Friday, February 27, 2009

Mary Ellen

Last weekend I went down to Cape Girardeau, Missouri for the 97th birthday of my great-aunt Mary Ellen.  She was my maternal grandma's only sibling.  Grandma Gert was born in 1906 and Mary Ellen was born in 1912.  

My grandma died four and a half years ago.  She was 97.  We were very sad but we also sort of felt that she had chosen her time to go.  At least I did.  She was a very independent woman and she hated it when she got to the point that she needed nursing care. 

As a young girl she had decided that she was not going to stay in the small Kentucky town in which she had been raised.  After graduating from high school (no small feat for a girl in that time and place) she went across the river to a business college in Cairo, Illinois and learned shorthand and typing.  Then she took off for the big city - St. Louis.  This was the 1920's and she was going to be modern.

Here she is:

Gert

Her sister Mary Ellen was always more traditional, but no less strong willed.  Mary Ellen didn't, apparently, have any issue with the idea of staying in Kentucky.  She was, in fact, engaged to a local boy but he drowned in the Mississippi River.  She didn't talk about that much.

Here she is:

Mary Ellen

Of course, I don't remember either of them looking like this, but I think they would like their "young" pictures to be shown.

Mary Ellen ended up marrying someone that everyone describes as a very nice man - Carl.  She and Carl were introduced by Gert and her husband Mike. Gert and Mike had met in St. Louis but by this time they were living in Cape Girardeau because of Mike's job.  Mike was the complete opposite of anyone that Gert would ever have met in small town Kentucky.  He was from Chicago.  He was a good looking Irishman (Mary Ellen told us that her parents thought he looked like a gangster).  He apparently had a big personality and liked to drink (Gert, who was a teetotaler later in life, admitted that she went to a speakeasy or two with him).   He was Catholic (my grandma and her family were Baptist).  He had been married once before (and when asked if he was divorced when she started seeing him, Gert would never answer the question). 

I never met my grandfather, he died when my mother was in high school.  By the time he died, they were living in St. Louis.  My mother and her sisters would talk about him but they remembered him from a child's point of view. My grandma never talked about him.  Even when asked a direct question, she seldom answered.  And when she did, you were never sure if she was telling the truth.  She was known to "have her own version" of things.

So my only knowledge of my grandfather from an adult came from Mary Ellen; who didn't talk much about him either until much later in life.  She liked him.  She said he was a lot of fun.  He had a lot of friends and was a good time.  He introduced her to Carl, for which she was grateful. 

I never knew Carl either.  He died a year or so after my grandfather died.  So both Mary Ellen and Gert were left in the early 1950's as fairly young widows with underage children.  They both had girls.  Gert had four girls including my mother; Mary Ellen had two girls.

By this time their mother Lily had also died and only my great-grandfather, Papa Marshall, was left in Kentucky.  Mary Ellen and Carl had moved right across the river to a small Missouri town, so she went back and forth seeing Papa and taking care of him.  My grandma, on the other hand, had shaken the dust of Kentucky off of her feet when she left and seldom went back except out of necessity. One necessity was visiting the cemetery.  She buried my grandfather in Kentucky which, when you think of it, pretty  much ensured that she was going to return to Kentucky some day.

But she and Mary Ellen visited back and forth.  My mom and her sisters were (and still are) close to their cousins.  Gert had always sent them down to spend summers in Kentucky with their grandparents or with Mary Ellen and Carl.

So after Mike and Carl died, Mary Ellen and her daughters would drive up to St. Louis with Papa and spend the holidays with Gert and her daughters.  And Gert and her daughters would go down to southern Missouri to spend weekends.  As the girls got older they brought their boyfriends and then husbands down to meet "Auntie".  And then their children.

My grandma never re-married.  After Mike died she went back to work for a time; until after her youngest daughter got married.    When I was four years old my parents moved from a small bungalow into a bigger house and shortly after that my dad convinced my grandma to move in with us and stop working. 

Mary Ellen always lived in the same house that she and Carl bought and raised their daughters in.  Where my grandma had no attachment to "things" and, over the years, gave away or sold all of her furniture, Mary Ellen's house was filled to the brim with furniture, much of which was family furniture but a lot of which was stuff she bought at auctions.  She always had a vegetable garden.  And her yard was filled with flowering trees and azaleas.  It was beautiful in the spring.

Going to visit Auntie was, as my sister said last weekend, a true "over the river and through the woods" experience.  We went down often, which in my early years, before I-55 opened. meant a long trip on country roads.  When I was born, my mom and dad drove down and put me on the front porch of Auntie's house in my little seat, rang the doorbell and ran away.  She always said that she and I would have had a great time together if they hadn't come back.  But they gave themselves away, laughing behind the bushes.

She was like a traditional grandmother; she lived in a grandmotherly house with lots of nooks and crannies and places to scare younger siblings; she cooked big grandmotherly meals for us from recipes handed down from her own mother; she told us stories about the family.   She would take us over to Kentucky and show us things that were important in the family stories and introduce us to people in the town that we were distantly related to.  She would pull out old pictures and tell us about the people in them.   We would go to the cemetery in Kentucky with her and she would freak out my youngest sister by taking her to Carl's grave, with the joint headstone.  Her name was already carved in the headstone with her birth date but, obviously, not her death date.  My little sister really disliked that and Auntie would say "Do you think I'll fit?" and lay down on the ground in front of the headstone until my sister would beg her to get up.

Mary Ellen did marry again.  I only vaguely remember her second husband, Wade.  He died in a car crash in the 1960's.  All I'll say is that nobody mourned too much.  After that she lived on her own and seemed to enjoy it.  She was an active member of the Baptist Church and sang in the choir for years. She was inordinately proud of her yard and loved when the Azalea Festival would happen.  She would sit outside and wave at the people who would come by her house to see her yard. 

My grandma continued to be independent.  She was such an interesting woman.  She read constantly and liked to talk about what she read.  She didn't like anyone telling her what to do -- although she never hesitated to (very bluntly) tell everyone what she thought.  Her version of a compliment was: "I'm so glad you don't have knock knees.  Your legs are nice and straight."

One day she announced that she was moving out of our house and into her own apartment.  When she finally got too old to live on her own, she moved up to Virginia for about a year to live with my aunt and her family. The next thing we knew she was moving back to Cape Girardeau at the age of 82 to a lovely retirement home.  She had her own studio apartment but could go to a dining room for meals.  She discovered that a lot of women she had known long ago when she lived in Cape in the 1940's were living there - so she had lots of bridge partners.

Cape wasn't too far from the town where Auntie lived so they saw each other a lot.  They weren't by any means a "sweet" pair of sisters.  They disagreed.  Often.  Both were, as I said, strong willed.   And they were very competitive with each other. 

Every year in February we would go down and do a joint celebration of their birthdays - which my grandma would insist was a celebration of her birthday.  But we celebrated them both.

For a long time my grandma resisted moving out of her studio apartment.  The doctor would ask "Are you ready for assisted living?" and she would say "NO" and that was that.  She would regularly lecture Mary Ellen that she should sell her house and move into a retirement home and Mary Ellen would say an emphatic "NO".  

But when my grandma turned 96 there was no disguising the fact that she needed assistance.  The retirement home had an assisted living facility and she moved in, but soon after she was moved to the nursing facility.  She hated it.  She hated the lack of privacy and she hated having no one "in their right mind" to talk to.  One day in October 2003 she got up and went to breakfast, her favorite meal of the day.  It was going to be a busy day because my mother was going to be down there to take her to the doctor.  At her last doctor's visit the doctor had said "I'll see you in 6 months."  The 6 months was up.  After breakfast she went back to her room to lay down.  She always liked to lay down after a meal.  She never woke up.  I always figured she didn't want to go to the doctor and get locked into another 6 months.

On the morning that my grandma died, before anyone could tell Mary Ellen what had happened, Mary Ellen suffered a stroke.  She lived but she had lost her short term memory ability.  It was one of those unexplainable things that one of the sisters would have a stroke at the moment the other was dying.  Or, as Mary Ellen might have said, that one sister would die as the other was having a stroke.  They were competitive that way.

It was a nice funeral service and reflected my grandma's independent spirit.  When she got into her 90's she announced to my mother that it was time to make the funeral arrangements.  My mother (who always went to the doctor with her) asked her if there was something she should know.  And my grandma said no, it was just best to be prepared, she wasn't going to live forever.

While making the arrangements, she specified no church and no minister.  My mother asked her if she wanted any service at all and she said Oh yes.  Well, who do you want to do it, my mother asked?  Oh, the Bobs can do it, she said.  The "Bobs" were her two sons-in-law named Bob - my dad and my uncle Bob.  She loved them both and they loved her.  So the Bobs did the funeral and it was the nicest funeral I've ever been to.

For Mary Ellen, losing her short term memory turned out to be, in a way, a blessing.  She could no longer take care of herself and had to be placed in a nursing facility in Cape; but since she had no short term memory she was, more often than not, happy.  She still liked getting visitors.  And since she hadn't lost her long term memory, you could still have a fairly coherent conversation with her.  She just wouldn't remember it the next day.

Last week we all went down for her 97th birthday party.  She loved birthday parties.  She loved presents.  She loved being the center of attention.  On the way down we talked about how she was probably determined to hit 97 because that's the age Grandma lived to - and they were so competitive.  The birthday celebration had to be at the hospital because she was in for tests. She wasn't awake much.  She would fall asleep in the middle of opening presents.  When my parents and my sister and I first went in to see her she was asleep.  So we sang Happy Birthday to her and she smiled in her sleep.  Before we left, though, we were all able to talk to her and tell her we loved her.

Mary Ellen made it to age 97 and had her birthday party and then, this week, she died.  She was a great lady.  They were both great ladies.  And great role models.  Two women born in another age who lived through the modern age, the Great Depression, the death of a husband, and through the adversities of old age.  Two very different women who yet had so much in common.

As my sister said last weekend, having both of them was like having the best of all worlds.  We had a modern, independent, strong grandmother who was blunt and sharp tongued and taught us that we needed to learn to take care of ourselves in this world.  And we had a traditional, grandmotherly person in our lives who we could go visit and who loved us for who we were, not for what we should be.

The more traditional of the sisters, Mary Ellen's funeral will be at the Baptist church -- although the Bobs are standing by in case they are needed.  She'll be buried in Kentucky - that headstone can now be finished.  We'll think about Gert and Mike and Carl while we're at the cemetery looking at their headstones.   And my great-grandparents, Marshall and Lily.

Then we'll all go out to lunch and have catfish and hush puppies.  And share stories.  About both of them.  And somewhere they will both be happy to know that they are the center of our attention.