From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul


What do we live for if not to make life less difficult for each other.

George Eliot

Ethyl entered my life on a bright July day in 1992, dressed in an aqua, polyester dress without a slip. Sturdy and scrubbed shining clean, she talked out of the side of her mouth, hiding eroded teeth in sad need of fixing. Ancient china blue eyes jumped out of a strawberry blonde haystack. Only in her late thirties, she was smart and slow, old and young—a garage sale of conflicting impressions.

My ad, which read, “Loyal, dependable, hard-working person to care for beloved, crusty, ninety-year-old grandpa,” had attracted forty calls, ten of which I scheduled for an interview. My dad had taken to wandering, forgetting and losing his way home. I’d spent many hours driving up and down streets near his apartment house, asking anybody if they’d seen a distinguished old gentleman with a Sherlock Holmes hat, sport coat and white mustache who picked weeds out of street cracks and yards. Now something new had cropped up. He’d ride the number-ten bus to a grocery store, where he’d buy a bottle of booze. The day I got the “come-quick-I-think-your-father-had-a-stroke” call from the apartment manager, I found Dad in his underwear, drunk as a skunk, categorically denying he’d ever touched a drop in his life. He was skin and bones, a fact that his padded clothes had hidden. I sat there crying, feeding him bites of banana, anguishing over how I could keep him independent and on his feet as long as possible. Dad tried to wipe my nose and didn’t have a clue as to why I was bawling.

“Well, what experience have you had?” I droned for the tenth time.

“I took care of my dad,” Ethyl stated with obvious pride. “He lived in the Yukon and knew Jack London. You know—the writer of Call of the Wild. My last job was a logger in B.C.”

“A logger?” I repeated incredulously. Gosh, Dad, I thought, the things I’ve done for you these last years.

“I really want this job,” she said with a slight Scottish lilt. “I’m a hard worker, and I love crusty old gentlemen. I’m dependable. And clean. Just like this ad wants.”

I told her I’d get back to her, then watched her from the porch. She hugged the steering wheel of a battered, rusty, belching fire dragon and departed in a cloud of black smoke.

I hired her. Something in me just believed her.

The next day we met at Dad’s little apartment where I explained how Ethyl was going to come mornings to cook and clean a bit.

“I don’t need anybody,” he stated flatly.

“She’s hard up and needs work,” I whispered in sotto voce twice in his good ear.

“How much?” he cackled.

“She’s free,” I answered, adding “lying” to the “what-I-have-done-for-you-Dad” list. “She’s a free service you get from the senior citizens.”

He begrudgingly agreed, and Ethyl and I shared a stare and let out a long sigh of relief. We discussed how, along with her other duties and a daily 7:30 A.M. call to me, she’d be sly watchdog and shower-giver. That last one would be tough.

The next morning, promptly at 7:30 A.M., the phone rang.

“I’m using a phone in the lobby,” Ethyl panted. “His door’s locked, and I can’t find . . . Oh, dear God! He’s walking up the freeway. I gotta go!”

I yelled like a crazy person into the dead phone as my husband tried to calm me.

Ten terrible minutes later the phone rang. Breathless Ethyl stated she’d grabbed Dad by his coat on the onramp and dragged him home—his 124 pounds versus her 160. From the sound of things, it was a draw, and they’d stopped rush-hour traffic to boot. I could hear him roaring something in the background about picking up nuts and bolts, getting his hat run over, and who the hell was Ethyl.

Ethyl and Dad were together two years. He gained eight pounds because she fed him so well; she lost ten chasing him. Together we stopped his drinking. She found the bottles, and I gave them away to everybody I could think of. In time, Dad simply forgot about it. Faithful Ethyl walked with him in the mornings, avoiding the freeway. His little apartment shined. He shined, all cleaned and starched, glowing like a priceless antique.

Many mornings she’d hold the phone for me to hear. A musician in the twenties, Dad had played piano in the silent flicks for fifty cents a week. Now he plunked “Toyland” on the keyboard his granddaughters gave him for his ninety-first birthday. Ethyl, Dad and whomever, sometimes it was neighbors, warbled on one end of the phone, with me doing alto on the other.

One terrible wintry day, Ethyl willed her belching dragon of a car up the icy hill to his place when everything had been paralyzed by the storm.

“Ethyl, you’re a prince!” I told her over the phone.

“George has got to have his breakfast,” she stated with a slight lispy whistle through a sparkling set of dentures.

One Sunday I entered his apartment. “Where’s Ethyl?” I asked.

“Down there,” he said, gesturing to the Dumpster in the back of his apartment. He twirled his finger at his temple, making a crazy sign. There was Ethyl, up to her waist in trash, throwing everything out of the Dumpster. When she heard me tapping on the window, she turned.

“Teeth,” she mouthed, taking out hers and waving them. “He threw out his teeth!”

She found them. But in the fullness of time, we lost his glasses and $1,700 worth of hearing aids.

When the time finally came for another care level, we settled Dad in a new place, and Ethyl and I took down his apartment and shared memories. Occasional tears turned to hooted laughter when we found one last bottle. As we clinked glasses, she pronounced, “We done right by George. God bless him, our bonny, crusty, old piece of work!”

The next day, the new place called to say Dad was missing. Ethyl, my husband, daughters and I combed the streets for two hours and ultimately called the police. Finally, the manager of the old apartment called my husband, who’d returned home for such an eventuality, and said Dad had thumbed a ride twenty miles across town to his old place, carrying family pictures and his keyboard. We all rushed over there, threw our arms around his neck and collapsed into tears. Of course, Dad didn’t have the slightest idea what he’d done. For the next month, Ethyl and I took turns settling him into the new place.

Dad went to a full-fledged nursing home a year later when he didn’t know any of us anymore, but Ethyl continued to visit him several times a week. He died peacefully at ninety-five. At his funeral, Ethyl stood in the family line with the rest of us, inconsolable.

Ethyl and I stay in touch and still exchange Christmas cards. I wrote her a reference when she applied for citizenship. And both of us have never stopped missing Dad.

Over the years, the one thing I know truly in my heart of hearts is, together, Ethyl and I kept that beloved, crusty old grandpa up, and independent, until the very end. We “done right” by George.

Isabel Bearman Bucher

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