“They’re stealing my things, you know. Their faces are soft and smug. And they steal my things,” the old woman said. She rocked, remembering the nurses’ cool, rough hands.
“You’ve seen them, Mother?” Elizabeth asked.
“No, I didn’t see them, but when I come back things are gone. That one, with the auburn hair, I’ve seen her looking at me. They’re bold, these girls. I told her, ‘Don’t think you can steal my things right out from under my nose!’ She just smiled at me and said, ‘I’ll fetch your pill,’ the hussy. ‘I won’t be taking any pills from you, my girl,’ I told her. She smiled at me.”
“Don’t let it upset you, Mother. No one’s stealing your things.”
“Well, then, where’s my little china vase – the one your father got me?”
“You must have dropped it. You should wear your glasses.”
“I tell you, they took my glasses.” She gripped the arms of her chair hard, and tipped forward as far as it would rock.
“Oh, Mother, what would they do that for?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they keep them in a big glass jar someplace. A collection; like some folks keep marbles, or pennies or seashells — just like to look at them and gloat.” She rocked faster. “They’re stealing my things, Bethie. And you’ve got to do something about it!”
“Well, I can’t do anything about it because they’re not stealing your things!” Elizabeth stood up and brushed off her ample, spotless skirt. “Let me get you your shawl. You look cold.”
“My red shawl is gone,” her mother went on. “You remember, I used to wear it with my red skirt. And when I danced,” she lifted one arm for a moment, in a well-practiced, flamenco curve over her head, “Everything twirled like fire.”
Elizabeth draped a grey-tinged, pink shawl over the old woman’s shoulders. It made her mother look like a toy bunny that had lost most of its stuffing and now sat with one side gone limp.
“Oh, Mother, it’s been ages since you danced. How am I supposed to remember one red sweater?”
“Bethie, would you dance with me?” The older woman held out her arms.
“We don’t have any music.”
“Well, then turn on the radio, dammit.”
“Okay, dear.” Her daughter’s voice was resigned. She took her mother’s hands gently. They had been such big hands once. It terrified Elizabeth to feel their tiny weight in hers.
Once she’d helped the old woman to her feet, she let her stand for a moment. The song on the radio was Muzak: “A Summer Place.” Elizabeth carefully removed her grey pumps and placed them side-by-side on the floor. Then the two women gingerly formed a circle with their hands.
The older woman shuffled slowly at first in her pink, fuzzy slippers. The younger one watched her own feet, stiffly careful in their slippery nylons but lighter than she had remembered. The women made one pass across the grey-flecked linoleum and then another.
At first they were short, abrupt steps. Then with small flourishes; they slowly turned around and round.
The older woman closed her eyes and rested her head against her daughter’s shoulder. “One, two, three… one, two, three,” she murmured as they danced. She touched her own hair softly with one hand.
“My red hair is gone, too.” She almost whispered now. “Used to be all the way down my back.” She smiled and touched her fingers to her lips.
Elizabeth looked down at the thin, grey strands she had pretended to comb that morning and closed her eyes.
She’d been six-years old in a huge room. It must have been a ballroom — there was a silver globe on the ceiling that made the floor sparkle, as shadowy circles flew past. Her mother had said “One, two, three” over and over and over — like a magic spell — and told her to watch her feet. She saw her feet in stockings, dancing in a sky filled with diamonds. They danced through the stars, and when it was all over she looked up and saw — no, not a sweater at all. How could she forget the red shawl – the fringes flying until they blended together, and her mother twirled like a flame. “I’m tired,” Elizabeth heard.
Elizabeth opened her eyes. The music had stopped.
“I’m tired,” her mother repeated.
“Yes dear.” She dropped her arms. “Let me help you to bed.” She lifted the old woman into bed, tucked the shawl around her and under her chin. “I know what’s stealing your things,” Elizabeth said, and sat down. “But there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.”
“You’re a good girl, Elizabeth.” Elizabeth’s mother patted her cheek. “You’ve always been a good girl. But you’re a coward. Now say goodnight, so I can get some rest.” She closed her eyes.
Elizabeth watched her mother’s hand. It looked too white against the shawl and she reached to touch it when her mother opened her eyes and spoke again, brightly.
“Bring me some chocolates next time you come. But don’t bring them in a chocolate box. Put them in a brown bag, so they won’t find them. They steal my things, you know.”
Elizabeth leaned forward and covered the hand with hers. “Yes, dear. I’ll bring you chocolates next time. And no one will steal them. I’ll stay here, and stand guard until you’ve eaten every single one.”
Recently returned to writing, Chana Feinstein teaches a workshop on how to get over writer’s block. Daughter Dance won a prize from the California Writer’s Club. She writes, won prizes and has published across genres and is currently working on a memoir and a Musical.