23 August 2007...10:53 pm

Forgiving Betty Schwartz

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About ten years ago, now, my paternal grandmother started complaining about Betty Schwartz. My grandparents were living in South Jersey, then, so they would invariably see Betty and her husband, Harry, at diners; if you have spent any time at all in South Jersey you might seek solace in faux maple syrup and scrapple, too.

My grandparents probably ordered chicken at the diners, and for all I know, the Schartzes ordered pork tenderloin, but what the Schwartzes ordered was not my grandmother’s concern. What made her blood boil, what she would viciously mock whether the mockery made sense in the conversation or not, was what happened after dinner with the Schwartzes. At the end of each meal, Betty would collect all of the uneaten bread, unopened sugar packets, and–once things had reached an acute state of social lawlessness–unmelted butter squares from the table. (My grandmother never mentioned if Betty bothered to leave a tip).

Betty had Alzheimer’s, of course, and this would have been evident to everyone if we’d been thinking about Alzheimer’s at all in the summer of 1997. As it happened, though, the members of my family were all thinking, variously, of Spencer Dennis’s hazel eyes, Eagles exhibition games, the Spice Girls, a dissertation in Educational Psychology, a divorced husband and an available Harley-owner, and the feasibility of moving to Los Angeles for work.

The group above is composed of myself, my grandfather, my baby sister, my mother, my aunt, and my father; my grandmother was, in fact, thinking about Alzheimer’s. She had started hating Betty because she had started to hate herself.

Our birthday cards arrived later than usual, and then not at all; my grandmother refused and then forgot to take the very medicine that was supposed to help her memory; she stopped using her curlers and painting her nails; finally, the inevitable happened.

My grandfather has never taken care of himself; he went from his mother’s home to the US Navy to making a home with his wife, Ardel. He belongs to a generation of men that may be blindingly loyal to their wives and yet never notice what kind of dish soap is used in their kitchen. A few years ago, he came down with a kidney infection. Because he didn’t want to ask for help, and because my grandmother kept forgetting that something was wrong and they should do something about it, he was completely jaundiced. When my grandfather went in for a routine doctor’s appointment that week, all the skin on his body was yellow. He was in the hospital for a week afterwards, during which it became clear that my grandmother had been forgetting to feed them, too.

My grandparents live, now, in a sandstone complex that calls itself “The Shores At Wellesley Manor” and that is called by my grandfather “The Home.” The Home is in the same town as my parents’ beach house, and tonight I have come with them here, under the auspices of taking my grandmother to get a manicure.

My grandparents came over for dinner, and my mother cooked chicken-in-a-bag. I am not sure if chicken-in-a-bag exists in lands other than the one my relations and I inhabit, but my grandmother used to make it, so we thought it might help.

All that it could possibly help was the number of times my grandmother asked who was dead and who wasn’t dead, the number of times my grandmother marveled that I enjoyed, really enjoyed, driving a car, the number of times we told her about her upcoming 60th wedding anniversary, or the number of times my grandmother’s voice, high and reedy to begin with, wavered while she said “you know, I really worry that I’m losing something. There are things I just can’t remember anymore.”

She no longer mentions Betty Schwartz. If we are honest with ourselves, we may suppose that Betty has died.

We went to the boardwalk after dinner, and then walked them inside, to their room in The Home. My grandmother had both of her knees replaced years ago, but then forgot to do the exercises necessary for recovery, so walking down a hallway beside her is languorous. Tonight, as I tried to keep pace with my grandmother while I read off the names of residents as they were posted outside of their doors, I felt as if we had fallen in time with a fugue.

Miss Evelyn Simon. Reverend Horace Blick. Mrs. Johanna Kerns. Mrs. Myrtle Stallsmith. Mr. & Mrs. Jakob Greenwell. Mrs. Agnes Kershaw. Mrs. Delia Mae Preston. And then three doors in a row that were just labeled WELCOME.

It was really too hot in my grandparents’ apartment, and my grandmother–like a tired child after a big day–started to cry a little when we got back. On the drive back to our beach house, none of us mentioned my grandparents. Instead, we talked about the boardwalk, where we’d all eaten ice cream and sat on the same bench. My grandfather had been counting people. Tonight, he pronounced “Emma, there must have been 5,000 people out here tonight!” I mentioned this to my family and my mother said that my grandfather had made a similar pronouncement on Memorial Day Weekend, except that time it had been “Becky, there must be half-a-million people out here today!”

We all chuckled a little, and briefly discussed sample sizes and margins of error.

Then my father, a man who counts his blessings in both a spiritual and a corn-fed sense, sighed and said decisively “I do love the boardwalk.”

My mother must have been feeling coy. Or completely normal. “You like a touch of the common experience?”

He didn’t answer directly. “I don’t need a lot of it. The boardwalk.”

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