A Necessary Deception
Fantasy escapes me. Hobbit, Star Trek, Batman and Potter worlds don’t engage me. Call it a defect, but personally speaking, my friends are more fantastical than an Orc or an Ewok.
And yet there are times when fantasy creeps into my life, as it did via my mother’s mother. Ruth was her given name, but she had an alias in her teens. After she left her family’s farm, the only way Ruth could find work was to become Dianna. The deception worked. By day, she was a department store clerk. By night, she partied in Wisconsin’s beer gardens — dancing, laughing and having the time of her life. That’s where she met her future husband Joseph. Ruth and Joseph were married in a Bakersfield, California cotton field three years later and spent the next 40 years — until Joseph’s death — in love. Ten years after his death, Ruth’s mental facilities began deteriorating. Senility, you might say, brought her to live with my parents. Their house was never the same. In Ruth’s eyes my father Frank was her Uncle Harry. My mother, her daughter, Betty Lou was Aunt Elizabeth. Harry and Elizabeth were long dead, but that didn’t stop Ruth from enjoying an afternoon with them — and she didn’t stop her imaginings at swapping the dead for the living. She imagined settings, situations, livestock. My parent’s Laguna Niguel tract home back yard filled with fantasy cows and chickens. “Did you milk the cows, Harry,” Ruth would say to Frank. Reality became negotiable.
After seeing the cows were milked and the chickens were fed, Ruth began the search for her Social Security check. The check was either cashed or about to arrive, but Ruth would have none of that reality. Instead she asked, “Where’s my Social Security check?” incessantly. My mother turned the current month’s calendar page into a dining room table place mat for Ruth marking the date her check arrived. She also taped the actual real life monthly check stub to Ruth’s bathroom mirror and walked Ruth to it each time she was asked “Where’s my social security check?” “There it is, Mom,” Betty Lou said. There was upwards of a half dozen instructional visits to the mirror every afternoon. None of them seemed to transport Ruth out of her make believe world. They did, however, turn my mother’s patience into emotional instability.
Ruth also developed a fantasy about her wardrobe. She was convinced that someone had broken into her bedroom and stolen her clothes. In their place were counterfeits. “These aren’t my clothes,” Ruth would say as she threw her unrecognized dresses, blouses, bras and panties out her door into the hallway. The clothes fantasy occurred at least twice a week. In response my mother, Betty Lou, made the decision to devote her life to correcting Ruth — back to reality. “These are your clothes, Mother.” “There are no cows, Mother.” “I’m not Aunt Elizabeth, Mother” — every day… for years. Eventually, it was hard to tell who was living the fantasy.
One day, when my daughter Shannon and I were babysitting Ruth alone, we heard the call. “These aren’t my clothes,” Ruth screamed tossing a handful of dresses into the hallway. I figured it was time to take Ruth at her word. These weren’t her clothes. They were forgeries.
I told my daughter to pick up a pencil and paper, and follow my lead. We knocked outside Ruth’s door. When we entered her room, I identified myself as Detective Callahan of the Los Angeles Police Department, Hollywood Division. My daughter was Deputy Detective Shannon.
“How long have your clothes been missing, mam?” I asked Ruth.
“Have you noticed any suspicious activity around your closet?”
“What exactly is missing?”
Shannon kept notes. I told my grandmother that the department would “get some officers on her case immediately.” Ruth seemed satisfied with the response of two upstanding civil servants.
A few months later my grandmother celebrated her 100 birthday. When the party was over, I started to give her a hug. Instead, she took my hand and began dancing with me. Who had I become? Were we in Wisconsin? Was I Joseph? Was she Dianna? I did my best waltzing around the family room to no music.
“You’re a wonderful dancer,” Ruth said.
It was 1924. And I danced with Ruth and kissed her goodbye.
That was the last time I saw her. Three days later, she was dead. The opportunity presented itself for a last hour visit to an unconscious body at a hospital. But I declined. It was a necessary deception.
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