On Saturday mornings in 1962, my mother would take the car keys off the hook by the front door, jiggle them a little and call out, “Who’s coming?” even though she knew the answer was only me. My brothers’ standing excuse — Quick Draw McGraw was about to start — didn’t seem like enough, but it always worked for them.
The nursing home we drove to was attached to Brunswick Hospital, where my mother had worked as a younger woman, the reason, I guess, that Aunt Bertha ended up out here, on Long Island. Bertha had never married, never had children of course, and had outlived everyone who might have more than a passing interest in her, except for my mother.
As a girl, my mother spent two weeks each August at her great-aunt’s third story walk-up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Aunt Bertha would take her annual vacation from being a secretary and treat my mother to some intense attention — devotion she might have directed toward her own daughter if she’d had one — all lovingly distilled into fourteen days once a year.
My mother would talk about those vacations sometimes on the way over to visit Bertha. The tone of her voice seemed oddly pleasant to me, since the visits included sweltering nights, having her hair braided several times a day, and choking down liver and onions for dinner. It didn’t sound like much of a vacation, but my mother said that from the time she was a little girl, she realized how much her aunt adored her. And at 12, I knew that being adored counted for a lot.
In 1962, Bertha sometimes took a few minutes to recognize us when we suddenly appeared at her door, and because she was easily startled, we always began our visits in the lowest gear we could manage. We moved in slow motion so we wouldn’t make her flinch. We spoke softly even though she was pretty much deaf.
“It’s me, Jeannie,” my mother would say. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t.
My mother performed the same duties each week. She’d reach for the lotion and squirt it between her palms to warm it, and then rub her aunt’s mottled hands, carefully maneuvering around her swollen knuckles. Even on days she didn’t know who my mother was, Bertha would let her confusion go with the first warm strokes on her fingers and just sit back in her wheelchair and enjoy it.
She used a baby’s comb on her aunt’s hair, so thin that a brush would have scratched her scalp. She took tiny scissors out of the drawer and snipped her chin hairs. She set Bertha’s false teeth in a glass of white fizzing liquid that was supposed to transform them from their putty yellow color. We’d wait for five minutes, watching the bubbles. Without teeth, Aunt Bertha’s whole jaw caved in. She wouldn’t talk again until my mother had rinsed the uppers and lowers in the bathroom sink and popped them back in.
Trying to give our visit the arc it often needed, my mother would say, “There, that’s better, isn’t it?”
Then she would take inventory of the metal bedside table to make sure everything was there, items essential to this life – as opposed to Bertha’s jewelry and mink collar circa 1930, safely stored at our house and waiting for her in case she miraculously got young again, I guessed.
We’d push her wheelchair to the Great Room after that. I held my breath down that hall because the floor-to-ceiling tiles smelled of strong disinfectant. My mother said whatever it was, it probably warded off staph infection or something equally deadly in old people. I silently vowed never to be old.
In the Great Room, people’s wheelchairs formed a circle of faux camaraderie. Some people nodded off and snored, others had visitors, and the only man in the whole place sat in the corner and chain smoked all day. Other kids were a rarity, so I can say — without swagger — that I was always in demand in the Great Room. Women awoke as if from a dream to reach out to me.
Sometimes Aunt Bertha would say to me, “I have something for you!” The first time she did it — her eyes all wide and expectant — I thought maybe it was something like a diamond ring or a fistful of hundred-dollar bills. She pulled the gift out from under her left thigh, wrapped in a dozen of the nursing home’s cheap one-ply napkins. Her body heat had made it warm. It was a roll she’d taken from breakfast. Maybe that day, maybe another. I would thank her and on our way out of the building it would hit with a thud in the trash can. Again, I’d make my vow.
One morning, just as we’d delivered Aunt Bertha back to her room and had our coats on to leave, she looked up and asked, “Where is Mr. Raffensberger?”
It was an insistent tone, like he was supposed to be in the room and she was demanding to know where we were hiding him. I’d never heard her speak in anything louder than a raspy whisper. “Where is he?”
My mother acted like she hadn’t heard the question.
“Let’s see . . . where in the world did I put my car keys?”
We were halfway home when I got up the nerve to ask. She never took her eyes off the road. She sighed a little, deciding how much of an answer to give me.
“Mr. Raffensberger was her boss. They were in love. He died about twenty years ago.”
“Why didn’t they get married?”
She sighed again, bigger this time.
“He was already married.”
When I was 12, I wanted to know everything there was to know about love, and I didn’t know anything yet. Aunt Bertha’s story became an unfinished chapter in my studies. So, she hadn’t always been old and crusty as I’d suspected. She’d been young once and in love, and for the whole ride home I sat in a confused silence trying to take it all in.
My mother, sensing she had said too much maybe, didn’t speak of it again. So the rest I had to make up on my own, something I was pretty good at back then.
Even years after her death, the scene went like this. Aunt Bertha cooking dinner in her sparse kitchen, waiting to hear him bounding up the steps. He had a big mustache on a plain, round face. He was a little balding, even in his thirties. He used a cotton handkerchief to mop his brow and couldn’t help talking about the humidity in August by the time he got to the third floor.
When she finished washing the dishes, he said, “You need to take care of these lovely hands, Bertha.” Then he rubbed them in his, with lotion he took down from the shelf above the sink. She relaxed in the touch.