My spring teaching term began last week, and what a joy it is to be back in the classroom with a lively group of senior-age students dedicated to writing stories about all the interesting things they’ve seen and done during their long and fruitful lives. Pat Milligan hit the ground running in the first class with this marvelous story full of lush description of her hard-working grandmother and a mysterious, glamorous visitor who spends a summer with the family and captivates a young girl’s imagination, until….
by Pat Milligan
The prospect of a guest brought forth a frenzy of house cleaning. Nanny spent that warm June morning in 1945 cleaning Uncle Louis’ bedroom. She washed the insides of the tall windows that looked out on the narrow alley and the yellow brick duplex next door. She wiped the window ledges and the molding, the door, and the small mirror. She polished the dresser and replaced the paper in the bottom of the drawers. The scent of ammonia and lemon oil masked the antiseptic odor of the room. Then she grunted as she turned the heavy mattress over the box spring of the old bed.
She did not ask for help from her grandchildren as she took the bed-clothes down the narrow stairs to the kitchen. There she pulled the clothes washer with its attached wringer to the sink, connected the hose to the faucet, and filled the gray enamel tub with water and Fels-Naptha soap flakes. The wringer was the dangerous part, as the unwary or inattentive laundress could catch her fingers on the ever-rolling pins. We knew the procedure from watching, not from helping.
“Go play,” she told us if we offered help. “You’re only young once, so go play.” Meaning we should stay out of her way, the directions left us happy enough.
Later, back in the kitchen, I asked the same question one or the other of us had asked throughout the morning, “When is she coming, Nanny?”
“Probably sometime this afternoon, I imagine. Your Uncle Louis said it would take time for her to leave the hospital and get her few possessions together. Can’t you girls find something to do?”
In the living room I searched the desk for some penny postcards and a pen. Gwen took a big brown envelope from the bottom drawer and spread my pictures of movie stars about her on the floor. Most were black and white photographs with autographs.
“I like this one of Elizabeth Taylor,” she said. “And here’s one of Margaret O’Brian. Do you think I look like her?”
“A little. She’s about the same age as you.” I didn’t have to turn around to look, for I had memorized them both. Gwen’s hair was brown and short with bangs that fell into her eyes. She had a cute little nose, but it got into everything, and she could never stop talking.
“Who are you writing to now?” she asked.
“Jon Hall, Maria Montez, and Turhan Bey”
“Ugh! Turhan Bey. He’s so ugly.”
“I think he’s – uh – exotic, and you don’t get an opinion.” I said, addressing the card to Culver City, California. “And don’t get my pictures messed up.”
We both jumped when we heard a car door slam and ran to the windows.
“Here she comes,” yelled Gwen toward the stairs where Nanny was remaking the bed and finishing her cleaning. We ran to the front door as a yellow cab was pulling away. Standing on the curb, a tall, thin, blonde lady collected a few leather bags and a large handbag. When she saw us, she seemed startled, and suppressed a small cough with a white handkerchief.
“I’m Ramona,” she whispered. “You must be the nieces.”
“I’m Patsy. This is Gwen.”
“We live here,” Gwen reported, moving to the porch.
Nanny’s wide girth blocked the doorway. “I see you’ve met my grandchildren. Welcome Ramona. We’re glad you’re staying with us for a while. Come in.” She moved aside and Ramona dropped her bags inside the door as if she were not sure she would remain and might need to claim them soon.
“Are you sure you have a room for me?” she asked. “Louis said it would be all right.”
“His room is available until he comes home from the hospital. Then we can make other arrangements for you.” Nanny reassured her. “Now come into the kitchen where we can have coffee.” Nanny turned to us. “Girls, take Ramona’s things upstairs.”
We raced up the steps and raced back again. We didn’t want to miss a thing. We were called the Misses Big Ears for a reason.
Seated at the yellow kitchen table, we watched Nanny pour three inches of cream from the neck of a milk bottle into a small pitcher next to the sugar bowl. She got two glasses from the cupboard and poured two cups of coffee. I spooned Ovaltine into the glasses of skim milk. Ramona took half of the cream and two teaspoons of sugar, stirring them into the fragrant coffee. We sipped our Ovaltine and listened, our attention feasting on Ramona.
Ramona was beautiful, like Veronica Lake. Her long blonde hair with just a hint of curl cascaded down her back. Her face was long and angular, and her nose was aristocratically straight, not bent like mine or pug like Gwen’s. Her cheek bones were prominent, and her eyes were pale gray like the Atlantic Ocean. Even her clothes were different. It was summer and she was wearing loose pants and a flowing silk long-sleeved blouse.
Most exciting to me, she came from California. Not Culver City she told us, but San Diego, and movie stars did not live in Culver City, but in Beverly Hills. We assumed her father was rich and possibly a doctor, for he had sent her to New Jersey’s Donnelly Hospital where a new operation could be performed on tubercular lungs. Ramona had met our Uncle Louis there after she survived the operation he was scheduled to get, and he had suggested she board with his mother while she waited for the doctors to release her from their care, probably several months.
Nanny could never deny her only son anything. He had been to death’s door and survived, but his survival was tenuous. If the operation were successful, he would come home to live with us: his mother, his sister and his two nieces. Gwen and I harbored the fantasy that he and Ramona were in love and would get married when they were both well. We loved having her around, even if she did leave stockings and underwear soaking in our only bathroom-sink. Nanny grumbled whenever she smoked cigarettes from a long black cigarette holder and left ashtrays full of smelly cigarette butts.
Ramona entertained us with stories told in her low breathy voice. Some she made up, and some were from the scandals featured in the Trentonian, a daily tabloid, or some detective magazines. She loved drama and made daily living seem exciting, for she listened intently to our ordinary activities and plied us with questions. She
laughed when pictures of Maria Montez and Turhan Bey arrived and agreed Turhan Bey was handsome. Happy summer afternoons were spent in our small back-yard as she dried her long tresses conditioned with peroxide in the warm summer sun. She let us comb her blonde hair and tie it back with a black velvet ribbon. Sometimes she coughed into a small white handkerchief.
That summer I read Alexander Dumas’s story about the lady of the camellias, a beautiful woman who died tragically from a lung disease. I tried not to see Ramona losing weight and her hair becoming thinner. I did not want to think she could die. She was supposed to get better. Although I had never seen a camellia, I knew they must be beautiful, like the roses in our garden and Ramona.
In September Gwen and I went back to school and were busy with church activities. We did not see much of Ramona. She went to her room after dinner while we did homework at the dining-room table. We could hear her radio or phonograph music drifting down the stairs, lush symphonies or opera, including La Traviata, the sad story of the lady of the camellias.
One day we came home from school, and Nanny told us that Ramona had gone home to California.
“Why didn’t she say goodbye to us?” Gwen wailed.
“Did she leave an address so we could write to her?” I asked.
“She left rather suddenly,” Nanny said. “She had to go home. Perhaps her father is sick.”
Perhaps Nanny was lying. I suspected Ramona had returned to Donnelly Hospital.
Months later, early in December, Nanny descended the dark steps to the cellar. Gwen heard her say, “Oh! My G—. Marie, come down here. Look at this.”
Gwen followed Mother down the narrow cellar steps. Behind the Christmas boxes, Nanny stood by a large basket–overflowing with empty peroxide bottles and Jim Beam whiskey bottles.
Mother laughed. “Well, she had a good summer.”
Over the span of the winter, Nanny took the bottles out to the garbage can at the curb gradually, one-by-one. She claimed she didn’t want the trash-man to think she bleached her hair or was an alcoholic.