September 14, 2013
The other day Alice told me about the Chewers. We were on our way to the eye doctor. Being in motion often brings to her mind characters and events from the distant past, as if we’re moving back toward the little prairie town where she grew up and she’s preparing me for the people we’re about to meet.
But before I introduce you to the Chewers, let me say that it took all I had to get her to go to the eye doctor at all. I thought she was being difficult because of the visit itself. (If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you probably know what I mean; if not, just think about “eye doctor” and the word “injection” and you’ll be all caught up.) But no. This resistance had to do with the wig that has come to dominate our lives.
Even though she loved it, I couldn’t get her to wear the wig in public for a long time. It sat in a bag in her closet and got so bored it had adventures all by itself, mysteriously disappearing and then reappearing at one point. She didn’t want to wear it because she was afraid about what Nadine would think.
Then one day she put it on and wore it to the dining room. Nadine said she didn’t like it, but everybody else did, including the men, most valuable creatures of this solar system, so who cares what Nadine thinks?
Once she got the wig on and got used to it and had accumulated more and more compliments, she didn’t want to take it off (except to sleep, of course). Then came the day she realized she had to wash it. That was a big deal.
Still, it is a struggle for her each morning to put on her hearing aids, which fit over her ears, and then her glasses, which also fit over her ears, and then the wig itself, which she has to fiddle and fuss with to get over the hearing aids and the bows of the glasses and down over those same ears.
Here’s Dr. Boelter helping Alice with her new hearing aids (pre-wig).
She didn’t mention any of this when she called to say she wouldn’t go to the eye doctor. The appointment was two hours away. “I’m not going. You shouldn’t have to drive so much.”
I assured her I didn’t mind and that, in fact, I had other places to drive that day so I was all prepared. I had my driver’s license in my purse and everything.
“Don’t be so smart,” she said. Not amused. Then she went on say she was too old to go. “I just can’t get around like I used to.”
“I’ll help,” I said.
It went on like this. Her feet hurt and she’d miss lunch, which was going to be good that day, and I’d complained recently that my back hurt and I shouldn’t have to lift her walker into the car, and what was I going to do about my poor back anyway, and besides, her eyes were no good any more no matter what and so what difference would this doctor visit make?
I pointed out that, although the injections made less and less of a difference, they still helped. The reason she had any vision remaining at all was because of them. I told her I felt bad that she had to be uncomfortable, but she was brave, etc., etc.
Finally she blurted out the truth. “I’m not going to take my wig off! I’m not going to let anybody see me without my wig!”
“But why would you have to take it off? And even if you did take it off, who would see you without it but me and the doctor?”
“I have to take it off because I can’t get my glasses on and off otherwise. And I don’t want him to see me without it.”
“Are you sure you can’t get your glasses on and off? Have you tried?”
She assured me that she knew it would be too hard to do it and she was afraid of breaking her glasses. “And then what would we do?”
“We’d get new glasses,” I said. “This is your sight we’re trying to save by visiting this doctor. Your sight.”
We talked some more. She finally agreed to go.
When she got in the car and we were underway, she discovered a tiny chocolate stain on one knee of the slacks she was wearing. “Take me home! I can’t wear these.”
I thought about how long it takes her to change clothes. Our appointment was in twenty minutes and we were ten minutes from the clinic. I fished around for a cloth and came up with one I’d intended for the dashboard.
“Spit on this,” I said. “And get to work.”
She started laughing. “Back in Carson,” she said, referring to the town in North Dakota where she grew up, “if I’d been a member of the family that lived down the street, I’d have had to help my mother with the laundry. Do you know how?”
I pictured children gathered around a scrub board and laundry tub out on the prairie, dunking clothes and scrubbing them with a harsh soap made from lye.
One of the older, taller girls would have to stand out in the middle of America and hang the clothes to dry.
But it wasn’t quite like that with the family down the street from Alice’s family.
“Once a week Mrs. Reiniger announced it was time to wash the tablecloth,” Alice said. “She made all five of her children stay at the table after supper and chew on the cloth to get the stains out. There they’d sit those poor kids, chewing and chewing on every stain.”
Alice leaned forward and looked at me out of the corner of her eye. She raised the cloth I’d given her up to her mouth and pretended to chew on it, happily making fun of this odd predicament the children found themselves in with a mother who wasn’t as easy to deal with as her own mother had been.
“Mrs. Reiniger was German,” she said in a tone that led me to think this was supposed to explain everything.
“After these children got done chewing away the stains,” I said, “did Mrs. Reiniger consider the tablecloth clean?”
“Good heavens no! The kids were like what’s-it-called, that stuff everybody uses now?”
“She would soak that tablecloth in the laundry tub overnight,” she said, “and wash it the next day with lye soap, just like Mama used. But we weren’t chewers. We didn’t have to help Mama that way.”
Sometimes it eases the way to make fun of people, all the better if they’ve been dead and gone for decades by now. It’s a method of self-soothing, and Alice needed soothing. She worked on getting the chocolate stain out and chuckled about the family she started calling “The Chewers” all the rest of the way to the clinic, where she took her glasses off and put them on again with no trouble. No removal of the wig was necessary.
It turned out she didn’t need to get an injection in her eye because the retinal photographs revealed that everything was flowing around in there as it should be, or at least as well as it can for now.
“Maybe next time,” the doctor said as he accompanied us into the hall. She ignored this and pushed her walker around him. He was nothing more than an obstacle in her path. She hurried on as fast as she could go toward the waiting room, the front desk, and the way out.
Here’s a song about chewing, though not your dining room tablecloth. It’s Ella Fitzgerald, who can make even bubble gum sound wonderful. My favorite line: “Blow your troubles away with bubbles.”