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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
Puzzle Pieces Image

To my Children
The Suicide letter of a Miami woman who feared old age

by Bee Baxter
Miami Herald, "Tropic" August 14, 1983
pages 11-15,
24-25

 

[Inside cover: "Saying Goodby by Bee Baxter. 'If life is good,' she wrote, 'it should be maintained. If it has long ceased to be so, why inflict it on those whom you love?' Better than most, the author knew the pain of watching a parent succumb to senility, helpless and bewildered. She chose an alternative. Cover Illustration by Kinmanne Uhler."]

[Page 10 photographs top left to bottom right. Beatrice Alma Light as infant professional photograph. Bee Baxter mid 1930's before KSTP RCA A44 microphone. Family photograph (about 1920) of Mamie left, Beatrice top, Dick bottom, and Ruben Light, right. Rubin and Manie Light 50th anniversary photograph back yard of 348 Woodlawn Avenue, St. Paul, MN, by Deena Hoffman June 1961). Miniature of Tropic cover portrait from front page. Bea and Mel on the porch at Norway Camp, shortly before Mel's death. Photograph of Bea taken as young woman (very early twenties). Formal standing photograph of Mamie Levin, about age 24. Professional photograph as it appeared in McCall's Magazine.]

Page 11, on

She strode into the Channel 2 newsroom in 1964 and asked for work. She'd do anything at all. Free of charge.

George Dooley regarded the short, plump, middle-aged woman quizzically. At that time, Miami's fledgling public TV station wasn't much" a handful of desks and chairs, a typewriter, a secretary, a program director and George Dooley, president. Who would want to work at a place like this -- for nothing?

Still, a volunteer was a volunteer. Dooley gestured toward a vacant cubicle in the back. Bee Baxter smiled.

"She took possession of that office," Dooley recalls. "Got a desk and a chair and brought in her own typewriter and began to put together a campaign for corporate finacial support."

Through the next 18 years, Baxter was instrumental in turning Channel 2's fortunes around. She conceived and organized the station's yearly auction, recruited and trained hundreds of volunteer workers, personally raised thousands of dollars in contributions. She would work the phone from the clutter of her tiny office, cigaret dangling from her mouth, clawing through her Rolodex, issuing hoarse entreaties for money or volunteers. She was persistent, pushy, a harranguer, a pest. In person, she'd buttonhole her mark, maneuver him into a corner, thump his chest for emphasis. She knew how to work your guilt, inflect you with her spirit. "You would be force-fed the strong, scadling chicken soup of her will and personality, whether you needed it or not," a friend once wrote.

Every morning she would take a long walk to "smell the day," as she put it. Then, she'd go to work. When she wasn't at Channel 2, she was helping set up an after-school activities program for poor black children in South Miami, doing volunteer work for her church, creating the board of directors for WLRN, Miami's public radio station. She had been a radio broadcaster in South Dakota in the 1940s and '50s, she had twice won a McCall Magazine national mike award, and she had no intention of retiring in Florida.

"She was so inspiring, you would never do less than your best," says Petey Cox, first president of the WLRN board. "You felt this urgency to respond. She had everyone around her going at their peak performance. She was an enormous intelligence."

Like many driven people, Baxter found little peace in her private life. Though she hid it from most of her friends and coworkers, she suffered extreme swings of mood, from elation to crippling depression, particularly after the death of her husband in 1980.

In February, at the age of 71, but in good physical health, Bee Baxter took her own life. Her friends were devastated.

Marilyn Manzanilla: "I didn't know she was hurting that much. She did it out of strength. She hurt for the world, for the people in her life."

Petey Cox: "I miss her still. I guess I always will. She changed my life."

Hattie Mickens: "She did all she intended to do. She really left a mark."

Baxter also left some suicide notes addressed to her three children, and a manuscript, written a decade before, describing the declining years of her parents, who died in senility, a painful burden on the family.

Bee Baxter said she didn't want to be such a burden.

Her writings are excerpted here with permission of her children.

The Letter

To my beloved son and daughters:

This is written in love and no apology....

It is very obvious and has been for a long time now, that there is not enough pleasure in living to make it worthwhile....and I much prefer to leave you while I am still capable of making decisions -- even though this one may in your opinion be that of a coward.

I haven't been able to figure out for all these years whether trying to live a life I haven't wanted is more cowardice than giving it up while it was my decision to make.

It isn't necessary for me to go into a nursing home -- I need only to look at some of the old people I know and have known, to have continuously wondered what in hell is the point? It seems ridiculous to me to continue to invest time and money into beginning to put pieces of old people together...if life is good, it must be maintained. It it has long ceased to be so, why inflict it on those I love as much as you know I love all of you....

You know what deep and valid fear I have have long had about becoming as my own parents became in their eighties....

I don't want any sloppy sentimentality over this whole thing -- my death, although taken earlier than any of you might have expected it -- is a natural condition. I have never wanted to live past joy.

Mom.

The Reason

Mama comes to the kitchen and makes washing motions with her hands against her body and this is how I understand she wants a bath. As I run her tub she leans over me and says why should you bother darling I can do this and then stands immobilized by the baffling buttons of her dress which she has put on backwards over her backwards slip. The empty lace pockets of the slip's barassier hang behind her thin back. Later she she has redressed, I will unbutton and swing her around and she will say when they were little you had all this (she means she had us as children) and now they are little you have all this (meaning we have her and Papa as our children). And I will answer intending it to be gentle but it will have the edge of bitterness that I have had the privilege of being both mother and daughter.

Give me something for my hands, Mama says, and we bring out the ironing board and the stack of napkins and handkerchiefs and she is grateful and busy ironing and folding. How strange that of all the ways in which her hands were deft, only two are left, dish drying and ironing. When she first came to us I put a crochet hook in her hand and a ball of bright red yarn. She held the hook but could not take a stitch, this my mother who had knit our babies their dress clothes way into grade school.

I am going to the library. Mama is lying down. Would you like to come I ask her not because I want to because I do not and yet I feel some change in place and movement might please her. On our way back I will stop to buy her a chocolate ice cream stick and it will be a celebration. Flavors are fresh and new and daily unremembered by her and all the way home my mother will force bites and licks on me and I will say no thanks and no thanks darling and Mama will say have some and have some and I will have some rather than no thanks darling.

Mama's eyes are still a sharp bright blue. Good morning she says as I look up from the paper. Don't stop, don't do that for me she says, my son is still not dressed. When she says my son she means Papa. Sometimes she calls him my friend and when she wants him quickly and suddenly it is Ruben. Ruben with the "n" sharp and hard between her teeth. She sits up at the breakfast bar, surprised every morning to find her breakfast waiting. Too much she says. I answer hm hm. Have some she says. Yes, Mama, hm hm. She waits. This stuff, she points to the cereal or the egg, delicious. Food is new every day. Every meal. I look at the paper again. The headlines and paragraphs run together. Ruben my mother screams suddenly. He'll be here soon, Mama, relax.

My father hoists his new fat belly up to the breakfast stool. Mama hands him a piece of her toast. She would throw it away, Mama says, looking at me with something less than affection. Use it. If she throws this out I will be very angry, she is extravagant, Mama says.

Good morning my father says in his gravelly Litvak Yiddish accent. He stares at his breakfast. Here, Papa. First your pills. First every morning your pills first. Every morning. The pills. Here. In front of your plate. Papa picks up the pills carefully, one at a time. Watching Papa pick up the tiny pills in his thick, awkward fingers is like watching a bear handling a sugar cube. I watch the lift slowly, slowly of each pill to his mouth. In. Done. Now Papa says about the pills that his father couldn't do it but his son would make it work. In translation this means that what old Dr. Pepper couldn't do for Papa's constipation, his son could do. Papa says to be sure to tell him he's for sure a better doctor with his yellow pills, two a day and no more cramps or at least not so many and no more extra physics. Good for you, Papa. Hurray for young Dr. Pepper. Eat your breakfast, Papa. Eat.

By this time Mama has walked behind me and is already at the sink. Please, Mama, please. You can dry later. Please, I'm not ready. Oh says Mama, then I can fix these things if the woman isn't coming today. Is she coming? No, Mama, I say about Hattie. Good, I will fix these things. Papa looks up from the pleasure of bananas and cereal. Things? Our things, Mama says. She goes toward their room happy to be on her way to work and bed making and clothese rolling. In a minute she is back again making sweeping motions. I what -- where is --and so I ask, do you mean the broom, Mama? The mop, Mama? Not necessarily, she says. I try again. The broom? She puts her head to one side. Her eyes are so blue. She grins at me. That might be something to consider she says, precisely, but reserves judgment until she sees what I mean by the broom. I remind Mama that Hattie cleaned her room thoroughly yesterday, but her hands keep sweeping. I take the broom from the kitchen closet. She is delighted with it. My father puts the third or fourth spoonful of sugar into his coffee, stirs and stares, stares and stires. I finish the dishes and begin to clean out the refrigerator. Papa sits and stares. Not really at me, but at something moving. Each motion I make is some -[Center of page: You should only live to be a hundred, Mama says. I reach over to kiss her in the guilt of what I answer. God forbid. Like you, Mama? God forbid.] thing to watch. My fingernails curl inward. Ruben! The call is imperative, commanding. Moma comes as quickly as the sound of her voice. I need you. Now. How clearly she says what she needs to say sometimes.

But at 4 o'clock this morning she came into my room. I'm a sick woman, she said. Her hands fumbled with the buttons of her gown. Always so modest, she does not remove her underpants until she steps into her tub, now she was tugging her gown, anxious to show me her disease. I am going to die, she said clearly. Are you in pain, Mama? Do you hurt my darling? Let it be quick. Let it come fast. Mama, do you hurt? She pressed her hip bones. Here, she said. Lumps. Lumps growing. I felt the bony hips through the soft, sagging skin of her so mach. These are hip bones, Mama. Everyone has them. That's it, Mama said. Lumps growing. I am sick. I urged her back into her room. Softly, softly. Lie down, Mama. She pulled up her gown and caught my hands. Here, she said, Lumps. I said Mama, you're fine. The doctor was here last week and he says you're fine. If this is so I am grateful, my mother said precisely. You know? You're sure? Yes, I said. Yes, I know. I am sure. It's so. I patted her. Ah ah ah, baby. Ah ah ah , baby. Ah ah ah, baby. She slept.

Now I ask how she is this morning. She says fine. Papa asks what happened. I tell him. Mama's eyes are blue and clear and interested. She listens to the story, wanting to know what happened next. Papa says don't you remember, Mamie? No, I don't remember. I don't remember. I don't remember my son's children nor my daughter's children nor my son. I don't remember my husband's brother. In another world these people, my mother says. Some days are worse than others, Mama says. Don't ask me about these things. But her eyes fill with tears. There is no reason at all to get up, she says softly. My throat clogs. But I am nearly cried out. I have been in mourning for my mother since she came to me. I mourn for her. I mourn for me.

My mother says you are my life. I protest. No, Mama. No, my love. I don't want to be your life. No please, Mama. No.

Mama talks to my father. Her voice is his companion. The sound is his 56 years of marriage. She tells him he must stand up like a man and find them a place of their own to live. He knows she doesn't realize he can't. He knows she doesn't know he can't dress and attend her. Tell me, he asked when they first came to live with us, are there no things to hold up women's stockings? Garters, Papa. Then get some, he said. She has some, Papa. They're on her girdle. Girdle? Pants? Brassiers? Buy some more of everything, Papa said. She should have plenty because every morning I can't find anything. Dresses, slips, underpants, belts, sweaters, robes -- all of them are rolled tightly against each other in her dresser drawers. Mama is busy many times a day removing and rerolling. Dresses from the closet. Papa's underclothes. Rolling neatly and stacking. But again and again the sound of her voice goads him and he comes to me with Mama and tells me she wants him to leave. My mother laughs at him. He's crazy, she says. I have no complaints. These are pleasant people here and our things and our place and he's crazy. Pay no attention, Mama says.

Before they came, Papa went with my uncle to look at the Jewish Home for the Aged. A grave, a prison, he said and told me maybe when his apartment lease ran out in six months, I should fix up a room in our house. How do I say don't come Papa. How should I not want my father? How should I not want my mother? How do I say I am not ready, their only daughter, to be their nurse and keeper? Of course, Papa, I say, we will get a room ready. We will move our Debby to another room. I'll pay, Papa says. Whatever it is, I'll pay. But even before the new beds, the new spreads, the clean motel room look was ready, they were here. My mother was thin and frightened and clung to me. I love you. You are my life. Papa said she wanted to come. She cried. She wanted to come.

My brother came from South Dakota. He said you can't do this to them and they shouldn't have this as the end of their life and they mustn't leave their beautiful apartment to come way out here in the country with you. They need people around them and they must go to the Jewish Home. And my hands caught up my throat and I said I cannot take them there and he said you must and you must come with me and visit and bring them to see for themselves.

And the sun shone into the patio and round and round the silver-haried people circled, those who walked slowly and those in their wheelchairs. Around and around the patio. The grave, the end of the road, Papa said. Put me in my grave, kill me and send me here. I am a dead man. I am in hell. And I said, never Papa, if you don't want to come here and Mama said brightly there are nice people here by why are so many of them so old and so sick? But my brother signed the submission for admission papers and the social worker said why do you want to come here, Mr. Light to Papa. And Papa said who wants to come? And the social worker looked at me suspiciously, quite sure I was railroading my poor parents and I protested that this was not my idea but of course the social worker has heard this many times and his smile is cool and measuring. But then my father said we will tell you what you want and maybe I'll come and maybe again who knows?

But when we were all all through answering questions the social worker said he would have their psychiatrist interview Mama to see whether she is qualified, whether she can cope? If she were able to cope why should she be here, my beautiful mother? And the psychiatrist said after their visit, no she can't come, she can't cope, she isn't eligible. If we take them capable and later they become like your mother they can stay, depending on the fine print in the agreement. But we cannot take them here when they are already like your mother.

When we came back home, Mama cried. And Papa said furiously, my money they'll take, all my money, every last cent they'll take, but not my wife. And who wants them? Who needs them? A grave.

The quiet of our street lends little for their eyes. Papa takes his morning walk and looks for a friendly face. Young women hang out their clothes. Children play. No one talks of old times or how my father built his business and we take my parents to the nearby community center and Papa says nothing.

Ruben talk with somebody, my mother pleads. And he shakes his head and says there is nothing here for us. He is right. Such places are for the capable old, for card players and the machers, those who can run things, direct things, make speeches, take up collections, serve coffee, listen to speeches.

Papa says they don't do nothing here and the next time we want to take them, Mama says, no, darling, no. I'm tired. For at the beginning she looked up with pleasure, speaking brightly with anyone near her but there was no meaning to her words and the welcoming old sat a little while near her but were baffled and moved away. My parents sat alone.

Later and lonelier, as if it had never happened before, Papa said find me a place. What can I do with my life in hell? A man must live somewhere. Mama must have nursing care we say and although we do not say it, so must you, Papa. But now it is Papa pushing for life who asks us to shop for a place and we look through the phone book and we walk through the agencies and we walk through endless corridors and rooms and patios and we find a nursing home nearby.

We bring Papa in to meet the director. He is delighted. Papa likes the director who ingratiates and welcomes him. He is a social worker owner. He woos Papa. He invites my parents to come as his guests for noonday dinner. A Jewish chef. The food is good and there's so much.

But today when Papa and Mama come to dinner, the friendly man who greeted Papa yesterday leaves them with the others. They are fully of need to tell of their loneliness and sickness and across the patio from the dining room the thin high sickness [Center of page: "I have been in mourning for my mother since she came to me. I mourn for her. I mourn for me."] of screaming rises higher and higher.

Papa comes back to our house. His time of hope is gone. Buy yourself some liquor, he tells my husband. Papa remembers he has called our home hell and he wants to erase the words with presents. Buy yourself something. Keep me.

My uncle David, his brother-in-law, comes to see Papa. Please, Dave, Papa says, you say you want to help me. Find me a place. Now I am sick with dislike for my father. I have become my father's jailer when he pleads find me a place, David. My uncle says he will look around at retirement hotels and he winks at me and says maybe we can find a woman there to help Mama. My mother sniffs. Help me? Who needs help. My son and I can take care....

The next day I speak about such hotels and Papa says, I saw, I saw, who can live in such places? Cockroaches. Lice. We don't know how to live like that. And Mama says, Ruben find us a place. Tomorrow we'll feel better and I can take care of you.

My father holds his stomach and goes to bed. Mama covers him with one of her little dresses and a bathtowel and sits with him. She is very still and able. She pats him. Ruben, she says in her lovely voice and careful diction, when you get old you must adjust, you must accept. She is my mother with the shining mind and quick wit. This is Mama. Papa comes to her bed and she lies down with her thin arms around him. I cannot bear to look. I am their child and I am and keeper and their jailer and I am their prisoner.

Papa and Mama are in their chairs in the hot late afternoon sun when I get home. They rise and Mama says I was so worried. I want to fix something to eat and I don't know and it's so long and where were you? Love me. I love you. Kiss me. You are my life. No, Mama, no.

But see how little I learn: You are my heart, I tell my daughter Debby. At 17 she says, no thank you. It's too much. Please. Mom, close my door. You are my life, Debby. No thank you, Mom.

My chest bones rise in physical pain of rejection and pity when I see Papa and Mama sitting together on my mother's bed, waiting to be called to dinner. We pour the wine and hand them a snack to fill the long afternoon waiting and we clink glasses and Mama says, L'chaim, to life. You should only be well and live to a hundred, Mama says. I reach over to kiss her in the guilt of what I feel and what I am going to say and I answer God forbid. God forbid. Like you, Mama? God forbid.

At the table my father says nothing. His eyes straight in front of him, he waits. He smacks his lips at the short ribs, the chopped liver, the fish paste spread on thin Norwegian snack bread. My father is newly a slave to his growing belly.

I will do the dishes, Mama says, and carefully empties all the rib bones into the soapy dish water. Please, Mama. Darling. Leave it. Please Grandma, Debby says. Please, please, please, my mother repeats sharply. I can see your mean face.

You are still my wife, Papa says and his tears spill over his fat cheeks. Your mother can still dry a dish. Yes, Papa. But look, Papa. Now Mama has carefully filled it with little orange juice glasses.

Papa says never mind. I will put them away and carries them carefully over to the refrigerator. Debby asks Grandpa, why are you putting the glasses into the refrigerator? Oh, he laughs and stands with them in his hands until we take them away from him.

Mama says, come Ruben. We'll take a walk. But it's bitter cold tonight. Over her little shift, Mama carefully buttons a sleeveless chiffon blouse inside out. I say no, Mama. Take a sweater. She comes with me to look at the miracle of how I find so many sweaters in her dresser drawer. You are so clever to find them, she says. Whose are they? Yours, Mama. If you say so, she says.

-----

My parents walk the block together in slow and measured steps. They are beautiful. Her arms are linked to his. Their white hair shines in the sun. She speaks to him and he inclines his head toward her. The little children of the block sometimes get out of their way or once in awhile look up and smile.

Papa stops anywhere for a child. Mama looks for a moment but is quickly impatient at children, too often in our driveway or at the door. Sometimes they are pests she says and the children don't return if they see Mama at the door. Ruben, she calls. Enough! We are sad but angry too when our friends the neighborhood children stay away.

Today we prepare to go to the park and pool of Matheson Hammock. I have seen many old people in the grove of trees north of the pool, and I hope my parents will see a friendly face and hear a welcoming word.

At the park we are invited to share a table. Mama smiles. A gracious lady. Haven't I met you somewhere, she asks friendly old Mary. Mary laughs. I met you here and I met you many times at the Club, yes, and I met you already a lot of times.

Mama reaches for a handkerchief in her sleeve, her belt, her pocket, the neck of her dress. It is never where she needs it and now I open her purse to see if the one I put there is still there and I find a rolled up slip and two pairs of socks with it.

Mama's eyes are sharp on me as I finger the rolls of clothing in her pocketbook and Mama is proud. In case it's cold, she says. In case the sun goes behind on this 88-degree day. Mama. You will bind on your slip and bounce the balls of your socks. But I do not laugh and I do not cry and my husband laughs and that is his sanity.

-----

I see her come in to breakfast this morning, her hem hanging and fastened in two places with thin gray pairpins and I choke with sadness and anger that each sign of my mother's unreality should gouge at me so. I keep telling myself I have accepted it. But how can I? Her words hold the sound of remembered intelligence and wit. And charm. No, not her words. But her voice. The voice of my mother, the voice of love and authority. Beatie, what did you do? Did you buy fudge with the grocery change? You mustn't eat candy darling, you're too fat. Give your brother the candy. Play the piano for the company Beatie. That's beautiful. Clementi, Czerny, Kuhlau.

When her fat child made music, Mama glowed with pleasure. When Papa went bankrupt in New Haven, my piano was the only piece of furniture they shipped to our new home in South Dakota and Papa and Mama kept up their payments until the Horace Waters upright belonged finally to us. Mama shipped it to me when I was married.

Mama. Mama. You were always reaching and trying. First for yourself then for us. You went to work in a notions factory when you were 13. When Papa met and fell in love with you, you were a forelady. Firm, meticulous, precise and neat, but funny and witty, quick-tongued and sharp-tongued. Cutting, too. Sarcastic and at the same time, loving. And not a pincher. A wide armed swatter. But your body was there, interposed, when Papa pulled off his belt to spank us with a sudden rage.

I never doubted that if she had to, Mama would kill for me, would always love me. Did I doubt it? Even when I thought I was adopted because my thin brother was given the candy and sat with his gray eyes wide and beautiful under his golden curls and my brown Dutch bob hung so straight. Did I think I was loved then? And if I thought I was loved, whe did I sneak under the table and cram my mouth full of food, while all the time calling here kitty, here kitty and stuffing my own mouth?

Why haven't I forgotten the night in back of Mama's little store in Connecticut when her friends from New York came into our bedroom to look at my brother, golden haired in his crib. I listened. And waited. The lamp was first held over Dick's head. A man's voice said, an angel, a reggelah angel.

When they came to look at me, I felt the heat of the lamp on my face, against my closed eyes. The same voice cooled. A nice little girl, it said.

Of course I was adopted. I knew it. And Hershey kisses spoke to my mouth of hidden love. I stole them from the counter. Later I stole ice cream from the freezer of our restaurant and one Sunday afternoon when I was 10 and we stopped to visit a man and his wife we knew who rank a Kewpie doll concession stand at a beach near New Haven, I walked around to the back of the stand and found a skillet full of cooking salami and eggs and reached out to scoop up a great hot mass of it in my hand and cram it into my mouth, hot and choking. Why haven't I been able to forget this?

You're so mean and yet you're a good girl my mother says and yesterday when she spent the whole day in bed, I bathed her and bought her food on a tray, and she smiled with love and grasped my hand and kissed it. The tears came so hot and fast to my eyes. I choked. How could I bear to have her show such total love and gratitude to the fraud I know I am. I was think when she was so ill, that perhaps now she will begin to die. Now. Oh please dear God, no. But she is 83.

In the morning she is better and we have once again begun her daily blood pressure pills. I think suppose I don't given them to her. But I do. Daily. And after a few weeks on these new pills, the young doctor comes and says congratulations. Your mother's pressure is much better than yours and three weeks ago it was very high. He nods in a complimentary way and says some people have come to me about investing in a nursing home. I should send them to you to run it. Thank you doctor. Don't bother. I am already in the business.

My father asks me why I am crying so early in the morning. Nothing, I answer and point to his pills, butter his toast and sugar his coffee. Nothing. But I have just come into the kitchen from my bedroom where I screamed I can't stand it, I can't stand it. For today as every day, the soft uncertain sound of Mama's steps began my morning. As I picked up the paper, she came round the screen of the breakfast bar and said as she says every day, don't stop, I can wait for my son or my friend and then patting me she sat down immediately in front of her plate and as she does every day instantly began her breakfast, anxious for her food in the morning and life again and there she was, old, old, my lover and my jailer and my victim.

I bite back sound until finally, sick at my own cruelty of thought, so much worse somehow than any open action, I read a headline aloud to her. Mama perks up and answers in many words of no meaning and almost freed of a moment in self-forgiveness, I lower my head again to the silence but my tears come and I run into my room.

I am afraid to think of this fall when Debby will be going away to college and I will be locked in this silence. [Center of page: Oh God I cannot stand it. The soft uncertain sound of Mama's steps began my morning. There, she was, old, old, my lover and my jailer and my victim.] I am afraid of many things. I am afraid of my hours, unwilling to be with Papa and Mama. I am incapable of being away. No away is far enough, for if we leave and go to the beach or park without them, I can only think of how they could be with us and perhaps enjoying themselves.

Today, then, here in the park, I leave them after I have given them lunch and brought their lounge chairs over to the card players so they can watch. But my husband walks over and stands beside me, as I read near the pool some distance from where I have seated them. He tells me we might just as well have left them at home. They can't join in with the old card players or the old talkers. People say hello and ask a question or two and Mama answers and soon the people look at each other and walk away.

But my husband is wrong. The physical difference between being here at the park and dull daily forever hours at home gives them a pleasing change. At least it helps me think so. I need to think so. I need to believe there is something I can do, some action I can take. This business for a moment deludes me into thinking I am giving them pleaseure. Pleasure? Even I can't tolerate such overstatement. It is only I involved, keeping busy in order to excuse myself for leaving them and walking away to be free a little while. If only Mama wouldn't keep saying darling, smile at me. Give me something for my hands. Give me something for my love. Smile at me.

Papa sits withdrawn. Is this the beginning or something began years agao? Is it because it was always Mama who approached and spoke and charmed and joked. Poor Mama, her enchanted systers have always said, so quick, such fund, so bright and Ruben a mouzik, a bad tempered Russian, a screamer, a curser.

But this was never all of it nor of him. He always lover her more than she knew or consciously accepted. The family called him the Greenhorn. Mama went to the Catskills for her vacation and he sent a card deocrated with an overstuffed, perfumed red satin rose. Beneath it he wrote in his incongruously beautiful flowing script: Mamie, smell from her. Her friends roared, teasing and crowding around her. Smell from her. Smell from Mamie.

But the Greenhorn, my father, was very strong and angry and bright. Apprenticed to a glove cutter by his mother at 13, he learned his craft with hate for his mother who had refused to send him on to school. In New York, he became a pants cutter, an elite craftsman, a union organizer, a striker.

From some unkown source, my mother and her motherless sisters and brother Sam had learned to speak a distinct, unaccented English and to sing and to enjoy life. They were gay and laughing and Papa was for awhile their Greenhorn Boarder when their new stepmother, Aunt Lena, wanted to add a few dollars to the money Mama's father made in his grocery store.

One day Mama flung back Papa's engagement ring. Their tempers clashed, their courtship was squally. But later Papa came to her in tears. He had just heard that his father had been murdered in Russia. Bandits stole his wagon. His body was never found. Of his whole family, Papa loved only his father. Mama comforted him. She took back his ring and married him.

When I was 2-1/2 and my brother Dick an infant, Mama pulled Papa away from New York to Connecticut. She demanded fresh milk and country air and the end of garment workers' strikes for her babies' security. Papa, set to peddling from a wagon drawn by a half blind horse, screamed his rage and pride. I am ashamed to peddle. I am ashamed to beg, he said and went to work in Worcester at his trade.

Later he opened his own pants company in a New Haven loft. How proud he was. And how ashamed when he wasn't making what he considered a good living for his family and Mama had to help him.

When things were bad with us a few years later in South Dakota, I thought it was that Papa hated Mama when he yelled so loudly at her, chained together as they were in our little restaurant.

It is only now when I scream as loudly at my husband out of my own anger at myself, that I have begun to understand where Papa's screaming came from.

At their fiftieth anniversary dinner, my father's brother Nathan, the mandolin player, said he never though it would last, But by God they fooled us.

Now in the fifty-sixth year of their marriage when Papa leaves for a little outing with my husband and does not remember to tell Mama they are going to the market or wherever, my mother walks and walks and takes to her bed, her eyes frosty with anger and fear. When he returns I remind him he mustn't ever leave without telling Mama. She misses you Papa. She can't stand being without you. And my father, his strange new belly resting on his short thights, says after all, a marriage of 56 years makes a mark on a man.

Later he will cry to me and plead to be free of her. He will tell me that he too must live and that he wants a chance to live and that he can't talk to Mama. That she can't talk to him. That she's meshugeh. And even when he says the word "crazy," his light brown eyes darken with shame and pity and he cries and says he should bite his tongue.

But he pushed me until finally I try briefly to separate them with Mama in a nursing home. She walks through the night and crawls into any bed and all beds in any room with an open door, looking for Papa. She doesn't cry. She just keeps walking. And every day Papa demands to go and see her. He says nothing to her but he sits with her and he turns to me and says what am I do to" How will I live? But this will be later. I could not bear this time at all. Papa pleaded to bring her home after a week.

But now I am here in the sun near the Matheson Hammock swimming pools and behind me in the grove of trees I will find Papa and Mama as I left them. They will sit and wait and wait and sit and when I come to her my mothers' blue eyues will light up and I will bend down and touch her hair and kiss her hair and kiss her face and she will laugh and turn to anyone near her and say, have you met my sister and she will smile proudly about me at them and I will bend down quickly and cup her face in my hands and kisss her blue eyes shut so she cannot see my face. Perhaps ever again.

Epilogue

Mamie Light died in the summer of 1967.

Ruben Light died in the winter of 1971.

Bee Baxter killed herself, with pills from her medicine cabinet, on Feb. 4, 1983.

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