Commentary Magazine


A Chair in Heaven:
A Story

I met Sara Rosalsky’s daughter, Mrs. Hyman, at the home of a friend where I was baby-sitting. One day she asked me to work for her.

“I need someone to sit with my mother. She is seventy-nine, has nothing to do all day, and she has to have someone to talk to. My brothers don’t have time for her, so it’s up to me.”

Mrs. Hyman hesitated a moment. She gave me a long reflective look before she went on. “You’re almost my mother’s age, you’d be wonderful company for her, and I’d pay well. I’m a nervous wreck, and I must have a rest. I need someone to sit with her a few times a week. Would you do it?”

She offered to pay five dollars a visit, and I needed those few extra dollars. I agreed to visit her mother Monday and Wednesday afternoons.

_____________

 

Mr. and Mrs. Hyman called for me in their car the next afternoon.

“We’ll introduce you as a friend,” Mrs. Hyman said on our way to her mother’s house. “Mamma loves to talk about herself. All you have to do is listen—”

“But for heaven’s sake,” Mr. Hyman added apprehensively, “don’t let on that you’re being paid.” He took a ten-dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to me. “This covers today and next Wednesday.”

The old lady met us at the door. She gave her daughter a swift, disapproving glance. “Another new suit?” She fingered the cloth of the sleeve appraisingly as her daughter jerked away. “Well, it’s good stuff, but the style ain’t for you. It makes you look like a barrel of potatoes.” Then she saw me. Her gray eyes, oddly young in her deep wrinkled face, lighted in glad surprise.

“Who is this? Come in! Come in! Don’t stand there at the door!” Limping on her cane, one leg stiff with arthritis, she led the way to the living room.

Alongside Sara Rosalsky’s tall, wiry figure, Mrs. Hyman looked short and dumpy, overshadowed by her mother’s extraordinary vitality.

“How’s my big girl today?” Mr. Hyman kissed his mother-in-law on both cheeks with resounding smacks. Mrs. Hyman retreated into a corner as far away from her mother as possible, took her knitting out of the bag and began clicking her needles.

“This is a friend of ours, a writer,” Mr. Hyman waved toward me, proudly. “She heard about your charities for widows and orphans. So she wanted to meet you.”

Sara Rosalsky’s rapacious gray eyes took swift inventory of the lines in my face, the shabbiness of my hat, the darned patches at the elbows of my sweater. “So you’re a writer?” I felt her looking me over with the same intensity with which she had appraised the cloth of her daughter’s suit. “If you are really a writer, then I got for you a story! My own story!” She reached for a leather-bound scrapbook and handed it to me. “Read! Read only who I am!”

Yellowed clippings were pasted down with scotch tape. “Sara Rosalsky, President of the United Sisters” . . . “Sara Rosalsky Donates $5,000” . . . “Sara Rosalsky” . . . “Sara Rosalsky.” I closed the book and looked at her.

“Now you see who I was! And I’m still not yet dead!” Her voice grew shrill, as if she were still fighting at the pushcarts. “Education I never had. I scrubbed floors, cleaned toilets, and collected garbage from a six-story tenement so my children should have college, so they shouldn’t be, God forbid, tailors, janitors, or pushcart peddlers. I made one son a doctor, one a lawyer. And my daughter a schoolteacher—but not an old maid schoolteacher. That’s why I cry to heaven, after all I did for them why should they leave me so alone?”

Mrs. Hyman’s knitting fell to the floor. Her hands were clenched in her lap. “You’re not alone now. We brought a friend. And you still complain. What more do you want?”

“How long since you were here? You leave your mother to die alone, like a dog in the street!”

“Shah! Shah!” Mr. Hyman put his arms around Mrs. Rosalsky. “You know Rose thinks the world of you. Why did she bring you her best friend? Come now! Let’s have some tea with your wonderful apple strudel. Nobody can make apple strudel like you.”

He got up from the overstuffed red velvet ottoman on which he had perched precariously, his short legs in hand-stitched gabardine slacks scarcely reaching the floor. Presently he reappeared with a big tray of steaming glasses of tea and a plate of apple strudel. The semblance of peace was restored.

_____________

 

As I drank my tea, I looked around. Fringes on the window shades, ruffles on the curtains. Shirred chiffon and lace adorned the lamp shades. Peacock feathers formed an arch over the huge gilt clock. All the rococo of the Bronx of fifty years before rioted here, in this room.

I glanced from the figurines and vases on the mantelpiece to the colorful scatter-rugs jostling one another on the red-carpeted floor.

“I see you like my things!” Mrs. Rosalsky nodded, pride of possession shining in her eyes. “I love color, beautiful things make me happy. Those are genuine peacock feathers,” pointing with her cane. “And that clock comes from the palace of a Russian prince. It’s worth a fortune! I got it at an auction for forty-nine fifty.”

She leaned back in her chair, her eyes distantly focused, seeing past triumphs. “Ah-h! When I was young and had my health, I knew how to get bargains!”

“At whose expense, your bargains?” Savagely Mrs. Hyman pushed away her plate and threw open the window, as if choking for air.

Ignoring her daughter, Mrs. Rosalsky refilled my cup, and after insisting that I eat a second helping of strudel, she put the remaining piece in a napkin and smilingly handed it to me. “Here’s something for you. Take it home—”

“Oh, no. Thank you—”

“Never mind thanking me, take it. Come soon again and I’ll give you more.”

As I was being driven home, I said to Mrs. Hyman, “Tour mother is so alive for her age—”

“Yes. So alive that she wears us all out.” Mrs. Hyman gave a long sigh. “That’s why we need you.”

The hoarded hurts of a lifetime rankled in her low, tight voice. “Mamma despises me because she neglected me. The days she went bargain-hunting at auction sales, I had to look after my brothers. But if a day passes and she has no one to talk to but the cleaning woman, she phones the neighbors that she’s dying, abandoned by her children. She’ll never die, she’ll outlive us all—”

“No need to get hysterical,” her husband laughed. “You know what the doctor said.”

Mrs. Hyman turned to me. “She doesn’t get under his skin the way she does with me. He can be nice to her.”

“It’s not everybody can do what she did with nothing,” Mr. Hyman said with almost religious conviction. “In the depression, when millionaires were jumping out of windows, she turned the hard times into a gold mine.”

“But how did she do it?” Mrs. Hyman struck out angrily. “Painters, plumbers, carpenters were begging for work. God! How she wheedled and badgered them to rebuild that old rat-trap tenement! Labor and materials, everything—on credit—”

“Sure! She rode over people. She got what she wanted. And that’s something not everybody can do. Not every janitress ends up owning five apartment houses.”

Mrs. Hyman stared gloomily in front of her. “Just the same, when people say I resemble Mamma, I get frightened. I’d hate to be like her, even with all her money—not that I know how much she has.”

_____________

 

Both mother and daughter had left a bad taste in my mouth, and I made up my mind not to take the job. But I had accepted advance payment for my next visit. I decided that it would be my last. However, the following Wednesday afternoon, when I walked in, Sara Rosalsky was so overjoyed to see me that my resolution faltered.

“Are you really here or am I dreaming?” The pleading tone of her voice was like a dog’s licking of your hand, panting for affection. “How glad I am to see you! Did you maybe come for more apple strudel?”

“I came because I wanted to see you,” I said.

“What a friend! What a pleasure is a friend when alone as I am alone.”

She pointed to a red velvet armchair and sat down opposite in her rocker. Her white hair had a natural wave which set off her deeply lined but still handsome face. There was about her an ageless, elemental force hard to define. For a long moment she looked at me in silence. In that silence I saw myself in her eyes.

“Everybody is out to get something. But you’re really a friend. You come to see me for myself. Even my own daughter comes only when she wants more money. But one good thing she did yet in her life—she brought you to me. The minute I saw you I felt I could talk myself out to you from under my heart.”

The next morning Mrs. Hyman telephoned me. “You made a big hit with Mamma and you did a wonderful job for me. She says you’re the only person who understands who she is. She is so proud to have a writer for a friend. Your check for next week is in the mail already.”

I needed that check as desperately as Sara Rosalsky needed someone to talk to.

Weeks later, the daughter invited me to dinner. “It’s a godsend to have you with Mamma,” she said. “I used to be a nervous wreck when I had to see her. Now that she has you to talk to, she lets me alone. And I’m not a bit jealous.” She laughed mirthlessly, but jealousy edged her voice as she went on. “I could never figure out Mamma’s secret for making money. Even now, old as she is, and without lifting a finger, her real estate is going up. And the richer she gets, the more secretive she is. We know nothing about her will, yet her end might come any day.”

But Sara Rosalsky, now that she had someone to talk to, instead of thinking of her end, reverted to her beginnings. “If you only could have seen me when I was young! It burned in me to do something, to work myself up in the world! My aunt who raised me, she hated me. To get away from her I married a man who could not even make a living. . . . I didn’t know I was beautiful till the roomer next door asked to paint my picture. He looked like a prince. And I was afraid . . . you know men. They don’t know when to stop. . . .”

She looked into the mirror. Her fingers caressed her withered cheek. “He said my skin was pure roses. . . . What a shape I had! Not like the skinny things these days! My bust! My hips!” Her hands rounded out her vanished curves. “And my husband was so jealous when men laid eyes on me! But I know God sees everything. And I was pure as an angel.”

A smile, a furtive sense of humor glimmered in the corners of her eyes. “My daughter, poor thing, she isn’t like me at all. I even had to get her a husband. My son Danny, the doctor, resembles me only in looks. But when it comes to brains, my son the lawyer has it. He’s smarter than the others, but smart only for himself. If I’d trust him with my houses, I’d be in the street. God forbid I should have to ask him for a dollar.”

_____________

 

Her torrent of emotion never abated. At every visit she bombarded me with another tale of herself. Together with the clippings and photographs in her scrapbook, her words made her seem less and less real, more and more like a record going around and around. . . . Often, against my will, I would doze off.

Sometimes pride in her achievements gave way to dark memories of her childhood in Poland. “I’d be better off to go begging by strangers than to be a nebich—a poor nobody—by my rich aunt. Never once a pair of shoes that fitted me! Everything a hand-me-down!”

The memory was an unbearable one. She opened the scrapbook.

“Look!” she cried exultantly, pointing to a faded photograph. “The United Sisters of the Fordham Temple, at a hundred-dollar-a-plate dinner, in honor of my birthday. Me! I gave it all to charity!” Prominent in the photograph was a huge banner, stretched above the speakers’ table: “Happy Birthday! God Bless Our President Sara Rosalsky!”

“Is there a joy on earth like the joy of taking your hand away from your heart to help the poor?” She beamed. “When I sent my birthday present, five thousand dollars, to the Federation, I felt like I bought myself a chair in heaven! And that’s when I made my will.”

She clasped her hands, gazing at her picture. “Where are they all? They used to come to me from everywhere, like to Mrs. Roosevelt, for my speeches, for my picture in the papers. I was a queen. Everybody smiled up to me. I had a million friends. And now, from all my friends I got only you.”

She looked me over with affectionate tolerance.

“If I dressed you up you wouldn’t know yourself.”

With an effort, she pulled herself up on the cane, limped to the bureau, opened a drawer stuffed with scarves and shawls. She held up one shawl, then another, eyes gleaming. “You never ask for anything. And I like you so much I want to give you something.” She wrapped a plaid silk shawl around me. “Why do you dress so plain, like a schoolteacher? This puts color in your face.”

I looked in the mirror. The colors were so lovely. “Is it really for me?” I asked.

She felt the shawl with greedy fingers and snatched it off, whisking it into the drawer. “Oh no—this is hand-made imported, from France—Paris! But I’ll find you something you’ll like.” She rummaged in her crowded closet and pulled out a faded purple velvet hat with a rhinestone buckle and insisted that I try it on. It was no use attempting to convince her that I could never wear that hat. It was easier to accept than to argue her out of her benevolence. To reassure herself of her generosity, she insisted that I come to lunch the next day.

“You look like you don’t eat enough. I’d like to feed you up.”

_____________

 

I found the table set as for a feast. “Is it a holiday?” I asked, surprised at the display.

“Your company is my holiday,” she responded gaily. “You make me feel I’m still a person. You know how I can’t sleep. But when you come, I forget all my worries and sleep like a child.” She leaned over and took my hand in hers. “Tell me, dear friend! How would you like to live here with me?”

I looked at the nightmare around me. The peacock feathers, the gilt clock.

“Why should you pay rent for a hole in the wall when you can stay in my beautiful home and eat by me the best for nothing?” She piled more chicken on my plate. “I love company. If I could finish out my years with you, my friend, always near. . . .”

She had a way of looking at me, seeing only herself. “Did I ever tell you how I started up in real estate with nothing but my two hands?” For the hundredth time she recited her rise from janitress to landlady. “Me, president of the United Sisters! And once I nearly starved to death! Such a story could go into the movies. You could make a fortune from writing my life—”

“Let me think it over,” I said, slipping into my coat. She fingered the threadbare elbow of my sleeve. “Here! Let me give you carfare!”

Heretofore when she thought of carfare, she counted out the exact amount of change. Now she pushed a dollar bill into my hand. “Go in good health!”

I left, disgusted with myself for having accepted the dollar. At that moment I could understand the hate that Sara Rosalsky roused in her daughter, so that she had to hire me to substitute for her.

Waiting for the bus to take me home, I watched the branches of the trees against the autumn sky. “Nothing to do but listen,” her daughter had said. Good God! The torture of listening to someone who cannot stop talking! By the time I got to my room the telephone was ringing. Mrs. Rosalsky in her imperious voice demanded, “Well, my good friend? How soon will you move over to me?”

My hand tightened into a fist as she went on. “You know me. What I want I want when I want it. And I want you by my side, the sooner the better.”

“I’m sorry. No. No. I can’t move—”

“Why?” she gasped, shocked into silence for a moment. Then she rushed on. “I can give you everything. I helped other people. I’d like to help you. I even got a cot all ready to put into my bedroom. In my beautiful home you’ll have the best for nothing—”

“Thank you, but I have to live my own life in my own place,” I said with finality.

_____________

 

At the usual time I went to get paid. Sara Rosalsky’s daughter lived in a residence hotel on upper Broadway. Well-groomed people went in and out of the lobby. I picked up the house phone, asked for Mrs. Hyman. A moment later I heard her friendly, flustered voice.

“My brothers are here. You’re just in time to join us for coffee and meet the rest of the family.”

I was glad of her welcome, but in no mood to be scrutinized by her brothers. Though I could not live under one roof with Sara Rosalsky, I needed the money my two visits a week brought me. But knowing the daughter and son-in-law was enough. I did not want to get involved with the rest of the family.

They had finished eating and were sitting around smoking and drinking coffee when I walked in.

Mrs. Hyman drew up a chair for me. “Here’s the friend that goes to see Mamma.” She handed me a dish of plum pudding. “I knew you were coming, so I saved some dessert for you.”

“And give our friend plenty wine sauce,” Mr. Hyman added.

The doctor, a slender, refined edition of his mother, smiled at me. “So you’re the lady that Mother has taken such a fancy to?”

The lawyer held out a plump, manicured hand. “Sis has told us about you,” he said in a mellow, cultivated voice. “I can easily understand Mother’s liking you.” Then turning to his sister, “Wasn’t it wonderful that we found such a good friend for Mother?” As his appraising glance swept over me, I noticed his short, thickset figure smoothly draped in dark blue, and the fringe of graying hair about his baldness. I recalled his mother’s words, “smarter than the others, but smart for himself.”

Looking around, I was struck by the contrast between the color and clutter of Sara Rosalsky’s overcrowded home and the fashionable austerity of the Hymans’ apartment. Here an interior decorator had achieved something bloodless and impersonal. There was a deeper contrast in the faces. The children had their mother’s sharp, strong features, but they were only pallid replicas of the mother’s extraordinary vitality. The passion of desire which drove Sara Rosalsky had bled out between generations.

To my surprise they knew that their mother wanted me to live with her, and they tried to persuade me to do so.

“Just like Mamma to want you all to herself,” Mrs. Hyman said. “But in a way it would be a relief if you could do it. The doctor said she may die in her sleep, or drop dead, any day. It would be a godsend for us all if someone like you were there to keep an eye on her all the time—”

“But—” I protested.

“We’d pay you for a full-time job, so you could afford to keep your own little place,” Mr. Hyman urged.

I felt the full force of their solicitude mobilized, closing in on me. But I was determined not to be pressed into giving up my entire time to Sara Rosalsky, and so I told them I could only continue the usual two afternoons a week.

It was not until weeks later, when I had stopped in at Mrs. Hyman’s for my check, that their real motives emerged.

Mrs. Hyman was serving me tea and cake when she leaned over confidentially. “I feel close enough to you now, after all these months, to be quite frank with you.” She smiled nervously, imploring sympathy. “You know how secretive Mamma is. What we’ve never been able to find out is what she’s worth. And yet her end may come any day.”

It was all I could do to conceal my embarrassment at what her words implied.

“We all look upon you now not only as Mamma’s friend, but as a friend of the family.” She pushed her chair closer and clutched my hand with some of her mother’s urgency. “You could help us enormously if you could get Mamma to talk to you about her will.”

Something in my expression must have communicated itself to her. She suddenly stopped talking. But after a pause, she added desperately, “It’s only reasonable! If we knew where we stood, we could plan a little better. Don’t you see?”

I saw only too well. But by now I was so deeply implicated, so enmeshed in guilt, that I saw no way out. If I gave up the job suddenly because I hated the hypocrisy of posing as Sara Rosalsky’s friend, she would be very much hurt. If I got the courage to tell her the truth, that I was being paid for every visit she thought to be the visit of a friend, wouldn’t that shatter her? But if I remained on the job, I could never do what the daughter was really paying me to do. Now I realized how that first advance payment to pose as a friend had drawn me into Sara Rosalsky’s struggle with her children. Anxiety over my involvement grew with my curiosity as to how it would end. With each succeeding visit I found myself caught more and more in a strange double role—employed by the daughter, but wanting to shield the mother from the very thing for which the daughter had hired me.

_____________

 

Mrs. Hyman had always been prompt in mailing the advance payments the times she made no arrangements for me to come to her apartment for a chat. Suddenly, one Monday morning, the check that I had been counting on failed to come. It was inconvenient, but I did not allow it to worry me. But when a week had passed and there was still no check, I was so disturbed that I stopped at Mrs. Hyman’s before going to Sara Rosalsky. Over the house phone she sounded harassed and preoccupied. “Oh, it’s you? I have your check. I’m on my way down. Please wait there for me.”

A few minutes later she came out of the elevator and greeted me with a fixed smile which belied the anxiety in her eyes.

“I’ve been planning to talk to you,” she said, opening her purse and handing me a check. “I might as well tell you right off—it won’t be possible to keep you on with Mamma any longer.”

I was too startled to say anything.

“You’ve done Mamma a lot of good. I know she’ll miss you. But to carry you any longer is a luxury we can’t afford. I’ve already told Mamma that you’ve been called to Boston, so she shouldn’t pester you with telephones. I’m in a hurry to go to her right now.”

I scarcely heard her. I thought only of getting away. I walked the streets hardly knowing where I was going. An hour later, entering the subway, I discovered the check still clenched in my hand.

By the time I got back to my room I had recovered sufficiently to feel vastly relieved. I had been magically freed from an exhausting hell of a job. And I had been paid. I told myself it was for the best.

But as the days passed, I could not get Sara Rosalsky out of my mind. I tried to reason with myself—you were hired, now you’re fired, and that’s that. But I could not reason myself out of my need to know what was happening to her. She is so alone, a voice within me pleaded. Her children are only waiting for her to die. She has no one but me. I have to go to her. Why so hot on the trail? another voice demanded. What’s in it for you? If I abandon her, I abandon myself, my conscience cried.

What had started out as a casual job had become, despite all my resistance, a deeper commitment. You can be fired from a job, but not from a relationship. Yet when I tried to define for myself the relation that existed between Sara Rosalsky and me, I was plunged into a deeper muddle of confusion than on my first visit more than a year before.

I’d wake up in the middle of the night and, in a sudden burst of clarity, hear Sara Rosalsky’s voice: “Take a good look at yourself!” As in a dream I saw that Sara Rosalsky was myself, the shadow I had left behind me, the shadow of father, mother, brothers and sisters—the relationships I had uprooted in my search for the life I had never found.

_____________

 

When I went to Sara Rosalsky, after a week’s absence, my chief concern was to protect her from the knowledge that my friendship had been hired.

The cleaning woman answered my knock and showed me in. Sara Rosalsky sat in her high-backed chair by the window, staring into space, as if she had lost all contact with her surroundings. The shade was down. Even in the near-darkness I noticed how she had suddenly shrunken. Her nose, her cheekbones stood out sharply. Her eyes were sunk deep in her head.

I glanced quickly at the large, garish portrait of her that I had been called upon many times to admire. The artist had caught something ruthless and indomitable in the young eyes, and in the resolute mouth the fierce obsession of a will to possess—the hunger for love which strives only to conquer. I looked at the face of the dying old woman. Youth, beauty, ambition had come to this.

She mumbled to herself. “With what did I sin? I wanted my children should be smarter than me. College I gave them. Now, my enemies. Why is God punishing me?”

Suddenly she looked up at me.

“Now you come! Now!” she lashed out accusingly. “How could you go away to Boston without telling me? I thought you were my friend, I told you everything! But it didn’t touch you! I was talking to a stone.” Her outburst gave way to an anguished wail of helplessness.

Peering at me suspiciously, she said, “Did I just talk myself into it that you were my friend?”

Before I could frame my reply, she began fumbling at a tissue-wrapped parcel on the table. “I didn’t think you’d come any more. And yet I still hoped. I wanted to give you this.” And she thrust at me the shawl with which she had been unable to part a few weeks before.

“There is a God, isn’t there?” She fixed the searching sharpness of her eyes on me. “Who makes life? Who makes death? Everything that lives must die. My time has come. I want to die.”

She waved a hand at the bottles on the table. “There’s enough there to finish me.” The ghost of a smile turned into a look of despair. “In God’s name! Save me from my children! Please, my friend, help me get into an old people’s home! I want to die near people!”

_____________

 

Mrs. Hyman flared up like a maniac when I told her what her mother wanted. “A home for Mamma? She’s insane! After all we did for her! Why should a home get the money?” It was as though I had put a match to gunpowder and the resentments of a lifetime exploded. “Senile! Mamma has been senile for the last ten years. Only her terror of dying keeps her alive. She’s due for a stroke any day. She keeps going to spite us!”

Early next morning I was roused from sleep by the ringing of the telephone.

“My friend! My only friend! Come!” Sara Rosalsky implored. “Don’t wait till I’m dead. They did it. They doped me. They moved me to a hotel where lives my son the doctor.”

The door was partly open when I got there. She was in bed, propped on pillows. Her face was gray; sweat gathered in the deep furrows of her forehead. She looked uprooted in the alien hotel room. A terrible sadness was in her eyes. It came from long ago. The unloved, unwanted child persisted to the end—naked, alone, facing death.

She motioned to the nurse at her bedside to leave. I sat down beside her, put my hand on hers.

“Look on the walls! Empty, cold as the grave!” Her voice cracked into a sob. “They tore me away from my things before I’m yet dead—my pictures, my clock, my peacock feathers. I lived with them so long, they were company.”

A choking spell seized her. When she regained her breath she dozed off for a few minutes. Suddenly, her bosom began to heave like a bellows. She sat up in a fury of indignation.

“They think they got me in their hands, but even from the grave, I’ll show them yet!” She paused for breath, then hurried on. “Nothing I left them! Nothing! Everything I have, more than a million, will go to an old people’s home.”

Her head sank on the pillow. Anger, resentment, her life-blood ebbed away. In the wide-open eyes, no longer demanding, no longer commanding, I saw the peace that had never been there before. I realized that I was still holding her hand. Little by little, the warmth was receding from her fingers.

The nurse came in, touched her forehead, lifted her wrist. “Dead,” she whispered, pulling down the lids over Sara Rosalsky’s eyes.

For years after her death, the children fought in the courts for their mother’s millions. I could not care who won—the children or the charity with which Sara Rosalsky had hoped to buy for herself a chair in heaven.

_____________

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