“The Januarys”



I have “ The Januarys”; the feeling inspired by the unmentionable month which follows the exhaustion of the holidays. In January, every day feels like Monday; the lingering glow of summer color has faded, and holiday over indulgence is pronounced at the waistband. I have a policy to never wear a white tennis skirt in January – yuck! And for all those cock-eyed optimists out there, save your cheerful observations like, “The days are getting longer”, and “Aren’t we lucky, no real snow storms yet?” Oh, and “It’s been so mild this winter the grass is still green!”  I want to slap the face of every smiley emoticon that follows. When you have “The Januarys” you sort of want to wallow in them.

While I’m at it, let me take Pope Gregory VIII to task. The nerve of the inventor of the Gregorian calendar to give the dispiriting January a full 31 days.  There is no month which deserves to linger less.

Today is Tuesday but naturally feels like Monday. I approach it as such,  armed with a list of chores. Among them my weekly stock up of necessary items for Uncle Bobby. Wearing my down filled jacket and a woolen scarf which scratches at my neck, I pass through the doors of the assisted living center attempting to balance two over-filled shopping bags. I bypass the sign-in desk to make the long walk to the elevator. Were it a spring day, chances are a kindly worker would offer a hand. Obviously, they too have “The Januarys” and pass by me with downcast eyes.  

When I finally reach the elevator, I place my packages on the ground to reorganize and random items tumble out. Within seconds, as I am stuffing tissue boxes, Fig Newtons, and Lubriderm back in the bags, the elevator door opens and I find myself facing an army of wheelchairs and walkers poised to disembark. Craft day at Assisted Living! When you have “The Januarys” you never have good timing. On a spring day, these darling elderly would be all “Good Morning”, “Have a great Day”, “How’s Your Uncle?”.  Not this January Day, they are, to a person, grumpy and have zero patience for my disorganized presence.

Like a parade of octogenarian Marcel Marceau’s, they walk and wheel by me, until the elevator is mercifully mine. I go up a flight in peace, walk around the corner and enter Uncle Bobby’s apartment, loaded down like some Sherpa just reaching base camp.

Who deserves to have “The Januarys” more than Uncle Bobby? It’s always a bit humbling to walk in and find him in the same position: sitting in lift-chair, walker to the right, wheelchair tucked in the corner, nebulizer table side, favorite brown plaid blanket across his lap, and Fox News talking heads nattering away.
Sometimes, even when I have “The Januarys”, a conversation can take a twist that surprises and delights me right out of them. Who knew that on this January Day Uncle Bobby would be the source of a moment which conjures “the Junes” or “The Septembers”, to me the best months of the year.

It all started with a January tone from him,

“Terrible sleep last night”, “The goon on the overnight is an animal and it doesn’t matter what I say”,  “I feel weak as I kitten, but nobody seems to care”, “If I complain, they’ll just think I’m a troublemaker”.

I take this in as I unload my purchases and finally sit in my chair on the diagonal from him. I throw up an effortless softball, “Would you like me speak to the Executive Director and see if something can be changed?”.

He waves his increasingly unusable right hand in my direction and announces,

“Not the time. When you strike out,  go to the dugout. Don’t stand there and argue the call”.

I can feel my eyes squinch up, and head tilt in studied confusion as I run that baseball metaphor around in my head. He shifts topics.

“Looks like no big snow tonight. I feel for the ski resorts.”, The conversation is now sent in a new direction.

Tossing “The Januarys” aside, I take a chance, “Uncle Bob, what was the name of that place in New Hampshire where you used to ski?”

His red-rimmed, tired eyes look upward as he licks his dry lips and summons a memory,

“Mittersill, sure, Mittersill up in Franconia Notch. What a beautiful place!”

We are off to the races, leaving “The Januarys” and complaints about staff behind, and I feel my body relax. I pull my right foot under me on the chair and settle in.

Today I get a rare bonus beyond a travelogue on the Mittersill Resort: details about a girl my bachelor uncle once dated. 

“You know, one of my best weekends up there was with a girl I used to go with. Oh…..what was her name, my memory fails……”

He is momentarily frustrated and bangs his hand on the arm of the chair. He doesn’t get bogged down in it for long.

“Doesn’t matter now, but she was a smart one. She lived in Jamaica Plain, up around Boston, and boy did we have some good times.”

I tease him a little, “Well, what do you mean you took her to Mittersill? Separate Rooms, I hope?”

He smiles at the nearly naughty suggestion, “Of course! We had rooms right next door to each other. We went up at the end of the season. The food was great, and there was a big fireplace where everyone gathered at the end of the day.”

The memory is clear to him now and he goes on,

“You know, all the fun happened right there in the lodge, and no one locked their doors. No need. Your room was your room and you didn’t have to worry about things like that in those days.”

I was dying to know more about the nameless girl and pressed him in that direction.

“Well, My friend Earl – what a great guy- we used to go up to parties in Boston. He met her first, took her out a few times, but something didn’t click with them. I thought she seemed nice.”

He looks at me with a shrug,

“So I asked him if he wouldn’t mind if I called her up.”

he goes on,

“So I did, and she was game, and I guess we were together about a year.”

At this point, he shuts his eyes tightly, willing something from his memory, “Gosh, her name.  Isn’t that silly? I can’t remember her name.”

I encourage him forward,

“She was a smart cookie – getting her Ph.D. from Boston College – and I would go up every weekend. We did a lot: Fenway Park, Faneuil Hall, Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Pops on the Esplanade. I took her to Mama Leone’s and all the great restaurants.”

At this point, he winks at me and leans forward, “I was no slouch, I knew what the girls liked to do!”

He was in his mid-thirties then, a foot-loose and fancy-free bachelor who always had some shekels in his pocket for living large. Growing up, I can remember some teasing of Uncle Bobby by my mom, dad, and aunts, but he never, ever gave the details of his social life, holding them as close as his World War II experiences in the Pacific. 

He put a premium on class. At 6’4, he was lean and loose and carried himself with a Jimmy Stewart sort of dignity. I can hear him now at the family dinner table, gently correcting my brother’s adolescent table manners,

“You don’t want to be a cuss, the girls don’t go for that.”

Uncle Bobby was never one to “tell tales out of school”, so to be audience on this January day to a swath of his dating life is delicious, and the morsels are now coming in a steady stream,

“You know, I might have married that one. She was smart and fun and we had grand times.” He is in his own world now, pensive and wistful.

“Well, what happened to her?” I prod, starving for more.

He takes his time, adjusts his position and takes a sip of ginger ale before getting to the meat of it.

“She was studying Psychology at BC – so smart that one – but you know sometimes students forget the rest of the world because their academic one is all that matters.”

Then a gentle mimic of the unnamed girl,

“Well, Dr. Oppenheimer says this and Professor Coughlin thinks that, and I need to work on a paper and blah, blah, blah…” he trails off, afraid, I suspect,  that he is veering in the direction of unkindness.

He is ready for the wrap:

“Anyway, I went up to her apartment in Jamaica Plain one Saturday to pick her up for a planned date. We were all confirmed. When I got to her door there was a note telling me she needed to cancel, something came up with her classmates and she would be in touch.”

a pause,

“She hurt my heart, that one.”

Imagine, the lament of heartbreak some 50 years after the fact.

The postscript is fascinating. Turns out Dr. whoever she is, a year later, found Uncle Bobby on Cape Cod at the Chart House where he was a bartender.

She came one day and sat for hours waiting for him to speak to her. He didn’t, beyond a hello. He had a job to do and a heart to take care of. She left, unsatisfied and alone.

I said, “Wow, that must have been awkward for you, hard not to speak to her.”

“Well, she struck out, you know. She should have just gone to the dugout. No sense in arguing the call.”

I unexpectedly get a great story and a conversation that comes full circle!

Delicious on this January Monday that is a Tuesday!

My spirit is different as I make my exit,  and he has one last thought,

“Another time, I’ll tell you about Joan. She was a beauty!”

I can hardly wait!

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