"You’ve got to help her!" Helga cried into the phone. In the background I could hear my cousin Mary weeping hysterically.
"What happened?" I asked, trying to sound detached and clinical, opposite the high-pitched, German-accented, demanding voice of Helga, Mary’s friend.
"You’re her cousin! You’re a nurse! You’re a therapist!" she continued, now fairly shouting.
"Let me talk to Mary," I said, thinking, I’ll never find out what happened from this woman who insists on reciting my resume.
"Jeffrey’s gone," said the quavering, sobbing, childlike voice. "He left me. He’s gone off to Boston to another woman."
"Can you get yourself here on the train?" I asked, wondering if she could make it from Long Island to my apartment in the Village.
"Yes," Mary said, now with dignified, British pronunciation. She was pulling herself together.
"You’ll stay over?"
Mary’s mother and mine were sisters, raised on a small farm in an impoverished area in the west of Ireland. My mother came to America, while Mary’s married young and moved to a town just a few miles from her parents’ farm. Mary grew up there, in a poor, dysfunctional family. At sixteen she moved to London where she worked in an office and went to night school to finish high school and begin college. A petite, good looking woman, she later got a job as a stewardess in the then exciting, glamorous world of air travel. She also underwent psychoanalysis. By the time I met her she was a stylish, sophisticated woman of forty with a pleasant English accent. Her husband Jeffrey, a charming, attractive, younger Englishman, had been transferred to the U.S. division of his company on Long Island, making Mary and Jeffrey the newest immigrants in our family. They had no children.
My husband Bob and I hit it off immediately with both of them, socializing and traveling with them frequently. When Bob got sick several years later, they were very attentive. At his death, Mary offered me great support and comfort.
Now, a year after Bob’s demise, she needed me, and I wasn’t ready for it. In fact, I guiltily resented it, but tried to help anyway. When she arrived at my apartment that Saturday afternoon, Mary was dressed in her usual chic; her face, however, had the stricken look of an abandoned child. I couldn’t not respond to her plight.
She told me of Jeffrey’s affair, which he had promised to end, and their struggle to save the marriage. She thought the affair was over and they were back to normal till that morning when Jeffrey said he was leaving, and packed his bags and left. All I could do was listen and commiserate. Still in my own cocoon of self-absorbed grief, I was stirred nonetheless. Part of me wanted to blame Mary for not "seeing it coming" and not being prepared. But I was just trying to avoid the burden and keep all the attention for myself. The other part of me saw how desperately hurt she was.
I thought of how, during his illness, Bob had voiced his hatred of dying. He didn’t want to go. It pained him. His leaving was out of his hands, and I couldn’t take it as a personal rejection. Here, Mary was being rejected; it was personal and an affront.
She told me she felt just as she did as an eight-year-old child when her mother, an undiagnosed and untreated bipolar, ran off with a man. Mary had figured out her mother’s disorder much later in life. The four children at home were left in the hands of their bewildered, heartbroken father. Neighbors stepped in and saw to it that the children were fed. She recalled the awful sense of being left, and the terrible fear and worry about what would happen to her. She had the same feelings now. "But I survived," she said, "And I’ll survive this." I was very happy to hear her say that.
Over the next several months we spent most of our weekends together, either she at my place or I at hers. We got to know each other very well, and discovered the whereabouts of all the family skeletons. I learned that my supposedly deaf cousin was really autistic, and that the two girls who had immigrated to England had been pregnant and actually sent away by their families. Mary compared that tiny corner in the hills of western Ireland, back when she was growing up, to our Appalachia, rank with inbreeding, deprivation, beatings, and drinking. Next to that, my childhood in Brooklyn sounded idyllic, though Mary was familiar with the kind of temper my mother had.
We were helping each other as we shared our feelings, trimmed our loneliness, and wondered about our futures. But Mary was more emotionally dependent on me than I on her. I think she would have been happy to move in with me. One day, as she entered my apartment, she said, "It’s like coming home."
She might have liked it if I said "It is your home." But I didn’t. I said warmly, "Let me take your coat. Make yourself comfortable." I could understand her longing, since the agreement she was about to sign with Jeffrey called for selling their Long Island house and its contents, and splitting the proceeds. Mary would keep their small apartment in Ealing, a suburb of London. She decided to return there to live, perhaps out of necessity, and get a job to support herself. This must have felt like banishment to her, and I felt for her keenly. But I couldn’t rescue her. The best I could do was be her good friend.
The last time I visited her on Long Island the only furniture left was a couple of camping chairs, a card table and a cot. Everything else had either been sold, or shipped to Jeffrey in Boston. It seemed so desolate. Mary was leaving the following day for London.
We kept in close touch by phone afterwards and she visited me a few times in New York. I never got around to visiting her in England. She took a secretarial job in London, resumed family and friendship connections and was building a new life. About four years later Mary was killed in a car accident while traveling in South Africa.
"Okay, kids, put on your bathing suits. We're going to Coney Island," I shouted. Cries of "hooray!" reverberated throughout the house as my two younger brothers and little sister foraged for their swim suits and rushed to put them on. Three-year-old Gerard needed help with his, but Morton, nine, and Kathleen, seven, quickly showed up in the kitchen, ready to go.
This was my second summer babysitting my siblings. Mom continued to work at the Toy Factory, and Dad had to drive the Brooklyn-to-Manhattan Sea Beach train every afternoon and evening. My teenaged sisters Margie and Pat had summer jobs, so, at thirteen, I was deemed old enough to take the younger ones to the beach at Coney Island.
As our train approached the shore, the familiar stink of the swamp nearby caught our attention. Holding our noses, we whispered "P-U," then cheered at the delightful scent of the ocean which soon followed. Noisily we ran from the train as soon as it stopped, and down the ramp past Stillwell Avenue to Bay 13 on the beach, sniffing the odors of French fries, hot dogs, knishes, and corn-on-the-cob along the way. The hot, fine, white sand kept us hopping until we found our spot near the surf, and at our absent mother's behest, near the lifeguard.
Throwing down our blanket, we carefully set a shoe at each corner to keep it in place. The kids tore off their clothes immediately and dashed into the water. Now I had to act like an adult and yell, "Not too far and not over your head!" I also had to watch little Gerard. Luckily the water was calm that day so he could play without getting knocked down by big waves. The tide was out too, creating a large area of smooth wet sand for digging and building a castle. We all worked on this edifice, making lots of moats and towers, letting Gerard use his small shovel. The rest of us used our hands to scoop up the soft mush and drizzle it over the ever-growing turrets.
Hunger pangs eventually brought us back to our blanket. I ceremoniously handed each child a Velveeta cheese sandwich. Our mother always wanted us to eat whole wheat bread, but someone had smuggled a loaf of Wonder Bread into our house. Now we thoroughly enjoyed this forbidden treat with cheese almost melted by the summer sun. The next joy of liberation from our parents was to go back in the water right after eating, without waiting the requisite hour. "Let's go!" I hollered, and Morton, Kathleen and Gerard echoed "Let's go!" and ran back to the water.
The final challenge of the day came when it was time to change out of our wet bathing suits and go home. I tried bringing Kathleen and Gerard to the women's bathroom to change but was routed by a super-vigilant matron who pointed to the sign: NO CHANGING. Morton had a similar experience in the men's room.
Towels would have to supply our privacy. Changing Gerard was no problem, since it was acceptable for three-year-old bodies to be exposed on the beach. Holding towels around Morton and Kathleen was easy enough too, and they got changed. But could I, a self-conscious, budding adolescent, rely on a mischievous nine-year-old brother and little seven-year-old sister to hold up the towels for me? I decided to try by tossing some blood-curdling threats at Morton, not least of which was, "I'll kill you if you drop the towel!" After some counter threats by Morton to drop the towel, and my menacing retort, the changing got done, without a towel falling.
On our way off the beach we stopped under the boardwalk, another forbidden activity, to listen to some boys playing guitars and singing "dirty songs." The last prohibited act was buying frozen custard, instead of the milk or juice prescribed by Mom. Between the kids and me was an unspoken agreement that there were benefits to unsupervised outings, and Silence was Golden.