It’s tough when you are orphaned at seventy. I say that without rancor or irony. I’d known Mrs. O’Donall and her daughter for fifteen years, which at the time of this story was the entire length of my life.
The ladies – as everyone called them – were fixtures in our parish. Each morning they arrived at St. Anselm’s at precisely six-fifty for daily Mass. Their consistency was such that my mom said she could tell time by them. They generally made their way into church arm-in-arm and always sat in the first pew.
While the younger lady was fragile, tentative and wide-eyed, the older one was stern, sturdy and quick-minded. With her daughter in tow, she worked on the Annual Church Carnival Planning Committee and in the Women’s Auxiliary as well, relied upon to help the nuns clean the sacristy, press altar cloths and arrange flowers. Over time they left cleaning the sacristy to younger women.
Those two were always proper and powdered, wearing red lipstick and hats and gloves as if it was still the forties or fifties. Everyone called Miss O’Donall “Baby,” though she was seventy. In fact I never knew her real name until I read it in the in the church bulletin: “Patricia O’Donall of County Cork, Ireland and the widow of John is survived by their only daughter, Margaret O’Donall . . . ” Margaret, I thought. Well that doesn’t seem to suit her. Maggie maybe. I could see her being called Maggie.
Mrs. O’Donall was ninety-one when the call came and “a nice ripe old age it ‘tis,” said my mother. She was preparing stuffed cabbage for after the funeral. The gathering would be in the church hall and the funeral at St. Charles Cemetery, which is where everyone in our parish gets buried. It has green lawns, tree-lined walks and stone fences. Odd that the dead are buried in a more beautiful place than the ones in which they had lived.
The O’Donall place was owned by the church. It was a four story walk-up on 97th Street next to an empty lot and so old it had dumb-waiters with ropes on pulleys and rusty hot-water radiators that hissed and rattled. The halls and stairwells smelled of rancid oils and the walls were marked with I’d guess was about fifty-or-so years of grime and fingerprints. The old ladies lived on Mrs. O’Donall’s husband’s pension combined with Baby’s savings left from her working days.
I was at their place often, whenever they needed me to run errands or to help lug groceries up the stairs. Their apartment had one bedroom. Mrs. O’Donall slept in the bedroom and Baby slept in the livingroom on a daybed. They kept their place as scrubbed and as sparkling as they could get an old place like that, with paint peeling and the linoleum worn and yellowing and starting to curl. You could smell the mothballs they used in their closet.
Their furniture “had seen better days,” as my Gram would say. They had small replicas of the Irish tricolor and the American flag on the buffet, odd splashes of color in the midst of pragmatic tan and brown. The end tables and the backs and arms of the chairs and sofa were protected with crocheted doilies in the old way, crochet hooks and cotton being as constant in the old ladies hands as their prayer beads and almost as revered. You could count on them to ply their craft like you could count on having to study for the SATs and on your parents giving you a curfew. Whatever the ladies gifted you from crib to coffin would be crocheted. “And so you should be honored,” my mother had said, “that the ladies made something with their own hands for your birthday.” That was the last year before Mrs. O’Donall died. They gave me two white crocheted collars for my cardigans, but no one wears that kind of collar anymore.
Uncle Tom and Uncle Andy, my mother’s brothers, took Baby in charge throughout the days of the wake and during the funeral, taking turns to help her up-and-down the stairs at home and holding onto her so that she didn’t trip into the grave at the funeral. She wasn’t normally doddering, but it did seem she was in shock. Mom made sure Baby ate some dinner at night and helped her into bed and my aunt on my father’s side, Claire Marie, got Baby up each morning and made her Red Rose tea and steel-cut oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar and milk. She drank the tea but barely touched the oatmeal.
We all worried about how Baby would fare when the flurry of activity subsided and she was left alone with silence and the reality of her mother’s death. She was the subject of the Women’s Auxiliary as they wondered if they should create a rotation of its members to check on her each day and make sure she didn’t feel abandoned. They wondered if they should also call the county social services. “I don’t want to be mean,” said Mrs. St. John, “but we all have husbands and children to care for. Where’s the time?”
“Where’s the time indeed,” said my mother with five kids and a husband “who is really just another child after all and more helpless than the rest.” So in the end county social services was called and a Miss Antonio came to talk with my mom and Mrs. St. John. My mother opened the door to her knock and found the lady dressed in a snappy red pants suit and carrying a brown leather briefcase. “Not Irish, but she’s a nice young lady and got herself an education too.”
In the end Miss Antonio’s considered opinion was that Baby was too frail to live on her own and too emotionally unstable for her judgement to be trusted. Amid Baby’s tears and confusion, Miss Antonio and some others from county social services packed a bag with the “basics” and moved Baby to an old people’s home. Her furniture and other things were sold or otherwise disposed of. Mom said that money from the sale went into some sort of trust account for Baby’s care along with her remaining savings.
After a couple of days, some of the women in the Auxiliary and one of the nuns visited Baby. They said she was grieving but that the home was nice and she’d be happy and safe there. I wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to see if Baby was really okay in that place. About two weeks after the move, Mom finally said I could go visit.
The following Sunday after ten-o’clock Mass, I made the twelve-block hike in the summer heat, arriving sweaty and dry-mouthed. I was surprised to find that the home didn’t look like a home at all. It was more like a government building, a school or something. Institutional. I went to the front desk and asked to see Miss Margaret O’Donall. The receptionist – who didn’t look much older than me – politely pointed to the stairs and said, “Next floor. First room on your right.”
Baby’s room was nothing like her old apartment and wasn’t very homey. There was a small night-stand with a lamp by a single bed, its metal frame painted black. There was an oak dresser with a mirror attached and a padded arm chair. The floor was bare and the window barred. The bed was neatly made with a worn white chenille bedspread.
The room’s saving grace was a big maple outside the window. Someone had placed the chair so that Baby could sit and look at the tree and the birds and squirrels. You could see patches of blue between the buildings, though their high rising blocked any view of the horizon.
Whenever I visited Baby during the months that followed I’d find her sitting by that window. Staring. Silent. Almost breathless. After awhile she’d realize I was there. “Oh, our bonnie Bonnie,” she’d say, “Mother will be so glad to see you.” When the winter came, she asked me to buy her crochet cotton and hooks and she started crocheting again and all winter long Baby made bed jackets. “You know Mother,” she said, “she always feels the chill.”
That spring Baby joined Mrs. O’Donall. I went to the home one day to find her bed stripped and her things packed in two paper shopping bags. I brought everything home to my mom and she let me keep the bed jackets. It’s been two years. I’m still not sure what I should do with them but I don’t want to let them go. I don’t want to erase my memory of Baby. I don’t want to forget how hard it will be when my time of orphaning comes, even if it doesn’t come until I am old.
© 2014, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; This short story is fiction and any resemblence to anyone living or dead is coincidence. Photo credit ~ courtesy of morgueFile