The afternoon I found Aunt Ellen in the attic, Mom told me to remain there while she called for help. The fire department arrived first. “She’s in the attic. She’s eighty-five.” Mom showed the two firemen the attic stairs. The older one with white hair shook his head. “How the hell did she climb up there?”
The younger fireman removed his heavy jacket and sprinted up the stairs. He closed the skylight and carried my great-aunt in his arms. I followed. They drove Aunt Ellen to the emergency room and then to intensive care. “She has pneumonia,” Mom told Leslie and me. “It’s serious. She might die.”
I visited her once in the hospital with Mom. We wore scrubs, paper slippers, and masks over our mouths. The nurse said we could only stay a few minutes. I wanted to kiss Aunt Ellen and hold her hand, but tubes were attached to her everywhere. I didn’t dare touch her, even if the staff allowed me to be that close. Aunt Ellen’s eyes were half open, but I don’t think she knew we were there.
She recovered after two weeks. I assumed she went home from the hospital.
“I’ll be home late. I’m visiting Aunt Ellen after school. I haven’t seen her since the hospital.”
“She’s no longer at home.” My mother avoided looking at me. “She can’t take care of herself anymore. We put her in a nursing home last week.”
They’d done this without telling me. “Why is it a secret?”
“We didn’t want to upset you.” She seemed relieved now the truth was told. “What do you say we visit her together? I’ll pick you up after school.”
A car horn sounded outside the house. “You better go. There’s Mr. Waters.”
Our neighbor sometimes gave me a ride to school. On the way, I told him about Aunt Ellen.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Where is she staying?”
“Near the Congregational Church. I’ve forgotten the name.”
“That must be the Belmont Home. Very well regarded. She’ll be comfortable there.”
He talked like she was on vacation at a resort hotel. He dropped me off in front of the school.
I wondered what Aunt Ellen would look like now. I would never be inside her house again. Leaning against a telephone pole, I closed my eyes. I visualized every detail of her apartment: the huge cast iron stove in the kitchen, the sewing machine by the window in the dining room, the ivy curling around her bedroom window. The vivid images surrounded me, but Aunt Ellen was absent, and I was a ghost.
Mom waited in the parking lot after school, smoking a cigarette, and reading a Reader’s Digest condensed novel. She had a whole bookshelf of them. Decades later, when I tried to sell them, the used bookstore manager turned up his nose. “We can’t even give those away!”
“How was school?” She stubbed out her cigarette, waving the smoke toward the open window.
“Okay. Lots of homework.” I threw my books and a bag on the back seat.
“You brought your gym clothes home to be washed.”
“How do you know?”
“I can smell them.”
All I could smell was her cigarette smoke. “When will you quit smoking?”
“When you stop sweating.”
We both laughed. We’d sparred over her smoking for years. Leslie and I didn’t smoke, agreeing it was a filthy habit. The public was still unaware of the cancer risk.
We rode down Mass Ave in silence until we passed Robbins Library. “Oh damn!” Mom hit the steering wheel in frustration. “My library book! I knew I forgot something.”
“I’ll bring it back on Monday.”
“You’re a good son.” She patted my knee. “The book’s overdue. There’ll be a fine.”
“Five cents? I can afford it.”
The nursing home was a center entrance Victorian mansion with a large bay window on the second floor. The left corner of the house was a turret with a tall, pointed roof and stained-glass windows. A porch surrounded three sides of the building.
Mom rubbed the wooden railing. “Look at the carving. This would cost a fortune today.”
“Did one family live here?”
She pressed the doorbell. “A wealthy man built this house. He made a fortune cutting blocks of ice from Spy Pond and selling them all over the world.”
The door was opened by a tall woman in a green dress with a gold necklace. “May I help you?”
“We’re here to see Ellen Russell.”
“Oh, yes. You called earlier. Come in. She should be awake now.” She walked into a sitting room to the left of the hall. The once-spacious room had been subdivided into three offices. The only clue to the room’s former elegance was a ceiling painted with chubby babies and fat women lying on clouds.
Mom shook her head, muttering, “It should be a crime to desecrate a room like that.”
The woman returned with a girl who appeared young enough to be a freshman in high school. She didn’t look familiar. “Kathleen, please escort these visitors to room twenty-three.”
Dressed in a light blue uniform, Kathleen smiled and shook hands with my mother. “This way.” She crossed the hall toward a wide staircase. “I enjoy talking with Miss Russell. She tells many interesting stories.”
“She does?” Mom acted surprised. “Her memory isn’t reliable these days.”
“Her long-term memory seems fine. She remembers what happened fifty years ago.”
“Oh, yes, she’s told those stories many times.”
“I haven’t heard that many,” I said, not wanting the girl to think we didn’t care. Climbing the stairs behind her, I noticed she didn’t shave her legs. Creepy.
“Do you work here full time, Kathleen?” my mother asked.
“I’m a senior at Arlington Catholic. I’m attending nursing school in September.”
At room twenty-three, she knocked before opening the door. “I don’t want to disturb the staff when they’re with a patient.” She peeked in the room. “No one’s here.”
After ushering us into the small room, she carried in a second chair from the hall. A massive bed of polished dark wood occupied most of the space. My great-aunt, her head lolling to one side, sat in a padded chair by the window. When Kathleen took her hand, Aunt Ellen lifted her head. “You have visitors, Miss Russell.”
“What?” Her voice sounded like she hadn’t spoken in days. She coughed to clear her throat.
“Your family came to visit.”
Photos of our family were pinned to a bulletin board between two windows. Photos of the staff filled the remaining space. The girl pointed toward Mom. “Your daughter is here to see you—”
My mother gave an embarrassed laugh. “I’m her niece.” Mom pointed to the photograph of Grandma. “She’s my mother. My aunt never married.”
“I’m sorry. I misunderstood.” The girl straightened up and smoothed her uniform. “Dial 0 on the phone if you need help.” She left the door half open.
I leaned over to kiss Aunt Ellen on her forehead. She smelled like warm milk. Scratches on her cheek hadn’t healed. She wore a muslin apron over her nightgown. Straps from each side of the apron were secured to the back of the chair. “Mom. They’ve tied her in.”
“That’s to make sure she doesn’t fall out.”
“They’re treating her like a baby. And where are her hands?”
“Mark, calm down. Her hands are tucked inside the apron. She scratched her face.”
I sat in the chair on the other side of Aunt Ellen. She had changed so much. I didn’t want to be there. Why wasn’t Mom more upset?
“I was here on Tuesday when she flailed her arms around. She scratched herself and one of the nurses.”
“What is she afraid of?”
“She’s confused. She doesn’t understand where she is.”
A nurse entered. Her shoes made no sound crossing the room. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and covered with a small, ruffled cap. She smiled when she recognized Mom.
“Mrs. Aherne, good to see you. She’s much better today.” The nurse touched my great-aunt on her arm. “Hello, Miss Russell.” Turning towards the voice, Aunt Ellen frowned as if she had never seen the nurse before. “How are we feeling? I’m taking care of you today.”
“Who are you?” I could barely hear Aunt Ellen.
The nurse laughed. “You don’t remember me?” She took her picture down from the bulletin board. “This is me. I’m Nicole.”
My great-aunt rocked back and forth, her lips in a slight smile. “I know you.”
“Time for your pill, Miss Russell.” The nurse’s voice was loud.
My aunt’s memory was gone, not her hearing.
Aunt Ellen pouted as if her feelings were hurt. She mumbled something I didn’t understand.
The nurse leaned closer. “What did you say?”
My great-aunt took a deep breath. “Call me Ellen.”
The nurse patted her shoulder. “I’ll call you Ellen if you call me Nicole.” She looked over her shoulder at Mom. “She’s responding more today. It’s often hard to keep her attention.”
The nurse took a small cup with a pill from the tray she’d left on the bedside table. “Here we are.” She pushed the pill between my great-aunt’s lips. “Open your mouth for a second. Good. Now take a sip of water.” The pill fell out of her mouth into the water. Nurse Nicole held my aunt’s cheeks, forcing her mouth to open. The pill and water slid into her mouth. Aunt Ellen coughed, but then swallowed.
The nurse straightened up, shaking her head. “It’s a struggle sometimes.” She picked up her tray. “I’ll let you visit some more.” She left the room.
Aunt Ellen sank back into her lethargic state as if the nurse had turned off the power. She sat on a rubber pad protecting the chair. Her hands, moving under the restraining apron, pulled at her nightgown bunched up around her waist. Between her nightgown and the pad, I saw the white skin of her thigh. She has no privacy. I wanted to cover her with a sheet.
Suddenly she pulled herself forward, her eyes focused straight ahead. “Not Bess’ baby.” She spoke to the person she imagined in front of her. She turned toward Mom, raising her voice, angry now. “Walter’s baby.” Her hands under the apron kept picking at something.
“What’s she talking about?”
My mother shrugged. “Her memory is confused.” She pulled her chair closer. “Aunt Ellen? What’s wrong?” Mom noticed my concern. “She’s jealous because Grandma had children, and she didn’t. She’s been talking like this for a month.”
Aunt Ellen closed her eyes, but her hands kept picking, picking, faster now.
“What’s she doing?” Mom stood and untied the restraints. She lifted the apron.
My great-aunt had ripped a hole in her nightgown. Blood stained the edge of the torn material.
“Mark, get the nurse. Hurry.”
I ran into the hall looking in each room as I ran by. I found Nicole in the room at the head of the stairs. “Nicole. My aunt is bleeding.”
She pushed by me and ran to the room. When I returned, she’d raised the nightgown to expose the flesh, scratched and bleeding. I must have made a sound because Nicole swung around to me. “Please leave.” She was impatient. “Wait downstairs!”
I couldn’t move, mesmerized by the red scar on her belly. “What happened to her?”
Mom put her arm around my shoulders. “The nurse needs some space. Go wait in the car.”
I left the room but remained watching outside the door. I wouldn't leave until I knew she was all right. Mom and Nicole lifted Aunt Ellen from the chair. "Put her on the bed." I watched with a horrified fascination. They moved behind the door. I heard the springs contract as they lowered her on the bed.
“I’ll give her a sedative and call the doctor. The scratches aren’t deep.”
“I don’t understand why she has that scar. My mother always said her sister couldn’t have children. Is it something other than a caesarean section?”
I stood out of sight with my back to the wall. Why were they talking about a baby?
“I’ll have the head nurse call the doctor.” Nicole was at the door of the room a foot away from me. “He’ll call you tonight.”
I pushed back against the corridor wall, trying to make myself invisible. Nicole came out of the room but didn’t see me. I followed her to the first floor and went into an empty room off the hall. I walked in circles, holding my chest, trying to push the image of Aunt Ellen’s body out of my mind.
Feeling dizzy, I grabbed my coat and rushed out to the porch. The frigid air froze nose hairs, but it calmed me. I took deep breaths, trying to slow my heart. I sat in the car out of the cold, determined to say nothing to Mom about what I’d seen.
Driving home, she said Aunt Ellen was calm and resting. “I’m sorry you had to go through this.” She rubbed my arm. I moved away, closer to the door. I didn’t want to be touched. “You okay?”
I said I was fine. This was the last subject I wanted to discuss with my mother. The physiology of the lower half of the female body was uncharted territory. I’d never tell anyone what I’d seen. I’d get answers to my questions another way. The minute I got home, I’d find ‘sahcerryann section’ in the encyclopedia.
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