Involving an elderly Jewish lady, a Pakistani family and a Wyandanch scrap metal dealer…
“My dahling, you are here, and on your big holiday!”
This was the greeting I received from “Sylvie Nussbaum” one cold Christmas Day a few years ago as I arrived in my capacity as a visiting nurse. Her brand of equal parts schmaltz and malarkey was always in full effect, no matter how she was feeling. After the usual assessment and preventive pain measures were taken she faced me and said sharply, “I hope you have stories today.” Stories were what helped her get through the dressing changes. Sadly, poor circulation was causing skin to disappear from her legs in ever widening patches. “And no sad ones either, like that goat story.” I had related a story an African-American man told me about life on a Carolina farm in the Depression. The children’s favorite goat had to be butchered and eaten but when dinnertime came the children were all crying and unable to eat. Eighty years later the old man was in tears at the recollection and Sylvie cried too upon hearing it.
“What’s happening in the office?” she prodded. Sylvie was hoping for salacious gossip but the office comprised mostly middle- aged Catholic ladies, an inordinate number of whom were named “Peggy.” The worst thing that happened was once someone was gently “redirected” from sending too many inspirational e-mails.
“Okay, Sylvie, I got one for you.” I began to tell her about an eighty-something year old bachelor in the Station who had built his own house, but very small, since he was only 5’6”. He had a stomach tube and a breathing tube and was unable to speak. He had listed someone named “Mohammed” as next of kin and Mohammed appeared to be a genuine family member since the old man was verbally abusive to him, as blood kin can be sometimes. “YOUR (sic) LATE!!!” he screamed (that is, he wrote in all caps) at the young Pakistani man and his wife “Fatima”. “I NEED CAT FOOD!” Mohammed tried to calm him down, “Uncle, please, I have to run the store, I already talked to your surgeon and look, I have cat food.” Mohammed cared for the different tubes, bought cans of feedings, (human and feline) and drove the old man all the way to Technology Park on a regular basis.
One day I was in a little discount store and saw Fatima. “How is your uncle?” I asked. That was when I found out that “uncle” is an honorary title bestowed upon seniors by many Muslims. It seems they regard anyone their parent’s age as if they were their own parents. Even if you have a chance to go to Mecca, it is still more important to stay behind and care for them, whether blood relatives or not. The little family had essentially adopted the old man, simply by virtue of his being a customer in the 99 cent store.
“That’s it? That’s all you have for me?” Sylvie was evidently unimpressed by my tale of cross- cultural compassion. There was still another dressing to change and I had to come up with something that would distract her.
“Sylvie, I met this guy at a scrap metal place on Straight Path in Wyandanch,” I offered.
“Already I’m not too excited.”
“I needed someone to pick up construction debris and car parts so I was driving by and saw this place.” As the co-dependent mother of a VW mechanic I had accumulated many rusting car parts and needed to get rid of them. By chance I saw a place dealing in such items on Straight Path. The dealer seemed quite interested and told me to expect his arrival around 3 PM, same day.
As I was working in my home office, which occupied 15% of my domicile, the guy walked right into my house. “My dahling, he didn’t!” was Sylvie’s alarmed reaction. I always leave my door unlocked in the day and did not think too much of it. His eyes quickly lit on my violin, in its stand perhaps dreading my daily practice. “I see you have an eastern European one-piece model, probably mid-century; I am guessing a high quality student grade, really unique wood-work.”
“So, the garbage man knows from violins?” Sylvie asked, amazed. Clearly she enjoyed this true story.
He was exactly correct in his appraisal of the violin my friend Sherrie found at a garage sale and which I spent a few hundred dollars refurbishing. It was far beyond the needs of my meager ability. I was learning to play by sheer force of will and chutzpah. So bereft of talent was I that I had begun to suspect I was tone deaf. But my instructor, Ed Connelly (hey, has that guy been canonized yet?) would not give up on me.
As I packed up to leave I noticed that the garbage was all stacked up to be taken outside. “I know you are such an important person, and it isn’t your job, but could you please take the garbage out?” Sylvie asked.
“Sure Sylvie, it will be my Christmas mitzvah.”
“A Christmas mitzvah! My dahling! Can I tell you how much I am loving it?”
“You just did, Sylvie, shalom!”