Susan Rosenberg, now in her mid-eighties, began writing poetry as a child. Her work was unpublished until a decade ago when she joined Voices Israel. Now, her poems appear regularly in anthologies and journals and she received honorable mentions in two international poetry competitions. Her autobiographical novel, Susan's Story, was serialized on this site.
She was slim, well-groomed and disciplined when she appeared at my front door.
“Good afternoon”, she said politely, “I came …” and she hesitated, uncertain how to proceed, “to see your baby.” Now that she had said that, she seemed relieved and went on, “I am a friend of Mrs. Proskaur. My name is Gretta.”
“Won’t you come in?” I asked, a little surprised but wanting to be polite as well as curious to know the why of her visit.
“Come, Riah”, she said and I noticed a little girl of about a year and a half with big, round, serious brown eyes and dark curly hair.
In they came and as usual, the arrival of guests at my four’s bath, supper, and bedtime, created a stir of excitement. That is the time of the day when they most need and demand my attention.
Gretta was apologetic. “I see you’re busy. Please go on and do whatever you have to. I don’t want to disturb you. Have you no help?”
I explained that I hadn’t and that I was terribly tired and that I needed help desperately and as I spoke I could feel the lines of my mouth pulling down to make me cry. Tears came to my eyes because of genuine fatigue and cultivated self-pity.
We were sitting in the living room and her little girl was smearing sticky hands on our brand new furniture. Our kids were fighting and crying in the bathroom and I became irritated. Everything would have been so nice if only she hadn’t come. The children would have been bathed, fed, and in bed. I would have been showered and dressed, the table set, and dinner ready when Dick arrived with our guests……however I tried to give her time because I felt she came out of need and I couldn’t turn her away. I must have showed my discomfort and Gretta tried to explain herself.
“It’s only because I noticed how friendly and happy your children are. I wanted Riah to be with happy children. You see my husband died last year and she is only with me and I cry all the time. I think it is a bad atmosphere for her.”
She appeared to be completely composed. There was no trace of tears. It was only the language that made her words and sentences come in jerks. German was her mother-tongue, not English.
“I see” , I said simply and felt sympathetic.
“Who plays the piano?” she asked brightly, looking at our ebony Steinway.
“I play a little but my husband really plays!” I answered .
“My husband played beautifully”, she sighed, “Now the piano is locked and nobody touches it and each time I look at it I cry.” She told me this pleasantly as if she were talking about somebody else.
“How did your husband die?” I asked gently, feeling that perhaps she wanted to talk about him. “Was he sick? Or was it a sudden accident?”
Her eyes dropped. She faltered. “It was both,” she said and then she rose abruptly and took Riah’s hand. “Come, we must go.”
“Please come again,” I said, following them to the door and wanting to sound sincere.
When Dick arrived with our dinner guests, I was neither showered nor dressed. “Everything happens to me,” I said gaily and turning my perspired palms towards the ceiling in a helpless gesture, I told them about Gretta.
A few days later she came again at the same inconvenient time. “Hello”, she said cheerfully and I thought her expression was bright but studied as if she had said to herself, ‘now smile!’
‘Oh, my God!’ I groaned inwardly. “Hello,” I said.
Riah was already in the childrens’ room, dragging out toys. Danny got out of bed. I gritted my teeth.
“I thought perhaps I could help you,” Gretta was pathetic. Gretta was anxious.
“Yes, you know you said you were so tired and overworked. Perhaps I could assist you with the children. Riah needs so to be with children. I could help you”, she repeated, “and it would be good for both of us. Please.. You would do me a great favor.”
‘Oh my God!’ I thought again. “Bring or send Riah to visit whenever you like”, I hope I sounded kind, “but I don’t need your help although it’s very nice of you.”
“What can I do now?” she asked ignoring my refusal. “Oh, the baby needs changing. Now you just go and do whatever you have to do and I’ll take care of him.”
I returned to the kitchen woodenly. “Where are the clean napkins?” she called. I answered. “Where do you put the dirty ones?” I answered. “I think he needs a clean sheet. Where do you keep them”?
“Oh, I think they’re all hanging on the line.”
“Just a minute, I’ll get one, “ I shouted. ‘Why in the hell doesn’t she go away and leave me alone?’ I fumed, stomping out to bring in a clean sheet that the baby didn’t need. “Here it is.”
Dick came home. Carol, Betsy, and Danny ran to meet him all talking at once. He kissed them, lifted them up, laughed with them, and walked over to embrace me. I introduced Gretta. I saw her self control going, but she smiled, said goodby, and got out of the door before she began to cry.
The next time Gretta rang our doorbell, she refused to come in. Shaking her head no! to my invitation she quickly made her speech. “I only thought perhaps you would like to go out some afternoon. I could come and look after the children. Wouldn’t you like it?” At first I said, “Oh no”, but she looked so intent and something inside of me said, “of course you’d like an afternoon off…and to do a good deed at the same time….” Aloud, I said slowly, “Well if you’re sure you want to, I would love to get my hair done one of these days.”
“Good.” She was so eager. “When would you like to go?” I could be here the day after tomorrow at three o’clock.”
Later, my upstairs neighbor came to say that she noticed me talking to Gretta. I told her the story. She pointed to her head. “She’s a little bit off,” she said. “Her husband was mentally ill. He committed suicide last year although no one was certain that it WAS suicide. There was something very strange.” She turned to go upstairs.
At the appointed day and time, my relief arrived. I was not ready. I had made up my mind that I was not going to leave my most precious possessions in the hands of a strange, mad woman.
She looked sad. “Oh, I see you’re not ready. Go get dressed at once and you’ll still be able to catch the bus.”
I felt I must make some excuse and heard myself saying, “Oh, I thought perhaps you wouldn’t be able to come”
She looked astonished. “But of course I come if I say I will come. No, hurry. Go get dressed. Please.” She made it sound urgent.
I ran to get dressed. I didn’t care…..I didn’t care…..I needed….I was desperate to get out of the house……..away from the children…..just for an hour……..a few minutes……..a ride on the bus without anybody on my lap. Not to have to answer to “Mommy”! I was excited. I was rushing. I was as thirsty for privacy and freedom as an alcoholic for liquor. I said goodbye. I gave no instructions. I ran out of the house. Gretta looked happy.
I worried as I sat in the crowded bus. Danny had cried as I left. I walked from the bus stop to the beauty parlor. My heart was bound, not free. Something told me to go home at once, but my legs kept moving towards the warm little shop. ‘Why hadn’t I told her about feeding Michael? He was sure to cry. I sat down. Perhaps Carol…..yes, surely Carol would tell her what I give him and how. “Yes, wash, cut, set and manicure”, I said. Betsy didn’t like Gretta. Why? The hot water felt good and so did the strong fingers massaging my scalp. She is really a strange woman…”Sit here please.” A towel was placed around my dripping head. I handed the pins to the beautician automatically. ‘My God! Suppose she really is crazy……..Mrs. D. had looked at me so significantly when she said, “no one is certain that it was a suicide”. I moved to the dryer. ‘How could a husband and wife both be crazy?’ The filing of my nails made my blood run cold. I watched the little bumps rise on my arm and hoped the manicurist would notice and stop filing. ‘If she were crazy and murdered them all…….’ The dryer was getting too hot and I signaled to the operator to turn it down. ‘I ought to run right now. I ought to jump up and run….no, fly home!’ The girl was asking me what color. I pointed to the natural. ‘Dick would come home. I would meet him at the door hysterical…unable to talk. I would lead him to the nursery and there he would see.’ I could feel the grip of his hand!’ She was talking to me…”What?” I said. “Don’t smear them!” she shouted into the heat of the dryer, pointing at my nails. ‘of course the police would come. The story would be in every paper.’
“Oh hurry please. I’ve got to get home”, I said as Tony combed and fussed with each curl.
I ran. I ran all the way with my unnatural coiffeur flopping this way and that. I opened the front door quickly. The three older children crowded towards me. Gretta stood smiling politely. She was completely disheveled. “Everything is in order,” she said. “The baby is fed. But oh, I’m exhausted. How do you manage? You must have nerves of iron! Come, Riah,” and she led the child by the hand. I never saw her again.