Grandma Klein did not put her paper down until she was ready for supper. She had been reading all afternoon, her glasses low on her nose, the paper an arm’s-length away. She didn’t always understand what she read, but at least she read. It gave her a feeling of accomplishment and it didn’t bother anyone else. To know what was read, one had to understand where everything was. She could not be sure. Was Paris in France or was it the other way around? Where exactly were Florida and California? Were they neighboring states? She had no way of knowing. But at least she felt she knew about Europe. After all, she had come from there. She knew how poor and broken it was; a place for war and devastation; a place where everyone grew old before his time from hunger and overwork.
At the supper table she listened while her daughter and son-in-law talked about a trip to Europe that her grandson wanted to take. At first she wasn’t quite sure what they meant. There were so many things she did not seem to hear, or heard and misconstrued. When she had first come to stay with them they did not discuss things in her presence. Suddenly changes would take place that she was never prepared for. Of late, she found that though they did not include her in their conversations, they did not exclude her either. They did not hide things from her.
“What’s this, Jackie’s going to Europe?” she asked when she had had the last of her soup. She ate soup at the end of the meal, cold. She could never understand why the others insisted on having it first, hot.
Her daughter, at first, pretended not to hear. She carried the ice cream to the table for the rest of the family.
“About Jackie,” Grandma Klein persisted, “why do you talk about him going to Europe? Are they catching him for the army? What are you keeping from me?”
Her daughter took the soup bowl away. “It’s not the army, Mama. It’s for a vacation next summer. His school is arranging a trip for the art students. Jackie wants to go and we think it would be nice for him. It’s just for two months.”
“You want him to go? Are you crazy? Don’t you know what Europe is? What is the matter with you?”
“You don’t understand, Mama. He’s not going to fight. He’s going to paint pictures with an art class.”
“Don’t tell me I don’t understand. I have heard that already too many times these years. I read. I understand. I know what happens in the world.”
Her son-in-law pushed his chair back. “Excuse me, please,” he said politely. He threw his wife a look of understanding. With his eyes he said, “Good luck, darling! This is not for me.”
Selma doggedly carried the dishes to the dishwasher. Her mother sat at the table and did not try to help. That much at least had been settled. Grandma Klein had not approved of the dishwasher. It had taken her job from her. At first she vowed that she would never use it, to prove that it was a waste of four hundred dollars. It took months before Selma had forced her mother to learn to use the machine. It was bought for a purpose, it was going to be used. Grandma Klein was never much of a dish-washer. They had become accustomed to eating out of egg-streaked platters, out of ringed glasses, and encrusted forks. At the beginning Selma had taken the dishes out of the cupboard every day and rewashed them. Her complaints were tallied with, “So it’s a little dirty. What is it, poison? It won’t kill you.” Later on she rewashed them only for company. The dishwasher was her husband’s idea. It made his wife a little lightheaded and he was happy to please her. He knew the value of a mature wife.
The first time Grandma Klein used the machine she dropped a small piece of raw carrot into it. It caught in the impeller and shattered it. The impeller was replaced but she refused to touch it again. She fingered some bread crumbs left on the table and wondered how to impress her daughter with the seriousness of the boy’s trip. “What’s the matter there’s nothing to paint in America?” she asked. “What black year has to drag him to Europe?”
Selma did not answer her.
“I’m talking to you, Selma,” she said angrily. “It’s too good for you here? I’m thanking God he has a heart murmur and doesn’t have to go away and you’ll send him over the water yourself. You must be out of your head.”
Selma carried the food to the refrigerator as if waiting for the subject to change without her help. “What’s going to be with Jackie anyway?” the grandmother asked. “How is he ever going to make a living? The house is full of paintings. Can he sell them? What’s the good of them? I told him already that he should stop and do something else. If you sell out what you have then you make more, but just to smear paint all day, what is the purpose? Wouldn’t it be better if he went for a doctor or a lawyer?”
Selma rubbed the grease off the stove. “It’s not even stylish to have so many pictures all over the house,” her mother said. “I’m telling you, but you can ask anybody.”
Selma went for the broom, wincing a little as she bent for the dust pan. Some nights she went to bed as early as eight-thirty because of her bad back. Lying down seemed to help it. “Don’t bother Jackie, Mama,” she said. “He has lots of talent. There are plenty of jobs for artists. Don’t worry about him.” Still she, herself, worried. She worried all the time.
The grandmother went into the living room to watch a television program. Louise, her fourteen-year-old granddaughter, did her homework at the desk opposite the set Louise turned her chair so that they wouldn’t look at each other. They weren’t speaking to each other since Louise’s birthday party the Sunday before. Selma, her husband, and Jack had gone out for the evening so that Louise could have the house for herself. The grandmother had promised to visit with a friend of hers down the street until she was ready to go to sleep. The last minute, however, she had changed her mind and sat down in the foyer three feet behind the mistletoe to watch the party. When the boys came they sat slumped in their chairs with their feet over the arms. The girls danced together and put layer over layer of lipstick to pass the time. They played charades, but the party never acquired the right spirit. Grandma Klein enjoyed the sight of so many young fresh people. She was as pleased as any of them with the balloons and decorations. Her eyes caressed the platters of delicatessen, the chocolate layer cake, and the punch with pink ice cubes. She did not go to her room until her head began to slip forward on her chest. She kissed Louise and said, “It was a beautiful party. It would have been a shame for me to sit with old Mrs. Kauffman and miss it.”
In the excitement over her departure one of the boys did a frog stand and backed into the table so that the bowl of punch toppled over on the floor.
When Selma came home the hallway was full of boys and girls. She reminded them that they were disturbing the other people in the house and they reluctantly went down the street, six abreast, so that no one could pass them.
Louise was crying while she cleaned the kitchen. “She stayed all night and spoiled my party,” the girl said. “She sat right in the living room feeding herself peanuts like a monkey in the zoo.” Selma clapped her hand over her daughter’s mouth. “Hush,” she said. “She’s your grandmother.”
In the morning Grandma Klein scolded her daughter. “How can you trust a bunch of young hooligans like that alone? They were quiet as long as I watched them, but as soon as I went out of the room they were standing on their heads and making a wreck of the house.”
“They don’t like to be watched,” Selma said without force.
“So they don’t like it. It would be a fine world if we did as they liked.” When Louise came down to breakfast, however, her grandmother took a little ball of tissue paper from her pocket. She unrolled it and took out a pair of diamond earrings. “It’s a present for you, Louise,” she said. “I was saving it for you anyway, you may as well save it for yourself.”
Louise didn’t even look at them. “Thank you,” she said. “I don’t want them at all.”
It had been a long hard winter for the family. Grandma Klein had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Some sunny afternoons she sat on the street corner with the young mothers. She carried her folding chair till she found a patch of sunlight between two store awnings. There she would stay until her hands and toes froze.
The intervening months, from February to April, were the worst. The gray bleak days put the grandmother in a terrible mood. She spent whole days in bed, weeping. The tears were a purge, as relieving as a funeral. She encouraged them with memories of all the hurts and disappointments in her life and she looked constantly for the small irritation that would give her a chance to indulge her feelings. At night before she went to bed she poured pots of water down at the cats that ran beneath her window. “Go! go!” she shouted. “Who needs you?” In the morning she vented her feelings on the pigeons. Selma heard the water splashing and the swish of their wings as they hurried out of the way. She heard her mother chase the children who lived upstairs till Selma begged her to let them be. “My head is broken,” she complained. “How can I listen to the noise?” But whether she scolded them or not they drove around and around outside her windows with wagons tied to their tricycles and metal cans tied to the wagons.
Grandma Klein relinquished her winter habits one by one when the days became longer and warmer. It was easier to persuade her to change to fresh clothes; she wore the same crumpled cotton dress for weeks during the winter. “Who sees me? For who should I dress?” she would ask her daughter when Selma pressed her.
“We see you,” her daughter said.
“You?” she would say in a way that was designed to hurt.
It was different when she sat on the bench in front of the house, greeting the people that passed on their way to the store. “Are you still sitting, Mrs. Klein?” one woman would call.
“Jealous, hah?” she answered. “I worked enough in my life already. I don’t have to work any more.”
As soon as the ground was workable, the landlord came to clean up the little garden in front of the house. He tried to keep the children out but they hung on the thintrunked catalpa when he wasn’t looking. They tore the first buds off the rosebush that climbed a broken trellis under Mrs. Klein’s window and they cracked the stems of the purple iris with their balls and toys. Mr. Schwartz bent stiffly from the waist to twist a broken old kitchen knife in the dirt. Someone had once given him a hand rake and trowel to make his work easier, but he left them to rust on the basement window ledge. “This is also good,” he had said.
Mrs. Klein sat with her hands in her lap and watched him work. “How’s the farmer?” she called to him. “You’re fixing it nice so the children can ruin it for you? Hah?”
He didn’t answer her. He picked up the pieces of paper, glass, and ice cream sticks. He covered the garbage pails that were chained to the fence and he brought out bowls of milk for the alley cats, the ugly insolent street-walkers that preened themselves in the sun.
“I throw water on them to chase them and you feed them,” she said. “What’s the sense of it?”
He looked at her coldly and said, “They’re living things too.”
One spring afternoon Grandma Klein watched the neighbors’ children playing outside her window. She was so amused by their conversations that she forgot for the moment that these were the same children she could not bear when they ran shrieking under her windows. They played house on the front steps. They made boundaries with egg boxes and paper cartons and moved in with their dolls and carriages, dishes and pieces of cloth. “My baby has the measles,” the little girl upstairs said.
“And mine,” her younger sister echoed.
“My baby died, but he’ll be better soon. He’s just a little bit died,” the girl next door said.
A little boy called Peter was the father. He rode to work on a tricycle and ate the meals of stones and paper the girls prepared for him.
Grandma Klein smiled to herself as she watched them and finally took her folding chair and a bag of sticky old Christmas candy and went out to them. She carried her chair right into their house.
“We’re playing here,” one of the children protested.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I brought you some candy. It’s better than stones to eat.” She held the candy out to them. She had recovered it after Selma had thrown it away. “What are you throwing it away for? It’s a waste,” she had said. The littlest girl had moved to take some.
“Don’t take candy from her,” her older sister called. “How many times did Mama tell you?”
Mrs. Klein kept tempting the little one. “Take a small piece, darling. Your mother won’t mind.”
The little girl reached out again but her five-year-old sister hurried to stop her. “Look at it,” she shouted in a voice like her mother’s. “It’s filthy. It’ll make you sick as a dog.” The little girl turned away reluctantly and Mrs. Klein nibbled the piece herself.
“Don’t do me a favor,” she said. “Don’t take it.”
The children meanwhile tired of their housekeeping. They hesitated for a minute while they decided what else to do.
“Play, children,” Mrs. Klein begged. “Play a little. I like to watch you.” But Peter took a handful of sand that they had used for cereal and threw it at one of the girls and then the oldest girl threw the egg boxes over.
“Let’s jump! Come on, everybody,” she called. She turned to go up the steps and the others followed her. First they jumped one step, then two, then three.
“Stop jumping, children,” Mrs. Klein begged. “Stop jumping. You’ll hurt yourself.”
“Shut up, we know how to jump,” Peter said and he led them higher and higher, four steps and five and six. The little girls leaped high in the air and slid on their bottoms. Mrs. Klein felt her heart pound in fear for them, but they jumped and wouldn’t listen to her. She hurried up the steps into the house and went up to the second floor where two of the children lived. She knocked loudly on the first door she came to. She could hear the sound of footsteps, dishes rattling, and a baby’s cry.
“Who is it?” someone asked.
Mrs. Klein didn’t answer. She knocked again. Finally the mother came to the door with a baby in her arms. “What do you want?” she asked disagreeably.
“The children are jumping,” Mrs. Klein said. “They’re jumping on the steps.”
“So?” the mother asked. “What do you want me to do?”
“Stop them,” she begged. “They’ll rupture themselves. They’ll break their legs.”
“Why don’t you just let them alone?” the younger woman asked.
“It’s for your good I’m telling you. They’re your children.”
“Please, Mrs. Klein, go sit someplace else. Don’t look at them if they make you nervous. Just leave them alone and don’t bother me. I have enough to do without you bothering me.”
Then she shut the door. She shut it gently but firmly and there was nothing for Mrs. Klein to do but come down again.
“Did you hear her upstairs?” she asked her daughter when she came in. “What did I do so wrong? I wanted to save her children from harm.”
“She has her hands full with three children, Mama. Don’t pay any attention to her. She doesn’t realize.”
I had children too. I know. It’s no excuse to shut a door in a person’s face if they want to help you. But take her part, Selma. Take her part. Take everyone’s part but mine. I know what you say. I know what you think.
“What did I say, Mama?” Selma said in exasperation. “What are you making a fuss over nothing for?”
What fuss? When fuss? Selma, I know all about it. I know how much you need me. I still remember the greeting you gave me when I came. You looked me over just as the women outside look everyone over. You’re no different than they are.
“What are you talking about, Mama? Don’t you remember we weren’t even home when you came? We didn’t even know you were coming till we found you waiting in the hall for us with all your bundles.”
“I remember. Till I dragged those things in the house—it wasn’t a job for my strength. I kicked them with my feet because I couldn’t lift them. I remember.”
“What are you bringing those things up for? That was six years ago, Mama.”
“I bring it up because I haven’t forgotten it. What were in my bundles? An old coffee pot, a few dish towels, some old silverware, and a few little things I saved over the years. ‘Junk,’ you said. Throw it out, it’s junk. ‘ It was mine. Everything I ever owned I had to sell when Papa died. I saved a few little things to remind me I once had a home and you had to throw them out. What if it was junk even? It was still mine. When I sold everything away it was like chopping off my head. When the truck drove away with the things I saw my whole life driving away. And the little I kept you had to throw away.”
“Do we have to talk about it again, Mama? Can’t you remember that we didn’t have any room? There wasn’t an empty dresser drawer or a closet with two inches in it. Why are you so foolish? You came from Florence, angry. You said you couldn’t stay with her any more. Did we turn you away? Did we argue with you? We gave you Louise’s room. What more could we have done?”
“I should give you a medal. Louise still hates me for it. It would have been better if I slept in the hall or the living room like I wanted and she should like me a little better.”
“You couldn’t sleep in the hall. O Mama, let’s not start in again.”
I only know I take up too much room here. That’s what I know.
“What’s the use,” Selma said, “if we have to go over the same old thing a thousand times.” Her mother went to her room and shut the door.
Selma dressed. She left lunch on the table for her mother and went out.
Mrs. Klein kicked off her shoes and lay down on her bed. Soon the tears began to flow. At first she wept without reason but then she wept because she thought of death. People her age were dying everywhere. Only a week before a friend of hers down the street had gone to the hospital and not returned. Fear and dread were with her always. It had been so since the morning she had awakened to find her husband cold at her side. She still woke up trembling almost as badly as the first years when she could not sleep at all. She used to sit in the living room with her newspapers and health magazines until she fell asleep on the couch. She would wake up at dawn in her clothes with the light on and the papers all over the floor. Her children had forced her to sleep in a room of her own, but she still lay awake for hours at night hearing the trains and the footsteps, watching the shadows the passing cars threw on the walls and the ceiling.
Lying there she heard footsteps in the outer hall. She hurried out of bed to lock the door. Her daughter always forgot. Selma seemed to be fearless in a city of thieves and murderers. The steps ended at her door and she heard a knock. She looked down at her crumpled soiled clothes and her bunioned toes poking out of worn old scuffs and she knew she could not ask who it was. The knocking persisted and then she heard a strange but familiar voice asking for her, not for her daughter or one of the children. It was a visitor come to see her. “Wait,” she shouted through the closed door. “Wait a minute, I’m coming.”
She tore off her clothes and stuffed them into the hamper. She pulled on her corset and a black crepe dress. She brushed the tangles out of her hair and rushed back and opened the door for an old friend.
The two women embraced and almost wept to see each other. “Come in. Sit down,” said Mrs. Klein. “How wonderful to see you!”
Her friend at one glance took in the living room. She did not miss the china figurine lamps, the Persian rug, the brocaded draperies, or the knickknacks on the coffee table and the shadow boxes. “Beautiful,” she said. “How lucky you are to have a place like this for your home.” But soon they talked of trouble and misfortune only as childhood friends could. Even though almost ten years had passed since they had seen each other they could take up all the old intimacies. There was no shame between them. In the pleasure of real conversation they exaggerated everything. Both the trouble and the joy were enlarged and dramatized.
“When I go to see my daughter,” the friend said, “it’s always ‘shur, bur’—I’m scarcely in the door and I’m out. I envy you.”
“You don’t have to envy me,” Mrs. Klein said. “I don’t spend my days licking honey either. After all, Selma is an American girl with an American education. What does she need me for? I haven’t done anything here that’s right. One would think I never had a home or I never brought up children. Not that we fight about it, God forbid. I’m just telling you you shouldn’t envy. If I was in perfect health, I can tell you I would live by myself and be free as a bird.”
“Count your blessings,” her friend cautioned. “If I could tell you how I’ve felt these years wandering around, welcome nowhere, at home nowhere. For this I struggled with them. For this I wiped their noses and their bottoms. Ai, there’s a great deal to tell and nothing to hear. But when you raise children for nothing, you know what bitterness is. You give them your strength and all they want is to do bad and outsmart you. Every step of the way. They’re smart when they’re little and smarter when they’re big. They know they have you and right to the end they eat you alive.”
“I hoped to hear better things from you,” Mrs. Klein said.
“Sometimes I think I’m being punished,” her friend said. “Do you remember my mother? She had asthma and a weak heart. She must have been over seventy when we took her to a home and they wouldn’t take her. If I live to a hundred I won’t forget the director screaming at us. He was a very nervous man, wild as a tiger. After all we didn’t come for charity, we expected to pay, but he made fools out of us. ‘Ten children,’ he hollered. ‘Eat straw,’ he screamed. He told us to take turns. He said, ‘You’ll live through it. She may not. ’ I never took my turn. I put it off and put it off until she went. Maybe that’s why I don’t have a place to put myself.”
“What are you talking? So what if I took care of my mother? How many years did I suffer with her, old and blind and useless? And what is my golden portion today? Listen, it’s all a lottery. Everyone lives according to their circumstances and nobody can judge anyone else.”
“It’s not well to speak ill of the dead. May she rest in greater peace than I am living, but you remember the kind of woman my mother was. It was me, me, me, all her life. It was hard to take care of her.”
“Of course I remember,” said Mrs. Klein. “Who could forget her?”
Selma spent the afternoon in the stores. Sometimes she caught her reflection in a mirror and wondered for a moment, why am I here pushing and shoving; do I really need these things? It was almost a compulsion of the season. It was as if spring could only be assured by purchases. Country folk could measure the height of the shoots in their gardens. City people had to change their clothes and cut their hair to feel the season. For a few moments she would be distracted, but then she resumed the conversation with her mother. She could not buy her way out of it. Still, her arms were filled with bargains and she told herself that her mother was like all other older people, that the problems could not be resolved. They would be settled only by death, so she could not even wish it to be better.
When she came into the hallway she heard her mother’s voice and the friend’s. They were laughing shrilly and she stopped to listen. She could not remember when she had heard her mother laugh with such abandon. The other woman said, “What am I laughing? I’m laughing at myself. The nights I went to sleep and wished not to get up in the morning, you wouldn’t believe.”
Selma opened the mailbox. She took out the Edison bill, the soap coupons, and a request for funds for the blind. She put her bundles down again to open her door, and then put them all on the kitchen table.
“Selma darling, look who’s here,” her mother called. “It’s a friend I grew up with, a friend of fifty years, or is it more?”
“Don’t count, don’t count,” the friend said coyly.
“Imagine, I almost didn’t let her in. I heard the door after you went out and I said it’s probably a peddler or something. If I didn’t hear her asking for me I wouldn’t have even let her in. Imagine!”
“How nice,” said Selma. “How nice for you to have some company. Can I fix you some tea?”
“Don’t bother yourself,” the woman said.
“If you don’t mind, I appreciate it,” Mrs. Klein said.
Selma busied herself in the kitchen. The two women talked in the living room, as if she weren’t there at all. She poured the tea into glasses and put the bowl of lump sugar on the table. She took out a bag of special cookies that she bought for her mother. The children called them dog biscuits. “The tea is ready,” she called.
The women came into the kitchen smiling. “You’ll never guess what we’re talking about, Selma,” her mother said. “I’m surprised myself.
“Here is Mrs. Schwartz all alone looking for someone to live with her. She wants I should take a room with her. What do you think, Selma?”
“There’s no hurry,” Mrs. Schwartz said. “You don’t have to make up your mind this minute.”
Mrs. Klein shook her head. She fingered the familiar ridges in her glass and shifted on the old pillow she kept on her chair. The kitchen clock ticked noisily during the silence. Selma waited at the stove for the kettle to come to a boil again.
“It’s hard to move,” Mrs. Klein said. “I wouldn’t know anybody in a different section. Besides I don’t have any furniture any more.”
“What are you talking about, Mama?” said Selma as she turned with the kettle. “Where would you find a place to live now?”
“You get so used to everything,” said her mother, “the children, the house, even the neighbors. A few years go by, you know, it’s hard to pick yourself up and change.”
Mrs. Schwartz sipped her tea. “It’s only natural,” she said. “But think it over. I know myself, family comes first. There’s nothing like having your own. What do they say?” she said turning to Selma. “Blood is thicker than water. If they say, it must be so.”
Grandma Klein broke her cookie in bitesized pieces and her friend lifted her glass so that Selma could refill it. Then they heard the doorknob turn and Louise with her arms full of school books pushed the door open with her knee.