When my grandmother died she owned no property, personal or real; no goods, durable or consumable. Personal property is also called movable property, personalty, movables, chattels (chattels first meant goods and money, and later came to be associated with a beast held in possession, livestock, cattle; chattel, as slaves, came into use in the seventeenth century), and under U.S. law can be further divided into tangibles and intangibles. Tangible property can be felt or touched and intangible property is immaterial. Personal effects are tangibles; debt and goodwill, intangibles. (And then there was paraphernalia, a specifically female version of personal effects: these are called her paraphernalia … the apparel and ornaments of the wife, which also included tableware and sometimes her bed.) Real property, with its echoes of real estate, realty, royalty, realm, kingdom, is immovable property, land and the structures on it. Durable goods, also known as hard goods, have a useful life of three or more years, and consumable goods, also known as soft goods, get used up or discarded; a further subset is known as perishables, goods prone to disintegration or decay. Personal or real, tangible or intangible, durable, hard, soft, consumable, or perishable: my grandmother owned none of it. Goldyne Alter died with no possessions. She didn’t leave a thing, save her body and that, of course, would be gone soon, too.
My grandmother was under my custodianship, a kind of power, although in daily practice she was under the care of the nurses and aides at the Sherwin Manor Nursing Home. Mine was the name they had on file, the responsible party. She died with no clothes, shoes, sleepwear, undergarments, accessories, eyeglasses, jewelry, toiletries, trinkets, talismans, keys, loose change, photos, birthday cards, collectibles, household goods, furniture, financial assets, or real estate. She never owned a vehicle. She owned no artwork, although her husband, my grandfather, was an artist by trade, in the trades, a sign painter. (He scribbled dirty pictures on scraps of newspaper to amuse me while we did the crossword puzzle in the Chicago American.) There had been a wedding ring, removed before she went into the nursing home and then stored in a safe-deposit box; a heavy gold choker that sat on one’s neck like a snake, passed on to my mother and then to me but never worn; a small ruby ring, possibly a child’s, which I lost in a motel room. She died without anything to her name, a phrase that arguably has its origins in the ability to sign one’s name to a binding document, a right that many women were long denied. Civiliter mortuus, civil death.
I first came across the term civil death in the landmark 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, articulated by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other early feminists, who argued that the twin institutions of marriage and patriarchy had rendered women, in the eye of the law, civilly dead. Civiliter mortuus: civil death. To be civilly dead is to lose the rights of citizenship through imprisonment or banishment. To lose the right, among other rights, to property and wages. Civil death had its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was known as atimia (dishonor) and infamia (infamy), respectively. It was a form of collective forgetting that forced the infamous, the disregarded, to disappear from the polity. Had I, as her default caretaker, rendered my grandmother civilly dead?
She had never been rich. She had always been envious. Of the moneyed, of her younger sister. Her younger sister, who wore a tiara at her wedding and married a merchant. My grandmother was contemptuous of her sign-painter husband, whom she may have loved but often derided. He made enough money to put food on the table but not enough for her to flaunt. He spoke with a foreign accent; he was Russian-born. Her sister’s husband spoke with an accent too, but his was of the west, of Montana, and so it mattered less that he was crude. His crudeness was home-grown. My grandmother was long-suffering, and we knew it. My mother called her Sarah Bernhardt. She fell to the floor when the call came about my grandfather’s death. She was putting on an act, my mother implied. A show. But can it be both, can one put on an act and be shocked to the floor in grief? She went down gently, so as not to hurt herself. Perhaps my mother felt that these antics allowed no room for her own pain, which was quieter but no less piercing.
She never owned a home, unlike her rich sister, who owned two homes, one a waterfront property in Miami with mango trees and a private dock, where my grandparents were regularly invited to spend the winter. It was a largesse my grandmother expected and resented, and one she feared would be withdrawn. She lived on Surf Street, in the Surf Hotel, a cramped apartment, two blocks from Lake Michigan, and then she lived with us, and then, widowed, she lived with another widow, an arrangement based on saving money and eliciting mutual dislike, and then, after the widow sold her house, she lived in a nursing home, on Medicaid. When she lived with us, we shared a bedroom. She complained of the cold. Her bed was against the wall by the window; every night she asked me to move it. She was afraid of drafts. She wrapped herself up in cardigan sweaters and wore hose rolled at the knees. Often she held herself. Her breasts were massive, a geologic formation. Years later she had to have one of them removed. Once there was a Peeping Tom in the window, his face a dark outline against the glass. I was equal parts frightened and flattered. Be careful, she used to say, about almost everything.
Her father, a peddler, Russian-born as well, had sold sundries off a cart. He’d stocked other people’s shelves with goods, iron goods according to one census report and junk according to another, until he fell off his cart and died.
In sixteenth-century Germany, a person who was civilly dead was referred to as vogelfrei, which literally translates as “free as a bird” but actually meant an outlaw, a person unbound by law, subject to no protections, so the freedom belonged to others, who were free to kill him and leave him for the birds. His body should be free and accessible to all people and beasts, to the birds in the air and the fish in water so that none can be made liable for any crimes committed against him. Kaiser Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, declared the Roma vogelfrei and ordered them to be treated with all possible severity both in body and property. Marx later called the proletariat, free from the bonds of feudalism but not free to enter into the new economy, free and rightless, while Hannah Arendt said the Jews, under Nazism, were free game. The wife, the villein (feudal tenant), the monk, the slave, the immigrant, the incarcerated, the elderly, the disabled, the queer, all have been described as civilly dead, or as one early English jurist wrote of the villein and the monk, being under the power of their lords.
When she died, I was my grandmother’s only living relative. I thought of myself that way, even though her younger sister was still alive, because her sister needed her own caretaking, and my brother, the third living relative, lived in California, too far away and disinclined to do any caretaking at all. I was disinclined, too, but took up the title—if not the role—and the martyrdom as well.
Is love a requisite? Would I have grown to love her if I’d tended her body? Wiped her clean, brushed her hair, daubed on lipstick, spooned cottage cheese. When my friend A was in labor, she asked for ice repeatedly, and I fed the chips between her lips; at the required time I cut the cord. Now, years later, the urgency of those moments binds us. Would rubbing the rough spots on my grandmother’s skin with Aquaphor have eventually eroded my indifference, as if in applying a salve I, too, would be soothed? “The opposite of moral is not immoral” but indifferent, a political activist recently wrote. I was indifferent toward my grandmother. I paid her little regard. You do not necessarily feel it, Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa once said when a student asked about how to be compassionate without feeling it first. You are it.
My grandmother had already been dismantled. She’d lost her husband, her daughter, her breast, her bearings. She could no longer roll out blintzes on the kitchen table. She’d lost half her size. She didn’t know her own thoughts. She could no longer sign her name. Had she shed her resentments, too? Her fears? Of being poisoned by the nurses. Her curses? Khob im in bod, Yiddish for “throw him in the bathtub,” said when she wanted to demonstrate aggrieved indifference. Her superstitions? Pull your ear if you sneeze while thinking or talking about the dead—so death, for the time being, won’t come knocking. There was no will, no final and determining document. (To die without a will is to die intestate, without testimony, without witness.) No declarations or requests. She was dead in law and in deede.
What about the TV set?
What about the skinny watch she wore embedded in her wrist, similar to the one I wear now?
When I arrived at the nursing home, they gave me a plastic bag, empty except for her release papers. Isn’t the only living relative supposed to keep track of such things? Isn’t she supposed to write her grandmother’s name on the inside of all her clothing with a water-resistant Sharpie so she might still keep her own stock and goods whole, in apparancie to the worlde; buy garish new housecoats when the old ones wear thin; replace the soiled underwear; dry-clean the sweaters; restock the AA batteries for the TV remote; cut the chicken breast into pieces so her grandmother can spear them with a fork; lubricate her lips; bring treats of chocolate-covered strawberries; monitor the medications; sort the family photos and slip them into cheap decorative frames to put near the bed so her grandmother could look at them and the staff could admire the assembled array of her family? Don’t we carry photographs of … those we love who have died? Don’t we …keep them on the mantel as a reminder of all that is precious and binds us to this life? Isn’t she supposed to keep track, so in the end there’s an accounting, a ledger of the incoming and the outgoing, an ultimate tally? Hannah Arendt said that conscience is the anticipation of the fellow who waits for you if and when you come home, Locke said it’s nothing more than your own opinion of your own actions, and research claims that the best long-term-care insurance is a conscientious daughter. At the desk I had to introduce myself, I had to say I’m Goldie Alter’s granddaughter. They didn’t know me otherwise. They didn’t recognize me. I offered my name up as if it were an apology. A nurse looked up, a flash of contempt in her eyes, before we got down to the final paperwork that, once signed, was slipped into the bag, otherwise empty.
It was a convenience store bag, 7-Eleven or Osco or Target or Walgreens.
Goldie Alter died in Chicago, Illinois, on August 3, 1995, midnineties, her exact age indeterminate, with no possessions. In my absence, she’d been whittled down to nothing. The bare facts remain, but some of those are in question. She’s buried in Westlawn Cemetery, next to her husband, Leo, and near their daughter, Harriet. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, she was once a clerk and, once married, she had no occupation and no income. She could read and write. Her maiden name was Zaslavsky. She was born in 1897 or 1899 or 1900, on December 5 or 12, in Chicago, the second child of Sarah and Joseph. She was preceded in death by her husband and daughter, her older sister, Sadie, and younger brother, Sidney, and survived by her younger sister, Etta, and two grandchildren.
Here, then, is an imagined accounting, a closing inventory. In the end, there was her bed, durable and movable. The sheets, discardable. The underpads, changed daily and perishable. The pillow, hypoallergenic, stamped PROPERTY OF SHERWIN MANOR. The lift device above the bed. The straws, the cup, the bedside table. A pack of sponge swabs. A tube of Aquaphor. The chest and wardrobe. Compression socks. The wheelchair, lap cushion, restraining vest. Down the hall, the dining tables, the faux wood chairs, arranged expectantly. A blue sweater draped over a chair. Pine cone centerpieces. On the wall: FIRST AID FOR CHOKING: GET THEM TO COUGH. The potted ficus tree, unfurling a new leaf and dropping another. The TV, at high volume. Shirley Temple was the first choice to star in this 1939 musical but Judy Garland got the part. The remote, on a cord. A clock with vines. Copies of Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, Better Homes and Gardens, Reader’s Digest. IS DOLE TOO OLD FOR THE JOB? MONICA SELES BREAKS HER SILENCE. There were Monet’s water lilies. A bateau along the Seine. The Chicago skyline. Fire extinguishers behind glass. Unfinished meals on a cart. The smell of consommé. An aquarium with black and yellow striped fish. There were locked cabinets with medications. Locked closets with clean linens. There was a calendar on the wall. Today is Thursday. A bulletin board with announcements. Irv Williger’s birthday. Memoir, bingo, a Frank Sinatra impersonator. Sign up for the symphony: Bartók and Bruckner. The rabbi is visiting. Hair appointments. There was the orange cone on the floor with the figure of a man falling. There were emergency exits. Intercoms. Instructions, codes. Wall phones. Arm rails. STAFF ONLY. Room numbers, door tags. The Prince Sleeps Here. Rosenthal, Weisbourd, Schaps, Harris … A chair behind the desk. The bird on the vine clock calling. There was a draft moving down the hallway, tangible and felt.
Peggy Shinner is the author of the essay collection You Feel So Mortal, which was long-listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She lives in Chicago.