They’re all dead now, every single one of them. I was a self-conscious teenager, who rolled her hair in pink curlers every night. And what gorgeous hair I had back then, not thin and spindly and white as it is today. Dad asked if we wanted to visit our cousin Donny Garber at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.
“Yes!” I called from my upstairs bedroom, where I lay on my white bedspread, reading a library book from the Bertram Woods Library. The library is still there. My sister Donna came into my room. She had bouncy brown hair from the rollers she put in her hair every night.
“It would probably be boring,” she said.
“Why don’t you come? We could have a ‘doozy.’” I suggested.
“Nah, I’ll get together with my friends,” she said.
Why did Donna have so many friends and I had only one or two? We’re both still alive now. One of her friends died on a roof top while she was getting a sun tan. Cause of death: a heroin overdose.
Mom always stayed home. Her mother, Gramma Lily, lived with us, and insisted that my mother keep a clean house. Mom had special knee pads – like hockey players wear – to scrub the kitchen floor. We did have a maid – Gloria – who I was insatiably curious about. A Black woman. I wondered how Black people lived. I knew they were poor, but didn’t know why.
Mom made sure we had plenty to eat before we left. Succulent lamb chops, mashed potatoes, which, for some reason, made me drowsy, La Sueur Peas, from a can, and brownies, for dessert.
I yawned. The mashed potatoes.
We Greenwolds always had brand-new cars. I’m guessing we had our pink Mercury station wagon. It was huge when all the seats were put down. I got to sit up front since Mom wasn’t there. Immediately, Dad lit a cigarette. His smoking career began at age eight, and ended at 42, when on Yom Kippur, he quit. Cold turkey.
Surreptitiously, I cranked open my window a tiny crack.
Oh, he died anyway of lung cancer which metastasized to his brain. Fifty-nine.
A skyscraper growing in his brain.
Case Western Reserve was half an hour away. Throughout the drive, I’d cough into a piece of tattered Kleenex. Second-hand smoke. Since I ain’t dead yet, I dunno if I’ll die from cancer or not. A variety of other candidates wait in the wings.
The scenery was fascinating. We drove through the impoverished parts of Cleveland. A funeral parlor “Kirk and Nice” – Black men congregating on street corners, some in undershirts, others in their church finery – Church’s Fried Chicken – boarded-up gas stations – Kentucky Fried Chicken with the Colonel smiling broadly, seemingly innocent of the unhealthy diets that would kill Black people – huge billboards – one mentioned a dentist you could pay on the installment plan – another mentioned “The Settlement Music School,” where we’d hold our piano recitals.
Clutching my Kleenex, I coughed again. Dad couldn’t hear me above the radio. The program was quite clever. The narrator, with a smooth voice like Earl Nightingale’s, pretended we were at a ball room.
“Coming out onto the dance floor now,” the voice said, “is none other than Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.” He paused for effect. What he didn’t say was that Fred Astaire was half-Jewish, but his mother converted to Roman Catholicism. Another Gustav Mahler, who became a Christian.
Dad never lost a moment in praising the Jews. George Jessel, Ernie Kovacs, Hank Greenberg, of the Cleveland Indians – “Hammerin’ Hank” - Maury Salzman, a Cleveland philanthropist.
The GPS – Global Positioning System – was not in wide use in the ‘sixties, but Dad seemed to know how to get everywhere.
And there he was: Donny Garber - Donald Israel Garber, PhD - standing outside his school, bald head glimmering in the light.
Dad grabbed his movie camera and panned slowly. Every one in the family was used to Dad and his movie camera.
“Pain in the neck,” I thought.
I didn’t learn to curse until I got to Goddard College in Plainfield, VT.
Donny led the way to his work area. I stared at the man, since I, well, lusted after him. His smarts, for sure, but there was something else. A hidden knowledge he seemed to possess, as if he knew me and what I was all about. Even if I myself had no idea.
Revolving wheels, like on tape recorders, are what I remember. Those and sneak peaks at Donny, who still lived at home. His mother, Evelyn, was imbued with a sparkling personality. Their home was a showcase of antiques. Not my taste. What I loved were movie-star homes I would look at in movie magazines I’d buy at Gray’s Drug Store – Photoplay or Modern Screen. I hid them from my family in the bottom drawer of my dresser.
Evelyn Garber, Donny’s mom, was banished from Sterling Lindner Davis, Halle’s and Higbee’s department stores. Everything she bought, she returned. Obsessions. Good to have if you’re a scientist.
Finally, “Don-Coo” as his mother called him, took a bride.
Liz. Short for Elizabeth. Both were scientists. And childless, which we believed was tantamount to a sin.
Late in life, Donny got leukemia. Leukemia, for chrissakes. Oh, my aching heart. He rallied. But then failed. And died. Do we know when we are dying?
My mother, in her nineties, was devastated. Dad, remember, had died of cancer at 59.
Liz is still alive.
She hasn’t a clue who she is.
She is living with relatives in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Alzheimer’s is the deadbeat victor.
MAY I HAVE YOUR VOTE?
During the early days of my failed marriage, I went to the polls in Houston, Texas, and pushed the button for George McGovern, the earnest man with the smiling false teeth.
I sobbed when he lost.
Of course, I was an emotional girl back then, wearing an invisible black veil of mourning for marrying the wrong man. There was never anything to talk about. We’d hit the sack each night on those lovely lavender-striped sheets, keep our backs a few inches apart and somehow end up twined together in the morning.
Whoever awoke first, licked their dry mouth, checked the digital clock and softly eased out of bed so as not to awake the sleeping monster.
The last words I said to him before I went back home to Pennsylvania were, “Keep the Nissan and take up painting again.”
Thirty years later I found myself in the tiny cramped office of Pennsylvania State Congresswoman Allyson Y. Schwartz. I looked forward to meeting this tough but soft-spoken woman who let her hair grow gray and stood with her arms crossed in the photographs.
She never showed up, but I met Nate and Barbara and Katy and basically the whole crew who were coordinating the 2008 election campaign of the first black man to run for president of the United States.
“Canvass” was a word I didn’t know how to spell and now they wanted me to canvass. I would do anything for this black man, including buy a $20 badly designed T-shirt with his face grinning on my chest. His brilliance dazzled me and I was positively in love with that smiling wife of his, with her straightened hair and sexy ways.
As usual, I pictured us being best friends
“Michelle,” I’d say to her. “It’s my turn to drive today. Where to? The Barnes is having a lecture on Renoir and those curvaceous models of his.”
“Look, Marsha,” she’d tell me. “I have nothing against fat white girls in pinafores, but I’d rather go kayaking on the Delaware.”
Canvassing, that strange word. The Team paired me with a woman who looked as if she could be in a Picasso painting and even one of his lovers, until she opened her mouth. Betty had black flyaway hair that spread out from her oval-shaped head in curlicue black tresses, sort of like Marie Antoinette, her head still attached.
Betty and I filled our arms with manila folders holding sheets of potential voters, their names, phone numbers, No. 2 pencils with pink erasers that left horrible splotches on the page. They wished us Godspeed, as we drove out to - of all places - a nursing home in Elkins Park, PA.
I waived the right to take my car by lying I was low on gas. In truth, I could not keep more than two hubcaps on at a time. The car was an embarrassment, as were my second-hand clothes, my unkempt hair, and my refusal to pay attention to myself. People liked me anyway. I got by with my great personality. Charm, you might call it.
The silence in Betty’s car was absolute.
“Those your grandkids?” I asked, looking at the dashboard which contained posed shots of perfect little beings. I couldn’t care less.
“Help me out,” she said as she drove, slower and slower. “Where the hell is this nursing home?”
“You said you knew,” I almost shouted back at her. “Now we’re lost and have no idea where we are. Where the hell is the address?”
I grabbed the sheet of paper from her lap and stared at the directions.
“You’ve overshot the mark, dammit!” I said. “If there’s one thing I hate it’s someone who pretends they know everything.”
Rolling Hill Hospital, a huge brick building filled with sick or dying people was off on our right.
After passing Rizzo’s Pizza Parlor that one of my loser boyfriends took me to, a college professor who had stacks of porn magazines by the side of his bed, I pointed to a white sign that read “Rolling Hill Nursing Home.”
She parked and we entered. The plan was to give a good Obama pep talk to all the people on our list. Their names were clearly printed out with those square-ish letters from the computer. You read the column as it marched across the page, you know, party of affiliation, date they last voted, DOB and even phone number. We could’ve had phone duty but we each wanted to be part of the “Vote Yes for Change Campaign” and meet voters face to face.
The home was equipped with a lovely blue patterned carpet as we walked in, a piano in the lobby, and a counter behind which no one sat.
The smell of lunch attracted us.
“We should wait here until someone comes,” said Betty.
“Well, you can wait here,” I said. “But, me, I’m gonna find the voters.”
I was ravenous to begin.
Old people interested me. They were twisted caricatures of what they used to be. The faces on the women were like puffy croissants but not half so tasty. Men had those horrid big brown age spots in odd places on their face, which they should simply, I thought, scrape off with an X-Acto blade. You see, I never felt comfortable with old people. But I took this as a challenge to see if I could get over my distaste.
The first thing I noticed after I broke away from Betty was the smell of the place. I don’t have to tell you what it smelled like. Unemptied Depends. In the old days when people didn’t shower, they would douse themselves with perfume. Why didn’t Rolling Hill do the same?
I was on the stairs when I heard Betty’s high-heels clopping behind me.
“Nothing to do, so I guess I’ll come with you. Where should we start?”
We were now on the second floor. A nurse in one of those snappy overblouses that look like a well-worn maternity frock snapped, “And what do you think you’re doing in my nursing home?”
“Oh, we’re just canvassing for Obama,” I chirped.
“Did you get permission to come up here?”
Betty started to say something, but I quickly said, “Of course we did. We’re just going to peek in the rooms and see who’s in there. It’s our job. Allyson Schwartz, the State Congresswoman sent us.”
The nurse, clipboard in hand, nodded and disappeared down the hallway.
There are only two times in my life I’ve felt really important. One was today, canvassing for Obama. The other was in a supermarket when a young man flopped on the floor in the juice aisle and took a seizure.
I knelt down and cushioned his head with my hands.
"You are welcome, sir," I thought.
With Betty in tow, I entered a huge room that was making all sorts of noises, from both machines and human beings. Where was I? How had I gotten here? How might I leave? Was I on an alien ship with Spock and crew slumbering to slow their beating hearts to get back to Planet Earth?
“Oh, for chrissakes,” said Betty. “Look what you’ve done. Look where you’ve taken us.” Her arms were flailing.
“You’re crazy. I’m getting out of here," she said.
“Don’t drive off without me. I’ll be down in a minute,” I said, looking down on the bed at was once a woman but now resembled an inflatable still-breathing corpse with cactus-like stubble growing over her face.
And you know what I actually thought when I saw her? Well, two things. “This could be me,” was the first. And the second was, “She once made love and had fine spongy breasts.”
I roamed along the long room, taking my time to look at each living carcass, none of them awake. I sat down on a bed and looked at the Italian name of a woman. I lay my hand on her arm, just below where the bruise was where the intravenous went in. I squeezed a tiny bit and she awoke. Or, I should say, her eyes opened. But was she awake? Was she cognizant? Was she a sentient being?
“Mary?” I said, staring into her blurry gray-green eyes and open mouth. “I’m here to tell you about Barack Obama. Do you know who he is?”
Her eyes blinked. I had practiced my speech back at headquarters and I recited it now on the side of the bed to Mary Italian last-name. She snored through my presentation. I was confused. Was she snoring or was she walking her way into death? And how long would it take? And did anyone care?
Can’t say that I did. Mostly, I felt sorry for myself, a witness to this human decay, stench and degradation.
A handsome man who looked like an orchestra conductor walked into the room. The stethoscope gleamed in the light of the ever-present fluorescents on the ceiling. On second thought, he was not so handsome at all. He had a washed-out look, a sadness in his eyes.
“Visiting?” he asked.
“Sort of,” I said. “I’m making new friends. Canvassing for Barack Obama, our first black president.”
“Seems like a smart man,” he said. “Give me your pitch,” he said staring at my grey turtleneck from Impact Thrift Store.
He listened to me and nodded his head.
“Would you let me listen to my heart?” I asked him. He seemed pleasant enough and I wanted to give him a break from all these dying chickens.
He put the stethoscope around my ears and placed the shiny silver disc in my hand.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
“Hey, I’m still alive,” I said. “What I imagine to be a strong steady beat.”
“You bet,” he said, moving down the rows to study the remains of what once were people in the Rolling Hill Nursing Home.
Betty was sitting with her legs kicking in the lobby with that glamorous rack of untrained curls radiating the only joy in the place.
“Ready?” I said.
I refused to apologize as we walked to her shiny white car whose battery turned nicely as we headed back to the office.
Obama won and I ran out to buy a copy of the New York Times with the headlines reading "Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls."
I keep it in the bottom of my underwear drawer, where it gets frailer with every passing day.