The House in Hewlett

A Life in Three Acts 

Act 1. The House in Hewlett

“She goes outside with no clothes on,” blurts my cousin Myrna.

I lay the phone on the counter while she vents. In the end, everything breaks down. First to go was my aunt’s hearing. Then, her eyesight. Finally, bits and pieces of her mind crumbled. There isn’t any need for a speakerphone.  My cousin is used to talking loudly.

“Between Mom and little Stevie,” says Myrna, “I’m up to my elbows in shit all day long.”

Myrna babysits her grandson while her son and daughter-in-law work. I picture the hallway of her home. A stroller is parked next to my aunt’s walker. The kitchen shelves are lined with Enfamil and Ensure, Pampers and Depends.

“Hire an aide,” I suggest. There’s no denying the genetic link.  Me. My cousin. My aunt. We all have hazel eyes and arthritic joints. Our lives are never a series of small dramas. We swallow everything in big gulps.

Myrna’s just finding her stride. “My knees are killing me. I live in constant pain.”

“Get help,” I say again. Every week our conversation loops like a double helix. We are hopelessly intertwined.

“Aides are fifteen bucks an hour,” says Myrna. My aunt has diamond broaches the size of hood ornaments. Safety deposit boxes crammed with bonds. A lifetime of savings has been put aside for a rainy day. But now that the sky has opened, when hailstones the size of boulders tumble from the heavens, my cousin won’t part with a dime.

“Fifteen dollars an hour,” my cousin bellows, “would eat up everything.” 


Act 2. The Nursing Home

There are a dozen wheelchairs lined up in the lounge. A TV blares. A player piano collects dust. Between each window a seascape hangs on the white walls. A clutch of palm trees, a rowboat, ocean waves that dip and crest like toothy smiles.

Most of the residents are melted into their wheelchairs, their bodies expanded to fill the empty space. Not my aunt. She lists like a sinking ship.  One elbow is tucked into her hip. Her head rests on her shoulder. The nurses’ station stands twenty feet away.

“Help me,” my aunt implores.

Someone’s taken a razor to her hair. Clumps zigzag her scalp like a thatched hut. “Help me,” she says. Her fingernails are thick and yellow.  They look like they hadn’t been trimmed in weeks. Suddenly her hand swings like a scythe and grabs my sleeve. “Help me.”


Act 3. The Funeral

Yit gaddal veyit gaddash shmeh rabba. May His great name be exalted and sanctified.

We take turns with the shovel, throwing dirt on my aunt’s casket. The rabbi rocks on his heels and chants. Myrna moans. Around us coils a line of elderly men and women. Perhaps some of them were plumbers like my uncle. Maybe they played mahjong with my aunt.

As they make their way past the receiving line, one thing is certain. In an hour’s time, they will cleanse their hands with a pitcher of water outside my cousin’s house. They’ll nibble on danish and stuff some rugelach wrapped in paper napkins in their pockets. Then a week later they’ll return.

They’ll sip their cherry schnapps and have a bagel with a schmear. When every stomach is full and every prayer is recited, a parade of walkers and wheelchairs will circle the block. They’ll walk slowly and carefully, sweeping aside pebbles and watching for errant cracks, all the while waiting and anticipating what lurks beyond the corner.