About four or five years ago I got my grandmother an American Express Card that was attached to my account. This was, in my opinion, the coup de maitre, the masterstroke, of what had become, over time, a veritable catalog of lifestyle "improvements" I'd attempted to impose upon her in her late eighties. At that time, she was beginning to show symptoms of what I at first presumed to be a garden variety, age appropriate forgetfulness, but turned out to be the onset of Alzheimer's. While I'd had limited success with some earlier catalog entries—hearing aids, sneakers, and, my personal favorite, non-stick pans—I felt confident that an American Express Card was the perfect antidote to her growing confusion during shopping expeditions. Now she wouldn't have to worry about counting cash or writing out checks. She could buy anything she wanted, anywhere she wanted, with The Card, and she could just pay me back later. It seemed like such reasonable idea, especially since I knew she wasn't the type to stay up till all hours ordering a year's supply of Victoria Principal beauty aides from the Home Shopping Network, or suddenly decide one morning while cooking Cream of Wheat that what she could really use is a ten thousand dollar Garland stove.
Up until then the only credit card she ever had was a B. Altman's card. When it came time to pay a bill, she went to the store and hand-delivered her payment, in full. I'm not sure my grandmother even waited for the B. Altman's bill to arrive in the mail before she took the bus back across town to the store to pay it. In fact, this was how she paid all of her bills. Once a month we walked her rent check to the rental office of her building complex. The telephone bill was brought to an AT&T storefront on Eighth Avenue.
Maybe she just didn't trust the United States Postal Service, which was odd because there was a view from my grandparents' window of the old post office at Twenty-Ninth Street. A very long time ago, when we were young and short, my brother and I used to stand on the two foot high radiator cover beneath the window in the den and watch the postal trucks navigate the roof-top parking lot on the federal building next door to it. It all seemed on the up and up. But these were the Nixon years, and perhaps my grandmother, a socialist, felt particularly disenfranchised.
When she paid in cash, my grandmother withdrew any one of several combinations of bills and coins from her billfold, her change purse, an inside pocket of her pocketbook, and a second, smaller billfold. Occasionally, she pressed into service the extra twenty she kept in the pocket of her skirt.
The American Express Card never quite caught on. Primarily, it turned out that its Enormous Buying Power, such as I was able to describe it to her, was antithetical to my grandmother's sense of privacy. Who needed someone to know so much about you? Where you shop, what you buy, how much credit you have? My grandmother didn't like anyone to know anything about her. A person could ask the most innocuous question—where she grew up or if she'd ever traveled to Norway—and she would say later, "What does she need to know that for?" and, indignantly, "She asked me if I'd ever been to Norway! Can you imagine?" My grandmother read judgment into personal questions, as if they were rather questions on a quiz and there was a right and wrong answer. A wrong answer might mean she was provincial. A right answer might reveal she was too bourgeois. So my grandmother would say, "Oh, I've been here and there." Her tone would have been coy, but her intent clear. She may well have danced the tarantella with Henrik Ibsen on a moonlit night in Oslo, but if she did, it was no one's business but her own.
I can see now, too, that the American Express card was too open-ended for my grandmother, its functionality so wide-ranging as to render it irredeemably vague. Who exactly was American Express, anyway? Wasn't it a travel agency? At one point, she asked me if we were going on a trip. I should have dropped the whole enterprise then and there. My grandmother had always been literal-minded, even before the Alzheimer's. Moreover, even in her prime, with all her faculties intact, it would never have occurred to her to buy things she could not pay for with the money she had in the bank. Buying on credit was too precarious, too fraught with the possibility of blowing it all, all the gains, all the sweat and struggle. It was even, perhaps, a little unsavory. Where were you going to get this money, anyway, when it came time to pay the piper? Nobody wanted their knees broken. My grandparents lived in the same two bedroom apartment for over forty years. It was neat and clean and very comfortable, but not too fancy, nothing bought on an installment plan. Besides, fancy was dangerous. Fancy meant that it was always possible that the socialists would come one day, revoke your membership, and occupy your apartment in the name of The People, as they did Ralph Richardson's mansion in Dr. Zhivago.
My grandmother's B. Altman's card was more a symbol of customer loyalty than an expression of financial free will. It was a permanent record of her proud affiliation with the store, which may be why she carried it long after B. Altman's closed. It remained in her wallet like an I.D card. In a way, it was. Altman's sold quality clothes, well made, not flashy, and of good value. That's what my grandmother wore. That is who she was: well made, not flashy, good value.
My grandmother grew up in Russia in poverty. She rarely spoke of her childhood, but I have gathered, from the little she has told me, that her father was the great love of her life. (That is, aside from my father. I'm sure she loved my grandfather, too; they were married for sixty-seven years, but, well, twin beds.) My grandmother's father was a feckless fellow, not much of a breadwinner, but, by her account, merry and charming. My grandmother was the eldest of four girls and he treated her as though she was his son, which, in the old days, was a great compliment. He took her everywhere, often on his shoulders. Maybe that last part isn't true. But it's a visual image I have of them now, jaunty and quixotic, extrapolated from what my grandmother told me, or maybe just from a look on her face. Her father became ill and died when she was nine or ten. After that the family burned the furniture for firewood. Or something like that. Then the revolution came and they got out. They sailed from Constantinople to Marseille to Ellis Island when my grandmother was sixteen. At least she said she was, so she could work. When she got to Ellis Island she went into the ladies washroom, took all of her clothes off, washed herself and the clothes in the sink, and then put the clothes back on. That's what they mean when they say they had only the clothes on their backs.
I go to the nursing home today as I have done innumerable times. As I exit the elevator, I see through the giant fish tank that makes up most of the wall between the hallway and the Rec room that it is TV time. Rows and rows of wavy figures seated in wavy wheelchairs face a large TV screen. Through the oxygenated, undulating water it looks like an impressionist painting, blurry and vivid at the same time. "The Old and Infirm in the Evening at Westchester." I'm not sure what they are watching; it is probably a rerun of Matlock or Murder, She Wrote. I don't know why but I wish it was something incongruous, like World Cup Soccer. It sure isn't PBS, which is too bad; my grandmother was a life-long supporter of Channel Thirteen. She drank her lukewarm coffee from its mugs and carried her book club books and rubber rain shoes in its canvas tote bags. During her last year in the apartment she had become an ardent fan of Riverdance.
From the doorway it is not hard for me to spot the back of my grandmother's little white head and bent neck. Even if she was dressed in a Santa Claus outfit and sitting in a sea of Santa Clauses, I would still recognize her from behind. Isn't it funny how that is? Once I would have been happy to find her so situated, in the company of others, but now I am saddened. The old Grandma would never have willingly joined in any such gathering. She would have wandered around on her sturdy, ankle-less legs, doing her own thing, chatting up the desk nurses with her nonsense, snidely refusing to partake in group functions. Sometimes I am sorry my grandmother never swore. She would have been well served by the expression "Fuck that shit."
Tonight she is wearing an outfit I do not recognize. It consists of a white blouse and a faded-to-white floral print thing that is wrapped around her waist, and I can't tell if it is supposed to be a skirt or what. These items are not hers. Sometimes it still amazes me that I know every single piece of her clothing. Underneath all this is a thin white layer which appears to be a full slip. My grandmother dabs her nostril with a corner of the skirt. It is not totally unreasonable to believe that she might have mistaken this for a hanky. I am sure she first searched for a pocket in which she hoped to find a Kleenex, because that is where she always kept one or two, neatly folded, along with her key, which was safety-pinned to the pocket lining. I come up to her and touch her shoulders. Hi Grandma, I say. It's Cindy. Who, who? she asks. I put my face right up to hers. It's Cindy. Who? Oh, my Cindy. I wheel her away to the winter garden to look out at the falling leaves.
Once, not so long ago, my grandmother, a dressmaker by trade who expertly sewed many of her own clothes, would have as soon wiped her nose on her skirt as she would have sent a holiday card to Ronald Reagan. She took enormous pride in her appearance—her smooth, ironed blouses and soft cardigan sweaters, her fully lined wool skirts with their neat on-seam pockets. My grandfather once told me that one very warm evening, not long after he first met my grandmother, he ran into her at a concert in Philadelphia's Fairmont Park, and my grandmother pretended not to know him. So, part way through the concert, when he found her sitting on a bench with an open book in her lap, he suggested to her that she had brought the book along so people would think she was an intellectual. He told her he doubted that she had even read it. Insulted, my grandmother stomped away, but it was so hot out that her white skirt stuck to her thighs and she had to peel it away in full view of my grandfather. I like to imagine that perhaps this was why, for as long as I knew her, even through dementia, she never wore a skirt without a lining or a slip.
My grandmother also took pride in her hard-earned accomplishments, her spotless apartment with its all-over, moss-colored carpeting and clean white walls, painted every two years. Over time the light switches had become harder and harder to locate, obscured beneath fifteen layers of Benjamin Moore China White. When my grandmother first saw the tiny, charming brownstone apartment I lived in when I was single, with its hard wood floors and wall of exposed brick, she was appalled. She knew from experience that that is how the poor lived. Certainly, it's where the pogroms, should they return, would find you huddled, perhaps in the pitiable glare of a bare light bulb. (Someone this poor probably wouldn't have lampshades.) Nice people, people whose grandmothers had B. Altman cards, for example, had rugs and paint.
We are told that sometimes now she is found sleeping in other patients' beds. And they in hers. Her bras disappear on a weekly basis; occasionally it is clear that she is not wearing one. Among the pictures on her bureau is one of a little girl none of us know. I call her Missy. I like to imagine her to be the sister my grandmother referred to when the Alzheimer's got her to thinking I had one. The photo album of our actual family, the one I made for her a few weeks after she moved to the nursing home, has long since disappeared, and I fear some other resident, one with a milder case of dementia, will look through the photographs and gasp in horror because, for the first time, she does not recognize her own family.
At first we railed against the system. My mother sewed name tags into my grandmother's clothes, as she had into mine and my brother's when we left for sleep-away camp. (She probably just snipped a bunch of Kaplans from what was left of the thirty-year-old roll of Cindy Kaplans.) So, where are my grandmother's things? Sometimes I worry that people are dying in clothes labeled Kaplan, an unsettling notion. We demand an accounting of the garment situation from the social worker. She has none. Or rather the answer is obvious. My grandmother's fashion sense is a thing of the past. Perhaps the more unrecognizable she is to me, the easier it will be.
She has also become too frail to take out of the nursing home. Nothing pleased my grandmother more than getting into our car for the five minute ride to the local diner. The food there was very mediocre, which was exactly how she liked it. She was ecstatic just to see the car pull in at lunchtime to pick her up and was equally thrilled after the meal, as we walked from the diner to the parking lot, as if she hadn't seen the very same car in years, much less an hour and a half. She praised it lavishly. "That's a beautiful car you have." Or "Oh, my goodness, that's your car? Since when?" It was there at the diner that, with a supernatural power often attributed in the movies to the aged or to four-year-old Victorian-era children previously thought to have been drowned, she intuited I was pregnant. One winter day, as we waited for my husband David to pay the bill, and apropos of nothing, my grandmother smiled and patted my stomach. "Ahh," she said, and "Well, well, well."
There was a long time during which I felt that I could not have a child as long as I was helping to take care of my grandmother because, in a sense, she was my child. Then she went into the home and I had a son. It is the natural order of things. The King is dead, long live the King. But so have I been usurped. She loves the baby, loves him, but she hasn't said my name unprompted in a long time. I have begun to miss her, the old Grandma, as she once was. I have thought all along that the baby filled the space but I see now that it is a different space. She and I used to hold hands all the time, even while we were sitting around. "I just need you," she would say, clutching my hand, holding it to her cheek. I have stopped holding her hands, because, well, because now I am holding the baby. But is there anything in the world that feels or looks like an old person's skin? The baby's? No, not the baby's. The baby's skin is opaque, it is made up of layers and layers of constantly multiplying cells, it is all promise. My grandmother's skin is transparent, blue tinged and smooth like something worn down to it's essence, like sea glass. It may not withstand the tides another year. Soon it will disappear.
Sometimes days go by now and I don't think of her.
Suddenly, American Express promotional offers are coming to my apartment addressed to Dorothy Kaplan. Does she want to join my gym and get a half-price facial? Is she interested in European travel excursions? Does she want to shop at Michael C. Fina or stay in a Hilton Hotel for a special price if she uses The Card? I'd like to know where they were when she had the card. I'd also like to know why they are not offering any of these discounts to me when I have been a Loyal Card Member Since 1985. Perhaps some small cog in the American Express marketing wheel has been digging up obsolete records in order to fill a quota. The first time it happened I was startled. No, shocked. Seeing her name like that—it was as if I had received a piece of mail addressed to Rip Van Winkle. But at the same time, I secretly thought: Hmm, Dorothy Kaplan, why, she's, well, huh, these are not concerns of mine anymore. Oh, the relief, now that she was in the home. Which is a terrible thing to feel, I know. But with her safely under lock and key, I no longer had to worry that she would become lost in a blizzard or fall in the bath or leave the stove on. And her chores, how they had eaten big chunks of my days. I certainly didn't miss shopping for her groceries, doing her laundry, sorting her mail into its various categories: junk mail, bills I would pay with her checkbook, things my father should look at when he comes, letters addressed to my deceased grandfather. All that relief was fleeting, however, because sometimes it seemed as though each letter, each postcard that arrived addressed to her was an admonishment, and posed the burning question: What have you done with Dorothy Kaplan?
I wrote about the terrible day we put my grandmother in the nursing home for a newspaper. After the piece ran, letters came to the newspaper, some addressed to the editors, some to me, an almost unanimous outpouring of sympathy. Many people just wrote because they wanted someone with whom they could share their own agonized stories. I was sent emails and letters from around the country, books on Alzheimer's by their authors, and even a tape of Alzheimer's inspired music. What that kind of music sounds like I still do not know. My dread of it outweighs my curiosity.
But there were a couple of other letters. Rebukes. One in particular from a Japanese man who indicted our society, American society, as a whole, asking why we do not care for our loved ones as they did for us, why we let someone else pick up the tab. We have broken the natural cycle of family life, he wrote. People all over the world attend to their elderly in their own homes, he said, and it should be an honor to do so.
Oy. Well, why was she in a nursing home? Why wasn't she at home or with her family, where she could still get mail? Where she could avail herself of promotional discounts like any American has the right to do? For one thing, it had gotten to the point where she needed twenty-four hour supervision, something none of us could have provided. As it was, my parents, my brother and I had been locked in an a fairly tight, near daily rotation of visits to my grandmother's apartment for the past couple of years. In fact, we probably waited longer than we should have to get her professional help—she still liked to stand on a chair to change a light bulb. This doesn't sound like a big deal until you factor in that the chair was on top of the kitchen table. And another thing: had my grandmother moved in with my parents we would have had to send my mother to a home.
On a cold, grim day in March, with my father at her side, my grandmother dies. We bury her next to my grandfather in a cemetery outside of Philadelphia. There is no formal funeral, only a graveside service presided over by a local rabbi whom none of us know. I do not cry, which is uncharacteristic, because I am an accomplished crier, but I hadn't seen my grandmother in the weeks before her death and I am not one hundred percent sure that she is gone. All that mixing and matching in the nursing home. Perhaps Mrs. Perlmutter, from down the hall, was laying in my grandmother's bed dressed in her herringbone blazer with the ORT pin on the lapel when she stopped breathing. In my mind it is likely that I will drive up to the home a few days from now (or a week, or however long I put it off for) and my grandmother will still be there. In fact, during the funeral, I take almost no notice of my grandmother's casket until we are preparing to leave the cemetery. But as I walk away and cast a last, cursory glance back, I am so startled by what I see there that I do a noisy, neck-wrenching double take, like Lou Costello in "Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy." Someone has placed a little ivory figure of a harp seal on top of the coffin. Her little ivory figure of a harp seal. It had lived, along with a Wedgwood ashtray, a University of Pennsylvania shot glass I had given her, and a jade something or other, on the top tier of a three-tiered occasional table in her apartment for as long as I can remember. Its sudden appearance is apparitional and utterly spooky and I grab my mother's arm and point to it. She, too, gasps. Then she remembers that my grandmother had given it to her grand-nephew, Michael, who was eleven or twelve. He must have decided to return it from whence it came. Clever boy.
They say that the older memories are the ones that endure. That when you can no longer work the telephone or the washing machine, other stuff, stuff that's been in deep storage, is extruded through those gaps and floods the consciousness with ancient goop. A family trip to the seashore in 1908, say. Or the time a horse kicked you in the forehead. I say you, to be inclusive, but I mean my grandfather, specifically, who liked to reference his scar on a regular basis. I had not seen that ivory seal in years, but now I will remember it to my dying day. I will picture the variegated whites of its ivory body, the perfectly rounded curve of its head and the graceful tilt of its tail. I will remember how, as a child, I loved the hard, smooth feel of it in my hands. I would stroke it tenderly and then I would hold it to my lips and cheek, where it felt cool. It will come back to me at odd moments of my life. It will appear in my dreams and find its way into my stories, like a kick in the head from a horse. And it helps, somehow, to think of my grandmother reunited with it. I hope she will know it when she sees it.
So, why did I want my grandmother to have an American Express Card? Why? Why did I want her to have hearing aids and sneakers? Why, for God's sake, did I want her to have Teflon? Was I trying to make her last longer, to keep her sharp, to stave off what was more and more obviously the inevitable? Yes, I was trying to save her, in this sense, but I was also trying to save myself. When my grandmother died I would no longer be a grandchild. The last little part of my childhood that belonged to me still, because I had a grandparent who was alive, would end, and the prospect of that ending seemed to be something that must be prevented at all cost, even at the risk, however unlikely, of having to return a Garland stove. No matter that I was already a grown-up, or that I worked and had a husband. No matter how badly I'd wanted my own child. I still wanted to be one. That sounds incredibly selfish but there it is. I am notoriously nostalgic for my childhood and I had counted on my grandmother to be a conduit. The relationship between grandchildren and grandparents is established early and is constructed of some fairly basic elements: playing scrabble, building houses with playing cards, flipping drink coasters, divvying up small treasures. And who else but a grandmother ever fried Bologna? What is remarkable is that these elements do not change with time. They do not age with you, they do not become obsolete. At least they did not for us, perhaps because my grandparents never bought any new games. But that is not why as adults my brother and I often sat on my grandparents' living room carpet and built card houses. We did it because we still could. And now we can't.
I suppose I wanted my grandmother to have The Card for exactly the reason she did not want it. For it's endless possibilities. I felt if she could learn to use an American Express Card she could learn anything, do anything, except go to the Olympics, of course, where Visa still purports to have a stranglehold. It was a test, really, which she failed not only because it was her nature, but because she had already begun to suffer from Alzheimer's. She had begun, despite my many protestations, her transformation from the grandmother of a child to the grandmother of an adult. And I had begun a transformation of my own.