A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year
Eighty-year-old Jenny—the baby of the family—has flown down to Miami, Florida—that gaudy, pastel-hued haven of the elderly—to look after her two oldest sisters: Eva, still going strong at ninety-five, and Naomi, ninety, who is riddled with cancer but retains her tart tongue and her jet-black head of hair. Then there’s Flora, an energetic eighty-five, who spends her time dating and making the rounds of the retirement homes with her standup routine.
Their parents are long gone, their three brothers more recently so, but the sisters remain a family—with all the arguments and rivalries that entails. In a novel the Los Angeles Times hails as “quietly affecting,” Jenny, Eva, Naomi, and Flora wrestle with aches and pains, wheelchairs and walkers, as well as the questions we all face about independence, loss, and what really matters in the long run.
A former literary editor for the Nation and a New Yorker contributor, Helen Yglesias conjures the unquenchable humor and immense courage of four very different women, and moves us to laughter and tears, in a story Publishers Weekly deems for “anyone who is watching people they love grow old”—or contemplating the experience.
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By Helen Yglesias
DELPHINIUM BOOKSCopyright © 1999 Helen Yglesias
All rights reserved.
It had been the little kids in the family who heard Miami as Theirami—Grandma and Grandpa's Ami, Aunt Naomi's Ami, Aunt Eva's Ami, Uncle Max's Ami, all the way down the Witkovsky family line. That was fine with Jenny. Their Ami, not hers. Jenny had never wanted any part of Anybody's Ami. She was glad that her own children had never claimed the place.
They had been a large family, seven brothers and sisters plus Mama and Papa: four girls, as they were still called into their nineties, "the girls," and three boys, "the boys" into their eighties. The males died younger, died, in Miami, one after the other, though Mama went first; then Lionel, out of the family order, a middle brother; then Papa; then the eldest brother, Stanley; and recently powerful Max, dead of prostate cancer as if he were any old body and not the head of a huge moneymaking industry—clothing factories, retail stores, real estate, investment banking. Philanthropy, of course. Dead anyway, before his two older sisters and his two younger, leaving only Mama and Papa's four daughters still to go, with Jenny the last of the last, the youngest, arrived in Miami International Airport, arrived at the doorway of God's waiting room, as the old joke had it. Not to die herself, but to help her two oldest sisters die, Eva and Naomi, hovering, endlessly horribly hovering on the brink. Eva was ninety-five, Naomi was ninety, Flora eighty-five, and she, Jenny, was eighty. Neat arrangement, the five-year intervals. "Every five years makes a generation," Gertrude Stein had written somewhere, and was right, at least about these four sisters.
But the immediate job before Jenny was to get herself transported from the airport to the beach. Not easy. Miami was treating Jenny as heartlessly as Jenny was disowning Miami. Though she had clearly told the porter that she needed the SuperShuttle to the beach, he had dropped her and her heavy luggage at the deserted end of a platform where everything was passing her by. She saw herself as if on film—a long shot of a white-haired woman stranded in a chaotic scene of cars, buses, limos, vans, cop cruisers, taxis, motorcycles careening by in a roar of sound, strangely muffled. This old woman who was herself wore a thin black wool suit, a silk knit top visible at the jacket's opening, real pearls glowing against the dark fabric, a mink coat slung over one arm, and covering her only slightly rounded shoulders a cashmere shawl (in case the plane became chilly or a sudden cold spell hit Miami). Her swollen feet were crammed into soft black kid shoes, and the off-black hose were badly wrinkled at the ankle. Nevertheless. No little-old-lady-in-tennis-shoes image for this woman. Elegance, if it killed. It would certainly wound. Her feet would ache for a night and a day.
She must not die in Miami. She would die in New England where she lived. Or in New York City, where Mama and Papa and her three brothers were buried. Actually, the family plot was located in Brooklyn among the massed graves of what Jenny's daughter called cemetery slums. For herself, Jenny didn't really care where she died as long as she was cremated and the urn buried under the white lilac bush behind her studio in Maine.
Forget Miami, forget the family plot in Brooklyn. Concentrate on here and now.
"Aren't we supposed to go out in order, oldest first?" Naomi on the telephone yesterday morning, begging Jenny to come help her with her dying, though not in plain words naturally, adding an unspoken bargaining plea to Jenny and God that Eva go first. Naomi had cancer. Eva had no diseases but old old age. Jenny herself had no jurisdiction, and it looked as if God was not going to oblige. Naomi was going to die first. Jenny had come, answering her next oldest sister Flora's cry for help as well. "You have to come down, Jenny, I can't do this alone." The four sisters, together, ninety-five, ninety, eighty-five, and eighty. She laughed, this youngest sister of eighty, though there was nothing to laugh about.
So here she was.
She had flown in from Bangor, Maine, and was stifling in her northern costume. The afternoon air was hot, humid, heavy with exhaust. Exhaust. Miami had already exhausted her and she had hardly arrived. There hadn't been a tourist killing in Miami for several months, but she fit the perfect victim profile and would probably revive the trend. She reminded herself that she was, in fact, a minor actor in the New York intellectual scene, she was Somebody, however ridiculously middle-class pretentious Nobody she seemed at the moment. It had been a mistake to aim for elegance. She should have come as Nobody in worn jeans and her brilliantly colored down jacket, made in China. With the mink over her arm, she was tightly clutching a green cloth carryall imprinted with the Time magazine logo; nothing could have announced more plainly that her valuables were in the cloth bag. She had placed her larger piece of luggage too close to her feet, and she was in danger of stumbling over it without making a move.
She put her hand on her chest to help her breathing; the air was like hot tea. She waited. Someone or something must come along to help. A cop car skidded past, more like a kiddy-car. Resolutely leaving her luggage unattended, she stepped out into the traffic and waved for help with the arm holding the Time carryall. The cop toy went right by, but a second appeared immediately behind it. She waved frantically. The driver was determined to ignore her. She placed herself squarely in his way.
The young cop swung to a stop and inquired in disgust if she was trying to kill herself.
"Right in the line of traffic, lady? Not too smart?"
Apparently a question, but he didn't wait for an answer.
"What're you doing back here, anyway? You coming or going? Know where you're headed?"
"I have a reservation on the SuperShuttle, officer," she said. She'd try good manners, the great placater.
"You belong all the way down there, lady."
"I told the porter and this is where he dropped me. He said the shuttle would pick me up at this spot," and added, to indicate that she wasn't thoroughly addled, "The shuttle to Miami Beach."
She had stepped back onto the platform, close to her luggage. Now the cop's disgust was for the porter. "Asshole," he muttered under his breath, and took off on foot, leaving his kiddy-car behind. At least she hoped "asshole" was for the porter, and that the parked car meant he was coming back. Vehicles roared around it and him, respectful enough of his uniform and his raised hand to keep from killing him. She wouldn't have wanted him to die for her unless that was the only way out.
In a moment he commandeered a shuttle bus, empty except for the driver and another fellow busy with a clipboard. Silent and sullen, they obeyed the cop's orders. The clipboard guy hopped out, loaded her and her luggage in, asked in English with a strong Spanish accent where she was going and if she had a reservation.
She called up her best manner for the cop first. "I can't thank you enough, officer. Thank you so much."
Clipboard mimicked her in Spanish, repeating her words in a faint falsetto. She would pretend she didn't understand Spanish. She gave him the address on Collins Avenue and added, "Yes, I do have a reservation."
"Miami Beach? You should be down the other end, lady. You can't expect a pickup here. We don't do that."
She hated to be called "lady" or "madam" or "ma'am," or by her first name by strangers.
What, then, what in the world would she like to be called?
The cop, back in his kiddy-car, stuck his head out. "You get this nice lady where she's going, you get her to her destination. Understand?"
"Yes yessir sure sure," Clipboard agreed, and once in the bus relieved himself in a long string of Spanish.
Nice lady. Worse, worse. Time to charm the driver and Clipboard. Should she talk to them in Spanish? That might be the last straw. A pushy Jewish old lady talking to Caribbeans in her stilted Castilian Spanish. She chose English.
"I can't thank you enough for your help," she said. "Thank you so much."
"She's a regular Virgin of Cavadonga," Clipboard said in Spanish. The driver laughed. Encouraged, Clipboard mimicked, "Thank you, thank you," in falsetto Spanish again, and then, in his own deep voice, "Enough with the thank yous, please, just permit us to get our fucking job done, thank you, please, thank you."
"Cuidado," the driver said. "She might understand."
"Nothing," Clipboard said. "This kind understands nothing. I have the greatest reverence for old age, you who know me like a brother above all know that I revere the aged, but these old Jewish farts disgust me. They don't know how to grow old, they are totally without dignity. Pushing in ahead of others." He shifted to English. "We're full up on that run, where we going to find the space?"
"All right, okay," the driver responded in English, switching to Spanish for "Shut up already, you get started you never know when to stop," then back to English. "The lady's got a reservation, check it out."
"Check it out, check it out," Clipboard repeated in despair, and added in Spanish, "I'm lucky if I have time to check out my own shit."
"Cuidado," the driver said again. "I can see by her eyes she knows what you're saying."
"What eyes? They don't have eyes. Our women have eyes, even the old ones can kill you with a flash of their eyes. All these old farts have is eyeglasses."
"Jesus," the driver prayed, "shut this guy up, will you, before I go completely crazy."
"Amen," Jenny said, but to herself.
Settled at last in a different air-conditioned bus, comfortable in the high leather seat directly behind the driver, she told herself to pay no further attention to the continuing muddle of the SuperShuttle schedule. She never should have listened to her sister Flora about taking the shuttle. Penny-saving Flora, who certainly had more money than Jenny did. What she wouldn't give to have been met by a limo. She astounded herself by falling asleep for a split second, and was instantly awakened by the sound of her own snorting breath. Another indignity. She never used to snore.
There were apparently only three other riders for Miami Beach: a sloppy teenaged girl backpacking a tremendous load, wearing ripped jeans and a tiny scarlet top ending just above her navel, seemingly sick, yawning violently every few minutes, filling the bus with the nauseating stench of what was probably trench mouth; a very tall blond young man in expensive baggy leisure clothes who placed himself and his pile of soft leather luggage on the farthest back seat to avoid the dirty teenager—and probably to avoid Jenny as well; and a nattily dressed white-haired man who asked permission to sit up front next to the attractive black woman driver and immediately began telling her jokes in Brooklynese.
"A rabbi, a priest, and a dentist went to a bar ..." Jenny screened out the rest, and they took off as the driver announced her name to the bus: Angelica.
Angelica screamed with laughter at each punch line, her body heaving, the bus careening. In between the dapper fellow's jokes she inserted intimacies of her married life. Her husband didn't like her to work. He thought she should stay at home taking care of their three children. She disagreed strenuously, as if he were right there in the bus arguing. "Listen, they're not babies anymore, the youngest is seven, they're all in school. They take good care of themselves. I always wanted to drive these shuttles. I'm a good driver, one of the best, but it took time to get me where I am, took plenty of time, lots of hard work, all those lousy runs, now I'm doing it, now I got what I worked so hard for, I'm not giving it up for nobody." More jokes, followed by more intimacies. Angelica loved driving the shuttle, loved people, loved Miami thruways, loved the waterways, loved the heat and the air conditioning, loved talking and listening to her passengers. "It sure beats Chicago," she said. "I don't know why anybody stays in those northern cities." The old gent punctuated her revelations—"Great!" "Good for you!" "You're terrific!" "Attagirl!"—and went on with his next joke. Angelica laughed as the top-heavy bus swung sharply to left and right.
Jenny glanced behind her. The sick girl was asleep, her skinny body rolling about. From his haven in the last row, the handsome young man sprawled pleasantly, legs spread, arms resting on the back of the seat in front of him. Jenny smiled; he responded, rolling his large blue eyes in the direction of the front seat's ongoing skit, fluttering his fingers for the erratic driving style.
Was he gay? Headed for South Beach? An actor? Filmmaker? No. Filmmakers rode in limos. Not only gays rolled their eyes. Her own thoroughly heterosexual son rolled his eyes, also large and blue. Stupid ruminations on her part. No offense. No judgments, just observations.
She forcibly turned her attention to the landscape.
Landscape. No longer a word descriptive of Miami Beach. What had been original to pristine Florida was now entirely paved, restructured, and redesigned. Nature, Darwin, God himself (or herself) had been flummoxed. Flummoxed. Nobody said "flummoxed" anymore. Landscape. Seascape. Land and sea, rivers and woods, scrub and sand, flowers and blossoming fruit trees, sharks in the ocean, crocodiles in the swamps, animals and snakes in the jungly matted undergrowth, birds, birds, birds in the strange silvery gray trees, birds, birds, birds strutting, preening, and skittering on the endless stretches of beach, still other birds sheltering in the tall gracefully bending grasses. Once Florida had been an astonishing seascape and landscape. Now it was astonishing, period.
She had expected to hate Miami Beach on her first visit in the late forties, after the Second World War, when Mama and Papa retired to Eighth Street near Washington on their son Max's money. The overnight train trip on the Silver Meteor had been hard. The coach car was jammed. The whole country seemed on the move along with the returning servicemen. Jenny was leaving her first husband, the father of her two children. The children were with her. Guilt made her fuss too much over their four- and two-year-old comfort, their entertainment, their food and sleep. She read to them, sang songs, played games, held them on her lap in turn, settled and resettled them in the uncomfortable coach seats, took them to the unsatisfactory expensive dining car, to the smelly lavatory, to the messy drinking fountain, kept them happy, prayed to God to keep them happy while she went about her selfish business of doing them irreparable harm, tearing up their safe little lives by divorcing their father.
She and the children had left New York in a snowstorm. After an evening, a long night, and a long next day in the crowded car, heavy with the smells of their wintry start, it was astonishing to step out of the debris of the train into hot moist air, burning sun, lush green, vivid vulgar flowering. She had never experienced that sensation before—from harsh winter to instant semitropics.
The children fell in love with Theirami: fabulous wide white sand beach, blue-green violet white-edged water warm and gentle as a bath, palm trees everywhere heavy with coconuts, real coconuts they took home to Grandpa to open and demonstrate how to eat, real coconuts lying around the walkways of Miami Beach like garbage on New York City streets.
Jenny was a city product, born in Brooklyn, reared in every borough except the wilds of Staten Island. Her natural habitat was sidewalks, city parks, museums, public beaches, ferries, a fifth-floor walkup, her father's neighborhood grocery store, the apartment house stoop, public school playgrounds, public libraries, city colleges, corporation offices, bank cages, department stores, five-and-tens, automats. Nature was a brave little blade of grass growing in a chink of pavement, the spire of a building cutting into a sky dramatic with clouds and sunset. The height of nature was the open upper deck of a two-tiered Fifth Avenue bus on a soft summer night. Music of the spheres? Beethoven's Pastoral had poured into her, bouncing off the stone benches of Lewisohn Stadium, entrance fee a quarter, or was it fifty cents? She had gleaned the nothing she knew of the natural world then from books, movies, plays. Who dreamt of sharks in Coney Island waters, or snakes, poisonous or otherwise, in any grass of her acquaintance? Did wild animals exist outside the safe borders of the Bronx Zoo?
Excerpted from The Girls by Helen Yglesias. Copyright © 1999 Helen Yglesias. Excerpted by permission of DELPHINIUM BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
2 TROMPE L'OEIL,
3 HEROIC MEASURES,
4 MEMOIR PERFORMANCE!!!,
Reading Group Guide
About the Book:The youngest of four sisters, a noted New York writer and critic, eighty-year-old Jenny has flown to Miami Beach to help her flamboyant sister Flora (the Sandra Bernhardt of the senior set) deal with their ailing older siblings. Eva, ninety-five, is still elegant and articulate: "They come if it's convenient," she ventures between wine toasts to her continuing years. Naomi is ever a beauty at ninetyand as vain as they come: "He's crazy about me, but I just brush him off." Despite their fragile bodies, they are women to be reckoned withand Jenny and Flora have their hands full. As they strive to keep their sisters comfortable and cared for, an explosive history of sibling rivalry is reignitedone that illuminates each of their long lives, the tender joys and sorrows, and the bittersweet ache for life, especially in its twilight
years. . . .
Question:How does the scene of Jenny's arrival in the Miami airport set up the themes of the novel? Question:The sisters travel through the city map of Miami, a city of often grotesque contrasts, exaggerations, and surreal encounters: how do the city and story interact? Question:What role does money play here? How important is Naomi's money to understanding the tensions between Flora and Jenny? To understanding Jenny's view of herself? Question:What role does Jenny's New York life play as the novel unfolds? Question:Flora takes up space, makes noise, splashes color across every scene in which she appears: how can she be taken seriously? Is she a good performer? Question:Eva, the oldest of the sisters, is most at risk of seeming passive. How does she assert herself? Who is she in relations to her sisters? Question:Naomi is the beautiful oneand the fragile one who will die out of order. What is the role of her beauty for the others? For herself? Question:There is a large cast of supporting figures here, several of whom focus important ideas. Of these, Dr. Maypole is particularly striking. Does he mean well? How seriously should readers consider his solution? Question:The hospital scene, where Jenny waits for Naomi during her operation, is central to the moral critique of the novel. What devices does Helen Yglesias use to make the reader see this? Question:Why does Jenny set out to clean up the bus stop? What happens to her in the process?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I liked the cover of the book more than the book itself. Was just expecting more of a story.
This was a heart warming book that I completely loved. This is a great book about aging, family dynamics and dealing with aging. Loved it and recommend it for a book club read.