ST. BARNABAS by Tessa Dratt
Mrs. Pinkowitz shared a room with my grandmother at the St. Barnabas Nursing Home in the Bronx. She was 101 years old. Not a single hair grew on her baby-pink head, and she couldn't see anymore because of her diabetes. Her skin looked just like the parchment scrolls I'd seen with my fourth grade class on our field trips to the Egyptian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, and she smelled like wet grass. I liked Mrs. Pinkowitz a lot.
She didn't scare me like Mr. Feldstein down the hall, who shook and swung his arms around wildly and talked to himself all the time, or Mrs. Lipsky who yelled bad words whenever she saw me, or some of the other old people who shuffled down the corridors with their robes hanging open and thin tubes sticking out of their arms or their noses.
Mrs. Pinkowitz was much more interesting than my grandmother, who just sat quite still in her wheelchair while my mother whispered to her in Russian and stroked her hands. My grandmother didn't know who I was. Mrs. Pinkowitz did.
Every time I came to visit, I'd move up very close to her so she could trace the outline of my face with her crinkled hand. Her skin felt dry as a feather against my cheek. I'd ask, "Guess who?" and she'd say "It's the little one, Anna Trotzky's little one!" and she'd smile her toothless baby smile and pat my hair. We repeated this routine week after week. It always left me feeling satisfied.
The green lawns outside St. Barnabas had borders of flowers in neat little rows, yellow and orange marigolds, purple and red pansies, and other kinds of plants I couldn't name. It made me sad that Mrs. Pinkowitz didn't go outdoors anymore and, even if she did, she wouldn't be able to see any of the colors in the garden. Once, when no one was watching, I picked a small bouquet and snuck them inside the Home to give to her.
"What's this?" she asked when I wrapped her thin fingers around the flowers' stems.
"They're pretty. Here, touch them," I said. "I'll help you."
I took her index finger and moved it around and around the soft felt petal of one of the pansies. Mrs. Pinkowitz looked confused.
"Now smell this one," I said and held a marigold under her nose. She sneezed. "Don't you like them?" I asked. "I picked them for you."
"I'm tired, little one. Maybe you should go and play." She closed her eyes that couldn't see and started to snore.
"There once were two cats from Kilkenny, Each thought there was one cat too many...."
It didn't matter that she couldn't hear me. I told her the poem anyway. "Mrs. Pinkowitz has no one left," Mother explained to me in the car one day on the way to St. Barnabas. "They're all dead," she said. "She's lived longer than anyone in her family."
And, Mother added, I was doing a good deed by being so nice to the hundred-and-one-year-old lady. She was very proud of me. A little fuzzy about the good deed, but happy to hear my mother praise me, I sat back in my seat and silently rehearsed the new poem I'd learned in school that morning and planned to recite to Mrs. Pinkowitz. This time, though, I'd recite my poem before she got too tired to listen.
"Dark brown is the river Golden is the sand. It flows along for ever With trees on either hand.... I rehearsed the lines over and over in my head. I especially liked the poem because it was written by a man with three names, Robert Louis Stevenson. When we got to my grandmother's room that day, Mrs. Pinkowitz wasn't there. Instead, a strange old woman, blotchy and shrunken, with a thin, pinched face, tight lips and a long, hooked nose like a witch, lay in the bed next to my grandmother's. She looked me over through unblinking reddish pigeon eyes. Right off, I could tell she didn't like me.
"Go play in the garden, darling," Mother said after I'd kissed my grandmother's cheek. I wandered around the grounds and tossed rocks at the trees. Mr. Feldstein was outside mumbling to himself, pushing his walker in front of him, then dragging his torso and legs after it. Mrs. Lipsky sat on a bench in the shade and yelled at the nurses.
My stomach cramped. I wanted Mrs. Pinkowitz. I wanted to kiss her cheek, to have her trace my face and ask "Guess who?", to recite the new poem I'd learned for her, although suddenly I couldn't remember any of the words.
Heading towards our car, I walked on the flower beds instead of the paved road. I kicked each one of the four tires, one after another, and watched bits of dirt fall off the bottom of my saddle shoes. I found a large rock under one of the oak trees, sat down on it and stared straight ahead. After a while, I understood. I would never see Mrs. Pinkowitz again.
the endcopyright 1998 Tessa Dratt
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