I think I’ve always been a dog person. I remember Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. Among my early books was one called Champion Dog Prince Tom, about a runt cocker spaniel who made it big in obedience trials. When Dad announced Mom’s third pregnancy to me and my brother, he opened with, “You know how much you guys want a puppy?” thinking we’d get even more excited about a new sibling. That backfired. I still recall the stark look of disappointment on Sam’s face, matching my own. In time we learned to love our baby brother Dennis, but we still wanted a dog.
Our parents finally permitted it, but not till I was almost 15. Then they made us give our young beagle away a year later, when we moved to Northern California. A little while after that, as Sam was about to leave for college (I was already out of the nest), they acquired a small dog, ostensibly to keep Dennis company, and I loved that animal as if he were my own. Meanwhile, I was at Cal. In the late 60s. Surrounded by dogs.
It was an amazing time. Drugs, sex, rock&roll, political activism, bare feet, cigarettes allowed even in lecture halls, and hundreds of off-leash dogs. We brought our pets to class. We were open and friendly to all canines. We even made celebrities of some mutts, like Ludwig, for whom the central fountain took its folk name.
I learned about dogs. I learned about fleas. I helped make insect-repelling collars out of eucalyptus nuts. I debugged co-op mattresses with oil of eucalyptus. We disdained industrial poisons for the natural strychnine produced by gum trees.
And I learned about bitches. Back then, many dog owners were averse to spaying and neutering. Most male dogs had testicles, quite visible especially on the short-haired varieties. Many females went into heat and had puppies. I couldn’t help observing that a female in heat, surrounded by males, is a harassed animal. She quickly discards her easy-going personality and becomes a snapping snarling grump, continually edging her backside away from aggressive noses.
Wow, I remember thinking and saying more than once. If you want to turn a sweet-tempered pooch into a hostile obnoxious bitch, just leave her in the open, unprotected, when there are horny males around. That was when I first understood how the term is used pejoratively.
Of course there have been changes in the decades since. Now most pet owners sterilize their animals. Shoes are required in classrooms and cigarettes are permitted almost nowhere. Now everything costs more – property taxes are higher than rents used to run – and traffic is worse than anyone ever imagined. But dogs are still dogs.
For almost ten years now, I’ve had to contend with a bad neighbor. Bertilda is a cat-lover and a dog friend, and she seems to appreciate the mediocre plants she likes to tend in her yard, but she does not do well with people. She’s quick to anger. She’s comfortable with indignation. She’s insincere when she attempts to be cordial.
And she’s a loner. Never married, without family or friends, with a history (as far as I can tell) of dismissal. She once told me of an engagement that was terminated by her boyfriend. I understand she took early retirement from an administrative career, having received a settlement from a harassment claim she made. She was a regular volunteer at the Marine Mammal Center when I met her, but then told me and some other neighbors that the folks at the Center thanked her for her long service and told her the commute was too much for her, and she needed to step aside to permit opportunities for other volunteers.
Bertilda is accomplished at burning bridges.
I know she was born in Germany. I thought she was in her mid-80s but now that she’s becoming a ward of the county, I’ve learned her birth date was in August 1935. She has siblings, but they don’t visit, write, call, or assist. Apparently the sister is three years older than Bertilda and now in Belgium. The brother is ten years her senior and still lives in the old home town.
She’s been a nasty person as long as I’ve known her. I have no reason to believe her personality disorder is of recent development. And now she’s added some form of dementia and memory loss to her customary meanness. She keeps losing keys. Forgetting to pay bills and losing electricity and phone. Failing to renew her car registration and license but driving, sometimes to return with a vehicle that has obviously just encountered something it shouldn’t have. We half dozen immediate neighbors called Adult Protective Services about Bertilda, around three months ago. The process is as bureaucratic as you’d expect, but right now she’s a (probationary) ward of the county, with a conservator (former caseworker) named Leah, and everyone but Bertilda is certain the conservatorship will be made permanent in another couple of months. Meanwhile, Leah arranged to take the car away (now Bertilda is regularly screaming about Communists stealing it), and is trying to place an aide with her.
I loathe and abhor Bertilda. And I’m not a hater. I don’t see evil in the people around me and I have trouble believing it of those I don’t know either. But I can’t stand to be near the woman. I don’t like her smell. I cannot bring myself to touch her. I can hardly wait for the county to complete the conservatorship process and get her out of our neighborhood. The system wants to “keep her in place,” of course. To that end, they are now sending out a succession of home aides for Bertilda to smile at, simper to, verbally abuse, and chase away. Just yesterday, I encountered the latest victim.
I knew her name was Edie. Bertilda’s conservator has been interviewing us and asking us to do things that are probably her job, and she informed us before she sent home aides and healthcare workers to visit. In each case, it’s just a matter of time before Bertilda goes thermonuclear.
I encountered Edie when I was heading out to the grocery store. “Hello,” she said pleasantly, as she put away her cellphone. “Are you the lady who lives next door?”
“Yes. Good morning.” I smiled and I think my face looked calm and sympathetic.
“She won’t let me in,” Edie said with a nod upward toward Bertilda’s windows. “She keeps hanging up on me. And we were making such progress.”
“Oh yes. On the first day, she let me and the nurse into her place for a minute. And then we took her out to lunch. She was a little disoriented, but sweet. She didn’t want us to come back in after, but it was a start. And yesterday she let me in and we talked about how today I would help her clean up a little. But now she keeps screaming she wants to rest, and hanging up.”
“I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
“Oh no thanks. I called my supervisor and she said I should keep trying for awhile. You have a good day.”
I went about my errands. I walk to the grocery store, partly because it’s pleasant but also to earn my calories and think a bit. On my way home, I found myself hoping Bertilda would abuse Edie, so Edie could report it to Leah and we could move closer to getting Bertilda out of the neighborhood and into some assisted living arrangement. Then I challenged myself.
Why was I rooting for Bertilda’s failure? I’m not directly affected by her; my next door neighbors share property with her, but I’m in a different building, a side yard away, and I don’t have to interact with her much. Can’t I hope instead that the home aide thing works? That the county figure out a way to let Bertilda stay in her beloved apartment but soften her, with meds and/or caregivers, so she’s a non-obstructive member of the neighborhood? Why do I care which way it goes?
Then another part of me spoke up. I’m such an advocate for stories. I love narrative. I think all people do. I think kids should be taught via stories instead of texts. Whenever I try to come up with a narrative that will explain the conditions I encounter (the way people act around me), the story ends up shedding light on the characters. When the narrative makes sense, suddenly the actors do too. Why haven’t I tried to come up with a backstory that explains Bertilda?
I was approaching my house when the door of a parked white car opened. Edie emerged, phone in hand. “She still won’t let me in.” She looked almost heartbroken.
“I’m not surprised.”
“Oh no. I’ve been in the neighborhood almost ten years now, and she’s always cycled between decent behavior and toxic tantrums.”
“Oh yeah. I’m surprised she hasn’t used political or race epithets on you.”
“I went to her door and she screamed at me through it. She called me a Communist and a Nazi. She said she hates ‘you fucking Americans’ of all things.”
“Yeah. That’s typical. We’ve all had it.”
I looked at Edie seriously. She acted as if Leah gave her no warning about Bertilda. WTF? “Oh, yes. We’ve all tried to help.” I tossed my head around so my jaw indicated the adjacent houses. “And we’ve all been assaulted at least verbally.”
Edie shook her head.
“I hope you’re not expected to sit out here in your car all afternoon.”
“No. My supervisor said to knock on her apartment door one more time, but I refuse to go up there to be yelled at. I’ll give it another quarter hour and try her phone again. Then I’m out of here.”
And she was. Edie left twenty minutes later.
But I’d made a suggestion to my subconscious and it kept working. By this morning I had what may be an insight into Bertilda.
The old woman acts like a bitch. Literally. I woke to memories of those snapping, snarling, ass-hiding fertile dogs of my college years. OMG: Bertilda’s affect, posture, and attitudes are exactly like those harassed canines.
Huh. Clearly Bertilda doesn’t feel safe. And we all know that condition stems from childhood. Consider Bertilda’s childhood.
She was born too late to be a Nazi. She was twelve the year Hitler’s life ended. She was around eight when the Third Reich began to lose the war.
Eight years old. I remember that age. Old enough to be a violated but too young to protect yourself. Her sister was around eleven then. Her brother was eighteen. Her father was a factor in her life. Her mother, strong and destined to live to an old age, was probably too busy to notice her third child.
The narrative forces the imagination to suspect abuse. If Bertilda were then victimized by her brother and/or father, at the least controlled by a military father in a losing campaign, she would have felt unsafe. If her body were being threatened with invasion, she might have curled her tail protectively around her backside and started jumping around so that she faced her harasser, snarling and snapping. She might have left her country of origin and her family of origin, without a backward glance, as soon as she were able. For ever. She could have found a home here, and settled into it, and surrounded herself with possessions she can’t bear to discard.
She would have lived, acted, and appeared exactly as she does.
This story isn’t going to have a neat ending. It would be a screenplay if any of the county-sent home aides were to bond with her, obtain her trust, and allow her history to be known. But life is more corny and less tidy than literature. Bertilda’s story will have loose ends.