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My friend Gertrude used to call me every day at 4:30, 5:00 o’clock. She made me feel like I was a great psychologist and I could steer her out of her problems. With no children of her own, she was absorbed by a niece who had a long lost cousin who needed help. “I have enough relatives now. I’ve got my husband and I don’t know what to do. He’s in love with a bathhouse and I can’t stop him from being so clean. He spends his weekends there. Ask Mannie if he can talk to him. They are
such good friends.”
I look toward Mannie. He’s in his comfortable leather chair, swiveling around, reading his newspaper. “I can’t disturb him now, Gertrude. He’s busy.”
“You don’t have this problem, Laura. Mannie is so in love with you. He just doesn’t brag that he’s the best in everything and you know what I mean. My loved one is the best in soaping himself.”
I hear Mannie crushing the newspaper as he turns the pages, a warning that the conversation has gone long enough and it’s time to eat. “I have to go now, Gertrude. I’ve got to get something together for dinner.”
“That’s what I should be doing,” she said. “When I went down to the commissary, the grocer said to me, ‘Mrs. Gertrude, I’ve got something good for you, salmon stuffed with crab meat like
money in the bank.’ He can keep his fish. I'd rather have the money, otherwise I have to wait until Mr. Clean comes home from the bathhouse.”
“Gertrude, I have to go. Talk to you tomorrow, bye.”
“I can’t even talk to my friends,” I complained to Mannie. “You don’t let me. If you don’t treat me a little better, I am going to leave you.” The answer that I felt like giving Gertrude was
coming out of me. Mannie is still. His face is hidden behind his newspaper that doesn’t make a sound.
“You’re not leaving anybody,” he said. “You’re staying right here.” I turned to the sink to the stove like my grandmother did once upon a time. First thing I know Mannie is at my side, his hand on my shoulder, his head to mine. “What are you stirring up here, Laura? It smells so good.”
Three Women (or Food and Pain)
It made me rather edgy having to walk at my walker when I went to meet three of my friends at a Thai restaurant in Hillcrest.
“Why didn’t you let me pick you up?” Rebecca asked.
I didn’t want her to know how I was suffering with cramps in my thighs and preferred to take a cab. Pulling up a chair for me. My other two friends were already there. “Hi Laura.”
Pauline was sipping her tomato juice as though she were drinking Crown Royal, making faces.
And Ruth looked up to say, “I thought by now you had graduated from your walker?” setting it aside for me. She was working on her divorce. She had already changed many husbands. In a few days she is going to go driving around the country looking for a new place to live, a new environment. A town where you could walk to everything and no cars allowed, no pollution.
To her mind it had to have a certain kind of architectural setting for herself. There she would find an unpolluted husband. She talked about the group of dumpster divers. They travel around the country on bicycles and look to dumpsters for food to protest the wastefulness of our people. That’s
their motto. Always in my childish imagination are those Gardens of Babylon on Haddon Avenue growing outside our cottage, while inside the meager bowls of oatmeal are on our table. Then our garbage cans were empty.
Our entrees are served. The sharpness of the spices over my chicken vegetable stir fry had me thinking of Thailand. Oatmeal with spices? Would that have helped?
My friends were eating curried vegetables over rice. This simple Thai restaurant was full of pride one could see by the glass tops over the blue cloth on the tables. The shining silver. The pleasantness of the waitresses as they handle the crowds. They were standing in line now for a table.
Were we taking up too much time by talking so much?
Now as I sit at my tape recorder, I look back at that luncheon and how we women were coping with life. Ruth across the table had been quiet all that time. Suddenly, sadly saying, “They
don’t want me anymore as a volunteer in the nursing home. I don’t know why.”
She was an omnibus woman. Went from room to room, helping people to communicate, helping them to write letters. The patients never complained about the help. At times they didn’t
care for the food. Now she was out of work, so to speak, and she missed helping them. She loved to bake and give her cakes away.
We were all ears, very interested, Rebecca eating her curry silently. She was anxious with her own thoughts. In view of the heart operation she has to face -- they will use goat skin -- she
occupies herself with work and play. Getting up in years, her ill health did not deter her from volunteering her college education to do computer work for a theater and she had the fun of seeing all the plays in exchange. As a docent member she was part contributor to the Torrey Pines State Reserve Park. Whenever I spoke with her, she was always on her way to the theater.
I admired those three women, wishing I could do all that. I was sitting there in pain, but they didn't know it. I always try to hide pain from others. They have their own troubles, wishing I had my pillow.
Esther was all dressed up in a long cocktail dress and flowered picture hat, something like I saw in a fashion magazine I once picked up at the library. Even if my mother hadn’t told me, I
would have known that Esther was a New Yorker. Her stylish mother sat next to my mother.
Her pudgy twelve year old daughter, you could hear her actress voice, was waiting her turn at the bathroom, Sydelle of kindergarten age just coming out. Mayo, at the table, kept scribbling on his corduroy pants, already showing signs of becoming a great writer. “To starve to death one day,” Mannie used to say, “between me and you and the lamppost, Laura.”
I bragged how Mannie loved the horse races after learning that her Harry was top salesman for the high class Gladmann Brothers on the Westside, Chicago’s best.
Though mismatched, she was going to make a New Yorker out of me by taking me to Mandel Brothers basement to pick out the classiest dresses from the racks. Once and for all, I’ll look like a normal person with a New York accent – never so tall and beautiful as she, and never to carry off clothes as she did.
“What is this?” Mannie said. “Another dress?” Not that he cared what I spent or did with the forty-five dollars a week that he brought home.
Anyway, shopping for clothes, going by the “elevated,” brought us to a high level of friendship, building Mannie up at the same time. “He’s a graduate accountant, Laura, so say so. My Harry uplifted the furniture line and sells them all. Is there anything we can do for you? Do you need a new dining room set? And why not? So there will be less for the horses.”
So I bought a round table that opened up to a big oval, and four cane chairs for three hundred and fifty dollars. Mannie was beside himself, payments every week to Gladmann Brothers. We still had to come up with two dollars a month for Mayo’s Hebrew school in a small store on Kedzie.
Our friendship expanded into the “sextet club.” Rose and Dave, Sophie and Werner. You couldn’t beat Harry at poker. He raked in all the pennies no matter who dealt the cards. He talked to each card, “Have mercy, I need a king. I’ll take a queen.” And the right card flew to him.
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On Esther’s birthday, New Year’s Eve, she is now thirty-five, her mother made a big surprise party. The house pitch dark when she walked in with Harry.
“Surprise! Surprise!” We all jumped at her scaring her to death and sick with disappointment.
In glamorous clothes, she wanted Harry to take her someplace. We all stood dead silent. For sure we
expected her to turn and run out of there, leave us to enjoy her mother’s special green Jello mold with peas and tuna salad.
So then, Harry had to promise her a special trip to Lake Geneva. “In winter? At the lake?”
Mannie thought it was idiotic, but since I was determined to climb the ladder of high society, and Harry too busy on the furniture floor, I got my way and went with her to Lake Geneva.
We were the only two in the hotel. We were the only ones there to see a rehearsal of an amateur play. The cast not knowing which way was out, our laughter was mostly at ourselves. “Ha, ha. We’re home.” Like two runaways scared of our own shadows and glad to get back to our pots and pans the next day.
One winter the “boys” arranged a two-week vacation for us in Miami Beach. Esther and I paraded up and down Lincoln road, window shopping all the way. Oh, for Mandel Brothers
Then we had a nice long wait in the hotel lobby, the two “boys” lost somewhere in Miami paradise. “Where are they? What’s going on? It’s dinner time.”
Settled on a sofa, we two had time to rip up everybody. “See-eye.” Esther would nudge me, point to her eye, then point to a guest. “Look. What does he see in her? How she’s dressed.” And again, “See-eye. What does that one see in him? And her over there. She must have lots of money to carry off a man like that. So handsome you could die. That one with a cane. And her with a walker.”
“How empty our lives,” I would say to Esther, she thoughtfully saying, “I feel like a cigarette. Let’s have some coffee.”
The vacation splurge over, back in Chicago in the same old game, how to make ends meet and back to our Saturday poker nights usually at Rose and Dave’s. Rose again showing off her sponge cake, sometimes with apologies, “This one fell in.”
Then to the card table, Harry shoveling in all the pennies. “Fill in this middle straight. I need a jack. The jack! Or a royal flush! Here it is!” Sophie and Werner, Rose and Dave, Laura and Mannie, we were gluttons for punishment.
“Laura,” Esther would say, “look at your shoes. You’re wearing the same shoes, for years.”
And “Why don’t you try to look a little better,” Same words, over and over.
One day, Esther and I were walking along Lawrence Avenue past the Terminal Movie House theater. A little boy came running up to us. “You know President Roosevelt just died?” We looked at each other. The kid’s crazy. Roosevelt can’t die. President Roosevelt could never die, we loved him. We were walking to Rose’s house to visit her. She was recuperating from another heart attack.
By the time we got there we knew. People were crying in the street, “Roosevelt died.”
There was terror in every face. President Roosevelt can’t die. The country will be lost. What will we do? How can we save ourselves? I saw that same helpless panic after Pearl Harbor was attacked. We were drowning then. Gathering strength, we emerged to survive again.
We brought the news to Rose who was white as the sheet she lay on. Not only did Roosevelt die and he wasn’t supposed to, Rose died, too. Our beautiful friend, Rose, who made all those
enjoyable poker game parties for us, who left us gifts of hand-made cross-stitched embroidered aprons, sewn while she lay sick in bed. In between recuperations, she sat on the floor fixing hems on dress alterations to earn a little money. Dave had already died, too.
“Don’t marry her,” his mother had once warned him. “She is a sick girl.”
Just the opposite. He became the sick one and she carried the burden.
At the cemetery her sister, Violet, cried the place down. “Goodbye, Rose. Goodbye. Goodbye!”
We would all have to get along without Rose.
As I sit and write this, I can’t believe I haven’t talked to Esther in years. After we moved to San Diego, our friendship continued by phone. The calls slowly dwindling away. I had seen her twice in the intervening years during visits to Chicago.
It was a hot humid day on that first visit. We took the bus to Devon and Western, having to transfer and wait in blazing sun for our next bus to finally get to the deli. She walked with a cane.
We were in our seventies then. Her hand and cane shivered as though she had some kind of palsy or Parkinson’s. Riding buses was not easy for her, but she was determined to take me for lunch. She talked about a retirement home on Lake Shore Drive.
As we laughed about old times, we always held to thoughts of our friendship, our closeness, at the same time the space had been widening between us.
On my second visit calling her, “Come on, Esther, we’re picking you up. It’s opening night of Mayo’s play at the Victory Theatre in old town, The Old Lady’s Guide to Survival’ with June Havoc. Norman is driving and we want to pick you up. Got a ticket for you. Dress up! Dress up!
“No,” she said, her shivering voice giving her away, one word breaking into the next. A much too soft goodbye between us, after a friendship of over sixty years, as if we gradually walked out into some wasteland and disappeared.
As the Rabbi once said, “The longer you live, the more goodbyes you have to say.” My Chicago friends are now all behind me.
In a writing class at extension school at UCSD, I was going to write the greatest story ever told and so was Madelyn, mother of four grown daughters, her hair a too-bright red, right out of a bottle to cover the gray, I thought, and hardened her face and hurt her sweet smile. An unsteady, nervous twitch to her hand as she scribbled a page. Her husband had been an anchor man to a TV somebody and her writing ideas went that way.
I being just about twenty years older, in my seventies for sure, didn’t expect a friendship to develop, but there we were in class. Then at my home reading manuscripts together, that is until she found herself a nice man, brought him over one afternoon. “Judge for yourself, Laura, how lucky I
am.” Too good-looking, too charming, a womanizer for sure, a heart-breaker.
I already pictured myself let out. No more luncheon dates, a movie together here and there as she went forward with her relationship, renting a big house. She was never happier.
Over the phone, “The furniture isn’t in yet, Laura, but I’m picking you up. You’ve just got to see it.”
A different-looking Madelyn greeted me, now a bleached blond, her skirt knee-length, her legs looking longer than ever.
She had chairs in her car, and we picnicked on her patio outside her empty house that faced the university in the distance.
Suddenly, fingering the beads that hung low from her neck, her hair glistening in sunlight, she began to sing hymns as she did as a child when singing in the church choir. That’s how we spent the afternoon, I taking turns singing Jewish lullabies, “Raisins and little goats. Sleep, my little one, sleep.”
“I wonder how it will be, Laura,” she said on the way home, “to bring an unmarried stepfather into that house – with my daughters. I’m not looking for legal rights as some women as they say, ‘only marriage, nothing but marriage. Then I get his social security, his pension.’”
A few months later when I called, her lover answered the phone. He yelled out “You get off that line up there! When I’m talking on the phone, you get off the line!” His charm was gone.
She once told me, “My Irish grandmother used to say, ‘Don’t worry about that, Madelyn, just you don’t worry for it is up you are going.’”