Her children put ads in the local papers for “Companion and helper to an older woman with a cheerful disposition. Mom loves to play cards and board games. Live on her estate in Germantown. Pay commensurate with experience.”
They received over seventy emailed responses. Charles Grayson, as the eldest son, was charged with winnowing out the contenders and interviewing ten at a time in the drawing room.
Mom herself sat in. A chubby woman with swollen ankles, she sat in a wheelchair at the head of the kitchen table, while Grayson and the interviewee sat across from one another.
“Tea?” asked Grayson to the woman named Beth Richards.
“I’d love it,” said Beth, who spoke with a British accent. During the forty-five minute conversation, she told them she was born near London, but her family emigrated to the States when her father got a job at the United Nations. He still worked there as a translator of Croatian, while Beth moved to the Philadelphia area, “the cradle of liberty,” she called it, as she wanted to be near all the famous landmarks.
Mom and Beth hit it off right away.
“May I ask, dear, how old you are?”
“I’ll be twenty-three the day before Christmas,” replied Beth, looking the old woman in the eye. Eyes, thought Beth, that were like her dead grandmother’s, hazy-looking, like a lake filled with sediment.
“Are you much of a reader, dear?” asked Mom.
“Certainly am, ma’am. All the classics,” she lied. “Studied them at Belleview University outside London. Also watched Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’ at the National Theatre of London. It’s the longest running play in the entire world.”
Beth was trying to find a rhythm to her speech. She didn’t know how long to talk and wasn’t sure if Mom, Mrs. Grayson, liked her or not. She’d always had trouble picking up clues, which may explain why she hadn’t had many dates or boyfriends.
Mr. Grayson asked Beth if she’d mind waiting outside the French doors for a few moments while he and Mom discussed her case.
Beth let herself out and stood in an elaborate foyer with carved paneled dark wood and several cushioned arm chairs. She paced around, then went up to the door to the drawing room and placed her ear on it. The doors were so thick she could only hear low murmurs.
A few minutes later, the doors swung open and Mr. Grayson nodded to the candidate and asked her back inside, motioning to her chair, which had lost its warmth after she got up.
“We would like very much to offer you the post,” said Mrs. Grayson herself.
Beth instinctively clapped her hands.
“Brilliant!” she said, which is what Britishers often said when something fantastic occurred.
“Oh, I am happy,” she went on. “And what will my wages and my hours be?”
The three of them discussed the terms of employment in detail. Beth would live on the estate, work six days a week and have Sundays off. Grayson, a handsome man with a full head of brown hair, pulled out a contract printed on thin white paper and explained the terms. Beth signed her best “Beth S. Richards” signature and date with a blue fountain pen. After signing, she lifted up the pen and sniffed the aroma.
“Who used fountain pens anymore?” she wondered.
“One thing, please,” she said, glad she remembered it. “What shall I call you?”
“Mom is fine,” said Mom.
The work load was unexpectedly difficult. Mom’s needs were endless. The daily schedule, typed up by Mr. Charles Grayson, hung on the fridge, affixed by a magnet from CVS drugstore. He was adamant Mom keep to the schedule.
Breakfasts were undeviating.
“Oh, I do love this jelly, dear,” said Mom, as she crunched into a piece of whole wheat toast with real butter and damson plum jelly on top.
“Mr. Grayson picked it out. Guess he knows your favorite foods.”
“He’s been my boy for forty-three years, I think that’s right.”
Beth told Mom to sit still while she loaded their plates into the dishwasher. She rinsed off the scrambled eggs before they stuck to the white porcelain with a pattern of purple grapes and red ladybugs.
Next on the list were some easy exercises. Mom walked slowly into the living room, as Beth followed. The living room was huge, with book shelves spanning two walls and floor-to-ceiling windows broadcasting the gray rainy day. As Mr. Grayson had taught her, Beth put in a DVD of “Aging Backwards” by Miranda Esmonde-White.
“Let me catch my breath,” said Mom, easing herself into her patterned easy chair.
“That damn son of mine. What does he expect from his eighty-nine year-old mother?”
Beth laughed. “Guess he wants to keep you around for awhile.”
Miranda flashed onto the large television screen.
“She’s got a neck like a giraffe,” laughed Beth.
“Wait till she gets to be my age,” said Mom, fingering the deep folds in her neck. “You could hide a pistol in here,” she said seriously.
“By the photos on your mantelpiece, I see you were quite the beauty in your younger years,” said Beth.
“Well, my husband certainly thought I was,” she said pointing at their wedding photo. Mom was unrecognizable in her bridal gown of lace and satin and the train which wrapped around the front of the picture.
The exercise lady, Miranda, was sitting in a chair and exhorted the audience to do these exercises, “gently, gently, gently,” mentioning that she herself was limber. “If you force yourself,” they heard her say, “you’ll only make the condition worse.”
“Beth, do not mention this to my son, but when you’re my age, you get worse every single day.”
“Falderol! I don’t believe it for a minute. I’ve been with you – what? – a month now and you’re the same as the first day I met you.”
Beth of course didn’t mention putting the old lady down for a nap and hearing her nearly screaming in pain as she helped Mom into her bed. This was the hardest part of the job. Listening to Mom moan with pain.
Fortunately, that damn son of hers allowed her to take pain medication, which Beth carefully doled out. She was to keep it away from Mom, said Mr. Grayson, lest the old lady decided to do away with herself.
“Jesus,” thought Beth, “the trouble I’d get into if that happened. I’d probably be locked up for the rest of my life for assisting her, even though I didn’t.”
She and Mom continued to watch the exercise video, Beth kicking out her shapely legs in front of her, while Mom made an occasional attempt.
“They’re pretty easy, ma’am,” Beth said to Mom. “We can stay put in our chairs.”
The video droned on for forty-five intolerable minutes, Mom’s groans accompanying the fitness guru. As always, Beth wondered what she should do? Crack the whip and make the old lady exercise, instead of simply sitting in her arm chair doing nothing? She wished she could talk to her own mother, a happy housewife living near the George Washington Bridge in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Her mother, her hated mother, that is, was never available to help her daughter. As a child growing up outside London, she often wished her mother would die, maybe in a car crash or by getting some terrible disease.
She rarely thought about it anymore, her mother, a friend to everyone, everyone except her own daughter.
Mom had fallen asleep in her chair. It was only ten o’clock in the morning. Beth stood up and strode around the living room. She hoped Mr. Grayson wouldn’t pay one of his surprise visits again. She never heard him. The last time was on a clear autumn day when she and Mom were outside by the pool no one used anymore and the hot tub. Mr. Grayson appeared through the sliding glass door, bearing baked goods in a small white box tied with a red ribbon.
“You scared me!” cried Beth, putting her hand on her chest. Mom was sitting on a cushioned white rattan chair, eyes closed, and fast asleep.
“You’re careful, I hope, and see to it Mom doesn’t stumble into the pool or the hot tub.”
Beth glared at him.
In the living room with Mom asleep in her chair as Miranda finished up the exercises, Beth opened a cabinet in the living room. She simply had to know what was inside. Instinctively, she checked the two doors leading into the living room to see if Mr. Grayson was afoot.
The cabinet was Japanese-style, black lacquer with painted blue and pink trim: birds, tiny flowers, and musical instruments. She reached for the brass handle in the center and gave a tug.
The handle clattered, but Beth didn’t look back to see if the old lady awoke.
Inside were piles of postcards and letters filling the entire drawer. She picked up a postcard and walked with it to the window. It seemed to be sort of a love letter, signed “Love always, Chaz.” It was dated forty years ago.
Mom’s eyes popped open as Beth was returning it to the drawer.
“What are you doing, you little snoop!” Mom cried. “I should get rid of you on the spot.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Ma’am,” said Beth. “I do hope you’ll forgive me… and not tell your son.”
“I ought to. I ought to fire you this very minute but help is too hard to get. If you ever do that again, you’re out of here.”
Beth asked if they should continue with their daily schedule but Mom was steaming hot mad and said she wanted to go to bed. Beth tucked her in, as the old lady did her moaning. “How easy it would be,” thought Beth, “to stuff a pillow over her head” the way it was done in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Oh, the old lady would struggle, she knew that, but Beth only fantasized about it.
A week later, the old lady forgot her anger, and was her usual mopey self at the kitchen table. They were eating some brownies Mr. Grayson had brought from Bredenbeck’s Bakery. Beth had set the table with small plates and yellow linen napkins.
“These are good!” cried Beth.
“Next time,” said Mom, “ask him to buy us some raisin cinnamon buns. Sticky buns. I used to make them when I was younger.”
Beth was sick of hearing what Mom had done when she was younger. How she sewed her own clothes and those of her children. Made decoupage boxes, which were all over the house. Volunteered at Germantown Hospital, one of the first hospitals ever built in Philadelphia.
How useless she was now. Why was that son of hers so intent on keeping her alive? He was spending a fortune on her.
Beth tried not to show her irritation as they munched on the brownies.
“Are you up for some exercises, Mom? I promise we’ll only do them for fifteen minutes.”
“Make it ten minutes,” said Mom.
In the living room, Beth switched on the video. Miranda was now standing up in some sort of gym while a room full of older people hung on her every word. “Feet apart in a nice wide stance…. reach to the ceiling…. this is your triceps being strengthened.”
She suggested Mom try this from her chair. Mom shook her head “No.”
“C’mon, Mom, what will Charles say?”
Mom, with her thick white hair, groaned.
“Charles,” she said. “Sometimes I wish he’d forget about me. All I want to do is die!”
“Mom!” shouted Beth, standing up. “You mustn’t say that.”
“Clearly, you know nothing about old people. You’re very stupid in some ways, young lady. Now when we’re finished with these dumb exercises, I want to relax in the hot tub.”
Beth said she would go outside in the back yard and turn it on.
Mom made a half-hearted attempt to “reach for the ceiling” to strengthen her triceps and then gave up, sitting, head down, hands in her lap.
It was another beautiful fall day when Beth opened the patio door for Mom, who shuffled onto the cement surrounding the six-foot deep pool and a small hot tub, attached like a baby to its mother. Autumn leaves – tulip poplar, maple, oak – made patterns all along the cement and had plopped atop the unused barbeque, where, once the entire family gathered to hold pool parties and eat grilled cheeseburgers and hot dogs.
The hot tub churned away, a tiny little ocean, bubbling merrily.
“Aren’t there speakers for music?” asked Beth.
“Nosy girl, how did you know that?”
“I’m gonna turn them on.” She walked over to the same panel that controlled the hot tub and flicked on a tab.
My God, she thought, it’s Fleetwood Mac. Stevie Nicks was singing Rhianna.
“Shut that damn thing off,” said Mom.
Beth paid no attention to her.
Mom was wearing a short pink houserobe that made her look like she was a trellis with roses climbing up her body.
“Let’s go,” said Beth, taking her arm. “Slip off your slippers.” This was not the first time they’d entered the hot tub. They both enjoyed its soothing sound and magical waves.
Mom’s house robe ballooned under her as she got into the hot foaming water, which was five-feet deep. Beth wore blue shorts and a blue tank top that revealed her small breasts.
“Isn’t this heaven?” asked Beth, as she held Mom’s arm and led her down the five steps and into the water.
“All the same, all the same, all the same, Rhianna!” sang Stevie Nicks, who, with her long hair and beret, had the means to never grow old.
Mom was now seated on the side, her body covered with warm, nearly hot foaming water. She felt as light as a snow flake. Beth kept watch on her, as the water came up to Mom’s shoulders. A blue jay cawed as it passed over head.
“Noisy thing,” cried Beth, as the bird passed by.
When she looked back in the hot tub, Mom had disappeared.
Where had she gone? She certainly couldn’t fly, could she?”
Beth ducked her head into the water and saw something dark as a whale. She paddled toward the figure, her arms outstretched in front of her. The old woman seemed cemented to the bottom. Beth reached out her arms to lift her up. Mom then took Beth’s head in her own hands and using all her strength, struck her several times with a rock, just as she had put rocks in her pocket, and succeeded in keeping her caretaker’s head below the churning surface.
Alan, delivering them bagels from the bakery, was the one who found them.
The headlines on the front page of the Inquirer newspaper read, “Mysterious Deaths of State Senator Grayson’s Widow and Her Caregiver.”
No one knew the last thoughts of the widow: “Serves you right, you little bitch.”
Ruth Z. Deming, a psychotherapist, has had her work published in lit mags including The Legendary, Literary Yard, Mad Swirl and Writing Disorder. She lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. She runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder and their loved ones. Her blog is http://www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com/