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Fall Apart in My Backyard
All I can think is, “If you know so much, then HELP.”
Publisher’s Note: Today’s piece is a guest post fromwho writes , the life and letters of a Midwest Housewife.
After his wife died, my husband’s grandpa “Papa” lived with us for close to two years. We bought our house because it had a basement that had room for him to live in. He was a sturdy and spry octogenarian who enjoyed adding outlets to random walls, cooking strange stews and working in the yard. He would cut grass or chase leaves or snowflakes in the cold until I would bribe him to come in with coffee and cake. He was nimble. More than once, I looked out our back window and saw him climbing over the baby gate to the basement steps instead of opening it. He wouldn’t hear my concerns until I finally cried, “Yes, but imagine how embarrassing it would be for me if you died climbing into my basement!” He shrugged an obligatory “ok” with an obstinance I would later encounter in his daughter. Then he pointed to the floor I was sweeping and said, “You missed a spot.” That was Papa.
He and his wife had been madly in love and she ruled the roost. They square danced every weekend and owned a western wear shop in Long Island. The first time I visited, she called me a “Kraut” after hearing my German maiden name. She also asked me my opinion on microwaving her dinner and when I stuttered, she said to my husband, “Oh, I see you have a bright one here.” She was funny and she liked me. She liked my husband. But she was not warm. So the “you missed a spot” WWII vet and his tough wife were parents to my mother-in-law. And she does not differ exponentially from this DNA.
Perhaps it is my husband’s Long Island background that made us willing to buy a house with a basement that someone could live in. He had grown up living with his grandparents and his two great grandmas. It is said that my husband had one grandpa who was tall, which is where he got his height, and only one grandparent who was warm and sweet and who held him in her lap all the time. That must be where he got his capacity for love.
Me, I’m just a sucker. He didn’t ask me to let his mother move in. He didn’t want his mother to move in. But she’d gotten very sick and her husband didn’t take care of her. We sat by her hospital bed and she looked at us and asked if we would take her home, and we looked at each other and said, of course.
I’m blessed with friends who say things like, “Jodie, you need to quit having family live with you like it’s the 1930s.” These critiques were heard. They weren’t wrong. My mother-in-law was, through every fault of her own, in her mid 70s and alone, but I just didn’t see a choice. She had shown up on our doorstep before, but there comes a moment, after any stray has been sitting on your porch for a while, that you know you’re not just putting out blankets and water anymore. You move them indoors.
When she moved in with us, we had to explain to the girls that it was because she was getting a divorce. “From who?” they said. (Is it weird that our kids had really never met her husband? The short answer is that, if you’d met him, you’d get it.) My girls were older and more inquisitive about this husband-they’d-never-met than they’d ever been before, and I let them toss questions at her and watched her swat each one away like a fly.
Who is he?
“He’s not worth it.”
What does he look like?
“He has a mustache.”
How long have you been married?
“A while. Now, who’s going to put in more chocolate chips?”
At the beginning, it was easy—taking care of someone who is sick is pretty standard. When she was finally up and moving about though, she had a tendency follow me around. Or sit in the kitchen watch me cook. It isn’t that she’s judgmental. It’s just that she narrates and the narration sounds judgmental because it’s in a New York accent.
The basement door would open and it would begin. “Baking again? What are we making this time? Oh, muffins! Do we like these muffins?” “Your timer’s going off! There it goes. You turned it off. ” “There you are sewing that craft you started.” “…Still sewing are we? Busy busy!” “Doing some laundry.” “Changing another diaper. There she goes… singing to the baby again!” In her defense, I am doing everything she says I am. But when you are a boring housewife, nothing drives home the banality of your life like an omniscient narrator.
One day she found me in my room and said, “Oh, you’re ironing! I didn’t know you ironed!” Didn’t know I ironed?! I mean, I don’t have an ironing day where I stay in curlers and iron the sheets or anything but I IRON. This struck me at my core by the way. As the daughter of a dry cleaner, if my clothes aren’t pressed I’ve disgraced our entire family. Similarly as the daughter of a music teacher, if I don’t sing, WHO WILL? Was she commenting on the fact that her precious son has to send his office shirts to the dry cleaner instead of me pressing them? I am POSITIVE that this was not her intention but, man, I had to shake it off quickly.
It’s no easy feat getting used to someone else living in your house. No matter how good the guest, the patience gets tested. And the chores get narrated. The line we will remember best was actually directed at my husband as he worked on fixing the bricks in the sidewalk. She stood and watched him for a really long time and finally said, “Oh that’s how you do it. Hmmm.”
It was in these moments that I knew my husband and I were on the same page. This would not be permanent. And it would have been less permanent if Covid hadn’t hit. So. I got quarantined with my Long Island mother in law. I won the family martyr contest for 2020. Neener neener. The following episode takes place maybe a month before lockdown, after she’d been living here for a few months.
There was a deer in our backyard.
“Have you seen this deer in your backyard?!”
I had been observing it for hours.
“Oh my Gawd. I’ve never seen one this close.”
All morning long it had been there.
“She’s pretty. “ She was. There was a noticeable gash in her right front leg.
“Oh look, did you know she was hurt? Yes, she’s hurt!”
Her narration proved once again true. The doe sat near the gazebo, sheltered by two sides of bushes and the house with a drier vent aimed right at her to keep her warm and away from predators. This left her just feet from our back window. Like our own little zoo animal. The morning snow from the gazebo roof had misted over her fur as she sat patiently. Her face looked like a reindeer’s and was wider up close than I would have thought, such a black nose. We looked and looked at her. Narrating and speculating.
Night came and she was still there in her spot. Every once in awhile, someone would peek and say, “Yep, still there.” By the end of the day, Nana suggested we name her and I nearly said, “maybe we should ask her to move in.”
The next day I got a facebook message from my next door neighbor asking me if I’d noticed the deer.
My neighbor. She’s neighborly in a sort-of sort of way. You would say she’s nice but you would lilt your voice at the end like it’s a question. She’s… nice? One time we saw her at a street party and she said something kind of nice, with a quick insult on the end. While I was steaming, I caught Dave giggling at it.
“What’s so funny?”
“She reminds me of my Grandma” he said warmly.
She once brought us a plant for the backyard and said, “I thought you might like this.” I replied over-warmly “Awww, thanks!” And then she followed that up with, “Even you can’t kill this guy.” Well guess what, lady. Guess. What.
And by the way, I didn’t ask for this deer to be in my yard. I didn’t put the fence up. I am not interested in other people’s drama. But now my neighbor is texting me about the deer, wanting to know what I’m going to do about it and advising me to call the city and telling me why euthanizing it would really be the only solution and even bringing up things I hadn’t thought of: “you don’t want the deer to be dead when your kids are home and can see that she’s died?” and all I can think is, “If you know so much, then HELP.” But that is not how people work. It was like watching TV.
My dad is an outdoorsy fellow who traps chipmunks in his garden and sets them free, so I called him. He agreed with me that she (the deer not the neighbor) probably just needed some time to recuperate and then he said, “I guess she could always just die and you could harvest her and have a freezer full.” After my screams of terror he laughed and said to call his neighbor who is a crazy lovely woman who rescues even the moles that her dog digs up - maybe she’d know somebody. She did.
She gave me the number of a rescue person who answered the phone, midday, with a voice as if I’d just called at midnight. I explained that I had a hurt deer in my backyard and she sighed a long sigh and said, “Well, I just had shoulder surgery so I can’t drive right now, but if you want, you can bring her to me.” Picture me loading a giant, live deer into my minivan. She continues, “ I live in (insert place that’s an hour drive away with a dead deer in the back of your car). “ You know what? I replied. I think I’m just going to see how it goes.
The city sent a police officer who told me that he could shoo it away for me but that’s all the city would do. He even told me the story of one deer whose leg just flopped around, completely broken. “We got calls about her for years!” He said. “I think she went on to have one or two more babies even. But, yeah, people would call and we’d just tell him we knew her and she was fine.” I watched our little deer get up to eat a few berries from our trees and hobble back and bed down in her cozy corner. “All right, officer. I’ll figure it out.”
That night, Nana and I took turns putting out several bowls of water—we would come close, and the deer would retreat back to the pear tree whose berries always lure the deer to our yard, and while she was there, we’d put the water next to her bed. She’d come back and sit and drink.
Mid-afternoon the next day, I noticed the deer was gone. The basement door opened and I heard, “Oh, the deer is gone.” Correct again. “Well, sometimes you just need to give them time. I told you she’d be fine. She just needed some rest.” “True,” I said to Nana. “If only everything were that easy.”
In a Hallmark moment, I was left alone staring out the window at the empty backyard now newly dusted with snow, thinking about these creatures who have stopped in my house to rest. I pictured Papa climbing over the fence. I looked at the matted grass where the deer had been and a fleeting moment of loss washed over me. Papa was in a nursing home now; Nana is here indefinitely and who knows where this lady deer has gone or how she’ll be.
I sighed, returning to my ironing with a few conflicting feelings - glad to have done my best, sorry that I couldn’t do more, and, honestly, just glad that no one died in my backyard.
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