I learned from my great aunt JoAnn that despite what girls are told, being good and beautiful is not what it takes to win you a spot as the most loved.
Well into her seventies, my great aunt could become teary eyed and bitter over the loss of her name. We sat at her Frank Lloyd Wright inspired home on Mercer Island one Sunday afternoon as she told us she had recently uncovered her original birth certificate. A tall, striking woman who would not have looked out of place hanging out at Hyannis Port, she handed us an innocuous looking piece of paper confirming the family rumor that she had been born Katharine Coyle. However, at age three, when her sister was born, her parents had decided that their new, yellow haired, blue-eyed baby looked more like a Katie, so three year old Katie grew into four year old JoAnn.
Despite this legerdemain of parental betrayal, decades later, primary responsibility of caring for her aging parents fell on the brown haired, brown eyed beauty, JoAnn, a role that she took quite seriously. Her older sister, Mary Evelyn, my grandmother, named after her mother, had grown up to be a mentally ill alcoholic, and Katie, the younger, grew up to be, at least it was rumored, a thief. Katie appeared and particular heirlooms disappeared. Only JoAnn, and her brother, the youngest and once “surprise baby” of the family, Joey, took an active interest in ensuring that their aging mother’s life remained comfortable after the death of their father.
My great uncle Joey was a banker and a person with a complex, sophisticated life. He accompanied the U.S. rowing team to more than one Olympics game, and he had a life partner whom he may or may not have secretly married in Mexico in the late 1980’s. My grandmother, the alcoholic who once put out a cigarette on one of her daughters’ arms, claimed no small amount of social-moral umbrage after his rumored marriage, and Joey’s husband, a second grade teacher from Canada who had been a regular at family holidays for years, tragically, or possibly voluntarily, faded into the background.
But JoAnn was hiring me to spend time with my great grandmother, Evelyn, three days a week because she needed a little more time to herself, and at 100 years old, Evelyn’s health was “failing.” I was in my twenties, and had recently returned from working as an English teacher in South Korea and backpacking around China and Southeast Asia. Coming back into American society, I’m not sure I’ve yet really adjusted. I could still see in my mind’s eye the red turbaned pilgrims doing fully body prostrations in front of the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. I had come back to the states and taken a job in data processing and developed carpal tunnel syndrome so severe that I needed to use both hands to lift a yogurt container. In other words, I was hopeless, but this was a perfect job because, like everyone else, I adored Evelyn, who even at one hundred, still liked to be called “mom” because “grandma” made her feel too old.
“I’ll leave a key at the front desk,” JoAnn told me.
* * * *
When I arrived in the mornings, Evelyn always sat fully dressed in her chair in the corner, beside a window that overlooked a garden quadrangle below. She would hold that morning’s newspaper in her lap. Her condominium had a view overlooking the Puget Sound in the distance and the Cascade Mountains.
Evelyn had been born in 1898, the daughter of a shipping magnate in Bellingham, Washington. Family legend claimed she never dressed herself without a maid’s assistance until her honeymoon. Yet she had married a civil servant, a man ten years her senior, and a former employee of her father, when she was a relative old maid of twenty-six. The crisscrossed pattern of haves and have-nots in my family tends to be one of extremes. Mary, in a letter she had once written to my grandfather early in their marriage, proclaimed rather baldly, “your sisters are maids, I had a maid.” Other than not being true, it seemed all the more ironic as she appeared to be using the accident of her mother’s birth as a reason for her atrocious housekeeping skills. In fact, two subsequent generations, at least on our side, of poverty, unemployment and sometimes squalor could not begin to rub out the shared luster from stories of Evelyn’s grand childhood.
“Scrumptious.” Glancing up, I had just realized that in a moment of absent-mindedness I’d added a can of water to a soup that didn’t require water. She’s one hundred, I thought, and maybe by this age your taste buds can’t warn you that your soup lacks flavor. But Evelyn knew how to be in a moment. She knew how to enjoy you. “Why do you think they’re so mad at him?” She asked me for the third time that morning. It wasn’t until later that I gave her credit for what a brilliant trick this was. She had a charming person’s talent for sensing what you most wanted to talk about, and beating you to it, but with more enthusiasm. With my mother, she spent hours discussing Christianity and children. We were surprised when one day JoAnn mentioned Evelyn’s passion for genealogy, not coincidentally, an important hobby of JoAnn’s. And with me she always brought up politics or travel. “Why are they mad at him?”
Him, was none other than Bill Clinton. Every morning we read about his impeachment hearings and hashed through the tabloid details. She always looked dissatisfied, as if she wanted to get to the bottom of the story behind the story, and couldn’t quite do it. That is to say, she mirrored my feelings exactly. “So what do you think?” I’d ask at the end as we drank our coffees, and each morning she would smirk just a little, crinkle her eyes.
“No one’s perfect.”
* * * *
A few years after this I would work with Alzheimer’s patients and develop what I call my big tent theory of human identity. Or, I think some people are only comfortable with that part of themselves that is conscious and chosen, say from age seven until they start to lose their memories. But what if our identities are big enough to encompass our time in the womb, or at age two, or after we’ve forgotten our own names? What if it is still ‘you’ but just in another, scarier context? Families probably find this theory most off-putting, but they forget sometimes their own investment. In families, especially, we tend to define people down to their appointed role. You are this, not that. We forget that with all of our original possibilities, many of us are this not that only by force of will, habit, or sometimes outright deception.
A Mormon woman I had worked with inspired this theory. Known by her children as a morally upright pillar of her community, they were all very disturbed when she began to say “shitdamnfuckgoddamn” in long strings after her brain began to suffer from the effects of Alzheimer’s. Her husband, whenever he visited, brought flowers, and he always checked to make sure that she was wearing her holy underwear that was two sizes too small and created red ugly gashes in her pale skin because he thought she needed to lose weight. We only forced her to wear them when he visited. “Shitgodamnfuckhellitalltofuck,” she said as he sat next to her on the bed. I’m sure, as he left, he was thinking, that’s not Helen. But what if it was? Helen, also, released by that disease, from being Helen?
This is all to say that when I think of Evelyn now I think of her losing her memory, but also of the colorful stories she began to tell in her late nineties, stories that we had never heard before.
One day my mother and I had taken her to a nearby doll museum, where it turned out that she was older than most of the dolls. On the way home she told us an amazing an probably apocryphal story of having been kidnapped as a young girl and held for ransom. She didn’t skimp on details; a man had grabbed her in his arms and taken off running. A letter had been sent demanding thousands of dollars. Or maybe these stories were more interesting as, while her peers seemed to be losing memories, she kept adding to hers. Another involved a crystal bead necklace she was extremely fond of. She claimed she’d been admiring it an a department store counter when a tall, dark haired gentleman had walked up and said, “ma’am, you should have that necklace,” and as she’d been leaving the store, hours later, a clerk had run up and handed her a wrapped package with the necklace inside, a gift from that mysterious gentleman.
Yet by the time I came to sit with her she had begun to doubt her ability to remember things. You could tell by a certain list of four items that she had written over and over again around the apartment, on the backs of phonebooks and on random slips of paper: purse, beads (the same she said she’d received from a stranger), crutch, keys. If she couldn’t remember the rest, she couldn’t afford to forget those four items.
One day as she sat in her chair by the window, a worried expression appeared on her face. “That man who said he’d always love me and he’d never leave me, was that my husband?”
She couldn’t remember.
* * * *
In April, three months after I’d begun to spend time with her, Evelyn had to be moved to the nursing home section of her building. At one hundred, no one could say she hadn’t maintained independence for longer than anyone expected.
Yet, is there any justice in love or in the way that family villains or heroines are written? She, who now sat in a bed of white sheets and blankets, her mind once agile at conversation, now muted and abstracted, had once opened her home to her favored child, her namesake, her alcoholic daughter, and her three children. She’d fed the girls dinner many nights when their mother couldn’t or wouldn’t, she urged them to call her “mom,” and begged them to refuse to cooperate with the police when the neighbors periodically called the authorities on their parents as they sometimes did. Myuncle, remembered years later what my mother and her sisters had forgotten; an incident that occurred while he and my aunt were newly married and living in Mary’s basement. Mary had become angry and used a lamp to break open her youngest daughter’s head, and when the police arrived, Evelyn was there, urging the girls not to press charges.
“Take care of your mother,” Evelyn had spent years begging my mother, even when she was a small girl of six and seven. “Take care of your mother.”
And yet, the heart wants what it wants.
Evelyn loved Mary.
And we all loved Evelyn.
* * * *
Mary was downstairs smoking when she died. Yes, I know, no fictional character should be written as I’ve written Mary. Where is her third dimension? Did she always lack empathy? Was she merely a rebel? An anarchist? And did I have to make her a smoker too? My brother called her a frustrated artist at her memorial service after she died. Maybe she was.
You are this not that.I was in the room when it happened; JoAnn, Joey, Katie and my mother had formed a sort of half circle around her bed when she seemed to stop breathing. My great uncle Joey, that ruddy-cheeked, stalwart and sometimes intimidating banker, knelt and kissed her fingers, the palms of her hands, her lips. There was a moment of so much quiet it no one wanted to break it. My mother gestured me, that as the youngest person in the room, it was my job to go downstairs and to tell Mary and to bring her upstairs. Outside the bougainvillea had begun to reach toward the window sill. Her one hundredth spring, I thought, as I backed up slowly, out of that room.