Monday, July 31, 2006

The Bookends of Life

My memory of Cape End Manor is shiny-faced little old ladies lined up in wheelchairs, waiting to die. I admit I only drove Bea there once or twice to visit Aunt Estelle. We went on a hot day. I remember a strong desire to leave, approaching nausea.

Last week Oprah did a show about the importance of raising the minimum wage. Two of the professions she cited as meritorious were those of employees in nursing homes and in day care, important jobs whose contributions to society are not at all recognized.

Juliette’s mother Nathalie has decided to quit her job in the tourism industry and care for her baby. I think this is wonderful, as a former toddler teacher and Juliette’s grandmother. Society tells us to farm out the day-to-day tending of our young to minimum-wage workers who sometimes do not even speak English correctly. You have to have courage to choose the less traveled path. Bravo, Nathalie!

The reality is that no day care center can replace the home environment.

The same is true about nursing homes. I believe no one can give a person better care than a loving family member. Home care is not an option for everyone. Bea is lucky we were able to accommodate to her needs.

Slowly I am becoming militant about this choice as friends share their own experiences about loved ones who spent time in nursing homes …

Infancy and old age are the bookends of life. These two periods deserve more respect, not less.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Taking Care of Estelle

In the early 80s, Bea traveled down to Florida to collect her father’s elderly sister, no longer able to live on her own. A hospital bed was set up for her here, while waiting for a room to become available at Cape End Manor. I remember Aunt Estelle had a little bell she would ring. I think Bea had to remove the bell because Estelle kept calling for help when what she really wanted was attention. Estelle was not Bea's favorite aunt, but Bea took care of her anyway.

Here is the letter she wrote after Estelle's passing:

“Dear Nieces and Nephews of Aunt Estelle,

This note is to tell you Aunt Estelle died quietly around 8 pm Oct. 23 at the Cape End Manor. Shortly before, the head nurse had called to say Aunt Estelle had been brought to the Intensive Care Unit and probably would not last the night. I was getting ready to go to her side when they phoned again to say she had died quietly with no pain.

I had already, several years ago, made tentative funeral arrangements so that the Nickerson Funeral Home in Orleans removed the body during the night. I had also made arrangements with the Hoboken Cemetery, grateful to Rose and Gilbert and Bill for having advised us of the existence of the family plot there. I am sure Aunt Estelle would have preferred this as her resting place. So Dorothy and Gilbert and I will try to sell the plot we bought next to Dad in the Lake Wales cemetery. I did not discuss with her the subject of her burial except to assure her recently that arrangements had all been made.

The plot is in Section D. Lot I Easterly, and registered under the name of Raymond and Chinnock. The manager said 11 Chinnocks are buried there and there is still room for one body and one person’s ashes. Aunt Estelle’s ashes will be buried there.

As my father last saw to the plot, I would like to reserve the last place for our branch of the family.

Aunt Estelle’s insurance of $1,110 will almost cover burial costs of $1,130 here and $72 at the Hoboken Cemetery. Balance, if any, will come from her small savings.

I loved her and miss her, but I am reassured she went to her rest, as she desired to do, and that I was here to arrange matters as I have done three and a half years since I went and brought her here from Florida.”

The letter is dated October 25, 1985. The photocopy was incorrectly placed on the Xerox machine, so Bea’s closing and signature are no longer visible.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Alphabet Game

Bea’s hair needs serious attention. It hasn’t been brushed in weeks.

Lisa positions Bea so that her head is at the extreme end of the bed. Then we raise the front of the bed until she is in a full sitting position. Lisa takes one side, while I concentrate on the other. A plush yellow bed & breakfast towel cushions Bea’s head. Since it will hurt to unravel the tangled hair, distraction is in order:

“My grandmother apparently invented a little game when she was combing hair," I tell Lisa. "She named each and every snarl. She would start with A and name the A snarl, say, Anne. The B snarl would be Betty, etc.”

A little voice pipes up, “No, Beatrice.”

“Beatrice? Why, of course! She used names from your family.”

“Here’s the C snarl,” declares Lisa, working fast on what used to be Bea’s braid.

“How about Charlotte?”

“And I’ve got D snarl, too.”

“D snarl would be …”

“Dorothy,” says Bea. “Hey! Don’t pull so hard. That hurts!”

“For E, there’s lots of choice. Esther? Estelle?”


“Bea’s aunt, who stayed here for a summer when she was elderly,” I inform Lisa.

“I’ve got F. What name shall we give it?”

“Florence,” says Bea dreamily, transported 90 years into the past.

“Aunt Florence. Right!"

"Big family!" Lisa comments.

"Sure was. Which aunt did you like best?”


“G would be Gretchen or Ginny … and H?”

“Helen,” Bea says in a soft voice.

We reach J and the hair is almost untangled. I start brushing out the few remaining snarls.

“Ouch!” says she of the sensitive scalp.

“Sorry! You’ll be ready to have your hair washed in a minute.”

“I don’t want to have my hair washed.”

Too late! Lisa has already started rubbing in No-Rinse Shampoo. It promises “soft, clean, manageable hair without water.”

We let the hair dry before I braid. Gray fluff surrounds Bea’s face like a halo. She looks beautiful. I am relieved we were able to wash her hair.

Bea survived the ordeal, thanks to the Alphabet Game …

Friday, July 28, 2006

Anne Comes to Call

Bea participates actively in visits with Barbara, our lovely new volunteer, as well as with Lisa, while I get away to Orleans and spend some time with garden-center flowers. Upon my return, I call Anne because Bea is doing so very well. Anne tells me she will pop in the shower and be right over. She arrives twenty minutes later. Bea receives this special friend, who lived in our cottage for a number of years and looked after my parents, with great pleasure. The whole time Bea remains alert, articulate and precise in her thinking, surprisingly so. Here is a bit of their conversation:

Anne: “Seems you’re up and about today?”

Bea: “Well, I don’t know about that …”

Anne: “Anna and Iris both send regards.”

Bea: “It’s especially nice to see you, dear. What’s new?”

Anne tells Bea about a new book she is illustrating.

Bea: “For children?”

Anne: “Yes. The author called me.”

Bea: “That’s wonderful. I bet you’re tired of painting houses.”

Anne: “I still live on Slough Pond in the winter.”

Bea: “Let me think about that a minute.”

Anne: “I found your book, with the photos, on the bookshelf there. You and Paul both autographed it.”

Bea: “It’s so very nice to see you. I haven’t seen you in a long time. What have you been up to?”

Anne: “I went to Canada, where I grew up ... I’ve missed you. I brought you some oysters.”

Bea: “I haven’t had oysters since Caesar was a pup. We’ll have them for dinner. I’ll feel like a pig and eat them all.”

Anne: “I brought 10. Your all-time record was 12.”

Then Anne tells Bea about the Wellfleet Oysterfest

Bea: “I want to be sure to go.”

Anne: “There were thousands of people. 10,000, last year.”

Bea: “For heaven’s sake, I had no idea it had such an impact.”

Anne: “Right after your birthday, October 4th.”

Bea: “How good of you to remember! I think I’m going to be 97.”

Anne: “When I had problems with artwork, you’d help me out with the drawings. Do them darker, you’d say, or lighter. I appreciated that.”

Bea: “I’m sort of balmy now. I’m almost 97, you know.”

Anne: “Congratulations!”

Bea: “Well, I don’t want to be 97. I want to stay alive. I know perfectly well I’m nearing the end. It’s sort of difficult to think about dying. But I had a wonderful life and a dear family …”

Anne promises to return with her latest drawings. A remarkable visit! Bea’s affection for Anne lit up her whole face. Two women of different generations, lifestyles, and backgrounds who learned to love each other deeply. Bea became a mother-surrogate for Anne for all those years Bea’s own daughter – me! – lived in Europe. I’m so glad Anne came.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Bea’s Books (9)

On Bea’s bookshelf stand numerous books on Russia, my father’s homeland. Bea has left her mark in several.

The first page of David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb is covered with scribbles to indicate passages she particularly recommends.

On March 1, 1994, she used a paper clip to attach a pamphlet to the inside cover of Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy: “The Real Tolstoy, A Critique and Commentary on the book Tolstoy by Henri Troyat.” Across the top, she has written in neat script: “Perhaps this booklet should be attached to Troyat’s book?”

In the autumn of 1997, Bea read David Magarshack’s biography of Ivan Turgenev. She has underlined certain passages and then apologized for doing so: “Sorry for underlining!” BG. On the first page she has noted references to writing, religion, Shakespeare, and death, including this question Turgenev asked a friend in one of his letters: “‘Is death really nothing but the extinction of life?’”

Bea did extensive research with my father for “Private World of the Last Tsar,” a collection of photos taken by my grandfather, published in 1984. She always let Dad take credit for this critically acclaimed history and intimate portrait of the Russian royal family, but I now realize her role in its conception and writing was impressive.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Bea’s Bed Goes High-Tech

Bea is her old self again this morning. The banana I happen to choose as a snack was stored in the refrigerator overnight.

“It’s cold,” she declares, handing it back with a frown. “Bananas should not be kept in the refrigerator.”

I fetch another, at room temperature.

Nurse Jane stops by to examine the bedsore. How boney Bea has become! I cannot help but be awed at the protruding ribs. When I do the changing myself, I don’t dwell on the physical aspect, but if someone else is changing Bea, it’s hard not to notice the degree of emaciation. After Jane’s departure, Lisa comes. Time to install the new air mattress, delivered yesterday.

“I’d like to change the sheets at the same time, and we’ll take advantage to do her hair,” Lisa tells me.

“Sounds like a plan.”

I plug in the mattress and the cavities begin to puff up with air.

Bea has not been in a state to have her hair done in weeks. The top of her head has become a no-man’s land for brush or comb. In fact, her hair is way beyond snarly. I am wondering whether we may have to cut some of it off when Lisa says, “Uh-oh. She’s closed her eyes on me.”

I look down and indeed Bea’s eyes are firmly shut.

“It’s a little trick she’s devised to make people go away,” I whisper.

“I want you both to know that I am 72 years old.”

I chuckle while removing pillows. Lisa does sheets. We both work fast, conscious that removal from the bed is going to be a bit of an ordeal.

“I want to go to sleep,” Bea repeats, in case we have not understood.

“We’re going to sit you in the chair,” Lisa explains.

“You’re bossy!" Bea protests. "You don’t sit people in chairs when they want to sleep.”

Carefully we have already begun to swivel her around. Lisa sits Bea up. For a moment I think she may faint. Then we lift her into the chair. I hold the fragile body to keep it from falling while Lisa installs the magic mattress. Shampooing hair is forgotten. Bea is much too frail for such frivolity. In less than a minute, Lisa is done. Gently we reposition my mother on the bed. The air pockets gently inflate and deflate, giving her body proper support while promoting circulation.

I had thought Bea was going to talk all afternoon, but the mattress installation has worn her out. She will sleep instead.

Let’s hope this gadget will help with the bedsore and prevent new ones …

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Peaches & Reverence

“Someone, come, please. Is there anyone here?”

It is the middle of the afternoon. Bea has finally awakened from her sleep marathon. On the kitchen counter a ripe peach sits waiting, rosy and firm, perfect for her next meal. I cut out a wedge and slice bite-size pieces, which I carry into the bedroom, a treat for the fussy one who has been refusing food of late.

“Here I am,” I say.

“Why, it’s my beloved Sandy!” Bea exclaims, genuinely glad to see me, quite the opposite of earlier in the day when, in pain, she just wanted to be left alone.

“What can I do for you?”

“Come speak to me please. I’m so lonely.”

“I just bought you something new. Look, peaches!”

I tip the bowl so she can see the freshly cut fruit. The smell of summer must tickle her nose. Do I perceive a slight smile? Perhaps it is the novelty of a food no one has yet offered that has made her eyes light up?

Bea is on her side, so I angle a piece of peach into her mouth. She eats this first slice with enthusiasm. The second is received with more circumspection. By the third, fresh peaches have lost their appeal.

“That’s all I want,” she says curtly.

“Oh, do eat a few more. They’re so good.”

Two more slices disappear. There is only one left in the bowl.

“Now I want to go to sleep.”

With a shiver of frustration, I pop the last peach slice into my mouth. I stand there, by her bedside, and ponder the perversity of life. Here I am, caring for a woman, my mother, whom old age has transformed into an infant. Soon she will die, completing the life cycle.

I was struck this morning by something a bed & breakfast guest said about the elderly. This lovely young woman, holding her toddler’s hand, told me she had worked in a nursing home one summer and had been shocked at the infrequency of visits from family members. “Our society does not treat elderly people with the proper reverence,” she concluded.

Reverence. Now, there’s the perfect word. Our society does not treat the elderly with any reverence at all. We hide them away in nursing homes and wait for them to die.

Not everyone can make the choice to keep an elderly parent at home, but people need to know it is an option. Home care is not the mountain some people perceive it to be, especially once Hospice gets involved. Then the hike gets easier. And the view from the top is well worth the effort.

Personally, I think Bea is better off here at home, in her own room, with me feeding her fresh peaches ...

Monday, July 24, 2006

Sack of Potatoes

bedsore ( ) n. A pressure-induced ulceration of the skin occurring in persons confined to bed for long periods of time.

That is what Bea has at the bottom of her spine, a bedsore. Nurse Jane put on a DuoDerme two weeks ago to cushion the whole area. I will change it today, since there has been oozing. I have been turning Bea on a regular basis. Hospitals recommend every two hours. She has slept all morning. Lisa just gave her a bed bath. Together we examine the raw pink flesh, an inch in diameter. Lisa looks upset and calls in to request a nurse’s visit sooner, rather than later.

“What are you doing!” Bea squawks as I help with sheets, sheepskin and pillow placement.

“We’re turning you,” I explain.

“Makes me feel like …”

“A sack of potatoes?”

“Yes, a sack of potatoes. Now let me sleep.”

Two hours later, I come in to change and turn her, alone.

“Who are you?” Bea demands in a suspicious voice.

“Sandy,” I say, removing the covers. Quickly I slip a new brief under her and secure the tabs. “Your daughter.”

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”

“I want you to turn for me.” Gently I push, but Bea is resisting.

“You don’t own me. What if I don’t want to turn?”

“I need you to turn for me.”

The terminology learned in day care apparently works for elderly people, too. Bea allows herself to be turned.

“Now go away. Let me sleep.”

1, 2, 3. This is Bea’s third day and second night of sleep.

I turn out the light and leave the room.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

"For Stephanie"

“To begin at the beginning, I was born in Belleville, a suburb of Newark, on October 4, 1909, a 10-month, well-received, pretty baby. Belleville was my father’s hometown. His maternal grandfather had retired there. Great Grandpa Raymond had had some success as a hatter in lower Manhattan in the days men wore beaver hats. Belleville used to be a pleasant town on the banks of the Passaic River. When the silk industry flourished with mills in Paterson, up river, dyes were dumped in the river and ruined it.

I was born in a flat on Joralemon Street, a 15-minute walk from the railroad, which took my father to NYC every working day.

Now, I ought to give some perspective on my father’s sad situation in his teens. As a small child, the oldest of four, his life had begun well enough in Flatbush, then an attractive section of Brooklyn. His father, Harry Singer Chinnock, an importer of Oriental artifacts, had prospered for a time but only when there was a vogue for his wares. With failure, he was invited by his father-in-law, the hatter, and moved his family to a duplex his father-in-law, with foresight, had built in Belleville.

A word about my grandfather’s ancestry: he came of the gentry of Somerset, in southwestern England, from an area, which still bears our name.

Grandpa’s father, Charles Chinnock, married a 15 year-old girl whose father bottled wines for the British Government and whose mother’s Welch family owned coal miles. Charming Charley soon lived high on the hog, spending his wife’s money. When his father-in-law noticed the racehorse named the Bee’s Wing and a quasi-yacht of the same name and the portrait of charming Charley by a well-known painter, he wisely settled an annuity on his daughter.

Once Charley could no longer keep up on the fast track, he took his burgeoning family to Canada where he set about inventing a method for canning lobsters. With a contract for the British Navy, he disregarded the advice of his Canadian son-in-law and chose not to take out that new-fangled insurance. As luck would have it, a storm in the Atlantic sent all the lobsters back into the sea – in cans. Declaring himself bankrupt, Charley moved his large family to Brooklyn and continued to work on inventions.

Handsome Harry was also a merchant in lower Manhattan. He courted Mamie Raymond, who became my grandmother. Mamie came of Colonial ancestors, of families settled in Manhattan in the 17th century, Dutch and English. The Raymonds had come to this country with General Rochambeau who helped the Colonists defeat British claims to the Colonies. As the Raymonds were a rather proud family, I don’t know why Mamie chose to marry Harry except that, at the time, he was doing okay and she was not at all pretty, though a forceful little dame.

When Mamie’s English husband failed in business and moved to Belleville, matters did not get better for Harry Chinnock, Sr. He took to smoking and drinking alcohol. He died of cancer in 1915. I have a photograph of him. He was very tall and, for all his failures, patently a gentle gentleman. I liked him.

But that left my father poverty-stricken at 17. He couldn’t afford to attend his own graduation for lack of proper clothing. He spent his last two dollars to go by train and ferry to NYC to look for a job. He found one with a boiler manufacturer. From then on, he would support his mother for the rest of her long life.

One summer, with a group of young men friends, he went camping at a lake in northwestern New Jersey. There he happened to set eyes on my mother, riding a white horse with her golden hair down. He managed to get introduced. He was 22. She was 17 and came from Paterson NJ. Her family had a summer camp at the lake. Five years later he married Bertha White.

Sometimes we hear of people marrying “up” or marrying “down.” Such shifting social situations are endemic in the USA where classes are not as stratified as in Europe. So, it might be said that my father married down and my mother married up, even if her family did manage to have a summer camp at Green Pond.

Now to my mother’s family …”

Bea wrote the above on June 9, 1999 at 11:45 AM and indicated it was for Stephanie, who had expressed an interest in family history. My daughter is here to see her grandma but she will sleep through the first day of the visit, after a night of quiet chatter. Stephanie’s boyfriend, Jamie, tells me there are 2000 cells in the brain (the suprachiasmatic nucleus) which drive the sleep urge (the circadian rhythm). As you age, these cells start to die off. This is why Bea sleeps two or three days in a row and stays awake for one or two …

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Bea’s Books (8)

Bea requests ice cream. I dutifully fetch a bowl. After two spoonfuls, she turns her head away.

“Don’t you want your ice cream?” I ask, baffled by her behavior.

“I want ice cream on my own terms,” says she.

The absurdity of the statement feels like a good introduction to an unusual book on Bea’s bookshelf. My son used to make a beeline for it when we arrived in summer, although he claims now not to remember. Euphoria is an appropriate term to describe the state those cartoon drawings produced. He was fascinated. I have a memory of him sitting on the couch next to Bea, who would slowly turn pages. I’m sure he didn’t understand all that was happening to the naked people in Abner Dean’s 1947 What Am I Doing Here?, but that did not matter. The humor, profundity, and craziness moved him. He and his grandma enjoyed a quiet moment together.

Bea also showed the book to her granddaughters. What Am I Doing Here? became part of my children’s summer.

I hold it in my hand now. The back cover shows a surprised man with a gag over his mouth and a heavy rope around his neck. He is being dragged across what appears to be the top of the world. When you turn the book over, you see a blindfolded man, with the rope slung over his shoulder, who is pulling his companion along behind him.

This book is brilliant. The Internet being what it is, I found a page on a website devoted to devotees. Of course, they would like to have a new edition published, which sounds like a great idea.

Strangely enough, although What Am I Doing Here? appeared the year I was born, I do not remember Bea’s sharing it with me. Grandchildren, children – not the same thing!

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Busy Day

Bea is chatting in a low voice. Her chatter reminds me of the way Natalie would talk herself to sleep as a child. Bea has been talking this way for two hours now, non-stop. The low, constant hum of words keeps her mind occupied.

Our busy day started at 4 am. Someone shouted “FOOD!” so I got up and made a nice bowl of cream of wheat. Being awakened in the middle of the night is surely one of the more difficult aspects of elderly care, but I cannot hold it against her: Bea has lost her sense of time. “Is this breakfast?” she will ask when I serve lunch.

A parade of people passed by her bedside today. First came Steve, the nimble photographer who snapped multiple shots of Bea devouring a chocolate pudding. Carmen, a health aide, fed Bea chocolate ice cream. Rill, the Chaplain, read a prayer. Melissa, in charge of communications for Hospice and Palliative Care of Cape Cod, must have charmed Bea because she kissed her hand. Finally, Johanna, a reporter from the Cape Cod Times, asked to meet the star of this blog before interviewing me.

Bea loves people. She enjoyed all the company.

I eat dinner by Bea’s bedside. I have omelet with mushrooms. She has mushrooms with omelet.

Later, as I tiptoe up to the bedroom doorway, I hear her reciting a litany of foods she likes and doesn’t like: “And then there are apples, but I don’t like apples …”

I have a moment of panic: if I don’t provide more food, she is going to wake me up again! In the kitchen, I find myself having an Old-Mother-Hubbard moment as I realize how empty my pantry is. I return with a bowl of blueberries. She eats four and says with disappointment, “I guess I don’t like blueberries.”

“How about some yogurt?”

After half a yogurt, Bea again stalls.

Somebody could make a mint producing packaged food for the elderly. If it existed, I would fill my shelves immediately. Small quantities, easy to chew, digestible, tasty, FILLING!!!

“You’re not hungry anymore?” I ask hopefully as I turn out the light.

I cannot see her expression, but am ready to bet she has got that twinkle in her eye.

“Maybe 10 minutes from now I will be hungry…”

As the old saying goes, “When in doubt, knock them out.” I promptly administer a sleeping pill …

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Rule Number 1: Don’t Call 911

Through Internet searches, strangers are finding their way to Bea’s Bedside. With a bit of luck they depart with some information, which they can apply to their own lives. There are so few options out there for learning how to care give.

The latest searches include

• Clothing bedridden
• Gifts for bedridden
• Bedridden parent
• What to do when elderly mom is nasty to daughter.

I like the last one and hope this particular caregiver took heart. It is important not to lose patience, although the elderly certainly can be trying at times.

Today Bea is not in a very good mood. She requests food. When I bring her something to eat, she takes a few bites and turns her head away. Five minutes later, I hear her voice again, “Is anybody going to bring me something to eat?”

We play this little game all afternoon.

It is almost as if she is hoping a new person will show up each time with a dish she finds more appetizing.

Finally I offer chocolate ice cream. She only takes a few swallows. Her appetite is not what it used to be.

During Natalie’s visit last weekend, I was able to get away and run a few errands. On the road to Orleans, I realized I had forgotten to give my daughter important information: what to do in an emergency. Yes, I hear you. She should know. Everybody does. Call 911. Well, no.

With a person of extreme old age who has hospice, an emergency means calling the Hospice 1-800 number, kept by the phone, not 911. I learned this the hard way, when medics tried to resuscitate my 97 ½ year-old dad. Death can be a welcome release, not something to avoid at all costs …

When Bea went to the hospital in an ambulance, I filled out what they call a Comfort Care form – DNR, Do Not Resuscitate. I did not know such a form existed.

Society doesn’t teach us how to deal with the death of a loved one. Yesterday my son asked if I was prepared for Bea to die. Strangely enough, I’m not sure of the answer …

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Bea is in pain. Her heels and knees hurt so much she starts screaming during Lisa’s visit. Since the heel pain is new, Lisa puts in a call to Nurse Jane who stops by unexpectedly. When I ask about options, she shrugs. When an elderly person is bedridden, there is just so much one can do. Our job is to keep Bea comfortable. At least no new bedsores have developed.

We sit by Bea’s bedside and chat, once she is all arranged with pillows tucked here and wedged there. Jane has Italian ancestors, so I tell her Bea used to speak Italian and loved visiting Italy. Bea seems to enjoy our conversation, which provides distraction, if nothing else, while a second Aleve takes effect. Jane lovingly describes her grandmother, an amazing cook.

Bea’s English-born grandmother was also quite special. I know this because Bea wrote about her for a family history. On occasion, Grandma White would dance a jig, even in her 70s. Every Christmas, she would give Bea and Helen an “inexpensive, wonderful, large, illustrated book of stories gathered from writers all over the British Empire.” The book was called Chatterbox.

“Avidly reading these stories for many years, I got my early impressions of far-off places. Even in 1971, an exotic story about Corsica recalled the atmosphere of swarthy bandits and mysterious ravines I had encountered in Chatterbox as early as 1917.”

Bea will never lose her fascination for far-off places.

In June 1931, she travels to Europe with several Vassar friends on the Holland-America line. I have already described her preference for ocean voyages. Now I understand why. Luckily she thought to share her impressions with elder sister Helen:

“Helen dear,

I’m having the most wonderful time. At last I know what it means to be really popular on a boat – but the popularity is due to the fact that there are ever so many attractive men on board and very few girls.

The man of the moment is a wealthy Yale boy from Chicago. Charles Ingersoll Morse, known as ‘Chuck.’ His family has a home in Munich, and he wants us to let him drive us from Munich to Venice or vice-versa in his Mercedes. He appears to be on the verge of falling in love with me. He is clever, with blond curly hair and blue eyes, quite cherubic. He has a friend with him, Edward Brewster, also from Yale and St. Paul’s. Ed has been nice to me, too. It was very funny the other night. I was up on deck with the two of them, and Chuck wanted to be alone with me, but I didn’t want that because I like Ed, too.

Two other very attractive boys, who are just graduated from Columbia, are giving us some time as well: David Dunham and John Watkins. Kitty has seen more of David than anyone else, but she has eyes for no one really but Selden.

Miss Bizzoni has been sweet, not crabby. She is very efficient as a chaperone, gets Betty Jean to bed early and goes herself.

We have a letter of introduction to the President of the Republic of San Marino. They shall most likely get out a brass band when we arrive.

I’m becoming frightfully healthy – enormous appetite. (You know me in salt air!) My hair is beautiful, and I feel spry, when not sleepy. We lie on the upper deck in our bathing suits. Yesterday I read a thrilling book on astronomy to John, and he explained the parts I couldn’t understand. Today they are putting up a canvas swimming pool. I’m quite sunburned already.

Except for the food, S.T.C.A. is a marvelous way to go to Europe because of all the young people. There really is a very good crowd. Not too raucous.

A friend of mine invited us up to 1st class last night and nine of us went, but it was so stodgy and hot that we didn’t stay long although, as we were leaving, an elderly lady begged us to remain because we were ‘such nice young people.’ When Chuck and I were dancing together – I in Dot’s black evening dress and a red carnation that Chuck had put in my hair and I had forgotten about – he claims somebody said, ‘What an attractive couple!’ You can see my hat does not fit me already. But I know it is all a very transient dream, that the boat will soon reach Boulogne and … pouf! However, we shall see lots of these people abroad in Geneva, Venice, Paris, and Munich.

I have had five champagne cocktails (at 75 cents a piece) bought for me so far (no more than one an evening). Please inform Mother than I have not broken my promise about drinking hard liquor and shall not.

Wish to Heavens you were with me!

Love & love,


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Heading Home

Bea has another sleepy day. Neither food nor drink seems to interest her. The room remains cool despite the mugginess outside. I close all the windows at 7 am. It is a day to be in. So, I busy myself with household chores and check on Bea from time to time.

I happen to be puttering around her room when suddenly she says with great wonder, “I saw my father.”

“What was he doing?”

“Looking at me. It was a long time ago. In Belleville.”

I give her a kiss and caress her brow.

“What a lovely person you are. Thank you, God!”

I leave the room and, upon my return, hear Bea talking in a very soft voice: “How do you know I’m going home?”

“To Belleville?” I ask, interrupting the conversation.

“To my mother and my father, the people I want to see.”

Later, Bea declares with that same delicious softness, “I see joy.”

“What did you say?”

“I see joy when I see my family. You are my family. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“There’s a bell ringing in my heart.”

“A bell? What kind of bell?”


And still later, Bea opens her eyes and says, “It’s you I love. You’re my daughter. And I’m soon going to be home. A happy day.” There is pure rapture on her face. “They’re going to take me home. And you’ll be there, too.”


“Yes, later.”

I get the feeling that Bea may leave us at any minute. I have an impulse to call my brother and children, but that’s silly, precipitous. There is no indication she is going to die. A few days ago Nurse Jane pronounced her as well as one can be at 96 ½.

“I’m ready to go now. They are there,” she says and reaches for my hand, still smiling that rapturous smile. “You, I love. Now I can go to sleep. We were glad to be here, with you. I’m going home, I’m going home, I’m going home ….”

Bea has her bags packed. She is ready to go, heading home.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Pain of Parting

Whenever either of my daughters returns to Boston after a short weekend visit, I feel sad but try not to show it. I know what a gut-wrenching experience it is to leave someone you love behind.

We traveled to Cape Cod almost every summer and stayed a month or so. I have a clear mental image of Bea as my husband switched on the ignition. She didn’t start crying until our rental car had pulled out of the driveway. Still, we could all tell Grandma was on the verge of tears. I would wave and, as Bea turned to the comfort of my father’s arms, a hiccup of grief would catch in my throat.

Not only did Bea feel anguish at parting. Apparently she also anticipated our departure with sadness. I know this because she wrote a note about just such an occasion for us to find:

“‘The grass,’ says my French granddaughter Natalie, ‘is somewhat wet.’ Somewhat, this evening after a thunderstorm manqué, gently now the rain falls, and I write these words while my child and her family are still here.

Still here. And after tomorrow they will leave to go back to France, and I shall live with my loss.

Already to shore up the pain of parting – always parting – I have started to read a Conrad story, but I shall change to a novel for it will be longer – the longer to bear my sharp grief on this lonely peninsula of sand and sometime sun.”

Bea sleeps today, off and on. I worry about the heat here on our "lonely peninsula of sand" and sun,’ but it doesn’t seem to bother her.

Wouldn’t you know, she has also provided background on her crying, a scribbled poem on a piece of paper ripped from a yellow legal pad:

“The tears I would weep
at your departure
have been a part of me
so very long.
I cannot hardly remember
the first time
I cried.

It was a long, long time ago
when nourishment was withheld,
the breast, the comforting breast.

And the death of my little brother
when he was three and I was four:
cried and my mother took to the sewing machine
to comfort herself.
She couldn’t take it anymore.
She said that Helen and I had killed our brother.
No, we didn’t. And I forgive her, even now.
The cause, it seems, was bacillus
in the milk.
That was before the days of graded milk as A or B
for dairy cleanliness.
I didn’t cry.
Why should I?”

Soon Bea will be parting from us forever. Not for a winter or a year, but for the rest of our lives, at least that must be how she sees it. Funny. I don’t. I feel like she will be with me for the rest of my life ...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Feeling "O-ld"

My daughter Natalie sits by Bea’s bedside. Bea recognizes Natalie immediately, which is unusual these days. Natalie bends down so her head is at the same level, leans in, and they start talking.

“Do you have a job?” Bea asks, an important point of reference in this modern world.

“I do. I have a good job. I take care of myself and make a lot of money.”

“How did you manage that?”

“I’m smart, like my Grandma.”

Bea’s smile is wider than I have seen in a long time and it lasts. Natalie’s comment has given her a big kick. That smile alone surely makes the visit worthwhile. Bea looks up at Natalie with love and pride while listening to a description of what the job entails.

“How do you feel?” Natalie then asks.

“I feel o-ld,” Bea says softly.

The way she divides “old” into two syllables says a lot more than the word. It intimates that she is going to die soon and leave her darling granddaughter. The delivery is almost apologetic, as if one should be expected to live forever. But Natalie knows better. She’s a grown woman now, not the child Bea used to receive in her home over many summers.

“You are old,” Natalie says simply.

She, too, communicates more than the meaning of those three words. Her voice offers acceptance of the reality Bea fears, the approach of death and separation from the people she loves.

Sometimes words do not express everything. It is the way we say those words and the emotions behind them that communicate true meaning….

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Thank-you For My Education …

Bea was the first woman in her family to attend an Ivy League college. Vassar has always been very important to her. She explains why to her father in a letter written April 3, 1932. The blue stationary is engraved Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York.

“I do love you so very much! And I really appreciate what Mother and you have done in giving me this wonderful opportunity to look into the knowledge, the wealth of wisdom, of the men of the past, and to have the pleasure, good example, and inspiration of friends like those we have here, to enrich my life this way. Even though I have shown in no tangible way and achieved nothing spectacular in a scholarly way yet, I cannot express to you what these four years have meant to me. In sending me to college you really have done some part in adding to the progress of civilization because I know that through my education, my growth, in magnanimity, tolerance and knowledge of human foibles, I shall be a better wife and mother and bring my children up with a more far-seeing plan and with more self-control than I would have otherwise.

I hate to think of the four years coming to a close. There is so much more which I would like to look into further! So much which I have not yet investigated, so many courses I would like to have taken. But college teaches that a man’s best instructor is himself, so I am going to try very hard to continue steadily the development started here.

Tonight we had a pleasant evening, which I shall never forget. Most of the girls don’t get back until tomorrow and tonight we had a feast in our rooms for nine girls who came back early, six of which were from different groups, girls from different kinds of homes, in different parts of the country, all of different interests. And we had a grand time! One girl brought malted milk and a shaker, and we shook. Kit had a chicken she brought from home. And we talked about everything under the sun.

Please write to me, Daddy if you get a chance. With love to Mother and the children, your loving Bee.”

In an album, I find a loose photo of my mother, looking beautiful. The caption reveals it to be the shot sent to Vassar prior to admission. Above the photo, Bea has scrawled, “What did Vassar do for me?”

It is hard to imagine her mood the day she wrote those words. Generally Bea felt she got a lot out of Vassar, as she so eloquently describes above. Still, I think what mattered most were the lifelong friends she made there.

This week I finally told her Miggits had passed away. Bea got very quiet. It must be hard to be alone in such a case, unable to share one’s grief. Bea is the only member of her Vassar group still alive. Nancy Rodman Macdonald, her brother Seldon, Kitty Stryker Dunn, Ruth Berrits Fox, Peggy Hodges, now Margaret White Campbell and brother Ben, all gone …

Friday, July 14, 2006

Nurse Jane Pays a Call

“I’m glad to see you!” Jane from exclaims in her warm voice that is in itself an embrace.

Bea peers suspiciously out from under her covers and asks, “Who are you?”

“Jane. I’m a nurse. I keep an eye on everyone. Do you think I do that well?”

“You do that well. Now just stay away and let me sleep.”

Bea has been in a bad mood all morning, so I am not expecting her cooperation coefficient to be any higher than a 5. Still, she has been complaining of pain on her coccyx and passed some old blood in her urine, so this visit is necessary. I play show-and-tell with Jane who examines the discarded brief and says she will inform Bea’s doctor.

“Do you have any problems?” Jane asks, always solicitous.

“No. Just leave me alone.’

“Can I take your blood pressure?”


“Oh! Okay.”

With a shrug, Jane sits down in the rocking chair and begins to rock. The two of us are chatting when out of the blue Bea announces, “Everybody’s going to have chocolate ice cream.”

“With nuts?” asks Jane. “And whipped cream? A cherry on top?”

“Anything you say.”

“She’s a hoot,” Jane declares. "I just love my patients!"

We continue talking, so Bea asks, “What are you people doing here?”

“We’re visiting,” says Jane. “Had any company lately?”



“No. Now go away.”

“My pleasure.”

“Strange pleasure!”

We then proceed to change Bea. I report that she tends to reposition herself on her back, despite the pillows wedged conscientiously behind her. Jane replaces the Duoderme while I hold Bea on her side.

“Are you warm and toasty now?” Jane asks afterwards.

“Yes, thank you.”

“So, you are going to stay on your side this time?”

“I just want to go to sleep.”

“Can I take your blood pressure now?”

“Oh, okay.”

“You look like you’re in a cocoon, all safe and warm …”

Jane’s report: Bea is doing pretty well, except for the red spot on her coccyx. She has no congestion, her heartbeat is nice and regular.

Everything is hunky-dory.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Midsummer Complaint

I go for a walk while Lisa, from Hospice, sits by Bea’s bedside. Bea will sleep for most of the afternoon ...

For the past two days, I have felt as if I were babysitting. Luckily I have other things to do. I field calls about the bed & breakfast and answer emails. I bake, I garden, I write. Still, I cannot help but think I should not be obliged to stay here, almost a prisoner in my own home, that my place is with my husband, now on vacation abroad.

Nurse Jane and Lisa worry about burnout and no wonder. Sven and I have been caring for my elderly parents for 9 years. Bea has been bedridden for 4 ½ months now.

Everyone reacts differently to the approach of death. Bea believes nothing comes afterwards and simply cannot wrap her mind around that idea. So, she resists.

When Bea tells me today that she is tired of living, I say, "You don't have to continue if you don't want to."

"Of course I want to continue living!" she responds.

She seems to think it perfectly normal to have me as a caregiver. I must admit I find it hard to understand her complacence. Personally, I would prefer to die if I were 96 ½, rather than burden family members. In a way, I’ve lost a mother and gained a child at a period of my life that was supposed to be my “golden years.”

So, yes, to those who ask, yes, I do feel resentment at times. But then I go into Bea's room and there she lies in that hospital bed, so fragile and frail, totally helpless, like a baby, and I melt.

Bea looks up at me with gratitude in her eyes and says in a soft voice, “I love you.”

This is what we have been doing all day, expressing love.

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Bea’s life will end at some point. No one lives forever.

And I know I will miss her when she is gone …

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Letters Received While at Camp…

Bea has been talking about her father a lot, which surprises me because I hadn't realized the attachment was so strong. Harry Singer Chinnock, Jr. or – as Bea puts it, “someone who looks just like him” – has been visiting. Harry was a good-looking bloke in his youth. I notice that in a photo of a garden party he has claimed the comfortable Adirondack lounge chair in the middle and sits, feet up, looking for all the world like JR’s father in Dallas, while the other family members, dressed in highly starched, light-colored dresses, are perched, prim and proper, on benches and chairs.

I knew my grandfather as an elderly man who always pulled me close and planted a slobbery kiss on my cheek. We didn’t see much of Harry because of his retirement to Florida. This was the reason advanced, rather than the unspoken one: my father did not think Bea’s dad was a good influence.

Each family is unique, but sometimes parents do behave in curious ways ...

Bea's little brother, Harry Singer Chinnock, III, fell ill while in Helen and Bea’s care. The two little girls were blamed for his death, although he died of meningitis, according to Cousin Nan.

Of Bea's four other siblings, only Dorothy succeeded in life. As Dot notes in a letter, three led tragic lives. To what extent Harry was responsible, it is impossible to gauge. In any case, he showered his second daughter with affection. She and Dot were the survivors.

Bea chatted to herself until 11 last night, so today she is out cold. I sit with a box of letters, a treasure trove of memories from another time and place. She has marked “Save” on one. The letter is dated August 14, 1925 and starts, “My dearest Honey Bee,” (evidence of a different spelling prior to Vassar.)

Here is an excerpt:

“My girls’ lives are before them and behind them stand their parents’ undying love. Try, both Helen and you, to mold your lives rightly, to meet some man, not narrow but broad in his views, and make sure that he really loves and adores you. Then it will be your jobs – and lifelong ones – to show him how that love is reciprocated in your affection for him, in never losing your temper and keeping him to you and always being reasonable with him. Then you will literally go through life hand in hand, shaping your sorrows (if any) and joys, like a laughing brook until life’s end. This is your father’s – and I hope every father’s – wish. I want to see you both married certainly to men congenial in temperament to you. You are now, perhaps at camp, making some friends to hold for many years. Remember that each true friend is like a precious jewel. Never, in life, because you have been blessed more than another, snub any one, but be kind and considerate of all…”

While at camp, Bea also receives a letter from her mother. Bertha advises, “Remember not to talk too much or too loud, and to be friendly but not to bore your associates by voiding all you ever think about. Only a mother can be interested in every little thing, and even the best of friends likes the other fellow to be quiet a while so he can think.”

Bertha's comments will, no doubt, amuse everyone who knows Bea. I guess she has always been a chatterbox.

Both Harry and Bertha had six siblings, so Bea grew up knowing extended family. I am struck by how close the clan was. Most of them lived nearby, in northern New Jersey. They got together in the summer at Green Pond.

In one photo, Bea stands with family. They all seem to be having a grand old time. Bea must be about 10 and wears a prominent bow in her hair. How strange to think that when she dies, since no one will remember any of these people, the photo will become simply a historical document of a lost time…

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Presents for Elderly Bedridden Ladies

I have noticed that people are not always enthusiastic about visiting elderly friends. Actually, the elderly who are bedridden need friendship more than ever. Many of their acquaintances have passed on and making new friends is almost impossible.

It is always a celebration here when visitors come to call.

My old nurse came to see Bea today. Charlotte lives in Connecticut and took care of me when we summered on Cape Cod in the late 40s. Unfortunately, the visit doesn’t last long …

“Hello, Mrs. Grabbe,” Charlotte says, inching her way towards the head of the bed. “I’m so glad to see you!”

“Why, hello, Charlotte. How nice of you to pay me a visit!”

We chat about past visits and memories for a minute or two. Then Bea closes her eyes and announces, “I need to sleep now.”

The tone of her voice makes it sound as if she were truly exhausted, near death even. This is her method of disposing of visitors. Bea doesn’t really want to sleep. She just doesn’t feel like talking to strangers and does not recognize Charlotte.

One way to break the ice is to arrive with a present that can then be discussed while the bedridden person sorts through memories and summons up those involving the visitor.

It is a challenge to find presents for elderly bedridden ladies. Fragrant flowers are always well received, but they die, an unwelcome reminder of mortality.

Here are a few suggestions of long-lasting gifts which will keep the souvenir of the visit fresh for weeks to come.

Lavender lotion – Elderly skin needs lubrication on a regular basis. Lavender is soothing and helps the bedridden person to relax.

Fleece bed jacket, throw, or a shawl – The elderly feel cold. Fleece is soft, warm, and always welcome.

New nightie – It should have long sleeves, be short and easy to launder.

An enlargement of your photo in a frame – This is a good choice, providing your elderly friend can still see, which is sometimes no longer the case.

Candy – The Vermont Country Store has oldtime favorites, including several types of licorice and Necco wafers. Giving the old taste buds a jolt with a blast from the past will sometimes produce memories long forgotten.

CD – A favorite big-band tune can bring a smile to the face of an elderly person. Bea has really enjoyed her France Sinatra CD.

High tech:

A heat-pack pillow that goes in the microwave – Ideal for arthritic pain. There are a number on the market.

A wedge pillow – An extra nice wedge always comes in handy for keeping to one side or the other.

Of course, the elderly person will also receive the gift of the visit itself. Life tends to be monotonous when one is bedridden. The elderly need to feel they have not been forgotten. And, as the Eagles once sang, “Seeing old friends is good for the soul …”

Monday, July 10, 2006

Reflections on Extreme Old Age

“I want to go home,” Bea says this morning.

“You are home,” I repeat, bewildered by her inability to recognize the bedroom in which she has slept for 35 years. “Look. These are your things. Remember this statue? You got it in Greece? It broke when I was a child. You let me play with it. Remember?”

Bea nods. I detect a glimmer of recognition.

“And this oil lamp? Definitely from Greece. Maybe you got it on the Odyssey Cruise.”

Bea reaches out and touches the old lamp. If only one rub might make a genie appear who could reverse the aging process and bring back my vibrant mother!

It is hard to be so diminished. Being bedridden does that to a person.

We sit there in silence for a while. Then Bea asks, “When are my mother and my father going to come and get me? I want to go home …”

Joared’s comment on yesterday’s blog set me to thinking yet again about elderly care options and the importance of familiar surroundings to the bedridden person: “Visual familiarity can be so important, whether it's the physical environment or the people, in helping someone find some sense of reality periodically.” Yes, I agree. Home care is definitely better than being in a nursing home. However, it takes a toll on the caregiver.

Has any society come up with an ideal solution for the elderly?

Americans, with means, can now prepare for old age by signing up for assisted living facilities. I have a friend whose parents are in such a place now. She is trying to convince them to move into the nursing care building, a choice they resist, despite a stroke and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease.

But not everyone likes life in a retirement community. My brother’s in-laws moved into, and then out of, assisted living. They decided staying home was the best choice for now, proof that Scarlet O’Hara’s “Tomorrow is another day” mentality applies to people of all ages.

Three summers ago a heat wave in France caused a number of elderly people to die in nursing homes. The plight of the elderly came to national attention there, but I am not sure much has changed, besides an increase in nursing home personnel during the month of August.

I visited a French nursing home 30 years ago to see my aunt Liza. Old age had put her in a rotten mood. I remember how the building, formerly a manor house, smelled of urine. I didn’t visit as often as I probably should have.

Sweden provides good home care for seniors, financed by high taxes. Once the elderly person can no longer remain in his/her own house, he/she ends life in a nursing home, run by the Swedish government. I had the opportunity to visit Sven’s mother in such a nursing home once. It may have been state-of-the-art but remained an institution. And her “roommate” kept calling out, "Mama! Mama!" …

The Japanese used to take good care of their elderly folk, who were treated with respect and cared for by family. I do not know if this is still true.

I read once that some Native Americans, less elderly than Bea, would leave their family and journey out into the wilderness to die. They figured their time on earth was up and did not want to burden the rest of the tribe. There is wisdom in this approach. I imagine “civilization” has put an end to such behavior.

Modern medicine keeps people alive way beyond their time, when quality of life is no longer optimal, creating a situation like the one I find myself in today.

The problem with old age, whether spent in a nursing home or in familiar surroundings, is that no one really wants to depend entirely on other people, be it family members, paid staff, or hospice workers, and when one becomes bedridden, that is the only option ...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

What To Do When Mom Behaves Like A Nutcase

Nurse Jane keeps telling me how “sweet” my mother is, the implication being that some of her patients aren't. Well, Bea isn’t her usual sweet self today. In fact, she is downright nasty. On such days I ask myself why I am doing this and remember elderly cousins visited as a teenager in Nice. Their daughter had assumed their care. At 17, I considered she was throwing her life away.

Now that I have made the same choice, I understand better. It is not filial devotion. No. It has more to do with providing an alternative to society's choice for the elderly, nursing home care.

Caring for a bedridden parent who behaves like a well-mannered child is one thing. What do you do when mom becomes a nutcase? These are the options:

1.) Hold your breath, count to three, and try whatever you did/said again.

2.) Caress her brow to express affection and empathy.

3.) Keep your distance.

I tried (1) and (2) and they didn’t work. Bea shooed me away, so Keep Your Distance, the cowardly choice, is mine today.

Once I wrote in this blog that the worst days were when Bea was depressed and wouldn’t talk. I guess I was wrong. Far worse is her being depressed and talking.

This morning, at 3 am, Bea declares she is hungry. I provide a banana. Apparently our diva is fed up with bananas, because she announces in a haughty voice, “I don’t want your banana. You can keep your banana. Do you want me to shove it in your face? I want something else. I’m hungry.”

Hmmm. The day is starting well.

Bea calls out again at 4:30, and then at 6, when I finally decide to fix a real breakfast.

Later in the morning, Bea sees me in her room and demands, “Who are you?”

O-o-o-o-o-o-o, I don’t like the tone. This is going to be a bad-mood day, without a doubt.

“Are you my mother?”

I explain who I am for the zillionth time.

Bea ponders this information a few moments, than asks, “How old am I?”

“96 ½,” I reply.

“How did I get so old?”

No answer to that. I just stare at her emaciated face.

“I guess I’m going to die soon. I better get a plot in the cemetery.”

I could explain that she made other arrangements years ago, but am feeling sleep-deprived – with reason – and say nothing.

“Where’s my husband?”

“He’s dead. Died a long time ago. Seven years.”

“He was a sweet man. Why did he die?”

“He was old. 97.”

“I shouldn’t have married such an old man!”

On this, I take my leave. Bea chats softly to herself for several hours. When I stick my head in the door, she sticks out her tongue.

“I want the flavor of your arm.”

“My arm has no flavor,” I respond icily.

“Who are you?”

Before I can respond, she says, “Oh, you’re my daughter. What a job to have me for a mother!”

Once again, Bea has pretty much summed it up …

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Dorothy Meets Bea's Ship

I hear a faint voice and go investigate.

“Is that the doctor?” Bea asks. “Are you a doctor?”

Her eyes focus as I come up beside her bed.

“Oh, Sandy dear, how nice to see you! I love to see your sweet face.”

“Do you need a doctor? Does something hurt?”

“My throat feels all gummy.”

No wonder! Bea has had nothing to drink for 24 hours. I quickly administer a glass of water, which she gulps down. On my way to fetch breakfast, I discover my cousin has joined this journey into Bea's past: Nan has emailed an entry from her mother's diary. Dorothy Chinnock was only 14 in 1928, too young to go to Europe with her sisters, and very envious of their opportunity, a plum she would be denied by the stock market crash ...

“September 18, 1928. We – Grandma White, Daddy, Hunter, Bobby, and myself – had breakfast, got in the car, ordered flowers & started for N.Y.C. The boat had docked when we got there, so we missed a lot of the fun. I discovered them first, all dressed up in chic, close-fitting Parisian felt hats & reeking of cigarette smoke and lipstick. They looked darling though. I met a Mr. Ford, who is quite a something in Washington D.C., & I saw some darling looking boys with their tutors, who stayed all summer in a castle. I met the Biddle Boy, quite it in New York & Newport Society. We watched them inspecting the baggage and then went out. We all got in the car but Bee had to do some shopping for college & so I wanted to go, too. Murdo put us on the subway and we went to Macy's & shopped until 1:30 P.M. Then Bee got an idea to ask a girl 14 years old, whom she had met on the boat, to have luncheon with us so I could meet her. Her name is Josephine Pringle Smith of Charleston & she was staying in New York City a few days before she left to go directly to Baltimore and St. Timothy's, an exclusive Episcopalian girls finishing & preparing school. Well, we rode by taxi to her hotel & I met her. She had on a black felt hat with a satin ribbon & silver buckle, a flannel coat, and a pleated French georgette dress with a lace collar and tan gloves and an envelope pocketbook, tucked under her arm. We had luncheon in Alice Foote MacDougall Florentine Place, which needless to say was darling. Balconies, shutters, pottery, Italian-dressed waitress. It was all lovely.”

Dorothy’s diary entry clearly demonstrates Bea’s solicitude for her little sister and a propensity for matchmaking, a habit, which would continue throughout her life.

From Bea’s room comes that faint voice again, calling me. I hurry in to tell her about the email.

“Would you like to hear what Dotty wrote?” I ask, aware that an entry from a secret diary is always tantalizing.

“I’d love to,” Bea responds.

“Do you remember?” I ask hopefully afterwards.


“Who was Murdo?”

Bea hesitates and then says softly, “A nice Englishman. That was a long time ago …”

Friday, July 07, 2006

Bea’s Books (7)

Yesterday I told Bea that I had decided to write about her life and asked if I could quote from some of her papers. She said yes and looked pleased by the idea.

Today Bea is sleeping, mouth hanging open. She refuses to drink or eat. When I change her at 9 pm, she cries out in an angry voice, “Go away. Let me sleep.”

I find a special little book on her bookshelf. Embossed in gold letters on the cover I read My Trip Aboard. The first page has a dedication, “Beatrice – Bon voyage! Mary.” Bea has signed the second page with her name.

Bea didn’t like airplanes. Her idea of a splendid time was to cross the ocean on a ship. Her preference probably dates back to this trip July 14-23, 1928, when she traveled with her mother Bertha and sister Helen aboard the S. S. Minnewaska to Europe.

The first section contains useful information such as

1.) Foretelling the weather with an aneroid barometer
2.) Distances at which objects are visible at sea at varying elevations
3.) Latitude and longitude from Greenwich
4.) Value of foreign coins
5.) Mailtime distances from New York City
6.) Watch as a compass and the mariners compass
7.) Aids to navigation (buoys, beacons and channel marks)
8.) Sound signals for fog
9.) Characteristics of lighthouse lights
10.) To tell the distance of an echo
11.) Method of keeping time on board a ship
12.) Night signals (etc.)

There are also instructions on how to play shuffleboard.

In the journal, Bea describes in detail all the people she meets during her travels, especially the men. Here are a few highlights:

“Tomorrow we go sailing up the Thames. It will be rather painful to leave the boat. The trip across has been so enjoyable. Not one of us was the least bit seasick although the boat did act like a cradle on the first day out.

I need not describe the enduring hardy type of beauty of the changeless horizon. When the sea is misty, it seems to cast a dreamy spell over those who observe it. On a crystal clear day the water looks as if it had been pushed up against the sky.

Ever since I read “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” I wanted to see the sunset over a western sea. We usually missed the sunset though to have dinner.

The other night I woke up to find silver light streaming through the porthole. I naturally presumed that the moon had risen, but I climbed down my ladder to investigate. What fun! I stuck my head out of the porthole and let my hair wave in the cool breeze. The salt spray felt like dew on my face.

The silver light was not created by the moon, but by the sun at 3:30. At night, the sky was more beautiful in a bizarre way than I have ever seen it. Shades of mysterious violet were still high up in the heavens. Only three stars remained. I wouldn’t have wanted any more stars. These, burning gold through the violet, would have put to shame the Russian crown jewels …”

In London, Bea goes sightseeing:

"We stayed for the service at Westminster Abbey. Small choirboys in red robes chanted, adding solemnity. The two graves that impressed me the most in the Poets' Corner were those of Browning and Hardy, the last of which had a wreath of heather, picked off Egdon Heath. Perhaps I ought to admit that I was somewhat disappointed by the Abbey. But maybe I don't know enough of English history to appreciate it yet. I think it seems rather crowded with graves of people who are not famous to the people of today although the very graves over which I stood in awe may be passed with a shrug centuries hence."

"The next day we took a Cook's tour of the City. The Tower of London has much history connected with it. In one room there we saw the English crown jewels. Several of the diamonds were enormous. The crowns of diamonds, rubies and perals with little ermine bands at the bottom were exquisite. I suppose the ermine was to make the crown fit comfortably. At first I thought of all the poverty in England which might be done away with if those jewels could be invested and made to draw interest. Then I realized that such display adds to the prestige of a country."

While in England, the Chinnocks meet some cousins:

“The next day we left for Middleton to visit the Franklyns, distant relatives of Mother’s. They lived in a cozy little house and ate meals at the weirdest hours. Breakfast and luncheon were normal but ‘high tea’ came at five and ‘supper’ – a regular dinner - at about eleven, before retiring.

Nina, their buxom daughter, was sixteen and full of fun. They talked quite differently from the Londoners. Helen remarked that someone was dumb – not meaning speechless. Nina said, ‘Why do you say dumb instead of dahft?’ Their sentence inflection is different, too.

Sunday afternoon we went to visit the Chadwicks. The father looked exactly like Santa Claus minus the whiskers. His son, who was a sweet little boy of fourteen, played for us on an instrument called a concertina. A relative of theirs had been a missionary in Africa, and they insisted on giving us some of the little tokens she had brought. They so much enjoyed giving them that we couldn’t refuse.

The father, who was extremely garrulous, told us that one of our ancestors was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for stopping a run-away horse of her carriage.

The next day we had tea with Aunt Martha Fitten who lives in the old Leicestershire section of Middleton where the houses are all alike and the children wear queer wooden shoes. All the relatives gathered to welcome us. Aunt Martha was over sixty, rather deaf, and rather plump with a hoarse voice, a jolly manner, and twinkling eyes. Finally their grandson, Herbert Fitten, red-haired and seventeen, came in. He offered to take me to see the Middleton Church where my great grandparents were married. The church was centuries old, of Norman architecture, and one of the few churches with a wooden belfry.

Herbert took me up narrow, winding dark stone stairs to the place where a dozen young ‘learners’ were being taught the art of ringing bells. It was like a funny dream to see what we would describe as ‘frumpy’ looking men tugging away in their shirtsleeves as their teacher gave the signal 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. One rang on 1, and 2 on 2 etc. Then Herbert and a ‘learner’ helped me up through a windier, dirtier, darker passage to the place where the bells were. Phew! What a climb! I began to wonder how I would ever make the descent. As it was, I had to sit on each step going down and nearly ruined my clothes. In the belfry, they let me try to ring one of the bells. It was very hard to pull. I was surprised that as soon as I got to the belfry, their teacher ordered me in his queer Leicestershire dialect, to keep my hands at my sides and my feet on the floor lest ‘a loop from one of the ropes she catch on me and yank me up to the ceiling,’ maybe that wasn’t a strange experience!”

Bea, Helen, and Bertha also visit Stratford …

“The hotel was formerly an inn in Shakespeare’s time. Every room had the name of a Shakespearian play. There were etchings on the walls, all scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. The draperies on our bed were in a quaint pattern of glazed chintz. The bed (oh, goody-goody!) had a canopy on it.

Shakespeare’s birthplace looked every bit as old as it ought to look. We visited the church on the bank of the Avon where Shakespeare is buried. We saw that famous ‘Curst be he that moves my bones’ effect. In the Church was a baptismal font centuries old.

In the afternoon we went out to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Its thatched roof and garden are very picturesque. There was an old reed bed in one of the bedrooms. I sat on the bench beside the fire, which Billy sat on when he courted Anne.

Then we went back to London to the Royal Place Hotel in Kensington. The next morning I telephoned to the Guaranty Trust Company and received Dad’s cable “Yes” meaning that I made Vassar. All three of us laughed and cried at the same time with relief and joy. I was touched to see that Mother and Helen cared so much.”

Bea was the first woman in her family to go to college. Getting in must have been quite exciting. What fun that she recorded this event for us to share 78 years later!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Garden Party

Bea has always been a good hostess. She loves people and enjoys receiving them in her home. On the evening of our discussion about Nancy, I hear Bea say, before the Sandman catches up with her, “I’m fond of so many people that I see in this room. I’d like to take this opportunity to …”

Bea was not in the habit of falling asleep in the middle of a sentence, but she does it all the time now.

I usually notice the presence of visitors because my mother becomes preoccupied with their welfare and uses a more social voice. Today she is entertaining. I stand in the doorway and listen.

“You sit down!” she says, as if addressing a child. And then, in a more solicitous tone, “I do hope you’re warm enough. I’ve got an extra coat if you need one.”

Bea may be bedridden, but she still receives guests royally.

This morning I can tell my mother is upset about something. She quickly explains the conundrum: the bed is too wide to get through the doorway. Her guests want her in the next room, or perhaps outside in the yard, where she can observe their interplay. A glamorous woman with “temperamental” hair has come to call, with family. There is also Montgomery, who is wearing earrings: “He has the smallest mouth for a man I’ve ever seen, and look at the ears!” And several little boys, including “Babydoll,” a strange name for a boy, Bea agrees. When I point out how unlikely it is that a man would be wearing earrings, she remarks that my son Paul wears one.

Here’s a peek at the garden party:

“Someone is arriving.”

“Who?” I ask.

“I don’t know. He’s running towards where those women were.”

“You mean the older women who were crying?”

I am referring to visitors present during Bea’s breakfast. She nods.

“Do you recognize him now?”

“None of them are near enough for that. I don’t know who they are ... You don’t have to glare at me.”

(You guessed it! Bea is addressing the glamorous woman with messy hair, not me.)

“I’ll eat asparagus, and it will give me some punch.”

I make a mental note to buy asparagus, her favorite veggie.

“Uh-oh, they’re cuffing around, the boys.”

“I think we should tell them to go away.”

“I’m shocked! I have been able to see them, so we shouldn’t tell them to go away.”

Her reasoning makes sense. What can I say?

Curious to find out more about the phenomenon, I ask, “Do they talk to you?”

“Not always … I think that’s ridiculous.”

“What’s ridiculous?”

“The hairdo."

I'm wishing I could see it, too, when she says, "I guess he has the right to because it isn’t easy to keep babies alive. When he first got in that bed, he looked awfully worn out. Oh, hello!”

Someone new has arrived. I ask for details.

“I can’t see him because he’s in another part of the yard. Here’s the one who thinks he’s a hotshot. He thinks he’s going to get good marks.”

“How old is he?”

She doesn’t hear my question. The garden party is much too captivating: “Is it good, the ice cream? Do you like it?”

I leave her be. Later, Bea calls me in and requests a "board". It seems one of the guests is a lawyer, and he is looking to mark down something in what sounds like a parlor game. I have already given her a sleeping pill, but she shows no signs of slowing down.

“Tell your guests to come back tomorrow,” I suggest with a sigh.

As I close the door, I hear her declare, “I want to tell you all that there will be something rewarding for supper, for those who care to stay …”

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Memories, Hers and Mine

This morning, while applying lip balm to Bea’s mouth, dry from two hours of non-stop conversation (3 to 5 am), I remember how she used to favor bright red lipstick. As a child, I would enjoy her gradual smile of satisfaction as she outlined lips in front of the mirror, then pressed them together on a tissue.

Another reason for dry lips is refusal of fluids. She balks at Ensure and I cannot blame her. Orange juice solicits a frown. We try grape and cranberry. No go. Concerned about dehydration, I offer Coke. She takes two gulps, then out the straw pops. That’s when I remember how Bea would administer Coke as medicine for upset stomach, spoonful by spoonful, a worried look in her eyes. Funny how memories creep up on the caregiver of an elderly parent …

Lisa finds me in the kitchen, slapping together a salmon salad sandwich for my hungry mother who sits straight up in bed, waiting expectantly. She receives her half with two hands and takes a large bite. Lisa offers milk. Bea drinks the glass down.

I ask where she met my godmother, Nancy Macdonald, and Bea treats us to some memories of her own:

“It was in Josselyn, freshman year. There were benches in the dining hall. There was a place empty at the table. I noticed she was wearing a beautiful crystal necklace. I thought this girl is somebody I would want to know more about. She moved over and let me sit down, and so began the best friendship of my whole life.”

Bea's mind is obviously sharp today, so I ask more questions, this time about life after Vassar:

"Did you attend Nancy’s wedding?"

“Oh, yes!” Bea says with a happy smile.

“Do you know how Nancy met Dwight?”

“Through her brother, Seldon, I presume.”

“Seldon was very handsome,” I whisper to Lisa.

“Did you dance with Seldon at the wedding?” she wants to know.

“Oh, did I dance! I had a dental appointment with my uncle, who was a dentist. Angelo. I finally got to the dentist and he told me if I was that late again I’d have to get somebody else instead … I was late because of the wedding.”

“What did the bride wear?” Lisa asks.

“Nancy wore the prettiest dress, white with light white fuzzy sleeves.”

I give Lisa a quick summary of Nancy’s life – wife to Dwight, mother to Nick and Mike, angel to Partisan Review, moving force behind Spanish Refugee Aid – and produce a photo from the Vassarian, and another from the jacket of Nancy’s book, Homage to the Spanish Exiles, Voices from the Spanish Civil War.

“Oh, look!” says Lisa. “She’s wearing a necklace in this one, too.”

“I went where she went in the summer because I wanted to be where she was.” Bea says simply, as if to do otherwise would have been foolhardy.

“And where was that?” asks Lisa.


I find a letter Nancy wrote Bea after the marriage, right before moving into a new apartment with Dwight. Sick in bed, swaddled in flax seed poultices, Nancy writes, “I’m glad our friendship means something to you and hope we will develop and make something more of it this winter. But, above all, let’s be honest with each other. That’s the most permanent and valid thing in life. The mistakes don’t matter as long as one understands and admits them …”

Their friendship lasted 67 years. Once Parkinson’s turned feisty Nancy into an invalid, Bea organized hospice care during the summer months and went to sit by her bedside twice a week.

After I leave the room, Bea confides how sad she was when Nancy died. Indeed, surely the hardest part of extreme old age is seeing dear friends depart this world, one by one …

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Reflections about Death

Just as I am getting ready to climb into bed, out of the night silence comes a distinct voice: “Does anybody have any food?”

“I’m hungry,” Bea says as I enter the bedroom.

I feed her half a chocolate pudding.

“Now, let me sleep,” she says.

I return to bed and start to doze off.

Not five minutes have passed when the voice calls out again: “I’m hungry! I need food!”

Since it’s past 10 pm, I provide the rest of the pudding and half a biscotti. Then, as Bea is drinking water, I slip half a sleeping pill into her mouth. It does not get past her watchful tongue. I retrieve the pill from the sheets and push it back in.

“Swallow!” I order, asserting myself.

“Well, now. Aren’t you powerful!” Bea responds in that sassy tone she usually reserves for Nurse Jane. “There. Now, go away.”

In the morning, I greet Bea with a smile and one scarlet zinnia.

“Who are you?” she says. “Are you my mother?”

I arm myself with patience. “No. I’m Sandy and ...”

“You are my daughter,” Bea says before I can.

After breakfast, I reposition her on one side for another nap. The skin around her eyes is translucent from all the beauty sleep. Lisa comes and I escape for an hour. Upon my return, I find our lovely health aide holding Bea’s hand. Lisa reports this conversation:

Bea: “Why don’t I die?”

Lisa: “Because it’s not your time.”

Bea: “When will I die?”

Lisa: “I don’t know the answer to that. Do you want to die?”

Bea: “Not yet.”

Among Bea’s papers there is a pertinent note, left for us to find:

“At 65, most people are afraid of dying. I am without a religious creed, or any ‘pie in the sky’ predilections. Life, one observes, stops. What most strikes me now about death as I observe other deaths is the unfinished, tragically unfulfilled aspect of most lives – too often the futility of the life. I hear of a death and want to say, “Wait a minute. Help, help! That person hasn’t lived out a meaningful life.”

Everyone is afraid, mostly of heart failure or cancer or the inevitability of just wearing out. My father wore out last year at 95, long after recovering from cancer. He had a strong heart, the doctor said.

One beautiful day this spring I visited Manya Schidlovsky at Sibley Hospital in Washington. She knew, and I knew, and she knew I knew, that she would soon die: malignant tumor in the brain, inoperable. A scarf was wound discreetly around her head. Her eyes – those eloquent eyes – commanded more respect for the intensity of their feeling than her life had held for me heretofore. I wept as I spoke of how much I had admired her parents, of how we both love our sons, of how I would have a concern for Ivan’s wellbeing. (He doesn’t need anyone’s concern – a fine, capable man – but I wanted to give my husband’s kinswoman something.) She could not speak. Her eyes observed me solemnly. She handed me the Kleenex box to wipe my tears.

You leave the hospital, comforted by the spring flowers, new leaves, signs of Earth’s renewal.

We tell ourselves, so, we, too, are a part of this natural world and return to it. A comforting thought? At times. But now, when a life – one’s own life – has more to be accomplished, more ground to cover, more emotions to feel, more fulfillment …”

If there was a second page, it has disappeared. Bea has dated her thoughts July 7, 1975, the year my daughter Stephanie was born. Two more grandchildren would enter the world, for a total of five. Bea was a loving and well-loved grandmother. She traveled to Europe several times with my father. They had many adventures together. Bea even went to Russia, his country, on her own. She helped him write two books and started a book herself. Everywhere Bea went, she spoke to the people she met and tried to understand the world around her.

I hope Bea has achieved the sense of fulfillment she describes above.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Comfort Care

One of my main responsibilities is to make Bea comfortable. I fluff pillows and rearrange her in the bed several times a day. When Hospice & Palliative Care of Cape Cod first sent its representative, Barbara explained that we are now undertaking comfort care for Bea. One thing she emphasized was to always call the hospice 800 number in case of emergency. When my dad passed, Sven called 911, which turned out to be a mistake because the medics tried to revive my dead father, whose body, at 97, needed to be left in peace. That is their job, reviving people. During this ordeal, I hold Bea in the next room. Then the fire chief, a friend, held me.

Soon after Barbara’s visit, a Comfort Pack arrives Federal Express. It contains just about everything needed to relieve discomfort.

Today Bea sleeps, third day in a row, all day. She is only awake while Lisa gives her a bed bath. Bea accepts three spoonfuls of cream of wheat.

A hospice nurse from another state happens to be staying at the bed & breakfast. We get to talking and she describes the experience of comforting patients right before death.

Lisa overhears and comments that some people refer to hospice health aides and nurses as “midwives to the next life.” The analogy makes sense. To Lisa, the quote means that she "helps people who might feel fear about death realize that we, in the hospice field, look at our chosen profession as importantly as a midwife looks at the new life she/he is helping bring into this world...”

In going through some of Bea’s old papers, I come upon this poem, composed November 9, 1992:

“Comfort me with apples”,
with zinnias, anemone,
and heliotrope.
These will be my diadem.
Exonerate my unknown guilt
and take me swimming
in the shimmering golden pond
of my longing.
Read to me a litany
of someone’s faith.
And in the spring
let us rejoice –
so little time –
in the earth’s rebirth.

As soon as my zinnias grow tall enough, I will make Bea a big bouquet and place it by her bedside.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Bea’s Books (6)

Bea wears a look of beatitude this morning. I wonder what she is up to? I ask when I bring breakfast.

“It’s a miracle,” she tells me. “I’m not really reading the paper. I’m just pretending to read the paper.”

Pretending obviously works when one is 96 years old.

After breakfast, Bea goes back to sleep. She will sleep all day.

I take from her shelf a slender book called Glastonbury: Its Story from Celtic Days to the Twentieth Century. Bea has noted on the first page, “Purchased at Glastonbury by Harry and Bertha Chinnock, parents of Beatrice Chinnock Grabbe.” Further down, in a darker shade of blue ink are the words “Paul and Beatrice Grabbe also visited Glastonbury in 1975. Charles and Dorothy Chinnock Chrystal visited there in 1986. Note John Chinnock was Abbot there 1375-1420.”

Inside the book Bea has stuck a postcard of a commemorative plaque upon which is engraved the name of her ancestor, Abbot John Chinnock.

There is also a photo of Aunt Dorothy, looking very pleased with herself. She stands in front of a road sign, arms at her sides. In one direction is “Middle Chinnock.” In the other, “West Chinnock and East Chinnock.”

I find a postcard from Charlie & Dot. Dorothy has written, “We stopped in East Chinnock to ask directions and who was it but Brian Morris whom you asked! He said we looked alike, and what a nice note you wrote him. We just loved Middle and West Chinnocks, tucked in that little valley. After Glastonbury, Crewe, Chester, Chiltenham, we got to Middleton. In libe on microfilm of 1861 census, I found John (26) and Sarah (30) Chadwick, their place of birth, occupations, address, and Mary (3 weeks old.) Quite a thrill!”

Mary Chadwick was Bea and Dorothy’s grandmother.

Bea has marked a page that provides the following information: "Abbot John Chinok is said to have rebuilt the Cloisters, the Dormitory, and Fratery, and furnished the Chapter House."

I search for the photo of Bea in front of the same sign as Dorothy, tuck it into Glastonbury, and return the book to the shelf.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Feeling Human

I’m glad we decided not to place Bea in a nursing home.

Last February, after a three-day stay at Cape Cod Hospital, Bea spent three weeks at Pleasant Bay in Brewster, a center that provides nursing care and rehabilitation. It does what it does well. I hate to think what life is like in less reputable nursing homes.

Pleasant Bay had a six-month waiting list. I took home the application form and talked it over with Sven. My daughters wanted me to “get my life back.” I wanted what was best for my mom.

While at Pleasant Bay, I used to take Bea for walks. I remember being shocked at the crush of wheelchairs hovering near the entrance, residents desperate for a taste of the outside world, which they were a viable part of until only recently. When people are institutionalized, they lose their sense of self-worth. It is the skilled and compassionate health aide who manages to make the individual resident feel special in a nursing home situation. I don’t know how they would have reacted to Bea’s loquaciousness … and I imagine she would have simply suppressed her visitors.

Bea is talkative again today, so I sit by her bedside and keep her company. Of course, she doesn’t talk all the time. Sometimes when I think she is napping, Bea will suddenly burst into bits of conversation. Here are some of the things she has to say:

“Remember: it’s very important to use lemon on the chicken. Not everybody likes it that way, but I do.”

“Our children are being brought up in the Episcopal Church.”

“We chose our house with the public school system in mind.”

“Did Father take the suitcases upstairs?”

“We couldn’t get a second watch for you if you have one already, of course!”

“How about having a dog?” (I intervene here and explain Sven is allergic to dogs.)

“We have to be sure Grandpa approves. We do have the money. Grandpa has worked a while at that shop that he runs. Then he’ll be able to buy more things in his shop.” (Neither my father nor my grandfathers ever ran any shop that I know of. Perhaps Bea was referring to her own grandfather?)

“I want to warn everybody that on Sunday we go to church, the Episcopal Church.”

Bea has her eyes closed. Her mind seems to be jumping through the various periods of her life. These statements occur every five minutes or so.

When I change Bea, she looks up and addresses me. I find her words incredibly moving: “I am so grateful to you because you make me feel human.”