Aging With Grace

by Susan Berg

Time Breaks Sometimes
Summary
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Chapter One: How an Actress Became A Paid Caregiver in Detroit

My name is Grace. I’m fifty-one years old, standing here in the mobile home I’ve been living in for the past seven years. It’s a wreck. My stuff is strewn all over the place and most of the mess I created myself. The rest was done by an unknown bastard who broke into my place looking for—what? Cash? Jewelry? Priceless art? Who would expect to find anything of value to fence in a crummy old single-wide trailer with a rusty metal roof, a rotting front door, and a dingy yellow fiberglass tub with a huge crack that is evolving into a hole. When I take a shower, I have to place my feet on either side of the crack because I fear I’ll fall through the tub, rip through the pink insulation underneath, and land on the cement block at ground level. Butt-overweight-naked.

I’ve tried putting down layers of clear shipping tape to seal the crack in the tub as best I can, but it’s a temporary fix and sooner rather than later, the tape peels up and water leaks through, soaking the insulation. If I do fall through the tub, I’ll have to try to climb back up the way I came in without scraping and cutting myself on the fiberglass. Either that, or remove a section of the aluminum skirting along the bottom of the trailer and wriggle out through the crawl space.

The only reason there is a crawl space is because the trailer is sitting on cinder blocks rather than a permanent foundation and the skirting hides the blocks as if a curtain is drawn across something unseemly that you really don’t want to be looking at. Like me, butt-overweight-naked.

I call the police and then I do a quick check to see what’s missing before they arrive. My walnut silverware chest is open on the floor, but it’s never stored any sterling. I’ve always wanted to have a set of sterling silver flatware, but I couldn’t justify the expense, so it’s all silver plate and not worth much of anything. I still have my complete service for twelve of Minton bone china in the Bellemeade pattern with tiny periwinkle flowers and platinum trim. It includes all the platters, coffeepot, teapot, gravy boat, and I can’t recall what else because I haven’t used it in years. In my present financial condition, I would have done better to invest in the sterling and settle for Noritake china made in Japan. Thirty years ago, I could afford to be an English bone china snob. Today, not a chance.

I look around to try to figure out what else the thief got into before the cops arrive. No time for that now. Only one officer is dispatched and he’s here within minutes. A routine break-in at a manufactured home community—a glorified trailer park—is hardly worth the effort of writing up an incident report. I show the cop how the front door was ajar when I came home, but not broken into. How did he get in? The policeman looks around and does not know where to start. I am ashamed to tell him that most of the mess is mine, but I own up to it. I am relieved he is not taking photos or a video recording because this is no part of my domestic life I want memorialized. Anyway, it’s not like it’s a murder scene.

While the cop slops around, I walk down the hall to my sleeping room with the French Provincial white canopy bedroom set I’ve had since I was twelve years old. It appears to be untouched. The second bedroom is at the back of the trailer and one of the windows is smashed in. The dresser is in front of the window and the glass is broken above the dresser in such a way that only a very small adult or a child could crawl over the top of the dresser to get in. Someone had to lift the little bugger through the broken window and then he must have unlocked the front door to let in his larger accomplice.

Actually, this is my eleven-year-old son Joshua’s bedroom. I’m glad he’s not here to see this. Besides, he’s at the age where he’d rather be living ten minutes away at his father Carl’s four thousand square foot house and who can blame him? The property is an outdoorsman’s dream on three acres at the end of a private dirt road, bordering state land with no public access. There is an eighty-year-old manmade lake that is rarely inhabited by humans except for Josh and a friend or two where they catch-and-release fish or build a makeshift fort out of thin sturdy sassafras trees and an old green tarp. The other side of the lake is a heavily treed state recreation area with a pristine view that will never be built on. It reminds me of vacationing in a remote area way up north like Christmas, Michigan, in the upper peninsula just outside of Munising.

Carl’s house is one of only two homes on the entire lake. It has no beach, but it does have cattails and invasive phragmites that grow over six feet tall. It’s an aquatic jungle. If you still want to swim without a beach, you’ll quickly be dissuaded due to the snapping turtles, water snakes, mucky bottom, and ominous vegetation hiding God knows what else. On dry land, there are birds of prey, fox, and even coyote sightings. At the shoreline, Carl and Josh once discovered the dead body of a neighbor’s little dog with its head missing. Gruesome!

Returning to my living room, I see the cop has sprinkled his black ash fingerprint powder all over my white bookshelves. Before I have time to bitch about it, I spy one of my bras hanging sloppily over the back of a chair. Shit! I grab a kitchen towel from the counter and throw it over my shame. At least it isn’t a pair of my big old white cotton granny panties, but still... The cop yells at me, “Don’t touch anything! Don’t move anything!” I sheepishly respond, "Please. I am embarrassed to have you looking at my brassiere.” Brassiere? I never use that word. Well, it sounds less personal than bra. The cop is close to my own age, so the bra seems like erotic lingerie, even though my Maidenform has long gone gray from too many washings with incompatible garments. If he was twenty years younger, it wouldn’t matter as much because I’m no Cougar.

At least I didn’t use the word bustier while standing in the middle of a trashy trailer. That would have been wildly incongruous. The cop isn’t impressed with my upscale language. He looks like he’s about to bark at me again. Before he gets a chance I timidly say, “Okay. I won’t touch anything else.”

While the officer is spreading his ash around, I walk into the kitchen and there is my yellow ceramic Bavarian piggy bank with the hand-painted lederhosen that reads Frankenmuth, Michigan. This little piggy is smashed all over the floor and he ain’t going wee, wee, wee all the way home ever again. If only the culprit had taken the time to shake the bank first, he’d have known the piggy was empty and I’d still have my keepsake.

Not only is my place ransacked, I recently lost my freelance job as a performing artist, portraying historical characters for elementary school assembly programs. I’ve played numerous First Ladies in my original one-woman shows that I researched and wrote including Abigail Adams, Frances Cleveland, Grace Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and even Betty Ford. The grant awarded to the school districts was not renewed, and I’m at a loose end because my passion has always been deeply rooted in the performing arts, ever since the age of twelve when I played Wendy Grown-Up in the musical, “Peter Pan.” My character didn’t even hit the stage until the last ten minutes of the show, but I found the anticipation exhilarating. Rather than goofing around backstage like the other kids, I watched the rest of the cast from the wings, transfixed. All it took was one show and I was hooked. Ha. Ha. Captain Hook.

Wait a minute. Amidst the kitchen clutter, I spy a small red smudge on the countertop and the cupboard door. Blood! Someone cut himself when he broke open the piggy bank. I am giddy with excitement for being a super sleuth as I call to the cop, “Officer! There’s blood in the kitchen and it’s not mine!” He walks over and stares at the little red spots. “Uh, huh. Looks like blood all right.” He’s not nearly as proud of me as I am. A sincere attagirl from law enforcement would be nice, but he’s not the type. Maybe he thinks I’m trying to do his job, showing him up. This isn’t a contest.

The cop takes over from here, walks out to his squad car and returns with something that resembles a DNA swab kit I’ve seen on TV crime dramas. I’m not watching him collect the specimen because he might object to me looking over his shoulder, which can be intimidating or just plain annoying. He seems like the type that is more likely to be annoyed than intimidated, so I back off.

It stumps me how I allowed myself to wind up in this hellhole in the first place. When I left Carl’s house, I moved into a three-bedroom apartment for a year that I could ill afford. The move to the trailer was heavily promoted by an actor named David. I started seeing him six months after I moved into the apartment. In fact, most of the major decisions in my life have to do with the influence a man has wielded upon me, usually to my detriment. The better side of me knew I should not get involved with this brilliant actor because he had a vast reputation for being a pothead and a hothead. When David isn’t stoned on stage, he’s throwing temper tantrums off-stage and over the years it got so bad that most of the theatrical community would no longer work with him even if he is the Anthony Hopkins of Detroit. The mutual attraction was irresistible, and I succumbed to a three-year tempestuous relationship until I just couldn’t take it anymore even though David stopped smoking dope a year into the relationship (my ultimatum) and the sex was spectacular (his ultimatum.) David’s plan was for me to leave Josh in his father’s care so we could be free to traipse all over the country as vagabond actors. My first allegiance has to be to my son, no matter what. The breakup with David was six years ago and I’ve been celibate ever since. That’s when I started to put on weight, and I’m still in this damn trailer while David is living in Manhattan with his guitar, singing in a subway station for tips.

The cop’s got what he needs, I thank him, and he’s gone. I’m alone again with my chaos, my broken piggy bank, and my gray brassiere. I walk to the back bedroom and push the dresser away from the broken window so I can harvest the freshly shattered glass out of the worn multi-colored shag carpet that was here when I moved in seven years ago. I carefully pick out the pieces of the former window with my bare hands, sticking them in a brown paper grocery bag. Any minuscule bits I vacuum up and then go over everything several times to make sure no glass will wind up in someone’s toesies. Especially my son’s.

Carl and I have co-parented Josh since the day he was born. We were never married, so there was no contentious divorce to deal with, just a mutually agreeable break up when Josh was three years old. We tried couples counseling, but it wasn’t working. Especially when I found out while still living together as a “family” that Carl was otherwise engaged on internet sites for singles. Gratefully, we’ve never had to go to court to fight for custody or child support. We fight about other things.

At the age of eleven, Josh is moving through his age of innocence into social awareness and status. When Josh was four, he was blissfully unaware of the stigma attached to living in a trailer park, but now he’s rapidly approaching the time when he’ll have to contend with the trailer trash jokes, the judgment, the curiosity about what went wrong and how he wound up here in the first place. I harshly judge myself. I am ashamed of residing in an old mobile home and I don’t want anyone to know where I live. I should be doing better than this. Or maybe this is the best I can do and I refuse to accept it. Either way, the fact that the trailer lacks foundation is an analogy in itself of how my life has been going for the past several years. At least a foundation on stable cinder block is better than shifting sand.

I desperately need another source of income. Performing live theater in Detroit is not going to pay the bills for me or for anyone else I know of on a long-term basis (with very few exceptions.) Over the years, I evolved into a big fish in a little pond on the Detroit theater scene. I was nominated for Best Actress by the Detroit Free Press in two consecutive years. I earned my union card and became a proud member of Actors’ Equity Association. My break out role was playing Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in a little black box theater that seats seventy-five people max if you sit elbow-to-elbow. The local theater critic wrote, “I cannot imagine a better Martha, and yes, I’ve seen Elizabeth Taylor in the movie.” I do not share Miss Taylor’s great beauty, but I do share her weight problem.

That was four years ago and you’re only as good as your next performance. How quickly people forget the roles you played on stage because most theatre actors will never be eternally preserved the way they are in movies and TV. No one is going to applaud my long-running show as the single mother of Josh even though it’s my favorite role. Besides, who’s going to make sure my son does his homework every night while I’m rehearsing or performing? Not his Dad. You have to sit on the kid or it won’t get done. I am the “fun” parent and also the taskmaster, switching from one role to another at a moment’s notice. Theater is a selfish profession and not conducive to parenting a child without a lot of support. No matter what is happening at home, the show must go on.

I scour the Help Wanted ads of my local paper, looking for a job I am qualified for that will pay a living wage, will not feel like torture, and will give me ample time with Josh. My eyes land on the following ad: “Seeking a live-in caregiver for an ambulatory gentleman who is a stroke survivor. Private living area and food included with a daily stipend.” Hmmm. I’ve always been good at taking care of other people, so why not get paid for it?

I phone for an interview and meet my potential client, Robert, the very next day. He is seventy-one years old. Due to his stroke, all he can say is “boo-boo” and “goddamn,” but he thinks he is speaking in complete sentences and it’s up to me to figure out what he wants. His daughter lives three hours out of town and is there merely for the interview. She shows me a children’s picture book dictionary with illustrations of different food items, articles of clothing, holidays, family members, etc., that Robert points to in order to communicate his desires. I converse with the daughter but frequently refer back to Robert, asking him “yes” or “no” questions that he can nod or shake his head in response to. I know how important it is not to talk about someone in their presence as if they aren’t even there. People hate that.

It was never my ambition to become a caregiver for senior citizens in private homes or anywhere else for that matter. I’ve been praying for a huge sign from a higher power as to whether or not I should continue to live in this worn-out trailer. In my world, having your home pillaged is a flashing neon sign from the universe: “Get the hell outta here!”

I am offered the job the very next day. I have no experience as a paid caregiver, so why choose me? I can’t bother about that question and what does it matter? I need a job, I want to move, it’s show time with no script! All improv. Flying by the seat of my pants. I am scared. I’ve never played this role before, and I intuitively know that caregiving Robert is going to be a life-altering commitment.

In order for me to live in a real house, I am giving up theater in the foreseeable future. My schedule with Robert is that I will be on call around the clock as needed for ten days in a row followed by four days off. My break works out to a four-day weekend every other week. Even Broadway actors don’t perform ten nights in a row.

I have to decide what I’ll take with me, what to get rid of and what goes into my rented mini-storage. I certainly can’t take my 1928 upright player piano with dozens of music rolls to Robert’s house. These days, a player piano is very difficult to sell and then there’s the cost of moving this monstrosity. I wind up selling it off to a friend for two hundred dollars and he also pays to have it moved to his house. I had many pleasant sing-alongs with that piano, but that was years ago and I’m not in much of a singing mood these days anyway. At least the piano has a good home and I can visit it anytime I want to.

As far as the trailer, I consult with the onsite manager about what my options are for selling it. According to their rules, in order for me to get rid of this dump, the rusty roof has to be replaced, it needs a new side door because the fiberglass is peeling off, and it most definitely needs a new bathtub. Carl bought the thing in the first place which is the most generous thing he’s ever done for me or probably will ever do for me, so I consult with him. We both agree the repairs are not worth fixing, so I sign the title over to the on-site manager and he takes possession of the trailer. No sale. I assume he will scrap the thing.

As I drive away, I wonder about who broke into the trailer and will they ever find the culprits. I can’t bother about this because in a way they were doing me a favor. The break-in propelled me into a new residence. Besides, the crooks will probably get caught doing something else along the way. I leave with the resolution that I will never again live in a mobile home unless it’s a Hollywood costume and make-up trailer for a feature film I’m appearing in with a star on my door. Even high-profile celebrities can live out of trailers in Hollywood and no one thinks any less of them for it. But for now, I’m going to be a live-in caregiver and this is more frightening to me than portraying all six wives of Henry VIII in my one woman show because I know how their stories end. Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.

About the Author

Susan Berg

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Susan Berg is a graduate of Michigan State University, a member of Actors' Equity Association, a multiple produced playwright for youth theatre, and a performer of her original one-woman shows based on historical characters. She has been a self-employed caregiver for seniors in their private homes since 2006.