The history behind “The Sad Old Lady”

Artist: Henriette Browne

Sheila has a vision of herself as a lonely old woman, and tries her best to change her fate.

When I was an adolescent, I would sometimes have night terrors. I’d lie in bed staring at the ceiling, overwhelmed by the certainty of death. There was nothing I could do about it; death would one day come for me, and I as a thinking, conscious individual would no longer exist. I would no longer be, and I wouldn’t even be aware that I was no longer, or ever had been. I was absolutely horrified by the prospect.

My idea of what death was, and what it was not, probably dates from a day when I was sitting in the car with my father. I don’t know what brought up the question, but I asked him, “Do you believe in life after death?” He didn’t pause, he didn’t consider, he simply said, “No.” He probably spoke not only from his feelings about religion, but also from what he saw as a soldier in Europe during WWII. And he spoke with such certainty, that I fully believed him. It was something of a shock — I think I’d been expecting something reassuring, and didn’t get it. I think I just sat there, absorbing it, for a while.

Eventually, I don’t know why, those night terrors went away, but I never forgot them. And so, when I started to write “The Sad Old Lady,” I tried to recapture those feelings in print. However, I just couldn’t figure out how to end the story properly. I felt that ending the story with the character dying, and finding out what death really was (or having her dying and just ending the story), didn’t work.

Finally, I decided that Sheila’s night terrors should come from a different source: the anticipation of what, to a child, would be the hideous and nearly unimaginable fate of getting old.

“The Sad Old Lady” appeared in an unfortunately short-lived publication called Voluted Dreams in July 2013.

When she was four years old, Sheila Mandel found out that something awful was going to happen.

The Sad Old Lady

For the most part, the people in this story are completely fictional. There are aspects of Sheila that come from my own experience — the fear of what is to come in the future, and the little tin box full of childhood treasures (which I still have, by the way). But she is of my mother’s generation.

Sheila’s son Carl’s experience with schizophrenia was taken from what happened to a friend’s brother when I was not long out of college.

My mother was lucky in that both her brother and the man who was to be her future husband both returned from World War II alive and physically intact. But many didn’t, and I wanted to show that in this story.

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