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Chapter 30: Mary Ellen

Mary, who had been staying with Mary Ellen, phoned me in New York to say that my mother was never going to “be ready” to move. I took a plane to Kansas City the next morning.

The day I arrived, Mary Ellen, who had been on oxygen for weeks, woke up barely able to breathe. We called 911. The doctors took X-rays.

“How many years did she smoke?”

“She never smoked.”

“Hum,” he said, raising his eyebrows.

I almost asked, “Don’t you think I’d know if my own mother smoked?” but I didn’t. He was the expert and if he wanted to believe that she had smoked before I was born or in the bathroom while I was growing up, there was nothing I, a mere layman, could say to dissuade him. The lung specialists consulted with each other, then one of them told us that they’d done all they could and said Mary Ellen would die shortly. She was 93.

We had her delivered to a nursing home. She didn’t want to go. “Put me out there on the curb!” She was not hysterical. She was simply furious. She knew exactly what she thought of everyone. We were all stupid, greedy, selfish, and incompetent. She wanted to die, immediately. Right now!

This was the woman who had tottered around on her kitten heels twittering about Mr. Robin on the lawn and Mr. Trash waiting to be taken out. But that was merely her surface self. On a more authentic level, she was the descendant, through Hannah, of ruthless border reivers. Her sugary “Bye-n-bess-oos” veiled the soul of a Cumberland captain— something her children had always sensed, but had never been able to pin down. She trusted no one but herself. And now even her own body had betrayed her.

“What good am I?”

It wasn’t a real question. She didn’t want me to give her a “stupid” answer. She knew the answer. “No good at all.”

I inherited some of her ruthlessness and for years had regarded her as a blight on my life, so part of me wanted to wash my hands of her. But I had also inherited from her and from Herb a contradictory but even stronger sense of loyalty and obligation. So I ignored her accusations and her tirades about how I was taking advantage of her by not doing her bidding.

A doctor prescribed serotonin. He said people lose serotonin in situations that sap their self-esteem, like the death of a spouse. As her serotonin level rose, Mother did regain control of herself. But I was under no illusion that the drug had “cured her” of the bitterness, suspicion, and fury that her temporary lack of control had revealed. They were still there—as they had been for most of her life. All that drug did was restore her ability to conceal them. I was grateful for that much.

Her mother and grandmother had taught her that a worthless person had no right to exist. To be “worth” something, a person had to give orders or carry them out. She could do neither. So why was she still alive? However, by “simply existing” she was good for more than she thought, at least to me. I got to know her in a new way during the years she was in that nursing home. It took a while for me to see this, but had she been able to will herself dead when she was demanding to be put out on the curb, I would have missed a lot. I looked up “Flammonde,” a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson that I vaguely remembered and vaguely thought said something pertinent. The last stanza includes the following:

We cannot know how much we learn
From those who never will return
Until a flash of unforeseen
Remembrance falls on what might have been.

After we moved Mother into the nursing home, the administrator set up a meeting for us with the dietitian, head nurse, entertainment planner, physical therapist, and billing specialist.

“Do you have any questions?”

We asked our questions.

Then the entertainment planner asked me a question, “What’s she like?”

I tried to think what to say, but I had misunderstood. What he was asking was what kind of television did she like?

“She doesn’t watch television.”

I saw he didn’t believe me. Everybody watches television! But not Mary Ellen. Herb watched the news and sometimes a football game or a documentary, and she sometimes sat with him as he watched, but she always had some sewing on her lap and that was what she focused on. She was in control of her sewing.

And of her reading. While reading, she didn’t have to sit back and “let go” the way a person does when listening to music or watching a movie. She read Unity pamphlets, the Bible, and techno-thrillers like Red October.

The staff at the home all wore name tags—first names only. There are no last names in a world without a past. Anyhow, first names are friendlier, aren’t they? But to address those you don’t know by their first name is a way of diminishing them. It denies their difference, their strangeness—and the need to respect them. Friendliness that isn’t earned or negotiated is a form of indifference.

The staff couldn’t even get Mary Ellen’s first name right. They kept calling her “Mary.” We told them she didn’t like being called Mary—that no one had ever called her just “Mary” in her whole life.

They agreed to call her Mary Ellen. But they never managed to do so. Whenever I phoned or went to see her, I would ask for Mary Ellen and they would say, “Who? Oh, you mean Mary,” as if I didn’t know my own mother’s name.

Back at the Atrium after Herb was taken to a nursing home, Mary Ellen started carrying her best pieces of jewelry around with her. She kept them in a bag in her purse and liked to finger them. Had I known, I would have tried to persuade her to put them in a safe-deposit box, but I’m sure I would have been unsuccessful. Carrying them around made her feel better. Each one brought a story to mind—stories no one else knew. Before long, of course, they were lost or stolen.

The jewels were valuable, but police didn’t exert themselves. I could see their point. What did we expect in a place like this? We thought we’d learned a lesson. So when we moved Mary Ellen to the nursing home, we were careful not to put anything valuable in her closet or in the drawers of her bureau. But we discovered we needed to redefine “valuable” to include even new sweaters. Nothing of any value was safe in that clean, well-lighted place. And what wasn’t lost was ruined in the laundry.

Back in New York after a trip to Kansas City, I was ranting about the shortcomings of Mary Ellen’s “five-star” nursing home as I sorted the mail that had accumulated while we were gone. Scanning the annual report of a mutual fund we had some money in, I stopped talking. It had a sizable position in the company that owned and operated Mary Ellen’s nursing home. So Mary and I, in a very small way, were among its owners!

Mother grew weaker. It looked like the doctors who told us she didn’t have long to live were right. Then a nurse wheeled her over to the assisted-living wing of the home, showed her the rooms, and explained that if she could dress herself and walk to her meals without assistance, she could have a room of her own and decorate it as she pleased.

In 24 hours, Mary Ellen’s breathing returned to normal. She cast her oxygen aside, rose from her wheelchair, and walked over to the assisted-living wing.

She lived over there for more than a year. One of the staff told me, quite sincerely, I think, “We just love her. She’s so gracious—so charming.”


“But she’s a very private person, isn’t she?”

“Yes. Very private.”

“Well, you can see that she’s always been fairly well-to do.”


Mother’s air of graciousness drew people to her, while her polite self-reliance held them off, which only made her seem more attractive to many people. So in the end, she was a version of one of those mysterious “ladies” back in England that her grandmother had so envied, feared, and scorned.

Finally Mary Ellen grew too weak to walk to the dining room and was taken back to “the other side.” She detested being moved back there but was too weak to object. Over the next few months, she lost her sight. Apparently she had been suffering from glaucoma for some time. Its progress can be slowed with treatment, but although the home’s very laid-back doctor repeatedly examined her, he missed it. And just as Gram didn’t think her nosebleed was any of her daughter’s business, Mary Ellen probably didn’t think her eyesight was any of that doctor’s business. I doubt if she ever complained about it.

My sister, brother, and I urged her to accept a radio or a tape player, but listening to music didn’t interest her. We told her about audio books, but being read to didn’t interest her, either.

“I like to be the boss of my own thoughts.”

She took to her blindness with a serenity that amazed us. Sensing me moving around her bed, she would say that I was looking good or tired. At first I asked, “Can you see me, Mother?” thinking that perhaps she could still see shadows. Instead of answering, she asked me to send her photographs of her great-grandchildren.


Mary asked me if I thought my mother realized she was blind.

I think she knew she couldn’t see, but she wasn’t willing to admit that she was blind. She was just resting her eyes. To her, her “self” was something that was in control of something. No control, no “self.” So, living among strangers and too weak to feed herself, she retreated to the last area she could control—her mind. She understood her situation but found it unpleasant, so she ignored it as much as possible. She lived on memories and imagination.

I often found her in the nursing home’s “recreation area.” She would be in her wheelchair, parked in front of a television set, along with a dozen other residents, also in wheelchairs. The staff put them there before and after each meal. Some of the old people would be moaning or babbling. Most were sagging this way or that in their chairs— gazing owlishly in different directions. No one would be watching the television screen where young, healthy, legally sane contestants were bouncing for joy at the prospect of winning a dinette set.

The bizarreness of this scene was lost on the staff. They had “reasons” for parking the old people there. “It’s our staging area. It gives them something to do.”

My mother didn’t care. As she told me at least a thousand times, “Son, it’s all in your mind.”