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Aunt Ethel, R.I.P.

April 6, 2006

Four months after it started last July, Aunt Ethel has been put to rest.

It started with a phone call. It was a week night. We had returned from a trip to the west the day before. Barbara picked up the phone in another part of the house and I heard her shocked exclamation: “Oh, no!” Then, “Thank you, officer.”

“Aunt Ethel collapsed in her apartment,” she told me. “She was there three or four days. The people in the building missed her and finally called the police. They broke through her door and found her on the floor. She’s on her way to the hospital now.”

It was a stick figure that we saw in the emergency room. The sturdy old woman I knew from Passover seders, where she always insisted on arriving by subway despite needing to walk with a cane for her bad knees, was hardly there at all. The job of reconstituting had already begun, with an IV drip to rehydrate her system. Gradually she regained strength until she could be moved to a rehabilitation facility. But her hospital workups had discovered something more serious: metastatic cancer that had invaded her bones and her brain.

Aunt Ethel was ninety-one. She was the oldest of four siblings in a long-lived family. Barbara’s mother, her sister, is the second oldest, then Barbara’s Uncle Murray and then her Aunt Leila, the youngest. I saw Aunt Ethel once a year, at the seders. These were events with a big cast that moved from year to year, depending on who hadn’t hosted it recently or who wasn’t going through a renovation. Aunt Ethel was one of the “old ladies,”with Barbara’s mother and their cousin Marilyn, who always sat together and talked loudly because they were deaf and who often were more entertaining than the Haggadah when their voices rose to fill the occasional silence: “What?” “I said Morty’s conducting a nice service.” “Marty? Who’s Marty?”

I only saw her once a year because Ethel never let anybody come to her apartment. She was widowed in 1996, and retreated from the courses and occasional travel she and her husband Ezra had taken when he was still alive. They had no children. Now and then Barbara would assemble the old ladies and the rest of the family for a lunch, but that became harder and harder. Aunt Ethel didn’t want to join in. “Don’t worry about me. Go on with your life,” she said.

It became harder and harder to get her on the phone. Aunt Ethel resisted spending money. Like many her age, she was shaped by the depression, but she seemed to take thrift to its extremes. She had no air conditioners in her apartment, and one factor in her collapse was an end-of-July heat wave that generated warnings from public officials. She would not invest in a hearing aid or even an amplified phone, so she might not have heard them on the news, and her tv set was too old to have closed captioning. Not that she would have heeded them in any case; she had always been able to make do. Another result of her deafness was an inability to contact her. On calling, the phone would ring and ring and we never knew if she had gone downstairs to get the mail or if she just couldn’t hear it or, as it turned out, something bad had happened. The policeman knew to call Barbara because she had been to Aunt Ethel’s apartment, was unable to raise her by knocking, and left her card under the door. Aunt Ethel had called after that to promise she would be in touch more often, but she wasn’t.

Her hospitalization required some decisions to be made. Right away, we had to find out about things like insurance, and bills that needed to be paid. After that, we expected that Aunt Ethel would return home for her convalescence, so that some cleaning and ordering would be required. That meant we had to go to the apartment to which nobody ever was invited. The last time anyone other than Ethel had been inside was when Ezra died. I recalled that it was dingy, with dark walls that hadn’t been painted in some time, but that was the extent of the detail in my mind. In the absence of visitors, the place had become a legend. If entering was forbidden, what secrets were concealed.

“It’s bad,” Barbara said the first time we were going there together. She had ducked in a day or two before. “Papers are everywhere.”

“It can’t be that bad,” I said. “There must be some logic to it. We just have to figure it out.”

“Just wait,” she said.

She was right, in spades. In retrospect, there must have been several pathologies at work. Obsessive-compulsive disorder that makes the most useless of scraps too valuable to throw away, like the collections of plastic Bic pen tops wrapped in rubber bands. Depression, which makes cleaning up the mess a task equivalent to climbing up Mt. Everest. The misplaced thrift that kept Aunt Ethel from choosing any of the periodic upgrades offered by the landlord, or replacing the broken blinds that hung at crazy angles. Paranoia, which kept workmen from doing the regular paint jobs required by the law. And whatever disorders are caused by the black mold that covered the entire wall of her bedroom, over the sad, disordered mattress where she slept.

Aunt Ethel was a packrat, one of those people who never throw anything away. The only thing that saved her, and us when we began the cleanup, was that she didn’t subscribe to a daily newspaper or any magazines. As it was, papers were stacked on every surface in the one-bedroom apartment, and she was running out of room. As we began the job, cleaning out first the empty glass memorial candle holders stacked by the dozens in the dish drainer and on the kitchen stove, the extent of her madness grew clearer. And Ezra had been as bad. They had received gifts, opened them, returned them to their original packaging, stuck them in drawers, closets, cabinets. They were investors, and no stock transaction report, no prospectus, had ever been discarded. In her working days, she had been a buyer at a department story, and she still had the pay stubs to prove it, dating to the 1950s. Her individual and joint tax returns were still on file, again dating to the 1950s. All of Ezra’s clothing remained in the apartment, some of stacked on the floor. Every plastic bag from her weekly trips to the grocery store and pharmacy remained on hand, containing shopping lists, store receipts, coupons, and dribs and drabs on change. Every piece of mail she had received was stacked up, with notes of the date and content in her handwriting on the envelopes.

It was all covered with dust. Deep, thick dust. In her apparent depression, Aunt Ethel had not dusted or cleaned in months, if not years. The plaster in the ceiling over the bathtub had fallen, and it lay in the bottom of the tub where it had been for a long time, undisturbed by water.

Barbara was by turns sad and angry. Aunt Ethel had not needed to live like this. She had substantial assets. Where had her life turned, preventing her from living comfortably in healthy environment?

I won’t bore you with the details. We hauled at least a hundred large black plastic contractor bags out of the apartment to be discarded. That was the easy part. Then we started having to discriminate, to shred old tax returns, to find things that were valuable and separate them from things that weren’t. We had the fifty-year-old carpet, which had holes where the legs of furniture stood on it, ripped out, and the wood floor buffed, told the landlord to do the kitchen and bathroom upgrades Aunt Ethel had always rejected, had the furniture cleaned, bought and installed air conditioners, had new blinds made for all the windows.

We worried the whole time that we were doing this that Aunt Ethel would be furious when she came back home to see that we had been interfering with her environment. We needn’t have worried. Her cancer was advanced. When she recognized us it was seldom, and when she could the drugs that eased her pain usually kept her from interacting. By the time she returned to her apartment, six weeks before she died, about all she could do was blow a kiss. This she did, and showed none of the signs we were afraid of. If she was angry that we had invaded her privacy it was impossible to know it. She died on a Saturday night when we were at the theater, and the funeral home came and took her wasted body away the same night.

After she died, Barbara’s mother was displaced by Hurricane Wilma, and in her new home on Long Island she had the sudden need of Ethel’s furniture. The rest of what remained in the apartment, over a long month of sales to second-hand stores, donations to charities, and more trips with black plastic bags to the building’s disposal area, was reduced by yesterday to nothing.

Now we’re left with the question of what it meant, and who will hang onto the memories, and what the memories will consist of. Will Aunt Ethel be remembered as Aunt Ethel, or will she be remembered for living the way she didn't have to live, and for the mess she left?

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