with their fake sadness. I know what they’re up to even if they don’t come right out and say it: “You ought to go see your grandparents while they’re still alive,” I guess I ought to feel sorry for them. But I don’t.
They’re in their golden years, and everybody knows that is what everyone is waiting for. I was reading this magazine the other day, LIFE, I think it was, and it had this big two page spread saying, “Grow old gracefully in beautiful Shady Haven Retirement Village.” And there were these pictures of 90-year-old men playing softball and the caption underneath read: “Why don’t you put yourself in this picture?” There wasn’t anything in the ad about dying, just about growing old gracefully in the golden sunshine.
I’ve been thinking about sending my grandparents a copy of the magazine, but I guess they know all about what it’s like to be in the golden years. If they don’t I’d hate to be the one who tells them what they’re missing.
I think those pictures of Florida were taken in California anyway.