Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Life and Death of an Important Person

About three weeks ago, on July 19, 2005, my grandmother, Rheta Sollick Johnson West, died in a nursing home in Waverly, New York. She had been sick with congestive heart failure and had been taking morphine to ease the pain and oxygen to help her breathe. My mother worried that she was going to slowly suffocate from the blood that wasn’t being pumped from her lungs, and certainly her suffering was nothing to sneeze at. Nevertheless, instead of gradually suffocating, Grama suffered a sudden collapse of all her systems. So she died quickly. The nursing home called my mother somewhere around 11:00, but my grandmother didn’t last more than five minutes after my mother arrived even though my mother only lived 300 yards away. My grandmother, always Grama to me, was an extraordinary woman in the “ordinary” situations of struggling single mother, wife, grandmother, and caretaker to her friends and neighbors. Her tenacity, determination, and energy allowed her to get through the hardest of times and grow in the grace of good spirits, warmth, generosity, and caring for others. This is what my equally extraordinary mother inherited from her. After my grandmother could no longer care for herself, my mother took her in and cared for her and tended to her for almost fifteen years. That kind of patience and tenacity is not as rare as we’re led to believe, but it is still invaluable.

Raised on a dairy farm outside the crossroads settlement of Camptown, PA, in the northern Poconos, my grandmother married Merkur Johnson in her late teens, lived with him on another dairy farm, and had four children of whom my mother Marlene was third. Born in 1913 and married around 1932 or 1933, my grandmother had a Depression family. But by 1938, Merkur had had enough and abandoned them just as my father’s mother would abandon my father’s family in 1942. In fact, Merkur stayed in jail rather than support his children. Merkur Johnson is almost a blank to me. He eventually moved to Syracuse and ran a tavern while keeping up with my family through the newspapers and his contacts in Waverly. He actually showed up uninvited to my sister Jyl’s wedding in 1978, but Grama’s second husband was the only person who recognized him. Myself, I only saw Merkur once, in the nursing home while I was visiting Grama. As fate would have it, they ended up in the same nursing home at the same time, completely unaware of the presence of the other. But Merkur was asleep when I stopped by his room. So I never spoke to him in person. He had a reputation as a distant man—even his family said that they didn’t know him well-- and he ended up purposefully starving himself to death at the age of 89 rather then continuing to live in the nursing home.

Soon after Merkur’s departure, my grandmother followed the well-worn path of leaving the farm for towns and factories. She moved about 25 miles to the towns of Sayre and Athens, PA in the “Valley” formed by the coming together of the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers, and started to work in the Blue Swan textile mill. With help from her family, a friendly butcher who donated meat, and others, Grama raised her family through first the Depression and then WWII. This took a powerful vitality and forcefulness and her determination showed in all of her pictures as a young mother. In the picture I remember best, Grama’s brown hair was pulled up and she was looking into the distance with what could best be described as a “steely gaze.” She was a good-looking woman who nobody would want to cross. Even my mother, who endured a number of beatings from my father to get her point across, never crossed my grandmother and would get up at 4am to travel just because my grandmother said so.

My grandmother’s story started to get happier during the war. She took up with a divorced soldier and bricklayer named Wayne West and married him after the war was over. Wayne (hereafter “Pop”) was a hard-drinking, hard-working man who fought with Patton in the Battle of the Bulge and who had a permanent aura of sweetness, affability, and happiness about him. He was a born grandfather. While going through some of my grand-mother’s pictures, Pop casually mentioned that he had saved her life and I imagine that he was right. They had a good life together. Sometime after my grandmother’s youngest son, my Uncle Raymond, graduated from high school and started working at Ingersoll-Rand, her and Pop moved from the “Valley” to Northern New York and settled in a trailer on Rt. 11 between Canton and Potsdam. The four colleges in the area were undergoing a dramatic expansion and Pop had plenty of work from the spring to the fall and good unemployment checks to keep them going through long North Country winters. They kept in close touch with my grandmother’s family as her children married and had their own kids. When I was young, the three oldest of the grandchildren (myself, my younger brother Vic, and cousin Alan) stayed with Grama and Pop for two or three weeks at a time. Jyl and Ryl and the twins Kim and Kay stayed for shorter periods as did Uncle Donald’s and Uncle Raymond’s kids. Pop was a skilled bricklayer who could handle most masonry jobs and he and Grama rarely argued about anything except his drinking and even that source of friction diminished over time as Pop stopped going to bars and stopped getting drunk. Pop’s primary demand on Grama was heavy meals of meat, potatoes, and gravy every night and he had a belly to show that those demands were met. Grama and Pop were pleasantly fat, sociable, and lived easily with each other and the world even though they saw its troubles plainly. Now that globalization has given employers such an upper hand, this kind of good life is available to a more and more narrow group. It would be progress if more people could live this way again.

Grama and Pop lived a sit-com life without the pratfalls. Being happy, getting along easily, having good-natured-friends—this was something I craved as a child and have always tried to build into my life. Grama and Pop were the only examples of this kind of living that I knew outside the family sit- coms that I so eagerly watched. The Dick Van Dyke Show, Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, and I Love Lucy all modeled a life that I wanted to have but could not see in the chaos and tension of my abusive, unloving, insanely jealous father, my harried mother, and my seven brothers and sisters. Grama and Pop were the only people I knew who actually lived this way and I’ve always tried to recreate the easy familiarity of their lives in my own little world. There are even times when I think it works.

Leaving farming and leaving the valley came at a price for Grama though. Even when she was well into her 70’s, Grama would drive through the countryside with me, look at the cows in the rocky North Country fields, and talk about how she had always wanted to own a dairy farm and always wanted to milk cows every morning. Her and Pop built a happy life but it didn’t mean quite as much to her as the warmth of the cows she knew as a young woman.

I didn’t know that until I was well into my thirties. I also never saw the care that Grama gave to the older people in her neighborhood as they got older. First, Ethel and her husband died, then the Whites who owned the store at the corner, then the woman who lived in the trailer, and finally some other women that I didn’t know. None of this happened during our summer visits, but we knew that Grama nursed all of these old folks all the way from the time that they stopped being able to care for themselves until their deaths. I not only did not see, but did not understand. My mother was 19 when I was born and only one of her friends has died even though I’m 51 now. It’s only been since my mother started taking care of Grama that I’m getting an idea of the strength and the commitment that it took my grandmother to nurse many of her older friends as their health failed. But I realize now that developing the strength to nurse her older friends was the primary way in which my grandmother grew as a middle-aged woman. It was a noble thing. When Grama’s own mind began to slip into depression and Alzheimer’s in 1990, one of the saddest things about her decline was that there was nobody like her in the neighborhood to help her out the way that she had helped many others. It turned out that my mother was the only one who had the emotional strength, patience, and loving generosity that my grandmother had so matter-of-factly found in herself. And it was my mother who took my grandmother in and my mother who looked after her everyday in the nursing home until she died. I don’t know how my mother feels, but this is where my mother shows herself as a true daughter. On the day my grandmother died, I told my mom that any mother would be proud of the way my mom had cared for my grandmother. I guess I should have emphasized that her mother would have been proud too.

Grama was six years older than Pop, but he aged more quickly than her. He died suddenly from a massive heart attack at age 66 and before Grama had any gray hair on her head. Pop’s diet certainly contributed to his early death, but bricklaying is hard manual labor because of the heaviness of the bricks and the awkwardness of the positions in which bricklayers handle them. Pop talked about how many of his bricklaying friends died within a year of their retirement. And that’s what happened to him as well.

Vic, Alan, and I stopped going to visit Grama and Pop for such long stretches when we were twelve or thirteen. The trailer got a lot smaller as we hit puberty and fishing with Grama and Pop lost its allure as girlfriends, peer groups, and high school sports began to call. We saw them more often when they visited us over Christmas and during the summer holidays than up at their trailer. Vic and I still had an affection and trust in them that we hardly had for anyone else in the world, but Grama and Pop’s wasn’t a place in the same way it had been. However, this condition was only temporary for me. Anxious to get away from my father and his anger and turmoil, I started going back after my sophomore and junior years in high school. Gradually, Grama and Pop’s became a refuge for me away from my family and I visited them almost every time I came home from North Carolina or Michigan or Philadelphia. They even visited me once in Ann Arbor after Susan Thorne and I got married, something my parents never did. By the time Pop died, they were my closest relatives.

I didn’t visit my home town much in the decade that my grandmother was in the nursing home. I’ve always been reluctant to expose my daughters to either the tension of either my mother’s house or to my father (who still lives in Waverly). Driving eleven hours with two kids to be tense has never seemed very appealing or fruitful for me. Seeing my grandmother out of her mind with Alzheimer’s was also painful to the nth degree. But I know why she had such a long goodbye from the time she first showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s in 1990 to her death today. The same strikingly good health and vitality that kept her going during the Depression also kept her going after she could no longer care for herself, long after she started wondering why she just couldn’t die. I told my daughter Katie in the wake of my grandmother’s death that all of us human beings have weaknesses and that our weaknesses can cause enormous damage. I should have added that our strengths can also curse us. That’s what I feel happened with my grandmother. The physical strength that had blessed her life for 75 years became a curse after she started to develop Alzheimers. Good health just wouldn’t let her out of its grip.

The funeral services were simple and affecting. The Methodist minister came to my mother’s house to collect materials for her funeral sermon and we spent almost an hour telling stories about her. Then, at the funeral, I got to see my cousins from the Camptown area before we took Grama’s body to the French Azilum cemetery to be buried. The settlement of French Azilum was started by John Nicholson as a speculative scheme. Nicholson was a Philadelphia entrepreneur and partner of Robert Morris during the early 1790’s who still gets cited in history books because he failed for $6 million. But, he was neither as good nor as valuable a person as my grandmother Rheta West, a fact of history that’s important to remember.


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