It had been a rough day for Marilyn–her new doctor had told her she needed psychiatric care. “I felt anxious going in there, and I feel worse now,” she said to her son, Billy, as they drove out of the complex of medical buildings. “All she did was ask me if I was happy … how I filled my days … if there was anything in particular that was bothering me … why I looked so sad.”
On the ride home, Billy urged her to consider seeing the new doctor’s social worker so that Marilyn could at least talk with a neutral person about the situation with Betty. But as Billy turned onto Westmoreland Drive and approached the grey and white Dutch colonial where Marilyn lived, she said: “I’m glad Medicare is paying for most of that one; what a waste of time.”
Once alone, Marilyn found she couldn’t get the doctor’s comments out of her head–and it was especially hard to ignore them with the quiet of the house wrapped around her like the shake-less cold of a January day. Still, she made an effort. She sat down at the kitchen table and picked up the Irish Echo to scan the obituaries. Reading what she called “the Irish sports pages” was her pastime on days when she had nothing to do. One read: O’Malley, Gerald, November 2, 2012 in New York City. Born, April 30, 1938 in Co. Wicklow, Ireland. Marilyn thought: “Same age as me,” as she scanned the column for mention of children, grandchildren. Nothing. But at the end she saw: “Grieved by his Garden City Country Club golf partners of 50 years — Joseph Giavonne, Tom Smith and Peter Lappin.”
For a few seconds, Marilyn’s mind trailed off. She noticed that the man in the obit was born in her father’s home place. Sepia-toned memories came seeping in: Adults lifting her up to kiss her mother in the coffin; The smell of her perfume lingering on Marilyn’s jumper — long after the wake. And then there was Marilyn’s father. She remembered how he used to comb out her hair while she sat on the living room floor listening to her favorite radio show. He would hold her tiny head in place with his big, freckled hands, stained yellow at the fingertips from constant smoking. There was the smell of whiskey, too.
Marilyn tried to quickly shut off these thoughts; she was becoming sad and that old, familiar feeling of heat was creeping up her back and neck. Anxiety. She re-focused on the obit before her. “No children or wife … what a waste,” she said. But she had no audience. There could be no response from the grandfather clock, gleaming from a recent rub with lemon oil, standing in the corner of the living room, its tick-tock echoing through the place.
Out of nowhere, this thought came to her mind: “What if I go crazy and they have to put me away?” She’d been afraid of going crazy ever since she was a child, around the time her father was found dead down on the Bowery. On the afternoon her aunt had given her the news, she went to the room she shared with her cousins and stared in the big free-standing mirror. Her image suddenly took on a life of its own — or was it that Marilyn, herself, was coming out of her own body?
That was when she first felt that awful feeling — burning nerve endings, an urge to run out of the house and down the street. She’d wanted to tell her aunt about the mirror. But she didn’t because she didn’t want to be sent away. She wanted to avoid the fate of Aunt Rose, one of her mother’s sisters. When Aunt Rose was younger, she’d committed a terrible sin, the worst of all: she had an affair with a priest and when it ended, she had a breakdown. “They came and took Rose away,” she remembered her Uncle once saying in a whisper to another adult at the dinner table.
Marilyn didn’t usually think about when she was a little girl; the memories were too painful. Most days she thought about the fact that she had 6 children and twice as many grandchildren. Yet, she felt alone.
Betty, her daughter, a psychiatric social worker who lived in the next town with her two children, limited Marilyn’s time with them. Marilyn thought about this endlessly: “What have I ever done to those kids or to Betty that she would shut me out like this,” she asked, to anyone who would listen. In fact, she asked the question over and over again. Sometimes, after thinking about it for a long time, Marilyn would call Betty to ask her why she wasn’t allowed to babysit. There were times when she’d call five or six times in a row and leave messages, demanding: “Pick up the phone; I know you’re there listening to this! Pick up the phone.”
Betty was there. She wasn’t picking up because she’d been explaining her motives to her mom for several months now. First, Betty explained she didn’t want Marilyn taking care of the kids because it was too much work for a woman in her 70s. The real reason, however, was Marilyn’s uncensored comments to Betty about raising her kids. “What kind of a mother lets her kids eat ice pops before dinner?” Or, “Your husband is a saint, coming home from working hard all day and giving the kids their dinner and baths; in my day, that was my job!”
When Betty did allow Marilyn to come and see the kids, she’d invite her to dinner, limiting the time she had to hear her mother’s comments. But even then, it was hard spending time with Marilyn. “Where did you get these bruises?” she once asked Jane, Betty’s youngest daughter. “If Mommy is hitting you, the police will put her in jail … and then you can come and live with me. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
As Marilyn rose from the kitchen table and the obit page, she reached for the tea kettle and again found herself consumed with disturbing thoughts. She guessed her wheels were turning especially fast today because of what the new doctor had told her: “I’d like you to see a psychiatrist; I believe you’re suffering far too much with anxiety and depression. And I feel strongly that it can be relieved with some new medication and some talk therapy.”
That was when she had jumped up from the examining table and, wrapping her blue, paper robe tightly around her, stormed into the waiting room and demanded that Billy take her home. “She wants to put me away,” she said.
Now, standing at the kitchen stove, pouring boiling water into her pink teacup, Marilyn was filled with shame over what she’d done. “In front of all those people,” she said aloud to herself. “They must think I’m crazy.”
Glancing at the kettle, steam still rising from the spout, she thought about when she was a little girl, living with her Aunt Dotie. “Girl, won’t you get up and make me a cup of tea?” her aunt would say, in an accent born in the hills of County Kerry. It didn’t matter what Marilyn was doing–she was expected to make the tea and prepare a snack to go with it.
One time, Marilyn was awakened from bed on a school night to make the tea. She was frustrated and angry and said: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Marilyn still carried a scar from the beating she got with a belt buckle, first, as her aunt said, “for using the holy family’s name in vain,” and second for not showing enough gratitude for the kindnesses their family had shown by giving Marilyn a home.
All these years later, standing at the kitchen stove, deep in thought, Marilyn felt a surge of depression. She got another shot of heat up the back of her neck. Why had she agreed to go see that new doctor? She felt worse today than she had in weeks. In fact, when she considered it, she’d felt pretty good up until that morning.
But her family didn’t see it that way. This past Christmas, her husband, Dean, told her that he was returning to AA meetings because he felt like he might pick up a drink again. That was the day after she had hit him — with all her kids and grandchildren watching. It had happened like this: Marilyn was presented with a pile of gifts. “These are from Dean,” said her daughter-in-law Donna, who had done the shopping and wrapping. Marilyn responded by picking up some discarded wrapping paper from the floor, bunching it up into a ball and flinging it at her husband. It bounced off his head and hit the nativity set on the fireplace mantle. Dean merely picked up the makeshift weapon and put it in the fire he was tending.
“Do you know what that was for?” Marilyn asked everyone in the room — which had gone morgue quiet. “We agreed not to get gifts for each other because we already have everything we need.”
As Marilyn sipped her tea and pored over the rest of the obituaries, it suddenly occurred to her that she should call the monsignor up at the church and ask him for his advice. She picked through her Rolodex on the kitchen counter and dialed; he picked up. “I’m sorry to disturb you Father O’Rourke. This is Marilyn Moultrie. I was hoping I could speak with you today about a personal matter.”
“Well that would be okay, Marilyn,” Father O’Rourke said. “I’m in the middle of something, but I could see you in about 45 minutes.”
“Oh that would be fine, grand,” she said, “I’ll drive over and see you; I want to talk with you about this crazy doctor I saw today.” Marilyn hung up the phone and started straightening up the kitchen table, putting the obit page in a neat pile on the counter, her tea cup in the sink.
She was feeling better. Father O’Rourke would tell her to ignore the doctor and just get to church more often during the week. There was no problem too big that God couldn’t handle.
But as she walked through the living room to get her coat and car keys, she suddenly thought of something the doctor had said to her. “You’ve had a very traumatic life, ” Mrs. Moultrie. But up until now, Marilyn never thought she had a rough life. Her parents died when she was a kid; she got married; had children … she got over it. That’s the way she always thought of it.
There was something about that doctor, though, Marilyn thought. Something about her. The perfume! It was her mother’s Channel No. 5. The same perfume Marilyn had smelled in the coffin.
Marilyn smelled it again. She knew it was irrational, but she looked around to see where it was coming from — as if someone was hiding in the corner spraying the mist in her direction. She felt searing heat run through her body — from head to toe. She sat down because her head was swimming; her hands shook so that she couldn’t hold her car keys.
Marilyn held a pillow up to her mouth and sobbed into it. Her back heaved, wrenched. She sat there in the living room chair for hours, crippled by the desire to do nothing … just cry. Her appointment with Father O’Rourke came and went. She felt she would cry forever if she didn’t do something … anything.
She thought of her mother’s warm hand in hers and remembered the pattern on her apron. “Oh, Mama; I’m so scared,” she cried out.
It was dark in the room. The anemic winter daylight had long since retreated. Marilyn reached out to turn on a tiny lamp, and the yellow light cast an arc over the phone that sat on the table. It was the only thing in the room she could see. Marilyn reached out. She dialed her son and said: “Billy, I need help.”