In 1994 Ronald Reagan put Alzheimer’s disease prominently on the front pages. Around that time, my eighty-year-old Aunt Lily began her own slow descent into the same. She was a little Russian immigrant who worked hard in America for sixty-five years. With so few advantages throughout her entire life, leave it to her to still find a way to have the newest thing everybody was talking about.
Until Alzheimer’s claimed Ronald Reagan and actress Rita Hayworth, I didn’t think about it much, except in terms of myself of course: “Oh god oh god please don’t let me get that. Let me still be able to play Jeopardy at dinner when I’m a hundred”. Note: it just took me three tries to spell “Jeopardy”. Oh god oh god… Research says the mind is like a muscle to be exercised. Doing crossword puzzles (I do them!) and using the brain (I use it!) might help prevent dementia. Ancient Cities for two hundred, Alex.
Just plain old senility wasn’t this scary. We weren’t terrified by the image of our grandfather eating quietly at the Seder table. Not much is getting through, but isn’t that because he speaks mainly Russian? By the way, is there a Russian word for “shrimp”? Because our kosher grandfather is unwittingly going to hell courtesy of our sadistic mother. Does he not know it’s shrimp because he’s senile, or because he’s never seen it before? Or because once he escaped the Bolsheviks he forgot people like her existed?
My aunt Lily was a tiny dynamo, who wasn’t even close to coming in for a landing, though now no one was flying the plane. My cousin Harriet took care of her through it all. For her entire life, my aunt “went to business”, as she called it. She was a factory seamstress, bent over a sewing machine all day. At night she took home extra work, then made clothes for my cousin. You could show her a picture in a magazine and she made it for you. She could follow a pattern, a pattern for goodness sake. I can’t fold a map. My ShrimpPusherMother was quick to point out to anyone:
“She really can’t do sleeves”. She made the best cookies on earth. Pink and green button cookies; solid yet crumbly, velvety. Every birthday, they came in the mail.
“When is ya tour finished so I’ll wait ta mail them ta California?” The cookies would arrive cradled in egg cartons, wrapped in two weeks of the Jewish News (crosswords done, oh god oh god..) and twenty plastic bags, in a shoe box, not one cookie broken.
“How can she make cookies like this? They’re incredible.” To which my ShrimpSpoilerMother replied,
“She uses lard.” Second to her cookies was her coleslaw, which I loved. I was performing at the plush and elegant Kravis Center in Palm Beach. Into my dressing room comes the promoter, John Stoll, wearing an impeccable Armani suit. In his manicured hand he holds a huge Tupperware, wrapped in plastic. Milky white juice flows over his Rolex and drips onto his Bally shoes. I smell the finely chopped cabbage and vinegar. He announces,
“Your aunt Lily’s here.” Yes, she was here. Wherever I was, hers was the birthday card that found me. She never forgot. She never forgot anything, this woman who exercised her mind like a muscle. She knew how many stitches it took to make a coat, how many teaspoons of this and tablespoons of that it took to feed the family whose birthdays she never forgot. My faith in Jeopardy begins to wane. What chance do we have?
My nephew’s bar mitzvah was held at an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. My aunt seemed still to be my aunt, dancing every dance. Afterward, back at my brother’s house for sandwiches (because everyone knows you can’t get full in an Italian restaurant), my aunt Lily sat down next to me, and a strange thing happened. She put her hand on my arm, looked seriously into my eyes and without preface, began to tell me her entire life story. Well, what’s a few minutes of my life? I think. And maybe she’ll say something about the lard. I listen to my aunt and I realize I don’t know anything about my family. This is amazing. So Uncle Joe drove a cab and got robbed at gunpoint? My grandmother was a landowner in Kiev and a bootlegger in America? She never got angry if you broke something? What? There’s forgiveness in this family?
After about two hours I had heard the life story of a woman who worked at a time when most women didn’t work, a woman who stood up for herself, who explained to her various slimy bosses that her husband “might be sickly, but if you eva say anything ‘of that nature’ to me again”, he would come down there and punch their lights out. That’s how you handled it back then. Just a little life, like most of ours, and she had just handed it over to me for safe keeping, so she could let it go.
The years pass, I make my usual Sunday call. My cousin asks,
“Can I put her on?” knowing full well my aunt hasn’t responded in years, but,
“Sure”, I say. I try to think of what could engage her memory. I hear my cousin forcefully directing,
“Take the phone, it’s your niece, your niece, take the phone.” Silence, she’s on. I shout. (Why am I shouting? She’s not deaf.)
“Hi aunt Lily. It’s me. I’m in California. It’s hot.” Silence. Who can blame her? People without Alzheimer’s would have no response to that.
“I’m in California. When are you going to make cookies? You make the best cookies in the world.” A shaky little voice,
“I don’t rememba.” In the background I hear my cousin let out a gasp, the good kind.
“Well I do. You’re the world’s best baker. I’m going to come to Florida and give you plenty of notice, so you can start cooking up a storm. Nobody cooks like you.” There. I’ve unfurled the Jewish driftnet: food. I get a bite. Tentative, she says,
“It’s nice when you do things and people talk about it.”
“Yes it is”, I say. “Yes, it is.”
That night I do two jumbo Sunday crossword puzzles before I fall asleep. At five a.m. I wake alone in panic and sit up; to whom will I tell my story?