From Toni Morrison, in Inventing the Truth: the Art and Craft of Memoir:
"When I hear someone say "truth is stranger than fiction," I think that old chestnut is truer than we know… it doesn’t say that truth is truer than fiction; just that it’s stranger, meaning that it’s odd. It may be excessive, it may be more interesting, but the important thing is that it’s random — and fiction is not random. Therefore the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because fact can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot."
Did Dorothy, my Aunt Dot, whom I wrote about yesterday, survive, yet again? To simply say ‘Yes’ is a fact (a happy one; she survived well and on her own terms). But while true, it’s not the truth that Morrison alludes to. And without that, I’m doing a disservice to you, me, and Aunt Dot; a disservice to what I understand about making meaning and telling a story. If someone who aspires to write memoir or fiction or poetry simply states without the fuller engagement of wrestling with understanding and putting into words, than he or she is wasteful; even fraudulent.
Pieces of Dorothy’s and my shared life, in and out of time:
1958: Dorothy, age 49; Crescent, age 6:
Aunt Dot takes me to Los Angeles, where her parents (my grandparents)
lived, and to Disneyland.
Here’s what I remember:
O an Alice-in-Wonderland ride at Disneyland, in which the ride-chariots
were giant tea-cups in saucers, and, as you hurtle in your tea-cup down
into the dark, a very proper, dramatically affected female voice says,
"THIS is how ALICE felt when SHE fell down the rabbit hole."
lunch with Aunt Dot and Grandma Ella at a department store tea room and
being utterly perplexed but delighted with a bright red sweet
dressing that came for a salad.
O Sharing a hotel room with Aunt Dot,
each of us folding down the coverlets on our neat, tight white-sheeted twin beds.
O Dozens and dozens of tiny raised red
insect bites on my legs. We see a doctor, who says (can this be right?)
that they are from a kind of biting fly that lives in palm trees. Aunt
Dot putting ointment on the bites.
dinner together in a rather formal restaurant. It’s still light
out; the dining room we’re in is almost
empty. We’re seated next to some tall windows which look out onto a garden. I
order vanilla ice cream for dessert. But when it comes, it has lots of tiny little
black things in it. I am distressed. Aunt Dot says, "Oh, no, that just
extra-good vanilla ice cream. It’s made from real vanilla, not extract,
seeds from a vanilla bean." I eat it trustingly and happily.
Here’s what Aunt Dot remembered (back when she had
"Oh, you wanted to go on all these rides! Some of them even
scared me! But you were just a little girl and I couldn’t let you go by
yourself, so I went along too. Even when I didn’t want to. I tried to hide that it was something of a strain for me, and I didn’t
think you had noticed. But that night, when we were getting into
bed, you looked over at me and suddenly said, out of the blue, ‘Aunt
Dot, you’re a good sport.’ "
2008: Dorothy, age 97, Crescent, age 55. A series of calls on a Friday: Aunt Dot has been taken by ambulance to
the NYU Medical Center emergency
room by Zorina, her Guyanan-Indian caregiver. Dorothy’s belly’s
distended; she’s in pain. "It’s probably nothing, but just to be on the
safe side…" Then, from ER, a suspected diagnosis: intestinal
blockage. But to ascertain it, a scan, one involving dye, is needed,
and with that, consent because "there are always risks, especially at
her age," said
Blackman, the first of many doctors I would speak to over the next
few days. "We need a family member to
okay it." (Aunt Dot, left, on her 94th birthday. Paradoxically, she looks younger and prettier now than then).
Did she have
any children? (No). Who was the health care proxy? (Presumably, me and
my brother, but perhaps it hadn’t been changed since the time when my mother, now in
early dementia, was listed first?) Were there DNR orders ? (Yes. I
think. I hope. I know my mother has them.) If so, where? (I’ll make some calls and find out.) If
not, what were the family’s wishes?
I asked questions too: "So if it is an intestinal blockage,
what are the options?" ("We entubate her, and we would rather not do it
with sedative, because at her age…" ) "And if the entubation doesn’t
work?" ("Well, we would need to discuss that; surgery, at her age, is not a good option… That’s why we need to know the family’s
wishes.") "If it was your mother or aunt…" ("I’m sorry, I can’t
"I’m coming down," I told Dr. Blackman.
1969: Dorothy, age 59; Crescent, age 16: Dorothy tells Crescent, " No, you may not visit the farm with Crispin Dragonwagon unless he shaves his beard. "
2008: Dorothy, age 97; Crescent, age 55. Crescent is
visiting Dorothy in the hospital. It’s Saturday, and Dorothy looks
good, though she is intermittently annoyed by the tube in her nose,
which travels down her throat and to her stomach.
She has not a clue
who I am, but she is happy to see me. She admires my earrings. She
admires, and touches, the black lace camisole underneath the low-cut
drape-y purple t-shirt, reaching out to touch the lace. Sometimes we
talk. "What’s that noise?" "It’s people in the hall, Aunt Dot, you’re
in the hospital." She shakes her head at their rudeness. "Can’t you
ask them to shut up, Mama?" she says.
We also read and reread the words and numbers written in black marker on the white-board sign at the foot of her bed.
"1713," she reads.
"That’s your room number," I say.
"Saturday," she reads.
"That’s the day of the week, " I say, and count them out on my fingers. "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday."
"5/18/08," she reads.
"The five means it’s the fifth month of the year. January, February, March, April, May. " I count the months out on my fingers. " And the 18 means it’s May 18th. And do you know what the ’08 is?"
"No," she says.
"It’s the year, Aunt Dot! It’s 2008! Do you believe it?"
Aunt Dot moved into her apartment building, the one she still lives in, on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941.
"No," says Aunt Dot, "2008? No, it can’t be! I don’t believe it!" She shakes her head, then resumes reading: "R.N. Elaina."
"That means Registered Nurse, Elaina. Elaina is your Registered Nurse."
"N.A. Dujan." She pronounces the J.
"That means, Nurse’s Assistant, Dujan." I pronounce it the way Dujan has told us, the "j" sounded as "h."
"9:00 a.m. to 8:45 p.m."
"That’s the hours Elaina and Dujan will be here, Aunt Dot. Then someone will come and erase it and write down the names of the new Registered Nurse and Nurse’s Assistant. "
About every fifteen minutes we revisit the white-board. Dorothy, one month away from 98, reads the board each time with curiosity, but without glasses.
"Why does that 4," she asks, "look like a U?"
1973: Dorothy, age 64; Crescent, age 21. Uncle
Joe, Aunt Dot’s husband of many years, a well-heeled Jewish
importer-exporter from McCrory, Arkansas, dies, after many years
of illness, through which Dorothy nursed him. Joe, who chain-smoked cigars, was gruff, commanding, and total
putty in Aunt Dot’s hands. His nickname for her was "Zussie" (sweetness
or sugar, in Yiddish). My aunt, having been stretched paper-thin during
the years of caring for him, maintained her job at Macmillan; her
retirement party was the same week as Joe’s funeral.
Maurice, gives Joe’s eulogy: a strange choice in that there was always
disapproval between Maurice and Dorothy, Maurice and Joe.
But not so strange in that Maurice can give one hell of a speech.
"We shared what is in many ways the closest bond two men can
share," says my father at the funeral, "for we were married to
sisters." The out-and-out peculiarness of this statement is not lost on
me. Yet I admire my father for finding a way to make a bridge over
all the estrangement, misunderstanding, fights about money-versus-art. (Maurice, left, in his early thirties.)
At this same time, my mother and father have just, after a long
separation, finally divorced, but are still utterly enmeshed with each
other. There are so many layers of complication and emotion, almost
none of which are addressed directly, that when I write my first solo
novel, The Year It Rained, I begin with the funeral, and the gathering
afterwards, at my mother’s house.
2008: Dorothy, age 97; Crescent, age 55. Every so often Dorothy and I stop talking and just look at each other. I sit on the bed next to her. Her
blue eyes are clear and transparent. Her mouth, which often used to form a straight line of disapproval, is soft. "Oh, I love you
so much, honey, you have no idea," she says, looking directly into me.
1973: Dorothy, age 64; Crescent, age 21.
Because of Joe, Aunt Dot’s husband, I have Arkansas propers. Though generally perceived in what was for many years my home town, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, as something like ‘the
hippie writer who was a New Yorker who moved to Arkansas’, I have genuine Arkansas relatives, albeit through marriage. When I mention this fact to my then-Eureka Springs banker, John
Cross, then president of The Bank of Eureka Springs, and that the
Arnofs own the Bank of McCrory, he can’t even wait until I leave the
building before whipping out what is clearly a statewide bank reference
book. He looks up the Bank of McCrory, right in front of me. He raises his eyebrows quickly as
he looks over the figures. For a moment he is silent, apparently genuinely impressed (his
usual facial expression when talking to me combines curiosity and amusement, with a dash of
trying-really-hard-to-get-it and another of respect). "Wow," he says.
At the gathering following my Uncle Joe’s funeral, I meet my Arkansas relatives, Neudy Arnof (Joe’s brother , who stayed in McCrory), and Ian (pronounced I-yan)
Arnof. Ian at that time is in New Orleans , CEO of a large regional bank
conglomerate. Neudy and I discuss investments. He favors land ("They’re
not making any more of it.") but cautions me against rental
properties and cattle ("Never buy anything you have to repair or
This is a very Arkansas kind of conversation, and it
astonishes me to be having it in my mother’s genteel Hastings-on-Hudson
2008: Dorothy, age 97; Crescent, age 55: At the hospital, Aunt Dot admires my earrings and the camisole again and again. By the end
of the day, when she is getting tired, "Black lace", the words she has
said at intervals all day, become, "Blace." She reaches out to touch
it and my sternum. "Pretty," she says. "This blace is pretty. Did you
make it yourself?"
1976: Dorothy, age 67; Crescent, age 24.
Aunt Dot reconnects with Jim Cherry, her boyfriend from when she was in Wellesley and he was at Harvard. They used to drive to football games in his T-Model Ford. He brought her gigantic football mums. They wore raccoon coats.
Then they each married other people, happily enough. The two couples moved in the same social circles and occasionally saw each other. Jim became a lawyer, working at the same law firm at which Clarence Darrow once worked.
Around the time that Joseph Arnof, Aunt Dot’s husband, died, Jim Cherry’s wife’s Alzheimer’s reached the point where she was put into a home. The story goes, Aunt Dot called Jim sometime in and around
there. "Oh, Jim, I just don’t understand all this probate stuff," flutter flutter, "Could you help me with it please? "
Dorothy and Jim spent the next 20-some years together: spring and fall in New York (in the city, at her apartment; in Chappaqua, in his home); winter in Rancho Mirage and sometimes abroad (once Jim took her to the Bellagio Center; when they were in England he introduced her to a duchess, about which she was very chuffed at the time), and late spring through early fall in Vermont (the farm, left).
Jim, who played racquetball into his eighties and was still doing legal case work the week he died at age 92, was given to looking at Dorothy and saying admiring things about her (to me, among others) such as "Did you ever see such a vision of pulchritude?"
1995: Dorothy, age 86; Crescent, age 44: Dorothy, Crescent and Ned (Crescent’s late husband) are eating dinner together into a tiny French restaurant around the corner from Dorothy’s apartment. The waiter, gay in all the classic tropes of gay male waiterhood, comes to take our order. His jaw drops. Dorothy, blue-eyed and elegant, looks sort of like you might imagine a retired film-star from the silent movies to look. The waiter looks at Ned and Crescent, "But she’s beautiful!" he says of Aunt Dot.
Aunt Dot looks at Ned and Crescent and says, in tones that are scornful and wholly disbelieving, "Is he blind?"
1997: Dorothy, age 88; Crescent, age 45. In late summer, Jim
Cherry dies. I fly up to be with her in New York, and to
drive her up to Vermont to close the house up. Jim and she never
married, and there is bad blood between Jim’s daughter-in-law, a
chic Catholic Parisian, who never approved of their relationship and barely
recognizes it, although Jim’s daughter, a nun, enjoyed them both, and
there was a real bond between Jim’s granddaughter, Justine, and Dorothy
and Jim; in fact, Justine often used to visit at the farm. Jim’s chic daughter-in-law insists on a Catholic funeral for Jim, who would definitely not
have wanted one. She speaks at his eulogy of his "joie de vivre."
Dot, barely acknowledged by Jim’s family, hair askew, desperate with
grief, sits at the funeral, lips compressed together; occasionally outrage tangos with
the grief across her features. If you didn’t know her, you’d say she looks like a crazy old lady, I think, immediately feeling disloyal.
Staying in Aunt Dot’s small apartment, sleeping on
the fold-out couch, is difficult. I go through papers with her, and the
black plastic garbage sacks into which Jim’s daughter-in-law cavalierly
tossed all Dorothy’s clothes and personal items, the stuff that Dorothy
kept at Jim’s home in Chappaqua, New York. Jim Cherry’s family can’t
sell the Chappaqua home quickly enough.
Every so often, I reach
my emotional limits. I walk to the end of the block and sit in the little park
facing the East River, a park mostly inhabited by the extremely old,
the extremely young, and their immigrant care-givers. The park is a United
Nations of caregivers: Caribbeans, Africans, Eastern Europeans. Those
cared for are white, mostly in wheeled conveyances:
strollers, wheelchairs, tricycles. Those cared-for are clearly well-heeled. But
they are all, now, somehow peripheral to the lives of their families, it appears to me. And what of the immigrants, the stories of desperation and hope that led them from their lands of origin to this park, and their young or old, wealthy charges?
I always bring Kleenex when I go to the park. What I do is
sit on a bench, look out at the river, and cry. It’s not that I loved
and miss Jim Cherry, though I did and do; it’s for Dorothy, for the
absolute non-negotiable-ness of her loneliness and what, it looks to me, her life will be now.
She shared her adult
life with two men; Joe Arnof and Jim Cherry; she has lost both of them. Romance and relationship and being coupled were big to her. Her
political and cultural focus changed markedly and effortlessly when she got with Jim
(liberal, philanthropic in nature, big supporter of the arts) after Joe (self-made rough-and-tumble businessman, conservative politically and fairly uninterested in the arts).
I know, for her, that with Jim’s death, that’s it: there will never be
another man in her life. I cry and cry.
Mostly I prepare
meals for her, and we eat together. Occasionally I have to take a break
beyond the park visits, and I’ll skip out for a meal at a nearby Asian
noodle shop. Once I do this and when I return, forty-five minutes
later, Aunt Dot is standing in the kitchen. She has baked herself some
Stouffer’s frozen stuffed peppers, but in transferring them to the
plate, she has dropped them on the floor. The green peppers and their
red sauce steam on the white linoleum. The oven door is still open, the
flame on and visible. Aunt Dot appears unruffled, unharmed, but
slightly bewildered; quizzical, almost.
The writing on the
wall is large and fully legible. It is as red as the sauce on the
floor. It is all in caps. It says: LOSS, LOSS, LOSS. CHANGE, CHANGE,
"Oh, Aunt Dot," I say, as I wipe the sauce from her
shoes, walk her to the living room and her favorite blue leather chair,
bring her a plate of the take-out I have brought. Then I bend to clean
the peppers off the floor.
To be continued… my friend Albert is due here any minute to till the vegetable garden, here in Vermont. Where I now live. In what was Aunt Dot’s summer home.
Suzette Haden Elgin says
That is just purely-for-sure wonderful… Thank you for sharing it with us.
What a wonderful image you create with your storytelling. May the elegant Aunt Dot rest in peace.