“I don't know
what I am, who I am or where I am” Betsy wails. “What am I doin'
here? I want to go home. Why won't you let me go home?”
“You are home
Auntie Betsy” I tell her. “This is your home and you know who you
are. What's your name? “
“I'm Betsy Wolfe” she answers.
“Almost right, Auntie Betsy. What's your
“I'm Betsy Watson. Mrs. Watson.”
She is quiet for a few moments and then
she says again, “I don't know what I am, who I am or where I am.
What am I doin' here? I want to go home. Why won't you let me go
Betsy is sitting on the edge of the bed.
She wears a navy blue and white print polyester dress, no bra, knee-highs
sagging around her surprisingly trim ankles and shapeless shoes.
Her wispy white hair is combed flat on her head and her teary eyes
are large and limpid behind thick lenses. Although it is a cool,
breezy day, her forehead and thick nose are shiny with sweat and
she dabs at it often with a tissue. We are sitting in her sunny room
in Heatherdale House, the assisted living residence she moved into
two years ago. Her ample frame makes a deep valley in the bed which
is covered by a bright golden yellow bedspread. There are pictures
of family and friends on the bureau and her window looks down on
a rose garden in full bloom.
I am re-arranging her photographs in a
new pocket album. The old one has become so tattered that the pictures
are getting dog-eared and falling out into the lumpy handbag she
carries with her everywhere. It's hard to know what to bring her
when I fly over once or twice a year from New York to London to visit
but the little photo albums I pick up for her in the drugstore are
always a good bet. I've brought gummed labels and I paste one on
each picture. “Mother in the garden at Palmers Green”, “Your sister
Rose”, “Cynthia's grandchildren”. Occupying myself with this task,
and showing her the photographs, I try to distract her from her agitated
“Let's go for a walk, Auntie Betsy.” I
say and we walk down the corridor together, hand in hand, Betsy lumbering
along, rolling slightly from side to side like a sailor newly ashore.
Other residents greet us.
“'”Ullo Betsy” they say. “Is that your
niece all the way from America?” and at last, she smiles.
”Yes,” she says. This is my niece, Cynthia.”
I sigh with relief that she remembers my
name. Her deterioration into the nightmare of Alzheimer's disease
is slow but relentless and I know that, one day, I will come and
she will have no idea who I am.
Betsy is my mother's youngest sister; the
last of my grandmother's five children. She is ninety three. No-one
in the family has lived so long.
She was born in 1910. At thirty two, my
grandmother, Rivke-Leah, had thought that her childbearing days were
over. The first four children had been born, “steps and stairs”,
every two years. When Betsy came along Fan, the oldest in the family,
was twelve and Rivke-Leah pressed her into service as baby-sitter
and general household help.
Although she was only four when Betsy was
born, my mother, Tilly, became her caretaker while the older children
were in school. Tilly didn't start school till she was seven when
word leaked out that the Wolfe family had another child at home who
was ready for school and the truant officer came calling.
Monday was wash day. At 5.30 am Rivke-Leah
attached a garden hose to the kitchen faucet filled the huge copper
boiler, and lit the gas jet underneath. When the water started to
heat up, she dropped in a cube of “Reckett's Blue” , filled the boiler
with the white clothes and sheets and, stirred them with a sawn off
broomstick. She baled steaming hot water out of the galvanized tub
on the stove into the kitchen sink and she started scrubbing the
diapers on a washboard before she added them to the copper boiler.
As soon as all the diapers were boiling, she picked up the baby,
sat on the rocking chair and nursed her. But when she put Betsy down
in the cradle, she refused to settle.
“Tilly”, she called “ Come here.”
Tilly came in from the girls' bedroom,
dragging her feet. She'd been playing with a rag doll – a dishtowel
rolled up to look like a real baby – and resented the interruption.
“ You can be a big help to Mama. How would
you like to take Betsy for a walk?”.
“Do I have to, Mama?” Tilly pouted.
“Yes you do.” Rivke-Leah insisted. “See
if you can get her to go to sleep. I think she has a tummyache”.
With the baby tucked snugly into the carriage,
Tilly started off down the street. She soon forgot her resentment
and she felt really grown up pushing the carriage, just like the
mummies in the neighborhood or the nursemaids she sometimes saw in
the park. She started to skip down the street, playing a sort of
hopscotch, hopping first on one foot, then on the other. She lifted
her hands from the carriage, only for a moment but the street had
become a steep hill and the carriage started careening down, bumping
on the cobbles. Tilly forgot hopscotch and started chasing after
the runaway carriage, a huge lump in her throat, her cheeks turned
flaccid and limp. In no time at all, the baby carriage was all the
way at the bottom of the hill and, oh my, it had tipped onto its
side and Betsy, swaddled in blankets, was rolling over and over in
the gutter. Tilly reached her charge and tried to pick her up but
the baby was heavy and awkward wrapped in all the blankets. A woman
stopped, sized up the situation, and accompanied the sobbing babysitter
and her charge back to the bouse.
“I remember how terrified I was.” my mother
told me. “I watched the carriage bumping over the cobbles, and I
could hear Betsy screeching. If that kind woman hadn't taken me home,
no-one would have known about it. I would have been too scared to
When Betsy was about ten months old, eleven
year old Rosie decided to surprise Rivke-Leah by getting the baby
ready for bed before her mother came home from marketing, heavily
laden with bags of fish and potatoes. Rosie put the galvanized tin
tub on the stove and filled it with water. After about ten minutes,
she tested the water temperature with her elbow just like her mother
did. She asked her brother Goody to help her lift the heavy bathtub
off the stove and onto the kitchen floor and she undressed Betsy
and gently lowered her into the lukewarm water. But when she put
Betsy in the tub, the baby screamed and refused to sit down. Rosie
held Betsy's arms and tried to push her into a sitting position,
but the slippery baby writhed out of her grasp and struggled to stand
up, slithering all over the tub. Of course, the bottom of the bathtub
was red hot. Twelve year old Fan summed up the situation immediately,
pulled Betsy out and tried to comfort her before her mother came
The worst accident occurred when she was
about fourteen months old. One Thursday afternoon, Rivke-Leah went
marketing and left Fan in charge. Betsy was in a large cradle on
the floor next to the fireplace and Fan was trying to rock her to
sleep. But Betsy insisted on sitting up in the little bed and rocking
herself violently. Suddenly, the cradle tipped over and Betsy fell
out, hitting her head hard against the brass fender that surrounded
the open fireplace. She lay on the floor, limp and silent. After
a few moments that seemed like an hour to the other children, she
stirred and started to cry and, much to Fan's relief, she soon lay
back in the cradle and fell asleep. Fan instructed the other three
“Don't tell Ma. I'll give you each a ha'penny
if you promise not to tell”. Goody, Rose and Tilly swore they'd keep
the secret and when Rivke-Leah came home Betsy was fast asleep. She
slept an abnormally long time, not waking till 10 the next morning.
Rivke-Leah was glad to have uninterrupted time to complete her chores
preparing for the weekend. But when Betsy did wake up, she cried
inconsolably and kept on hitting her head with her fist. Nothing
would calm her. By Tuesday, when this behavior had continued for
four days, Rivke-Leah took her to the doctor. He felt the huge bump
on Betsy's head, saw that the baby's eyes were not focusing properly
and asked Rivke-Leah what had happened. My grandmother couldn't answer
him. She explained that she often left Betsy in Fan's care and he
told her to ask Fan how Betsy had banged her head.
When Rivke-Leah got home, she asked,
“Fanny, How did Betsy hurt her head?”
“I dunno” Fan answered, looking down at
Rivke-Leah stood the other three children
in a row and asked them the same question. She was weeping now, rubbing
her hands on her face, clutching the fractious baby to her breast.
“What happened to her?” she sobbed, “My
poor Betsy-leben, My poor Betsy-lovey.”
Tilly had spent her ha'penny already. “I
know what happened” she piped up.
But knowing the cause of Betsy's concussion
didn't do anything to heal the harm that had been done to her. After
a couple of weeks, she stopped hitting her head with her fist but,
whenever she misbehaved or did poorly in school, people would say “Well,
what d'you expect? She was dropped on her head when she was a baby.”
Betsy soon assumed the special role of
family troublemaker. The other four children were good students,
obedient and well behaved. Rivke-Leah and her husband, Shlomo-Zalman
were proud of their four good looking, high achieving children. Betsy,
however, floundered in school. She was inattentive and uninterested
in her lessons and she soon learned that she could attract a lot
of attention by misbehaving. She became a frequent truant and a glib
liar. She habitually stole money from her mother's handbag and escaped
from school to the comforting darkness of the local cinema where
she loved to lose herself in the breast-heaving romances of the silent
movies. By the time she was thirteen, she'd made her name for herself
in the family as a “wild child”.
“I used to loved goin' to the cinema,” Betsy
told me when I was a teenager. “But I was always in trouble. Once
a boy took me to the pictures and gave me a box of chocolates. When
I got home, I offered them round to everyone and Ma said, ‘where'd'you
get those?' I told her a boy had given them to me. Ma said that a
boy doesn't give you such things for nothing. She told Daddy and
he took the belt off the sewing machine and beat me with it. Ooh,
it didn't half hurt.”
I asked my mother how her parents could
have been so mean to Betsy.
“Mean?” my mother said. “What did she tell
you?” I repeated Betsy's story. “That's not how it happened,” my
mother sniffed. “Mother emptied Betsy's pockets to wash her dress
and she found a condom. She didn't know what it was, so she showed
it to Daddy. He'd never seen anything like it and he took it to Goody.
Poor Goody was so embarrassed having to explain what it was. That's
when Daddy took the belt off the sewing machine and beat her. My
parents didn't know what to do with her. They were at their wits'
When she was fourteen, Betsy left school.
My grandparents expected her to apprentice to one of the needle trades – dressmaking
or tailoring. But Betsy hated sewing and she had no talent for it.
She begged to be allowed to learn hairdressing and my grandfather
reluctantly agreed. She enjoyed the work and became an expert at
Marcel waves and permanents
She was still a constant worry to her parents.
Even though the other children had left school at the same age, they
read serious books and were interested in politics, opera, and the
theatre. Betsy stayed out late and ran with a wild group of flappers
and their beaus.
One day, Goody was invited to a party.
As he was getting ready to leave, Rivke-Leah asked him to take Betsy
with him. He must have been terribly resentful at being asked to
take his fifteen year old little sister to a party where most people
would be in their twenties but Goody, always the dutiful son, agreed
to take her along.
It was usual to play parlor games at such
gatherings; charades and word games were popular and, at this party,
they decided to play “Think, Word, Letter,” an elimination game in
which you set up a clapping rhythm, and go around the circle in turn.
The first person might say “Think, elephant, R.” The next person
in the circle would have to think of a word beginning with “R” so
they would say “Think rattle T.” and the next person would say “Think
Triangle P” and so on. First the rhythm is established and, as the
game progresses, it gets faster and faster. This is an elimination
game, like musical chairs. The first person unable to think of a
word, or who breaks the rhythm, is “out”. Betsy sat down with the
others to play but Goody looked over to her and said “Don't you play
this.” He knew she would be hopeless at this game.
“I wouldn't've minded being the first one
out if he'd let me play. I was so ashamed when he made me leave the
circle so that he could play with all his clever friends.”
Pushed aside by her family, Betsy found
her own level. Her friends were children of janitors or costermongers
who had stalls in the vegetable market. She borrowed money from her
sisters which she never returned. She often came home in the wee
hours of the morning and her parents were deeply concerned that she
would one day get pregnant.
Betsy and I have a cup of tea and a piece
of cake in the dining room and we walk along the sunlit corridor
hand in hand. Back in her room, I pull out a big, black photograph
album with a scuffed cover. It is full of snapshots of Betsy on vacation
in the Channel Islands in the early 1930's. She is very slim, wearing
shorts or a sagging bathing suit and every picture shows her with
a different young man. Her arms are often draped around their necks
or she is leaning over them, lips pursed ready to give her partner
a juicy kiss. Finally I find the picture I'm looking for.
“Who's this?” I ask her
“That's Jim,” she says. “Jim Watson. Isn't
he handsome?” The photograph shows a square jawed man in his thirties.
He has a thin, slightly turned up nose and a shock of wavy blond
hair. His teeth protrude slightly like a doll's. This is my Uncle
Betsy met Jim when she was vacationing
on the Isle of Jersey in 1935. He lived in London and worked as a
janitor at the Metropolitan Water Board in Islington, a tough, neighborhood
in North London. Jim was from a poor, working class family. He'd
been in the navy in World War 1 and, when his ship was torpedoed,
he'd clung to a spar in the icy water for more than twenty four hours.
This was the reason given for his stammer.
It was a stammer like no other I have ever
heard. Combined with an almost unintelligible Cockney accent, each
sentence was painfully, long-windedly spoken.
“'Allallallallallall-ow, Cyn-cyn-cyn-cyn-whasaname-cyn-cynfia” he
would greet me. “''ow-‘ow-‘ow-‘ow-‘ow-‘ow-‘ow-whasaname-‘ow-‘ow are yer?”
And, of course, he was not Jewish.
No-one in the Wolfe family had ever married “out”.
Unlike their parents, Rivke-Leah and Shlomo-Zalman who moved exclusively
in Jewish circles, the children had Christian friends who they met
at work or on vacation but Betsy's sisters and brother wouldn't consider
dating any of these friends. They knew how grieved their parents
would be if they were to marry a gentile and all four of them were
extremely dutiful children. The commandment, “Honor thy father and
thy mother”, was not a hollow saying to them. It was a creed.
When Betsy and Jim came home from vacation,
they started seeing each other regularly but she never brought him
home to meet the family. Finally, in 1937, they were secretly married
in a registry office ceremony. Betsy continued to live at home in
my grandmother's house. (My grandfather had died ten years earlier)
and, on weekends, she would tell her mother that she was going to
stay with one of her girl friends. After a year and a half of this
routine, my Aunt Rose begged Betsy to tell her mother about the marriage
and to bring Jim home to meet everyone.
It was the custom to “sit shiva” for a
child who had married out of the faith; to treat them as if they
had died, mourn for them and then to cut them off from the family
entirely. But my Grandmother couldn't bear the idea of cutting off
her child. When Betsy finally brought Jim home and confessed that
she was already married, I remember my Grandmother, grief-stricken,
rocking back and forth in a kitchen chair, wiping her swollen red
eyes with a corner of her apron, and sobbing,
“If he vanted to marry me, I vouldn't hev
Jim was putty in Betsy's hands. After she
had introduced him to the family, she asked him to convert to Judaism
and in 1939, at the age of forty two, he went into hospital to be
circumcised and he studied for conversion with a liberal Rabbi who
performed a Jewish wedding ceremony in my Grandmother's living room
But, in spite of his efforts to join the
family, my mother's sisters and brother were united in their attitude
to Betsy and Jim. They were uniformly ashamed of them. Although they
were always included in gatherings of the immediate family, they
were never invited to weddings or other large family celebrations.
Our extended family was now entering the professions. My cousins
became doctors, lawyers and CPA's and they married “well”. Betsy
and Jim were treated like double skeletons in our family cupboard
Jim was hard-working and conscientious
at his job and he was promoted to the position of head housekeeper
at the Metropolitan Water Board. They moved into an apartment on
the top floor of the building where they lived till he retired. He
appeared to be a model, if somewhat boring husband.
One day, when I was fourteen, I was on
my way to the theatre and stopped in to visit them there. When it
was time to leave, he took me down in the elevator and, in the overheated,
cramped space, surrounded by mirrors reflecting the glaring light,
he groped for my breasts and pressed wet, panting kisses on my face
while I tried to reach the button marked “G” so that I could escape
into the cool air of the London evening.
I look at his picture and shudder slightly
and I find a picture of a smiling, tow-headed baby but I turn the
page quickly before Betsy can see it.
It's time to clean out Betsy's weighty
handbag. Bags of boiled sweets, a cheese and tomato sandwich dotted
with blue mold and wrapped in a napkin, and then, at the bottom,
a doll with real hair and a jaunty smile and a little teddy bear.
“Aren't these nice!” I say. “Who gave them
“I don't remember.” she replies.
“You always liked dolls, didn't you, Auntie
“Yes. I love dolls.” She says, dully.
It's time for me to leave. I kiss her clammy
“Will you come back?” she asks.
“Yes.” I say.” I'll be back the day after
Two days later, I find Betsy, sitting by
a window, reading the “Daily Mirror” and whistling a little tune.
“Hullo darlin'” she says. “Are you here
for your holidays?”
“Yes. But I'm going home soon. Back to
New York. Look, Auntie Betsy. I've brought you a present.”
I pass her a big shopping bag and she pulls
out a baby doll with a dimpled, smiling face and eyes that open and
“Ooh!” she says. “Thank you so much, darlin'.
How lovely. I love her.” She kisses the doll's face, lifts it up
to her shoulder and pats its back gently. “She's goin' to be so spoilt.” She
says and her eyes fill with tears. “I don't know why,” She says. “I'm
so happy that you brought her and I do love her, but I feel sad too.
I don't mean to but I just do.” She sits dreamily in her chair, patting
the doll gently. Then she cradles it in her arms.
In 1940, Betsy became pregnant. Although
my grandmother was not resigned to Betsy's marriage, she was excited
at the prospect of a new baby. As Betsy's time drew near, my grandmother
and her friends guessed the sex of the child. Carry high and it would
be a girl; low and it would be a boy. A needle was suspended on a
thread over her belly. Swinging in a circle signified a girl; if
it swung back and forth, it would be a boy. It was hard to determine
the pattern so opinions were evenly divided. When her time came,
Betsy was in labor for more than twenty four hours and her baby girl
was delivered stillborn. The next year, she was pregnant again. The
atmosphere around her was electrically tense and this time, when
the baby was born, the cord was wrapped around his neck and he died
also. It was 1943 now and Betsy was thirty three – getting old for
bearing children – and now she found that she was unable to conceive.
Jim said to my mother “Uv-uv-uv-uv-whasername-uv-uvver women jist ‘as
to lif-lif-lif-lif-lif-whasername lif-lif-lift their skirts and they
Finally, my cousin Martin was delivered
by Caesarian section on July 24, 1946.
Martin was a sunny-natured baby with white-blond
hair and his father's china-blue eyes. My grandmother and aunt Rose
doted on him and baby-sat with him often. My brother, a year older
than Colin, was a colicky baby who cried most of the time. He had
a stubborn nature and temper tantrums. The contrast between the two
cousins was palpable and Martin was clearly the favorite.
Betsy was thrilled with her newborn but,
soon after Martin's first birthday, when he began to assert his independence
a little, she became very impatient with him. If he didn't obey her,
she smacked hit him often. He soon became a mass of nervous tics
and, when he began to speak, he stammered. By the time he was two
and a half, his behavior had become rather bizarre. He flapped his
hands, rocked back and forth, and poked his finger in his eye with
a twisting motion. As he grew older, he became obsessed with the
timetables of London Transport and, by the time he was eight, he
could give you directions to any location in London, telling you
where to change buses or get on the Underground. I believe he was
mildly autistic and that he may have had Asberger's syndrome – a
manifestation of autism which includes nervous tics, difficulty socializing
with others, and obsessive “idiot savant” type of learning. Betsy
took him from one doctor to another to try to find treatment for
his unusual behavior but no-one seemed to be able to help him. Betsy
sent him to a Jewish day school and he grew up to be good at mathematics
and conscientious at any job he took on – just like his father. When
he was twenty, he decided to move to Israel where he lived on a kibbutz
and his good work habits were valued. He would have stayed there
but Jim became very ill with emphysema and he came home, moved back
in with his parents and never left. After Jim died, Martin became
Betsy's constant companion. She still shouted at him if he didn't
do as he was told but he clearly adored his mother, called her “My
lamb” and seemed content to live with her and chauffeur her to the
supermarket or Bingo games. Living at home, doing sedentary work
and taking virtually no exercise, he became obese and, when he was
forty two, he dropped dead on the floor of the living room where
Betsy found him when she came home from her Bingo game.
Betsy holds the doll tight on her shoulder
patting it rhythmically.
“I always wanted a baby of my own.” She
says. “I didn't have any children did I?”
“No”. I lie. “But you can take care of
this one now.”
I am amazed that Alzheimer's disease can
be a blessing