Millie Pulver is a 63-year old woman, living alone in the old house that she had inherited from her aunt in Rockport, Massachusetts, a little seaside town at the tip of Cape Ann. She was 36 years old, which is my present age, when her husband left her and their four children.
"He just loves young women. He left me for a younger woman, and he left this woman for another younger woman. It never ends," said Millie. She paused and asked me, "What do you think his profession is?" I replied, "Rabbi."
"How did you guess?" Millie looked startled. I knew it because she already had told me this story a few times. "Because you've told me," I said. She looked at me a little puzzled but started talking something else.
Three years ago I got a new job in Rockport. I moved out of the Boston area and rented a room in Millie's house temporarily. I planned to live there to get to know the Cape Ann area well before I started to look for my own apartment. Millie's excessive talk was not something I expected as a supplement to the room.
I prepared dinner for myself in her kitchen around 7 o'clock after I came back from work. Though she usually finished her dinner about 5 o'clock, she came down from her room on the second floor to talk every time I started to make a sound in the kitchen. Many times it was the gossip in town. As her job was loan consulting at a local bank, she talked to me enthusiastically about the financial status of each of her client. "Aren't you breaking the rules at the bank by talking about these things?" I asked once. "Of course I am. But you don't know anybody in town, so it doesn't matter." And then she kept talking about who had millions in their accounts and who was almost broke. She did not care if I was interested in these stories or consider that I did not know any of these people she was gossiping about. Actually, though, I enjoyed them. Obviously she knew how to tell stories in a lively manner.
She did not watch TV, saying that it was a waste of time, and read books instead. She had a huge stack of The New Yorker in her bedroom and often made a copy of her favorite short story from one of the back numbers. I often received these copies. Watching me read these stories, Millie whispered, "Isn't it great, isn't it great?" Quite often I did not understand these stories for both lack of English proficiency and literary sophistication. Millie tried to explain the stories I could not understand, sometimes, for hours.
Her daughter, Claire is a lawyer in Boston, and has two infants. Claire resembles Millie very much, except that she did not seem talkative. Millie often goes to her house for baby-sitting. One night, when I was cooking in the kitchen, Millie came back furiously: "Can you believe it? Claire said I don't have to come to her place any more. She said I take too much of her mental space because I talk too much!" Millie gave me the impression that she might be feared that she would disappear if she stopped talking. I used to have a boss in Japan who talked constantly. He once told me not to trust people who did not talk. "They don't talk because they are too afraid to show their stupidity," he said, and kept talking. Millie reminded me of my boss.
Were her stories true? I never questioned them except one night when she talked about her mother. Millie never drinks tea or coffee, saying that it is wasteful. Natalia, a Russian girl with whom I worked, often visited me while I was living in Millie's house. Natalia, in her early 20s, loved tea. So every time she visited me, she made many cups using Millie's tea, which was kept for her guests. After Natalia made tea for herself and me, she always asked Millie if she also wanted a cup of tea. Completely irritated, Millie replied, "How many times have I told you? I don't drink tea!" And Natalia always told her, "Millie, tea is good for you. In Europe everybody drinks tea." One night, after this endless repetition, Millie told Natalia, "You don't know anything about tea. I am the one who knows something about tea." And Millie started to talk about her mother.
Millie said that her parents emigrated from Germany to the U.S. They settled down in Brookline, Massachusetts and had three daughters. Her mother was Orthodox Jewish, and had not been very happy about her daughters growing up more liberal in their Jewish traditions in America. When Millie was 25 years old, she was living with one of her sisters in Boston. One cold night in February, her mother visited their place. It was Friday.
"My mother walked all the way from Brookline because she was not supposed to drive on the Sabbath. When she finally got to our place, she was shivering. So I thought I would make a cup of tea for her, and then I put a kettle on a gas fire. My mother saw me do this and screamed. 'What are you doing? It's the Sabbath! I can't believe my own daughter would light a fire on the Sabbath!' She is right, if you are good Orthodox Jew, you are not supposed to do any works on the Sabbath. She was very angry, and she walked right back in snow." Then Millie paused looking at Natalia and me. "You know what happened then? After walking and walking, she went back home and got a heart attack. And she died." Natalia and I almost jumped in our chairs. "What? Your mother died like that?"
"Yes. So, you know, that's the reason I don't make tea any more."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Millie." Natalia was almost crying.
She was so disturbed by the story that she went back to her place soon after. I looked at Millie. She had an interesting expression. She looked as if she were holding her emotions, which would burst into either tears or laughter if I tapped on her shoulder. "Millie, I'm sorry to hear about your mother. You've never told me this story." She looked at me, still with her complex expression on her face. Then she said in a low voice. "I can't stand Natalia. She always says everything is better in Europe than here. What does she think she is? She is Russian!" Natalia's constant praising for Europe annoyed me, too, so I nodded. "Did you make up the whole story just to scare Natalia?" I asked. "Of course I didn't. It's a true story." Millie said, and she stood up. "It's time to go to bed."
Soon after I found an apartment in a neighboring city and moved out of Millie's house. Since then, I have not had seen her very much. Natalia got a new job and moved to New York City. Millie is living in her house by herself. I still do not know if Millie's story on her mother was true or not. I even thought about asking Claire about it, but I did not. Why do I care, really? Millie is a true storyteller, and we enjoy it (most of the time). I miss her stories, but I have been hesitating to call her because her story often requires too much time and too much energy. In an era when everybody supposedly works hard and enjoys sophisticated entertainment such as watching videos or surfing on Internet in his or her spare time, Millie's stories often are too demanding on listeners' side. While limiting my life in a small frame where everybody says only nice but shallow things to each other, I crave for her stories. And I still can't casually call her up.
(2001/12/8. This essay is on gate39.com.)