She couldn’t walk, and she yearned for an unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. This was at the tail end of the OED existing in book form. All those huge, expensive, books, guarding the history of English like a dragon. She taught me what it was, and then I loved it, too.
She was stuck in a chair most of the day. Martha was even clumsy with her hands. They never did get a diagnosis of the exact problem– maybe MS. I worked as her companion.
It was a good fit. We were both readers, a little snobbish, with a wry sense of humor. She and her husband paid me generously. My needs were few: I bought Winstead’s milkshakes and books of poetry, concert tickets, and two packs of cigarettes a year. I wore my parents’ old clothes. I would have worn even rattier things, but I didn’t know about thrift stores yet.
They had smart paintings, tons of books, smooth, pale 1960s furniture and all their original, hulking appliances. Mostly what we did was talk: religion, politics, history, books. We talked about our families. One of her sons was gay and she was totally cool with it. My grandfather died one morning that summer, right before I left for her house.
I wasn’t strong enough to help her to the bathroom. I just got her magazines or books. I occasionally turned sticky pages, and retrieved kleenexes. Her husband helped her to the bathroom when he got home.
The husband was a retired professor. She had been a Latin teacher. Martha had gone to Bryn Mawr, and I was about to go to Sarah Lawrence. She was my only connection to academia, to the world of elite, private education. My parents are very educated, and readers, but not scholars. And not east coast, and not private school.
She could be grouchy. She was frustrated at not being able to make her own sandwiches, or keep her house organized and pleasing. Every action she requested had to be directed with precision. She was a person who liked things just so. The humiliation of struggling to bring your cookie to your mouth, and even, eventually, to turn the pages in your books, was creeping up on her. She was getting worse. Slowly.
Everything happened slowly that summer. The pace of retirement was a lot like mine– just on the other end. I had recently graduated from high school. When I wasn’t with Martha, I read. Wrote. Hung out with my friends. I suspected that summer was my last chance to live a languid artist’s life.
Martha’s biggest regret was missing out on traveling. We talked about the unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York City. She had never seen them, and desperately wanted to. I had gone there as a child. I had a postcard of one tapestry.
Maybe she could have managed it. Navigating New York City in a wheelchair is difficult, to say the least. She did not want to try. She had never been to Europe, either. Go while you can go, she said. And I did.