11/22/11: Ellen, attentive and kind, head RN at the nursing home said, “Your father is passing.” I thought, but didn’t say, “Failing, actually,” not sure if a pun was appropriate.
We moved Daddy to Calvary Hospital (in the Bronx, not far where he’d started 87 years earlier), which for several months had been providing him with hospice care (nurses and social workers) at the nursing home.
The young, perceptive Orthodox rabbi–also sent to us by the wonderful Catholic hospice and whom my father had surprisingly accepted and befriended–met us there, sprinting down the hall with a collectible-looking crucifix in his hand, pleased to have removed it from my father’s room in such a timely manner. Daddy, each day more shrunken and silent, was dead a week later, in the very early morning on 11/29/11.
When the phone call came, I thought who will call me “my razzle dazzle” now? Who will grab my hand when we cross a street in New York and when challenged with, “I’m a grown woman, my skill set encompasses doing this by myself, how do you think I manage when you’re not here?” reply, “I just choose not to think about it.”
My sister and I spent two days almost every week last winter in our parents’ small suburban house, sorting for what was precious in their 50+-year accumulation, and throwing out the seemingly endless material debris of of their lives, donating what we could. It was tedious, sad and dusty work.
The house, where we had grown up was cold, smelled damp. The basement, a tight maze, was choked with small electronic samples, expired canned tuna, tool and toys, clothes from nearly every decade of the 20th century and black garbage bags filled with fabric, taken from our super seamstress grandmother’s apartment–and immediately forgotten–when she died in the 70s.
Under a pile of pastel pedal pushers (the forerunner of capris), we found a homemade photo/scrapbook of the early years of their marriage (of course they took vacations before we were born but who knew they skied; standing with pride in front of a big bomb of a second-hand Chevy, their first car; and a section headline: “My Beautiful Persian”–we joked that Mommy had dated a handsome Iranian but knew we’d turn the page to see a picture of her in her curly lamb coat, young and pretty with bangs and straight chin-length hair). And my white Schwinn bicycle emerged from behind metal filing cabinets.
Mommy had died on July 16, 2003 but her things remained in the bedroom closet and on and in the big dresser and desk and stuffed in plastic bags in piles on the floor. We meant to keep a tally of her miniature clocks but lost count. And then there were the flashlights and mountains of business cards from businesses undoubtedly extinct, and everywhere paper plates, Daddy’s favorite notepad, covered with his unmistakable writing: all caps.
In the free storage facility that was my childhood bedroom, I found souvenirs of a life so long ago it seems like a dream. Unlike many Americans families, mine stayed put in the starter home, didn’t renovate, redecorate or repurpose the children’s rooms and things I might have carelessly shed decades earlier–at 22 there’s no interest in history, nostalgia is corny, life is all out in front–were safe: Abby’s letters, written to me when I was in Binghamton and a photo of her–she’s 16, on the porch in Short Beach wearing an Irish sweater Jean made and with two circular pretzels taking the place of her round-rimmed glasses; the “Hatari” book Grandma bought me at the Bronx movie palace before the show; my high school year book; the manual–the first of many I’ve skimmed, at most–for my first camera, a Pentax Spotmatic.
In a small jewelry box from India, liberated, as we then said, from a mall store by Gary, my high school boyfriend, I found the silver bracelet I’d long resigned myself to having inexplicably lost, which had been given to me by my professor at Binghamton, the great poet, Ai (Florence Anthony), an amulet for my junior year poetry reading.
And in big boxes holding yet more electronic samples, I unearthed a flat pink box, full of stamps not yet installed in the album, with the red logo of a (now shuttered) upscale New York department store, Russeks, founded by Diane Arbus’s family.
The evergreen planted too close as a sapling and which grew to dwarf the house, leaning big branches on the roof, was cut down last spring. Another early addition to Mommy’s mini aboretum, the silver birch, succumbed to a borer, as they do, no older than 30, but the red maple continues to thrive and the forsythia, recovering from having lived in the evergreen’s shadow, bloomed profusely last month.
My sister and I had intended to seek relief by going out for lunch at least once each week but the quality of the restaurants was what it was when we had lived there, the same Chinese restaurant, the same pizza parlor across from our high school–less of a draw if you hadn’t cut geometry or gym to grab a slice. We tried the a new Subway once. The restaurant where Gary had worked, the Jolly Ox, home of big meat (unappealing to us now and then) but with a decent salad bar, had become a funeral home.
So twice a week Babette picked up coffee from her neighborhood barista, although three Dunkin’ Donuts are a quick drive from the house. DD’s brew is only for the desperate, like a traveler touring Civil War battlefields in the south. And she selected two paninis from her local modern sandwich place and we developed a routine–cutting them in thirds and each day eating what we could.
We accepted an offer on our parents’ house in March. A few days ago we were notified of the date of the imminent closing, provoking a small wave of grief. But I feel less sad now looking at the pictures of the house, front yard and back, than I thought I would and it’s not just because a year or so has elapsed. The act of choosing where the frame goes gives order to all kinds of disarray.