A few sample chapters from my upcoming memoir entitled Make-Up Tips from Auschwitz. How Vanity Saved My Mother's Life.
Darn. The line up was too long. It was too late to pick up a tightly plastic-wrapped Mondo Kosher smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel at the Second Cup coffee shop. I was already huffing and puffing along a rain-swept Greene Avenue worried about arriving late for my 2 o’clock appointment with my psychologist, one Dr. Rebecca Melman-Hellman.
She is no relation to the Hellmann’s Mayonnaise empire and when I made the rookie mistake of asking if she was, I had to spend 30 minutes of the expensive session defending myself. Dr. Melman-Hellman was thoroughly convinced that I was not really interested in her family background, but only using the question to mask my covert hostility.
Covert? It was overt. Believe me, it was not so much hostility directed at Melman-Hellman. It was more annoyance at myself that I was paying her $150 an hour.
I must confess thought that I was addicted to this woman. My addiction to Melman-Hellman started when I spotted her at some well-meaning caregiver seminar offered to “members of the general public” in a crowded mini-auditorium of the Jewish General Hospital.
The seminar topic was the impact of the Holocaust on the second generation.
I had been invited to be one of the speakers but I did not have to accept. I had a choice. Had I wanted to, I could have opted instead to attend a free matinee performance by the Cirque du Soleil but I loathe the Cirque du Soleil. I can’t stand all those fit young acrobats jumping about. They are always so deadly earnest, staring straight ahead with eyes wide open trying to look profound while hanging on to some 20 foot tie-dyed shmata that is billowing from the rafters. Since I could simply not stomach said Cirque and since I was indeed a child of Holocaust survivors, I reluctantly agreed to be one of the speakers.
At that point in my life, you understand, my hostility to Holocaust survivors was non-existent. That would come later. I was still in awe of how they had triumphed over unspeakable horrors. I admired their amazing resilience and remarkable courage. Like any child of Holocaust survivors, I had been told often enough that I had an obligation to never forget.
Some survivors don’t like to talk about the Holocaust to their children. Not my mom. Not Auschwitz prisoner #A-25057. I knew that was her number because she showed me the tattooed number on her forearm when I was six.
Pointing at the blue number I asked, “What is that?”
“What do you think it is? It’s not a telephone number,” she said. “This is how the Nazis kept track of their Jews.”
Mom, you see, liked to keep me informed about history in general and family history in particular. She told me that she and her sister were walking together on a country road near their little village of Szerencs in Hungary one lazy summer afternoon complaining to one another about how boring their lives were.
A few months later, she said, they would be on board separate jammed cattle cars hurtling towards Auschwitz.
I was no more than six when Mom patiently explained to me that the reason that I had no grandparents was because they had been gassed to death. I knew this was a very bad thing, because she couldn’t stop crying whenever she would start talking about it.
My mother also liked to keep me up to date about any family plans. When I was six for example, she woke me in the middle of the night and told me we had to leave right away because my uncle from Montreal had arranged for a car that was waiting for us outside.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“We are going on an adventure.”
“Why do we have to go when it’s dark outside?”
“Because it is a secret adventure and we don’t want anyone to know. But don’t worry, Tomika, it will be great fun. You even get to bring along one of your toys.”
I knew exactly which ones I wanted to take. I would bring my wooden streetcar and my new mandolin.
“Sorry, my Tomika, you can only bring one.”
The wooden streetcar didn’t do much of anything so I opted for the mandolin.
She was certainly right about it being an adventure. We were fleeing Budapest during the chaos that followed the Hungarian Revolution. Once out of the car, we would be crossing muddy terrain near the Austro-Hungarian border climbing over barbed wire and gingerly avoiding the landmines that had just been planted to prevent too many citizens from fleeing the workers’ paradise.
Russian soldiers were everywhere but my parents had been assured by friends there was no need to worry as the Russians were usually either drunk or asleep by the middle of the night.
They were also told they could rely on Gyula, a resourceful Hungarian peasant who had helped the Russians place the landmines in the first place. He agreed to guide my family and a few others past those landlines for a reasonable fraction of the precious American dollars they had been diligently stashing away for months.
Strangely, Gyula became very tired en route and asked for more money for all his trouble. My father gave him more money but Gyula’s fatigue set in again when I started playing my mandolin a few hundred yards from the Austrian border.
What Gyula did next ended my musical career.
Gyula may very well have been a music aficionado for all I know. It was not that he had any dislike of mandolin music per se or that he was unimpressed with my fledgling talent. It’s that he simply thought attracting the attention of Russian soldiers who might, say, shoot us all on sight, would not be a good idea.
Not wishing to go any great length to explain to us the nuances of his assessment of the situation, he merely smashed the mandolin over my head, knocked me out cold thus ending my impromptu performance.
The good news is that I was carried the rest of the way to the refugee camp.
Gyula may have ended my musical career, but it only took a few years for me to become a film aficionado. I was less than ten years old when I came to the definitive conclusion that “Cleopatra” was the greatest movie ever made. It starred Elizabeth Taylor and, let me tell you, I knew plenty about Elizabeth Taylor.
She was a famous and beautiful actress who looked exactly like my mother. Black hair, high cheekbones and such smooth white skin. Like a “porcelana babana” as my father would say whenever they were both in a good mood. “Porcellana babana” is playful rhyming Hungarian for porcelain doll. Whenever he would say it, Mom would always tightly grip his hand and smile. She felt his was a most accurate analysis.
My awareness of Mom’s resemblance to Liz Taylor was not subjective. It was based on an endless supply of evidence. As Hungarian refugees arriving in Montreal, Mom and I learned how to speak English by reading her movie magazines.
Elizabeth Taylor would often appear on the cover of Photoplay and Movie Mirror. She wasn’t just on the cover, you understand. Oh no. Not our Liz. She was no Connie Stevens. Liz was also mentioned very often in the scintillating, multi-page gossip columns penned by the powerful Hedda Hopper and her arch rival Louella Parsons.
From Hedda and Louella, we learned about the love triangle of Cleopatra, Mark Antony and Julius Caesar and how it paled in comparison to the love triangle of Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher and Richard Burton.
Louella always had the juicer tidbits but the “Under Hedda’s Hat” column was always a fun read with all those candid pictures and the famous names in bold print, Mom and I had heard she was anti-Semitic so we sided with Louella in the feud, but secretly, we read Hedda nonetheless.
When Mom discovered that Eddy Fisher had left his wife Debbie Reynolds to marry Taylor who had converted to Judaism, Mom wasn’t buying any of it.
She told me, “This won’t last. We should remain poor as long as these two are married –and then – when they split up – we should become rich.”
In our Clark Street flat in the Plateau, Mom’s second-hand blonde lacquer Art Deco boudoir table added to Elizabeth Taylor’s mystique. Featured prominently and reflected in the just slightly tarnished mirror was a “hand-painted” Chinese jewellery box that played tinny music whenever it was opened. To the left of the music box was a still fragrant bottle of cheap Chat Noir perfume. Framing these two treasures – half a dozen color pictures of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra.
These photos had been meticulously cut from the pages of the movie magazines with special emphasis to make sure that their removal would not damage any gossip column content on the flip side. I was very proud of how well I performed this delicate and crucial task. The operation would necessitate buying two, and occasionally, three copies of Photoplay,
Smiling relatives on Mom’s side, and even more so on Dad’s side, would often find themselves exiled to scrapbooks to make their vacated picture frames available for the latest pic of Liz and Dick.
If there was even the slightest doubt in my mind as to the extent of the resemblance, this was dispelled by a special leather-bound book in which Mom would paste pictures of Elizabeth Taylor and other celebrities next to pictures of herself wearing the same haircut or similar outfit.
Page after page of Liz and Mom and one strange juxtaposition of Mom and Rudolf Nureyev.
One sweltering summer night, ”Butterfield 8” starring Elizabeth Taylor was playing at the Van Horne Theatre on Cote des Neiges. In this 1960 film, Taylor played the role of a prostitute. I wanted to see it, of course, but in those days, you had to be 16 to see a movie. I told the lady at the ticket wicket that I just needed to speak to my mother for a second and I promised to come right out again.
I lied. I did no such thing. I found Mom, sat down next to her and we both watched the film. Not once, but twice. We both agreed that Liz delivered a superb performance.
A few months later, there was no question of me going to sleep early on Oscar night. Before anyone was going to sleep, we both had to make sure Liz was going to win the Oscar for Best Actress.
To this day I know Elizabeth Taylor’s full name: Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky. The double Burton reference is no typo. She married him twice, the first time in Montreal six days before my bar-mitzvah. Warner was a senator and she met the Fortensky guy in rehab.
After Elizabeth Taylor died, her family hired Christie’s to auction off her worldly goods. Most items went for absurdly high prices, but in the smaller online auction I managed to score an enamel compact that was part of her personal collection. Touched by her own hands.
When it was delivered, I proudly showed it to Mom who was by then confined to a wheelchair and starting to lose her memory.
I said, “Anyu. this compact belonged to Elizabeth Taylor. You remember Elizabeth Taylor?”
She opens the compact, smells some of the powder that’s still there and and snaps it shut. She looks up at me with a concerned look on her well-lined face.
“Tomika, do I still look like Elizabeth Taylor?”
“Of course you do. You are a “porcellana babana”.
Opening the compact again, she looks at her reflection. She pauses. She looks up at me. Slowly and gently, she grips my hand and smiles.
I was in the hallway sprawled out on the wall-to-wall mustard yellow broadloom carpet in our third floor walkup apartment on Cote Ste Catherine Road. I had been there for hours listening to CFCF radio. Deejay Dave Boxer, you see, was on the air giving away free tickets to see the Montreal premiere screening of A Hard Day’s Night at the Capitol Theatre.
All you had to do was to call in. I did – and I was one of the lucky winners! I was so thrilled because now I would be part of the action. In reality, I ended up being part of a long lineup in the parking lot of CFCF Television at 405 Ogilvy Avenue in the wilds of Park Extension.
I took the bus there and I took the bus back all on my own. I came home triumphantly clutching that precious green and black ticket in my hand and grateful that it had not been stolen by any number of bullies who were on the bus.
I still have that ticket to this very day. Why? Because my mother would not allow me to go to the premiere.
“What do you mean I can’t go?”
“I love you too much to let you go. Don’t you know what will happen if there are hundreds of children crowded into a movie theatre?”
“What will happen? They will all have a great time, that’s what will happen.”
“Ah yes, they may have fun at the beginning. But what the kids don’t know is that a maniac also knows that there will be all these kids all in the same building all at the same time.”
“Anyone with a brain will realize he will buy a bomb and kill them all and that is why you cannot go.”
Uh oh. Maybe she had a point. With what little courage I had at the time, I ventured a weak, “Maybe the maniac will be busy with something else? Maybe he has to work for a living like Daddy?”
“Maniacs do not have time to work for a living.”
“If maniacs don’t work, how can they afford to buy a bomb?”
Mom was undeterred. I asked her why all the other kids could go. She told me it was because their parents were Canadian and that Canadian parents did not love their children.
So I missed the big premiere. While all those Canadian kids watched John. Paul, George and Ringo on the screen at the Capitol Theatre, I was home monitoring radio newscasts to hear about any local explosions.
There was no explosion. There was no maniac. But I did not give up. I worked on Mom relentlessly. After each CJAD newscast, I would point out to her the dearth of news of any explosion.
The Capitol Theatre, in fact, had gone unbombed for three weeks.
“It seems obvious to me, Anyu, and I am sure that an intelligent woman such as yourself will understand that no self-respecting maniac would want to blow up a movie house at a half-empty matinee screening when he could have destroyed a packed house on opening night!”
Mom grudgingly agreed that I had a point so she finally agreed to let me go provided, that is, that she could come with me and that we would go shopping afterwards because she needed a new cocktail dress.
Mom was too vain to wear glasses, you see, so she needed my help to read those tiny price tags.
So later that week, we did go see a matinee screening. A gawky 14 year old accompanied by his mother who was eight months pregnant sitting in the balcony screaming just like everyone else at appropriate and inappropriate moments.
Mom is much older now and I like to visit her and make her a cup of lemon tea. She often forgets that I went to see her and calls me to come visit. She pleads with me and tells me she’s lonely.
I don’t want to go and many times I tell her I’m too busy. But then I feel anxious. I tell myself I better go. It’s the least I can do. She’s my mother. I should be grateful I have her.
When I arrive, she is thrilled. Her face lights up. She keeps thanking me. She says she does not want to take advantage of my good nature, but she misses me so much. The more she says, the worse I feel. What kind of a monster am I? How could I have resented coming by?
As she sips her tea, I tell her I am going to write a memoir. She asks me if I am going to mention her. I sure am.
When I leave, she gives me a gentle kiss. Her skin is so soft. I kiss her on the forehead and wish her a goodnight. She pauses for a second and asks ‘You can go now if you are busy, but if it’s possible, could you stay just a little longer?”
It occurs to me that one day she will not be there to ask that question. Needless to say I stay. I couldn’t leave if I tried.
I had two very specific goals for the day’s session with the psychologist. I could not rest until I found out why I no longer was excited at the prospect of buying something at the Shabby Chic shop in Soho. Was I going through what Woody Allen called anhedonia?
Also, I was concerned about my good friend Paris. She was beside herself with worry that she may have lit the Sabbath candles five minutes too early or five minutes too late. She was simply not sure.
Paris has three boys. All three are doctors. The eldest is a dermatologist who runs a sordid chain of baldness clinics that bring him an income close to a million dollars a year. The middle boy is an anesthesiologist who hates his patients while the baby is a pediatrician.
Paris has always been disappointed that not one of her children is in the arts. She was convinced that this was all her fault because she insisted on reading them “The Bell Jar” as a bedtime story. On more than one occasion, Paris had told me that she would probably have been better off reading them Anais Nin.
When I got to Melman-Hellman’s outer office, I saw that the door to her inner private sanctum was wide open. She was in her usual seat, but she was hunched over a small Ikea side table frantically feeding herself from an enormous bowl of steaming hot cabbage soup.
The sight was not particularly appealing. Some, not I, but some might have said it was revolting. I hoped Ray would never find out I was actually paying this woman $150 to watch her slurp soup while I told her how frustrated I was because I hadn’t lost any weight that week on the glycemic index diet.
The hour, or the 50 minutes actually, went by quickly. She told me Paris should have read Sartre
I arrived home to three frantic messages from Paris. I was about to delete them as usual when the phone rang.
It was Paris.
“Where the hell were you? I just received a phone call from a telemarketer. He offered me life insurance on my Banque Nationale credit card debt and said the balance would be paid off in full were anything to happen to me.”
“So? The interest rate he quoted me sounded suspiciously reasonable. It was only two per cent of the total balance every month. I am like totally freaked out. He sounded very suspicious. I am sure the guy must have been an Iranian terrorist.”
“Did he have an Iranian accent?”
Paris had very little patience for me. Or for anyone.
“Of course not, you idiot. He was obviously disguising his real accent. He was pretending to be French-Canadian in order to throw me off the scent.”
“Now because of that phone call I now have a racing heart. It’s a tacky cardiac something so I need to block my beta. But in the meanwhile what should I do about the phone call from that terrorist?”
I told Paris to alert Interpol. She hung up on me.
Thank goodness Paris did not know about another of my regular cabdrivers who was an Iranian expatriate. His name was Jihad, but I had no fears of any terrorist affiliation. Jihad constantly sang the praises of the Shah of Iran and regularly insisted that the Canadian government should curb all immigration by anybody from anywhere.
I asked him to take me to NDG to visit my sister. I gave her a big hug and some spending money. In return I got a big kiss. Looking me up and down with a gimlet eye, she adopted a serious look and told me it would be a good idea for me to eat seven bowls of General Tao’s chicken.
She insisted it would help cure my gout. I told her that I didn’t have any gout. She said I should have the General Tao’s anyway.
This all happened around seven or eight years ago when I saw a short news item about Philip Roth telling some deservedly obscure French publication that he had no more interest in reading or writing.
This was the man who did all his writing standing up. Apparently, he had re-read his favorite novels and re-read all of his own books from the latest one, Nemesis back to the very first one just to see if he had wasted his entire life writing. He had done this several years before he passed away.
At the time, I thought this can’t be. Give me a break. Not my Philip Roth. I mean this man was the gold standard. A novelist who was well respected. He won awards. He was rich and famous.
I viewed his retirement from writing as dreadful news. I had relied on the knowledge that Roth was much older than I was and he didn’t complain. Well, he did, but he would complain by writing another novel on the topic. This was a man who could describe some young guy as being “armed to the teeth with years.”
But my disappointment went much deeper. Never mind just writing. Roth had said he was even not going to read anymore! When I mentioned this to Paris when we were for out for lunch, she suggested maybe Roth had just written everything he needed to write and had observed everything that needed observing.
I was not mollified by this one bit, but that was neither here nor there because Paris was far more concerned that she had been drawing bad luck on herself by having made a major mistake when giving charity.
“What do you mean? What kind of mistake did you make?”
“That charity box you gave me? You know? The one for Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess. It says right on the box that you should drop in coins and I put in a bill!”
‘What are you, a moron?’ asked Paris. “It clearly said coins and I did not listen to what it said. Are you sick in the head? If they had meant bills, they would have said bills. They didn’t, did they?”
“It was all foreshadowing,” she continues. “I saw a magazine ad for breast cancer awareness month right after I went for my mammogram.”
“You didn’t see an ad for prostate cancer?”
“But you saw one for breast cancer?”
“And you put in a bill instead of a coin, right?”
“Exactly. So finally you understand. What do you think it means?”
“It means that you’re psychotic and you should start looking for ads for Mental Health Month.”
Often when Paris would say something I would find more than usually ridiculous, I would risk being dubbed a misogynist pig and ascribe it to her time of month.
“Maybe you’re getting a visit from your friend.”
“I don’t have that friend anymore.”
I had to think fast. We were veering dangerously close to the subject of age. Any such discussion would have Paris in tears and pining away for her Toronto childhood with her very observant family who, in fact, were not remotely observant.
I told her that I had to go because Mom had just dropped in. This was not an excuse. It was, in fact, true. Mom had just barrelled past me with her walker to her assigned , towel-covered chair in my living-room.
She was obviously in a bad mood and was muttering to herself that she and Patrick wanted “To hev sex,” but they could not because I was in the room.
Fortunately for all concerned, there is no Patrick.
On a hot July day in 2018, my closest and dearest friend Harold was having a triple bypass operation at the Royal Victoria Hospital. I had first met Harold on our very first day at McGill University half a century ago.
I was so anxious and so nervous about the outcome of such serious surgery that I spent the entire day at the hospital in the ICU waiting room to make sure he would be okay.
After seven hours that seemed like an eternity, Dr. Kevin Lachapelle, an amazingly gifted surgeon, came out of the operating room to tell me and Harold’s daughters that the surgery had been a success.
I went home exhausted but relieved. Before hitting the sack, I arranged for a ride back to the hospital the following morning at 7.
When I woke up the following morning, there was a message on the phone. I thought it was probably a confirmation from the driver who was coming to pick me up.
I was wrong. The message was not from the driver. The message was from the group home where my sweet kid sister Cindy had lived for many years.
I tapped the phone to play the message and heard the distraught voice of the woman who runs the place.
“Tommy, you have to come immediately. Cindy has passed away.”
The world stopped. My heart stopped. It must be some mistake. I played the message again. It said the same thing.
“Tommy, you have to come over immediately. Cindy has passed away.
When I arrived at her place, I had a tough time getting to see her. I was told I could not see her right away. Police said there were papers that had to be filled out. They told me some people prefer to remember loved ones as they were at happier times.
She was my sister. I had to see her. And I did. As she lay on the bed, she looked beautiful and very much at peace. She had died in her sleep and never come down for breakfast.
I just stood there at the side of her bed sobbing silently asking her forgiveness for anything I might have ever said or done that might have upset her in any way.
Cindy looked like she would wake up at any minute. There was no breeze, Nothing moved but I felt something. Nothing physical. It was just a sense that some part of her, one billionth of a billionth of a part of her knew that I was there.
And that meant the world to me.
It was not easy for me to see Cindy the day she died and I recalled that it was not easy for me see her the day she was born on a bitter cold November morning in 1964.
My mother had been pregnant with Cindy at my Bar-Mitzvah although we did not know it at the time.
Cindy, you see, was a surprise. My mother had been in hospital for a goiter operation on her neck when a resident came in to say that her operation would have to be postponed because she was pregnant.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I am not pregnant. I vant to see a real doctor and not a child like you,”
It took Mom’s gynecologist Dr. Morrie Gelfand who was the head of the department to convince her that she was indeed with child.
When she heard him say it, she fainted.
A few months later back in our apartment building, she screamed for my dad to call an ambulance quickly because her water had broken. The entire mattress was soaked with blood.
I was worried about my mom, She was worried that the ambulance attendants had dented the wall of the bedroom.
Cindy was born via caesarean section at the Jewish General Hospital. The operation took several hours. We were later told that people had rarely seen Dr Gelfand in such a sweat during a delivery.
Apparently whoever had delivered me via caesarean section back in Budapest had not put some of the parts back where Dr. Gelfand had expected them to be.
While all this was going on, my father was upstairs pacing back and forth worried about his wife. I was left to my own devices in the lobby because at the time children under 16 were not allowed to visit.
My father finally came downstairs at 3:40 in the morning to say that I had a beautiful baby sister. I did not believe him for a minute. I wanted to see for myself.
I went upstairs to the maternity floor.
“My mother just had a baby. Can I please see my sister?”
“Sorry. No visitors under 16.”
The very same afternoon, just before visiting hours I concocted a plan.
I went into my parents’ bedroom and looked around. One of the first things I noticed was a wig stand.
I put on the wig and looked in the mirror. Hmmm. I looked like Mom but not as pretty. I would need makeup. I had seen Mom applying her makeup many times. It did not look all that difficult to do. A little foundation, some blush, a set of sticky false eyelashes and some red lipstick that she had bought the previous week at Eaton’s.
Now I needed a dress. I chose a yellow one hanging in the closet. There was a black purse on the bureau. I took that as well.
Not bad I thought, but there was still something missing. Of course. Accessories. A string of pearls and some clip-on earrings et voila – I was ready to visit that lovely Mrs. Schnurmacher in the maternity ward.
I tried several pairs of shoes before I finally found a pair of black high heels that fit although they were a bit too tight.
I teetered down the hallway to the kitchen to tell Dad about my plan.
“Have you gone completely out of your mind? What are you doing?
“Do I look like a 14-year-old boy?
“No. You look like a 28-year-old hooker.”
“Exactly. I look 28 so now I can visit Mom and I can get to see my sister.’
“You are out of your mind. I will not be seen walking down the street with you looking like that.”
“You don’t have to be seen with me. I will walk behind you. It’s not easy walking in these heels but I want to see my sister.”
We lived exactly two and half blocks from the hospital and my hapless Dad reluctantly went along with my plan.
I walked into the lobby of the JGH. Not a second glance from anybody except the burly driver of a delivery van parked outside.
I caught up with Dad at the elevators. We rode up together not exchanging a word.
The nurse who had told me that no one under 16 was allowed to visit did not bat an eyelash as I elegantly sauntered past the nurses’ station.
We walked into Mom’s room together. Speaking in Hungarian, she said hello to my father and then she turned to me.
“Miss, I am so sorry but I don’t recognize you. Who do I have the honor of meeti…?
A split second of silence. Then all of sudden, a flash of recognition. and a wide smile..
The patient in the next bed said, “That lady looks like you. Are you related in some way?”
“Oh yes,” said Mom. “We are definitely related. She is my younger sister.”
And that is how I got to see Cindy on the day she was born.
When Mom came home from hospital, Dad helped her upstairs to our third floor apartment but I was the one entrusted with the important task of bringing the baby upstairs.
I would often take Cindy for a walk in the park. I would take her to the Jewish Public Library when it was on the second floor of a building on Decarie Blvd. She would look up at me for reassurance and grab my hand very tightly when the elevator started to move.
I was there when she took her first step. I was there when she called me Toto because she could not say Tommy.
I was there when she was almost 3 years old and rode on my hip to visit Expo 67. Often I was the one who could cheer her up when she was crying.
I was there when she was hospitalized at age 18 with the worst case of manic depression that the emergency room doctor had ever seen. I was there in that same emergency room a few years ago when she was found after having gone missing for 36 hours.
Back in 1984, I was working on a humor book called the Golddiggers: Guide; How to Marry Rich. I was reading her some of my first draft which included some material that was in bad taste. She was the one who was wise enough to tell me to leave it out. I am grateful to her that I did.
Looking through the book this week, on the acknowledgements page, I found this: “A hearty thank you to my stunning kid sister Cynthia, whose sparkling sense of humor kept me in stitches while she patiently relinquished many of our fun times together to give me time to write this book.”
I wish she had not been so patient. I wish she had not relinquished those times together.
I remember when we would go to a bookstore and she would suddenly turn to me and say she was worried.
“Why are you worried, Cindy?“
“I am worried about getting arrested for not looking good in the 90s.”
I was there when they gave her the diagnosis of schizophrenia. I was there when she would hallucinate after refusing to take her many medications.
I was there when she told me that her name was not Cindy and that her new name was Crystal Nacht.
I was there last year when she told me she was going to marry Bill Clinton and that she had 27 children. When I asked her to name them, she did. When I suggested I was upset that none of the 27 ever came to see their uncle, she laughed.
I was there a couple of weeks ago when we went for a walk and she bought me a bracelet for 25 cents.
Whatever time we spent together, it was certainly not enough. Not nearly enough.
I tried to take care of her as best I could. I fervently believe that her sweet innocent soul is now in a place where she will do whatever she can to take care of me.
After Mom had her regular check-up, the doctor suggested I might want to take her to the geriatric clinic for some tests.
“Why on earth would I want to take her to some geriatric clinic?’ I asked. “She’s not that old. She’s certainly not geriatric.”
The doctor looked at me the way Bea Arthur used to look at Betty White.
“I figured you were around 60,” he says, “and since she’s your mother, I jumped to the radical conclusion she’s probably a bit older than you are.”
Everyone’s a comedian, I thought as we left his office. I did however decide to take mom to that clinic. Not right away, you understand. About a year later.
After checking her pulse and measuring her blood pressure, the doctor said that Mom would have to answer some questions.
“Do you know who is the prime minister of Canada?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Who is he?”
“Stephen Harper, of course. You’re a doctor and you don’t know who is the prime minister? Maybe you are not a good doctor.”
“I do know. I am asking you these questions to see how good your memory is.”
“My memory is excellent. I still remember going to Auschwitz where they shaved off my hair and gave me a tattoo. What do you remember?”
This was not going well. I figured I better do something to distract Mom.
“Maybe after this appointment , Mom, we can go shopping. Do you want to go shopping?”
“Yes, first we have to finish with this doctor who has a bad memory.”
“Just a few more minutes and we are done, Madame. Here is a piece of paper and a pencil. Just write down a full sentence. Any sentence that you like. Take your time.”
Mom takes the pencil, pauses, looks at me and writes something on the paper and hands it to the doctor.
“Your mother had no problem writing a sentence.”
“What did she write?”
“I love my son.”
After the appointment, the doctor told me my mother was fine and that she just had a very mild case of dementia. Nothing to worry about.
I thought the doctor had a serious case of being a bad doctor. How could this man have even mentioned my mother and the D word in the same sentence?
It was only many months later that I realized that perhaps there was some issue when her neighbor told me she occasionally wondered back and forth in the hallway looking for her apartment. That’s when I hired some part time caregivers.
One day I came into her apartment and saw here trying to climb off her chair onto the inside window ledge. That’s when I increased the number of hours Mom would be in the company of a caregiver.
People have suggested I’m a nice guy to do that. I did it for her, yes but I also did it for myself because otherwise I would have been worried every minute.
Mom and I lived in the same building. She and my late Dad moved there back in 2000. I moved in on a lower floor after my father had passed way so I could keep an eye on her.
Mom does not like the great outdoors.
How do I know? I asked her. On a beautiful perfect summer day, we went for one of our rare outings. We sat together on a bench in the small park no more than 100 feet from our building.
“Isn’t it beautiful sitting out here in the fresh air?”
“How can you say that? Who doesn’t like a bit of fresh air?”
“I don’t. What’s the big deal with fresh air? So, it’s fresh. So what? I want to go home.”
We walk home at a painstakingly slow pace as she hunches over her Zimmer frame walker.
“This is terrible. Borzaszto.” This is worse than Auschwitz.
“It’s very tiring.”
“I understand that you’re tired, but it’s not like Auschwitz. That was a concentration camp, for heaven’s sake.”
“I know it was a concentration camp. You don’t have to tell me. I was there. “Who is that woman?” she asks motioning to the woman who had been her doting live-in caregiver for the past three months.
“That’s Jhonas. She lives with you.”
“You’re kidding me?”
“No, I am not kidding. She helps you clean and to cook. She helps you get dressed. She helps with everything.”
Before I hired her live-in caregiver, there were quite a few I had hired on a part-time basis. Some were more successful than others.
Mom told one bossy caregiver she really did not like that she should join the circus.
“I am sure they would pay you big money to work in the circus and you also get to travel. Why be stuck in Montreal taking care of me?”
Most of the help I hired were from the Philippines.
One morning however, I bumped into a kind, smiling gentleman who had been good friends with my Dad. He ran an agency that provided caregivers on a part-time basis. He told me about Ibolya who had just arrived from the Hungarian countryside.
She spoke very little English, but she was strong, not too old and apparently a great cook. Also, she was ready to show up the very next day which was a Saturday.
I did not even have a chance to interview her, but she arrived at the building just I was leaving for synagogue. I introduced myself and told her I was sure that she and my mother would get along very well.
That morning my prayers were more intense than usual as I repeatedly asked the Master of the Universe to intervene to make sure everything worked out well with Mom and Ibolya.
My prayers went unanswered.
I arrived home to see mom sitting on the lobby couch scowling at Ibolya with a look that bordered on loathing.
“Good Shabbos, Anyu, how are you?”
“Borzaszto, I will feel much better when this kurva goes home. Tell her to go home.”
She says all this while glaring at Ibolya who looks like she is no longer surprised at being called a whore.
“I make your mudder nice lunch and she love et,” says Ibolya sounding like Zsa Zsa Gabor.
“I didn’t enjoy anything. I did not have lunch. Look at her. Look at those sagging breasts. So big. If she leans over, they would fall into the soup. Who has breasts so large? She looks like a cow from Paszto. Tell her to go home. Tell her to go to hell.”
“Er…Ibolya…. would you like to take a break?”
She leaves and Mom thanks me for getting rid of her.
“I hope she never comes back”
“She has to come back. Somebody has to stay with you tonight.”
“Yes they do. You will be safe and I will be less nervous. Let me take you upstairs, you can have a nap and Ibolya will be back later. I am also exhausted so I want to rest. See you tomorrow.”
I am contentedly dreaming when I am suddenly awakened with a frantic banging on the door. It’s Mom.
“|Three hours have passed and that whore is still not back”
“Ibolya didn’t come back?
“She was supposed to come back. I was told she was very reliable. I hope she’s alright. I will call the agency later tonight to find what happened. Maybe she had an accident.”
“She is too fat to have an accident.”
Later I did catch up with Ibolya
“Why didn’t you come back from your break?” I asked.
“I did come back. Your mother say I am fired. I try to open door she start screaming. She throw my purse in hallway. She slam the door. She say if I knock again, she call RCMP and say I am spy.”
I am aghast.
Ibolya says, “I told her it’s your son who hired me. She told me then go to his house and take care of him!”
Ibolya was the last of the Hungarians.
The other kids in my neighborhood loved peanut butter and jam sandwiches and they just couldn’t wait for barbecues. Not me. As a kid I was a very picky eater.
No matter what was on the menu at home, I steadfastly refused to eat anything except corn on the cob and Hungarian palacsinta. I am not one for hot dogs, but, put it this way, if Coney Island ever featured a palacsinta eating contest not only would I agree to enter but I would win.
Please keep in mind we’re not talking blintzes here. We are singing the praises of authentic homemade Hungarian pancakes individually filled with sweet cream cheese, jam or walnuts or any combination thereof.
A few years ago, when I tried a plastic box of six such palacsinta at Pomengranate, a kosher supermarket in Flatbush, New York, I had to be talked out of calling the police.
The pancakes were so delicious I was convinced they had kidnapped some Hungarian grandmother and kept her making takeout palacsinta in a back room. There was simply no other way they could be so authentic and taste so good. In addition to being convinced not to call the cops, I also had to be convinced not to buy every package they had on the shelf.
I tell you this to admit there was considerable self-interest involved when I passed on the flowers and brought Mom a dozen palacsinta when she was recovering from a hip replacement at the Jewish General Hospital a few years ago.
Mom sampled one while the lady in the next bed and the nurse had two apiece. That made for a total of five. Mom insisted I take the rest of them home. Who am I to disobey my mother?
Mom who can be great fun at any time was quite the hoot on morphine.
Her rich imagination was obviously running wild. One nurse told me that the previous evening Mom had called the police. She told them there were some Jewish men in the next room who had called hookers to come over to “hev sex.” She said they were so loud and they were making so much noise that she could not sleep.
Was Mom convincing? Put it this way, the cops showed up and the nurse had to tell them that morphine can cause some patients to hallucinate.
Mom told me the same story when I came to visit the following morning. I reassured her that she would be able to have a restful sleep because I had made sure the police arrested the randy noisemakers and put them in jail.
When I went to visit her a week later in rehab at the Catherine Booth hospital, she was in a very good mood.
“This is a very nice place. Guess who came to visit me today?”
“I don’t know. Who came to visit?”
“What do you mean the owner?”
“Kotrin Boots. She is the owner here and she is very polite. I told her I really liked her place and she was very happy.”
“Mom, I don’t think “Kotrin Boots” came to see you. The hospital is named for Catherine Booth. She was the co-founder of The Salvation Army and I don’t think she came to see you. She died in 1890. “
“Then who came to see me? She looked very important and she sure acted like she owned the place.”
We later ascertained that Mom’s VIP visitor was, in fact, the head nurse.
During the ice storm of 1998, Mom and Dad and Bijou the mad Maltese all moved into my place at the Chateau apartments on Sherbooke Street. I had insisted they do so when I caught my father at their duplex leaning forward, shovel in hand, to clear frozen ice off the front stairs.
Mom wanted her morning coffee which, as you might imagine might not be all that easy to find during an ice storm. Undeterred I climbed down eight flights of stairs, took a cab to the east end where the lights were still on, took a cab back home and climbed back up the eight flights. Huffing and puffing, I handed her the coffee not expecting any thanks.
I didn’t get any.
“Dis is not hot. Dis is not coffee. Dis is moslek.”
Moslek is the Hungarian word for swill.
Back down the stairs. Back to the east end and back home with a café au lait. This time there was a thank you and Mom didn’t even mention that it was lukewarm instead of piping hot.
One Friday afternoon in 2004. I was strolling with Mom along Westbury Avenue when an SUV pulled up and a bearded rabbi, one of the most respected in the city, stuck his head out the window. He was a longtime family friend.
Looking right at me, he said in Yiddish, “Shemzach nisht? Spatzieren mit a shayna maidele uffen guss?” which means “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, walking with a pretty young girl on the street?”
To say that Mom was delighted at the compliment is an understatement, but the rabbi’s comment turned out to be much more than a mere compliment.
He made the remark some 14 years ago, soon after my dear father had passed away. Every time I see mom in a sad mood, every time she is uncommunicative, I lean in close to her face and repeat it to her. And every time – without fail – her eyes light up and she breaks into a wide smile.
There was a time when it was impossible to get her to smile. She didn’t want to talk. She had told the caregiver that she felt sick. She would vomit in the morning and did not want to eat.
I would go to her apartment to visit and I would be dismayed to see her just slumped over in her chair. She looked very weak and very tired.
She just didn’t seem her usual self so I called Hatzalah, a local volunteer Emergency Medical Service organization. They would examine her vital signs and suggest I should call an ambulance. I would grab her medicare card and a list of all her medications and off we would head to the hospital.
She would spend a day or so in some hallway, a day or so upstairs in a hospital room where they would check her out. There would be a few tests and a few x-rays. I would be told there was nothing wrong and we would head back home.
She would be better for a few days and then it would happen all over again. This continued on a weekly basis for more than a month.
She would be fine and after a few days, she would feel ill again and we would go back to the hospital. She would feel okay for a day or two and then back to the hospital yet again.
At one point, I was so frustrated I said “Why don’t we just have her sit in the corridor of our building? She can be ignored here as well as she can be ignored in the emergency room corridor.”
One day, Mom and I and Jhonas the caregiver were watching a Golden Girls re-run. Just after Bea Arthur gave Betty White her trademark glance of disbelief, an American commercial comes on extolling the virtues of the Exelon patch which can help alleviate some of the symptoms of moderate dementia.
The commercial shows some elderly person smiling at her adoring grandchildren as they list off the side effects which might include a general feeling of illness, weakness, vomiting, drowsiness, fatigue and itchiness on the site of the patch.
The caregiver and I stare at each other in disbelief. Could it be the Exelon patch that is making her sick?
I call the doctor, he agrees to take her off the medication and prescribes another one instead.
Within a day or so, Mom was back to her usual self complaining about the temperature of the café au lait.