Su Lum: Slumming
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
I was adjusting one of the blinds in my office the other day and jumped back when I saw the little brass bell sitting on the windowsill. I hate the little brass bell and she tends to haunt the house, showing up all of a sudden in unexpected places.
It is a “she” because it’s a brass bell in the form of a woman, with little brass feet underneath her skirts as the clappers. She is busty, wears an old-fashioned cap and a fancy, floor-length dress which has puffy long sleeves.
She has a stern face and her arms are akimbo which means, I only found out recently (meaning within the past couple of decades), that she has her hands on her hips with her elbows out to her sides.
The little brass bell is a relic from my second (and last) husband – its purpose was to summon aid to the ailing.
When I was a kid, my siblings and I seemed to be sick a lot. It was before the vaccines so we got all the childhood diseases: measles, chicken pox and mumps; it was before penicillin and antibiotics so we got long colds and flu, pneumonia and tonsillitis. “I was in bed for seven weeks when I was five,” I used to tell everyone after a bout with nephritis.
My father was an electrical engineer, so he set up various communication systems between the upstairs sickroom and the rest of the family downstairs. One was a walkie-talkie contraption with a round receiver at each end. The ailing child would bang on the radiator heating pipe which ran from the second floor infirmary to the first floor dining room. At this signal, a parent (usually my mother) would pick up and ask what the matter was, then putting the receiver to her ear to hear the response – a demand for food or a request to be read to.
My father refined this with an electric buzzer which we could press like a nurse’s bell, marginally more tolerable (for them) than whacking on the pipe. I think he would have liked us to take the opportunity to learn Morse code, but when I was eight my older sister and I moved into the attic, my parents moved their bedroom from the first floor to the second, opening up the ground floor bedroom as the sick room – close enough to shriek our requests to the kitchen and with the added benefit of being able to sneak our dachshunds into the sick bed.
But I digress. In the spring of 1966, my then-husband Burt, our daughters Skye, baby Hillery and I lived in a spare old Victorian at 614 East Hopkins, demolished in 1972, now the site of Alpine Bank’s parking lot.
I caught the flu, or the Aspen Crud as we called it, and lay near death’s door for nearly a week while Burt, a respected teacher in the English Department of Aspen High School (and a guidance counselor, oh irony), exacerbated my debilitation by railing at me to do my wifely duty – he was starving, my children were starving, the house was a mess and all I did was just lie there when what I needed to do was get up and take care of business.
Then Burt caught the crud and oh my lord there had never been a sicker person on the planet than he was. My little bout with the flu was nothing like what he was experiencing. My tiny flu was a grain of sand compared to the dunes of his surely terminal illness. Out came the little brass bell he had brought to the marriage and ding-ding-ding it rang from upstairs. With his last breath he would gasp for a cup of tea and when I’d return with it, it would be too cold; I’d heat it up (kids howling) and it would be too hot. Ding-ding-ding. Bitch-bitch-bitch. Do you call this food? I can’t eat this – bring me some soup. Too cold, too hot, ding-ding-ding.
This wasn’t my first hint that there was something wrong with this relationship, but the little brass bell put the lid on it. Maybe that’s why, much as I don’t like her, I have never thrown her out.
Now she’s sitting on my printer as I write and I have to say she still gives me the creeps.
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