Monthly Archives: May 2014

Tallulah

“Oh, I know it’s hard to believe, but there’s a story behind my name. My grandmother was English and she was given a ticket in the balcony to see the American actress, Tallulah Bankhead, on the stage. The play was Sidney Howard’s “They Knew What They Wanted”, and she never forgot it. In America, in her old age, she used to watch her on television sometimes.

“No, I never saw her in person myself. She was just part of the family lore, like my parents coming steerage to America on a rattley ocean liner in terrible seas. I did hear a recording of her deep and husky voice once and it was unforgettable. She was a flamboyant character, lived on cigarettes and pills and handsome young men. And yet, with all that dissipation, she was known to be a terrific actress.

“She came from a distinguished family in Alabama. Her father was Speaker of the House of Representatives. One, maybe two, of her uncles were senators. Yet with all that dignity and decorum in-house, they couldn’t keep Tallulah down. She was wild as a child and wild she remained.

“No, none of this history-by-association rubbed off on me. I  wish it had. When I was a child, I was quiet, studious—her very opposite. I think my grandma would have liked me to live up to my name.

“I’m usually called Tallu, and I like it. It’s distinctive. When I  got here to assisted living I should have registered as just plain Tallu, because so many people ask me about my name.  Although I’m used to being asked if I was related to her and I always answer them, and I’ll answer you before you ask,”No. I really like the association, but I was born in The Bronx and there’s no way I can pass myself off as an aristocrat from Alabama!”

Like Family

“I grew up with my Aunt Frances, whom I adored. She came to live with us after my mother died when I was only two.

“My father had his hands full. He had a small restaurant in the Diamond District that depended upon his personality. The food was very good, I’m not saying it wasn’t. He served a wiener schnitzel that was popular on the businessmen’s lunch, and he was usually there to joke and kibbitz with the customers while they ate.

“My aunt used to take me and Richie there for treat a couple of times a year. She’d get us all dressed up to meet Uncle Morty or Uncle Saul—those are some names I can remember. They weren’t really our uncles, but we’d call them that and they were very friendly and made a big fuss over us like it was a miracle that we came all the way from Brooklyn to visit! They’d order ice cream, double dip, for us. Very friendly.

“My father was naturally sunny, my aunt tells me. I didn’t see that side of him when I was growing up. He was catering to the jewelers and furriers and garmentos in the garment district and then had to run home to my brother and me, so everything was rush-rush. It was the Depression. The long hours, the children at home—it took its toll on him. He developed heart disease in his fifties.

“In the thirties, all of them put in long days. Ten, twelve hours was nothing because competition was stiff and these were all first-generation immigrant businesses. Nowadays their sons and daughters run the businesses and the pressure is still there, but not at survival-level if you know what I mean. Their fathers, like my own, left them pretty well fixed. “Sweat equity” is what these kids call it. They lucked in, that next generation. Me too.

“My father was a good provider. My husband, not so much. No ambition. Now a lot of those businesses have gone under due to cheap imports from China, Taiwan or wherever.

“Anyhow, this generation doesn’t want any part of it. They don’t want the hours or the aggravation. How I know this is I worked for Uncle Morty’s son, Georgie, a couple of summers.  Georgie kept the business going, but his heart wasn’t in it. He played accordion in a trio when they could get work. He was really musical, but there’s no money in it. Still, I’ll say this for him: he practiced in the back of the store when there were no customers. But he didn’t want a musical career for his own children. He had two boys, one girl. They all went to college. Georgie, like the others, wanted  his kids to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, you name it, but not shopkeepers worrying about inventory and if they can cover the next bill. Can you blame them?

“It was Georgie told me about this place, The Hallmark, when he came to visit me after my surgery. A very sweet boy. He  looks after me like I was family. A sensitive boy. He knew I had no family of my own.”

“These people are like family. Whenever Morty or Saul’s sons come to visit—and now their grandchildren—the memory of my father and those days in the District come back to me. I’m lucky to have them.”

Mother Decides

“You know, I’ve always been very close to my mom. Before we got married, Eddie used to kid me about it but he wasn’t only kidding. He was a little nervous about it.

“Mom  has always been open and friendly, stopping to chat with neighbors, finding out what’s going on in school or town. The nicest thing about  her  is that she’s always pleased with other people’s success. Not a mean bone in her body. My younger daughter, Karen, came home from school on day and said, ‘Mom, I found the perfect word in my eighth grade reader to describe grandma. She “rejoices” in others.’

“And that’s right. Mom was a teacher, and she would come home and say, ‘Donnie is mastering his stammer’, or ‘Eileen stepped right up and took care of her two little sisters when her mother had emergency surgery. Isn’t that wonderful in a twelve-year-old?’

“I’m the only one I know who would say that it’s fun to be around her  own mother (most people I know gripe about theirs). Go clothes shopping with her and she’ll say, ’Oh, this is your color!’ or, ‘This pale green sweater is perfect for that skirt you like so well.’ Go food shopping with her and when we unload groceries she’ll have bought me some anchovies or artichokes because she  knows I especially like them and wouldn’t buy them for myself.

“Ah, but now, my dear Mom is losing it. She left the groceries out on the back porch overnight and didn’t even remember that she had bought them. She passed Zita, my neighbor, on the street and just stared at her. Zita is crazy about Mom—her own mom, that’s another story!  Anyhow, Zita knew right away that something was wrong.

“I really knew it too but couldn’t bear to face it until Zita literally sat me down and took my hand and we both ended up crying. The signs I ignored: she invited me, my husband and Karen for dinner about a month ago, and when we got there no dinner, only blank looks. Then I would try to see her a couple of times a week by myself after work and she’d forget I was coming. When she finally remembered the forgotten date she’d say, ‘Darling, I’ll go home with you right this minute.’

“‘Well,’ I said to Eddie, ‘I’m not going to put my mother in a nursing home, I don’t care what you say,’ and he said, ‘Who said anything about nursing homes?’

But my mother may be losing it.

“ A few weeks ago I drove over to get her to take her to Karen’s dance recital and she was still in her robe and slippers. She remembered the recital as soon as she saw me and was able to say, ‘It’s Karen’s recital! I’ll be right with you.’ I was so sad and heartbroken  at the changes in her that I could hardly speak. When she was her old self, she would never have forgotten something so important to her granddaughter.

“Later that week she called me and said she had something to show me.

“She brought over a brochure from a nursing home. She said she had visited it and would like to go there. At last we were together again. I went to look at it to be sure it was okay—a  beautiful place on the Island on rolling ground. I’ve gone back with her several times to be sure I can stand the separation, to tell you the truth. It’s about  forty-five minutes by car.

“So I’m getting used to the idea. But tell me, who can bear endings?”

Everett Hennessey

“I always wanted to be an artist. I was raised in a small town in Missouri by the name of Mercer. My little brother James and I were captivated by a regional show of Midwest artists we saw on a trip to Saint Louis with our parents. I felt very much at home with a palette of oils that I was given on my twelfth birthday so my parents sent me to a small local art studio to take lessons from a very cheerful and tactful woman whom everyone called Miss Rita. My parents asked James if he’d like to take lessons too, and he said yes.

“Miss Rita encouraged both of us in different ways. She praised James’s gift for color and his good sense of perspective. James went on to become a graphic artist in an architectural firm in St. Louis. She praised me for my gift for organization, as I organized art shows for her three classes and found inexpensive and attractive ways to display them. She was silent about my artistic abilities but praised my effort and efficiency. I remember looking at her inquiringly, as though waiting for more. Miss Rita said quickly that she thought I had a good sense of perspective. She felt that it could only be good for  me to pour so much of myself into my art. ‘A lifelong enrichment for you.’ She encouraged me to go to museums.

“In high school, buoyed by Miss Rita’s support of my talents, I organized a show for the junior class. Jamie began to do drawings of his classmates by the time he was a junior and made enough money to pay for his first year’s college tuition. Even in high school, in that show I organized, James was eager to display some of his portraits.

“ I felt uneasy with those portraits because some of them were sardonic in the German Expressionist style of the thirties. I was unfamiliar with that period of art, or indeed any period of art at the time, bu I didn’t like them. I was only seventeen and still new to art, attracted by its color and vivacity and a wish to feel as free as James seemed to be. But I didn’t want to be laughed at for hanging dull, murky portraits for my show either, so I lined the walls with agreeable landscapes and a river scape in the style of Thomas Benton that Jamie had painted.

“‘What about my gambler?’

“‘There’s a knife on the table. That’s a little too gory for high school.’

“‘Miss Rita said that?’

“‘No, I make up my own mind. We don’t need any blood and guts.’

“When James’ painting was singled out in a review in the school paper, he was not pleased.  ‘It’s a wimpy painting, Ev, that river view. My gamblers have some oomph. I told you that.’

“‘There’s enough fighting in the world as it is. Here in Mercer, Missouri, we’re peaceful and proud of it.’

“I went back to Mercer after college and became the director of its historical museum. James remained on the East Coast. Philadelphia first, then New York, where he developed a small but loyal following. I came here after my retirement. James is still working in his loft in New York.

“When he here to visit last week, there was a coolness between us.

“It’s a rift that never healed.”

This, That, and The Other

Lorrie is an 83-year old woman who, in her early days, was accustomed to a lot of personal freedom, and she used it to explore various ways of living. She was born in the Midwest, but after college she went to Montana and was a hired hand at a ranch. She was in charge of mucking out the horse stalls, a job she hated and cringed from, but ever dutiful and bent on experience, she went every day to feed, water and clean out the stalls. In later life, she always said that it was good for her character.

“It taught me a little about the hard life working people have, and that was a good lesson for me. When I traveled later on in life, I tried to be aware of the long days and tired feet of waiters and chambermaids.” She said that one of the reasons she left her first husband was because he was rude and quarrelsome with working people when they went to restaurants or hotels.

She moved to California and was a civics teacher in a high school outside of Sausalito. She loved the beauty of the place but went home to Michigan to be with her mother during her last, lingering illness. She then stayed on to manage some family property.

A cousin who owned a small newspaper, The Littleton Ledger, offered her a job writing a column on home improvement because she was known in the family to be handy and inventive. She enjoyed the job but had to give it up because her older sister, Louisa, a widow with no children, developed multiple sclerosis and there was no one else to care for her. Lorrie says that she loved her sister and was glad that she was able to see her through her illness.

When Louisa died, Lorrie mourned for her but had other feelings as well. She longed for a life of her own and at last was able to go back to journalism, which she loved. She returned to The Littleton Ledger and covered community  and social events.

Lorrie says that she loved the job. She knew from the time she was twelve and started reading in the local paper about stellar high school students, community suppers and the annual Methodist Variety Show that she would one day live in a small town and write for a newspaper. As a reporter in Littleton she got to learn about several people,  including a couple of old-timers who knew her grandparents better than she had ever known them. They told her that her grandfather, Len Davis, whom she had known as a mild-mannered, quiet man, had a reputation as the town cut-up in his younger days. They said that “when he was in his cups” ( which surprised her because she hadn’t known him to drink) he would line up several chairs and one settee and sprint over them.

Eventually, The Littleton Ledger folded. At age 70, there was little chance that she’d find a job with another small-town newspaper. She was convinced that she’d seen the last of her journalism days.

Surprisingly, she became an active journalist again when, at 83,  she came into assisted living. She started a four-page newsletter which she puts out every two weeks for residents to learn about newcomers or people with special interests they would like to share.

Lorrie says, “At last , after a lifetime of doing this, that, and the other for people who needed me, I’m doing exactly what I want to do for myself!”

Assisted Living: Small But Special

An article in The Guardian of England of April 15, 2014 reports on an unusually good nursing home in England. Though small, Saint Leonard’s could well be a model for much larger facilities everywhere.

A survey of 21,000 residents of assisted-living facilities in Great Britain showed a surprising result. The best “care” home (as it is called in Great Britain) was a small rest home in Hampshire called Saint Leonard’s. The survey included residents of big private and not-for-profit care providers throughout the United Kingdom, but an unusual fact about Saint Leonard’s is that it has only fifteen beds! It was probably the smallest residence in the survey!

The caring owners are a husband and wife team, Frank and Mary Bartlett, who have run Saint Leonard’s for more than seventeen years. Once inside the front door, The Guardian notes, you have a good idea why the residents feel so at home. The decor is more homey than up-to-date, the residents seem to feel at ease, and their families and staff are all eager to pay tribute to the high quality care and family atmosphere it offers. “It’s an amazing place,” says Diane Searle whose 83-year-old mother, Joyce Sivers, has dementia and lives in the home.”It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, putting my mum into care, but it was like coming home when she came here. Mum is always comfy, they fuss around the residents like they’re their own mums, and they’ve been good for me too, giving me support.”

Frank Bartlett sums up the philosophy of the place in a way that is undoubtedly relevant to assisted living facilities everywhere, even those ten times the size of Saint Leonard’s. He says, “This place doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside we like to think there’s a heart of gold. We try to run a family friendly care home. The residents are your mums, dads, or aunties, and we treat them accordingly—like our family.”

Kate Murray, the reporter for The Guardian, agrees that the residence has hidden charms. She writes that from the outside, it is a pretty undistinguished-looking place. Two houses knocked into one on an ordinary street with walls that its owner says is about to get a much needed coat of paint. There is no  sign to tell you that this is an assisted-living facility, let alone one of the best ones of its kind in all of England.