I won’t know her name until another ten minutes from now, but as Mildred passes me on our street she says, “It’s cold, mnn. It’s coooooo-ld!” with her old, bony arms locked and huddled into her chest. She’s dressed mostly weather-ready, but she could use a heavier jacket.
“It is cold,” I say–it’s 39 degrees on a Friday night in March, New England wind slicing down our roots-rising-through-it broken brick-lined sidewalk. “Go get warm!” I cheer goodbye as we walk toward our respective apartments.
I’m at the top of my stoop, feverishly roasting at the core yet earlobes pierced frozen from jogging, untying my keys from each sneaker’s shoelace when Mildred walks out the door from which she’d just entered and says “Wheeee-w, that cold!”
And then, “Hunny, I need you to help me pick up my motha.”
(When I jog I rarely make hard stops, fast turns, swivel steps; I like to keep things low-impact. Mildred’s comment is like this sudden high hurdle with little room to avert it.)
I turn and there she is walking while waving me down to join her, saying again because I haven’t responded, “I need your help. I need you to help me pick up my motha.”
“From where?” I ask, imagining her mother sitting low with hunched shoulders in the passenger seat of their car, parked, maybe, along our street. There aren’t many urban places you can get low enough in (physically, anyway). Right?
“I need you to help me get her up, I’m gunna make her some fried chicken dinner. You know that place down Tremont?”
I say, “Darryl’s Bar and Grill?” because I read on HiddenBoston that they took over the Stork Club and they have fried chicken and waffles on their brunch menu and this is the first and idiotic thing to come to mind.
“No, that place beside the convenience store,” says Mildred, or something to that effect–I’m half listening because now I’m walking, with her, toward who knows what, and weighing my options.
“So where exactly are we going here?” I ask as the brownstones end and the huge apartment building at the end of our block rises without much beauty.
“Right here,” says Mildred as she opens the side door to the building and I ask “Where exactly is your mother?” with an emphasis that wouldn’t be lost on others but is purposefully lost on Mildred because she needs my help.
And she says, “She’s up here” as we climb the echoey, spotless staircase and Maydays of This is where an old lady is used as a ruse to bait you and then you’re going to get knifed and your shit will get stolen siren off inside my head which is still in this post-run hot/cold condition of elastic, gauzy curiosity-bursting endorphins.
We get to the third floor and enter a hallway of apartment doors–Mildred opens the first apartment door to our left. I let her walk in ahead of me, I want to be able to turn at that doorway if anything seems the least bit scary or suspicious.
But it doesn’t, the living room–the first room we enter–is empty save for yarny old lady things–a crushy cranberry pillow, a worn wide-thread purple throw–and a flowered couch, a small TV. And in the adjacent kitchen, the shocks-you-with-its-specificity aromatics of fried chicken, buttermilk and browning oil, reach my nose and it all feels OK.
I follow Mildred into what I see is her mother’s bedroom and there, in a hospital bed, laid out horizontal is the woman we’ve come to lift–eyes sunken, frame emaciated, flesh-stretched hands and crooked elbows dangled somewhat spidery around her face. She’s the oldest living human I have ever seen.
Mildred says, “This is my motha, Mary. She is 100 years old.”
Mary blinks, otherwise unmoving and I say, “Wow.”
I ask, “And what’s your name?” to which Mildred says, “Mildred, and I’m 67 years old. I don’t look it though, do I?” and she smiles as she takes her mother’s arms and hands and places them, gently, at her sides so they’re resting, at ease, outstretched.
I’m standing on one side of the bed, Mildred at the other, and she moves to grasp this thin mat beneath Mary’s body. I mimic her motions. “Okay, now, we pull,” Mildred says, and we’re slowly, with all our might pulling that mat along with Mary’s body toward the head of the bed, her weight so heavy despite her frailness. Inches, inches–ten, maybe fifteen seconds and we’ve moved her just about to the edge of the top of the bed.
“I do this every day,” Mildred says, “every day I do this,” as she rubs her arms for emphasis and then presses a button that triggers the head of the bed to slowly raise, and–viola, Mary is sitting as up as a bag of bones can sit. “I need you to help me lift my motha up.” Okay. So this is what Mildred meant.
“Alright, awesome, well–Mildred, Mary, nice to meet you, I should be going,” I say smiling, turning to leave. Mildred asks, “What’s your name?” and I tell her and she says it twice, aloud, and then, “Thank you, thank you for your help.”
When I exit, the street looks everyday as ever. I’ve lived on this block for three years and—despite what’s been easy, befriending people my age within my building—this is the closest I’ve come to really meeting one of my neighbors.
Last night—3 days later—I’m at home, filing my taxes on the couch. My roommate Mike comes in, then our other roommate Katherine does too.
We’re catching up over beer and wine—Kath tells us about a man who had a seizure in front of her over the weekend, how unexpected and shocking that was to witness. It reminds me, “Oh, right. I’ve got a story for you guys.”
And the minute I drop “help my motha up” Mike’s eyes alight—he asks, “That building at the end of the block?”
And I’m saying “Yes!” in disbelief and he says, “Yeah! I’ve helped lift her maybe, 5 or 6 times now?” and I cannot believe it and Kath can’t believe it.
He goes on to tell us that Mildred has told him that the South End used to be full of jazz and nightclubs, and this I know, but it’s incomprehensible for me to fathom how Mildred and Mary must see the neighborhood now. I’m guessing they used to know a lot of their neighbors, well. That asking for help from us must not seem so unusual.
This story is more than mine–it’s also Mike’s. How awesomely bewildering. How nice to know that however dismissive and cynical this city’s influence, whatever the terror of walking into a stranger’s apartment, however haltingly, we’re still moved to assist–to be nurturing, neighborly.