09 October 2006


I'm done with the word "old". To the best of my ability, I'm going to try to avoid it. It's a judgement, it's a distancing and a defense mechanism, it's unfair.

Case in point: two people I am proud to call my friends: Dorothy and Linwood. They have never met, but they have this in common: they are nonagenarians. Linwood's 92, and Dot is 95. They live in opposite corners of the same state.

Linwood is a retired station agent for the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad. Before he began his railroad career, he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps (yes, the CCC!) during the Depression, and he also served in the U.S. Army during World War II. The words I would use to describe Linwood are humility, grace, vast practical knowledge, and deep kindness. He's my 2nd cousin once removed: his grandmother's brother was my great-grandfather. In my mind's eye, he's in his kitchen, which is really his mother's kitchen. Very little has changed in that house since his birth...just that it's a little disheveled now in a bachelor way. He welcomes you in, anyhow, and carefully shares stories of his life and his town. Never sappy or long-winded...just brings his community to life with simple descriptions. I do the genealogy, and he tells me of the personalities behind the names, the relationships, the houses they owned, the losses they experienced. He doesn't tire of company, and I've never been bored in his presence, either.

When I saw him last month, I said, "You should come visit us down on the Island, Linwood!" (This is where his CCC work was conducted, and I know he has vivid memories of those times.) "No," he said easily. "I don't leave here now. My traveling is done." The serenity in his voice when he said that to me was inspiring. And it made me hug him a little harder, when we said goodbye. I only wish I lived closer.

Dot lived next door to us before we moved onto the Island in 1996. She had been in her home since the 1950s, never had children, and her husband died many years ago. Much as with Linwood, Dot's home remained as it had been when two people lived there. Her living room was anchored by a sturdy grand piano that her husband had played in his lifetime. "Oh, he played beautifully," Dot would say, and you knew by the look on her face that she could hear it as she said it--and that she still admired Robert, her life-partner and friend. The piano was like having him in the room, sitting alongside us companionably.

Her living room had a well-worn teddy bear which was fair game for all young guests to hold and play with, and a dark-wood cabinet full of vintage, much-read children's books. We've spent many afternoons filling her downstairs, the six of us, and she's always welcomed our noisy presence. We could still have a deep conversation around the clamor of children, and she never flinches when they take a corner too fast and veer near some knickknacks. Plus, she always demonstrates her heirloom cuckoo clock, cast-iron piggy bank with the trick cannon, windup dancing Scotsman in a bottle...what kid isn't fascinated by those things?

I have talked to Dot about absolutely everything: my mom's illness, my children's issues at school, tough moments at my job, religious beliefs, happenings in our community, you name it. The insights she has provided me, the alternate outlooks, have been a blessing in hard times. And when things go right, when something's achieved...she magnifies that joy. Sometimes she tells about her girlhood in Pennsylvania, where she was one of many daughters and just one brother. Often we talk about the influence of parents on children...her own remembered example as vivid as the ones rambling around in her downstairs rooms.

Dot's descriptors: welcoming, wise, compassionate, spiritual. Well-read without being stuffy. Disdains medicines whenever she can, preferring to rely on her own five senses without blunting them, to know whether she's healthy or not. Dot has soft, silky white hair that she wears long, usually braided. Her face crinkles in a smile, more often than not. And knowing, kindly blue eyes. She shares that with Linwood, too.

Last Thursday night, I picked up our weekly local paper. I usually don't read it, but something made me dive in. I felt like I should catch up, maybe. And where I least expected it, I got news that made me utter, "Oh no, oh no...." That was in the real-estate section. New Listing: an address, a house photo, a description. God, I know that house. My heart knows it. Still, I checked the address to be sure. It's Dot's.

Tonight, at dusk, we were up in Dot's town...our former town. We drove down her street and pulled into her driveway. Noted the accursed For Sale sign on the lawn. I was nursing a hope that Dot had made this choice herself; that she was still residing there while potential buyers deliberated. Charming them in conversation, during the inevitable open house. That hope was dashed as I approached her back door. Through the kitchen window, I could see clear to the other side. Wan sunset light streamed into an empty kitchen. I could see the floor. Everything was gone.

I turned and faced her backyard, tears welling. There was her garden, Dot's pride and joy. She and a handyman maintained this paradise every year. Forget-me-nots, roses, asters, cosmos, and many other flowers whose names I could not recall, though Dot knew them all. My kids walked these little pathways many times. So have Dot and I. Sometimes she would take my arm lightly as we walked, and I was glad to protect her for just that little time. It was the least I could do in return for all the acceptance and love she had given me.

Dot has family elsewhere and she may well be with them...I don't know yet. But what I do know is that the garden was wearing autumn colors of brown and grey, and muted green. Plants were bent and shriveled, flowers spindly and seedy, trees nearly bare. A birdhouse sat forlornly in the middle...Dot loved her bird visitors. As I walked away, the garden felt as empty as the house. The spirit was gone from it.

I got back to the van, slid into my seat, shared the terrible news. Then Zoe exclaimed from the back seat, pointing at the windshield: "Look! One of her favorites--up there!"

On the slope of Dot's roof was perched a bluejay, almost a silhouette against the sky save for the white markings on its back. I held my breath while I looked at it, this astonishing sign. Before I was ready, it twitched its tail merrily, half-turned, and flew away.

UPDATE, October 10, 2006

Thank you so much to everyone who commented on last night's blog. I was comforted and heartened by your words.

In true smalltown style, I found out about Dot's situation this afternoon. You see, when we lived next door to Dot in the '90s, we were renting. Our landlord from those days is now my daughter's chemistry teacher at the high school. So today, Zoe asked him what happened. It's the best possible scenario: Dot's in an assisted living center, right here in our region. Evidently the family decided she was too unsteady on her feet to stay alone in her home anymore. While I'm sure this turn of events has made my friend sad, I am relieved that someone is helping her out and keeping her safe. And I hope to visit her soon and hear what she thinks about this new chapter in her life.

I thought I would share a few photos to accompany the blog, since you responded with such warmth and enthusiasm. Here is a photo of Dot and me from 2003. We're standing in her homey kitchen, and she's holding one of the many exquisite plants she nurtured there:

As Linwood is my cousin, I have gathered many wonderful images of him as part of my genealogy work. (Last summer I brought a scanner to his kitchen, balanced it on the old stove with my trusty iMac alongside, and we scanned our way through his life story!) Here is Linwood as a young boy in his hometown of Eagle Lake:

I so want to know him in his young-boy days! He looks by turns impish and unusually thoughtful.

This is Linwood during his tenure in the Civilian Conservation Corps, circa 1934:

A dashing serviceman during World War II:

And last year, when I did all the scanning, I also took this photo of him. (He built all of the cabinetry you see behind him, when he came home from the war.)

Interestingly, a good friend of mine just returned from a celebration in Massachusetts: her great-aunt Rose's 100th birthday party. I wish I could show you a picture of Rose, who looked beautiful, poised, and completely unsurprised to be 100 years old. There are so many fascinating stories out there waiting to be told by the elders we love....

UPDATE II, October 22, 2006: Our Visit with Dot

Yesterday our whole family piled into a tiny room at an eldercare facility and enjoyed an hour with our dear friend Dot. It truly was the smallest room I've ever seen in such a facility...and that's saying a lot, because I've visited far too many loved ones in long-term care facilities over the years. It required an instantaneous readjustment: from Dot who lives in the stately lifetime home with the grand piano, to Dot in an embryonic space with dozens of photos around her, three plants, four stuffed animals, and a TV. And the requisite hospital bed, which Dot is evidently confined to, now. I didn't have the heart to ask her, but she seems to be bed-and wheelchair-bound.

My next jolt was her hair, which has been shorn to a bob and has lost its characteristic white softness. Another fact which I filed away silently.

In no way did these conditions reflect on her sunny, welcoming face. It was as though the woes of her body were floating away from her sweet personality--disconnected. Three of us sat on her bed, three jammed into a side chair. The younger kids fooled around with her teddy bear and stuffed kitty, and the rest of us shared news of our worlds. Dot marveled that we have two high schoolers now, and that the kids have such diverse interests. Zoe brought out her ever-present sketchbook and showed recent work—emotionally immediate images of young people with big anime eyes. Dot loved it. We drew Dot's attention to some of her photos, and she told us stories of various relatives and friends. Meanwhile, Zoe feverishly began sketching the oldest photo in the room: Dot's two older sisters and her only brother as preschoolers, attired in turn-of-the-century white garments with dark stockings and laced-up ankle boots.

Dot was fully cognizant of everything except the passage of time--she is not at all certain of how long she has been at the facility, nor did she recollect our last visit to her home in July 2006. With her world limited to this space and a couple of common rooms, I imagine the pattern of day-to-night-to-day feels entirely optional. This does not seem to bother her, which increases my admiration for her even more. Really, she seems to feel safe and enveloped in this place...like the next stop on a journey, nothing more, nothing less. So many homes like this have crocheted afghans all around them...that would be the symbolic representation of how she's feeling: warmly protected.

At one point, Lydia's newfound interest in playing piano came up. "Lydie," I said, "do you remember the big piano Dot had in her living room?" I could have clapped my hand over my mouth as soon as I'd finished--what the hell did I say that for?!--but I stayed rigid, waiting.

"Oh," Dot said immediately, "I sold the grand piano, you know."

"...oh?" I answered in a stammer.

"Yes, it's west of the Mississippi now," she said airily, as if to say, imagine that!, and we all laughed.

Dignity without stuffiness. Belief without dogma. Femininity without a second's fuss. Graciousness personified. As we prepared to leave, she said, "You can come back as often as you'd like. Please do!"

And I need to correct my previous entry: this incredible, serene woman is nearly 98 years old.

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