Don't know why but I woke this morning thinking of Ellen. (Mrs. Ellen, Miss Ellen, Ms. Ellen) I lived with this eighty-something year old lady for about a month last year, which most of you don't know because writing about her at the time would have fallen under the heading "Against Melody's Rules Of Blogging." Although apparently not now.
In the morning, we'd had a lovely chat, then I went off to spend a perfect day with Mr. Pie. Before leaving, it occurred to me that it really would be no hardship whatsoever if Ellen and I shared a nice dinner together that night. I'd prepared dinner for the two of us once before, although it'd been made quite clear to me that I wasn't there as any sort of domestic caregiver, or even friend, really, and we would handle our own meals. Which suited me just fine, as I guiltily ran in and out with my quick hellos and goodbyes, feeling the heaviness of her loneliness. Loneliness seems a cruel reality, especially to someone no longer in the healthy position to do much about it, and I hated the feeling that I had this full life and she, while enormously social in spurts, still spent an excessive number of hours sitting alone in a house with her books and music and memories. So after our pleasant morning chat, I told her I'd love to make dinner for us that night. She was in the mood for spaghetti and I agreed that this was quite an easy meal to prepare, so that's what we'd have.
Only after spending the day with Mr. Pie, and being charmed to within an inch of my life, I completely forgot about Ellen and the dinner I'd promised to cook for us. Instead I hung out with my sister when she arrived home, and played and danced and generally had the kind of day I always have when I'm hanging out with my sister and her exceptional offspring.
When I walked into Ellen's house at around 7, she practically danced toward me, "Are we still having spaghetti?!" It alarmed me a bit; Ellen's health was such that on some days she might take 10 minutes, with her walker, to move from one spot to another, while on other days she moved about quite freely. It was the sparkle in her eyes that surprised me most, and I was overcome by an increasingly-familiar rush of guilt at having been so dismissive of my promise. "Of course! Just let me put these things away and I'll be right back!" I ran up the stairs to put my bags in my room, berating myself all the way for having forgotten, then came back down, quickly, all smiles. I was no more in the mood to cook a meal (for myself or anyone else,) than I was to ride a bike 30 miles, but Ellen and I could usually find ourselves a grand conversation and I knew that within 5 minutes I'd be over my annoyance at myself for having over-filled the day so much.
Walking into the kitchen, I stopped short, stunned by the view in front of me. Every conceivable bottle of alcohol was sitting on the counter. A sampling of bourbon and gin and vodka and several bottles of red wine were spread out before me. I think there was sherry and cognac, too. I am not exaggerating: it looked as if we were preparing to have 35 of our closest friends over for cocktail hour...only I'd forgotten. She shuffled up behind me as I stood there. "Um. Ellen? Is there something you need to tell me?" I was suddenly seriously alarmed at the extra sparkle I'd seen in her eyes. Realizing how ordinary a dish spaghetti actually is, I'd imagined she was just really hungry, and had spent some time looking forward to more riveting conversations like we'd had a couple of nights before. Now I wasn't at all sure. The phone rang, and she bounced, literally, almost up on her toes, and sparkling eyes glancing my way, she turned her walker in the other direction and sped off to answer it. "No!"
I got out a pan, then started chopping an onion. It had already become clear to me, days and days ago, that no matter how accommodating this woman was and how intriguing our chats could sometimes be, this was not the home I should be living in. Our lives were such extreme opposites and I was starting to realize that she actually did need a caregiver, or at least a companion. I cannot imagine what it feels like to arrive at the point in life when my independence is slipping through my fingertips, and the things I once took for granted were luxuries only available through the help of another. I thought all of these things, and more, as I chopped my onion, still wondering what, exactly, this woman had in mind for all these bottles.
"Do we have enough for one more?" She was calling to me from her office where I heard her talking on the phone. Looking over at the counter where I'd gathered all my ingredients, I paused to take a deep breath. "We have enough for six!" I called back, then breathed in, deeply, once more. I was in no mood for social interaction. What I really needed was a long, hot bath and a good, quiet read. Mr. Pie had, frankly, kicked my fanny.
A bit later, Ellen walked into the kitchen, a bit more slowly. "He can't come." Not dejected, exactly, but her facial expression registered solid disappointment. "Who can't come?" I asked, relieved to know HE wouldn't be joining us, whoever he happened to be. "*Ben can't come." And I: "Ben was coming?" Her: "Well, I'd certainly thought it'd be nice if he could. But he has other plans." Well thank God for small miracles pointed in my general direction!
I'd never actually met Ben, but I'd seen into his back doorway one night when she was showing me a painting on the wall in a back room and we'd noticed, out the window, that her neighbor was moving around in his kitchen, thinking he was all alone, rather than being stalked by the odd pair of women next door. She'd told me that when her husband had been alive, Ben had often come over to enjoy a cocktail in the evening. Ben's ex wife, a lovely woman, had planted Ellen's herb garden. "They're both real nice people. But it didn't work out." She'd mentioned this more than once, and I hadn't thought that much about it, only how nice it was that she'd had friendly neighbors she could count on.
Now her eyes sparkled again as she looked over at the stove and declared that she would at least set the table. "I just happened to remember this afternoon that last year Ben told me he wanted me to find him a nice young lady to spend time with!" Of course the picture had been coming into focus already, but now she'd actually admitted it out loud. Then asked me if I'd ever seen Fiddler on the Roof! (Which I actually have, when my mom was studying music and took all 3 of her children to a performance I still recall all these years later.) And then Ellen started singing Matchmaker and my stomach started to hurt just the tiniest little bit.
I laughed and told Ellen that after rolling around on the floor with a toddler, I wasn't exactly in the best form for meeting some neighborhood man. In response, she arched her eyebrow and told me that Ben was not the kind of man who cared about things like that. I secretly decided that Ellen's eyes were in worse shape than even I had realized before now, but kept that little revelation to myself.
We got through that night, and the others that followed, and I have to admit that our dinner conversation turned out to be quite pleasant. But I gotta' tell you: there's nothing that quite compares to the feeling that someone else's plan for you is picking up steam and you might be powerless to stop it. I'll also tell you this: this story is a whole lot funnier to me now than when I was standing on the threshold of that kitchen, wondering what on earth I'd gotten myself into this time.
*Ben is not his real name. His real name is very unusual and there's no reason to use it here in a personal blog when Ben is such a nice, anonymous alternative.