(The Curmudgeon just returned from a brief trip to the west coast, where he went to bury his father. Dad was eighty-one, and until the past year or so his overall health was about as good as anyone has any business expecting.
Dad moved west in 1983, shortly after he and The Curmudgeon’s mother parted ways. For the past ten years The Curmudgeon attempted, on numerous occasions and (obviously) unsuccessfully, to persuade his father to return home. If readers get the impression that The Curmudgeon might be a bit of a stubborn guy, please know that to the degree that’s true he learned his lessons at the feet of the master. Dad did everything in life the hard way.
As dad aged, The Curmudgeon knew an ending like this was inevitable: a late-night call, a hurried flight across the country, five hours in the air alone with sad thoughts colored by the past few hours rather than the past fifty-five years.
Because The Curmudgeon anticipated this scenario for many years he explored some of the issues and emotions they raised in fiction – a short story he started seven years ago and tinkered with for two years before finishing. That story is below. The people in it and the circumstances bear no relationship or resemblance to The Curmudgeon, his family, or the particular circumstances surrounding his father’s death, but they do explore what it’s like to have family so far away and to know that there’s only one way that at least one of that family’s stories can end.)
“The Long Ride”
Jerry Milstein looked out the window from his first-class seat and recognized the Grand Canyon 35,000 feet below. Glancing at his watch, he saw that it was only a little more than six hours since he had received the telephone call that necessitated this unplanned, unwelcome trip.
“Jerry, if you want to see Gram alive again, you’d better get home as soon as you can.”
The caller was his sister Janice, and within minutes he was on the road for the one hour and thirty-minute drive from his Wilshire Boulevard office in Los Angeles to his home in Seal Beach. While he drove he called his wife and told her what was happening. He then called his office, explained to his secretary the flight arrangements he needed and how to handle his schedule for the rest of the week, and had her transfer him to one of his partners so he could inform her about his sudden change of plans. By the time he pulled into his driveway his wife had already packed his bag and retrieved his flight information and boarding pass from his email and printed it for him. She offered to join him on the trip, but he said it sounded as if they were all going to have to make this trip again in another week or two anyway so there was no point in twice dragging the entire family 3000 miles east in so short a period of time. He changed his clothes and had dinner with his wife and children and at around nine o’clock he was out the door again and on the road to John Wayne Airport, this time with his wife behind the wheel, for his flight home to Philadelphia.
Home to Philadelphia.
Jerry Milstein had always viewed himself as a Philadelphian living temporarily in southern California even though he had now lived in the Los Angeles area longer than he had lived in Philadelphia. After attending Princeton on scholarship and law school at UCLA he had spent two years at a small law firm in Los Angeles before joining the legal department of one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies. There he had thrived, proving very popular both with his colleagues and his clients. His clients – singers, actors, comedians, and the occasional professional athlete – loved him because he was sensible, down to earth, and plain-spoken. Accustomed as they were to being surrounded by people who wanted to look, act, talk, dress, live, and be like them, most of these clients appreciated someone who offered no such pretenses and who could be counted on to be himself and say whatever was on his mind – even if it was something they did not especially want to hear. The agents at the firm loved Jerry because he did great work for their clients and because they knew that while he liked his clients, he hated the never-ending courtship and schmooze and the hand-holding they had to do to keep those clients happy and out of trouble and was not a threat to steal their meal tickets, as so many lawyers who worked in the entertainment industry eventually tried to do.
Jerry, in turn, loved the work. He specialized in exceedingly complex contracts, and few contracts in the business world were as complex, as idiosyncratic, and as personal as those between entertainers and those who employed them. He loved negotiating those contracts and he loved writing them, monitoring their implementation, enforcing them, and reporting on their status to his clients, their families, and their agents. He also enjoyed protecting his clients, many of whom were exceedingly talented people who also were naïve and undereducated – in a few cases, to the point of near illiteracy. In return for all of this work he earned a great deal of money – more than $400,000 a year in base salary plus his partner’s share of the firm’s very healthy profits, which typically exceeded and in some years were twice as great as his salary.
He lived a very good and comfortable life. Although just thirty miles south of Los Angeles, Seal Beach had few celebrity residents of note and was as low-key and unpretentious a place to live as any small town could possibly be while still having dozens and dozens of seven-figure homes. His wife Lisa taught high school math in nearby Long Beach, their two children attended public schools, and they lived one-and-a-half blocks from the Pacific.
Jerry always looked forward to his trips home. There, he had a large family: his mother Pauline, a widow of a dozen years; three sisters, nearly twenty cousins, and more than thirty nieces and nephews; and of course his grandmother, Molly.
Gram was now ninety-one and lived alone, except for personal health care workers and family visitors – the latter especially on weekends and in the summer – in a large, rambling Victorian house on the beach in Ventnor, New Jersey, just a dozen blocks from the southern border of Atlantic City. Her husband – Jerry’s grandfather – had purchased the house in the early1960s, more than a decade before casino gambling came to Atlantic City at a time when the town was in the midst of serious, seemingly irrevocable decline, slowly being abandoned to younger black and older Jewish families. The city’s deterioration was expected eventually to drag down nearby towns as well, making even a house as large and as grand as this one available for a relative pittance. The arrival of casino gambling had changed all that, of course, and now the house – seven bedrooms, four baths, and a deck overlooking the beach – was probably worth nearly five million dollars.
“Home” for Jerry was now just a place he visited as often as he could – generally, at least four times a year: for Passover and Rosh Hashanah, for Thanksgiving, and for a week each summer. He also managed to squeeze in a few quick trips each year when he visited his firm’s New York City office, sometimes stopping by just overnight and even, on occasion, only long enough to have dinner with members of his family at a restaurant in or near the airport or train station while waiting for a connection to his next destination. In addition, he and his family frequently traveled east to attend major family events: brises and bar mitzvahs, weddings, and the occasional funeral. Fortunately for him, his wife and children enjoyed these visits nearly as much as he did: Lisa was an only child of only children whose parents had passed away shortly after they married and had no family but Jerry’s, and his children – Jennifer, fifteen, and Max, thirteen – marveled at how many relatives they had, loved their aunts and uncles, and could hardly wait to spend time with all of their cousins. In fact, his children enjoyed their visits so much so that they typically cadged an extra week or two of visiting time each summer, coming before their parents or staying after their parents returned home.
The travel between the west coast Milsteins and the east coast Milsteins was hardly one way. Jerry and his family lived in southern California, after all – home of Hollywood, Disneyland, beaches, year-round warm weather, and many other attractions – so seldom did more than a few months pass without family visitors from back home. The family was close, so Jerry had always known it would be like this – so certain was he that he and Lisa intentionally bought a home with two extra bedrooms to accommodate their expected guests. They even had a third car for those guests to use when they visited.
After having a drink about an hour into his flight, Jerry slept for nearly two hours and then did some paperwork, putting it aside only when the crackling in his ears told him the plane had begun its descent. As it did, he looked out the window in search of familiar sights, and when, after about twenty minutes, he saw those sights – the Walt Whitman Bridge, the four sports stadiums, and the naval shipyard, jammed with a mothballed fleet – he felt the hair rise on his arms as it always did when he came home. Within minutes he was on the ground and immediately called his wife – even though it was in the middle of the night back home – and she gave him his car rental information and promised to call later. Two of his sisters had offered to pick him up at the airport, Lisa reported, but she had told them that Jerry did not want to inconvenience anyone and would drive himself.
Just minutes after picking up his rental car, Jerry was already on the Atlantic City Expressway, and forty-five minutes after that the expressway ended and he turned onto Atlantic Avenue. Two minutes later he reached Atlantic City’s southern border, and just a few blocks after that he turned left into a small side street and immediately spotted his sister Janice’s car at the end of the block on the left and pulled behind it. His was the fourth car in the driveway: in front of Janice’s Honda sat his mother’s Buick, and since it was summertime, he assumed that the third car, another Honda, belonged to Franny, another of his sisters. Janice and Franny both were teachers, which afforded them the freedom to move back and forth during the summer between their homes in suburban Philadelphia and the family shore home in Ventnor, where their grandmother had taken up full-time residence more than ten years ago, and they had long taken advantage of this freedom to spend large chunks of their summers at the beach.
Jerry looked up at the old familiar house and smiled. He removed his duffel bag from the back seat, locked the car door, and climbed the stairs to the front door. He never knew the appropriate way to enter a home that had been part of his life for as far back as he could remember and where his arrival was now anticipated yet where he ran the risk of startling those inside if he entered without warning. His compromise was to knock hard three times, open the door and enter, and call out “Anybody home?” in a voice loud enough to be heard downstairs yet not so loud that it would disturb or awaken anyone upstairs.
“Hey there,” his sister Janice called as she approached and threw her arms around him. He kissed her.
“Lisa called and said you were on your way from the airport. The woman’s a saint for calling at that hour.”
“Not good. Dr. Jenkins was here yesterday and explained that nothing in particular happened to precipitate this, it’s just that her heart’s out of gas and that’s all there is to it. He said there’s nothing left to do but keep her comfortable.”
“A week, maybe two.”
“Is she awake?”
“No, she just went to sleep a little while ago. She’s sleeping a lot, a combination of the drugs and fatigue, I think.”
“Where’s mom? Are your kids here?”
“Mom’s on the deck and my kids are with Franny and hers, taking a walk on the beach.”
“I figured the second Honda might be hers. How long have you been here?”
“Three days for me this time, four for Franny, about a month for mom. Mom practically lives here now. Eleanor and the boys will be down tonight.”
“Would it be easier if I got a hotel room? I could even take a few of the kids with me if it would make it easier for everyone.”
“No, it’s a huge house, there’s plenty of room. We’ll just move some of the kids onto air mattresses, which you know they’ll like more than a bed anyhow. And you may have a roommate or three.”
“You know that’s fine with me.”
“How long can you stay?”
“Two days. I have a flight out of A.C. International early Sunday afternoon. Let’s go see mom.”
They walked arm in arm to the deck, where their mother sat, looking out absently over the beach.
“The mountain comes to Muhammad,” he announced as he pulled aside the screen door. His mother sat forward with a start, then rose and hugged her son. They talked for a few minutes, and as they did, Jerry spotted his sister and nieces and nephews a few blocks down the beach. It would be hard to miss Franny and her daughters, with their bright orange-red hair. After a few minutes he excused himself, removed his shoes, and climbed down the stairs from the deck down onto the beach and started in the direction of his family. He walked for two or three minutes until Sarah, Franny’s fifteen-year-old, spotted him from a distance and called out “Uncle Jerry” and broke into a sprint, not stopping until she nearly ran him over. The rest of the children followed – Franny’s Jessica, twelve, and Emily, nine, and Janice’s Eric, fourteen, and Sharon, eleven – with Franny arriving a minute after them. For a few minutes everyone spoke at once, telling their uncle about the latest developments in their lives since they had last seen him, in April.
Once the reunion ended, Franny directed the children to return to the house, took her brother’s arm, and led him down to the water.
“You look good, big brother.”
“As good as someone can look after taking the red-eye, I guess. Nice car.”
“Thanks. All part of being newly single. New house, new hair style, new car, new a few other things.”
“You getting along okay with Lance?” he asked, referring to her ex-husband.
“A few minor skirmishes, but all in all, we’re doing okay. How’re Lisa and the kids?”
“Great. The kids are at day camp. We decided I should make this trip myself.”
“Well, I’m going to see them soon enough, I guess. Oh, Jerry, this is so sad.”
She burst into tears and buried her face on his shoulder.
“It’s so hard watching someone you love die slowly right in front of your eyes. It’s like you can practically see the life leaking out of her.
“And it’s like a zoo here, too: too many people, too much family, as if such a thing were possible, in a place we all associate with good times. The kids’ve been great – we all have such great kids, Jerry, it makes me so proud – but you can feel the tension in the house when someone says something funny and your instincts tell you to laugh and your head reminds you that you’re sitting a few feet from someone you love who’s dying. And then there’s mom.”
“What about her?”
“Didn’t you notice?”
“Well, she doesn’t look good, but I figured that was just stress and fatigue.”
“That’s part of it, I’m sure, but I suspect there’s more going on. She’s lost weight and has her own heart problems, you know. She seems short of breath a lot, low on energy.”
“Has she been to the doctor?”
“Not for a few months, since Gram took this turn for the worse. We suggested that she make an appointment with Dr. Jenkins here but she said she’d rather wait until she goes home so she can see Dr. Kalodner.”
“I’ll talk to her.”
“All three of us have.”
“Maybe a fourth voice.” Jerry immediately felt bad; he knew his words carried more weight with his mother than those of his sisters – and he knew his sisters knew this as well.
They returned to the house, where most of the family was sitting on the deck. There they remained for a few minutes, talking, until they were interrupted by Lucille, Molly’s daytime private duty nurse.
“Mrs. Milstein is awake. I’m bringing her some soup.”
“Let me take it to her. I need a helper, please.” He tapped Eric, Janice’s son, on the shoulder and he and the boy followed Lucille to the kitchen. Lucille put a bowl of soup on a tray, which Jerry gestured for Eric to carry, and the three of them walked toward the stairs.
“Carrying soup’s easier on this,” Lucille said, nodding toward the elevator the family had installed years ago when it became clear that Molly no longer could handle the stairs.
He shook his head, climbed the stairs with his nephew, and knocked on the frame of the door outside his grandmother’s room.
“Room service,” he said, poking his head into the room. “Did someone order soup?”
Molly, who was propped up in her bed, sat forward, smiled, and quietly declared, ”I knew you’d come.”
Jerry and Eric entered the room, where Eric set down the tray on a table. Jerry gently hugged and kissed his grandmother. He then pulled a chair to the foot of her bed and, after motioning to Eric that he could leave, began talking to his grandmother as he had so many times in his life.
Nearly two hours later Jerry emerged from the room, quietly closing the door behind him. When he turned around, Janice stood before him.
“Shhh,” he said, holding his fingers to his lips. “She’s asleep.”
“For how long?” Janice asked.
“About a half hour.
“So what’ve you been doing since then?”
They returned downstairs.
“Time for lunch,” Franny announced
“I’m starved,” Jerry declared.
Moments later Jerry, his sisters, and the five children were seated around the large dining room table eating chicken and roast beef sandwiches and munching potato chips and apple wedges. As the most recent arrival, Jerry was still the center of attention: everyone wanted to hear about him and Lisa and Jennifer and Max and at the same time, they all wanted to tell him what they had been up to since the last time they were all together.
When lunch ended the children changed into bathing suits and headed back to the beach. As they left, their mothers checked them for sunscreen and told them to listen to Sarah, who as the oldest participating child was placed in charge of this expedition. After the children left, Janice, Franny, Jerry, and Pauline sat on the deck and talked for about forty-five minutes, until Pauline excused herself to take a nap. When she closed the sliding door behind her, Jerry spoke.
“I see it more clearly now.”
“See what?” Janice asked.
“Mom. She looks awful.”
“I was telling him earlier,” Franny said.
“She really needs to see a doctor,” Jerry continued, “regardless of which one it is.
“Your kids, on the other hand,” he continued, “are just wonderful. I don’t know if you can appreciate how amazing they are, seeing them every day like you do. They’re bright and warm and interesting and articulate and I could go on and on.”
“Please do,” Franny said. Janice giggled.
“It’s interesting. When you see them a few months apart, you can see the kinds of changes that you don’t see when you’re with them every day. You especially get to see their emotional growth – it just jumps out at you.”
“Such as?” Franny asked.
“Such as your Emily, actually,” Jerry said. “She’s just a happy, happy child. You have no idea what it feels like when she spots you for the first time and you see such joy and unconditional love in her eyes.
“On the other hand, there’s Sarah. She’s very sensitive, isn’t she?”
“Very. Like mother like daughter, I guess.”
“So you know how much all of this is upsetting her. I hate playing shrink, but I’ll bet that between the divorce and understanding that her great-grandmother is going to die very soon, she feels like she’s been losing everyone who’s important to her. You’d better keep an eye on her.”
Franny turned to Janice.
“Damn, he’s good,” she said.
The sisters laughed together.
“I have her seeing a counselor.”
“Damn, I am good,” Jerry laughed.
“But it’s not just Lance and Gram. According to the counselor, she feels loss when you and Lisa and the kids visit and leave, too, or even when a friend from school moves away. She says she’s been working with Sarah on this and thinks she’s learning to handle it better, but I guess the next few weeks will give us an idea of how much better.”
The three of them continued talking for another half-hour – about their families, their mother’s health, old and mutual friends, the kinds of things that siblings talk about when they are together and at leisure. When Lucille informed them that their grandmother was awake, they climbed the stairs together and spent a half-hour in her room until she fell asleep again. In the hallway outside the room, Jerry said he wanted to join the children on the beach.
“I’ll go with you,” Janice said.
“I’ll stay behind,” Franny volunteered.
Fifteen minutes later Jerry planted his sand chair amid his five nieces and nephews. At that moment Sharon, Jessica, and Emily were molding wet sand into the shape of a shark while the two older children, Eric and Sarah, were sunning themselves.
Jerry was exhausted. It was nearly seventeen hours since he had received Janice’s call in his office, and except for his light nap on the plane, he had not slept in twenty-eight hours. Consequently, when Janice looked over at her brother less than five minutes after he had taken his seat, she found him fast asleep.
Twenty minutes later he stirred, sat up, and looked around, reorienting himself.
“Welcome back,” his sister greeted him.
“How long?” he asked.
“About fifteen minutes, I guess.”
“I really needed it, but I feel good.” He stood.
“Let’s take a walk.”
Janice knew how much her brother liked long walks on the beach.
“Sure,” she said, rising from her chair and tapping Sarah on the shoulder to let her know that she again was in charge. “You mean you don’t get enough of this at home?”
“You mean when I get home from work by six o’clock, during the hour between my return home and dinner?”
She looked at him.
“I haven’t been home from work before 7:30 in five years. I take this kind of walk on Sunday mornings pretty faithfully, usually before Lisa’s even up, but other than that, maybe just a few times a year. Living at the beach, I’ve learned, doesn’t exactly mean you’re living on the beach, if you know what I mean.”
“Your choice: which way?”
“Let’s go toward Margate so I can see which beautiful old houses were torn down last winter to make way for some new monstrosity.”
So they headed south, and as they did, they talked about their spouses and their children, their jobs, their homes, their lives. Of his three sisters, Jerry had always been closest to Janice, and they had a special bond that was always and instantly renewed the moment they laid eyes on one another. They had similar sensibilities, similar outlooks on life and the world, similar senses of humor. Often, they finished one another’s sentences, and independently – this was one thing they had never discussed – they each suspected that the other’s spouse was a little jealous of this relationship.
They returned a half-hour later and were greeted by the children, who wanted their uncle to toss a frisbee with them. Together they all retreated to an unoccupied part of the deep beach, and for the next twenty minutes Jerry laughed and played with all five of his nieces and nephews. They all applauded one another’s good catches, laughed at their misses, and roared as one by one all of them fell while trying to reach just a little farther than nature intended for them to reach. At the end, the two youngest – eleven-year-old Sharon and nine-year-old Emily – tackled their Uncle Jerry for no particular reason. The three others – fifteen-year-old Sarah, fourteen-year-old Eric, and twelve-year-old Jessica – immediately came to their uncle’s rescue, pulling the children off him and playfully picking them up, whereupon the three older children and Jerry carried the two little ones – two bearers per child – all the way down to the ocean, depositing them in waist-high water. Jerry and the older children high-fived one another and returned to their blankets and chairs, where Janice sat, shading her eyes with her hands and laughing.
“Where do you get the energy?” she asked her brother.
“I think I’m running on fumes. When are you expecting Herb?” he asked, inquiring about her husband.
“I just spoke to him. He said was going to try to hitch a ride with Ellie and Phil, if they have room and can hook up. I’m guessing between seven-thirty and eight, depending on the arrangements and traffic.”
“What time is it now?”
“I think I’m going to head back and take a nap.”
“Good idea. It should be quiet enough.”
Jerry packed his bag, folded his chair, and started back. As he did, a voice called out after him: it was Sarah, Franny’s fifteen year-old. She ran to catch up to him, took his arm, and walked him back to the house, talking about school and her friends and her mother and father, whom she now saw only occasionally, and asking Jerry about her cousins in California and when they would be making their annual summer visit.
When they reached the stairs, Sarah changed the subject without warning.
“Gram’s going to die, isn’t she?”
Jerry lowered his eyes momentarily.
“Yes, she is.”
“I don’t know for sure.”
“I knew when mom told me you were coming. You came to say good-bye to her, didn’t you?”
“And Aunt Lisa and Jenny and Max didn’t come with you…”
“Because I think we’re all going to be coming back very soon anyway.”
“I thought so.”
Jerry could see that she was crying big, silent tears. He sat her down on the steps leading up to the deck and she started sobbing and threw her arms around her uncle, burying her face in his chest. All he could do was hold her and hug her until after another minute, she spoke.
“I guess I shouldn’t cry like that.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Because I’m getting a little old for that.”
“I don’t think you’re ever too old to cry – especially when you have a perfectly good reason to cry.”
“I’ve been crying a lot lately.”
“Do you think you have good reasons to cry?”
“Then I don’t see the problem. If you had no reason to cry and were crying anyway I might be worried, but since you have reasons, it seems like a perfectly healthy outlet to me.”
“Do you cry sometimes, Uncle Jerry?”
“Oh, yes, believe me.”
“I can’t wait to see her. We can talk – sort of like you and Aunt Janice.”
He was surprised – surprised that a fifteen-year-old who saw him three or four times a year recognized his special relationship with his older sister.
“Well, whatever happens with Gram, we’re all going to be here next month – August 15 or 16, I think – for our vacation, and like I said, probably sooner, too.”
“Maybe, if sooner, Jenny could just stay.”
“You need to talk to my mom, Uncle Jerry. She needs a fresh face.”
“Yes. Aunt Janice and Aunt Ellie are nice and sympathetic and all, but they’re elementary school teachers. All they know about the world ends with ten-year-olds. You know more. You have a different perspective, and I think she could use that.”
“It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about this.”
“You know I’m seeing a shrink?”
“She asks questions, it gets me to thinking. The thinking doesn’t stop just because the session ends.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a pretty good shrink.”
“She’s okay. She doesn’t treat me like a kid.” She paused.
“Neither do you.”
“Thank you. It’s hard. My Jenny is the same age as you, but I bet if you asked her, she’d tell you I treat her like a kid.”
Sarah laughed as she stood.
“Can I have your cell phone for a minute?”
He looked at her.
He reached into his pocket and handed her the phone.
“I’ll ask her right now, on my way back. Thanks for everything, Uncle Jerry.” She hugged him and jogged toward the water. Jerry turned and climbed the steps and saw, at the far end of the deck, his sister Fran – Sarah’s mother.
He looked at her.
“You heard?” he asked.
“Enough. Jesus Christ, Jerry, Jesus H. Christ. How does a fifteen year-old walk around with the weight of the world on her shoulders like that?”
“She’s a very perceptive and sensitive young woman, Franny.”
“So Dr. Silverberg keeps telling me.”
“You didn’t tell her Gram is dying?”
“The kids know.”
“But not telling them, I guess she interprets that as a lack of confidence or just being treated like a kid.”
“I think it’s her sensitivity,” Franny said. “She says we need to talk.”
“I’d like that, but when? It’s already a zoo here, and we’re expecting five more tonight, and everyone wants a piece of you.”
He paused for a moment.
“Tonight, after the kids are in bed, we’ll go to White House for steak sandwiches – just you and me. I haven’t had a good steak since, well, probably last summer when we were here.”
“I’ll hold you to it.” She kissed him.
“Now, I’m going to take a shower and a short nap before I keel over.”
Jerry went into the house, where he found his mother asleep on the sofa while the television played. He climbed the stairs and peeked into his grandmother’s room; she, too, was asleep, with Lucille seated in a chair at the foot of her bed, quietly knitting. Fifteen minutes later he also was fast asleep.
* * *
Ninety minutes later Jerry awoke, and while he lay in bed collecting himself he heard footsteps in the hallway and the sound of running water. With six people coming in off the beach, he knew it would be a while before everyone was ready for dinner, so he remained in bed for another ten minutes before rising. When he did, he felt refreshed – at least enough to keep him going for the rest of the evening. He glanced at his watch: it was five-thirty.
After dressing he went to his grandmother’s room, where he found her and his mother watching television; an unpleasant woman pretending to be a judge was verbally abusing the people standing before her.
Seeing him standing in the doorway, his grandmother said, “Tell your mother she needs to see a doctor” in the strongest voice she had used since his arrival.
“Ma, you need to see a doctor,” Jerry said.
“Why?” his mother replied, her tone verging on defiant.
“Because you look like hell,” Jerry responded.
“A nice thing to say to your mother,” she retorted.
“Seriously, mom, look at you,” he continued. He realized this was his chance – perhaps his only chance – and he was not going to let it pass. “Your skin is a sad shade of gray, your posture is awful, and I can hear you breathing in the next room. When was the last time you saw a doctor?”
“I saw Dr. Kalodner back in Abington about two months ago.”
“Franny says it was more like four months ago.”
“Your sister has a big mouth.”
“My sister – my sisters, I should say – are worried about you. Why not let Dr. Jenkins have a look?”
“Because he’s not my doctor.”
“But he’s a doctor, and a good one, right, Gram?”
“When I go back home I’ll see Dr. Kalodner. He has all my records.”
“Here’s another thought: on Monday, Janice gets you an appointment with Dr. Jenkins – at his office, not here while he’s checking on Gram – and then she calls Dr. Kalodner’s office and gets them to send a copy of your records to Dr. Jenkins. Don’t worry; Kalodner will understand.”
“This will keep,” Pauline said defiantly.
“No, it won’t, Ma.”
“I guess this is why you’re a successful lawyer,” she replied. “You beat them over the head in court until they give you your way just to shut you up.”
“Yes, Ma, aside from the fact that I’ve been in a courtroom maybe three times in the past ten years and barely spoke those three times, yes, that’s exactly how it works. So, you’ll go?”
“I’ll go, I’ll go.”
He winked at his grandmother.
“Then I guess my work here is done for now,” he declared, bending over to kiss his mother on the cheek as he departed.
Back downstairs he found Janice, Eric, and Jessica in the living room; everyone else was still upstairs. Jerry took a seat next to Eric and talked to him for about ten minutes, then moved onto the floor to join Jessica for a brief conversation. A few minutes later Franny came down the stairs, and as she walked past her brother, still on the floor, she playfully nudged his calf with her foot.
“So, what’s the plan for dinner?” he asked.
Janice and Franny looked at one another and laughed.
“We ask each other that every night,” Janice said. “With so many people here, it’s a lot of work. We usually take turns, but neither of us planned anything for tonight.”
“How about Chinese?” Jerry asked. “My treat.”
“Then Chinese it is,” Franny declared, and Janice shook her head in agreement. “But we should order extra, for when everyone else gets here.”
“Franny, let’s go find the take-out menu and figure out what to order.” Janice and Franny rose and had just reached the kitchen when Janice turned back to her brother and called out, “The usual, Jerry?”
He smiled; his sister knew how to take care of him.
About twenty minutes later, Jerry announced a need for helpers and grabbed Sharon and Emily to go with him on the ten-minute ride. They were halfway out the door when Jerry stopped, turned around, and addressed Franny.
“I seem to recall New Jersey law being strange about young kids in front seats. What’s the deal for these two?”
“Aw, Uncle Jerry,” Emily whined.
“Aw, Uncle Jerry,” Jerry mockingly whined right back at her.
“Back seat for Emily,” Franny replied.
A half-hour later, as Jerry and his helpers returned and were getting out of his car, an SUV pulled into the driveway alongside them: it was his sister Eleanor and her husband Phil, their two children – Laura, ten, and Matt, six – and Herb, Janice’s husband. They exchanged hugs and kisses and handshakes in the driveway and entered the house together. As he entered, Jerry called out, “They gave us something extra with our order” as the latest arrivals burst into the living room, where the rest of the family awaited dinner’s arrival. Another round of greetings ensued and then everyone adjourned to the dining room.
A massive feeding ritual then began, with fourteen people passing around white cartons and foil-lined paper bags, parents chiding children for taking too much or too little, and never fewer than three people – some, with food in their mouth – speaking at once. Janice and Franny had erred on the side of over-ordering, so it seemed as if a never-ending stream of cartons went around and around the table. It took nearly an hour for the meal to conclude, and when it did, Jerry suggested that everyone adjourn to the living room or deck while he and Eleanor cleaned up and stored the leftovers. Eleanor sarcastically thanked her brother for volunteering her services while everyone else beat a hasty retreat before they, too, were added to the clean-up crew.
“Why me?” Eleanor asked when the last child straggled out of the room.
“Sorry,” Jerry explained, “but with a house full of people, I thought this might be my only chance to get a few minutes alone with you.”
“To do what?”
“Just talk, that’s all.”
And they did. Clearing the table, sealing the cartons, loading the dishwasher, and hand-washing the overflow took twenty minutes, and as they worked, Jerry and Eleanor caught up on one another’s lives, talking about their children and spouses, their jobs, and even the little aches and pains that creep up on people after they turn forty.
“You look different,” Jerry observed as they were finishing.
“Different how?” Eleanor asked warily.
“I don’t know. Happy, healthy, something like that, but different somehow.”
“If you say so.” She hesitated. “New hairstyle maybe? Slightly different color?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t think so.” He paused. “I don’t know, maybe that’s it. Whatever it is, you look very lively.”
“Lively. That’s good, I guess.”
They finished working and joined the rest of the family – half of them in the living room in front of the television and half on the deck overlooking the beach. There, everyone talked for nearly two hours. At around eleven o’clock, mothers started ushering their children off to bed. After a discussion of logistics, it was decided that Eleanor’s little son Matt and Franny’s youngest, Emily, would spend the night on air mattresses in Jerry’s room. Jerry playfully put his hand on Emily’s shoulder.
“You don’t snore, do you, kid?” he asked.
“Why do you think we’re sticking her in with you?” Franny asked, and everyone laughed.
“Yeah, yeah, pick on ol’ Uncle Jerry,” he declared. “Well, I’ve got news for you, Miss Emily: I snore, too.”
The child laughed as her mother directed her toward the stairs. While the women went upstairs with their children and Pauline retired along with them, Jerry quickly looked in on his grandmother, who was sleeping fitfully, and returned to the living room to talk to his brothers in-law. After a few minutes his sisters returned, one by one – first Eleanor, then Janice, and finally Franny.
“Are you ready, Jerry?” Franny asked as she entered the living room.
“Ready for what?” Phil asked.
“Jerry and Franny are going out for steak sandwiches and we’re not invited,” Janice explained, her voice evoking mock indignation. The men played along, expressing outrage, but less than a minute later Jerry and Franny were out the door and barely three minutes after that they were seated in a booth in the Atlantic City sandwich shop they had visited ever since they were teenagers. Though now nearly midnight, the restaurant was almost full. Somehow, more than thirty years after casino gambling came to Atlantic City, the White House Sub Shop managed to remain one of the few signs of commercial life in the city not located on the boardwalk.
“Do youse need a menu?” the waitress asked.
“Not for me. Franny?”
“You’re not really eating again, are you?”
“Of course I am. I’ll have a large cheesesteak with sauce, onions, and green peppers and a side of fries.”
“Good lord. Just coffee for me, please.”
And then they talked. Franny described the new challenges she now faced as a single mother: making and enforcing all the rules by herself, finding a way to lend a sympathetic ear one minute and then lay down the law the next, dealing with homework and school, cleaning and maintaining the house and paying the bills by herself, having no one with whom to share chauffeur duties for kids with growing numbers of activities, and more. She also spoke of the loneliness – the one thing about this whole experience, she noted, that she had never anticipated.
“So, do you regret it?” Jerry asked.
“Oh, no, not at all. The last five years, I was alone even when he was laying next to me. But I thought I’d be able to get back into circulation, but so far, I haven’t found the time.”
“When you want it badly enough, you’ll make the time.”
“And how’s Lance been?”
The waitress brought Jerry’s food; his eyes grew wide.
“You’re really going to eat that at midnight?”
“Only nine o’clock my time.”
He bit into the sandwich and chewed enthusiastically.
“Damn, this is good. Just like I remember it. So, Lance?”
“Lance is… Lance. His support checks are always on time and he picks the kids up at the appointed hour and drops them off when he says he will. But he was always a disengaged father, and now, he acts like he has license to be disengaged.”
Jerry swallowed what was in his mouth.
“Meaning that he shows virtually no interest in the children’s lives – not even what Sarah’s going through. He insists it’s just a phase that she’ll grow out of, and I had to twist his arm to get him to go half with me on the counselor. He doesn’t ask about how they’re doing in school. Most of all, the word ‘no’ is no longer in his vocabulary. When the kids are with him, they do whatever they want. They eat what they want, they stay up as late as they want, he does or gets for them whatever they want. Part of being a parent is saying ‘no’ once in a while.”
Jerry shook his head.
“What?” Franny asked.
“C’mon, Franny, this isn’t brain surgery. When you say no, you’re feeding them a half-hour later or driving them to a friend’s house later in the day. If he says no, he has to worry that they’ll stew over it during the week between visits and hold it against him. I’m not saying it’s right, but in his own strange way, it’s how you can tell that despite his shortcomings, Lance loves his kids. He’s afraid of losing them.”
“Sure. I have a client like that: Luke Geary, the country singer.”
“You know him?”
“Yeah. He goes on tour for nine months at a time, barely sees his kids while he’s away, won’t be involved with them in any way when he’s on the road, but when he comes home he lavishes them with presents and takes them on amazing trips. His ex gets angry because he takes them out of school and lets them run wild, and they go at it for weeks. He means well, but it’s wrong, and I’m pretty sure he knows it, but it’s the only way he can figure out to have a role in his kids’ lives.”
Jerry picked up his sandwich and continued eating.
“Give me a bite of that,” Franny said.
* * *
Jerry slept well: Emily did not snore, and despite the presence of sixteen people in the house, he was not awakened by the pounding of feet outside his door, the constant sound of running water, or the company in his bed; sometime during the night, both Matt and Emily had abandoned their air mattresses in favor of joining their uncle.
After dressing he stopped in to see his grandmother and, finding her awake, he spent about forty-five minutes telling her about the latest developments in his children’s lives. While they talked and thumbed through a photo album that Lisa had packed in his bag, others wandered into and out of the room and into and out of the conversation. Toward the end, Lucille brought Molly a few pills to take and she had trouble swallowing them, breaking out into a brief fit of coughing and breathing heavily. Shortly thereafter she dozed off.
Downstairs, he entered the kitchen and was greeted by several members of his family and the smell of coffee; beyond the kitchen, he saw others out on the deck.
“So, what’s on the agenda for today?” he asked after exchanging greetings.
“There’s no agenda,” Eleanor said. “We hang out, we check on Gram, we take turns going down to the beach with the kids.”
Jerry rummaged through the cabinets.
“What’re you looking for?” Eleanor asked.
“I don’t know – breakfast, I guess. Some oatmeal, maybe cereal or an English muffin or some fruit.”
He continued looking as he spoke, moving to the refrigerator.
“Perfect, yogurt,” he declared.
“The cupboard’s pretty bare. Jerry, what do you say you and I take a couple of the kids and do a little food shopping this morning? We’ll stock up and get some food for a big barbecue tonight. I had the pit cleaned a few weeks ago, so it’s ready to go.”
After finishing his yogurt and a cup of coffee and going onto the deck briefly to say good morning to the rest of the family, Jerry, Eleanor, Sarah, and Eric piled into Eleanor’s SUV and drove to the supermarket. When they returned and finished unpacking the groceries, Jerry joined some of the others on the beach.
The rest of the day was more of the same: different groups gathering in different places – the living room, the kitchen, the deck, Molly’s room, and the beach – with everyone more or less rotating from gathering to gathering. In the evening they had a big barbecue, cooking steaks, chicken, and ribs and roasting vegetables and fresh Jersey corn in the brick barbecue pit that Jerry and his father and grandfather had built together so many years ago. There was a brief discussion about bringing Molly down for the festivities – a discussion aborted when little Emily pointed out that although her great-grandmother’s hospital bed was on wheels, the bed would not fit into the elevator. During dinner, Jerry’s sisters and the older children plied him for information about some of the celebrities he knew through his job, and he offered them a few small, interesting bits of information they would not find in the press. After dinner, Franny, Jerry, and the husbands took all of the children into Ocean City for caramel popcorn, rides at the boardwalk amusement park, and a round of miniature golf.
Late in the evening, the two husbands shepherded the children to bed and then stayed in the house to watch the Phillies on television, leaving Janice, Franny, Eleanor, and Jerry together on the deck, where they talked about old times until three o’clock. It was just the four of them, together like this for perhaps the first time in more than fifteen years without spouses present, and they reveled in every moment, their faces alive, their voices youthful and energetic, their bond unmistakable and strong despite the years and the miles. It ended only when a brief shower chased them indoors and they realized the time.
Despite getting little sleep that night, Jerry awoke early and took the three oldest children onto the boardwalk, where the four of them rode bicycles together from end to end – the first time that eleven-year-old Sharon had done so. Returning to the house, Jerry showered and dressed and was eating a bowl of sliced cantaloupe when Janice entered the kitchen.
“Jerry, Ellie asked me to bring you up to Gram’s room.”
“Is something wrong? Is Gram okay?”
“She’s fine. Come on.”
Jerry and Janice climbed the stairs and entered Molly’s room, where their mother, Franny, and Eleanor were already gathered.
“I’m glad we had a chance to do this before Jerry left,” Eleanor began. “I have an announcement.”
They all looked at her.
“I’m six weeks pregnant. I’m going to have a baby.”
Everyone spoke at once, expressing surprise – Eleanor was forty years old – and offering congratulations. When the tumult ended, Eleanor turned to Jerry.
“I thought you were going to guess the other day.”
“What?” Janice asked.
“Friday night, when he and I were cleaning up after dinner, Jerry said I looked different – healthy, happy, lively. He used every adjective except ‘glowing.’”
Everyone laughed and hugged and kissed Eleanor and again offered their congratulations. Pauline seemed particularly pleased.
“This is such a wonderful surprise, Ellie,” she said. She turned to her mother, who lay smiling in her bed.
“How about that, Mom?” she asked.
Her daughter and grandchildren looked to her for a response.
“So nice, so nice,” she said softly. “And the timing is so good. It’s like god is touching us and helping us renew our family.”
They all smiled, but the feeling in the room changed. Pauline kissed her mother on the forehead; Janice leaned sadly against Jerry; Franny left abruptly to hide her tears.
Jerry looked at his watch.
“I’m afraid I have to get moving. May I have the room for a minute, please?”
The others nodded and left.
“Are you driving back to Philadelphia?” Molly asked.
“No. I have a short flight from here to Baltimore, then directly to Long Beach. I’m sorry my visit was so short.”
“You came, that’s what matters. I’m so glad you did.” She stopped for a moment to catch her breath. “I wanted to see you, wanted to tell you one more time how proud I am of you and your family.”
“Thank you. We are how we’re raised, you know, so a lot of the credit for that goes to you.”
“And I have one more bit of raising to do.”
He looked at her quizzically.
“Your mother’s not well and I can tell that Franny is having a hard time and now Ellie is going to have a baby. They’re your family, and I want you to keep an eye on them.”
“I will, Gram.” Tears filled his eyes.
He leaned over and kissed her cheek.
“I love you,” he whispered – the only sound he was capable of making.
“Now go and leave this old woman to get some sleep. This has been a very exciting morning for me.”
He kissed her again, this time on the forehead, and walked to the door. When he reached the threshold, tears rolling down his face, he turned to her again. She raised her hand to her lips and blew him a kiss – just as she had done so many times when he was a little boy. He heaved a deep, deep sigh, smiled, and closed the door behind him as he left
Jerry went directly to his room to compose himself and pack the last of his things. When he finished he picked up his bag and went downstairs, where everyone was gathered in the living room.
“I’m afraid I have to go,” he said.
“We know,” Franny replied.
Little Matt, who had slept with him the past two nights, stepped up to Jerry and asked, “Will you be back soon, Uncle Jerry?
His cousin Sarah stepped forward.
“He’ll be back soon, Matty,” she said as she scooped up her cousin with one arm and hugged her uncle with the other.
Jerry walked around the room, giving hugs and kisses and handshakes to everyone. He then started toward the door, and everyone moved with him. He laughed.
“Please, not everyone to the curb.”
Janice stepped forward.
“Okay, little brother, I’ll walk you to your car.”
She took his arm and they walked to the door, he opened it, and they stepped outside and walked down the steps to the driveway.
“I’m so glad you came,” Janice said. “It meant so much to Gram, as I’m sure you could tell.” She paused for a moment. “To all of us, really.”
“And to me,” he replied. “Geez, Dickens really knew what he was talking about when he wrote about the best of times and the worst of times.”
“I came for a terrible purpose, but that aside, I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful time. I can’t believe what a great family I have, and I never realized how much I missed you. I mean, I always knew I missed all of you, I just never realized how much.”
“It goes both ways.”
He was now seated in the car and talking to Janice through the open window.
“Have a safe flight. Call me when you land.”
“By that time it’ll be the middle of the night here. I’ll wake everyone up.”
“Just me and Herb. Call.”
“Yes, ma’am. I love you, Janice.”
He wiped the tears from his eyes, put the car into reverse, and backed out of the driveway. Seconds later he was gone.
* * *
One by one, four black limousines pulled up in front of the large suburban home. From each emerged people of all ages wearing dark clothing. Although barely noon, the heat was oppressive, the humidity was high, and the shock the people received as they emerged from the air-conditioned automobiles was palpable. They walked in twos and threes to the house, pausing for a moment at the doorway to rinse their hands ritually in cool water and dry them with paper towels. Inside they were greeted by a few neighbors who had volunteered to stay behind and prepare the house for visitors. Vacant spaces in the living room and family room were filled with low, backless benches; mirrors in the entranceway and living room were covered with crisp white sheets; the dining room table was piled high with food
This was Janice’s and Herb’s house, but her sisters Franny and Eleanor immediately made themselves at home, going into the kitchen to check on the arrangements and make some last-minute adjustments. Jerry led his mother to his sister’s bedroom and suggested that she take a nap, promising, when she protested, that he would awaken her in forty-five minutes so she could spend time with the expected visitors. Jerry’s wife Lisa ushered all nine children upstairs, explained to them what they should expect over the next few hours and how they should act, and told them all to change their clothes; the four families had met at the house right before the funeral and, by arrangement, had brought changes of clothing for everyone, with the expectation that the children would change immediately upon returning from the cemetery and the adults after the guests departed.
For the next ninety minutes friends, neighbors, and relatives wandered into and out of the house. The family sat, mostly on the low benches, and greeted those who had come to pay their respects. Molly had been ninety-one years old and in fading health for many years, so her passing had not been unexpected. She had outlived most of her friends, and at least some of those who remained arrived to express their condolences; others undoubtedly would come in the evening, when they could find a child or grandchild to drive them. As guests came and went the children made occasional appearances, at first to fix themselves sandwiches and then occasionally out of curiosity or in response to familiar voices they heard from the basement, where they were quietly watching television and playing and otherwise occupying themselves.
Shortly after two o’clock the last guest departed, and all of the adults joined the two servers they had hired to help clean up; Pauline returned to her daughter’s bedroom to rest. They all knew that this ritual – the arrival of guests, expressions of grief, and the consumption of food and drink – would begin anew that evening. After a brief discussion, Eleanor and Phil and Franny decided to go home, even though it would just be for a few hours, and return later; they agreed this would be easier for the children. Jerry’s daughter Jenny went with Sarah to Franny’s house. Eventually, Janice’s children and Jerry’s son Max changed into bathing suits and went into the yard, where the pool awaited them. Herb followed, to supervise, leaving Janice, Jerry, and Lisa in the kitchen, where they sat at the table, sipping soft drinks.
“I haven’t seen some of those people since Pop died,” Jerry observed.
Janice nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, there are only a few of them still left. Tonight, though, we’ll have more of mom’s friends, plus the cousins who had to get back to work.”
“Is everything set with the caterer?” Lisa asked.
“I just got off the phone with them. They’ll be here.”
“Famous?” Jerry asked, referring to the delicatessen of his youth.
“Who else?” Janice replied. “I didn’t even have a chance to ask you: how was your flight?”
Lisa looked at her husband.
“Long, but not bad,” he replied.
Lisa looked at him again, and Janice noticed.
“What?” Janice asked.
“Jerry,” Lisa said.
“It was awful,” he began, “just awful – one of the worst experiences of my life. If I thought ten days ago was bad, racing here for one more chance to see Gram alive, this was ten times worse: racing home to bury her.”
He started to cry; Janice reached out and touched his arm.
“And?” Lisa asked.
“And,” Jerry started, “I’ve decided… no, we’ve decided… that we don’t ever want to have to make a trip like this again. You’re all too important for us to be getting onto airplanes for three-day visits, whether if it’s for Gram’s funeral or for Jessica’s bat mitzvah next year.”
“Or for mom’s angioplasty,” Janice interjected.
Jerry and Lisa looked at one another, and then at Janice.
“Dr. Kalodner called yesterday afternoon. He wants to do it next week.”
“Jeez,” Jerry said. “Well, that just reinforces what I’m saying. Lisa and I discussed it on the plane, and we’re going to move back here. We’ll get a place a little north of here, maybe in Bucks County or in the Princeton area, and I’ll work in our New York City office. I know that seems like a huge commute to you, but it’s really not much more than what I’m doing now.”
“Oh, Jerry,” Janice said, smiling, “this is wonderful.” She paused. “And this is okay with you, Lisa?”
“It was her idea,” Jerry said.
“And the kids? Leaving California probably won’t go over real well with them.”
“We told them in the car on the way here from the airport. They didn’t blink an eye – said they thought it was great. You know Jenny and Sarah are really close, and Max, bless his heart, has a totally east coast personality.”
“When?” Janice asked.
“A few months,” Jerry replied. “We have to find a place to live, which I hope you’ll help us with when we come back in a few weeks for our visit, and I have to work out the logistics with my partners, which won’t be a problem but which’ll probably take a little time. We also need to sell our house, which I don’t think will be hard.”
“We’re sort of pointing toward getting the kids enrolled in new schools here so they can start after Christmas break,” Lisa added. “And I’m assuming a high school math teacher like me won’t have a whole lot of trouble finding a job.”
“This is so exciting,” Janice said. “And you’re really sure about this, Lisa? This would be a huge change in lifestyle for you.”
“Absolutely. I can’t wait.”
“Tell her what you said to me,” Jerry said.
“What’re you talking about?” Lisa asked.
“When you suggested it and I agreed.”
“That’s not necessary,” she replied.
“Go on,” Jerry persisted.
“Please, Jerry,” his wife responded.
“Fine, I’ll tell it. When I finally agreed to do it, she looked at me and said, ‘Schmuck, what took you so long?’”