by: George A. Yesthal
She leaned morosely on her rickety shopping cart before the deli case like a listing ship, derelict, her face a sea of wrinkles and age spots, her snow-white hair thinning to a degree that it presented the image of a gossamer halo in the back-lighting of the store’s overhead florescence. Chewing the side of her mouth, Margret dropped anchor and stared through the fingerprint smudged glass at food she knew she could not afford.
I watched her as I cleaned the access glass at the rear of the case thinking, "This old broad is going to order some minuscule amount of something thereby making me change my gloves and break the stride of my clean-up ministrations. I just wanted to get done and go home. So I watched…annoyed.
This is what I’ll never know…
Margret Knuttsen emigrated from Munich in 1943 at the age of sixteen after an arranged marriage to a wealthy Estonian named Ants Loor. Her family had arranged this in response to the rising tide of ethnic intolerance of the Nazi regime. Margret’s maiden name was Scholz. She had never seen her family again. Not a soul of them had survived the death camps.
At Ellis Island Margret contracted influenza and it almost killed her. Her weight diminished considerably. Where she had been considered beautiful at one time, now stood an emaciated husk of her former voluptuous self. Ants responded to this, instead of nurturing, by turning abusive. It was not uncommon for the neighbors to see Margret at market bruised and/or limping, her belly gradually swelling from the baby growing within.
Margret eventually gave birth to a baby girl that they named Lucinda. Lucy for short. Lucy died at the age of three in a fire caused by Ants falling asleep while smoking. The fire took Lucy, Ants, the apartment and all that Margret had owned, including every memory she had of her family and her past. Margret had escaped their fate due to the fact that she was in the hospital, compliments of yet another of Ants’s beatings.
Margret had lost everything and was destitute.
She was subsequently taken in by a kindly Norwegian family in Brooklyn that were members of the same Lutheran church Margret attended. The Knuttsens left Norway for the same reasons Margret had left Germany. Three of their family had perished in the Norwegian resistance.
Margret and Leif, the eldest of the Knuttsen boys quickly fell in love and married in the spring of 1949. Leif, true to his heritage, was a merchant seaman and was away from home much of the time, but his considerable earnings kept Margret and their two children, Eric and Flora in comfort and security in a home they’d purchased in Valley Stream, Long Island. Leif was always bringing home exotic items from far away places; tiki masks from Tahiti, an elephant leg umbrella stand from Africa, troll dolls from Norway.
One day Leif produced a phial of some kind of liquid he’d gotten on a trip to India. He said that in small doses it was a tonic for pain but if too much was taken it would cause paralysis and death. Because they were never sure what would constitute a safe dosage it was locked away and forgotten. The last time Margret had seen it was during the move when they’d sold their Long Island house and moved to Freehold, New Jersey after Leif accepted a sales job with the company he crewed for.
Life was good. Margret thought it would always be that way. But as so often happens life had other plans. In 1973 Leif was killed in an auto accident in upstate New York and Margret fell into severe depression and began drinking heavily. This caused some consternation between her and her children, who by now had children of their own. It was apparent that because of her drinking, Margret could not be trusted to watch her Grandchildren and eventually Eric took a job in Japan and Flo had moved out to the coast. All this on the heels of an extreme falling out between mother and children. Margret had not heard from them in over seven years. Did not even know where they were. She’d been abandoned.
Today, October, 14th, 2008 is Margret’s eightieth birthday. By now she’s gone through the twelve step program and hasn’t had a drink in two years. She’s taken a part-time job with a local pre-school that barely supplements her social security enough to pay for her HUD apartment and put a few scraps on the table. Her only health insurance is through the Access program. She suffers from emphysema, hypertension and diabetes and is in constant pain from arthritis.
This morning, while filing her only birthday card from the children at her job, she came across that long-forgotten phial of mysterious Indian elixir and was now contemplating the notion of letting it’s ability to end her miserable existence have sway.
This was the thought behind the rheumy eyes that I watched for some indication that she would interrupt my self-possessed chores with the order of a quarter pound of tuna or some such.
Little did I know that she didn’t see anything in that deli case, or me, or anything else in the store for that matter and eventually, to my relief, she moved on. What was in her thoughts was that she’d come to a decision, right there as I watched, to go home and do what she’d been fearing for some time.
This is something that grew quickly out of a comment by Tony Ryan to one of my pieces. Tony, with his simple yet eloquent and heart-felt response, broke through my normally case-hardened demeanor and caused a spark of introspection that blossomed into this.