A Long Forgotten Dream
While I was down in Long Island visiting Ettie and Lazer Taichman, two old friends of my mother’s, Ettie mentioned that she wanted to take me with her into work one day. Ettie and Lazer, had settled in the little community of Port Jefferson when their children were just infants. As the kids began to grow older, Ettie found that she had more free time so, naturally, she was the one who was asked to do all the little errands that had to be done. That was one of her motivations for going back to school: to pursue an interest that would keep her more preoccupied with something other than all those daily errands. She went to study social work and, upon her graduation, found a job at a social agency in the area. She has been working there for close to twenty years.
I was ambivalent when she first suggested that I go in with her to work. Yet as I pondered this opportunity, I thought that it would allow me to see a part of her life in which she had spent a great deal of her time. After all, work should not be so separate from the rest of your life; It should flow into all parts of your life. I had no idea what to expect during my day with her. All she had said about the day was that I could sit through a few of her case interviews.
We walked into her office. Her desk was cluttered with files, paper, some books, and a few mugs. On a small table beside her desk, rested an old computer, which Ettie would use to type many of the grant proposals for her agency. I sat down on a chair against the wall opposite her desk. There were two windows facing south and light streamed into her office. I looked up to the ceiling and saw two fluorescent tubes from which emanated a dull light that I knew would slowly lead to a slight throbbing in my head. I thought back to when I was in teachers college, to those days that I spent practice teaching in high school classrooms. Those classrooms had the same lights, and each day I would have to seek out some place away from that light just as one would look for a tall tree to lie under to escape the burning rays of the midday sun. I eyed the light switch on the wall, wondering if Ettie would notice if I turned those annoying lights off. On the floor in the corner were some toys for little kids to play with while one or both of their parents talked about their situation with Ettie. I could just picture a child playing with those toys on the floor, happy but unconsciously aware of every word that was being spoken in that room.
I was not sure who the lady was who entered the office, but she seemed quite distraught, panicky. Ettie’s back was turned to the door and she was working on some paperwork. Before Ettie could turn around to face this lady, the words just spilled out of the woman’s mouth, “I hate this place, I don’t know how I am going to make it for another twenty years, I just don’t know what to do.”
Ettie looked right at her and said, “What is wrong Beth, what’s happening? Sit down for a moment.”
Beth Wickey had graduated from law school and ended up at this agency working on the legal side of many of the cases that had to be processed. Part of the week she spends at the other office, which is closer to her house. And three days of the week she drives the hour commute to this office. She was wearing a dark blue suit which highlighted her flushed cheeks. Behind the flash of blood to her face, there was a paleness to her skin; perhaps she had not been out in the sun too much, and the lighting in this place surely did not help. She dropped into the other empty chair. I sensed that she was holding back a flood of emotions.
She barely noticed me as I sat quietly in the corner from where I observed the scene unfold. It was as if her and Ettie were on some stage and I was watching it all take place in front of me.
Not even aware that she had barged in as Ettie was trying to work, she continued her ranting. An endless stream of complaints poured out of her, “I commute one hour each way. They give us too many clients! The clients are getting worse and harder to deal with all the time. I just don’t know how I am going to make it for another twenty years.” Her face seemed to be heating up. She continued, “God, I just returned from my holiday yesterday, it was such a terrible holiday.”
“How did you spend your time?” Ettie inquired.
“I went out to the family cottage but the heat wasn’t working too well and I could not seem to get into any of the books that I had. I feel as though it was just a waste of time.”
“That’s too bad Beth. What happened to those cruises that you used to go on?”
“Oh, my brother isn’t working on those ships anymore. I used to love going on those weeklong cruises with my brother. He got me such great deals.”
There was a pause, as Beth appeared to be waiting for Ettie to say a few encouraging words. “This is my friend Reuben,” Ettie said, “He has come in with me for the day to see the kind of work that I do.”
Beth looked at me and said hello. “Hello.” I answered.
But just then, Beth seemed to shut off her inner world, just as one would turn off a faucet. She stood up, fixed her dress, brushed her hand through her hair and as she was walking out the door, said that she would speak with Ettie later.
Ettie glanced at me as she slowly turned back to her desk and said, “Poor Beth, poor Beth Wickey.”
I wondered when I would see a real client. I wondered who the real clients were. It was 9:45 a.m. and, as it turned out, Beth Wickey would be the most serious case of the day.
A few hours later I was returning from the photocopier, where I was duplicating some reports for Ettie that were due by the end of the day. I turned into her office and just about knocked Beth right over. Her hands were up in the air. I thought that she was going to turn and strangle me. “Hi Beth,” I said as I handed Ettie her reports.
I did not sit down, I just stood there listening. Beth seemed to acknowledge my existence on this occasion. I noticed that Ettie was only half listening as she was preparing some notes for her next case. I kept standing, hoping that Beth would take her attention off Ettie so that she could finish her work. Gradually, Beth began to turn towards me, telling me about a difficult client she just had. As she was talking, I thought, “This lady seems so unhappy. No! She is unhappy, truly unhappy. How could she be of any real service to anyone else?” I sensed that she thought that she had so little to live for.
Beth continued, this time completely focused on me, “I can’t believe it, I have never felt this way after a holiday, I think it is because it was not a great holiday, kind of lonely.” She took a breath and continued, “I used to go on cruises, my brother worked on a cruise ship and he would get me these great deals, but he got a new job so I can’t do that anymore. Last week I went out to the family cottage but the heat was not working very well and it was rather lonely.”
Beth had never married. She must have been in her early forties. She lived out in the same community where she had grown up. Her childhood house, where her parents still lived, was within walking distance of her home. She only had one brother, but he was not around too often and many of her childhood friends had long ago moved away from her small town.
I asked her what she loved to do. Her face seemed to lose all its tension as she said, “Writing, I love to write. When I was young, during summer vacations, I would spend five, six hours a day up in the creaky attic at my parent’s home. It did not matter how hot it was. I would just sit at my little desk and write these long stories. In my mind I traveled to distant lands, sailed across the biggest oceans, slept in shelters in the deep forest, climbed mountains, walked on the moon. I felt so alive; any sense of time just disappeared. It was my own little wonderful world.” While she was telling me this, I noticed that her eyes seemed to be looking right through me, looking into some other dimension. Her present situation vanished for a moment and in that space of time Beth Wickey was back in her attic, her timeless writing space where all of her dreams came true. But suddenly, as if some trigger went off in her mind, her eyes came quickly back into focus. She added, “It has been so long since I have written.”
“Perhaps you could sign up for a course, Beth, or read some books on writing. Who knows where you could go with it? Perhaps you just need to get started again, to recapture that feeling that you knew so well up in your attic.” I continued, “You have many choices, you should do what you love to do.” She looked at me, but said nothing. I sensed that she saw no way out of her situation, as if she was just somehow going to have to manage for the next twenty years, perhaps for the rest of her life. I thought, “People are so scared of change, they would rather just learn to make the best of a bad situation.”
She just looked at me for a moment and I saw fear in her eyes. If I could read her mind, I imagine that she might have been thinking, “Don’t go there, don’t even mention writing, that was just something I did when I was young, just something to pass the time. It’s over, it’s all over.” Obviously, she did not want to talk anymore about writing. She cut me right off. I realized that I had touched a raw nerve and decided right then to drop the subject. Perhaps I reminded her of those warm summer days in her attic when that little child dreamed of a rich and meaningful life. A life filled with adventures. Living up to one’s full potential. I sensed that those dreams were too painful, too real and sadly unfulfilled.
After a brief moment, which to her must have seemed like an eternity, she broke eye contact with me and told Ettie that she would speak to her later.
At lunchtime, I turned off the fluorescent bulbs and pulled the little table out from the wall. I laid out the lunch that I had prepared in the morning. I thought back to all those lunches that I had eaten by the shores of a lake in the shade of the tall trees. Ettie walked into the office and seemed happy to see that her office was temporarily transformed. “Have a seat, Ettie. I was hoping that you’d join me for lunch.” She seemed relieved. We sat there enjoying each other’s company.
While we were eating, Beth had come back to visit. She saw our little picnic and we invited her to sit down to join us. There was more than enough food. There we sat, in the office, with the sunlight streaming in from the windows and our little picnic table by the wall. The conversation was lighter this time. I cannot even remember what we talked about. There was a heaviness in Beth, and although she was not complaining this time about her work or her life, the emotions were still there, just below the surface. It was nice having her there for lunch, just sharing a meal together.
I did sit in to hear a number of Ettie’s cases during the day. She did a wonderful job in trying to help in any way possible. Her clients seemed so enthusiastic to improve their lives. It was so obvious to them that their lives needed improving. They refused to accept their situation, and seemed to know exactly what kind of changes they needed.
As we drove back to Port Jefferson at the end of the day, I mentioned that Beth seemed to be her most challenging client. I thought, “Perhaps if she stays at that job, she may get the courage to pursue her writing on the side; that will give her something to look forward to after work, on holidays, when she retires, and perhaps one day if she finally leaves that place.”
We drove through the back roads on our way home. There was a slight rain and a chill in the air. For a few moments we both seemed to be reflecting on all the experiences of the day. As we entered a tree lined windy road, the branches seemed to be waving, rolling in the wind. For a brief moment the trees, the road, and the car disappeared. In some remote crevice of my mind a very sharp image appeared. All I could see was little Beth Wickey sitting at her desk on a hot summer day in her creaky attic.
15 Jan 1998