Don’t Tell Joe

“Don’t tell Joe,” she said on the phone.

“I won’t,” I reassured my Nana.

A check arrived in the mail earlier that day, a gift from Nana. Joe was my grandfather, well, step-grandfather. Nana was always sending me checks: checks for winter coats, long distance phone bills, birthdays, holidays, and replacement windows for my first house. I never knew when I was getting a check until she called me, sometimes just a day after she mailed it. She always warned me, “Don’t tell Joe.”

“Did you get the check?”

“No,” I’d say, not even expecting one.

“I hope it didn’t get lost in the mail,” she always said.

Then she would ask me to check the mailbox while she waited on the phone.

She’d remind me, “When you get it, call me, but don’t tell Joe.”

“Don’t tell Joe” was her code. Without explanation, I understood that Joe was not to know about the new shoes she’d bought me.

I never understood the nuances of telling Joe or not telling Joe. I only understood that my Nana wanted the gifts she sent to be a secret, our secret.

Sometimes the checks were from both Nana and Joe, and she would blurt out in the middle of our phone calls,

“You forgot to thank Joe for the check.”

She would then abruptly hand the phone over to Joe and I would thank him for the check, which I didn’t even know was from him.

It wasn’t just the gifts that she wanted me to hide from Joe; there were other things, all seemingly arbitrary. I just left my job, “Don’t tell Joe.” I’m getting married, “Don’t tell Joe.” I’m gay, “Don’t tell Joe.”

Thus, Joe was largely left in the dark. Though, always friendly and eager to hear what was happening in my life, my grandmother controlled our conversations with her eyes. They would dart around the room giving her face a kind of crazy look. Without a word, Nana’s eyes screamed one thing: “Don’t tell Joe.”

My Nana saw everything as a secret. She had an inherent mistrust of others. If I was visiting her sister, my Aunt Lilly, she would remind me to not talk about my mother.

If I was visiting my mother, I was sworn to secrecy not to tell her about Cousin Randy’s marriage.

My grandmother was paranoid. Keeping all those secrets, she gave herself plenty to worry about. What if Joe found out that I had switched my college major, or worse, what if he found out my mother was going back to school? These were the things that kept my Nana up at night. Absent of her worries, she would have nothing to do.

She kept Joe in a kind of insulated bubble, largely ignorant of the details of our lives. He would often ask how things were going with my work; he would look completely lost, not having been told that I left that job two years ago.

Joe was Nana’s chauffer. He mostly took us shopping and was often forced to wait in the car, alone, reading the paper. He never asked why he couldn’t come with us. I, for one, was grateful. In his presence there was very little Nana and I could actually talk about. It was easier to visit Nana without Joe present. She was so mistrusting, but he never wanted to leave her side.

At home she would often send him on a fool’s errand, finding any reason to get him out of the house.

“Joey, can you pick up some grapefruit juice and that cereal I like,” she’d say.

Once Joe was gone, Nana would start asking me questions: the kind of questions you just couldn’t ask around Joe, like “Did the shoes fit?” “Did you buy the new bra?” or “What about the haircut?”

Joe was a nice guy and I never thought he would care if my new shoes fit but some wire had tripped in Nana’s head. She started suspecting Joe of doing things, things he shouldn’t have been doing, things like saying “hello” to the lady downstairs. He nodded at the lady as he and Nana got into their car. Joe made the apparent mistake of holding the door open when the lady’s hands were full of groceries.

Then Nana suspected him of spending too much time in the bathroom. She started to first confide her suspicions to my mother, later to my uncle, and finally she broke down, confiding in me. She made it sound so believable. She was so convincing. After all, anything was possible. She suspected that Joe was talking to the lady through the toilet. It was a clandestine affair, communicated through a series of flushes, and love notes scribbled on toilet paper.

Poor Joe tried to defend himself, but Nana just wouldn’t let it go. After all, he still needed to use the bathroom. It was soon after that we took her to the local mental hospital. She resisted at first, but ultimately settled into a nice little cottage on the grounds of Long Island Jewish Psychiatric Hospital. When I went to visit her, she was no longer talking about Joe and the toilet; she was calling out for her mother, screaming Mama as I tried to calm her down.

Nana was ultimately discharged, but it was soon after that Nana became unhinged and attacked the neighbor lady in the parking lot. My Nana was a strong woman. I can imagine Nana swinging her public television tote bag at the woman’s head didn’t go over so well.

The management evicted Nana and Joe from their apartment. Who could blame them? Both Nana and Joe were each placed in locked units at different mental hospitals. Somehow they were both too in love to stay together. They had to be separated.

We put their belongings in storage, and later when they were marginally better my mother found a residential hotel for them to live in. Nana seemed back to her old self, but Joe was broken by the whole experience and took to the bed. Nana seemed perfectly content in her new surroundings and with Joe in bed all the time; she could keep an eye on him and enjoy the freedom of saying whatever she liked.

We would chat for hours while Joe lied in the bed groaning that he wanted to die. Nana seemed unfazed. As for the rest of the family, we were somewhat relieved. As long as Joe stayed in bed, Nana could trust him and they could remain together.

She still sent those checks and still reminded me to not tell Joe, though he was always in bed and would have cared little about such details.

For three years Joe stayed in that bed. My Nana made a life for herself at that residential hotel. She made friends with the other residents and brought Joe his meals in bed.

Then, as if no time had passed, Joe got up and out of bed. He once again became that jolly guy who sang Broadway tunes in his robust baritone voice. While she didn’t come out and say it,
Nana wasn’t so happy with the old Joe back. Living in that hotel presented numerous possibilities to carry on with the women there, through the building’s many toilets.

Joe was ready to reclaim his life. Just as suddenly as he took to the bed, he got up. He went and found a realtor and he rented them a new apartment. Nana and Joe lived there until he died years later. They got along well, and in many ways were each other’s best friend.

When it became evident that Joe was dying, I asked Nana when I should come to visit him. By then, he was in the final stages of cancer and we knew his time was short. She always discouraged me from coming. There was nothing left to tell Joe, but still, she could never be sure.

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