Essay : Carrying on a healing tradition
It was Fourth of July two years ago when Jack Burton and I last saw Milton Mazer at the annual party at Elizabeth Sandland's Longhill Assisted Living Center in Edgartown. Relatives and friends of residents were sitting at umbrella-sheltered tables on the porch, enjoying drinks, the jazz trio and the wonderful buffet.
My late husband and I had known Milton and Virginia since the 1970s, but Don died and then Virginia, and well, our lives went in separate directions.
Jack knew him from the years he worked for Milton at the Island Counseling Center in the 1970s. He remembers him as a cheerful, funny, and always courteous gentleman in a dapper suit and tie.
He said Milton instructed his clinicians at meetings to find at least some part of their diagnosis that could be curable, so that the clinician as well as the patient could feel that some progress had been made.
Jack recalls how Milton had always carefully folded his overcoat with the outside in, as Jack's own father had — both of them men who had lived through the Depression.
At this year's Fourth of July, a poodle in a red, white, and blue dress, and a small terrier were making the rounds of residents and guests, perhaps hoping for a sample of the grilled chicken and beef. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's orange cat, avoiding the commotion, was making her usual rounds of the neighborhood.
But where was Milton?
Elizabeth told us he died two winters ago. His one great worry had been for his beloved cat, Popcorn. What would become of Popcorn when he was gone? Popcorn was devoted to Milton as well. Milton talked with her as he brushed her in their room. They slept together, and Milton often commented at breakfast how well Popcorn had slept the night before.
Unlike Milton, who was sociable, the cat preferred to stay in their room, and even ate up there. But she was always waiting at the top of the stairs when it was time for the staff to send Milton up in the stair chair.
If the bedroom door happened to shut her in at this hour, Popcorn would leap from the window sill onto another roof, then get back inside through a different bedroom's window, so she could be ready and waiting for him in the hall.
During his six years at Longhill, Milton continued to exercise his therapy skills. One day, when Elizabeth heard an altercation in the dining room, she rushed to cool things down. But Milton indicated she wasn't needed, by politely telling her, "We can settle this on our own."
And when something unflattering was said about the cat, he cautioned, "Don't talk about Popcorn in front of her. You'll hurt her feelings."
Before Milton died at the age of 96, Brenda, one of the staff, promised that she would adopt Popcorn and bring her home. So he died peacefully, surrounded by his family and friends.
Although Popcorn adjusted well in her new home, Brenda's boyfriend did not like the cat. Brenda's mother took Popcorn to her home outside of Boston, but this wasn't satisfactory either, since she worked full-time. So she gave Popcorn to a friend who lived on the top floor of the building.
There, Popcorn caught the eye of an autistic little boy who had never spoken. The boy fell in love with the cat, so the new owner arranged for them to spend time together. To everyone's surprise and joy, the little boy began to speak.
So, Popcorn has carried on the example of a loving therapist. Wouldn't Milton be pleased.
Carol Carrick is a writer and illustrator who lives in West Tisbury. Milton Mazer, a long-time West Tisbury resident, served for many years as town moderator. He was the founder and director of the Martha's Vineyard Mental Health Center, from which Martha's Vineyard Community Services evolved.