by Julia Ballerini

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Her babies, now in their fifties, have issued an ultimatum: live-in aide or retirement home. The two of them sat right there on her new sofa, looked her in the eye. Your choice, Mom.

Nancy, the younger—and always the bossier—had already placed her on a waiting list at Brookhaven not far from where she lives a suburban Connecticut life with husband and two children. You should move before next winter sets in, she said. Think of us. Michael and I worry ourselves sick about you.

Ultimatum. Ultimare. Come to an end. Ultimata. Ultimatums. The words roll gently on the tongue, belie the harshness of their meaning. Winter. Ice. ICE. Ultimatums.


Winters in her Manhattan apartment come to an end? Yes, she’s mostly housebound when walking is perilous, but there’s take-out: Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Mexican. She nests in the big chair by the window, watches cars inch by and buses lumber to a soft stop disgorging intrepid passengers into a whitened morning. Watches the dogs in the park across the street leap and run in a frenzy of delight—big dogs jump over little ones jacketed in plaids. Many live in her building and she gets her fill of waggles and licks in the elevator and lobby. It’s been years since her rescue dog, Carlos, died, yet she’s still part of the scene, even if not vigorously so.

Vigorous, vigor. Not a common word these days. She looked up its usage on line. As a teacher of English as a second language, the communality of words was important to check or she’d risk introducing obscure words from her extensive vocabulary. Looking up the diminishment of a word’s recurrence on the internet became an addiction, especially after retirement. Vigor: the lines on one chart peak in the 1850s and stumble downhill from then to the present. The word loses its vigor.

Not that Betty doesn’t get out. Not a quitter. “Give in but don’t give up,” is a motto.

I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.(Ada Limón)

She’s not sure what to make of the spiders yet the image makes sense. She is a nest of trying. Trying not to get lost, not to be caught in the wide web of her wandering mind. She makes notes, schedules, accommodates, adjusts to what is possible.

She rides buses these days. She can manage subway stairs, just not the push and shove of passengers. And the pole dancers! She once cheered them on, celebrated their spinning twists to muscular horizontals, their flips to prance on the ceiling. But as she aged she could see all that could go wrong. In what had seemed joyful she saw only danger. She’d hold her breath, anxiety mounting, as when she saw her youngest grandchildren scramble on jungle gyms.

Yes, she could distance herself from the acrobats, take a far seat. It was the shuffling supplicants supplicating the length of the cars she couldn’t avoid. Ladies and Gentlemen... don’t want to disturb ... need something to eat... please help... just got out of hospital ... God bless. A lot is scam, money goes to drugs, still that’s not what gets to her. Scam or not, it’s desperation. Like so much that is desperation in these desperate times. The pole dancers seem desperate too.


Betty volunteered at a homeless shelter in the Bronx for twenty years until getting there became too difficult. She’d get confused, disoriented by demolitions and constructions that blocked sidewalks forcing her to cross the street and upending her sense of direction.

Some of the women still keep in touch. Donna, whose speech was so mumbled as to be almost incomprehensible (years of blow jobs, she explained), tells Betty she’s been hired as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. Over the phone, Donna’s vowels and consonants are carefully articulated—the result of the hours, weeks, months they’d spent transforming slurred utterances into crisp pronouncements. Not exactly ESL, but Betty’s years of teaching were put to use.

Haydee also calls. Haydee, who insisted on doing Betty’s nails. Five months pregnant when she lost the baby, now has a job in a nail salon.

Betty misses them, but she’s resigned to signing petitions on the web and donating to worthy causes: Mercy Corps, Fresh Air Fund, Amnesty, ACLU, and the like. Black Lives Matter too. White Guilt. Privileged Guilt. Survivor’s Guilt as the planet erupts, floods, burns, melts, as bees and butterflies and owls die out. Species lost forever.

And intimate, domestic guilts. Not paying more attention to the children, not remembering a friend’s birthday. The shameful extra glass of wine. Skipping chair yoga class, skipping flossing at night. Guilt for feeling guilty. Moral defect? Loosen up, she tells herself. There’s only so much you can do.

Ultimatum. Ultimata. Ultimatums. She’s besieged by ultimata.


She spends more and more time writing letters. Specific letters in support of specific individuals. One attempt to contain her sense of helplessness.

Each request from the sanctuary center comes with a template, but she takes care to make every one unique. She foregoes the computer to write each letter by hand in her wobbly script, an indication of effort and sincerity, she thinks.

Dear Honorable Immigration Judge:

My name is Elizabeth Miller. I am a US citizen. I am writing to respectfully urge you to release Marcos N (Case No. A56703 ) from detention…

I have the good fortune to have always lived in the city in which I was born. Marcos was forced to flee his country 30 years ago. Six months ago, he was torn away from his wife and 2-year-old child who rely on his financial support.

Marcos works two jobs, yet he makes time to tutor children in English, his second language. As a parent and as a former ESL teacher, I well know importance of his remaining with his family and community. The separation of families is not what our country, built on immigrants, is about.

Donations, petitions, letter writing take up most of Betty’s mornings. Three afternoons a week she doggedly works out at a nearby gym and shops for groceries. Occasional evenings she attends lectures or discussions at libraries and bookstores.

It wasn’t long ago she had dinner with Sally, one of her friends who still goes out evenings. They’d descended a few steps to an outside table (quieter). Pedestrians’ feet were at eye level. Stiletto heels, thigh-high boots, three-inch platforms. Been years since they could wear such shoes. The occasional dog on a leash poked a quivering snout through the café’s railings.

Give up dinners with Sally, give up the gym where she’s told she’s amazing for her age? (She wishes they’d leave off the age clause.) Give up the park view, bookstore and library events?

She closes her eyes to listen to the familiar sounds that sift to the tenth floor through double paned windows: a hand cart grumbles along the sidewalk, car door slams, airplane murmurs by, siren wails in the far distance. People talk, shout, sing in different cadences and languages. Give up city sounds?

Move to an institution with dementing and dying people?


Dementing. To dement. A noun become a verb. Platform is another. Only the first three cars will platform at the last stop. Which part of her will platform as she dements? And where?


Is there an actual brook at Brookhaven? Deep enough to drown in? Stop. Make the best of whatever will be.

She reminds herself that she’s a highly privileged individual who has been spared the first-hand terrors of war, spared massive injustices and senseless losses.


Not that it helps. Her situation is hers, and hers alone.


That first act of flight just before migration is painful, almost unbearable. Nothing can rid the bird of such pain but the rapid flight of its wings. (W. H. Hudson)


Living day in and day out with a stranger meddling with her possessions, meddling with her life, and reporting her fumbles and slipups to her children—is equally dismaying.

Hovering. A live-in aide hovering. Nancy used to accuse me of hovering. Not Michael. Sweet Michael, too sensitive of others for his own good. I still worry about him. But not Nancy. She can look out for herself! Don’t hover, Mom. Stop hovering, Mom. Got so I could hardly be in the same room with her. Now she’s the one who hovers. Thinks she’s in charge, can tell me what I can and cannot do. No longer needs to rebel. I humor her. Trade off. Now Nancy thinks she has to take care of me, she can love without restraint. Be worried, concerned. Concern. Yes, concern suits her.

Suits me too, come to think of it. I’ve always been concerned about somebody. First the children, then the homeless, and now immigrants. I’m more like Nancy than I imagined. Why the need (compulsion?) to worry about others? Power trip? Think about that another time.


The live-in stranger would likely be a woman forced by dire circumstances to leave her own home and family. Bozena (on whom Betty now relies to replace light bulbs in high ceiling fixtures along with dusting and vacuuming) shows her pictures on her phone of children and grandchildren she’s left behind in Poland. Her son, his wife and little daughter stand in front of a house under construction. A house, a home, where they plan to live out a life, a life Bozena is distanced from. Yes, they Skype almost every day. Pixeled sound and sight. Not the hot breath of a child’s secret whispered in her ear, not the stickiness of a hand holding her own, not the warm chubbiness of a body in jammies as it snuggles against her for a bedtime story.

Certainly, there would be women in Bozena’s circumstances working at old folks homes (institutions disguised as resorts), but they wouldn’t be in her home, doing her labor, a daily reminder of families torn apart every day, wailing children wrenched from mothers as they are deported ... sisters, brothers, lovers, husbands, wives all cleaved asunder.


It was only yesterday she read of a baby pulled off a nursing mother’s breast. The baby a citizen, the Honduran mother not. Were there dribbles of milk rimming the edges of the infant’s gummy mouth? Trickles of the unsuckled trailing down the mother’s breast?

Was the baby a firstborn? Michael was Betty’s firstborn, the first she held close to her heart sleepless night after sleepless night pacing back and forth across a room. Shush...shush...shush... until tears dissolved into little hiccups and soft drowsy breathing. Michael, the first she bathed in a plastic tub on the kitchen counter, hands slithering carefully over his smooth, soapy skin. Michael, the first to give rise to a love she’d never known existed, a love that ached almost to bursting, a love so intense it still brings tears to her eyes remembering it. She loved Nancy too, but Michael was the revelation that such emotion was contained within her.


Bozena comes only once a week for four hours. Someone every day and night showing her pictures of faraway loved ones? No. Someone telling her what she can and cannot do, telling her she cannot luxuriate in a bath with scented oils (a pleasure strictly forbidden by Nancy). No.

Betty had vowed to live out her life in the three-bedroom divorce-settlement apartment with its high ceilings, decorative moldings, and hardwood floors. You’ll have to get me out feet first, she’d said. How long ago was that? Michael was six and Nancy was three when Stanly went AWOL with Elaine. Elaine who happened to be—to have been—Betty’s best friend. Stanley always went for what was most convenient. His secretary was an elderly woman.

No mortgage on the apartment and that of the upstate house she bought on her own has been paid off. It’s just a small getaway that the children cram into on weekends and holidays. She’s a guest there now. She resented their takeover at first, then she was glad to be relieved of the responsibility of keeping up the property, glad not to feel obliged to shuttle back and forth because it’s there and paid for (typical privileged guilt). She was always forgetting something in one place or the other.


A phone call from Nancy: a one bedroom in Brookhaven has become available. You could move in a month, she says. It’s already empty, just needs fixing—painting, new carpets, some repairs. It has a balcony and a lovely view of the lake. There aren’t many like this. I’ve put down a deposit. You have ten days to decide. Mom, I want you nearby and the children will be so happy to see you more often. Before you know it, they’ll be off to college.

Off to college.

Alberto took great pride in attending the recent graduation of his oldest daughter from Brooklyn College.


Dear ICE Officer:

I am writing to respectfully request Alberto not be deported. He came to the United States 40 years ago at the age of 10. He barely recalls the country he left and no longer knows anyone there. His US-citizen parents and US-born siblings are all in the US. His children and a grandchild were all born in the US. He took great pride in attending the recent graduation of his oldest daughter …


Ten days! A one bedroom! What will happen to her belongings? Furniture, paintings, books, and the contents of seven closets, every last one stuffed with god knows what. What to throw away? Give away. To whom? Decisions that never came easy for her. A recurrent dream of miscellaneous stuff scattered helter skelter throughout her home. She’s dashing from room to room trying to make order, things keep accumulating. Shirts, sweaters, socks, dishes, pots, glasses, books, notepads, unidentified objects all tumble off shelves, spill out of drawers and closets.

… not be deported … not separated from children …

For each person expelled from the US, a remaining friend or family member is told to pack the deportee‘s bag and bring it to ICE to be examined. It can’t weigh more than twenty-five pounds. These are the only belongings people have to start another life. A few items of clothing, a photo or two, a precious letter, a Bible. Belongings, longings, of the unbelonged.

What would Nancy pack for her? And Michael? They wouldn’t make the same choices. Nancy would be practical: spare set of clothing, sunscreen, sunhat, extra pair of reading glasses and yes, family photos, obligatory shots of them grouped together at Christmas. Michael also would include photos. Maybe add one of his family dog. He would slip in a few of Betty’s most cherished objects: the tiny statue of Tara, Buddhist goddess of peace and protection, the mother deity he had given her for her seventieth birthday. It always sits on her desk.

Would know to pack Leonard’s little wooden parrot that also sits on her desk, head cocked sideways, round eye staring out at her? Balefully? Quizzically? Or merely attentively?

She’d resisted moving in with Leonard forty years ago. He’d suggested buying his own apartment in her building and she squelched that idea too though the children were all for it. Leonard, a tireless social worker, her only meaningful love affair. If a couple of others also lasted several years, it was mostly due to inertia.

Leonard called her Elizabeth. With a Z, he said, like “zany,” not S. Never was she Betty to him. She didn’t call him Lenny as did most others. Formal names were a sign of affection between them. Nicknames and abbreviated names are supposedly indications of familiarity, but not always.

She’d wanted Leonard back. Too late. He’d already married Eleanor on the rebound. She likes to believe he called her Ellie or Nellie or some such diminutive. Meanspirited, she knows.

Leonard died quietly in his sleep, she was told. He always was a gentle, unobtrusive man. Was ninety by then, had lived a long life. Betty hadn’t seen him in years, and yet she misses him, misses knowing he’s somewhere not too far from her. His a good death, not a tragedy, she reminds herself.



NO. No way. If she decides to leave, better a stranger, not her children, help figure out what to bring and what to leave behind. Michael and Nancy are both minimalists: sparse monochrome furnishings with few carefully positioned paintings and objects in keeping with the composure of their décor. Décor, decorum, good taste, propriety. Decorous. Her children are the decorous offspring of a mother whose home has always seemed to them dismayingly cluttered, scattershot, flustered. Like her mind. Increasingly like her mind.

So then. Sorting is up to her. Take control of what’s left to control. Second in line for a one bedroom! Ten days to decide! Plenty of time before having to move. She’s not fleeing a home destroyed by a bomb. No erupting volcano, no giant tsunami wave, no mudslide, no avalanche is forcing her immediate eviction. She’s not a Syrian refugee who has to pack a knapsack in a rush when forced to leave even family members behind. She doesn’t have only an instant to decide what’s essential, what matters most. A book, a hat, a photograph, medicines?

She’s not being packed onto a train for that final solution. Betty’s not Jewish though everyone thinks she is. Most of her friends are Jewish. Leonard was Jewish. Upper West Side of course.

… polar bears scrambling on the ice chips. (Gabrielle Calvocoressi)

She’s not a polar bear standing on an ice chip, but polar bear or not, she needs help.

Nothing can rid the bird of such pain but the rapid flight of its wings.

Letting out a whoosh of breath, Betty looks up professional moving and organizing companies on the internet.

The photographs, oh god, the photographs: neatly pressed, color-coordinated clothes hang obediently in immaculate closets, rows of shoes prop tenaciously on minimalist racks, jars and cans stand at attention in kitchen cabinets. An invasion of zombies or a plague of toxic orderliness that has wiped out all humanity.

She books a “discovery call” from CLUTTER BEGONE. At least the name is ridiculous. And, unlike one site, it does not offer to help “get control of the problem that’s controlling you.”

Problem? How insulting. She’s not a hoarder. Doesn’t save old newspapers. Doesn’t save tiny bits of string like the multi-millionaire stepfather who didn’t leave her a cent. You never know, he’d say, jamming a couple of inches of twine into a drawer. Rich. That’s a thing about old money, people can’t bring themselves to get rid of stuff as if what they got by merely being born could be swept away if they weren’t super careful. Guilt has a lot to do with it too.

It seems she’s barely tapped in a request for a “discovery call” when the doorbell rings. Rings again and then again. Jabs of shrillness. Yes, I’m coming, I’m coming.

She clicks open the double locks, pulls the door open and is faced with a woman, age hovering around sixty, wearing a crisp blue suit and sensible shoes.

Hello Ms. Miller. I’m Stacy Robbins from Clutter Begone. I’m pleased to meet you.

Oh, I didn’t think someone would come right away. Not just now, that is.

I don't mean to intrude, however your email message did say you would be home this morning.

I guess so.

I responded saying that I’d come over. I apologize for any misunderstanding.

I must have logged off.

Again, I don’t mean to intrude but since I’m here do you mind if we have a look around.

Since you’re here, Betty echoes. She steps aside to allow Stacy to enter.

Stacy places her smooth leather briefcase at the exact center of the hall table, clicks it open, removes a blue mechanical pencil and a pristine yellow legal pad.

Is it all right with you if I do a quick tour?

Might as well.

Leading Stacy to the living room, Betty takes in the familiar hodgepodge of it, breathes in its scent of bygone cats and dogs and plants and bodies and rugs and perfumed candles and city grit.

So? There’s a hollowness in her stomach as if she’d just thrown up.

Well, we can —

So how does this work? Where do we start? She’s interrupting, sounding harsher than intended. I mean, I’ve never done anything quite like this. She’s nibbling at her fingernails, a habit she’d broken years ago, along with cigarettes. Onychophagia, from the Greek. She could never picture Achilles or Odysseus biting their nails to the quick, maybe Penelope.

Stacy looks around the room, jots a few notes on her legal pad. Betty glances sideways. Can’t make out Stacy’s minuscule squiggles.

May I go down the hall to the other rooms? Stacy asks.

Why not. Betty trails after her to the bedroom.

The bed is unmade, patchwork quilt flung aside, sheets rumpled with insomnia, a pillow wadded to support a gimpy shoulder. Betty never makes her bed until afternoon and often not even then. A waste of mornings when she’s mentally alert. She usually doesn't get dressed either, but the March morning was chilly so she’d thrown on sweats.


A patchwork quilt tattered to grimy shreds was spread over layers of cardboard on the steps of a church she passed yesterday. Where had the occupant of the makeshift pallet gone? Was he still alive? Before that she was careful not to disturb a man in filthy brown rags lying masturbating in a dark corner under a scaffolding.

She draws the covers over her stainless, celibate sheets. Stacy is saying something about linens.

Would they be packed for the move?

Packing. Stacks of folded longing—a Terrance Hayes line pulls itself out of context—from his into hers. And regrets, she thinks, boxes of crumpled regrets.


Stacy is moving to the next room: Betty’s home office. An old, battered suitcase spreads open on the floor—a corpse awaiting autopsy.

Ms. Miller, might you be wanting help sorting out the contents of this suitcase and other such containers?

What? Betty’s mind is still with the dying and the homeless.

I was asking if you might need assistance in sorting out the contents of the suitcase and other containers of possessions?

Betty kneels down, slams shut the top, as disconcerted as though the suitcase were stuffed with pornography.

It’s family stuff. No, I don’t want assistance.

Assisted living with a nurse on every hall? An apartment with its own kitchen in a retirement home would be bad enough, thank you.

Stacy is leaning over her shoulder. She smells of lavender, a soothing scent, probably a job requirement. The suitcase is my geniza, Betty says, not because she thinks Stacy would know what a geniza is, but because she wants her to ask. Betty is somewhat of a factaholic and tends to trot out arcane facts when she’s upset. Intellectual armor.

A geniza? What’s that? comes the gratifying question.

Betty remains crouched, turns her head sideways. Stacy’s solid calves, ankles, and polished brown pumps are inches from her nose. A geniza, Betty says, as she pushes herself up to her feet, is a repository in a synagogue for worn out books and old papers to be thrown away. Originally a Hebrew verb meaning “to hide” or “put away.” Then it became a noun. Etymological identity transformation.

Well, I learn something new every day, but I do find it hard to understand why anyone would store things that are going to be thrown out.

Betty should let it go, agree with Stacy, yes, makes no sense.

She can’t help herself. Any piece of paper, she continues, that contained the name of God, even personal letters, had to be kept until it could receive a proper burial. The idea was to preserve good things from harm and bad things from harming. The famous geniza in Cairo was said to be protected by scorpions and a poisonous snake.

Oh my goodness. I guess I’d better stay away from that trunk!

Don’t worry. I’m protecting it. I’m the scorpion and the snake.

Stacy takes an almost imperceptible step back. May I please use the restroom? she asks.


Betty hears the click of the lock on the bathroom door. The thought of Stacy perched on the toilet, no-frills Haynes underpants around her knees, is reassuring. Vulnerable. Like everyone else. How do you organize vulnerability? Lists? Bullet points?

Stacy out of the way, Betty lifts the lid of the suitcase and removes a photograph: she and Stanley are holding hands as they race to the town hall to get married. They look happy. They were happy that day. Or were they just smiling for the camera?

She hears the toilet flush, slips the photograph back into the suitcase and shuts it closed.

Would you care to discuss what you want to do about the kitchen, Stacy is saying.


In the kitchen, a loopy, ineffective pot holder made of remnants of clothing hangs from a nail on the wall next to the stove. Afterschool crafts. A Christmas present from little Emily. Or was it a birthday?

Nana, I made it all by myself, Emily asserted even before Betty had a chance to strip away the wrapping to see what “it” was.

You made this all by yourself! I love it and it’s just what I need.

I thought you’d like it. Emily’s tone was deliberately casual, an affectation after she turned six.

Photo: pot holder like hers dangling from a shattered wall in a war-ravaged city. A home destroyed. And the child?

Photo: little girl in red tights and white t-shirt strewn with red hearts and strawberries hangs tight to her mother’s blue-jeaned thigh.

Photo: toddler in oversized blue shirt stands crying in a forest of thick legs. He’s at eye level with the cargo pants of a latex-gloved patrol officer frisking down his mother’s inner thighs.

Stacy is talking. … list of the items you consider selling and what to donate to charity …

You mean now?

If I remember correctly, you said something about having to make a decision in ten days.

Oh no, I can’t . . . I can’t possibly do that now. I don’t have to move in ten days, just decide if I’m going to move. I need time to think about this. You’d better come back another day. Sorry.

I’m here whenever you’re ready. Take your time. I can hardly imagine how difficult this is for you.

I promise to call if I decide to move. Betty flushes with regret for her know-it-all geniza riff.


The double door locks click shut. She pours herself a jigger of Jack Daniels, no ice, and takes it to the living room sofa.

This shouldn’t be so traumatic. She’s already left one home, the home she created for Stanley and the children. She’d painted the walls herself. Each room a different color. A pale yellow, a soft blue, a gentle gray of early morning mist, a pink so faint it seemed white. She’d sewn a slipcover of gray striped mattress ticking for the sofa from the Salvation Army in big-bellied haste to finish before Michael was born. She’d painted the bookshelf facing the sofa the tender green of new growth, the color of the sprouting plants she tended. Other plants of all shades, shapes, and sizes flourished on windowsills, on shelves, suspended from ceilings. She counted sixty at one time.

Now is different. She’s leaving a home and a life she’d reconstructed fifty years ago. In the fog of caring for the children and the acrimonious, drawn out divorce, the pain of leaving the marital home itself was blunted.

Dear ICE Officer…Alberto came to the United States 30 years ago…

She’s down to only a few plants now, survivor plants that are easy to care for. Two philodendron. Hard to kill a philodendron. And two considerate peace lilies that droop their leaves to let her know when they need watering. Yet even without the living greenery that once was, her apartment is still alive, vivid, and welcoming.

Maureen, it was petite, fizzy-haired Maureen who came into her living room, spread her arms wide, and exclaimed, Ah, the home of a life well lived.

Guests always felt at ease in her apartment, whether for a drink or a weekend. She didn’t fuss, left it to them to uncork a bottle of wine, make a bed, a cup of coffee, come and go as they pleased. Shopping yes, she shopped. Soy milk for Cheryl, espresso coffee for Linda, Earl Gray tea for Eduardo. Shelter. She gave them shelter. A home away from home. Away from home. They, in turn, got her out to museums and theater and concerts she would not have gone to on her own.

That was a while ago. Why has she become such a recluse? Is it that she strains to keep her wits about her in company? Even the friendliest conversation among friends is an exertion. Alone, nobody sees your slipups. Nobody to know you put the phone in the refrigerator, left the chicken out overnight and had to throw it in the garbage, left the apartment keys dangling outside the front door.

Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be? (Elizabeth Bishop). She chose to leave. Walked away from three homes. Three loved homes, she wrote. But not into an old folks home. Never for Elizabeth Bishop. Homes in France, Brazil, Maine. In the end she died in her own apartment in Boston: cerebral aneurysm.

For so many it’s not should we have stayed, but could we have stayed, Betty reminds herself.


A selfish, spoiled woman. That’s who I am.

Yet the feeling of loss is there, a weight in her chest, a clog in her throat.

Betty has never gone along with Sartre’s claim that the self doesn’t distinguish between what is “me” and what is “mine,” yet maybe he had a point. Leave much of the “mine” that is “her”? Every item bears the story of a place, a friendship, a lover.

My belongings. I belong to them as much as they belong to me. It’s not just what I live with, it’s who I live with. Every object haunted by wisps of recollections. Will I remember that week of yoga with Emily in Costa Rica without Rose the hand puppet? It was sharp-eyed Emily who spied the puppets in a dim back corner of a convenience store. How often will I think of Tim without spotting the rag-tag collection of windup toys he brought me one at a time when he visited from Maine? The slender yellow vase, a gift from Cheryl, a student in a years-ago seminar. Will her Botticelli face and cascade of copper hair still be with me without the vase to prompt my memory?

And books, ceiling high shelves of books. Many with penciled notes in the margins. Novels and poetry mostly. Bring the poetry books, even if it means storing some with Nancy. Classic Greek plays too, some with my notes from high school. Moby Dick to reread. And Shakespeare, of course. And . . . so many I can’t do without even if I may never open them again. Maybe stay put and live with the immigrant hired by Nancy to spy on me.

Oh! She must remember the chicken soup simmering overnight in the crockpot. Organic, healthy, bland. Nothing like the soup Holly made when Betty came down with the flu after she flew home from a conference in Chicago. A soup full of spices and surprises, like Holly herself. Betty hasn’t kept in touch. It’s been how many years?

Call to say I might be moving? To a retirement home! why haven’t I bothered to call, or at least email?

My god! Is Holly still alive? So many friends are not.

Diane died. Long time ago. She was fifty-five. A linguist who became a photographer to befriend the gypsies whose folk tales she chronicled. Folk takes that Betty helped edit and gather into two books to be published postmortem. They’d have to come with her.

Azra died young; cancer like Diane. Azra, Diane. Betty could go down the alphabet with friends who are no longer of this world.

B for Mrs. Block, the sprightly, articulate German woman across the hall. After a few years a live-in aide moved in. One time the aide rang Betty’s doorbell for help getting Mrs. Block up from the floor onto her walker. Mrs. Block and the aide are long gone.

C for Charlie from the seventh floor, a minister, a man of the collar, a collar he no longer wore by the time his shrunken body was in blue jeans that almost fell off him. Always a short man, he was reduced to the size of a child at the end. A lonely old child.

Neighbors whose names she never knew: the plump, old actress who wore a hat covered with shiny, round buttons promoting past political candidates and other merchandise. She’d sit in the lobby for hours chatting with the doormen and whoever would stop by. She had a fuzzy little dog. First the dog died, then she did. Heartbreak? A tall black woman who was a singer died. Betty saw the notice in the elevator.

Betty’s is a vanishing population in a vanishing planet. Dying out like the spotted owls and butterflies and bees.

Healthy friends gone too. Mia to a big house in New Jersey with her new baby and three dogs, Shari to Baltimore for a new job. Renters priced out; also owners as monthly maintenance fees escalated. Doormen gone after years of service. José back to Peru—of his own volition.


Endings. TV shows ended their runs, some after years. I Love Lucy—gone. Long time gone. The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Streets are recent departures.

Familiar storefronts are shuttered. The one that sold African wares—gone. Last week Henry’s, her beloved neighborhood restaurant where the tables weren't squished together, closed forever. Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Gone. Favorite clothing stores and the thrift shop on Amsterdam. Gone. Everything is online. Food online. Movies online. Clothes online where you can’t feel a fabric between your fingers, can’t know what a shade of blue might actually be.

You can’t even call anyone anymore. Betty texts her children. Talk to your pharmacist, her elderly doctor said. Good luck speaking to other than a robot these days even after labyrinths of prompts. She tries to keep up: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. Sites she never uses. She doesn’t belong in this new world. Better to be among the forgetful ones of her own generation. Lost generation. The phrase takes on new meaning.

She’s getting weaker; can’t lift the big watering can when it’s full. Can hardly open and close the old windows. She wouldn’t have the strength to pull Mrs. Block up from the floor these days. Hearing is weaker too, especially on the right. Even with hearing aids, conversations in restaurants are almost impossible.

Aides. Stay where she is with a live-in aide when she hardly knows anyone in the building? All her new neighbors are busy young couples with small children and more on the way. They text on their phones in the elevator and lobby, discouraging even a friendly hello.

And her apartment—three bedrooms, separate dining room, eat in kitchen—way too big now the children hardly ever come for an overnight. Things are always breaking down and the maintenance is always going up.


Not worth reporting, but a headline in the story of her life. And yet, a one bedroom all to herself in a residence where everything is taken care of and help is a buzzer call away might be a relief. She’d have lots of company among the lost generation.

Dear Honorable Judge, I am writing to respectfully request that Graciela be granted asylum status … . I do not believe that she should be separated from her three U.S. born children, husband, and the community that cherishes her.

… separated from her three children …

Betty’s children and grandchildren would be close by. And they’re worrying themselves sick about her.

Why not move? She’s had a good run.


As she’s having dinner, she hears the wail of a saxophone coming from the park: Izuro! A flight along ascending and descending notes, a flurry of wings. Two months ago his face was slashed from mouth to earlobe and his sax stolen. Thanks to fellow musicians (and Betty too), he has a new instrument. It still hurts, he told her, and then played another riff. A quavering, a tremble, a small cry of release. A homeless man in pain who has nothing and gives everything to his music, gives everything from his music. He’s going back to Japan. His brother has booked him a ticket home. Izuro and his jazz evensongs will also be gone.

Betty puts down her fork, gets up to throw on a jacket and let Izuro know that she too is moving, that her daughter has booked her a smaller home elsewhere.


Michael suggested a transitional weekend in the upstate house after her apartment was emptied and selected belongings moved to Brookhaven. Just the two of us, he said. She doesn’t tell him that halfway through the dismemberment of her home, she’d stopped caring what came or went and left most decisions up to Stacy.

He drives her in what had been her car (she was glad to be rid of that responsibility too). As he turns into the driveway, she notices that lilies of the valley have spread further along the north side. Their brief sweet-scented florets bloom under the shade of scrappy young oak trees.

Rhizome roots, she tells Michael, those lilies over there have rhizome roots, roots that don’t go deep into the ground. They just spread outward barely beneath the surface.

Interesting, he says.

Even if the roots are cut apart into pieces, she continues, talking beyond the patient boredom in Michael’s voice, they give rise to new growth.

. .. Graciela …. three U.S. born children, husband, and a community who cherishes her….

Is this about you, Mom?



Maybe, but not only.

… Sergio become a respected member of the community … in the restaurant business for 12 years ...

The terrain must be hospitable, Betty adds.


end of story

© 2019, Julia Ballerini Go to top