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The George H. Nettleton Home, Auntie’s final home

Chapter 28: Gram and Auntie

Bessie and Nettie had a letter box beside their front door. Twice when Bessie stepped out onto her porch to get the mail, somebody came up behind her, knocked her down, and ran off with her letters, probably hoping to get her social security check. Mary Ellen told the sisters their neighborhood had changed and wasn’t safe anymore. They brushed her off. Wouldn’t hear of moving. Mother enlisted my sister to help persuade them. Nettie got nasty. She didn’t trust Mary Ellen. She didn’t trust anyone. Everyone was trying to take advantage of her. Mother told her off.

They finally worked it out. Mary Ellen sold their house for them and found them an apartment farther south. Stopping by one day to see how they were doing, she found Bessie in the kitchen leaning over the sink. Her nose was bleeding—had been all morning. Blood had coagulated in the drain, stopping it up. Self-reliantly, she had pinched her nose shut. That hadn’t worked. So she had stuffed rags up her nostrils. It went right on bleeding. She was leaning over the sink in order not to make a mess, complaining irritably that she was getting dizzy.

Mary Ellen told her she was going to the hospital.

Bessie told her pushy daughter to leave her alone and go home.

“It’s jist a nosebleed. This ain’t none a yer business.”

Mary Ellen lost it. She was not a child. She was 64 years old. Her mother couldn’t talk to her like that. This was a serious matter. Nettie left her stamp collection spread out on the dining room table and came into the kitchen to see what was going on.

An intern in the emergency room stopped the nosebleed. Later Mary Ellen took the old ladies to a doctor for a checkup. He told her privately that they were both senile and that any court would make her their guardian any time she wished.

Mary Ellen wasn’t up to that. Not yet.

In those days, nursing homes were “mom and pop” operations of widely varying quality. Mary Ellen finally found one that was satisfactory and moved Bessie into it. Then she and Herb went off to visit my brother in Tuxedo, New York.

While they were gone, Bessie kicked out a window screen, climbed over a wall, and escaped. Once she was out, she had no place to go. But like her daughter, she wanted to “go places.”

They caught her before she reached the highway.

The next morning she fell and broke her hip. The manager of the home phoned Mary Ellen to tell her that her mother was in the hospital. He said she would need two full-time nurses from then on.

My parents hurried home. But before they could get there, Gram died.

Nettie declined more gracefully. She had more money than Bessie and could afford the membership fee charged by the Nettleton Home. It was more like a sorority house for elderly ladies than a contemporary nursing home. Surrounded by a mini-park, it was a gigantic version of an English country house. But since it was built in the Midwest before air-conditioning, it had dramatically high ceilings and enormous verandahs.

When Nettie complained of a stomachache and ran a fever, the home’s supervisor sent her to a hospital. The doctor sent her back with a note saying that she was all right physically but was totally disoriented and confused. This confused the supervisor, because Nettie hadn’t been confused when she left. The supervisor asked Nettie what had happened. Nettie wouldn’t discuss it.

After making inquiries, the supervisor learned that Nettie had complained so much about her “problems” and had been so persuasive that the doctor had decided to do a pelvic exam. Never in all her 91 years had Nettie ever even heard of a pelvic exam.

She didn’t scream. (A lady “don’t” make an exhibition of herself.) But she kept repeating with urgent, genteel hysteria, “He’s raping me! He’s raping me!”

Nobody listened. She was old and didn’t know what was good for her. He was young and a doctor, so he was sure that he did. He didn’t find anything wrong with her, but he left her convinced that she’d been raped. Three years later when she was 94, her “weak heart” finally gave out.