Like having children, pet ownership opens your world. I had lived in my third-floor apartment for nearly two years when Bill and I brought Watson home. Suddenly, my neighbors and I had something to say beyond “hello.”
Soon after getting Watson I met an elderly woman, Tina, who lived around the corner from me. She had a coarse-haired, Corgi-like dog named Benji. During one of our first meetings, Watson was annoying Benji in the way that puppies always annoy older dogs. Benji, in retaliation, peed on Watson’s head. Watson looked ridiculous: an all white dog with a huge yellow stain between his ears. I guess the event broke the ice rather quickly for Tina and me. Every day while we were waiting for our respective dogs to do their business she and I would chat. I came to enjoy our daily conversations and soon an unlikely friendship bloomed despite the enormous generation gap. And it is a friendship that has lasted over the years and the cross-country moves.
One day another elderly woman from my building stopped me while I was getting my mail. “You are Michelle, aren’t you?” she asked. After I confirmed this she continued, “Tina waxes poetically about you. You must come to dinner.” The woman’s name was Millie. She was a strong-willed, Jewish mother of imposing physical stature. I couldn’t have declined the invitation even if I wanted to.
On the evening of our dinner date I walked two stories down to Millie’s apartment. It was neat and tidy with 60s style furniture and artwork. The lamp bases on either end table were the torsos of naked women. Then and there I knew that Millie was one of a kind.
She served dinner on beautiful plates shaped like maple leaves; they were exquisite. I think she served chicken, but I vividly remember that she served me a roasted baked sweet potato still in its skin. All my life sweet potatoes had gone from can to 2-quart saucepan where they were covered with brown sugar and pancake syrup. I had never eaten an unadorned sweet potato in my life, and it was a revelation. It is still my favorite way to eat them.
Over dinner Millie and I shared our life stories. Of course, she had a lot more to say. She had worked as a nurse for most of her life and was the mother of two children. She and her husband moved to Chapel Hill from Princeton when he retired. He thought Chapel Hill some sort of “Princeton South”; Millie disagreed. Soon after the move, her husband developed multiple myeloma and died a horribly painful death. Millie herself was a breast cancer survivor. Clearly I was eating with a warrior.
Over the next several months our friendship grew. Millie suffered from terrible migraine headaches. Once, when asked by a doctor what she had tried for her migraines, she responded, “Everything but suicide.” During her episodes I would run to the grocery store for her or feed her cats so she didn’t have to get out of bed.
Shortly after we met, Millie was diagnosed with cancer. As I recall, she declined treatment though I may not be completely right about that. She began to fail quickly. One night she was very ill and called me. I ran downstairs and stayed with her. On her bedroom wall there was a mesmerizing photo of a woman standing on a hilltop with her back to the camera and her right arm outstretched. On her gloved right hand sat a magnificent bird of prey. Mille saw me staring at the photo, “It’s my daughter.” She told me how her daughter had try to rehabilitate the bird and set it free but the bird appeared to have some neurological problems and she ultimately had to give it to professional organization. “My daughter says the photo looks like a Tampax advertisement,” she noted dryily.
Eventually Millie’s condition became grave and she entered the inpatient hospice facility north of Chapel Hill. On a rainy morning I drove up to see her. She was groggy from the pain medications but able to have a conversation. She brought up the then-breaking Lewinsky scandal and stated, “ A man is nothing but a penis.” I laughed at her, but I think she was serious. Then she told me a hilarious story about a crush she had as a young nurse. Finally she had the opportunity to work with the object of her affection, a gorgeous doctor. But he seemed to be recoiling from her at every opportunity. It was only much later that she realized that the garlic sandwiches that she brought for lunch every day might have something to do with his revulsion. Apparently garlic can ward off all types of people, not just vampires.
She seemed to drift off to sleep for a while and I stayed by her bed. It was my first experience with death as an adult and I didn’t’ know what to do. Should I leave without saying good-bye? Should I wait until she awoke? I wasn’t sure. But I could see that Millie would soon be gone and I didn’t want to leave without saying good-bye. Eventually she awoke again but I wasn’t looking in her direction at the time. “You’re special,” she said to be softly, “You don’t know it yet, but you are. You are like my daughter. She doesn’t know that she is special either.”
Those words were among the last she spoke to me that day, and they have always remained with me. I don’t think she was just trying to be kind; I think she was trying to tell me something important. And I wonder what she saw that I could not see.
Millie passed away. Her daughter held a memorial service in Millie’s living room. We passed around a medal Millie had won in elementary school engraved with the word "character." We each had our turn to hold the medal and reflect on Millie. When Bill held the medal he posited that it was for being a character. I told the garlic story. It was a wonderful gathering.
In the following days her daughter asked me if there was anything I wanted to remember Millie. Of course, I wanted the plates but her daughter naturally was taking them. So I asked for the naked lady lamps much to Bill’s chagrin. We also took her dryer because we needed one.
The naked lady lamps did not survive the cross-country moves, but the dryer still runs in my laundry room; it is easily over 20 years old. I suppose I am one of those rare people whose only memento of a loved one is a major appliance. But seriously, sometimes I run my hand along the dryer and think of Millie and her words and hope that I am living up to them.