Family Matters: Addendum to The Loneliness of Mary Ellen

After I published the first segment about Mary Ellen, a friend with a history background pointed out an interesting fact about medical costs in the mid to late forties here in Canada. At the time that my grandfather prevented my grandmother, Mary Ellen, from following a regimen of regular visits to the doctor’s office, it is highly likely that he had to pay for each visit as well as for any prescriptions required. I also remember that my grandmother never had money of her own. Each week they went to the grocery store together and he paid at the cash register. They also took with them the children’s wagon until they got an automobile. I remember Mary Ellen telling us one story when she had to go to the doctor after getting the groceries and she went to the upstairs office herself while my grandfather waited below on the main street (no doubt waited “anxiously”).

So the cost and considerable inconvenience of being ill would have been another burden to a man already loaded down with responsibility (they had four children). Early in their marriage they lived about half a mile from my grandfather’s employment and over a mile from his parents’ home. In their teens the two boys and one of the girls worked in textile factories and brought their money home on pay day to Mary Ellen and were given back a share as spending money. What she did with the money she never said: my mother passed on this story.

So when we consider the attitudes of our parents and grandparents, we must remember that the world they loved and lived in was not the same as the one we take so much for granted. Physical comfort and well being were not givens in their daily lives. Nor were classes or courses or even church meetings unless child care was easily available. My grandfather went weekly to a meeting downtown and also met with cronies at an Italian fresh fruit and vegetable store with a real pot bellied stove and with huge bunches of bananas in the window. Mary Ellen spent her time at home with the children. She made and cared for their clothes and preserved fruit and jams and pickles. My grandfather, Jack, wore work shirts and a tie every day so ironing was a major weekly chore.

I wish that I could see them sitting at their kitchen table in their house by the CPR railroad tracks or, later, in their upper apartment over the variety store operated by a man called Buggs whose name became synonymous with the store, talking about the day and/or the escapades of the children, or a financial crisis facing them. But I wonder if they ever did that….talk I mean about such mundane matters. Did he just worry and get migraines and did she just watch over the children and crochet trim for pillow cases or rip out trouser hems and extend them or iron two more shirts? They might have gone to church now and then but Jack had a disagreement with the minister and he wouldn’t attend after that and so she didn’t go either.

I wonder if she read when the children were at school or did she always sew and crochet and knit? I know when I was small my mother would go to John White and Company department store and study the store-bought clothes and then buy the material and my grandmother would make the outfit for myself or my cousins or my brother.  My brother had diamond socks and I was the first girl in elementary school to be sent to school in slacks with five pockets and I remember my mother having a talk with my Grade two teacher, Miss Richardson, who thought the slacks were just the greatest things for girls to wear to school.

Mary Ellen didn’t get to a public library so I wonder what or when she read. At my great grandmother’s house there were some old books on the bottom of a small desk but I think they belonged to a nephew of my grandfather. When my mother joined the Book of the Month club and brought home the occasional magazine (Ladies’ Home Journal perhaps) maybe that was when my grandmother gained access to books. She helped me with my homework and had endless patience listening to me recite poems: I remember in Grade Six learning to recite Pauline Johnson’s The Cattle Thief and she listened to that night after night after night. I realize now that she must have known it by heart too. Perhaps she recited it while she was ironing shirts and I was away at school. I like to think that this might have been so.Pauline Johnson

New Feature/Family Matters: The Loneliness of Mary Ellen

This is a new thread I am beginning today: something in a more personal vein and something I have been pondering during this memory-laden month of December. I have had cause to revisit my relationship with parents (only one in my case) and my grandparents (maternal) while thinking about what I actually learned from them. At certain ages I think we look back in different ways i.e. sometimes stories of interactions with particular persons, anger brought forward by such memories, particular sayings or actions we associate with individuals, grief at a loss, etc. I find now that I am passing the seven decades marker, I am starting to realize in more detail the inner lives of people who once took care of me and the similarities between their lives and my own.sunflower

Mary Ellen was my maternal grandmother. Her home is the only childhood residence that I retain a memory of since my mother lived there with my brother and me after she was divorced which I am guessing was in 1949 or 1950. She remarried in 1952 and my brother moved to another house with her and our stepfather. I chose to remain with my grandparents although I joined my mother and brother frequently on weekends and other occasions.

I wonder what it meant to my grandmother to have a divorced daughter and two grandchildren return to living in her home in the late 1940s? I know a little of her anger but I don’t know at whom it was directed. She would take me grocery shopping at the A & P where my aunt was a head cashier and we might see my paternal grandmother in the store. My grandmother would say to me: “Don’t turn around, your other grandmother is watching you.” She would be speaking harshly in warning tones. I have a picture of that grandmother in my head but there are no emotions attached to the picture.  My grandmother used to tell the milkman who went to school with my mother that she didn’t know how my mother could get remarried (she was seeing my stepfather at the time) because my mother didn’t know how to boil water.

I suppose that my grandmother was ashamed and embarrassed. Her other children were still married to their original partners. Happiness was not a factor that I was aware of when she spoke of any of them.

My grandfather was an anxious man: an anxiety that manifested itself in migraines. It was not unusual for him to spend entire evenings lying on the studio couch in the front porch (a closed in verandah) in the dark and going upstairs to the bedroom around 10 p.m. and not moving about at all until time to get up and go to work again in the morning.

My grandmother had type 2 diabetes diagnosed, I think, when I was in elementary school. She took insulin by injection and my grandfather administered this but perhaps he took that over later because I don’t recall seeing him do that when I was younger. There came a point where he would not take her to the doctor anymore.Mary Ellen 2 There must have been an argument at some time when I was not at home. She went without the medication and began to eat what she wanted including large quantities of ice cream. Then when I was in my early teens I became more aware and she began to experience blackouts and I had to know when to get her orange juice with sugar in it and call the doctor to come to the house. Eventually it was straightened out and it was then that my grandfather began to administer the injections in the mornings. My grandmother must have been in her early to mid-sixties them. The  uncared for diabetes and years of fine  needle work caused her eyesight to deteriorate to such a degree that she could not read in  her later years. During some of this period I was away at university, began to teach out of town and then got married and moved to Windsor.

My grandparents visited one time…they could never stay overnight because my grandfather was not able to do that. I had made an appointment for my grandmother to have her hearing tested and I did not tell my grandfather. They accompanied my husband and I to the appointment but when we returned home there was an extended and heated exchange. The gist of it was that he would not have anything to do with this and although my husband offered to pay for the hearing aids my grandfather put his foot down. For the first time ever, I received a letter from my grandmother several days later in which she stated that she would have to go along with his decision. She did not say why but, of course, it was not hard to deduce.

How discouraging and disappointed we were for Mary Ellen. There was, however, nothing we could do. We continued to visit often but nothing was ever said again about her hearing or any other health issue. She eventually became bedridden and was at home for several months but my grandfather would not allow any of the home care organizations to visit. My aunt went in daily and sometimes I went and stayed for several weeks at a time taking my wee girl with me. I once told my grandmother that I would be going back home to Chatham for awhile and I have never forgotten the conversation.

“Why?” she said.

“Because I need to be there to get proper meals and get the house in order etc.” I replied.

“No, ” she said, “you don’t need to be there.”

She never asked; she never said she needed me; she never spoke unkindly. I realize now that she did not want to be left because then she would be truly alone. My grandfather sometimes ignored her calls for help (he was exhausted I know but that was no excuse since he had refused help) and a family member would come in and find my grandmother mired in wet clothing and putrid bedclothes. How terribly sad. The move to a nursing home was difficult: Mary Ellen believed she was there because “they” were going to operate and remove her breasts. This was not the case but she was terrified.  My grandfather went every day for several hours and was even said by some to be a nuisance but what did they know?

How lonely Mary Ellen must have been. How much she must have wished for her own mother or, eventually, for anyone with a kind word and a soft touch. What did her life amount to in the end…how did she see it? I remember having to be obnoxious on a visit I made because she had been trying to get help ringing her bell for what felt like forever to her. The care workers on duty would have been glad to see the back of me. Not that I cared about that but why are we punishing and depriving our elders so (I have had much more recent experience with such matters and we are still doing it although conditions have improved a little in nursing homes).

Did I learn loneliness from my grandparents? They were both very lonely. Communication was not something that had been modelled for them by their parents and/or grandparents. Marriage was a “forever” thing and, even if they had considered changing their status, what difference would that have made? What did I learn about health issues? About being in control of one’s own health? Why was my grandfather afraid of doctors? How lonely it must have been to be trapped inside a social convention as well as a society which gave over control of one’s own health to one’s partner and/or to medical authorities etc. etc. My grandmother had one or two very good women friends in the neighbourhood but they all died before her and the friendship was dependent upon these woman remaining healthy and able to come to her. Have things changed much? How much? Or is it a case of the more things change the more they stay the same?

My regrets? I never read to her in her last years nor did I ask her if she wanted to be read to and, of course, there were reasons, but I still regret not being more aware at the time and more loving in ways that would have improved the quality of her life. If you are fortunate enough to have someone in your circle that you can do this for, do consider it .

Monoceros, a novel by Suzette Mayr

” Max adjusts the single magnet on the fridge, a mini replica of the Starship Monoceros from his favourite television show, Sector Six. He brushes past Walter on his way out of the kitchen and into the TV room because tonight is Monday night and Monday night is Sector Six night even if it’s just mid-season reruns and a boy died today. ”

The boy was Patrick Furey. Max is the principal of the school Patrick attended and Max lives with Walter, the guidance counsellor at the same school who had an appointment with Patrick shortly before Patrick killed himself.

The story opens with “The End” and it is the end on one level. On another level it is just the beginning because Patrick’s death changes the lives of everyone inside the circle of his acquaintences.

A crisis team of professionals is brought in to the school and they hold a debriefing circle along with Walter’s colleague, Pam. Pam tells the students the facts about Patrick’s death:- “His mother found him in his bedroom. He hanged himself. He left no note.”

“Pam’s voice stinging as she goes about cleaning and sterilizing, embalming and stitching up the violence.  -Not a single person should feel any guilt. No one is to blame, she says. Pan folds her hands in front of her chest, her eyes blinking quickly.  -Not his friends. Not his family. She closes her eyes for a moment. What she doesn’t say:  Not even the dead boy.  Her words hang chest-level from her praying fingers. ”

One of the crisis team Walter calls Margarine because it separated her out from other Margarets that he had met once before at a convention she attended. “The beefy one in the grey pants is named Kyle, and then the blonde, big-jawed one Jed. Margarine, Kyle and Jed. Here to save them.”

Suzette Mayr exposes grief counselling bluntly and accurately. She is equally blunt but not, it should be noted, unfair, in developing the characters in this novel. Her characterizations of  all the people listed below, those who are not to blame, are fair and empathetic. These are all just regular folks living complicated lives. As was Patrick. Their individual viewpoints presented in the novel (Max; Walter; Patrick’s mother, Gretta; Faraday, a student; Mrs. Mochinski, the English teacher; Ginger, Patrick’s lover; Petra, Ginger’s girlfriend; Patrick’s father) are so well written that the reader becomes quite comfortable with them and understands their motivation and behaviour.

This novel would be a valuable read for teens, parents and teachers to increase their understanding and, hopefully, make them wiser and more aware.  It has the capability, if we let it, to teach us how to think about a number of relational issues. Those things aside, however, because I don’t wish to tell anyone what they “ought” to read and/or why: this is a really good read on a difficult subject.

Dickens’ Update #10

So here we are at the beginning of Issue 7, having left both Arthur and Amy in turmoil:  Arthur wondering what has upset Amy and Amy uncertain possibly of why she is upset but knowing that as long as she remains in the Marshalsea she is doomed to repeat day after day after day and she will have no different future with John Chivery or anyone else. Does that fit with what you think is happening for Amy?

In Chapter XXIII (Machinery in Motion), Mr. Meagles and Arthur discuss the prospect of Arthur becoming Daniel Doyce’s partner. Arthur examines the factory  and the accounts and Arthur decides to become Daniel’s partner. Thus Arthur acquires an “active and promising career” which he had been concerned about back in Chapter XVI (Issue 5).  Established in his office, Arthur receives a surprise visit from Flora and Mrs. F’s aunt. The attitude of the aunt toward Arthur  is further clarified: “she held him in the utmost abhorrence.” Flora is upset that Arthur has gone “into the machinery business without so much as sending a line or a card to papa.” Papa, you will recall, is Mr. Casby.

At his point we acquire some helpful background, from Flora’s perspective of course, regarding the relationship she and Arthur had before he went to China. In Flora’s words: “When your mama (Mrs. Clennam) and my papa (Casby) worried us to death and severed the golden bowl – I mean bond…severed the golden bowl that bound us and threw us into fits of crying on the sofa…everything was changed.”

The footnotes in The Modern Library edition explain that the golden bowl reference is to Ecclesiastes 12:6: “Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel be broken at the cistern”;

12:7: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it>” (Authorized King James Version Made for The Gideon International in Canada 1974 Edition)

Flora’s father has told her that Arthur is interested in Little Dorrit and Flora is considering employing Little Dorrit. Arthur thanks her for this. Then Mr. Casby shows up and is accompanied by Pancks. The latter makes this statement in the conversation there in Arthur’s office: “A person who can’t pay, gets another person who can’t pay, to guarantee that he can pay.”  Dickens is so skilled at these summary statement; he must have been amazing in his public performances because he had written such clever dialogue.

Pancks’ innovative approach to getting Mrs. F’s aunt out of Arthur’s office makes us respect his social skills much more than we probably have to this point. He returns for additional conversation with Arthur and they strike a bargain.

I cannot leave this chapter without remarking on the metaphor Dickens uses to describe Mr. Pancks: he describes him as a tug boat and his employer Mr. Casby as a ship. Pancks gets “under steam” and causes a “swell of terror” which he leaves  “in his wake.” And, of course, he snuffles and blows! I find myself becoming quite attached to this image and this character.

Chapter XXIV (Fortune-Telling) sees Amy going to work for Flora and learning more about Arthur and also having a meeting with Mr. Pancks in which Pancks tells Amy her fortune and promises her that it will come true. Back in her prison garret with Maggy, Amy tells Maggy a story about a princess who spins and we are strongly tempted to believe that Amy’s story has a biographical side. Who, if anyone,  do you think the shadow represents from Amy’s perspective?Story of the Princess p 303

Chapter XXV(Conspirators and Others), introduces us to another side of Pancks and his personal residence at Pentonville. He has been working on strengthening his relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Chivery (Chivery senior you will recall is the turnkey at the Marshalsea) and their son John Chivery who has been severely depressed as a result of his rejection by Amy Dorrit. John has been working for Pancks doing some of that gentleman’s collections. John is invited to dinner at Mr. Rugg’s, the landlord at Pentonville, and his daughter Miss Rugg (Anastatia) who recently underwent a legal case regarding a breach of promise on the part of a baker. We also meet again, John Baptiste Cavelletto last seen running away from an inn and from Monsieur Rigaud. Mr. Baptist is being housed in the Plornish home in Bleeding Heart Yard and sometimes works for Arthur and    has also won the positive regard of Mr. Pancks.

And so Issue 7 closes with a much more complicated plot calling out to the reader to remember to purchase the next issue. How are those of you who are reading along doing? Am I giving you too much detail or not enough? Which character are you most anxious to read about? Is there someone you don’t like and whose story you would prefer to skip? Why?

Dickens’ Update #9

In Chapter XXI, Mr. Merdle’s Complaint we learn considerably more about the Merdles. Mr. Merdle is described as “a Midas without the ears” which refers to the fact that Apollo gave Midas the ears of an ass, which Midas tried in vain to hide (from footnotes in The Modern Library edition).

I liked this reference to the houses in Harley Street, Cavendish Square: “the house where the collector called for one quarter of an Idea.” The footnotes explain this as meaning “The house is bereft of intellectual life, a collector coming on the appropriate day (that is on the quarter day) would be unable to find even a fraction of an idea.”

Mr. Merdle’s accomplishments are delineated and Mrs. Merdle’s handsome bosom is described as something Mr. Merdle purchased because “it was a capital bosom to hang jewels upon.” “The bosom, moving in Society with the jewels displayed upon it, attracted general admiration. Society approving, Mr. Merdle was satisfied. ” In Society Mr. Merdle “hardly seemed to enjoy himself much, and was mostly found against walls and behind doors.”

Mrs. Merdle had a son by her first husband, a colonel.  The son is described as a “chuckle-head” with a brain that “had been frozen up” at birth and he is also represented “as having in his infancy…fallen out of a high window on his head.” His name is Sparkler and he constantly proposes to “doosed fine” gals.

There is a dinner party at the Merdles. Dinner parties have been the scenes of fun for Dickens and this one is not exception. He constantly repeats the word magnates to make us conscious of how pompous the appearance and behaviour  of each guest is as he seeks Mr. Merdle’s financial support and interest for his own agenda and/or seeks to get in on Mr. Merdle’s latest investment scheme.

Mr. Merdle has been seeing a physician we learn and this same physician reveals to the Bishop and the lawyer in attendance that he can find nothing wrong with mr. Merdle although Mr. Merdle has come to him with a complaint(hence the title of this chapter). Mr. Merdle says the physician has “the constitution of a rhinoceros, the digestion of an ostrich, and the concentration of an oyster.”

And so we come to the last chapter in Issue 6: Chapter XXII, A Puzzle. Mr. Dorrit expresses disappointment with Arthur because he no longer brings “gifts”. Amy asked Arthur not to encourage her father’s begging back in Chapter XIV. On leaving the Marshalsea Mr. Chivery asks Arthur to go round and visit his wife at the shop she keeps and there Arthur learns of John Chivery’s state having been rejected by Little Dorrit. Mrs. Chivery seeks Arthur’s help to restore her son to her. Arthur is confused and does not recognize the person who has rejected John as the same person he knows. He finds Amy at the Iron Bridge after he has left Mrs. Chivery. While walking with Amy, Maggy comes along and she has been sent with two letters to Arthur. The letters are requests for money from both Mr. Dorrit and from his son Tip. Arthur replies sending the money to Mr. Dorrit and excusing himself from Tip’s request. He does this at a distance from Amy and then returns to walk with her. She is very distressed and he has never seen her in such a state. She wants only to return to the Marshalsea which she does and Arthur continues to ponder her emotional state. And so Arthur is thinking of Amy and Amy also “thought of him – too faithfully, ah, too faithfully -in the shadow of the Marshalsea wall.” And so Issue 6 ends pulling the heartstrings of the reader and making her/him want to know how the author is going to work this out.