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 .

2 thoughts on “New Feature/Family Matters: The Loneliness of Mary Ellen”

  1. What a moving post.
    I think we still have a hard time treating older people adequately. It must be awful when you realize you become helpless and dependent. i suppose a lot uf the unkind acts have something to do with our own fears. We are reminded that it could be us is some years and if we are not willing to think about it it might makes us angry.

  2. Thanks Caroline. I agree that many unkind acts must be based in our own fears. There is little question that being in the company of our aging elders makes us doubly aware of both our own mortality and vulnerability. If we are willing to think about it we can overcome some of our fears I believe and I will post on this in the near future. Thank you so much for your response.

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