Before we left on this trip, Karyn and I were slowly making our way through the Showtime series, Masters of Sex. Every night here, I’ve been sneaking an episode after the house is still. I brought a tiny set of headphones and am watching in secret on my laptop. It helps me unwind after the long, unfamiliar day. My body is still on California time, so I’m wide awake after the elders turn in, though I find myself yawning at weird hours of the day.
This morning, far too early, I woke to the sound of TV blaring from the kitchen. Esther and Ben had told me they keep the TV on about 15 hours a day, and today, I guess, they were getting back to their regular routine—starting the day with the Today Show, like millions of other Americans. I lay in my tiny bed in the back cubby until I heard Mom stirring from the couch in the next room. I helped her to the bathroom and sponged her off with a washcloth dipped in warm soapy water–what Mom likes to call “a whore’s bath,” and then I handed her her scrubbed pink teeth. We were both relieved the moment they popped back in her mouth and her cheeks filled out again.
Mom was better oriented this morning—she knew where she was and who we were visiting. My cousin Judi took off early this morning on her plane back to the New Jersey winter; cousin Stuart came by for one more visit; he wasn’t leaving for Denver until early afternoon. Esther, Ben, Temme and Stuart and I shared breakfast. I helped Mom choose her outfit, put on a sundress myself, and while Mom’s bagel was toasting, I put on her makeup:
Ben had dialysis today and Esther’s aide, Lucy, was coming over. I figured it was a good time for Mom and I to go out and give them back a day of their usual routine. Judi suggested that Mom and I try the Morikami Japanese Gardens nearby. She and Stuart had gone a couple of days ago, and Judi said they had a wheelchair-accessible path and wheelchairs that could be borrowed in the lobby.
In the mid-morning, Mom and I set out on our adventure:
The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens celebrates a century-old connection between Japan and South Florida. According to the brochure, a group of young Japanese farmers arrived in the northern Boca Raton area and created an agricultural colony they called Yamato, an ancient name for Japan. The colony’s farming endeavors proved unsustainable, and most of the original members of the colony returned to Japan. But in the mid 1970’s, one of the remaining settlers, George Sukeji Morikai, then in his 80s, donated his land to Palm Beach County with the wish for it to become a park in memory of the Yamaato Colony. Thus the Morikami Musuem and Japanese Gardens was born.
Today there are 16 acres of authentic Japanese gardens to wander through—and a mile of them are on a wheelchair accessible track. It sounded perfect.
Lucy offered to drive us over and drop us off, and when we arrived in the lobby, there were four wheelchairs folded up against the wall. Great. We scored. But then the attendant informed us that there was no place to store Mom’s walker. “It’s against the rules,” he told us.
When I explained that we didn’t have a car to stash the walker in, the attendant told me, “Rules are rules,” and so I asked him to get his supervisor. I was ready to pull out my purple Alzheimer’s trump card, tell them we came all the way from California and to make a stink about disability access, but moments later a kind man approached us and offered to stash Mom’s walker in the back of the theatre. A minute later, I was pushing Mom’s borrowed wheelchair through the winding gravel pathway.
It was a perfect day, warm with a breeze. Mom was certain she’d been here before. “Weren’t we here yesterday?” she asked. Mom asks this all the time. When we drive around Santa Cruz, she continually looks at any passerby and says, “It’s so funny. Every time I come here, that person is walking right here. He must have the same route everyday.” “Or, “Those three girls. They’re always right here. I know them. I see them every day.” I find these mind glitches curious, and now, she was convinced we’d toured the Gardens before.
“I liked it so much, I thought we should come by again,” I replied. There was no point in arguing. In Mom’s world, she was a regular here.
As we slowly meandered along the edge of a beautifully landscaped lake, I sat on every available bench. I asked a woman with a yellow “Librarians are novel lovers,” tee-shirt to take our picture. She happily obliged:
“Oh it’s magnificent.” Mom said, “This breeze!”
As we sat on one of the benches, I heard a woodpecker beating out a steady pattern against a nearby tree. I mentioned it to Mom, “Mom, I hear a woodpecker clicking.”
“You hear my teeth clicking?” Mom replied.
“No, Mom, “ I said, louder. “It wasn’t your TEETH. It was a WOODPECKER. “ A family, passing by speaking in rapid-fire French, stared for a moment, then continued on their way.
“Are you sure we haven’t been here before?” Mom asked.
I’d never pushed a manual wheelchair before and making my way through a gravel path and over roots wasn’t easy. I needed to rest often and by the time we came to this waterfall, I’d had enough. I let her enjoy her moment in the sun. Some pleasures never go away.
I suggested to Mom that we go up to the restaurant for lunch and she readily agreed. She had a teriyaki chicken hot bowl and I had mahi mahi with mango salsa. As we waited for our lunch, I pulled out the easy New York Times Crossword Puzzle Book and tried to get Mom to help me finish the puzzle I’d gotten stumped on back on the plane. Mom had done the daily New York Times puzzle for over fifty years and somehow, that part of her brain had not lost its shine. Mom can’t tackle the hard puzzles anymore, but today she knew that 53 Down, “Time waster” was IDLER and that 9 Down, “Gift in Honolulu” was LEI, and that “Out of Reach,” starting with a “B” was BEYOND. In moments, we had the whole puzzle filled in.
On the way out to meet Esther and Lucy, we spied this local resident, a large iguana:
Back at Esther’s house, Mom and I were both tired and fell asleep on separate couches. I woke up after an hour, but Mom slept for three. Esther and Ben I sat in their den and talked.
As we chatted, I was so grateful I had come. I’d never been close to Aunt Esther or Uncle Ben when I was a child. They lived in Queens, New York and we lived at the Jersey shore, a drive of several hours, so we only saw them once every few months. They were conservative Jews with a kosher home; we did the bare rituals of Judaism and nothing more. Their two children, my cousins Donny and Amy were younger than we were. My main memory of Donny was as a bratty kid who chased me around the lower east side of New York, outside our grandparents’ tenement apartment with snot on his finger. We drank real seltzer in Esther and Ben’s basement of their house in Hollis Hills, Queens, and ate snacks out of two refrigerators–always full to bursting. My aunt always served soda, Entenmann’s cake, and lots of sweets that were forbidden in our house–Ring Dings, Yodels, and those big marshmallow puff balls with fake coconut on top. I always remember Aunt Esther being kind to me.
My Uncle’s claim to fame was that he was the accountant for the Beatles, Blood Sweat and Tears, Elton John, and Paul Garfunkel. He and Esther got VIP tickets for concerts and saw all kinds of famous rock and rollers at the Fillmore East and other venues around the world.
I lost touch with their family once I left home at 17; I was rebellious and far out of the family orbit, on my own trajectory of gurus, drugs, and communes. Esther and Ben’s family fell off my radar. But when I published The Courage to Heal in 1988, they reappeared, furious with me. They were horrified that I’d accused my grandfather–Esther and Temme’s father–of sexually abusing me. And that I had the audacity to publish it, and to spread my lies all over national TV. I was no longer invited to weddings or bar mitzvahs. I had been cast out, ever further out than I’d already put myself in my distant elliptical orbit around my family.
We had no contact at all for many years, but I think Esther may have sent me a simple card when Eli was born 21 years ago. The first substantial contact I remember with her was when I had cancer seven years ago. Uncle Ben had survived two cancers and Esther called me now and then to give me some of her salt of the earth, I’ve-been-there advice. I loved her gravelly voice, her New York accent, and her hard-won wisdom. “You go through these things,” she said, “And then you move on. You just have to move on.”
As Mom and I reconciled, I gradually came back into the family fold. I no longer felt the need to rub my relatives’ faces in things they could not believe or accept. Instead, I learned to focus on the things we had in common. I saw Esther and Ben a couple of times when I traveled east for big family gatherings. Over a period of years, as my children grew, I was woven back into the fabric of the family.
Since I moved Mom to California six years ago, Esther and I regularly talk on the phone. We talk about Mom, about Ben’s dialysis and her creeping blindness. We talk about the death of her son, Don, and my cousin Amy. Esther always wanted to hear what Eli and Lizzy were up to and never failed to say hello to Karyn. I liked having Aunt Esther back in my camp.
And now here I was, sitting in their den in Del Ray Beach, with Mom stretched out snoring in the other room. “You know,” I said to both of them, “I’m really glad I came. If I hadn’t brought Mom to see you, I never would have seen either of you again. Not until your funerals.”
I was speaking the truth and we all knew it. Ben, who is generally a man of few words said, “It’s a good thing you did. I have two siblings I’ll never see again.”
I felt love for these two tough survivors. They’d both been raised poor on the lower east side and they’d both been through a lot of hard times–but always together. They’ve known each other for 65 years. Last year they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary–and watching them together now, I believe my Aunt Esther and Uncle Ben have the strongest, happiest, most compatible marriage I’ve ever seen.
We woke Temme for dinner and had our second meal of kosher cold cuts on rye bread. Mom polished off the chopped liver with a gleam of pleasure in her eye. At one point, Temme began her repeating litany. “I like where I live. They feed me and they clean the place. I can’t drive anymore and they take care of everything. The only thing is I don’t have any intimate friends.”
At which point Ben interrupted, “At this stage of life, Temme, we don’t make friends. We lose friends.”
To which Mom replied, “Getting old sucks.”
Ben replied, “Yes, but just consider the alternative. Getting old is no tragedy. I’ve had two cancer surgeries. I’ve been on dialysis for more than seven years. It could have been worse. I could be dead right now.” Be paused, and then continued. “We buried a son. It’s life.” He thought for a moment as he grabbed for another pickle, “You know what real tragedy is? My father’s mother had 13 children and 11 of them lived. Only my father and one uncle got out of Poland. All the rest of them were exterminated. Now that’s a real tragedy.”
I quietly pulled out my i-phone and shot a video as they talked. The conversation moved on to my grandfather’s butcher shop on the lower east side, about how he could have made a lot more money selling meat on the black market during the war, but he was too honest to do that. Ben said that Poppa always left 20 or 30 dollars in the register at night so if he got robbed, the robbers would come away with something and not find it necessary to trash the place.
Every time the conversation wound down, Mom would say, “What else do you remember about Papa?” and Esther would launch into another story about their father. I contributed nothing.
At one point, Mom turned to me and asked, “Did you ever meet my father?”
There were a million ways I could have responded to her question. Twenty-five years ago, I would have felt compelled to tell them what he did to me when he came to tuck me in as a little girl. How he asked to inspect all the girls’ breasts when they hit puberty. How their saintly father was anything but a saint. But I had no need to do that anymore. I had my memories, and they had theirs. I had no need whatsoever to change that. “Yes, Mom,” I finally said. “Of course I knew him. I remember him making schnapps, Mom. He made his own sauerkraut and he made his own whiskey.”
“But he wasn’t an alcoholic,” Mom countered, as if that was the worst thing he possibly could have been.
“I didn’t say he was,” I replied, then started clearing the dishes from the table.
Over our graham cracker dessert, I asked Ben how he got into the rock and roll business, a story I’d never heard before. And lucky for me, Uncle Ben was in the mood to tell it. “I had a job in an accountant’s office, but my boss believed that between January 1st and April 15th, that we had to work all day and all night and weekends and that wasn’t for me. So I answered a small classified ad from a lawyer’s office looking for an accountant. I’d never heard of the Beatles. And the ad didn’t say anything about them. I went to the interview and for a while they couldn’t decide who to hire. I was persistent and I got the job. The rest, they say, is history.”
For the next four decades, Uncle Ben was the accountant to musical superstars. He was the accountant for the Beatles, for Elton John–and Esther and Ben have the gold albums and framed pictures on their walls to prove it. Art Garfunkel came to my cousin Donny’s Bar Mitzvah and Esther told Donny his friends couldn’t bother him or ask him to sing.
Esther and Ben attended the Beatles concert at Shea Stadium with their seven-year-old and their three-year-old. “Even in the VIP section,” Esther told me, “all we could hear was screaming. We couldn’t hear any of the music. And women were throwing their underwear. If people had taken one step forward, we would have been trampled.”
“It was hysteria,” Ben concluded.
The two of them were on a roll and they name-dropped and shared stories of the stars for the next half hour. I loved they way they talked in harmony, interrupting each other in perfect synchronicity. It was as they were one person in two bodies, telling the same story. I learned that Blood Sweat and Tears had named Ben on two of their albums, that Esther and Ben attended Elton John’s first US concert, and Art Garfunkel’s 50th birthday party. “We had a stack of thousands of LPs in the basement. When the kids went to summer camp in the Catskills, we’d tip the counselors some cash and a Beatles’record.”
Esther remembered, “We went to the Fillmore East to see Elton John and they picked us up in a limo. Here I was a girl from the lower east side getting picked up in a limo. It was the ultimate. I felt like the Queen of Sheba.Then when it was time for me to get out of the car, the limo driver opened the door and a guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey lady, want some acid?'”
Temme caught about 20 percent of these stories, every once in a while, piping up with a question or a comment.
Finally, after a lull in the conversation, Ben struggled to rise from his chair, wearing his black sweatpants and his signature light yellow cardigan. “We’ll wax more nostalgias tomorrow,” he said, and headed back to bed.
I helped Mom get settled, and amazingly, even after sleeping much of the day, she went right to sleep. I stayed up watching the last three episodes of Season 1 of Masters of Sex and slept fitfully. “Oh well,” I thought when I woke up this morning, still groggy, to toast Mom a bialy, “There will be plenty of chances to nap today.”