The first thing Uncle Moe does in the morning is smell Aunt Rach’s breath. If she’s lying on her back or facing his way it’s easy, but if she happens to be sleeping on her stomach or turned away it makes Uncle Moe’s job a little more difficult. He’s checking for contraband smells.
Next he checks the pockets of her nightgown that’s draped over the chair next to the bed. He then goes business-like into the kitchen to test the refrigerator door and make sure the ropes holding it closed are still tied tightly. He checks that the pantry lock is in place and finally, still wearing his flannel pajamas and Hush Puppy slippers, he goes down to the basement to turn the water back on.
It’s a good thing that the water meters are separate because my wife and I live on the second floor of our three family house. Uncle Moe sold it to us when we got married twenty years ago, and they stayed on as our tenants. Another aunt and uncle live on the third floor. There is little privacy in our family and few secrets.
After Uncle Moe gets out of bed, Aunt Rach soon follows, and through all of his morning checklists, she has been sitting quietly at the kitchen table, waiting for her husband to make breakfast. She is in her robe, a birthday present from many years ago. There is a bright square on each side of the robe where pockets once lived before Uncle Moe took them off because he caught her squirreling away food.
Uncle Moe was in the Air Corps and not the Navy during WW II, so he can be excused for not knowing how to tie a proper knot. If he had been able to swim, he would’ve joined the Navy and learned knot tying. Instead, he ended up a crew chief on a B-15. After the first few sleepless missions, he adapted to the noise and vibrations and became a sleeping machine, having to be roused, sometimes a little roughly, when the plane was approaching its target. That deep sleeping habit continues to this day. And that, combined with his loss of smell from getting his nose broken during his boxing days in the service, is most likely what we believe has been keeping Aunt Rach going. She gets out of bed without waking him, unties the refrigerator in several quick Houdini-like motions, and takes just enough food to keep her alive. She scatters it in her hiding places. She knows Morris (Aunt Rach is the only person that calls him by his given name) is trying to fake her out and make her think that he can smell the food on her breath. She goes along with it, secretly hoping that his sense of smell will return, remembering how he would pick up his dinner plate and take in the odors and smile when they were first married, and she was learning how to cook.
Aunt Rach had a heart attack several years ago, and the doctors told her and Uncle Moe that she would have to watch her food and liquid intake extremely carefully from then on. “No salt at all,” the Doctor said. “And limit your liquids to two cups a day. Total. Your system cannot handle liquids. So ration your water and coffee and no soft drinks at all because of the sodium. Is that understood?” My Uncle nodded as my Aunt lay mute in the hospital bed. According to Moe, the doctor said that liquids would cause her electrolytes to go haywire. No one knows what she was thinking during these daily admonitions by the hospital staff, but my Uncle had gone home, emptied the cupboards of all food, put only the food he considered safe back into the pantry, and attached a hasp and lock to its door. He then went out to the backyard and cut the clothesline down and practiced wrapping the refrigerator and tying it closed. When he was satisfied, he went to the basement, located the water shutoff valve and checked that it worked.
He then brought Aunt Rach home from the hospital. Family members soon began to notice that she was a little slower in the memory department and that her attention span wavered a bit. She seemed to go to a place that made her smile.
Uncle Moe honestly believes that he’s doing the right thing by doling out her two cups of water per day and her bland miserly meals. But, small as she is (not quite five feet tall) she needs more sustenance than he gives her. So, every chance she gets, Aunt Rach cons people into giving her goodies and leaving drinks in one of her many hideouts.
Uncle Moe discovered one of Aunt Rach’s food-drops by mistake when he decided to go out and get the mail one morning instead of Aunt Rach getting it as usual. A juice box and a package of Hostess Snow Balls were tucked in the mailbox along with the paper. Aunt Rach watched through the window as her beloved threw them to the ground and jumped up and down on them, rendering them inedible. He now collects the paper and the mail. There are other “drops” he hasn’t found yet—two windowsills, one in the bathroom and the other outside the dining room. And then there’s the string that’s left dangling down the side of the porch from my apartment, which Aunt Rach pulls up for her daily surprise sandwich left by me—her nephew. It’s never more than half a sandwich, and sometimes there’s a bite taken out, but usually not, and often it’s corned beef or pastrami with mustard and half of a half-sour.
Uncle Moe is big into detective fiction, and he’s taken to setting little traps like pulling out one of his few remaining hairs and licking it so it’ll stick to the refrigerator door. The first thing Aunt Rach does when Uncle Moe goes out is to take the hair and put it on the counter and untie the huge knots. It takes her less time during the day. She picks a little at everything in the refrigerator, so it doesn’t look as if any one thing has been tampered with. Then she reties the rope and puts the hair back.
It is Uncle Moe’s eighty-sixth birthday. Gramps, Uncle Moe’s father, died in his eighty-sixth year. I wonder if Uncle Moe thinks about this, and if he does, what goes through his mind. There’s no comfortable way I can ask him, but since he lights the Yahrtzeit candle every year on the anniversary of his father’s death he has got to know that he is coming up on the same age. He looks so much like Gramps these days. He never used to. They were both robust until they got into their eighties and then it seemed that suddenly they were much shorter and thinner to the point of being frail. Look at the family album. These guys were shtarkers, big tough guys, with their double-breasted suits and snap-brim hats. That is my favorite picture. Gramps and Uncle Moe standing tall, shoulder to shoulder, each holding a glass with a paper umbrella and straw. And they both look like they’ve collected more than a few umbrellas. It must’ve been taken at a New York affair—a wedding or a bar mitzvah. The usual pictures in the album show them in sleeveless tee shirts or sports shirts, but this one, taken at “an occasion” is the best. They look like two “knee breakers” trying to appear respectable. There are other pictures in the album of them drinking, but none with straws or umbrellas. Always with a bottle and shot glasses. Never even a beer. They weren’t beer guys. Pops likes his schnapps, his kids used to say. Schnapps to him back then was any whiskey—rye, bourbon, scotch—that was schnapps. Not the peppermint stuff.
Aunt Rach, always a small woman, is smaller and frailer since her attack and a two- week, touch-and-go, stay in the hospital. Her hair is long and pure white, and she wears it in braids—sometimes one, sometimes two. She has developed darting, cunning eyes, which we call food radar eyes, and always wears a hint of a smile. She speaks softly and usually starts her sentences with, “listen.” “Listen, I’m going to the bathroom.” “Listen, you’ve grown.”
Uncle Moe was frightened. He wasn’t used to being alone, or to cooking or cleaning, or even thinking about these things. For so many years at seven-thirty in the morning, his poached eggs were waiting for him, as was his lunch that was packed in a black metal box along with a thermos of coffee. At five-thirty dinner, and at ten, Aunt Rach would bring his dish of ice cream to him while he watched TV. When he got into bed, there was a cold glass of water on his nightstand and a piece of halvah on his pillow.
Now he’s had to learn how to cook, and cook without many spices, fats, or taste. He has six, maybe seven items in his recipe box for dinners and all of them begin with chicken. Tuna fish and turkey are the sandwiches du jour, every jour. He won’t let anyone else in the family cook for them. It’s touching how loving and solicitous he is of her. He teases her and above all protects her from outside forces trying to break through the invisible Moe barrier to sneak food in. His caring is killing her, or could if people listened to him. But Rach, with hand signals, clandestinely pointing at food or drink, has turned us all into her cohorts. It’s not that we don’t believe Uncle Moe, we just think that he’s too stringent out of fear of losing Aunt Rach.
Last week Aunt Rach had a pacemaker put in. Uncle Moe has had one for years. “Now we don’t have to talk,” he says. “We can communicate electronically.” Aunt Rach smiled. “See,” he says. “She’s asking for a tuna sandwich for lunch.” He walks off and makes one. Aunt Rach comes over, reaches up, and gives my cheek a pinch and then pats my pocket looking for a hard candy.
On their honeymoon in Niagara Falls they stayed at the Over The Falls Hotel, where every room was a honeymoon suite, and every night their beds were turned down and there was a peppermint candy on their pillows. When they got home, Aunt Rach wanted to do the same thing but realized that first night she had forgotten to buy mints, and the only candy-like thing in the house was halvah. She cut off a small piece, placed it on a doily and laid it on Uncle Moe’s pillow. From then on it was halvah every night. For sixty-two years, halvah— vanilla, chocolate, marble—and Uncle Moe ate it every night and washed it down with the cold glass of water and never once told Aunt Rach that he hated halvah.
My Uncle Moe is a very literal person. He is quick to smile and quicker with a quip or a pun. He is also retired and has no hobbies. But now this lethal combination of too much time on his hands and the doctor’s instructions on how to care for his wife gives him a mission.
It also has turned Aunt Rach into a sneak thief. She has become furtive, and he has become Inspector Clouseau. He caught her leaving my apartment with caramels placed between each toe and a bagel with cream cheese and nova taped to the small of her back. “You’re on notice,” he told me, not smiling. Never having been put on notice before, I wasn’t sure how to act.
His birthday cake was shaped like Marilyn Monroe. The cakes are always different, but it’s the same writing in icing that we do every year— “ONE MO E BIRTHDAY.” I placed a candle on each boob and told him to make a wish. “Didn’t work,” I said. “She’s still a cake.” He laughed and cut her tush off for his piece. “I always suspected you were an ass man, Uncle Moe,” I told him.
“Listen. What’s wrong with his ass?” Aunt Rach asked, missing part of the conversation. “Hemorrhoids again, Morris?”
I got a call a couple of days after his party that Uncle Moe was running a high fever and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.
“Which one?” I asked.
“St. Vincent’s,” Uncle Moe’s daughter told me.
“Please don’t do it,” I begged her. “Bring him to Yale or Bridgeport or even Milford Hospital—anywhere but Saint Vincent’s.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Don’t ask. Trust me, please. Don’t do it.” How could I inflict my lunacy on the rest of the family? My grandfather died at Saint Vincent’s, as did my mother and father and two aunts and there were second cousins and family friends. I saw it as the elephant burial ground for sick old Jews.
My Aunt Rach sat with Uncle Moe all day every day and didn’t stray from her assigned diet. You couldn’t have force fed her a Twinkie. She felt that if she were good—he’d be okay. They put a cot in his room, and she spent the nights. She wandered around the hospital floor and smiled in every room but said nothing. The night nurse said that Aunt Rach looked in pain that last night when she did her rounds, but nodded sweetly and said she was all right.
Early the next morning, at the Nurse’s station, the alarm from Uncle Moe’s room went off. The nurses told me they rushed over and found Aunt Rach in bed with him. He was on his back, and she was on her side cuddling up to him. They were holding hands. On the table was a small doily with a piece of halvah lying next to a glass of water.