Pani Maria took care of my late ex-mother-in-law for two years. I have never in my life met anyone so constitutionally incapable of seeing anything but the bad in every human being, and putting a negative spin on every situation.
Pani Maria badmouthed kind neighbors. For two years she reproached the aged Dorka with bull-headedness for balking at drinking fruit juices because to her they tasted sour. Pani M. claimed that the old lady was just being contrary for the sake of being contrary. I tried to explain to her the meaning of the saying, “That’s a matter of taste.” For Pani Maria there is only one taste: her own, and it is absolute. She discounted in advance the possibility that a furnace repair man could be called and the noisy furnace repaired. She vilified the house manager for failing to repair a leaky faucet. She did not try calling him to arrange for repairs, and when I gave him a call, he jumped to attention immediately, and within the hour all was done. [Notice I say nothing about the failure of the old lady’s official daughter- in-law, the woman she came to call “The Russian Empire”, to exercise initiative and do any of these minor things.]
After I got the furnace repaired and the manager fixed the faucet, Pani Maria took the credit for having gotten the work done. Did I mention that she insinuated daily that the two night caretakers — attractive and kind Polish women — were lazy, dishonest, and could not be trusted to keep their hands off Dorka’s checkbook, which she kept hidden in some cupboard drawer. Her own daughter, Pani Basia, who came four times a week, however, was in fact an angel — a perfect antithesis in every way to her beldam of a mother.
To be fair, Pani Maria did bring decent food for the old lady to eat: stuff she cooked up for her aging Cuban husband [a rich salmon and white fish ‘pate;’ chicken soup littered with vegetables and meat]. On every visit, I had her drive me to the grocery to stock the fridge with food I knew from –my 30 years with Dorka– she would enjoy eating.
Pani Maria’s drive to the mall was always a non-stop monologue, in execrably accented English, delivered in machine-gun bursts of anger, on instances of her virtue and magnanimousness, her miraculous recoveries from serious illnesses, her father’s astounding level of education and culture, the criminal behavior of her daughter’s ex-husband, her grandson’s brilliance, the prodigious productivity of her garden, and the family dog’s impeccable comportment.
I listened passively, storing up my energy for the market, where I would have to override her objections to Nova, schmear, Robiola, tapioca, hamburger, bacon, spinach, cream cheese, chocolate mousse and whipped cream. As each item went into the cart, Pani Maria wailed, “Noooo, dat not goot for her. She not eaddit. she don’t eat nottin’ . I give her soop. She don’t wanna eat it. I make her chicken. She say it sour. Sour sour sour. Everytin’ sour. She don’t wanna eat nottin’.”
I made Dorka zabaglione with chocolate, and she ate that with a passion. Creamed soups. Creamed spinach and squash and potatoes and lovely tender bits of stewed veal, and all of it she ate with gusto.
After spending a few hours with Pani Maria in that airless apartment, I felt shrink-wrapped in ill will, suffocated by her a priori defeatism, nauseated by her toxic misanthropy. Nevertheless, before leaving town, I always surprised myself by slipping her a hundred-dollar tip. It must have been some atavistic impulse to mollify the woman who was in charge of the old lady’s well-being five days a week, 9 – 5 and buy her good will. Insurance against being included in her catalog of slander candidates.
For all the good it did, I should have kept the money.
On my last visit, in December, the always smoldering fire of resentment against the new wife flared up again. What did it this time was the ubiquitous display of photographs and albums of the new wife — expensively dressed, in expensive resorts, or expensively undressed in Eres bikinis on expensive chartered yachts, showing off her expensively exercised body– along with pictures of various members of her family. My pretext was the dust that lay thick on everything in the apartment , but especially so in the old lady’s room, which was particularly cluttered with the offensive photographs, framed and unframed, hanging on the walls, leaning on tissue boxes, lamp bases, bon-bon dishes. Photo albums were piled every which way. Large portfolio cases jammed with Dorka’s drawings protruded from between a Scandinavian teak desk and an indifferent walnut dresser. I dusted. I straightened up the anarchy into orderly piles. I have no memory of having edited out the displays, but evidently I must have done so, because when her son visited a week later, he telephoned me in a rage demanding to know where I’d hidden pictures of his wife, which Pani Maria had told him I had done.
“The help says you took the pictures and hid them under the bed,” he screamed. “Don’t lie to me.” ” I certainly did not intend to ‘hide’ anything, certainly not under the bed. I was just trying to be helpful.” That reply, of course, just made him madder and he wouldn’t quit until he got an answer that he wanted to hear. He credited Pani Maria’s account over mine, which is rich, considering what a viper she is, but understandable, given that his mom’s life was literally in her hands. [I pass over the time Pani Maria gave Dorka the wrong doses of meds, that made her heart slow way down and her pulse go thready; or the time she hauled her into the bathroom and ripped open the skin on her arm; or the way she had of reducing the number of feedings to breakfast at lunch time, rather than offering small amounts of food every couple of hours so at to avoid the old lady’s recurring belching and hiccups and heart burn.]
At the funeral, as our small group of mourners clustered and un clustered in expressions of condolence and solace, Bianca bent to hug Pani Maria and thank her for all she’d done. Pani Maria, resplendent in a black cloth coat with a magnificent mink collar, pulled Bianca close and whispered in her ear,”Blood, so much blood! Everywhere blood!” Did the granddaughter need to know that her grandmother’s life force flowed out in the last hours as a unstanchable intestinal hemorrhage?
Pani Maria went on with her rampage of mischief. She stood for a long while with the new wife and it must have been then that she told her about the mysterious vanishing photographs and laid the blame on me. Two days after the funeral, the bereaved son calls me, in an understandable rage from the rantings of his Russian Empire (or, as she was originally dubbed, “The Siberian Mute”) against me.
I obviously should never have moved around those photographs. My take home lesson: resist the imp of the perverse. Short term satisfaction of resentment leads to long-term ill will. And remember what Nietzsche had to say on the topic!