Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bea’s Journal (4)

• September 6, 2000. I have, of late, suffered loneliness and a sense of loss. My husband, Paul, died November 16, 1999. A few days before he died, he made love to me more rapturously than ever before in our 55 years of marriage. At the time of his death, I had come to realize that maybe people appreciate an acknowledgement of their right to die. I forever remember the look in his eyes, which expressed such love and somehow conveyed departure. He was a fine man, and I am glad I was able to have two children with him. I miss him.

• This is the last week in the year 2000. I am now 91.The important fact in my life is that my husband, Count Paul Alexandrovich Grabbe, died at the age of 97 ½. I tell myself that people do not live forever. I think of St. Francis saying, “Grazie, Signore, per la morte, nostra sorella corporale.” I do not want to identify my remaining days with the inevitability of death but rather to have the pleasure of recalling special moments of joy in my life …

• Experiencing the death of a loved one I find to be the most traumatic experience of a lifetime. It well may be the source of religious belief. In my experience, only giving birth, in its extremity of feeling, comes close to it …

Monday, October 30, 2006

What Comes Next ...

Bea has asked me to keep her company.

“What comes next?” she says suddenly.

I peer out the window. Yesterday’s storm blew down all the yellow leaves from Bea's maple, the one she planted thirty-five years ago. They still thrash around the side yard, ducking back and forth, harbingers of the cold winter to come. Being an optimistic type of girl, Bea’s favorite season has always been spring. Spring 2007 seems a long way off. I cannot imagine her living that long, but who knows? My mother has defied all predictions.

“What comes next?” she repeats.

“What do you mean?” I ask, not convinced we are about to engage in a philosophical discussion.

I know Bea’s vision of death is not of much comfort to one who knows her final days are near: end of life, obliteration, nothingness.

“We will remember you so fondly when you are not here anymore,” I tell her.

This comment produces a thin smile.

“You had a good life, didn’t you?”

Bea nods. We sit there in silence for a while.

“What comes next?” she asks again.

I take the plunge: “You mean, like a meal?”

Bea nods. I fetch half a banana.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Cigarettes stained Bea's fingers nicotine-yellow before she gave up smoking, motivated by the desire to know her grandchildren. Tonight the hands seem red. I gently turn them and examine the splotches. Her palms are not my only concern. There is a small red spot on Bea’s left knee, the knee that sent us to the hospital in February. I slop on the bag balm, one half inch thick. It has the consistency of axel grease and smells like petroleum. I have applied the ointment every time I changed her today. For the night, I make a little tent above the knee to prevent absorption of the bag balm by the sheet. If the skin enveloping the knee were a wool cap, it would be several sizes too small. Nurse Jane has provided liquid Tylenol in case of pain, but so far Bea has not mentioned any. She is grateful for the care I give and tells me so with her eyes. How sweet her soul! It makes me sad to see my mother in this condition, body wasting away … Bea has accepted only minimal nourishment and water for over a month. The doctor stopped her meds a week ago. Why do some people just die while others linger? What is the purpose of this special time we have together? How can I help her let go?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Bea's Journal (3)

“I love you,” I say, tucking Bea in after dinner.

The lights are all on, per her request. Suddenly, she is afraid of the dark.

“We’re related, aren’t we?” Bea asks as I caress her brow.

“We are. You’re my mother.”

“I was thinking that I am going to die in a few days. I need to look at the calendar. After all, I am 103.”

“103? No, just 96. 97. That’s old enough!”

Her comment makes me think about the day we met, the day I was born. Bea has left us her recollections, put down on paper May 9, 1999:

“This is Mother’s Day and I am all alone! My daughter gave me a beautiful gray cashmere sweater before she left to be with her daughters in Cambridge.

I am now 89 ½ and can hardly believe it. But there are aging encounters to remind me: I have lost the vision in my right eye as the result of a TIA. Also, I have arthritis in my knees – mainly the left knee. But a heating pad helps, as does distraction. I have a need to write, to express my frustration that I am very alone with my 97-year-old husband having returned to his bed.

Shall I call to my own mind what it was like to create my own first child and, nearly 10 months later, deliver her?

The labor, for one of 37, was excessive. I remember that wonderful woman obstetrician, Dr. Jean Corwin, who helped me.

It really felt like an impossibility when the delivery time came. Dr. Corwin had said, “The baby knows when it’s cooked.” Well, those pelvic bones did not want to cooperate.

“Put your feet on my shoulders,” said Dr. Corwin. Somehow it helped and on September 7, 1949, I delivered a daughter who is now thrice a mother.”

I regret not having celebrated Mother’s Day more sequentially throughout Bea’s life.

What a gift to give someone life! Unfortunately, most people take the bond created at birth for granted ...

Friday, October 27, 2006

Bea Joins a Girls' Club

"Dear Caroline and girls:

Here comes a new member to your exclusive society. And please, Caroline, isn’t your scrap basket being filled fast enough without adding this scrap of paper to it? If you publish this letter, I will … well, dance a jig.

Say, girls, have any of you tried homemade beauty clays to improve your complexion? I have one on now. I look as if I came from a convalescent ward. Maybe some of you would care to try? This is how to make it. Take

3 Tablespoonfuls of Fuller’s Earth
3 drops of Benzoin

Add Witch Hazel and mix to a paste. Put this on the face with cheesecloth over it. Keep this on for forty minutes. Don’t giggle, or wiggle. Let your friends see you and they will have a good laugh. The clay works wonders.

I am, Checkers

P.S. If this name is taken, I’ll choose another."

Belleville, Montclair, New York, Washington DC, New York, Hanover NH, Kent CT, New York, Washington DC, Wellfleet: Although Bea moved ten times during her life, she kept this scrap of paper among her belongings, admission to the Club of Life she enjoyed so thoroughly ...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

“Everyone Makes His Own Happiness”

Reply to Questionnaire on P. 45 of Vassar Alumnae Magazine, April 1969

1.) I like children who are spontaneous, not too “manicured,” but with evidence of some discipline.

2.) The most important thing for children to learn is that everyone makes his own happiness.

When I was a child …
3.) …I had the most fun when I could catch a sense of my own identity. Of course, I did not then think of my reaction in those terms. The way in which I got a sense of my own identity is surely a clue to my early psychic life: I liked to climb a tree higher than any other children; I liked to make a house for myself in a tree; I liked to go off by myself to pick blueberries to sell; I liked to swim, particularly underwater, when I could open my eyes, or battle ocean waves.
4.) …I felt most secure when I could catch my parents’ fleeting attention.
5.) …I used to daydream about college.
6.) …I used to be afraid of the dark, punishment (spanking), my parents’ rejection.
7.) …I liked grownups who were friendly or found me intelligent.

8.) I wish my parents could have understood that, at the age of three, a pretty little girl should not be put to sleep in the same double bed with an unmarried uncle in his twenties; that when a neighbor reports seeing little girls take down their pants at the order of little boys, a father should not beat a six-year-old and tell a four-year-old (me) that “Little girls who do that cannot live in our house,” with the child’s clothes being removed (at night) from the closet and the child feeling that it would be too far to walk to Grandma’s house; that sex is not evil.

9.) My life will be reasonably satisfying if analysis can bring a feeling of release from my anxieties, greater sexual freedom, and an acceptance of my children’s major decisions.

10.) I seem to have been a child who was very insecure, unhappy without realizing it, sexually repressed, and who turned to distinction in studies as compensation.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

On Being Bea's Daughter

Being Bea’s daughter hasn’t always been marvelous.

In high school, Bea would insist on reading my weekly essays, then give suggestions, which I didn’t often take. My mother also would present, on occasion, what she considered appropriate suitors. When I announced my intention to marry a Frenchman after college graduation, Bea took it upon herself to inform my former boyfriend, who showed up, out of the blue, to propose marriage. Her opposition to this union had been dwarfed by the idea of my leaving the country. While her motives were comprehensible, such intervention felt totally wrong. After my move to France, Bea continued this behavior with Nick, who rejected the Russian-American girl our mother had chosen as future daughter-in-law.

Such over-involvement provided the impetus for a policy of non-intervention in the lives of my own children. And so the pendulum swings from excess to restraint. I sometimes wonder if Bea's attempts to control my life didn't spring from her own childhood ...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


My mother is trying to form words, an almost impossible task this morning. “I… I… I…”

I wait, by Bea's bedside.

“Please tell me,” she finally utters in such a faint voice that I must lean in close.

“Tell you what?”

“If I’m normal or not.”

“Can you explain what you mean a bit better?”

Bea stares up at me with distress. She hesitates until confident enough to ask what must surely be a difficult question: “Who am I?”

“Beatrice. Beatrice Chinnock Grabbe. Does that ring a bell?”

With a frown, she gives her head a quick shake.

“You live in Wellfleet.”

“Wellfleet.” Bea repeats, closing her eyes, as if the eyelids were too heavy, reason enough for this retreat to a fact without dispute: “I was born in Belleville, New Jersey.”

“That’s right!”

There’s a pause, again to collect thoughts.

My mother furrows her brow. “And, who are you?”

“I’m your daughter.”

A contented sound escapes her closed lips. “Hmmmmm. How marvelous to have a daughter!”

Monday, October 23, 2006

How To Deal With An Agitated Elderly Parent in a Fantasy World

“Helen! Will you come down from there?”

Bea’s tone is sharp. If I did not know better, I would think my aunt was in the bedroom, swinging from the rafters.

Sven and I are about to start dinner. We exchange glances.

“Martin! Do hurry. We are all going to be late.”

Bea's loud voice is easy to understand. Suddenly she starts laughing, a girlish trill of pure delight. I smile, but Sven feels uncomfortable with the situation, so I get up and close the door.

After dinner, I go to Bea, by now frantic. The ship is ready to sail and no one is on time. “I have to get up and tell those men to wait!” she exclaims and leans forward, grasping for my hand.

“Where’s Helen?” I ask.

“She’ll be right back. We are all going to miss the boat!! I must get out of this bed. Oh, please help me.”

I have already given Bea a sleeping pill. I take one look at her red-rimmed eyes and administer half an Ativan, as Nurse Jane suggested.

When an elderly person is upset about an event in a fantasy world, if one plays along, sometimes it relieves the anxiety.

“Now, don’t you worry,” I say. “I will go right away and give the men your message.”

“Will you really? Oh, thank you!” Bea relaxes back into the pillows.

Five minutes later she is sound asleep.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Of New Friends and Fruit

To my surprise, Bea remembers her new friend in the morning. My mother’s voice sounds so normal that I have to remind myself of her handicapped condition: “We have to go over what we are going to do tonight.”

Her lady friend has now provided a name – Elizabeth – and the two have organized some activities that involve getting out of bed.

“How about a last name?” I ask.

“Too hard to pronounce.”

After applesauce and in the middle of a bowl of vanilla ice cream, Bea suddenly croaks, “Can I have a vegetable?”

“A vegetable?”

“And a Protestant?”


“Did I say Protestant? No, not Protestant. I mean those men who came with vegetables yesterday. They were here with Elizabeth and Marie’s mother’s baby. What was that baby called? I forget.”

“Shall I name some vegetables?

“No. I shall think of it myself. That was twenty years ago. I would like a little fruit.”


“Yes, apples and pomegranate.”

Keeping up with Bea is like racing backwards and forwards through time, a stressful enterprise, even for the most sure-footed chronicler!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Empire State Quiz

Question: the Empire State Building was built (a) 1919 (b) 1929 (c) 1932?

In Bea’s mind, the idea of death simply does not compute. She communicated this philosophy to me more than once today.

Around dinnertime, my mother has at last fallen silent and stares into space.

“What are you thinking about?” I ask, convinced her sadness must surely relate to end-of-life issues.

“Somebody ought to bring chocolate pudding. Chocolate pudding is what someone said they would bring.”

I fetch the dessert.

“When I get home, I’m going to make some,” Bea announces between mouthfuls and appreciative “mmm”s.

“How would you do that?”

“Look up the recipe in a cookbook.”

On my next trip back from the kitchen, Bea has become animated. What’s more, there’s company, a mysterious lady who hovers near the ceiling and will only speak if my mother is alone. Bea simply ignores her rigidity on this matter, addressing us both at once:

To me: “I have a terrific need for you.” To her: “This is my niece.” To me: “This lady and I can share talking to me.” To her: “Hello! You’re going to be able to help us.” To me: “I don’t know the name of this lady.” To her: “You tell me yours, and I’ll tell you mine …. Beatrice.” To me: “She’s been very helpful, just talking, so I didn’t feel lonely. I feel better when somebody’s near me. I don’t like to be completely alone. Nobody does. When I get to the parish, I am going to ask the minister how I can get home.” (With exasperation) “Where are the people for this lady? I’m eager to get home. I’ll have to walk home. I’d rather walk than stay here for Heaven’s sake. I’m going to miss you. I want to get home.”

“But you are home,” I intervene finally. “We live here in Wellfleet.”

“Thank you for straightening me out. What a relief! … I was born in Belleville. I remember the time my father took my sister and me to see New York. That was quite an experience. He took us up the Empire State building. I was 10. One of my legs bothers me a whole lot, and I wonder if you would be kind enough to rub it? I think it’s because I haven’t been exercising. Will I ever be glad to get out of here! …”

After the leg massage, I obtain a 1931 construction date from the Internet and let Bea know: “You couldn’t have visited the Empire State in 1919 because it wasn’t built yet.”

“How clever of you!”

Friday, October 20, 2006

How Long?

The air is laden with the heavy smell of fallen leaves after a rainstorm. Autumn is a good time to die, but Bea shows no sign of passing on.

When hospice care began, I asked how long a patient usually lasts. The answer was a month and a half. Bea has been bedridden for six months now.

A stranger calls to reserve a room at the bed & breakfast. Susan spent two hours savoring this blog, a familiar story since she cared for her own parents: “It is so good to have the information out there on the Internet!” our future guest exclaims. “Ten years is a long time to care for one’s parents!”

Indeed ...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Bea's Journal (2)

"April 16, 1999, 11:02

I am to write for 20 minutes and today I choose to comment on public reaction to deviant sex. I would like to explore why, in the present era, there is so much criticism of people who prefer to make love to their own sex.

I cannot help but notice how many accomplished men and women prefer their own sex or are bi-sexual.

First to my mind are the great Italian Renaissance artists: Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo was gifted both as a sculptor and a painter. His greatest work, I think, was his sculpture La Pieta, in Rome. The Sistine Chapel shows, too, merits mention. Imagine getting up to that ceiling and painting! And how beautiful is the statue of David in Florence.

Among the great bisexuals we include Shakespeare, for over 100 sonnets are very definitely addressed to a young man whose beauty is praised.

Why does Sappho’s lesbianism bother people? Or Virginia Wolff’s startling weekend with the lady of aristocratic background, the one who wrote, ‘All Passions Spent’?

I think one reason for disapproval is that those who are disturbed fear their own erotic attraction to their own sex.

Sappho expressed her desire eloquently when she wrote the following, now in translation:

‘Death shall be death forever
unto thee, maiden
for valuing gold
above the muses.’

Sappho probably lived on an island called Lesbos.

I cherish my trip to Greece in 1932. I remember one day when I wanted to swim from Ithaca to a nearby island. How sparkling clear was the water and pristine, the atmosphere! 11:20.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bea on Frank Sinatra

“Frank Sinatra is like chocolate pudding. Rich and velvety.”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Checking Out?

BEA: “I’ve stayed too long.”

ME: “What do you mean?”

BEA: “Here. Avec toi.”

Bea doesn’t speak French but throws French expressions into her conversation from time to time for effect.

Is she referring to death? My heart skips a beat. Gravitas does fill her voice.

I have just concluded my mother is indeed saying goodbye when she adds, “How do I initiate it? The paperwork, I mean? I would think it would be through you.”

“Where do you want to go?” I ask.

“To my mother’s house. Home …”

Her tone is heartbreaking.

Who would have thought childhood would leave such an indelible souvenir!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Upon Missing the Boat in Italy

“Help, oh please help! I have to get up! I have to open that door so they can get on the boat …”

Before bed, I gave Bea half a sleeping pill. Half was not enough. My mother is frantic.

“There’s a crowd of men, on a pier,” she explains breathlessly. “I have to help them. And Helen has disappeared. She was here a minute ago.”

“Helen’s dead,” I say gently. “You’re imagining things.”

“No. I recognized her coat,” Bea protests, quite sure. She extends a boney finger towards the ceiling. “They're right over there. See them?”

The scenario that is playing in her mind would be amusing if it were not 1:30 in the morning. Luckily we do not have any bed & breakfast guests tonight.

“I don’t. Time to sleep. Tell them to come back tomorrow.”

I return to my room, but it is impossible to tune out the low drone, which rises and falls in pitch, to finally crescendo into puffs of breath, calling my name …

On what must be my third visit, I shout: “These people are in your mind. They are hallucinations. There is no one here but you and me. I cannot have you waking me up this way …”

Bea’s red-rimmed eyes have become beacons that shine through the night. "But they will miss the boat ..."

Shaken-baby syndrome comes to mind. I want to shake this frail body and make it shut up but don’t, of course. Instead I place my hands on her cheeks.

“Quiet,” I order in a firm voice. “You have to stop this.”

Still the words fly out her mouth like butterflies: “The bride - the bride – she needs – her dress. It was – right here. I have to – get out of – bed and – help her – find it. I know you want me to be quiet but I cannot. I’ll whisper. How’s that? I’ll whisper. Those men – in black – need my help …”

Desperate for sleep, I administer the second half of the sleeping pill.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Once a Hostess, Always a Hostess!

The daffodils arrive, 400 of them.

Sven helps prepare the soil. It will take quite a while to get all these bulbs in the ground. I check in on Bea from time to time. She ate cream of wheat this morning, then went back to sleep.

In the house, I find my mother chatting softly to herself and assume she has just awakened from the nap. I flop down in the chair beside her bed, lean over, and confide, “I’m tired.”

“I’m tired, too,” she says although sleep has been her predominate state recently. No, scratch that: over the past three days hibernation is a better description.

“Did you have pleasant dreams?” I ask.

“Oh, I wasn’t dreaming,” Bea says in her busy-body voice, the one she used to use all the time. “I was busy.”

“What have you been up to?”

“Seeing that everybody got something to eat. And what have you been up to?”

“Planting daffodils. You like daffodils?”

Bea’s face fills with delight. “Oh, yes! They’re the first spring flower.”

“Want to hear some music – Frank Sinatra, or the Italian singer?”

“Sinatra. And they’re both Italian,” Bea points out.

I leave my smart-aleck mother to her guests and return to my garden…

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Bea wrote this comment on an envelope in 1995:

“I want to tell you about Geronimo. He was a tomcat. We had taken over our female Siamese to be mated. In charge was a gracious girl of fifteen.

‘Geronimo is a fine cat,’ she advises in a matter-of-fact voice. ‘He’s good to his females. First he licks them all over.’

So much for cats. Hmmm. Hurray for Geronimo!

The French want to know what women want. I suspect they want a screaming-me-me orgasm, though they may not realize.

What would be the ideal approach in making love to a woman?

Most of all, the right mood, the right state of mind, the wellbeing that comes after a delicious meal in a soothing setting with wine, perhaps after a good movie.

Tenderness can be ever so erotic.

A man’s desire is centralized; a woman’s pervasive over her entire body. Apparently it is so with cats ...”

Friday, October 13, 2006

Bea’s Books (10)

In a notebook, I find the following list:

“Read in 1972:

The Day of the Jackal, Forsythe: Cheap and sensation-seeking, but compels attention.

The Assistant, Malamud: Fine job. Life and death of a little Jewish storekeeper in a less prosperous section of the Bronx.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Gustav Jung. A seminal book. Includes bibliography of Jung’s other writings. Jung refers, among others, to the writings of Jacob Boehme and Nicholas of Cusa.

The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol 1, 1931-1934. Most unusual and absorbing. Wish to read more volumes. Understand fourth is about to be published. READ IT. Home was at Louveciennes, near Paris.”

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Yesterday Sven and I escaped to Boston for a day of respite. My brother and his wife assumed Bea’s care. Still talkative, she worried about my dad’s absence. When told he had died, Bea explained that was impossible because, “We have only been married a year …”

A deadline for a script was another preoccupation.

Bea seems to be recalling her life, so full. The different periods replay in her mind much like a kaleidoscope, images which need to be experienced again before letting go …

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Lisa’s Report

“I want to go to my home, to the one I prefer,” Bea says in a small voice.

“Which one is that?” I ask, just in case.

“102 South Fullerton Avenue.”

I explain why that is no longer possible. She listens intently. If I am able to sit by her bedside and caress her brow this afternoon, it is because I was able to get away earlier in the day, thanks to Lisa and our hospice volunteer, Virginia.

Lisa files this report:

“Beatrice was very awake. I asked her if she was hungry and she was. I went to the kitchen to find something that she'd enjoy and brought back two puddings, to which she replied that she needed something different for her first 'course' and that the puddings would do for dessert. I went back and forth quite a few times with suggestions and finally made a salmon sandwich. She was pleased as punch and had one Beatrice-sized bite and proclaimed that she was ready for her pudding. She ate both with gusto and drank three glasses of water!!

After lunch, Beatrice said she was 'eager to be human again.' Of course I asked what she meant. She meant walking around and going here and there. She wanted to get up to be 'human'. I redirected her instead of upsetting her about not being able to support herself. It was an insight as to how Beatrice thinks of her abilities to ambulate. Virginia showed up and lit up the room. Beatrice was SO very glad to have someone else to talk with. She's such a social person when in her 'awake' space…”

Bea will chat all through the night, off and on. In the morning, I find her quite agitated. To my surprise, the comforter is again on the floor. Bea looks up at me like a little girl, who knows she has been naughty, and declares, “Scold me if you must. Oh! I’m so upset. I can’t get up. I’ve tried and tried. Could you please go downstairs and open the door for my father?” …

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bleak House

Bea remains comfortable, but her quality of life is close to zero. She sleeps all day now and doesn't seem to want food.

Lisa suggests I offer Ensure again. Bea drinks it.

Lisa reads out loud from the “Patient & Family Resources Guide”: “When a body is preparing for death, it is perfectly natural that eating stops. The body is … slowly shutting down normal body functions …”

“You’re the nicest person I know,” my mother murmurs as I change her brief for the night.

I suppose this is her way of saying thank you.

I don’t feel like such a nice person. I was unable to respond to my daughter’s latest emergency. My husband is depressed. I am barely able to contain my rage that society does not provide a better solution for its citizens of extreme old age, obliging loved ones to sacrifice themselves and enter into a relationship of servitude … In the “Patient & Family Resources Guild,” I read anger is a normal reaction.

Bea is going to die soon. That fact in itself produces such conflicting emotions.

Last month Sven and I began our 10th year of elderly care.

To those whom might say, “You should have put your mother in a nursing home,” I respond, “Visit a few. Then tell me if you would like to finish your days in such a place?”

The answer will probably be no.

I am so grateful that, at least, we have hospice …

Postscript: Thank you to everyone who holds us in their thoughts, like Karyn, a stranger who posted a comment immediately this morning. Bea woke up and said, "Am I ever glad to see you! I'm hungry." She has already eaten half a banana and wants more, so we are off and running again.

Monday, October 09, 2006

“Mea Culpa”

“The first serious problems in my life began when I was 3 or 4, and they greatly changed the way I grew up.

Before these traumatic events, however, there was a two-way squeeze to cope with: my older sister, Helen, 20 months older, felt unwanted, was unwanted, and nearly finished off the competition by trying to knock my basket from its perch on the sewing machine. I guess this was the last aggressive act of her life. My mother identified with pretty little me, while my sister resembled Father’s family whom Mother disliked. Still, I had not been a boy, a disappointment to my parents. Then, after 19 months, I, in turn, was displaced by a bright and handsome brother named for Father but called ‘Fumpty.’

I tried to please and soon learned to parade my charms for what they seemed to be worth. For instance, when anyone said, ‘Where did you get those china blue eyes?’ I would answer on cue, looking up beatifically, ‘God gave them to me!’ I didn’t then, of course, see the similar derivation of ‘beatific’ and ‘Beatrice.’

Early on, I disliked my name. One reason was the nickname it engendered. I was aware of the meaning of the word “beat” and resented my young uncle, then working his way through college by delivering ice blocks during the summer at the resort where mother’s family and ours had small cottages, side by side. He liked to tease and called me ‘Beat-an-egg’ as he walked by. I guess that is the way he handled his sexual response to me, or maybe he was jealous that my father was doing well in business and he had to haul ice. Maybe both.

An early memory is of a kindness – a pretty lady very gently removed a splinter from my hand. She might have become a useful mother surrogate but was only an acquaintance.

Another memory is of barging onto the side porch where Mother and Father’s brother’s wife were nursing babies. They continued chatting merrily but somewhat self-consciously together, then started giggling nervously as if caught in some kind of conspiracy. I can still see my mother’s pink nipple and the shape of her enlarged breast as the baby removed it from his mouth and turned to look at me with annoyance at the intrusion.

I stood there observing the scene.

Mother asked in a flip tone, “Want a suck?”

I don’t know now whether I did or not, though the invitation must have brought back painful recollections of being weaned. Still, not one to turn down a challenge, I leaned over and took a swig. The warm, watery liquid tasted sweeter than cow’s milk. I think I was rather disappointed. The experience stacks up as an unpleasant one. I blame my mother for being so unfeeling as to challenge me. Perhaps she was jealous of my girlish freedom.

But, that wasn’t the only stupid action that left its mark. The worst and most traumatic bêtise I must blame on both my parents because, if Mother was lacking in good sense, my father should have stepped in. Here is what happened:

In the days before we had a car, we went by train five miles to visit Mother’s family in Patterson, New Jersey. The family lived over my grandfather’s plumbing shop. There were six bedrooms, but a large family. At three years old, I was put to death – just a minute: that phrase slipped out of my unconscious, and I meant put to sleep in the same bed with Uncle Jim, my unmarried uncle who was then in his early 20s …”

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Bumps on the Road of Life

Both my parents had psychoanalysis during the first years of their marriage.

I find a letter Bea wrote in 1979 about its benefits: “When Nick was two and we moved back to Washington, I was forced in the move to give up an interesting, lucrative job and felt so depressed that I decided to get a job to pay for more analysis. It seemed because of my sexual difficulties that it was more important for me to try through analysis to get over them …”

My parents were married 56 years. Bea’s return to a more distant past that doesn’t include Paul is puzzling to me, so I feel pleased when she tells me he has been one of her guests.

“Daddy’s here,” Bea says simply.

“Harry? You mean your father?”

“No, Daddy.”



I realize I am living an unusual experience. Not every daughter gets to accompany her mother on this final journey. We are weaving our way down the road of life, towards a light shining in the distance …

Saturday, October 07, 2006

On Aging

Bea gazes up at the basket of colorful flowers, delivered on behalf of her nieces and nephews, and smiles. The light that reflects her spirit makes the ninety-seven-year-old face look beautiful this morning. I want to remember my mother this way, satisfied with life, happy, ready to let go.

Last night Bea almost choked. I pulled her up into a sitting position and desperately tried to pat her on the back. The food had gone down her windpipe, not a pleasant experience. She spit up a lot of thick saliva afterwards.

Swallowing food remains a challenge. I bring pears and porridge. Bea accepts two spoonfuls, then turns her head away. She is not hungry today. Something more urgent needs attention:

“Where’s my baby?” she demands.

“I’m here,” I say. “I’m your baby.”

Bea doesn’t look convinced. No, she is searching the room for a child, not a grown-up person. Distress fills her eyes. If she could only get up, she would do so in an instant and locate the recalcitrant infant she has lost.

We resume breakfast. Bea almost chokes on a piece of pear. I quickly switch to ice cream.

“Whose child are you?” she demands with suspicion.



“Preposterous!” my mother’s voice says. “Much too old!”

Then Bea starts talking nonsense.

I cannot bear the degradation and stay away, except to change her brief. How hard it is to care for an aged loved one!

I age, I aged, I am aging.

Before Bea reached extreme old age, she wrote this lovely poem:

On Aging

Bring me
in the spring.

Bring me new words
like “esoteric”
and “irony.”
I need to know
what they mean
while there is time
to use them.

Bring me a black checker
marked with a coronet.
Tell me why it uses
such a symbol.

Maybe it isn’t a checker
after all
and comes from Halablu,
a land where people
line up like chickens
in a barnyard
pecking order.

Before bed, I order daffodil bulbs from an online nursery, hundreds of them …

Friday, October 06, 2006

Excerpts from Bea’s Novel (2)

“Some people knew how disturbed her home environment in Montclair had been, but not many. She had a way of making it sound more like everyone else’s than it was. But those who had spent a weekend with her family in New Jersey were quick to enlighten her for her own good about the family’s shortcomings. One friend had said, 'Bill changed his mind about marrying you after he met your family.'

She didn’t need their comments to be aware of social inadequacy. That same Bill had said, ‘You never should have gone to Vassar.’ Where, she thought contemptuously, would she have fitted in? New Jersey College for Women? And, hadn’t she endured the snobbery of some classmates freshman year? …

But all the more painful was the weekend her mother arrived in a cheap knitted dress that was too tight, as if she had done it on purpose.

Ellen survived Vassar and even learned. When her mother sent an awkward homemade dress for Ellen to wear to a party, Ellen borrowed her roommate’s instead. She studied hard, always aware that she was less well prepared than her friends from Brearley and other private schools. Ellen knew she was at one of the best colleges in the country and was proud to have gotten in. She would make the most of it. Yet, when all the families came up for graduation at the end of her fourth year, it was hard to be one of the only two girls in ‘the Group’ who were not invited to the dinner party given by the parents of Ellen Bacon Endicott of Beacon Hill …

It never occurred to her that she was on the make. She only wanted to realize her abilities, express herself, and fulfill the social obligations inculcated in those years at Vassar …”

Up until now, Bea has called her heroine “Ellen.” In the final paragraph of these three pages, Bea switches to her own name:

“In those years, she couldn’t decide whether to call herself Bea or Bee. She didn’t expect anyone to call her by her full name – Beatrice. She had learned that early on after the family dubbed her ‘Beata’ and her mean uncle changed the nickname to “Beat-an-egg.” So, when the family moved from Belleville to the more viable suburb of Montclair, she decided, at 15, to take no chances and told fellow students at Montclair High School that her name was B. But B…what she wasn’t sure.”

Thursday, October 05, 2006

People = What Bea Likes Best

Bea begins her 98th year by sleeping most of the day. When she wakes up, I read birthday cards from Carl and Mary Krogh, Sally Branch, and the good folks at the Wellfleet Council on Aging. Lisa brings chocolate ice cream as a special treat. Other highlights include a phone call from my brother, as well as a chat with Nick and Elspeth Macdonald. The conversations do not last long since Bea is quite feeble and the phone keeps slipping from her hand. She seems to have forgotten how to talk on the phone and repeats everything the other party says, which certainly does not make for a very satisfactory exchange. After the phone calls, my friend Carolyn, visiting from France, joins me by Bea’s bedside.

“Congratulations!” she says. “You’re 97 today.”

“I can’t catch a man if I’m 97,” Bea says in a sour but very matter-of-fact voice.

“You’re right,” Carolyn responds. “That’s hard, but not impossible.”

“What are you going to give me?” Bea wants to know.

It is not clear whether she is talking food or gifts, so we provide chocolate pudding and company. Sven, Carolyn, and I gather round the bed, which seems to make my mother happy. I can tell from her glow. People is what Bea likes best.

We discuss 90-year-olds who are able to travel distances by car, certainly few and far between. I reminisce about Bea’s trip to Vassar for her 70th reunion: “You wore a yellow suit, since the class color was yellow, and held a yellow balloon. How cute you looked! You got to ride in a golf cart at the head of the parade. Everyone was cheering. Remember?”

Bea doesn’t. I don’t know if Carolyn and Sven can decipher the forgetfulness on my mother’s already blank face, but I can. There is a silence. Her eyes are half closed. She is tired today.

“What would you like to talk about?” I ask, not sure if we should impose after all. Perhaps she would prefer to sleep?

“The price of eggs in China,” my mother says suddenly, then explains, “It’s a silly.”

“Actually China is more and more important to the world’s economy and to the future of the world,” Carolyn begins with some authority. She is using heftier concepts than Bea’s bedroom usually experiences these days. I wonder whether my mother will take them in.

To my surprise, Bea demands, “Give me a good example.”

“They make all we wear. Clothing.”

“I don’t agree,” Bea declares, for some reason quite sure.

Sven tells her, “Oh! China is changing fast.”

“They do things cheaply and offer lower prices than everyone else.” (This information from Carolyn.)

“The price of eggs in China must be rising because of the avian flu,” Sven says, cracking a joke of sorts.

His comment gives me an idea for our conversation: “Why don’t you tell us about the Spanish flu when you were a little girl?”

But Bea is back in zombie-land. Sven and Carolyn wait respectfully for her to emerge. I add a few more details to prod memory: “Remember how the neighbor’s family, across the street, all died and had to be quarantined?’

No reaction. The birthday girl doesn’t bat an eyelash.

“You must have lived in Belleville in 1919, when you were 10.”

“Did you have servants?” Carolyn asks.

“Mabel,” I respond, since Bea doesn’t. “The domestic.”

Just as I am deciding Bea must have fallen asleep, she offers this comment in a soft but clear voice: “I liked Mabel, and she liked me. We were friends.”

“Was there a bell under the rug to call the servants?” Carolyn asks, curious now. “I bet there was. My mom told me she had one like it at her house.”

“Something like a bell, under the table,” Bea murmurs.

“Can you tell us about your birthday party when you were 10?”


“Did Helen come?”


“And Dorothy?”


“Did you have a cake and ice cream?”

“You bet.”

“Where did you get the ice cream?”

There’s a long pause. I don’t know why I asked the question, perhaps to check if she pays attention. We all hold our breath, not really expecting Bea to answer, but she does: “At Galuba’s. I knew Mr. Galuba and I liked him, but not enough to marry him. He would probably smell.” Bea is focusing in on Carolyn, now. “Did you know I had nice babies?” I take her hand. Bea turns to me and says softly, “You were lovely...”

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Excerpts from Bea’s Novel (1)

In 1937, Bea was 28.

I find three handwritten pages, part of a draft for a novel. Here is an excerpt:

“Life was full of zest. Ellen, at 28, was discovering herself. Intellectual circles, artistic circles, social circles – she swung from one to the other, dressed accordingly. Maybe it was the Rainbow Room or the little Greek restaurant on E. 28th Street. For many months, flat-shoed and seemingly in love with the abstract artist. Then an old beau who taught Latin at Groton would come to town, and she would fight off his frustrated kisses after brook trout and French wine at Voisin’s.

But always there, pushed out of her consciousness was the younger schizophrenic brother, Hunter. Even his haunting name hurt. In those days Hunter was already at the Hartford Retreat, and there was nothing she ever did that was harder than going to see him. How he looked one day at her metal necklace, as if he would wrench it off and her neck with it! He had to get well, and she tried in her feeble way to counsel her grieving parents, to help them. But so much did she believe in the influence of environment that she blamed them for his breakdown and never forgave herself after that for adding to their pain …”

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Bea Contacts Dr. Alfred Adler

Among Bea’s papers, I find a letter her brother Hunter sent from Paris on August 11, 1937:

“Dearest Bea,

You asked me to write you and here it is. Tell Dorothy I got both her letters and thank her very much. I am tickled pink with the idea of becoming an uncle. I’ll bet Tony or Dottie will blink his eyes for the first time on the 14th or 15 of August … I have done so much and had so many interesting experiences that to go into detail about each one would take the rest of this book …. I have taken four trips besides Giverny, Versailles, Reims, and Chartres. People who come to Paris for just a week see nothing and those for a summer barely scratch the surface … About a week ago I met a Bulgarian fellow who speaks six languages. Yesterday he, and a girlfriend of his, Marietta, and I took a trip up the Marne to go swimming and have a picnic. We drank 2 big bottles of wine, and, as a consequence were rather gay. I jumped off a bridge. It was 45 feet high! When we returned to Paris, we bought cheese, ham, and bread. Marietta, I think, is in love with me. Things are beginning to get complicated. Let me add that American necking is horseplay compared with the French! Please don’t think that I am getting myself in for something or turning out to be a Casanova. Kissing was as far as I went or will go in the future, but the damned trouble is that the girl really likes me… I find going out with French people and talking with them ‘c’est le meilleur methode pour apprendre la langue’ … "

Here Hunter is probably quoting his elder sister. He concludes the 10-page letter with information about sailing from Southhampton and suggests Bea look up landing times in the newspaper.

I also find a note from a Dr. Alfred Adler, dated earlier that year, February 11, 1937:

“Dear Miss Chinnock,

I should like to see the boy. If this is not possible I could speak with the mother. She shall phone me in the morning and tell me when she wants to see me.”

Truly yours,

Professor Alfred Adler, MD

At first this note seems out of the blue. Then, I realize Bea must have managed to contact Dr. Adler about Hunter. The envelope also holds the famous psychologist’s obituary. How tragic that Dr. Adler died of a heart attack May 28, 1937!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Anxiety Attack!

Of late, I have noticed Bea is more confused during her waking hours. Also, as each period of non-sleep progresses, it becomes more of a challenge to make out her words. When she – does talk – all her – sentences are – delivered in – this choppy – speech pattern.

Our day starts off well enough with relatively clear thoughts and words:

BEA: “Am I glad to see you! Do you think I can go all the way to New York?”

ME: “I doubt it. Why do you want to go to New York?”

BEA: “To see an old beau …”

But I return later to find my mother desperate:

BEA: “I’ve been having an awful time. I have to ask you to help me. I’m in a troubled condition, and I’m not out of it yet. I have to get the baby here.”

ME: “Which baby?”

BEA: “I want both of them in the same place. I have to have both of them in the same place because people are complaining. It is extremely painful to me. I have to have people understand. The point is they want me to come and take the baby -”

ME: “Which baby?”

BEA: “I’m beside myself.”

ME: “How can I help you?”

BEA: “As you know I will die shortly. I’m going to be 100 years old.”

ME: “97.”

BEA: “197?”

ME: “97.”

BEA: “I want to get these two people to cooperate and take the baby with them because they are very strongly not wanting the baby. They can only care for their own baby.”

ME: “Do I know them?”

BEA: “Of course you do!”

ME: “Can you tell me their names?”

I propose several baby names. My mother indicates her concern is for the baby born to her niece Dotty in 1953.

I explain how grateful teenage Dotty was that her aunt took her into our home in Washington, DC. It now occurs to me that my mother’s early abortion made her uniquely placed to shepherd Dotty through the experience of an untimely pregnancy. I am about to say the baby is grown up now when Bea interrupts:

BEA: “I want someone else to go talk to them. They are not taking no for an answer. I see their point of view. They have to get the baby to somebody else. I think you must understand that I cannot cope with this anymore. They’re breaking my heart. Can you call and find out for me?”

ME: “Who should I call?”

BEA: “You must have her number. Tell them you cannot have anybody else’s baby but your own. They want you to come and take the baby. I’m dying over this.”

I reassure Bea that the baby has become a fine young woman, that her adoptive mother went out of her way to bring Beth up according to the instructions Dotty provided, that she had art lessons, piano lessons. I find the email Dotty’s youngest daughter Ellen sent after reading the blog August 24 and read out loud:

“I think the time with you all in DC was the best of the worst for her. She always credited Aunty Bea with things going as well as they could with the adoption etc. so I don't know perhaps if there were things we weren't ever told? She basically always made it sound like she had Aunty Bea to thank for Beth’s life … From what my mom told us there were papers she was allowed to fill out describing what kind of parents she thought would be best suited for her baby and adding information about the mother and father’s background. Perhaps that's what Bea is thinking of ...”

Dotty’s youngest sister Margot also responded to the August 24th blog and adds another piece to the puzzle: “I found the part about Dotty going to the National Gallery very poignant. Dotty always loved beautiful things. I am glad she was able to experience some beauty in what must have been a ghastly time for her. Did you know I didn't find out about Beth until I was 23???”

Dotty named her baby Damaris because she knew the name would make it easier to find her later on. Beth emails, “Damaris was not just an unusual name, but was the name of a girl in the book Dot was reading who was pregnant with an illegitimate child....”

I cannot help but wonder if Bea was not responsible for Dotty’s reading material. American society condemned untimely pregnancies in the early fifties. Bea's anxiety attack indicates what a traumatic episode Dotty's pregnancy and Beth's adoption must have been for the entire family …

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Hunger Pangs

“I just made some nice vegetable soup,” I tell Bea to entice her to eat. “It has got leaks from the garden. And potatoes from the garden. And – ”

“Ice cream from the garden? …”

Yes, ice cream has become Bea’s favorite food. Day merges into night for those who sleep round the clock, and regular meals can become problematic. Elderly stomachs still growl when a person gets hungry. They just don’t growl according to schedule.

Over the past six months, Bea has come up with many different ways to communicate she needs nourishment. Here are some of my favorites:

1.) “I don’t feel well enough to do anything, so somebody else will have to make dinner.”

Translation: “I’m hungry.”

2.) “We have to go to a restaurant for somebody”

Translation: “I’m hungry.”

3.) “Couldn’t we have Sven make some of that nice cereal for your bed & breakfast guests?”

Bea wants porridge, not cream of wheat, for breakfast.

4.) “Can you help Martin to get lunch?”

Translation: Bea wants food.

5.) “Are you hungry?”

Translation: “I’m hungry.”

6.) “I’ll open my mouth and you put something in it.”