|THE DIGNITY OF LILLIAN BERKOWITZ
by Pamela Ross
I never thought I could do something like that.
The wigs, the costumes, the pregnant waitress, the Rotorooter expert, the refrigerator repairman ... But I had no choice. It was either the disguises, or, as she put it, the "loony bin." She was terribly afraid someone was going
to drag her off to the loony bin. My 75-year-old Mother? In the loony bin?
Not on your life.
The idea didn't come to me, boom, just like that. Of course, there were things, little things, forgetting things, imagining things, stretched out over months, even years, but nothing like that night.
That night was a total shock. I mean, her coming out of the bedroom and glaring at me like that. Like some kind of animal that lowers its head before it attacks. Whoa, I said, whoa, what's the matter, did you have a bad dream?
Dream, what dream? she said, glaring at me. Get out of my house. I didn't invite you here. Do you want a cup of tea? I asked. Get out of my way, I have to go to the bathroom, you're in my way! she snapped.
She elbowed past me like a shopper heading for the close-out rack. I'll just sit here, I said to myself, I'll just sit here at the dining room table and keep making out her bills, bills she can no longer remember to pay, and when
she comes out ...
Then there she was. Again. That look.
I'm going back to bed, she said.
It's only seven, I said. I've got some chicken cooking on the stove. Don't you want some chicken?
I want you gone!
I just got here, I said. I just got here, and this is my vacation, and what are you talking about?!?
This is MY house, she said, and you have no business coming in here like this, Mildred, to try and evict me.
Mildred?!? Who's "Mildred," Mom?!?
Mildred! What do you think I am, an idiot who can't remember names?!?
Mom, it's me, Harriet!
You are an evil person, Mildred, you always were, so just GET OUT!!
Are you taking your pills?
I DON'T TAKE PILLS!!
And she went back into her little bedroom, which is right off the little dining room, and slammed her door but good.
She clicked on the old radio by the side of her bed, an old radio married to a rickety old nightstand, clicked it on to her favorite station and turned it up loud. It was some talk show and two people were screaming back and forth
about their bad sex lives and what should they do about them, and I could just see my mother, lying on her tiny little bed, all curled up on her left side so she could hear with her right ear, which she called her only good
ear, as if she had more than two of them. I could just see my mother listening to a phone-in sex talk show, my mother who for the first 70 years of her life practically choked on the word "sex."
Well, I thought, if you could call it thinking, it's obvious something has snapped. The ink on the check I was making out was all smeary from the sweat dripping from my hand. My brain whirled like one of those revolving silver balls on the ceiling in a disco. Breathe, I said to myself, in out in out, that's better, now go get Harvey. Harvey will know what to do. I handle Harvey's family, and he handles mine. It works out that way.
So I went and got Harvey my husband who was doing something on his computer in the other little bedroom, the one with the double bed in it, the one that still smelled like mothballs and my father's old socks, and he had been dead
six years already. Harvey, I said, there's something terribly wrong with Mom.
What could be wrong, he said, she's 75 years old. She's slipping up on her medication, I said. She just needs a little leeway, he said, and don't keep raising your voice at her, it scares her. She's deaf, I said. She can tell when you're raising your voice, he said, your eyes start bugging out.
Honey, I said, you've got to do something. Now.
Like what? he said. I can't force her medication down her throat.
She thinks I'm someone named "Mildred" who's taking her house away, I said.
Oh my God, he said, and he leaped up and sprang for the door, because he and Mom always had a special relationship and the thought of her sitting alone
and afraid and angry and locked in her little bedroom with her radio blaring a sex program made his stomach lurch, and he knocked on her flimsy door as only Harvey can knock, and the door vibrated in its frame. Mom, he called
out, Mom, what's going on. What? Stop making that racket outside my door! she said. Mom, take the latch off the door, it's Harvey, your son-in-law. Make that woman go away or I'm not coming out, she croaked. Mom just come out and I'll take care of the woman. Come on out, Mom.
I could picture my mother rolling her bent-over little body out of bed and unlatching the door and opening it a crack and peering out with those eyes and staring at Harvey. Oh, she said, it's you. Yes, he said. Well, if it's just you, I'll come out, but I don't want that woman near me.
I promise, he said.
So I hid out in the kitchen with my heart pounding while Harvey took Mom's wrinkled little hand and led her to the worn couch with the Ritz cracker crumbs buried in the seams and sat her down. Now then, he said, putting his
arm around her bony, arthritic shoulders, now then, what's upsetting my little Mama?
My father was a very gentle man, Harvey.
Yes, he was.
He never yelled at anyone.
He never threatened anyone.
He was a lot like you.
You should have met him. He was a lot like you.
He would be very angry if he knew someone was trying to get me out of his house. The house he built for my mother. My good-luck house.
I won't let someone take you out of your house.
Careful, I said to myself, you better be careful, this is a strange new world and you may not like it one bit, but it's her world, it's where she's living
now. Breathe, in out in out, that's better. I slid out of my hiding place behind the refrigerator and walked over to the couch where Harvey sat with his arm around my mom. Seeing me, she looked up with startled who's-that-in-my-nest-bird-eyes and said oh, it's only you, you shouldn't sneak up on me like that, it gives me palpitations, you know how sneaking up on me has always given me palpitations. I'm sorry, I said. I didn't mean to sneak. That's all right, she breathed relief. As long as Mildred's gone.
She's trying to get me evicted.
Who's Mildred, Mom?
Mildred,Mildred,Mildred! How many times do I have to tell you?!? Tell her, Harvey, tell her about Mildred!
Shhh, shhh, it's all right, don't worry, Harvey said. Mildred can't come back.
No. Mildred can't come back. I gave her warning.
Absolutely. You taking your pills, Mom?
Been taking them for 20 years, Harvey. My throat is tired of swallowing them.
Those pills are important.
Pills are just pills, Harvey. When you're past your expiration date, pills are just... pills.
They can keep Mildred away, Mom.
Mildred. Who on earth is "Mildred?"
She loosened up.
We spent the rest of that evening and well into the night listening to her call up the old days, the days when she was young and living on an Army base in Louisiana with my father who was on duty as a dentist. The days when the
whores were vaccinated on the chicken farm so the soldiers and officers wouldn't get diseases. The days when she got up early to feed breakfast to the camp where there were hundreds of hungry people and you had to water down
the eggs because there wasn't enough food to go around. The long nights when her husband Herbie my dad had to stay up until the morning doing extractions and drilling teeth in the soldiers' heads preparing them for the War where they would be shot and killed anyway but at least they would die with a head filled with good teeth.
Well, well, Harvey said. You've never told us these stories before. I didn't? she asked. No, I said. No, Mom. Not in all the 36 years I've known you have you once told me one of these stories.
They're funny, she said. Aren't they? I wonder why I never told them to you before? And you're 38, Harriet. You shouldn't go around lying about your age.
I got up to turn over the chicken which was pretty burnt by now and which had an acrid odor that was filling the tiny kitchen that had no counter space because Mom had covered the top of everything with food. Food in boxes, food in cans, food in bottles, food once fresh and now rotting, food once young now old. Food long past its expiration date.
Mom got up from the couch and sniffed. I smell something, she said. Is someone cooking something? It's Harriet's chicken, Harvey said. Harriet's chicken? Well, it's probably burnt. Harriet never was good with chicken.
She's a good girl, but she's not much with chicken.
Well, I'm not. Good with chicken.
We ate it, anyway. With some frozen peas and some unopened applesauce from a jar that said the apples wouldn't expire until the next year. Mom didn't even
bother to put her false teeth in. Chicken's good and mushy, she said, and she polished off her meal with some Manischewitz that my father had probably bought during the Korean War.
Then she went to bed and snored loud and deep and woke up the next morning and forgot about Mildred.
Feeling good? I asked her. Pretty good, she said, except sometimes my legs get a little stiff, but other than that, I'd say I'm feeling pretty good.
Only one thing, Harriet. What's that? Well, she said, looking up at me, her pointy little chin trembling, the unplucked white chin hairs as long as rabbit whiskers, well, I have been meaning to tell you and Harvey, my
Forgettery is coming down. So don't get mad at me because it's coming down.
I'm not mad at you, I said. But it's coming down, she said. It's coming down fast.
Don't brush things off so lightly, Harvey said to me. What things? I asked.
We have to be prepared, he said, for anything. How can you be prepared for something when it hasn't happened yet and you don't even know what it is? I asked. Harriet, he said, my Aunt Hennie weighed close to 500 pounds all of
her adult life. When she was pretty close to dying we went and bought her a piano case to be buried in. That's what I mean. You have to be prepared.
Well, we bought Mom a new Dirt Devil because she said the old Hoover was too heavy, we cleaned out her fridge, we called the Salvation Army and had them come and pick up cases of cans and boxes, we gave away my father's clothing which had been hanging in his closet and sitting in his drawers for six years, we polished Mom's silver and vacuumed her couch cushions, we set out new roach traps, installed a couple more smoke alarms, got back in our car
and drove back to New York City.
You sure you don't want any help in your house? I asked her before we left. I'm sure, she shook her head vehemently "no."
There's a lot of mildew here in Florida, Mom, don't you need anybody to clean? I asked her.
No, no, no, she said. I don't want anybody in my house right now.
Don't worry about Mildred, Harvey said. If Mildred comes back, you just call me. I'll take care of her.
I promise. Take your pills, Mom.
All right, she said.
We were back in our apartment and into our routines in New York City not two days before Mildred returned to torture Mom. Mildred was hard to handle long
distance. And Mom suddenly refused to speak to me. But I'm Harriet, I said.
No, she said. Harriet's in the hospital, and she's deathly ill, and now all I have is Harvey. And I don't want to hear the sound of your voice again so long as I live, Mildred!
Harvey said go along with it. He said if you don't go along with it the only alternative you have is to put her in the... Don't even say that word, I warned him. She's staying in her house, I said, because that's what I promised her. All right, fine, he said, but then you'll have to be "Mildred"
and Harriet will have to be in the hospital.
I can live with that I think, I said.
Yes, I think so, I said, so long as you can keep her talking to you, so long as we can keep on top of her doctor and get a good nurse service that will check up on her and give her those pills.
You can count on me, he said.
I know I can, Harv.
Harvey is a whiz at all this caretaker stuff; he had to take care of himself and his sister since he was eight and was orphaned, and every night he warded off Mildred for Mom on the phone and assured her that Harriet was recovering
nicely in the hospital from pneumonia, diphtheria, yellow fever, meningitis, phlebitis, or whatever disease Mom invented each day. We sent Mom pictures of me and Harvey standing by the bookstore at the World Trade Center to show her that "Harriet was getting better," but Mom x'd out my picture with magic marker and wrote "Mildred" on the back and sent back the pictures and
threatened not to speak to Harvey again if he ever sent a picture of that Mildred woman, and that's when we realized we were sinking.
Well, before long Mom had a dozen Mildreds trying to get her out of her house; she said she was being stalked and that her house was wired.
Her doctor said you better get back down here, because something has to be done, soon she won't be letting the nurses in anymore, they'll all be Mildreds, too. He said trust me, this is what happens when you're old and you
haven't taken your pills in a long time and the damage is done, and by the way you better take her car away from her because she can't drive anymore, last week when she pulled out of my parking lot she smashed the headlights on
my Honda and then drove off on the wrong side of the street, I know, because I was watching.
So I called my cousin Melvin Steinberg, who is Mom's nephew on her brother's side and who is a veterinarian, and convinced him to disguise himself as a mechanic from her service station and he came over and "broke" Mom's car by lifting the engine out of it one day when Mom was at the Pancake House eating waffles and strawberries with her friend Ethel, who was the only friend she had left because all her other friends had either died or been moved to
nursing homes. Ethel had plenty of dead friends and quite a few Mildreds in her own life, so I guess they had a lot to talk about over their waffles and strawberries.
At night I dreamed about me and Mom being together again, and during the day I dreamed about being Ethel or a waffle or a strawberry.
Mom still enjoyed her nightly conversations with Harvey which I was thankful for, and I always listened in on the extension, though I don't know why because they were always the same conversations, but at least I could hear
At least she still had the same voice, Mom's voice.
You're a good boy, Harvey, she said.
That's because you're a good Mom.
My father was a very gentle man, Harvey.
Yes, he was.
He never yelled at anyone.
He never threatened anyone.
He was a lot like you.
I wish you could have known him.
He would be very angry if he knew all these people were trying to get me out of my house. The house he built for my mother. My good-luck house.
I won't let anyone take your house away from you.
Is Harriet getting better?
Yes. Every day, a little better.
That's good. What's wrong with my car, Harvey, it won't start!
It's broken, Mom. Can't be fixed.
Oh. You're sure Harriet is better?
It's not easy, is it, Harvey?
No, Mom. It's not easy.
Soon the day came when she stopped letting the nurses in and she wouldn't go to the doctor any more and she wouldn't let him in when he tried to make a house call. He called us in a panic. It's time to take action, he said, she's
not going to take her medication on her own, she needs to be watched, you've got to have her declared incompetent. I'm not ready to do that, I said.
You're an intelligent woman, he said to me, and you know what has to be done, and I said that's right, I'm an intelligent woman, and my mother has her rights.
You're being very foolish, he said. You're not doing her any favors, and someday soon she might go out there and hurt herself but good.
I'll see to it that she doesn't, I said.
God forbid, she might hurt someone else, he said.
My mother can't even squash a roach without saying three Hail Marys and she's Jewish, I said.
I put in for emergency leave at my accounting firm and took the first plane to Jacksonville. Harvey was a partner and he said he'd cover for me and to call if I needed a back-up.
For my plan. To save my mom.
When I was little my mother told me I could be whatever I wanted to be if I wanted it badly enough.
That's why I rented the costumes. I figured maybe she'd let me in. I figured maybe she'd let me take care of her if I looked like someone she remembered.
Someone she admired.
The first day I went to see her I was Lucille Ball.
With an Irish lilt.
I came to help you out, I said.
I don't need any help, she said, looking me over. Her clothes were mismatched and dirty, her hair was unkempt, and there was an odd musty odor coming from
her front porch.
Did anyone ever tell you you look like Lucille Ball? she asked.
Dead ringer, she said. Except I don't think Lucille Ball had a brogue.
I'm glad you think I look like Lucille Ball, I said.
Yes. I always admired Lucille Ball. She had guts.
She did have guts, Mom said, she was funny and she had guts. You sure you're not Lucille Ball?
I'm sure, I said. I'm just a cleaning woman. The agency sent me to help you
clean and stuff.
What agency? I never called an agency.
The, uh, Century Agency. Brand new free service for senior citizens.
Never heard of them, she said, but then again, my Forgettery is coming down, so my memory's not entirely reliable. Say, your name's not Mildred, is it?
Mildred. Awful person. Spiteful. Thinks she owns this house. Wants me out so she can build some kind of store here. An art store, I think.
This is a residential area, I said. No one can build a store here.
What did you say your name was?
My name's Molly, I said. Molly McGuire.
She let me in.
I did her laundry, I scrubbed her bathroom, I vacuumed, I rearranged her cracker boxes and soup cans, I pulled out an inch-thick dust mattress from under the double bed in the second little bedroom where my father slept
because he started snoring louder than she did and she said it kept her up, so she banished him from her bedroom forever except when they got together
which maybe wasn't too often because he'd had a heart valve replacement and both hips and both knees replaced and he was always complaining about his arthritis which was improbable because by the time he was 70 a lot of him was plastic.
And I dusted. I dusted pictures. Pictures of Mom with her parents. Pictures of Mom and Dad's wedding. Pictures of Harvey. Pictures of my two daughters when they were babies, junior high schoolers, sweet sixteen.
The pictures of me were gone.
I had been banished from my mother's house.
Lucille Ball/Molly McGuire made Mom some tomato soup with rice for lunch and dissolved her high blood pressure pills and her insulin pills into the soup and sat with her while she sloshed around in the chipped blue china soup bowl she bought from a potter in Vermont.
Good, she said.
It's from a can.
This your son? I asked, pointing to Harvey's picture.
Uh uh, son-in-law.
Daughter's, uh, gone?
Sick. Very sick. Incurable disease. Doctors don't know what it is. Got her baby pictures in a box under my bed.
She'll get better. My grandmother used to tell me, Lillian, if anyone you love gets really sick, put some baby pictures of them in a box under your bed, think positive thoughts when you go to sleep every night, and you'll see, soon they'll get better, the positive thoughts will get absorbed
directly into the pictures and the pictures will send the positive thoughts directly into the person.
Did it work?
I'm here, aren't I?
I'll try it, then.
Someone you love sick?
Have you got any baby pictures of them?
Sort of. Yes.
Put them under your bed tonight. You'll see, it will work, you just have to give it time.
Don't vacuum under my bed. I don't want those pictures disturbed.
I went back to the motel around the corner and collapsed on my bed. When I woke up a few hours later I called the sheriff's office to let him know where I was in case Mom wandered off somewhere and got lost, then I called Harvey.
Honey, I said, she let Lucille Ball in.
I'd let Lucille Ball in, too, he said.
Maybe you can find some actor to take your place for a while, Harvey suggested.
Because! They'll do or say something wrong and she'll kick them out and then...
Some big corporate accounts just came in, he said.
The Lillian Berkowitz account comes first, Harv.
I love you, he said, don't forget to take your vitamins, Lucille.
Don't forget to call Mom tonight, I said.
Lucille/Molly only lasted two days, she was accused of stealing some silverware and got thrown out.
Lucille sent over Geraldine the pregnant waitress who looked like Ginger Rogers to help out, but Geraldine/Ginger apparently put poison in Mom's food
and couldn't be trusted.
Philip from Rotorooter who looked like Montgomery Clift wasn't allowed in her bathroom to take a pee, and when Mom pointed out at least three places where
Philip/Montgomery had already peed on her carpet and said she was going to call 9-1-1 if he didn't get out of her house immediately, he scooted but fast.
John the androgynous refrigerator repairman who looked like a cross between Richard Simmons and Julia Childs barely lasted an hour, which was just as well, he didn't know beans about refrigerators, anyway.
I walked through a haze of six costumes in five days, and at 9 p.m. on the sixth day Mom wandered out into the middle of the intersection of East Magnolia and Route 1 in downtown Jacksonville, Florida in her shabby pink
bathrobe with the 100 dollar bill sewn into the right pocket, brandishing a plunger, and the sheriff called me at the motel and said don't you think you have been through enough with all of this, don't you think you should put her
away, and I put on an outfit that looked like Groucho Marx because Mom always had a special thing for Groucho and went down to the police station to get her and bring her back to her little house with the rotting food and the pee
on the carpet and the barricades by the back door to keep Mildred from getting in and the box of Harriet pictures under her bed, and away from the scrutiny of strangers.
Who are you, she said.You have a funny-looking nose.
Joe, I said. Joe Plunkett, but some people think I'm a dead ringer for Groucho Marx.
Who's Groucho Marx? she asked.
My throat closed up.
Just... someone, I said.
What did you say your name was?
Joe, I said. Joe Plunkett.
Joe Plunkett, she said. That's a good name, Joe.
Joe Plunkett put his arms around Mom and gave her a hug that didn't want to let go.
Mom's shoulders went limp. I'm tired, she said.
I know, I said. I know how tired you are.
Mom's bathrobe was stained and smelly, she had two different shoes on, she kept scratching something invisible on her arm, and she was getting an angry infection in her right eye.
I want to go home, she said.
That's where I'm taking you.
I'm tired, she said again.
We pulled up into her narrow driveway and I could see the light in her bedroom through the tattered drapes.
It's Mildred, she said. Mildred beat me home.
Mildred. Every time I leave she gets in. She wants me out.
I don't know. Maybe the money. I'm tired. I'm tired of fighting with Mildred.
I'm going to kill you, Mildred! I shouted in my head.
Watch out I'm going to kill you but good!!
And I sat there in Mom's driveway gripping the steering wheel in a car going nowhere while my brain screamed and screamed where are you Mom, why are you hiding from me, and exploded into a million pieces.
Did you say something? Mom asked.
What? No. I didn't say anything.
Oh. I thought I heard you say something.
I was just thinking about your house, I said.
It's a good house, she said.
Yes, I said, it's a wonderful little house you have, and I led her slowly up the overgrown walk, under the droopy palm that always seemed to reach down and catch something on your sleeve.
It was my father's house, she said. He built it for my mother. Now it's MY house. Mine and Herbie's, he was my husband but he's dead now, and Harriet's,
that's my daughter, but she's gone, too, but maybe Harvey will take it over, he's my son-in-law and such a good boy, and my grand-daughters Naomi and Sharon, because it's a good-luck house, you know. Good-luck houses should
stay in the family.
I'd like some tea, I said. I'm pretty thirsty. Could we make some tea?
Why not? she said.
She took out a little copper teapot and filled it with Florida water from the tap and put it on her little portable burner because she had covered up her
stove with food, and she got it turned on even though her hands shook and she
could barely push in the knob.
Let's sit down, she said, and she pointed to the living room which was doomed to crumbs and pee and we sat on the wrought iron semi-circular couch that had seen better days and she took my hand like she did when I was a child and she was telling me my bedtime stories and I wondered if she recognized the bump on my thumb that had been there since I fell off my tricycle when I was three and I thought I'll never forget how I got that bump, will I?
How could anyone forget something like that?
And she held my hand with the bump on it and told me funny Harriet stories about pet caterpillars and hamsters in fish tanks and tweetie birds that talked and music lessons and recitals in starched yellow organdy dresses and
black patent shoes that squeaked. She told me teen-age stories and college stories and when-I-first-met-my-husband stories that came pouring out from the kaleidoscope in her head, through five pots of tea, until I thought my bladder would burst and I excused myself and made a dash for the bathroom where I latched the door and opened the water faucet and peed and cried.
I washed my hands and washed my face and put my face in the towels that my mother once used to stack neatly in the pantry with bars of soap in between to keep them smelling fresh, and I inhaled deeply, and in that breath I smelled my whole carefree childhood with my parents who laughed and laughed and sang "mares eat oats and does eat oats" to make me laugh, and I looked at my face in the bathroom mirror and I said to myself Harriet/Lucille/Ginger/Montgomery/Richard/Julia/Groucho, what are you going to do now?
When I came out of that bathroom and saw Mom crumpled up on the couch like an over-used rag doll, talking loudly to herself, I knew that what was left of her mind was clinging with all its might to its last shreds of dignity and that she had already made her own decision long ago.
See that picture, she said, pointing to my dad when he caught a fish at some lake in Maine.
Yes, I said.
Well, she said, that's my husband Herbie, I've been talking to him a lot lately, and he says the same thing every day, only I haven't been listening to him and now I am going to listen.
What's that? I asked. What does he say?
He says Lillian, when you feel like everything's all fuzzy out there and you don't know whether you're coming or going any more and you have nothing to hold on to, you have got to let go.
But you're in such good shape, I cried selfishly, you were just running down
East Magnolia with a plunger!
How many people can run down East Magnolia carrying a plunger?!?
Oh, that, she said. I was trying to chase it.
Chase what? I asked.
Something I.... lost, she said.
I returned all of the costumes except for Groucho Marx/Joe Plunkett. Because.
He was with Mom that last night. He helped her keep her dignity.
I'll never forget that.
(This story was first published in EWGPresents, then published in MOONDANCE)