Growing old is cruel. I don't recommend it to anyone. It's like snow in summer. Unseemly and ridiculous.
Young backs don't ache, young hearts beat in rhythmically, and young minds remember with ease. There's my main issue: my mind. The doctor says my brain is eating itself....slowly, determinedly, and inevitably.
I have trouble buying into his recent diagnosis. I remember everything about my life, my family, my marriage, and my career. Well, most days anyway. Only sometimes does my mind trick me. Then I can't connect the floating images in my head to create a mental image. I will sit for hours trying to recall what I had for breakfast.
That is what I sat doing in the resident dining hall while Greta, my sister, dealt the playing cards.
"A banana," I muttered out loud to myself. "Oh, and some cereal and toast and ham. No, that was lunch." I pulled out my brown notebook from the pocket of my housecoat. My hand is not quite as steady as it once was, but it remembers the feel of pen to paper.
"There she goes again, writing in that fool book of hers," Marie remarked. She sat across the table from me.
"That fool book of hers won her three Pulitzers," my sister Greta shot back
For ten years, I've sat around this table. The faces of the women are familiar and warm. I knew all their stories. They knew mine: Reporter for 35 years. Married to Jim, editor in chief of the local cooking magazine for 32 years. No children.
But there's one thing these women don't know. They don't know about my diagnosis.
Claire might have a stroke again. Poor thing can't afford any more paralysis. She already can't move her right hand.
Greta would get all motherly and overbearing. She would forget again that I am the eldest by two years.
Marie, well, she might take the news the best--she was a shrewd woman, formerly a housekeeper, and was well-versed in handling gossip and bad news.
"May 4, 1970, a riot breaks out as students protest Vietnam war," I blurted out. This is a new strategy I'm starting. I'm trying to recall all the headlines I covered in my career, hoping this will help my brain.
"Seriously, Freda," Marie moaned. "Focus on the game."
"What she said was more interesting than this game," Claire muttered, throwing down her cards with her left hand.
"I remember when we used to play for money," Marie snipped.
"You always lost, so I don't know why you would care anyway," Greta responded.
As their banter continued, I focused on their faces. I needed to freeze them into my brain.
"Always the reporter," Marie mumbled.
"Keeps my mind sharp!" I retorted. I felt irritated at their ignorance.
Greta frowned at me.
"Would the ladies care for tea?" One of the retirement home assistants arrived behind Greta with a steaming teapot and cups. My sister was distracted. This gave me time to jot notes in my book.
May 7, 1945 –
The police knock on the door of our Czechoslovakian home. We just set the table for our simple dinner of potatoes and turnips. I'm not sure what they want, only that they speak a few hushed words to my father.
"Papa, the war? Is it over?" I ask, hopefully.
Papa's face is a calm blanket. "Freda, help your mother. We have to leave."
I am not sure want is happening, yet I obey. Mother hobbles along, still weak from her recent illness. Greta is all questions.
"I don't understand," she says, tears in her voice. "Why do we have to leave?"
"They are sending us via trains into the German countryside," Papa said.
"But why?" I search his eyes, needing to understand.
My father's gray eyes shade to black. "Because we are German. We are no longer welcome to live in Czechoslovakia."
"Freda, it's your play. Are you in or not?" Claire's voice jolted me back to the present.
I blinked at her and glanced down at my cards. "When did we switch to poker?"
Greta snorted. "Fifteen minutes ago. I knew you weren't listening." She shifted positions in her seat.
I shook my head, scratching my scalp through my wispy white hair. Short term loss. The doctor warned that this might happen first. The closer memories would go before the long term ones.
"Well, I'm out." Marie declared. "I hate poker. It's the only game that James ever beat me at. We'd sit around in the evenings and play cards. It was only towards the end of the night that he'd suggest poker after he was certain I'd won enough other games not to be too angry."
"Must have been a dreamy, romantic marriage," Greta clipped.
"Better than spending nights alone!" Marie snapped back.
"Oh, ladies, do we have to fight?" Claire chimed in, ever the peacemaker. "We always end our card games in fights! It's very unsportsmanlike!" Even after 25 years of retirement, she still sounded like an elementary school teacher.
"Well, maybe if someone minded their own life, and stayed out of mine, we might get along better," Greta responded.
"I'm just saying you have no right to snidely remark on my James!"
"At least I had a decent career as a professor of arts and didn't settle for cleaning up other people's toilets!"
I repressed a grin. Point for Greta. She had never married, but that wasn't anyone's fault. I knew my sister's story in more detail than the other women.
"January 29, 1984, President Reagan announces his intention to seek reelection! The latest voting poll shows favor towards the president running for a second term." I announced, perkily, like I was covering the evening weather report for a local news station.
"I remember Reagan," Claire said. "He was a good President. Sent my son a letter once after Louis sent the man a bag of jelly beans." She giggled. "My Louis thought it was so funny that the President liked jelly beans."
"He also tore down the Berlin wall," remarked Marie, sounding very knowing.
"And set off the atomic bomb," I said. The women fell silent and looked at me.
"That was Truman," Greta said softly.
"Freda, are you okay?" Claire asked, concern etching her face and accenting the wrinkles.
"Hmm? What? Yeah, sure, great," I said, but I knew I'd made a slip. They had noticed the glitch in my brain.
Greta's blue eyes searched my face.
June 15, 1945
Greta is cold. She snuggles next to me for the extra warmth of a human being. I remember our big bed in Czech. I miss its comfort. Nothing comforts here.
Rolled in a blanket next to us is our mother. She coughs. It comes from deep in her chest.
"Will she survive the night?" Greta asks me.
I want to give her a good answer, a solid one. But instead, I say, "I don't know."
The authorities had lied about keeping us together. Papa got put on a separate train from us. We had not heard from him since we had left Czechoslovakia.
Grauen, the old farmer who owns this place, refuses to let us have a warm room. Somehow our own people think we are traitors. Were we supposed to leave our home sooner, just to show our patriotism for this insane war? Were we meant to abandon our livelihood in hopes that Germany would offer something better? I only knew Czechoslovakia. My parents lived there before I was born. Czechoslovakia sought to cleanse itself of the sins of Germany. None of this is my fault. Or my sister's. How dare they blame us!
Mother hacks again. Her whole body shrinks as the convulsions hit her. Half the time, she is not even conscious. She was already weak when we arrived in Oberon, but these conditions have made her sickness simply reappear.
"I don't want to work in Grauen's fields again tomorrow," Greta says.
"We have to if we want to eat."
"Ugh, measly soup."
We fall asleep. The next morning, we work in the fields. At one point, I see Greta walk up to Grauen. She floats really, walking with grace and ease. I marvel at her beauty — the flowing blonde hair, hourglass figure, and rosy cheeks, only slightly faded by the rough conditions of a refugee. I am the stronger, hardier one, but Greta is the beauty. She exchanges words with Grauen. I dislike the look on his face. Greta refuses to answer me.
That evening, after the soup ration, I return to the attic room. Greta is not there. She doesn't return until late. When she does, she has a pair of woolen socks and a bowl of steaming liquid. She is pale and breathless. Her hair is disheveled, coming loose from her headscarf.
"Here, soup for mother, I got an extra ration."
"How?" I look at her, searching for answers.
She doesn't answer me or respond. She simply spoon feeds our dying mother.
I'm to protect her, but she slips past me.
Poker soon switched to Go Fish. It always intrigued me to play Go Fish with playing cards. It was easy to get confused. My brain started to ache. The kings and queens all looked the same, and the ace and diamonds blurred together. I couldn't think of a single headline to blurt out. My hands trembled as they held my remaining five cards.
"That's it, I'm calling it a night, ladies," Claire said. She stood up from the round table and stretched her left hand. "Time to go microwave a potpie for Leonard. He has to eat on time otherwise he gets cranky, you know." She giggled again. "Good night."
Marie shuffled the deck. "You in for another round? I haven't got a thing on my social calendar today."
Greta looked at me. I sensed the oncoming interrogation.
I shrugged and declared in a stubborn tone. "I can't see why I should stay on a bit longer."
Greta cleared her throat. "Well, I'm not sure we should. We need to eat dinner before the kitchen closes for the night." She glanced at the gold watch on her wrist. "They close in half an hour."
"I'm not hungry," I protested. "After all, at lunch, I…well, I …." I pulled out my notebook. "Ha! I had a banana and yogurt. So there!"
She shook her head.
"You two are getting on my nerves!" Marie exclaimed. She tossed the cards down. "That's it. If you all are going to be slow-witted and double-minded, I'm done for the day."
She stood up and grabbed her walker. If she could have sprinted down the hall, I think she would have. Instead, she hobbled away, muttering to herself.
"What is wrong with you?" Greta said, standing up as well. She came around the table to help me up. We supported each other as we strolled down to the dining room.
"Nothing." I stated firmly.
July 24, 1945
"What's wrong with you?" I ask my sister.
Greta looks at me. She shakes her head. Sweat drips from her forehead. "Nothing."
I groan. "Greta! You have to tell me. Something is going on. I can feel it."
She sits on the dirty mattress that is now our bed. In the last two months, we have gained a mattress, two extra blankets, new shoes, and a sweater to share. I don't know how she has done this magic because she won't tell me.
"I wanted to save her." Greta whispers. "I did this for her. For our home. I just want to go home, Freda. I don't want to live in this place, working for so little and waiting for peace. I want to leave."
I sit next to her and wrap my arms around her. Our mother is dead. Our father is gone.
My sister is my remnant.
"We can go!" I suddenly say. "What is keeping us here? We can find a way! We are Somewhere has to be better than here!"
Greta starts to cry. "We can't, Freda."
"Why not?" I don't understand. "I'm strong. I can help you. We'll find a better life. Another farm or village. We can be seamstresses. You have a gift for sewing and--- "
"Freda, I'm---I'm ---I'm pregnant."
My mouth falls open. "Mein Gott! What have you done?"
My sister collapses into a ragged heap on the floor. Heaving sobs. Her shoulders rise and fall. My brain clicks. The look on Grauen's face. The extra food and favors. The nights that Greta came upstairs late. Anger explodes through me, sending shrapnel pieces of emotion flying through the air. I pace the room, I shake my fist, I pound the wall.
Greta just remains on the floor.
I sink next to her. My arms reach for her. "I'll take care of you and your baby. You can do this, I know it. You can be strong."
She lifts her wet face and meets my eyes. My baby sister is gone. A world-wise woman replaces her.
"Let's go." She says.
I toyed with the buttons on my sweater as Greta and I waited for our meal to arrive. I didn't look in her direction. Soon I wouldn't remember her. Tears sprang into my eyes.
"Now you're crying!" Greta exclaimed. "You have to tell me what's going on."
All this time, I knew I just wanted to be there for her and to protect her. I wanted to be strong for her. But I know I couldn't say anything.
"The doctor, well, he says….uhm….he told me I have dementia."
Greta didn't say anything at first. But then, she pulled me close to her. She whispered to me, "You can do this, I know. You can be strong." The look in her still cornflower blue eyes told me she knew what I had been remembering all day.
"Here are my two favorite ladies themselves!" A booming voice said. I looked up at the smiling, mustached face. My nephew, Frank, stood over our table.
"Can I join you for dinner?"
"Frank! What a lovely surprise!" Greta said.
He leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Hey Mom, Aunt Freda." He kissed me too.
"How are you both doing?" He asked.
Greta smiled at her son. "We're just fine, dear. Aunt Freda has spent the day retelling her favorite headline stories."
"I'd love to hear one," Frank said as he forked some mashed potatoes.
I cleared my throat, retrieved my brown notebook, and began. "November 10, 1989, Germany tears down the dividing wall between east and west Berlin…."
I felt I was aging backward. Greta smiled at me.
We are connected, my sister and I.