Before I Forget
by Sam Leach
As he wheeled his car into the parking lot of Fernwood Memory Care. He thought to himself. Well, this will be interesting. The message left on his phone had said that she had something very important that she needed to have recorded.
Walking through the automatic doors the smell of hospital disinfectant and the sour staleness of warehousing people in their final years caused him to jerk his head back. As many times as he did this, he could never get used to the initial smell.
The large black woman behind the check-in desk greeted him in a voice that seemed to suggest that she didn’t have time to give him directions to wherever he was supposed to be going.
“Can I help you?”
“Umm yes, I’m here to see Mildred Rutherford.”
The receptionist gave him a look that was a mixture of confusion and anger.
“Well, I’m not sure that will be possible — may I ask to what this is regarding?”
“My name is Daniel Baker. I am with Eldervox.”
“Ok, well what is an Eldervox?”
“We go into senior living facilities and interview people about…”
“Well, whatever they want to talk about. We record the conversation and give it to their families.”
Try as she might, the hard creases in the woman’s forehead began to soften.
“Well, Mr. Daniel that sounds… interesting. I don’t believe that Mrs. Rutherford has any family.”
“Well she must have somebody somewhere.”
“You do know that this is a facility for patients with Alzheimer’s.”
“Yes, I am aware of that.”
The large women leaned over her monitor staring for a few moments at the young man standing with the silver briefcase.
“Look, you seem like smart young man. Are you sure you still want to see her?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Ok, sign in here and I’ll need to see your ID.”
Daniel silently handed her his Driver’s License and a business card.
“Ok, let me buzz somebody up here to take you back to her room. She is expecting you, correct?”
“Yes, she is. My assistant talked to her last night.”
“Well, good luck. She ain’t really what I would call the “talkative” type.”
A few moments later a pear-shaped man wearing a white orderly uniform appeared and led him down the hall to room 143. Daniel noticed that many of the rooms had bric-a-brac hanging outside the doors. Little ceramic hand-painted signs with bible verses or “Worlds Best Grandma” on them. Some even had school pictures of grandchildren in cheap little wooden frames by the room number. When he arrived at Ms. Rutherford’s room there was nothing hanging outside of her door.
Daniel knocked on the half-open door. “Ms. Rutherford? It’s Daniel from Eldervox.”
“Come in, said a voice that sounded a little more steady than the one left on his phone.”
The room was as stark as the outside of her doorway. The bare white walls looked down upon the room in every direction. By her bedside, there was a Bible. It’s bonded leather cover was worn smooth like the bald tires of an eighteen-wheeler that had seen more than it was ever built for.
The only other item on the table was a black and white photo of a young family. They are outside. She is holding a three-year-old girl on her hip and he is holding a six-year-old boy. There is an eight or nine-year-old boy standing between them. The man is tall and handsome. Square jaw and high cheekbones under a thick black brill creamed pompadour. She is blonde and thin with large eyes that immediately reminded him of Marilyn Monroe. Everyone in the photo is smiling in a way that made you think that they might actually be as happy in real life as they look in the photograph.
“I hope you don’t mind if I don’t get up to shake your hand.”
“No, no problem.”
She sat in a small upholstered chair. The kind you would see in a motel. Her thin liver-spotted hands worked the mute button on the remote.
“Do you like Andy Griffith?” she said with a slight smile.
“You know, it was my dad’s favorite show. I think I’ve seen all of them. Is this the one where Otis becomes a deputy?”
“I believe so. I believe it is.” her voice trailed off. “So, how does this work again?”
Daniel shifted in the folding chair that seemed to have been placed solely for him.
“Well, it’s pretty simple. You share with me whatever you would like. I will do my best to listen and hopefully be able to ask you questions as we go along that will help you tell your story. But you will be doing most of the talking. I’m just here as a guide.”
“And it said in your ad that I read, that you record our conversation?”
“That’s right, I will set up a microphone that’s hooked up to my laptop and it will record our time to together so that you can share it.”
“So do you put it on a tape… I guess they probably don’t do tapes anymore.”
“That’s right. I can’t do tapes, but I can put it on a CD or I can email out a link where your family or whoever you want to hear it can download it.”
“Well, all I have is a mailing address… for the kids.”
“Ok, well I’m sure I can help you out with that Ms. Rutherford. How many children do you have and do you have grandchildren as well?”
“Please, call me Millie. The robots that work here, they call me Ms. Rutherford. Your not a robot are you Daniel? You don’t seem like it.”
“No, ma’am. I try really hard to not be a robot.”
There was a long pause as if Millie was trying to form the words just right in her mouth before speaking. Her eyes began to moisten and she said, “I have or… had three children.”
It was then that it dawned on Daniel that the picture by her bedside was of Millie and her family. Time can be confusing and for some reason, maybe it was the look on the woman’s face in the picture — the life she was enjoying, he hadn’t connected the fact that the frail women sitting alone the room could be the same person. A deep sinking feeling began to form in the pit of his stomach. He wished for a moment that he could, in fact, be a robot. Whatever life this woman has lived. He knew it would be heartbreaking.
Deciding that the day room would not be private enough, Millie said she wanted the interview to take place right in her room. Daniel adjusted the microphone on an end table that he positioned between them.
“Ok, Millie I’m ready.”
“I’m not sure where to start. I guess I will start with Fred. My husband, Fred, and I met a few months after Korea. He was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marines. He was so handsome. I remember the first time I saw him. I was a student at NYU at the time and my girlfriend and I were able to get in to see Count Basie at The Birdland.”
“You met your husband at a Count Basie concert at the Birdland… that’s amazing!”
“It was just like you see in the movies. The smoke hung in the air. Everybody smoked back then. They were playing I Want A Little Girl. I looked over and there he was. He literally took my breath away. I knew Fred would be the one I would grow old with. He must have felt the same way because he made a beeline for me. He asked if he could buy me a drink. I said with the most serious tone I could muster, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ He said, without missing a beat, ‘Because, when I showed up here tonight I was hoping to meet the prettiest girl in Manhattan and buy her a drink… It looks like I’m halfway there.’ We made our way to the bar and I ordered a Gin and Dubonnet. Not because I had ever had one, or even knew what it was, but because I had seen it mentioned in a Times article and I wanted to look sophisticated. He ordered a beer. (Real sophisticated). We spent the whole night talking. We ended up eating pierogis at Veselka at 4 or 5 the next morning.
“Wait, what did your girlfriend end up doing?”
“You know I don’t remember. I think she left early. I wasn’t a whole lot of fun to be around after meeting Fred. Well anyway, it wasn’t too long after that that we got married. Since I already had gotten my M.R.S. degree I didn’t think I needed to finish up at NYU. But Fred was emphatic. He always believed I was smart and so I graduated with a communications degree. Right after his hitch in the marines was over, Fred was recruited by the FBI.”
“Wait, he was recruited? I thought you had to go through extensive training for that and be selected?”
“Well, Fred, being a former officer in the Marines. I think Hoover was looking for young men who could follow orders, do what needed to be done and keep their mouths shut.
Just then there was a knock on the door. “Ms. Rutherford, it’s time for your medication.” A slender woman wearing pastel scrubs came through the door holding a small paper cup.
She stopped suddenly when she saw Daniel. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you had a guest.”
“This is my friend Daniel.”
The nurse carefully handed the cup to Millie. With a trembling hand, she leaned her head back and took the contents compliantly.
“Ok honey, let me see.” The nurse said as Millie opened her mouth wide. “Very good honey. Ok, you two have a good day.” The nurse returned to her cart in the hallway and continued pushing it to the next room.
“Daniel, do you mind closing the door? They never close it when they leave.”
As he returned to his seat he noticed that Millie had popped her top dentures out. There, sitting on the top was a little blue pill. Millie reached over grabbed a Kleenex, and carefully wadded the pill up and sat it on the side table.
Millie, seeing the perplexed look on Daniel’s face said, “Oh don’t worry dear. They say they give me those to help with my Alzheimer’s, but you know what? All those damn things really do is make me want to sleep all day. I guess they figure it’s easy to remember things when there isn’t anything happening during the day to remember. Now, where were we again? Oh yes, Fred getting hired on with the FBI. The single worst mistake of our lives.”
For the next hour or so Millie shared how Fred had been hired as a field agent in the Houston office in 1957. At that time they had their first son, Franky and she was pregnant with their second son Peter. As Millie talked her eyes gazed out the window. The expression on her face changed slightly. Her eyes began to widen and it was clear she was in another place, a different time.
“We sold our beautiful Chevy Bel Air. We were both so sad (especially Fred), but it wasn’t practical with the kids. We packed up our lives into a U-Haul and drove to Houston. It was supposed to only take two days but the fuel pump went out right outside of Chattanooga. So we had to spend a night at the Howard Johnson’s, which, being seven months pregnant, I was completely fine with. Besides, the move was all on Uncle Sam’s dime, so what did I care?”
Daniel’s right leg had gone to sleep and he shifted in the metal folding chair. Hoping to move the conversation along he said, “That sounds wonderful Millie.” Assuming that her husband had long since passed he said, “So, where are your kids now?
The expression on Millie’s face darkened. “My children? My children. I… I’m not sure.”
She turned her gaze from the window and looked at Daniel with a tired, pained expression. “I’m sorry Peter but I need to…”
“It’s Daniel”, he said in a soft voice.
“Oh yes. Daniel, I’m sorry, you know I am feeling rather tired all of a sudden, can we continue this tomorrow perhaps?”
As Daniel walked out through the doors to the parking lot he couldn’t help wondering what had happened to this woman’s children. If they were still alive, why didn’t she have any current pictures? His work had taken him into a lot of senior care facilities. Fernwood was by far one of the more low budget ones he had seen. Not a place you would expect for someone who had lived on a federal salary their entire life. He was pulled from his thoughts by a small chirping sound. Looking down, just off the sidewalk on the grass was a baby green jay lying on it’s back. Looking up he saw a giant oak some twenty feet away. How in the world did it get over here he thought. Just then a gust of wind came rolling off of the West Texas plains blowing dead leaves across the lawn. A few of the leaves blew on top of the little bird. Daniel gently kneeled down and uncovered it. You’re a ways from your nest little buddy. I hope your mom can hear you.
The next day’s entrance was much easier.
“Well Mr. Daniel, back for more are you?” said the smiling front desk lady. “I’m Janine by the way.”
“Pleased to meet you, Janine. I think I can find my way back to..”
“She’s not there.”
“Oh, well we had an…”
“No, she said she’d meet you in the library. I’ll buzz someone to come show you the way.”
Just as before, another pear-shaped orderly appeared and escorted him to the south wing of the building past the cafeteria to a small room at the end of the hall. As he entered, it began to dawn on him that “The Library” was just a fancy euphemism for a large storage room. At one point it looked like the room was used to house books. There were tall bookshelves that lined the walls and a few rows that crisscrossed the room. But most of the books had been replaced with stacks of cleaning supplies, old film projectors, stacks of eight-track tapes and piles and piles of magazines. There were a few Reader’s Digest Anthologies and mail order Time Life sets of The Old West and Home Improvement series.
“Hello, Ms. Rutherford, are you in here?”
“Yes Daniel, over here.”
In the far back of the room next to a large window that looked out at a wooded area that separated Fernwood from an extended stay hotel was a small seating area. Between a large globe nestled in a wooden floor stand and a incomplete set of 1968 Collier’s Encyclopedias, Ms. Rutherford sat in one of two dark green Naugahyde upholstered chairs. In between the chairs was a small round end table.
“I had the boys clear out a spot for us. I was thinking this might be more suitable.”
Appreciating all of her forethought and effort Daniel immediately said, “This is great Ms. Rutherford. Really great.”
“I told you, call me Millie.”
Daniel quickly began getting his equipment set up. Even though the library was a little musty, It was actually a much better place for them to talk. The view out the window was beautiful, the chairs were much more comfortable and maybe most importantly to Millie — he wondered if they wouldn’t be interrupted by the pill-pushing Nurse Rachet.
It was sometimes difficult to always know what questions not to ask. After her responses yesterday. Daniel knew that questions about the children were off the table. She would share what she wanted to share in her own time. It was his job to listen and to be patient.
“So Millie. I think where we left off yesterday was you were seven months pregnant, sunning yourself beside a Howard Johnson’s pool eating Strawberry Parfaits while your husband was trying to get the U-Haul fixed. Do I have that right?”
Millie let out a girlish laugh, “You make it sound so much more glamorous than it actually was.”
She shared how they finally made it to Houston and were able to buy house in the Jersey Village neighborhood.
“We thought it must be a sign or something because we both grew up in New Jersey. We pulled up to 15905 Lakeview Drive and knew we were home. It wasn’t a big house but it had a beautiful pool in the backyard.”
There was a long pause. “We were so happy there. Our baby girl Susan was born. I was able to walk the boys to school. Our neighborhood was full of young families. Kid’s played ball in the streets. Everyone knew everyone. Fred’s job was going so well. He was home normally by five every night unless he was working on a big case. It was the best of times. The very best.”
Daniel adjusted the mic on the end table between them. “It sounds like a wonderful life Mille.”, he said.
“It was,” she said with a note of bitterness in her voice. “Now I need to tell you some things — some very, very hard things.”
She let out a long sigh and stared out the window as if she were steeling herself — the way people do when they are getting ready to jump into a mountain stream in June.
“The president was coming to Dallas! Fred was so excited. Well, we all were, but especially Fred. Seeing the things he saw in Korea, Fred was scared to death that our generals would pull us into another World War with Khrushchev and Castro. He loved Kennedy. Maybe it was because they were so close in age. Or the fact that our little girls were almost the exact age. He trusted Kennedy. Even after the Bay of Pigs debacle. Fred always said, Cooler heads will always prevail. This is how he viewed Kennedy.”
Millie let out a long sigh. “The president was not popular in Texas at the time. The word had gotten out that several of the Dallas PD were probably going to be calling in sick Friday morning. The call went out to a few of the FBI Field offices for additional help with security. When an opportunity came up to volunteer, Fred jumped at it. We had planned to go down as a family and stay overnight. Fred really wanted our kids to get a chance to see the president. The night before we were getting ready to leave. I guess that would have been Thursday, Franky came down with Chicken Pox, and so I had to stay home with the kids.”
Daniel had a feeling he knew where this interview was going now and he was hanging on every word.
“I am sure you have heard from people that they can remember right where they were when a historic events happened. The day our president died, the life that my family knew, died with him.”
Mildred Rutherford sat very still now. She stared past Daniel. Her gaze fixed on something that was happening outside the large window as if she were at a movie theatre.
“I had just fed the kids lunch and put Susan down for her nap. Franky and Peter were playing cops and robbers in the backyard. I was in the living room ironing Fred’s shirts. He had to wear a white shirt everyday. Heavy starch. I was watching As the World Turns when the news broke. My heart stopped. When Cronkite came on with news from Dallas — you know I could tell right away by the look on his face that something awful had happened. Before he was done speaking I ran to the phone and tried to call the Dallas Field office but the line was busy. A few of my neighbors came over to sit with me. As all our kids played in the backyard, we sat in the living room and prayed. We prayed for Fred and the safety of all of the other law enforcement people but mainly we prayed for our president and his wife and their sweet family. It was so awful. One of my neighbors, Audie Jean, brought over a glass decanter of whisky from her husband’s cabinet. I hadn’t had a drink since before Franky was born. It was perfect though. I’m not sure which helped us more that afternoon, The Spirit or the spirits. Probably both. After an hour or so Fred did finally call to let me know he was safe. I didn’t know whether to feel relieved that he was alive or angry that he took his sweet time calling me.
Fred had to stay in Dallas for about a week to help with part of the investigation. When he did finally come home. He wasn’t the same. He seemed distant spending a lot of time in his study after work. You know he was standing right across from the Dealy Plaza and had seen the whole thing. Of all of the awful things that he saw in Korea he said noting was as bad as seeing President Kennedy get shot.
However, the assignation just wasn’t something that he ever wanted to talk about. One night, one of the few times that we had friends over for dinner, I believe it was Jerry and Audie Jean. Anyway, it was late and we were standing in the kitchen doing the dishes after they’d left. Fred had had a few too many whisky sours. Jerry had made a comment about how glad he was that, that rat Lee Harvey Oswald had gotten what was coming to him. I could tell at the time that Fred was upset by this. Well anyway, as I washed and Fred dried I said something about what a nice couple they were.
Fred said, ‘That Jerry really didn’t know what he was talking about.’
‘About what?’ I said.
Fred was quiet for a moment. Studying my face — as if he was trying to find the right answer to an important decision.
‘Look Millie, I’m going to tell you something, but you can never tell anyone. Not your girlfriends not even our pastor. Do you understand?’
In all of the ten years that I had known Fred, I had never seen him look at me this way.
I took a deep breath. ‘Ok,’ I said, ‘I understand.’
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