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Kate R

Joined: 29 Sep 2005
Posts: 463
Kay  Reply with quote  


It was Washington in the springtime. The air was filled with the perfume of cherry blossoms and other flowering trees, and the sun was dipping down ready to make its descent into darkness. Katharine Brenneman stood in front of her mirror in her bedroom, applying a coat of lipstick. In her eighties, she liked to look her best. She smoothed her hair – set into an updo by the nice lady down at the salon once a week and sprayed with so much hairspray that she might just be solely responsible for the hole in the ozone layer. Satisfied with her reflection, and wondering vaguely what had happened to the face of her youth (as she always did when she saw an old lady staring back at her), Katharine made her way into the living room of her one-bedroom apartment in the Embassy district. Her daughter, Verne, the realtor, owned the building which consisted of three apartments: the one Verne and her husband shared was a duplex on the top two floors, Katharine’s on the ground floor, and a basement apartment lived in by her twenty-four year old granddaughter, Pam.
Katharine moseyed on into the kitchen, getting things ready for afternoon tea. It was a tradition she liked to keep up every day, mainly because she didn’t actually serve tea, and she viewed it as a chance to get to know her neighbors. The tea was replaced with a couple of glasses of red wine, some cheese and crackers, or maybe a cookie or two, and the company was whoever happened to be outside at the time. Sometimes friends would drop by, knowing her habit of having tea at four o’clock every day, or sometimes she would open her door and invite people in off of the street. Her daughter, Verne, constantly told her that she shouldn’t invite people into her apartment who she didn’t know, especially in their neighborhood, but Katharine simply figured that everyone was their neighbor, so what was the harm?
As she set the tray out, with two wineglasses and an already-opened bottle of merlot and tidied up the living room, she heard a banging on her door. A loud, violent banging. Her heart skipped a beat, and she cautiously crept towards the door, peering through the eyehole without making a sound. She recognized the man who was knocking, she had invited him in yesterday for tea and had told him that it would be best if he didn’t come back. He had spent the whole time muttering under his breath and making insane conversation. It had made her uncomfortable, and fear gripped her heart when she saw him out on her stoop knocking on the door. Kay (as her friends called her) retreated into the bedroom and put a pillow over her head so as to drown out the sound of the knocking and pretend she wasn’t home.
The banging went on for perhaps ten minutes, although to Kay it felt like much longer, before she heard the voice of her son-in-law, Mort, and tiptoed out into the living room again to better hear what was going on.
“What do you want?” boomed her son-in-law to the crazy man.
“This lady wants to see me!” he retorted. Through the thin curtains, Kay could see Mort puff himself up in an attempt to appear more manly and macho, and inwardly smiled as the manly/macho routine rarely matched up with his bookish personality.
“I don’t think she does,” said Mort, “I think it’s time for you to go.” There were a few more muffled exchanges that Kay couldn’t quite make out, but it ended with the crazy man leaving. She breathed a sigh of relief and poured herself a glass of wine.
* * *
“Verna!” Mort shouted into the apartment upon opening the door. “Verna!”
“Yes Mort, what is it?” said Verne, coming out of the kitchen with a full-body apron on. “I was just making dinner.” It always irritated her when Mort called her Verna.
“We need to talk about your mother,” said Mort, and told Verne the story of the exchange with the man on her stoop. Verne was mortified. Her mother simply refused to accept that this was not always a safe neighborhood, and a woman needed to keep her head down and not invite danger right into her apartment for a glass of wine every afternoon.
“Good thing you came along. I’ve been telling her and telling her that she just cannot do that anymore, but she never listens to me. Maybe now she’ll see why.”
“Maybe won’t do her any good when some wacko breaks into her apartment,” said Mort. “She has to stop this. I’m putting my foot down.” Verne snorted a little, but tried to cover it. Her mother and her husband had been at loggerheads from day one, and the thought of Mort “putting his foot down,” and telling her mother to do anything was likely to induce the opposite effect.
“You know how Mother is, always playing the hostess. It’s from a different era. I’ll talk to Pammy, and the two of us will go down there later to talk to Mother. Don’t worry about it sweetie, we’ll take care of it. In the meantime, I need to finish dinner,” Verne said.
Mort nodded in assent, “Call me when it’s ready,” and he put a classical record on the turntable, blasting it through the apartment until it took up every corner of the space. He lit his pipe and began to unwind from his day at the office. He was a newspaper editor, and the deadlines and fast-pace took their toll on him, not to mention the added stressor of scaring crazies off of the front porch. It was not his idea to have Kay move in with them, or below them rather, but ever since her husband Emery had died she had lived with her other daughter, Karen in the same house until her husband was diagnosed with cancer. It was Verne’s turn to pick up the slack, and when they had moved from New Jersey to Washington, Kay had come with them and packed into the apartment on the ground floor. It wasn’t altogether a bad arrangement, at least she had her own space and wasn’t constantly underfoot. She kept busy with her bridge club, and donated some time to charity work at the local hospital, but she was still too close for Mort’s comfort.
Even above the sound of classical music, the sound of a motorcycle charging down the street could be heard. That meant Pam was home. Her fiancé, David, drove the darn thing all over creation. Verne was afraid that one day she would get a terrible phone call from the hospital saying they had a horrible accident, and truth be told she wanted to forbid her daughter from ever riding on it, but she held her tongue. Pam was a tenant, as well as her daughter, and they tried to arrange some modicum of privacy for her because after all, she did pay rent. Having a realtor for a mother could be an advantage, especially on Pam’s secretary’s salary in Washington D.C., a very expensive town
* * *
It was a few days later, at night. David was off somewhere with his buddies, and Pam was sitting in her apartment watching television and drinking a Tab. It was an altogether uneventful evening, and the blue light from the television flickered across the apartment, illuminating it in its eerie glow. She heard the sound of wailing sirens in the distance. Pam was just about to get up and turn on a light when the ceiling shook violently with a crashing thud. Oh my gosh, Nana! She thought, and raced outside and up the stairwell that connected their apartments, fumbling with her keys to unlock her grandmother’s door. She dreaded finding the worst, and fear filled her as she crossed the threshold. Her grandmother lay sprawled on the floor of the kitchen, covered in what looked like creamed spinach. She was unconscious. Pam knelt down and tried to revive her, but couldn’t, so she called an ambulance and then her parents. Her parents arrived first, only having to come down a flight of steps. She was surprised that they hadn’t heard anything out of the ordinary in the first place. Nana moaned, and Pam feared that she had suffered from a heart attack.
“Oh my God, Mother!” said Verne, entering the kitchen with Mort a half-step behind her. The three started cleaning up the spinach, feeling helpless, until the ambulance arrived a few minutes later. Nana came around for a few groggy minutes, and moaned
“My lipstick. Go get my lipstick,” she looked at Pam, who ran back into the bedroom and grabbed it off her vanity. With shaking hands, Kay applied her lipstick as the paramedics strapped her on a gurney and wheeled her into the ambulance. Verne, Mort and Pam leaped into Verne’s car and followed them all the way to the hospital, anxious to hear how Kay was faring. When they came to the hospital, however, there were flashing lights everywhere – uniformed police along with men in black suits guarded the doors. With some effort, Verne found a place to park a few blocks away, and the three of them hustled it to the hospital doors, and were denied admittance. President Regan had been shot, and was currently receiving treatment so no superfluous persons were allowed to be in or around the hospital grounds. Verne earnestly explained that her elderly mother had passed out, and they needed to get in to see how she was doing. The guard sized them up, and consulted with a man in black before finally letting them in.
They got Kay’s room number from the nurse’s station, after much commotion (for it is not every day that a President and his security team are dumped on an already busy hospital) and flew to her room to see how she was. They saw her grinning from the bed, and she didn’t really look sick. Before they could say anything, the doctor came in and assured them that she hadn’t really had a heart attack at all, and had they noticed the empty bottle of wine on the counter?
* * *
It was later that day. Her family had already gone home. Because of her age, and the possible negative effects of her fall, the hospital had decided to keep her overnight for observation before they would allow her to go home. Kay lay on her back in bed, surveying the austere hospital room, shared with another geriatric patient that she was not entirely sure was in her right mind. She stared at the drop ceiling and fluorescent lighting and began to reflect on the turns life had given her.
Born into privilege before the turn of the century, she was raised as a true society woman, taught to observe all of the conventions and social pecking orders of the Victorians. Always look your best. Always be a polite hostess. Give to charity. She was what one might refer to as “well-bred.” Even so, she was a child of divorce long before such things were fashionable or acceptable. The tragic riding accident that resulted in the death of her sister, Natalie, at the age of fifteen had been too much for her parents’ strained relationship to take, and both moved on to better and brighter things.
When the Great War (or as we are more familiar with it – WWI) came around Kay had not hesitated to pitch into the national effort and served as a nurse’s aid. It was during this time that she met her husband, Emery Brenneman, a sailor with the Navy. They married during the war, and had three daughters together: Karen, Marjory, and Verna (who preferred to go by Verne). Somehow they rode out the Great Depression in relative comfort living off of their mutual trust funds, and they founded and opened a restaurant and Inn called The Golden Apple in Gananoque, Canada around the time of her mother’s death shortly after the second World War and resulting economic boom. Gananoque was a resort town in the Thousand Islands, a hot spot with the New York elite, the cool Canadian north providing some relief from the oppressive heat of sweltering summers in the city. She and Emery had held a privileged life, spending summers in Canada, winters vacationing in tropical climates, and spring and fall in their house in New York. That is, until Emery had died unexpectedly several years before. It had been a blow to Kay, yet she viewed it as a mixed blessing.
Her middle daughter, Marjory, had been estranged from the family ever since World War II when an illegitimate pregnancy resulting from a love affair with a European man of dubious origin sundered Marj and Emery’s relationship. After his death, Marjory, who had been keeping in secret contact with her mother, was able to return to the family openly. The crushing loneliness of widowhood did not agree with Kay’s naturally bubbly personality and desire to be around people, so she moved in with her daughter Karen and lived there until Karen’s husband Walter had gotten diagnosed with cancer – an almost sure death sentence at the time. To take some of the burden off of Karen, she had moved down to Washington with Verne and Mort, and it was here she found herself, in the hospital bed after having gotten drunk, passing out, and spilling her dinner all over herself. She cracked a smile at the humor in it, a lady of breeding allowing such a thing to happen. What would her mother say?
* * *
“Verna, when are we going to eat?” barked Mort. He strode into the kitchen, surveying the pots on the stove and opening the oven door to check on the chicken. Verne looked up from her task of mashing potatoes to shoot her husband an annoyed glance.
“Just as soon as the kids get here. Why don’t you go put the napkins on the table?” She dumped the mashed potatoes from the pot into a serving dish, and handed it to Mort on his way out of the kitchen. The timer went off, and she grabbed some potholders and pulled the roast chicken out of the oven. She deftly used a carving knife and fork to place the chicken on a platter and carried it out to the table. The plates were all stacked at Mort’s seat. As the man of the house, he had the job of carving the chicken and making everyone’s plate. Pam and David came through the door at that point and they were all just about to sit at the table when the phone rang. Sighing, Verne answered, and visibly paled before taking the call in the other room. Pam, David and Mort sensed something was amiss, and waited for the news in awkward silence. It wasn’t long before Verne came back in the room, expression graver than they had seen in quite some time.
“Walter’s dead.”
* * *
Kay was home from the hospital, parked in a cozy chair in her living room, suitcase packed and ready next to her. She was a widow, and now so was her daughter. The cancer had eaten away at Walter, causing him such pain in life that he had chosen early death. The story was almost too horrific to believe. He had attempted suicide, with a pistol in his backyard. Unfortunately, he missed his mark and only gravely injured himself. Karen, unaware of what her husband was doing, ran outside at the sound of the shot to find her husband’s blood pumping out into the manicured grass, and he pleaded with her to finish the job for him. Crying and shaking, she had. The police assumed it was suicide. Nobody thought to tell them any different.
The family would leave shortly to make the drive up to New Jersey for the funeral. Kay was dumbstruck. She had known he wasn’t long for the world, but never imagined he would go like this, that he wouldn’t hold on to every moment he had with his family, that he wouldn’t live every second to the fullest. Aging wasn’t so much a problem for Kay as was the ultimate inevitable result. Aging, one could do gracefully, but there is nothing graceful about death. It is always ugly, always painful, and dishearteningly final. It leaves people behind. That’s why she, personally, liked to put it off for as long as possible, tried to ignore that it was happening and live her life as she always had for as long as she could manage. That’s why after her husband’s death she had made such an effort to remain socially connected with her family, and tried to be functional in the community. That’s why she got her hair done once a week, and put on makeup before she went outside.
Age might slow you down, might make you sad, might take away your family slowly until you’re pushed to the front of the line, might take your body slowly until you beg your wife to kill you while you’re bleeding in your backyard because the pain of living is beyond your comprehension, but it is inevitable. It happens to everyone, if they’re lucky. It is how you live at any age that defines you, what you weather that makes you stronger. Life, thought Kay, is progress. It is enjoying what you have while you’re here, it is making the most of it and trying to make things easier for other people. It is all how you carry yourself. That’s how she lived her life. That’s what she taught my family.
My great-grandmother, my namesake, died herself at the age of ninety-seven, living in a nursing home in Culpepper, Virginia (where Verne and Mort had moved once their neighborhood took a major turn for the worse). They had had a fire drill once Kay was in bed. In her dark room she tripped over her shoes and broke her hip. Prepping for a surgery she never came out of, she put on her lipstick.

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