The Story on Millie's Mother
by Chikako Atsuta
Millie Pulver is a 63-year old woman, living alone
in the old house that she had inherited from her aunt in Rockport,
Massachusetts, a little seaside town at the tip of Cape Ann. She was 36 years
old, which is my present age, when her husband left her and their four
"He just loves young women. He left me for a younger woman, and he left this
woman for another younger woman. It never ends," said Millie. She paused and
asked me, "What do you think his profession is?" I replied, "Rabbi."
"How did you guess?" Millie looked startled. I knew it because she already had
told me this story a few times. "Because you've told me," I said. She looked at
me a little puzzled but started talking something else.
Three years ago I got a new job in Rockport. I moved out of the Boston area and
rented a room in Millie's house temporarily. I planned to live there to get to
know the Cape Ann area well before I started to look for my own apartment.
Millie's excessive talk was not something I expected as a supplement to the
I prepared dinner for myself in her kitchen around 7 o'clock after I came back
from work. Though she usually finished her dinner about 5 o'clock, she came
down from her room on the second floor to talk every time I started to make a
sound in the kitchen. Many times it was the gossip in town. As her job was loan
consulting at a local bank, she talked to me enthusiastically about the
financial status of each of her client. "Aren't you breaking the rules at the
bank by talking about these things?" I asked once. "Of course I am. But you
don't know anybody in town, so it doesn't matter." And then she kept talking
about who had millions in their accounts and who was almost broke. She did not
care if I was interested in these stories or consider that I did not know any
of these people she was gossiping about. Actually, though, I enjoyed them.
Obviously she knew how to tell stories in a lively manner.
She did not watch TV, saying that it was a waste of time, and read books
instead. She had a huge stack of The New Yorker in her bedroom and
often made a copy of her favorite short story from one of the back numbers. I
often received these copies. Watching me read these stories, Millie whispered,
"Isn't it great, isn't it great?" Quite often I did not understand these
stories for both lack of English proficiency and literary sophistication.
Millie tried to explain the stories I could not understand, sometimes, for
Her daughter, Claire is a lawyer in Boston, and has two infants. Claire
resembles Millie very much, except that she did not seem talkative. Millie
often goes to her house for baby-sitting. One night, when I was cooking in the
kitchen, Millie came back furiously: "Can you believe it? Claire said I don't
have to come to her place any more. She said I take too much of her mental
space because I talk too much!" Millie gave me the impression that she might be
feared that she would disappear if she stopped talking. I used to have a boss
in Japan who talked constantly. He once told me not to trust people who did not
talk. "They don't talk because they are too afraid to show their stupidity," he
said, and kept talking. Millie reminded me of my boss.
Were her stories true? I never questioned them except one night when she talked
about her mother. Millie never drinks tea or coffee, saying that it is
wasteful. Natalia, a Russian girl with whom I worked, often visited me while I
was living in Millie's house. Natalia, in her early 20s, loved tea. So every
time she visited me, she made many cups using Millie's tea, which was kept for
her guests. After Natalia made tea for herself and me, she always asked Millie
if she also wanted a cup of tea. Completely irritated, Millie replied, "How
many times have I told you? I don't drink tea!" And Natalia always told her,
"Millie, tea is good for you. In Europe everybody drinks tea." One night, after
this endless repetition, Millie told Natalia, "You don't know anything about
tea. I am the one who knows something about tea." And Millie started to talk
about her mother.
Millie said that her parents emigrated from Germany to the U.S. They settled
down in Brookline, Massachusetts and had three daughters. Her mother was
Orthodox Jewish, and had not been very happy about her daughters growing up
more liberal in their Jewish traditions in America. When Millie was 25 years
old, she was living with one of her sisters in Boston. One cold night in
February, her mother visited their place. It was Friday.
"My mother walked all the way from Brookline because she was not supposed to
drive on the Sabbath. When she finally got to our place, she was shivering. So
I thought I would make a cup of tea for her, and then I put a kettle on a gas
fire. My mother saw me do this and screamed. 'What are you doing? It's the
Sabbath! I can't believe my own daughter would light a fire on the Sabbath!'
She is right, if you are good Orthodox Jew, you are not supposed to do any
works on the Sabbath. She was very angry, and she walked right back in snow."
Then Millie paused looking at Natalia and me. "You know what happened then?
After walking and walking, she went back home and got a heart attack. And she
died." Natalia and I almost jumped in our chairs. "What? Your mother died like
"Yes. So, you know, that's the reason I don't make tea any more."
"Oh, I 'm so sorry, Millie." Natalia was almost crying.
She was so disturbed by the story that she went back to her place soon after. I
looked at Millie. She had an interesting expression. She looked as if she were
holding her emotions, which would burst into either tears or laughter if I
tapped on her shoulder. "Millie, I'm sorry to hear about your mother. You've
never told me this story." She looked at me, still with her complex expression
on her face. Then she said in a low voice. "I can't stand Natalia. She always
says everything is better in Europe than here. What does she think she is? She
is Russian!" Natalia's constant praising for Europe annoyed me, too, so I
nodded. "Did you make up the whole story just to scare Natalia?" I asked. "Of
course I didn't. It's a true story." Millie said, and she stood up. "It's time
to go to bed."
Soon after I found an apartment in a neighboring city and moved out of Millie's
house. Since then, I have not had seen her very much. Natalia got a new job and
moved to New York City. Millie is living in her house by herself. I still do
not know if Millie's story on her mother was true or not. I even thought about
asking Claire about it, but I did not. Why do I care, really? Millie is a true
storyteller, and we enjoy it (most of the time). I miss her stories, but I have
been hesitating to call her because her story often requires too much time and
too much energy. In an era when everybody supposedly works hard and enjoys
sophisticated entertainment such as watching videos or surfing on Internet in
his or her spare time, Millie's stories often are too demanding on listeners'
side. While limiting my life in a small frame where everybody says only nice
but shallow things to each other, I crave for her stories. And I still can't
casually call her up.
Chikako Atsuta was a Japanese freelance writer
living in Massachusetts and a regular contributor to Gate 39. For more information see: her memorial page. More selections from
"Ako's East Coast Blues."
The text is the property of the estate of Chikako Atsuta and is not to be reproduced without written permission.