“I’d help you look,” Elise’s mother says from her spot on the recliner, peering over her reading glasses and her copy of The Bourne Supremacy. “But I just had my nails done. At your favorite place. House of Fingers.” On the flat wooden arm of the chair, she cradles a Smirnoff and diet tonic.
“It’s not my favorite place. It’s not my place at all. I only went there once,” says Elise, who is on the floor, on her knees, amidst papers, books, and photographs. “The time Bill decided the key to saving our marriage was me getting a manicure.”
She can tell by her mother’s face that her mother is considering whether a manicure – not one, but a whole series of manicures, and haircuts, and Spa treatments, and makeovers, plus a few emergency lessons in feminine wiles – might actually have kept that union together.
“Well, dear, I think all he was saying was that you could have tried harder.” Her mother’s own hair has been coiffed at the beauty parlor down the street. The salon owner, not having seen her all winter, had greeted her like a long lost friend. “Pierre kissed my hand,” she said upon returning to Elise’s apartment, her hair white-blonde and stiff, with rounded edges, like a furled cabbage. The nails she had done elsewhere, at the only non-Korean manicure place on West 72nd Street.
“House of Fingers,” Elise says. “It was the name that appealed to me. Like a horror movie. Seemed appropriate at the time.”
Next to Elise are two black trash bags, one for what she will keep and one for what she will throw away. She is searching for an 8 1/2 by 11 photograph in a cracked gilt frame, a sepia photo of her cousin Sally as a little girl. It has always been difficult for Elise to get rid of things and the closet she has emptied seems to contain twenty years’ worth of stuff.
When she told her mother, who is staying with her in Manhattan this August, that she was trying to find a photograph of Sally that she’d retrieved from Sally’s apartment, her mother first said, “The poor dear. No one deserves to die that way” and then, after a moment, “This would be a good opportunity for you to get rid of some junk.” Her mother’s house, the house in which Elise had grown up, was always uncluttered and neat, the notable exception being Elise’s room, which, during Elise’s teen years, her mother had likened to the “witches’ cauldron” in Macbeth; “She’s got everything in there,” she would say to anyone who would listen, “everything except the liver of blaspheming Jew.”
Now Elise is finding everything except the sepia photograph she’s looking for, and everything demands her attention: the packs of TWA playing cards that her son Jake had hoarded from their frequent flights to Florida to visit Elise’s parents; a dog-eared copy of Nobody’s Girl, the book that was her favorite as a girl; Jake’s Order of the Arrow patch; a stone that Jake found in Yellowstone Park and presented to her on Mother’s Day, having defied the Park ranger’s instruction to “leave nothing and take nothing”, and a letter from President Clinton thanking him for caring about the environment. There are photos of Jake, of course, and several of Jake’s father and Elise, and of Elise and Jake and her parents before her father’s death a decade ago. And one of Elise at four years old, sitting cross-legged on the beach, and looking as if she could take on the world. But not the photograph of Sally that Elise is looking for, in a cracked gilt frame that should be easy to repair, so she can hang it above the piano.
A box of books was in the closet as well and has been emptied, too: children’s books like The Trumpet of the Swan, which neither she nor Jake could bear to part with, and books she retrieved from Sally’s apartment after she died – the Complete Poetry of John Donne, Middlemarch, and the Origin of the Species. Like Elise’s Shakespeare-spouting mother Rose (“the readiness is all” she frequently says, when assessing why Elise has never remarried), Sally was literary too, although in a different way. They had been girls together, Sally and Rose, daughters of two sisters, but there the resemblance – other than a similarly short nose and violet deep-set eyes – ended. Elise’s mother had grown up privileged, gone to college, and become a children’s librarian – a career she abandoned a year into her marriage, when she became pregnant with Elise. Sally, whose father landed in debtor’s prison the same year Rose’s father made a killing in used trucks and parts, had to go to work right after high school, but it was she who had a distinguished career in book publishing. She was still working part-time as an editor a few months before she died.
Sally had no children and no husband and, like Elise, lived in New York City, so it had fallen to Elise to care for her when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 77.
“It’s difficult for you,” Elise’s mother sympathized on the phone from Florida when Elise told her that Sally was dying. “I’m sorry she’s had to impose on you in that way.” Elise was first surprised, and then not surprised, that her mother scarcely mentioned how difficult it was for Sally herself. As it turned out, the time of caring for Sally was short – a mere four weeks from diagnosis to death. Elise had gone each day after work, to sit beside Sally’s bed and try to reassure her, but also to speak to the doctors about options, negotiate with the nurses about morphine, and sign papers to permit or, in the end, decline various procedures. “You decide,” Sally said, each time something came up. She had made Elise her proxy. Elise thought being a proxy would not matter until Sally was no longer physically or mentally capable of choosing for herself, but Sally didn’t see it that way. Elise hated making decisions for someone else — she could barely decide for herself – so she discussed the options with Sally and then chose what she believed Sally wanted, even if Sally didn’t come out and say so.
Each night when Elise showed up, the nurse on duty automatically assumed Sally was Elise’s mother – sometimes forgetting that she had explained the night before, “my cousin. She’s my cousin, my mother’s first cousin.” Once, after having had to explain for the fourth or fifth time that Sally wasn’t her mother, Elise told the nurse, “My mother’s in Florida. Probably enjoying happy hour by the pool as we speak.”
It was only after Sally died, when Elise had the additional task of emptying and closing up her apartment, that she discovered the photograph of Sally as a little girl, no more than 4 or 5, in a beautiful coat, with velvet buttons and collar, her hands burrowed in a velveteen muff. It was Sally’s stepfather (“a short, squat little tailor with a thick Polish accent” recalled Elise’s mother) who had made the beautiful coat Sally was wearing in the photograph.
What is it about the photograph Elise loves so much? For one, it’s the coat, lovingly designed and sewn and hemmed to fit the little girl so perfectly. “Now, there was a good man,” her mother often said, “hardworking, and with a heart of gold. You could do a lot worse in a second marriage yourself, dear.” And then there was the look on Sally’s face, the look of confidence, directness and, Elise thought, even at that young age, independence. Those same eyes had looked out at Elise from the hospital bed, night after night, still direct, still knowing, only now afraid.
A few days before Sally died was Passover, and Elise’s mother had come up from Florida for the Passover Seder. She would stay with Elise for five days. When Elise said on the phone they could go right from the airport to see Sally, her mother had said, “I suppose so. Let’s see when the flight gets in.” Elise felt anger twist her gut, the familiar feeling of helplessness that her mother made her feel, of Elise not knowing what was best, whether for herself or for anyone else.
But when she saw her mother’s pale face, her blotched lipstick, the way she lurched to one side as she entered the arrivals lounge, Elise offered to take her home first, to freshen up. “That would be nice,” her mother said. “When you’re eighty-two even a three-hour flight takes its toll. Besides, poor Sally isn’t going anywhere.”
Immediately, Elise felt guilty. Sally was Rose’s first cousin, whom Rose hadn’t seen in over a year, and she was dying. Sally had no time to freshen up. She had no time at all. They should go to the hospital directly. But once Elise said something, she couldn’t go back on it – especially not where her mother was concerned.
When they finally made it to the hospital, it was 7:30 pm – an hour-and-a-half later than Elise usually got there. Normally, when Elise arrived, at around 6, she would sit on the edge of the bed and talk — about nothing, most of the time. Elise would tell Sally about her day at the magazine, the headlines they were planning, the photo spreads they’d commissioned. Often she spoke as if this were the most ordinary visit, a mere catching-up. The terrible truth hung in the air like the cloying after-smell of the dinners that had been served at 4:30 pm to those patients who could still eat.
“Tomorrow, I’m going to bring my mother,” Elise had told Sally the day before. Sally had sighed, as if the arrival of her first cousin Rose all the way from Florida was a sign she was not going to get better. “She’s coming in for Passover.” Elise added, unsure if it was better or worse that Rose wasn’t making a special trip to see Sally. But Sally seemed to brighten. “It will be good to see her,” she said.
At Elise’s apartment, Rose had decided to keep on the outfit she’d worn on the plane – a salmon-colored velour pantsuit, which matched her nail polish, and pristine white sneakers. The freshening up had amounted to Rose’s covering her blonde hair with a salmon-and-turquoise silk scarf (there was no need, Rose explained as she emerged from Elise’s bathroom, for Sally and her doctors to be witnesses to Rose’s “bad hair day”). Then she’d cadged a glass of chardonnay from the half-filled bottle in Elise’s fridge, which she sipped while munching the blue corn chips she’d salvaged from her Jet Blue flight.
Elise in the meantime had called the nurse’s station to see how Sally was doing. “She keeps asking for more morphine,” Elise reported to her mother, wanting to prepare her. “We should go now.” Most of the nurses didn’t respond to Sally’s requests for more pain relief the first time she asked. Often Elise had to intercede. Sometimes she had to call Dr. Rice, the oncologist, herself.
In the large hospital elevator, as more people piled on — hospital staff in white coats or blue or green scrubs, visitors in everything from business suits to saris – Rose and Elise became separated. “Elise, what floor is Sally on?” Rose shouted, trying as always to make up for her lack of height – she was only five feet tall, and shrinking every year – with the power of her voice. When Elise replied, in a loud, clear voice, that it was fourteen, Rose shouted back: “That’s only because there’s no thirteen. Ridiculous, isn’t it? Hospitals are supposed to be bastions of science and still no thirteenth floor. Why? Because it’s bad luck. The truth is, if you’re here, you already have bad luck. Hospitals kill more people than they save. Everyone knows it but no one says it.”
Elise was torn between the desire to silence her mother – forcibly if necessary – and to pretend not to know her. A fortyish dark-skinned man in a grey suit and striped tie got off on the tenth floor with his two girls, perhaps ten years old, dressed in identical white blouses and plaid pleated skirts. Elise, who hadn’t realized there were children in the elevator, saw him glaring at Rose. “You should consider who might be listening before you speak, Madam,” he said softly with a Jamaican lilt. Then someone poked Elise in the shoulder. It was Darcy, one of Sally’s night nurses. “So that’s your mother!” she grinned.
At the fourteenth floor, Darcy got out along with Rose and Elise, but scooted away in the opposite direction. “See you in a bit.”
“You know,” Rose said as they walked towards the swinging doors to the critical care unit. She spoke now in normal tones. “Sally brought this on herself. Luck had nothing to do with it. I told her not to smoke any more after her breast cancer. But did she listen? No. She even changed doctors so she wouldn’t have to tell Dr. Stein she was smoking again! From the time she was a little girl she never listened to me, even though I was five years older.”
Elise had heard this before. She turned to her mother to admonish her not to speak that way in front of Sally. “She thinks she’s smart?” Her mother continued, her voice rising. A large piece of blue corn chip was trapped between two of Rose’s teeth, making it look as if she had a fang. Elise knew she should tell her mother, who would be appalled at even the most fleeting disfigurement, but she didn’t. “Shh!” she said, as they went through the swinging doors.
“She may have been a successful career woman, but she’s not smart,” Rose concluded, in a stage whisper. This had been the way they were labeled from girlhood, at least in Rose’s mind – the pretty cousin (that was Rose, of course) and the smart one. Elise knew that when she was growing up, her mother was disappointed that Elise was more smart than pretty – having not inherited the dainty nose, the curls, or the violet-blue eyes.
Only when they entered Sally’s room did Rose stop speaking. Sally was sitting up in bed, facing away from them, yelling at a nurse. “I need more morphine. What do you mean, you’re going to speak to Dr. Rice? Where’s the family? Where’s my family? Why aren’t they here? The family should be here!”
“We’re here, Sally.” Elise said. “Rose and I.” The bed closer to the door was empty. For days there had been a tiny bald woman in it, staring at the wall, barely moving except when the nurses came in to shift her this way or that. Elise had said hello to her when she came to visit Sally, but the woman – Mrs. Fiedler, the sign on the door had said — never said a word. After a few days, Elise wondered if she was blind or deaf or both. Now she was gone.
Sally’s scalp was wrapped in bandages, her arms riddled with tubes. She was as pale as the grayish-white sheets. “Rosie,” she said, and she took her cousin’s hands in her bony ones. “I need more painkiller. “ Her eyes filled with tears. “Can you get it for me?”
“I’ll find the resident,” Elise said. And that’s what she meant to do. But she didn’t go. She couldn’t risk leaving them alone. Rose had settled into a chair near the foot of the bed. Was she about to tell Sally that she had brought on the pancreatic cancer herself? Was she going to chastise her for smoking? Would she lecture her (as she’d so often lectured Elise, when she was in the throes of her divorce from her philandering ex-husband) that we are, as the poet said, the masters of our fate, the captains of our souls?
“Elise is going to speak to the doctor,” Rose said. “But in the meantime, let’s hear about you.”
Sally ignored her. “How are you? Is everything okay in Florida?” She paused. “Thank you for coming.” She wiped her eyes. “I love you,” Sally said to Rose.
“Everything is fine. I love that Jet Blue –the first airline to have locked cockpits. Very forward looking. Elise probably told you — I’m just in for the Seder. We’re so sorry you can’t join us this year. You’re going to miss Elise’s brisket, with the mushroom gravy.”
“I told Sally I’d bring her some tomorrow,” Elise said.
“More morphine for Madame,” Darcy said, materializing out of nowhere.
“Thank you,” Elise said. Everyone was silent for a moment.
“Will you come, too?” Sally asked Rose. “Tomorrow, with the brisket? Please come see me again. It’s so good to see you. Remember when we were little girls and ran around trying to find the afikomen? I love you, Rosie.”
“You have to get yourself better so you can come to the Seder next year. “ Rose said. “That’s what you have to do. That’s your job. I’m only in for a week this time but next year, if you’re better, we can do something together. Maybe we’ll go to that little French place in Queens with the mussels, what’s it called?”
“Le Capon,” Sally said.
“You look sleepy.” Rose said. She stood up. “Elise and I are going out for dinner. Last bread we’re going to have for a while!”
“I love you,” Sally said.
“We love you, too,” Elise said. She bent down and kissed Sally on the forehead. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She pushed her mother towards the bed, and her mother kissed her own manicured fingers and placed them on Sally’s cheek.
On the way down in the elevator, Rose said: “You can’t come back tomorrow. You’ve got fourteen people coming to the Seder.” And then: “She made her choices. It’s a pity she has no family of her own. She has no one but you. But those were her choices. She chose a career, she chose to keep smoking, she chose to lie to her doctor.”
“I’m not sure there’s any connection between pancreatic cancer and smoking.” Elise said. The anger was rising again. She could taste it. But her mother was eighty-two years old. The hospital had a large revolving door, with space enough for stretchers between each door. Rose got on and then dug her fingers into Elise’s arm so Elise would join her. They traveled together for what was only a few seconds but felt to Elise like an eternity, encased in glass. When they exited, she could see her mother gulping the fresh non-hospital air.
“There’s a corn chip stuck in your teeth,” Elise said.
When she cleaned out Sally’s apartment, Elise found, displayed prominently by Sally’s bedside, pictures of herself, at college graduation, smiling proudly. She found pictures of Jake at 3 and 17. She realized, perhaps for the first time, that Sally really did view them as her family. Jake had called Sally from Montreal, where he was in college, a few days before Rose turned up to see her and now Elise understood that when Sally said how much Jake’s call meant to her, it was true. Beside Jake’s photos was a picture of Rose as a teenager, with the beautiful dark curls she had early in her marriage, before she began to dye her hair blonde. All of these photographs were right by Sally’s bed, for her to look at every morning upon waking, every evening upon retiring for the night.
“I colored my hair gradually, beginning as soon I started to turn gray,” Rose had explained to Elise when Elise was barely five or six and went with her mother to the beauty parlor, where she would sit on a bench, legs dangling, and read her book while her mother had a “touch up”. “That way, your father wouldn’t notice.” Even at that young age, Elise knew that her father was too besotted with her mother – with her beauty, her humor, her charm — to care what color her hair was.
In Sally’s apartment Elise also found a picture of Sally with her arm around Elise and Elise’s ex-husband, taken right after their wedding ceremony, in a gazebo in the botanical garden where they’d had the reception. That one, though, was in the top drawer of a chest, alongside Sally’s undergarments, her watch, her small pouch of jewelry. It was like Sally to be loyal that way, to remove the philandering husband from a place of honor, but to keep the photo anyway, just in case. Just in case of what?
It was Sally to whom Elise turned when her marriage was falling apart, Sally to whom she confessed what she’d learned about her husband’s deceptions, Sally who told her she had the grit to start over, that it was better to raise Jake, who was only three, in a home where the foundation they walked on wasn’t patched with lies. “Besides,” Sally said, “you have a good job. You’re not dependent on a man for your livelihood, or for Jake’s, either.”
“It’s a long time to be alone,” her mother had said, when Elise told her she was getting a divorce. “A very long time.”
Both of them, of course, were right.
“I’m just about to throw in the towel,” Elise says wearily. The two black garbage bags lie crumpled beside her. She has sorted nothing. She is ready to throw away nothing – or almost nothing. She will put anything she hasn’t gone through yet, and most of what she has, back in the closet.
“Already? Why don’t you throw out some more junk?” her mother urges.
“I can’t believe it’s gone missing.”
“What is it exactly you’re looking for? Which photo?”
“The photo of Sally as a little girl, in the coat her father made for her.”
“Stepfather,” her mother corrects her. “The tailor. I had no idea you’d want that. The frame was busted so I threw it away.”
“You did what?”
“You left it on the piano,” her mother says. “I was cleaning up the other day – boy, did this place need it. The frame was broken so I figured you put it there to throw out. What did you need it for anyway? It’s not as if she was a mother or a sister to you. Just a cousin, once removed, or whatever it is.”
Elise doesn’t speak. She has been Sally’s proxy, and her mother’s proxy in caring for Sally. The time will come very soon when her mother will need her, too, as Sally needed her. Elise wonders if she will be so tender, so devoted, or if she will let her mother’s cruelty guide her own actions. We make our choices, her mother said, and we must live by them and die by them. We are the captains of our fate, the masters of our soul.