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July 31, 2018 by

I Couldn’t Divorce My Mother-in-Law

3_elephants_topiaryThe Lilith blog presents original short fiction: “The Elephant in the Bush” by Penny Jackson


 “Look,” my mother-in-law tells me. “There’s an elephant in the bushes.”

I turn to look where she is pointing. We are sitting on white deck chairs in a very suburban backyard in New Jersey.

“Do you see it?” She presses my hand. My mother-in-law, whose name is Ida, starts bobbing her head in the agitated way I know now so well.

“Of course,” I tell her, taking off my sunglasses and peering at the shrubbery.

“How funny.  Not only an elephant. But a baby elephant!”

Ida is in stage five of Alzheimer’s disease. She is either a late five or early six. I’ve read the books her daughter has loaned me. The 36-Hour Day is the most popular book that is passed around from family member to family member. 

I do not know if Ida knows my name. She does not remember that her son Gary left me ten years ago for a twenty-two year old nurse at his hospital. I have seen Ida more often than I have seen my ex-husband, who has moved to Anchorage, Alaska and now has two sons with his second wife.

“Sister Teresa would never believe me if I had told her I saw a baby elephant. But then Sister Teresa was so nearsighted that she couldn’t see much anyway,” Ida says with a giggle.

Before Alzheimer’s seized Ida’s brain, she was very active in her town’s synagogue and hosted Shabbat dinners every Friday. Sister Teresa is one of the nuns that hid Ida and her sister when they were children in Lodz, Poland. Luckily both sisters were blonde and the Nazi soldiers would come and bring the two little girls lollipops. The rest of Ida’s family was sent to Auschwitz. 

“Are you thirsty, Ida?” I ask. Phoebe, Ida’s daughter, is picking her her little girl from a play date.  She said she hoped I wouldn’t mind watching her mother. Phoebe and her husband are doing their best to take care of Ida but Ida frightens their daughter.

“Who are you!” Ida once yelled at her eight- year old granddaughter. “You’re not my sister. Where is my sister?”

Ida’s sister had died ten years ago in Philadelphia after being hit by a car in a supermarket parking lot. Mercifully Ida does not remember this.

“Are you thirsty?” I ask again. It’s hot and it’s important that she stays hydrated. Ida still does not answer my question. Her eyes glaze over like stale hard candy as she stares at her elephant in the bushes.

 I visit Ida because I’ve always liked my mother-in-law. Ida made me laugh. She watched reruns of I Love Lucy and could do a very good imitation of Ethel. Halloween was her favorite holiday and one year she was a very convincing Dr. Ruth. At Passover would sink to her knees and crawl with the kids in search of the Afikomen. She never criticized Gary and me for choosing not to have kids. At this point, I doubt her new grandchildren in Alaska have even visited her.

“Sister Teresa was so beautiful,” Ida continues. Today it seems we are stuck on the nuns in Poland. “Golden hair. Such blue eyes. She could have been a film star.”

When the rabbi came to visit Ida, she refused to speak to him. “The house is not for sale,” she told him.

“I don’t want to buy your house, Mrs. Klein,” the rabbi said.

“Then why are you here? Get out. I don’t like the color of your shirt.”

Ida started pacing up and down the hallway, repeating, “I don’t like the color of your shirt” so many times that the poor rabbi had no choice but to leave. He has not returned.

I walk into the kitchen in order to get Ida a glass of water, all the time watching her from the back porch window. She isn’t a runner, Ida. Not yet.

I bring her a glass of water and she stares. “I hope that’s a gin and tonic.”

I wonder where she is right now. I’ve never known Ida to drink a single drop of liquor.

‘Of course it is,” I tell her as I hand her the glass. She drains the water without a comment. A breeze blows through the backyard and I can smell the fumes of a nearby barbecue. A perfect June day but who knows in what season Ida finds herself now.

“You’re still here?” Ida asks. Is she talking to me or the elephant in the bush?

“Yes, I’m still here.”

“Why?”

Why indeed? There was no reason why I had to stay connected to my ex husband’s family. I’m dating a nice man now but I don’t like visiting his mother who is an avid Republican and wears too much eyeliner. I like Ida, that’s all. When Gary left me I remember thinking that I wouldn’t miss him but I would miss his mother. Now that she has Alzheimer’s her daughter is so grateful that I am here to help.

The smoke from the barbecue rises in spirals above the roses by the fence. Ida sees them and stands up. Her face is ashen.

“Darling, what’s wrong?” I ask.  She is silent, staring at the fumes. Her hands are trembling. Memory can play so many dangerous games. Ida’s face is rigid. Frozen. But she is still so beautiful. Her skin still so fine and smooth. This disease does not ravage your face.

Then I see it. The bees by the bush.

“The elephant,” Ida murmurs. “They’ll sting the baby elephant.”

Heroically, insanely, I run toward the bees. Let them just try to sting me. Miraculously, they buzz away. I return to Ida and her trembling hands are now applauding.

“Well done, Susan!”

She knows me. She knows my name. 

When I turn around once more to look at the bush, I realize: One branch is a trunk. Another branch is the head. A third branch the body. In a certain slant of light, it’s possible. I can see the elephant too.  


Penny Jackson is the author of Becoming the Butlers (Bantam Books), L.A. Child and other stories (Untreed Reads) and her plays have been produced in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dublin, and Edinburgh. 


  • Bobby5000

    It is very nice how you treat your mother-in-law and I think we get evaluation by the people who are not seemingly important. And you did not let what your husband change the person you are.