When my husband was doing chemo and on disability from work, he would keep himself busy by visiting some of the elderly ladies we knew. They all adored him and the highlight of their week was seeing him come down the driveway with a bag of groceries and a tool kit. They would make him tea and tell him stories about their childhood while he fixed the leaky faucet and whatever it was they had done to the TV remote that week. He escorted them on walks down the street where they introduced him to all their neighbors as “my son Tony.” His adopted mothers would occasionally fight over who really owned him, and he loved the attention.
When he died, I tried to fill his shoes as best I could. I was working full time so my brief weekend visits paled in comparison, but it kept his memory alive for them and I quickly grew to love them as he did. One of those ladies was Johanna, a widow in Long Island who had lived in the same apartment for decades. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a needlepoint wall hanging or shag throw rug that had been moved since the 60s. She had become sort of a hermit in her old age and although she could talk on the phone all day, she wasn’t all that comfortable with having people in her apartment. I learned to talk quietly and not move around too much and she made an exception for me. As soon as I arrived I would slip off my shoes, lie down on the couch and tell her about my week. Johanna was my therapist for many years. I told her things about my life that I knew she wasn’t going to repeat or remember, and she told me the same stories every time, struggling to keep them fresh in her mind. The details often changed a little and I had to prompt her when a name or place would not come to her, but I never got tired of the stories. We were very good therapy for each other.
Johanna’s tales about growing up in an Italian immigrant family in Brooklyn were eye opening for me. During the Great Depression, she and her mother walked every morning down to a food bank. If they got in the ration line early enough they would receive a head of cabbage, some bread and maybe a few eggs. That was all the food they had for the day for their family of six. I often think about her mother, trying to feed four children with a cabbage. I am sure I will never know that kind of stress and pain.
In high school she had a stroke and was left with a permanent heart condition. She had a pacemaker for the rest of her life and endured many surgeries. She received a scholarship to go to school which was a big deal to a poor family, but her father would not allow her to leave home. He wanted his frail and only daughter to stay close to the family. Sometimes that story was told with a hint of pain; sometimes with understanding. Her dreams of a real education were not going to happen, so she fell in love with the boy next door instead. The two would sit on the floor in his family’s living room listening to records; often clearing the furniture so they could jitterbug. It was the end of WWII and with a new sense of hope the teenagers spent hours dreaming of their future together. Although the war was ending, he had just turned 18 and joined the armed forces. He was sent to Panama and died there. Her memory of what happened to him changed depending on the day, but listening to her talk about him, I don’t believe she ever fully recovered.
Years later Johanna met a man named George who she described as very kind. His mother did not approve of the Brooklyn Italian girl and he had been married before, so the two Catholics snuck off to a Greek Orthodox Church and were secretly married. Soon after their elopement, Johanna discovered that she could not have children and in his mid-30s, George began to have mental health problems. He was committed to a psychiatric institution that Johanna described as something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, complete with the villainous head nurse. After a long day working as a clerk on Wall Street, she spent an hour on the train every evening, hoping to get a few minutes with George before visiting hours were over. If Nurse Rached was in a bad mood, Johanna would get turned away without seeing George at all. Month after month she visited him and then went back to her little apartment alone. When he was well enough to live at home, he developed Parkinson’s disease. For years she took care of him and operated a hospital in her living room. She needed a new pacemaker but refused to leave George or let him worry. She selflessly kept her heart problems to herself until George died in his sleep at the age of 66. Johanna spent the next 20 years in her apartment, reading her Bible with a magnifying glass and writing letters to anyone she thought could use some encouragement.
As I waved goodbye after every visit and the creaky old elevator doors closed, I often felt like I had just had a glimpse into my own future through a crystal ball. I don’t think any childless widow as young as I am could stop themselves from making the comparison, no matter how unreasonable. I was sick as a teenager and went through a few surgeries. I had to accept in my 30s that having children was not in the cards for me. I had a hospital in my living room where I spent hours reading to my husband. Johanna’s story is very personal to me. She had outlived her family and, without children, had to depend on friends and kind neighbors. She had a friend who took her grocery shopping once a month when her social security check arrived. By the end of the month the fridge was empty, but someone always seemed to drop by with fresh vegetables and bread. Her heater broke during the snowy winter and she woke up one morning with her eyelids frozen shut. It only took one person to hear that story for a new heater to arrive. Her difficult life could have made her hard and bitter, but she was sweet, gentle and loving. Anyone who met her would have helped her in any way. It is comforting to know that there are kind and generous people in the world who recognize the value of an elderly lady on her own, and take it upon themselves to take care of her. But I don’t think I should count on my sparkling personality as a retirement plan.
I do have another strategy. Once in a while when I am playing with the three caregivers that my brother has provided, I throw in subtle messages like, “When I’m old and you are driving me to get fitted for dentures . . .” and, “When I am old and you are making me tea and toast and bringing it to me in bed every morning . . .” You’ve got to work on them young, you know. That was my mother’s mistake. Instead of training her children to look after her with subliminal messages, she told us stories about growing up on a cattle ranch where you shoot the sick and the old. We’ve had a running joke for years about what we are going to do when she starts to become a problem.
Johanna died peacefully, and despite her apparent solitude, her life was a testament to the idea of adopted family. Every time I visited her in hospital, the nurse gave me an update on my grandmother and I never corrected anyone. She taught me that if you give of yourself to others, it will come back to you when you most need it. And none of us can be sure who we are going to need when we get old. I am lucky to have extended and adopted family who will no doubt look after me. My niece and nephew may crinkle up their noses at the idea of bringing me breakfast in bed now, but their time is coming. I just hope that when I am in my 80s I will have developed the same selfless, positive attitude and grace that brought Johanna’s neighbors by to ask if she needed anything. It’s not looking good so far. It is a good thing I have a backup plan.