"The arthritis. They stick to me. They like me." A jokenik, she deflects most questions with her highly idiosyncratic brand of humor. I offer her a Mother's Day gift--a box of soaps.
"Why spend money on me?" she asks.
"Why not?" I ask.
" 'Cause I hope I use it up." Meaning she doesn't think she'll live so long.
"I hope not," she says.
"You hope not?"
"Because me no like it," she says, invoking the upside-down syntax to a favorite old Yiddish musical, "Oy, I Like She."
To listen to someone you love tell you that she'd prefer to be dead is dreadful. In my grandmother's case, though, it's predictable. She's been talking this way, without remorse or rancor, for the last several years, at least. But her depression is also understandable. Once stubbornly independent, she now must rely on her two daughters, who structure their week around shopping for her and transporting her to the doctor or to the beauty shop. She has an attendant five days a week to help out. And she has an emergency button, plus the phone, her lifeline.
"I lost confidence in myself," she explains about her fall last year. "I don't trust myself anywhere. I don't go down for the mail myself. I do sometimes, but the cane--I hate people should see me. So I don't go some places I want to go." She ventures out twice a week now, to her Golden Age Club on Mondays and to Danny's Specialty Beauty Shop on Saturdays to have her white hair fluffed and sprayed into a bubble-like crown.
"Now, anything that I want to do, I can't do it myself," she says. It takes her half an hour to fasten her bra, longer to clean a chicken. "So what is it? I don't want to aggravate the Man Upstairs, but it's no use. Why do they celebrate the Golden Age?"
She reconsiders. "Maybe I'm too critical on myself, too," she adds. "The kids say that I'm too critical. Do you find me that way?"
Not at the moment. She's just served me a giant slice of cake for breakfast. Who am I to complain?
Minutes later, though, I'm fair game. For this trip, I've lugged along a breast pump so that I can continue to nurse my 10-month-old daughter when I return home. Tessie disapproves of the setup. "If she could do the four days without you, you don't need it," she says of the pump.
I disagree. "All right," she shrugs, "nurse until her wedding day."
The blue door to Pearlie's apartment has a little plastic sign hanging from the doorknob, like the ones you leave out for room service in a hotel. But Pearlie's sign is a daily reminder of what it's like to live in the shadow of death: "Good Morning. I'm OK!"
Kathie Lee and Regis are blaring from the TV set. Pearlie tells me she doesn't much care for Kathy Lee's new haircut. We guffaw over Regis' beady eyes. Pearl has high cheekbones, bright eyes and a pixie haircut, like Peter Pan. I practically tower over her now, she's such a sliver of her former self. Though she moved to California 10 years ago, her voice is still coated in Brooklynese.
"You want orange juice or what?" she asks. She lives five minutes away from me in the Silvercrest, a concrete apartment complex for seniors. Her building is sandwiched between a muffler shop and the Phoenix Bookstore, a hangout for hipsters. During the week, she usually eats her meals downstairs in the dining hall; otherwise, she cooks for herself in her tiny kitchen, making nothing like the lavish spreads she is famous for in the family. But on the kitchen table, there is an entire plate of chocolate chip cupcakes she baked fresh for my visit.
She speaks in code sometimes, expecting me to fill in the blanks of her sentences. She forgets words. Names slip her mind. She calls this "the 92-year-old thing." I tell her that I've got the same problem, but I'm 51 years younger than she. She cackles. So do I.
"They're no-cholesterol cupcakes," she explains, sitting at the table, which is covered by one of her crocheted tablecloths.
"Did you make them from scratch?"
"And there's no cholesterol."
"Where's the recipe from?"
"From the box." A cake mix, in other words?
"Yeah. And they come out perfect. They're so easy. Yeah. Ya take 'em right out of the thing." The thing. She means the paper cupcake wrapper.
Her usual sartorial splendor is much in evidence. She wears a peach-and-white sweater with matching polyester pants and white Reeboks. She crocheted the sweater not long ago, and it has gold thread crocheted into the wool. Around her neck, she wears a gold charm that says "Happy Birthday," a gift from her grandchildren for her 90th.