An Easy Target

“An old lady living alone is a target,” my mother insisted. This was her argument against hiring somebody to help her clean her house. On the surface, everything was fine. The bathrooms had fresh flowers, but the sinks were caked with dirt and the toilets smelled. There was fresh food in the refrigerator, but the smell of rotten fruit and vegetables beneath the new week’s groceries was overpowering. The garbage disposal was broken and gave off a musty odor. The dishwasher was loaded with dirty dishes, but never run. My mother herself was beginning to carry the stale odor of unwashed clothes. I tried to explain patiently to my mother how much better her life would be if she allowed somebody to come and clean her house.

Each week, I’d take the A train down to Penn Station, get on the LIRR and walk a mile from the station to my mother’s home. There, I’d whip through the house, cleaning frantically and making mental lists of the chores that still needed to be completed. I’d arrive home exhausted, facing a family that had just eaten Chinese delivery so that I could spend time cleaning my mother’s house. My husband whispered fiercely to me at night: “I don’t want you cleaning your mother’s toilet. She’s not a target; she’s just stubborn.”
It’s not that my toilet scrubbing made my mother happy. My cleaning left something to be desired, she informed me. She couldn’t see that her house was falling down around her. But she could see what a lousy job I did on the cleaning. I was good for cleaning the house, but not too good at doing it.

While I was scrubbing her toilet, she would complain that she couldn’t trust people to come and clean her home. They worked for agencies. They were resentful. They didn’t do a good job. They weren’t reliable. They were dishonest. “An old lady living alone is a target,” she would insist. I continued to argue while I scoured the commode.

When I finally told my mother that my husband didn’t want me cleaning her house, she was alarmed. I insisted that I would help her hire a local cleaning person so she wouldn’t be a target.

I sought the advice of colleague who also lived on Long Island. “Nothing could be easier,” his wife assured me. “I belong to a local Yahoo group. People are always recommending a couple in town who run their own cleaning company. They live right up the street from your mother. Their names are Lester and Guy.” Great.

I called their cell phone and they came over to my mother’s house within ten minutes. Lester did most of the talking. He and his partner, Guy, toured the house asking questions about linen closets and trash collection schedules. They crooned over the photo of my dead brother and his partner: “So handsome. Such a loss for your family. Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of your mother.” They gave me their business card and a list of references to call. Before they left, Lester whispered in my ear: “If something comes up, we can be here in ten minutes. Just call us.”

My mother welcomed this couple into her home. We began spending quality time together working together in the garden, eating leisurely lunches on the back deck and watching old movies on YouTube. It had been worth waiting to find this pair of angels, I thought. They were cleaning service and social workers rolled into one.

Two weeks later, I arrived with my family for Rosh Hashanah. We found her holiday table beautifully set with crystal and silver. But in the spice cabinet where my mother hid her gold jewelry, the space was empty. After the meal, we convinced my mother to call the police. They arrived within ten minutes.

At my mother’s holiday table, two police officers sat, drank coffee and listened. We described and drew pictures of the missing jewelry, much of it gifts from my father during their frequent travels. We gave them Lester and Guy’s business card. “You’re not accusing anybody of stealing,” they reassured my mother. “You are just reporting jewelry missing from your home. Then, we write up the report and pass it along to the detectives. They are the ones who determine what might have happened.” My mother was greatly relieved. “You know,” she told them, “an old lady living alone is an easy target.” They looked at one another and nodded in agreement.

A week later, I received a call from the Nassau Police Department. “I believe I have your mother’s jewelry,” the detective said. “I’ll send you a JPEG.” An image of my mother’s jewelry loomed on my computer screen. I recognized the jewelry, but it wasn’t the same. It had been “processed.” A constellation of gold earrings that had long ago lost their mates was next to a ring that was missing its gold coin. A heavy gold bracelet was snapped in three pieces. An antique brooch that had been my great grandmother’s had been ripped off a bracelet my mother had designed to hold it. The jewelry, the detective informed me, had been sold for scrap.

At the police station with my mother, we picked out Lester from a sheet of headshots pulled from DMV driver’s license files. The detective circled Lester’s photo, which we both initialed. We learned that he had taken my mother’s jewelry to a local pawn shop. It was less than a mile away, in the same town where she, Lester and Guy all lived. Only Lester was arrested as he had been the one to sell the broken jewelry to the pawn shop. He had produced the photo ID required by law. The detectives had easily connected his name with the report of missing jewelry during their weekly sweep of area pawn shops.

“Was it arrogance or stupidity?” my mother asked, astonished. “Was it desperation?” The police did the paperwork for an Order of Protection—one for me, and one for my mother. It was standard policy.

My mother suddenly became afraid to live alone. She knew she lived in the same town as the convicted felon who had stolen her jewelry. She asked to leave her home of more than half a century.

I moved my mother into a tiny apartment in an independent living unit for seniors. Now, my mother couldn’t stop thinking about her former home, the home where she had raised her children, lived as wife to my father and reigned as mistress of the house. “An old lady living alone is an easy target,” she sighed. I didn’t want to agree, but I saw that my mother had lost her zest for living. Her spirit seemed to have flown away. When she died not long after the move, I wore a gold bracelet to her funeral that had been stolen and recovered. The bracelet had been repaired, but I knew my mother’s heart had never recovered from being an easy target.

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