Joan & Lois.
If it's before 9 a.m. and the doorbell rings, I hurry down the stairs to get it. If it's after 9, then I assume Joan is up and around, sitting in the kitchen, reading the New York Times as the light comes in through the front window. Upstairs in my treetop home, I loiter with my morning coffee, potter about some, write some letters and emails, look at the pigeons outside my bedroom window, generally nip at things. Then, after more loitering and my equivalent of leisurely smoking, I may chance down to the fourth floor and fetch the Business and Sports sections lying there at the top of the stairs. I once told Joan that my family was "big into" sports. Something may have been lost in translation but now, I have to admit, reading the New York Times Sports section--the box scores especially--has become a small indulgence. I cluck about how dismal the Celtics are doing this season--by last count, a pitiful 5-9--and then smile and become philosophical.
The mailman's name is Bill, and he has a long ponytail and wears old black glasses that magnify his pupils. Once he was a hippie and now he wears those tall gray socks that mailmen wear. Joan told me that she slips him a $20 around Christmas; I said that that was a good idea, and I've made a note to myself to slip him a $20 when I see him next. Sometimes Bill and I chat, once about his winter trips to Florida, usually as I'm stepping out to run around the park. I may have Joan's garbage in my right hand which I deposit at the corner bin. Bill is a good worker, and our chats tend to be short and chipper because he's eager to be on his way. Something I've noticed mid-trot is that Bill is a seasoned waver.
When I get back from my run, Joan can't believe that I've been gone for so long or so short a period of time. She's impressed when I run 7 miles, less so (I imagine) when I've run a shorter stretch. Boy are you in good shape, young man. Oh, just so you know so-and-so will be staying in the guest bedroom this evening, but he won't bother you. Off to my right on the corner of the counter, I see my mail stacked neatly beside the paperweight upon which my name is scrawled in gentle red letters. Joan was once a painter and illustrator, and her paintings of her second husband, a handsome physicist who could also play the piano, hang prominently on the living room wall upstairs.
Before Christmas, I accidentally opened a letter addressed to her son Andy, thinking that it was addressed to me. I left him a note with an apology followed by an exclamation point, knowing that he'd see it when he came by for supper that evening. Andy, who's in his mid-50s and who's taking care of his ailing 90-year-old Uncle Henry who lives on the other side of the park, comes by most every evening for dinner. He eats with Joan, as they watch "just some old chestnut starring ...," and I've no idea what an old chestnut is and I'm not sure I'll remember later who was starring in the chestnut either. On the nights I sit and watch with them, they tell me that this one was not a very good one. I've no other standard to go by, though.
This past Saturday it snowed heavily. According to the Washington Post, Central Park got 4.3 inches. Andy made a special trip this morning to shovel and salt the front porch. I could have done that, I said. There's no reason why Andy has to head all the way across the park to shovel the front porch. When I was a boy, I used to shovel the family driveway which was the size of half-court. I think the last reference was lost on her, but the point got through anyway.
This conversation took place after I'd just gotten back from the grocery store, and Joan had asked me if I could do her a "big favor." Stomp stomp. O with the snow. Sure. What's that? I ask. Would you mind dropping this prescription o at the drugstore? Not at all, I say. Really, it's not a problem. Oh, you're such a dear. It's just that I've got this cold, she explains, and I don't want it to get worse. By now, I think I've heard the story about the cold "going around" a dozen times. She gargles in the morning, she says, and one of her dear old friends went to the hospital for it but was told she'd be better off at home. There's no cure for it, Joan confirms, bewildered or half-assured.
I add, And it's kind of icy and slick outside today, and I wouldn't want you to get hurt. I'm thinking of old ladies and broken hips. Just before I leave, I pop my head back through the door to reassure her that it's no big deal. And I'd be happy to pick up the prescription for you tomorrow, I say. I doubt the sidewalks will be any better by then. I think Joan, an 89-year-old widow, is learning to trust me.
January 23, 2012
From Monday evening to Thursday afternoon, Lois came to stay with us. She keeps her things--fresh linens, washed towels, extra toiletries-- stored in two boxes in the back of the unused closet in David's old study. She brings three bags, as well as a large purse, with her. Joan tells me she went through a box of tissues in the past three days and that she normally takes two hours to get ready in the morning and another two hours to get ready for bed.
Lois is twice widowed. Both men were wealthy, and both left her with almost nothing. She now lives in a small apartment in the East Hamptons. In town, she takes taxis and medicine; she comes to stay with Joan in order to see her doctors and Bergdorf Goodman. She lives with one of her daughters who does something with computers. The daughter goes through phases, is up and down, takes medicine like her mother. All of her children--all two, possibly three--were raised to make money.
Joan can't easily abide Lois, except that Lois is an old friend whose second husband was a dear. That man was charming, a good dancer when they used to have dances (balls, I think) in the house on the day before New Year's Eve. When Lois calls her up, Joan asks herself whether she can be generous this time, and, as usual, she can. Joan is generous, making supper for Andy most nights and, on Wednesdays, for Christopher and for all three the past couple nights, the guest diner being petite, careworn, and especially particular. By the time Lois gets onto the express bus, Joan is exhausted.
Lois has no money but takes taxis around town. She has a son who became wealthy through investing, retired at age 40, married a young woman who spends his money, spends his time playing golf and traveling abroad, and can't stand his mother. Lois was once, or so I imagine, a fixture in Society, but now she needs to have some kind of ankle surgery. Her left eye tears up all day (because she's sad," I asked. Apparently not.), and her back hurts, Joan thinks, because of her large purse.
I tell Joan that Lois appears self-conflicted and sad. Lois hasn't sold a house in over a year and, about a year ago, she was laid off from her real estate job. She has thin blond hair, bought lactose-free milk that now sits by itself in the bottom of the refrigerator, and drank a quarter cup before she left yesterday afternoon. She is 77-years-old and friendless save for Joan.
Yesterday around noon, Lois and Joan and I all loitered about in the kitchen, reading different sections of the paper by the meager overhead lights. I stood by the sink, leaning back against the counter, while the two women sat and read by the window. Outside, it was raining hard enough to darken the trees but not hard enough to stop the birds from singing. I was skimming an Op-Ed about the ailing Philadelphia newspapers while Joan read to us aloud about layoffs, sculptures, still lives, those sorts of things. Somehow, we got to talking about Joan's daughter-in-law Susan, who's very tall and looks her best when her hair is up, and then about Chris, himself rather round, and his lifelong heavyset partner Jean. A pair of pears, I said. Lois and I smiled. Still life.
Andrew Taggart, Ph.D., is a practical philosopher and philosophical artist. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his beautiful wife Alexandra, who is an artist.