The evidence points to the picture being taken in late 1972—I’ve long thought the occasion was Thanksgiving. My sister and I are wearing long sleeves, squeezed between Grandma and Aunt Birdie on a settee in my great-aunt’s living/dining room. We’re each holding a toy—they need only the flimsiest of excuses to have a gift for us, and joining them for dinner certainly qualifies. Amy has just received a paint set, I a scale-model 1972 Mercury Cougar. Aunt Birdie is adoringly regarding her sister’s grandchildren, while Amy and I are almost looking in the direction of the camera. Only Grandma gets it right—this makes me think that Dad is the photographer—a faint smile on her lips, one that perhaps belies her condition. Somewhere I think there must be a few other photos from that sitting, but this is the one that got placed in an album by my mother. It could be the final picture ever taken of my grandmother.
Grandma’s mental state had been deteriorating for a couple of years at this point. “Hardening of the arteries” is what I remember Dad and Aunt Birdie calling her ailment, but it surely was some form of dementia. Over time it became clear that she could no longer live by herself in the farmhouse on U.S. 42, so she moved back to the house in Warsaw in which she’d been born at the end of the 19th century, where sister Birdie, three years her junior, could better attend to her. It wasn’t very long after the picture was taken that she became bedridden, and from there it was just a matter of time until moving her to a nursing home was necessary. Dad chose Woodspoint, a facility in Florence, 10 miles away from us and almost three times as far for Aunt Birdie. With no place of that sort in Walton or Warsaw, though, it was close to the best he could have done.
There are no fond memories of visiting Grandma at Woodspoint. I can still conjure up its smell, an unpleasant mixture of cleaning solution and urine. To see her, we turned left upon entering, and left again into her room about halfway down the hall—her window was on the front of the building. She was always in her bed, invariably unresponsive. Aunt Birdie went to Woodspoint several times a week, and no doubt Dad saw her plenty, too. Amy and I were there only every few weeks if I’m recalling correctly.
Grandma lasted in this condition for quite a while.
I don’t remember anything about our Thanksgiving celebration in 1974, two years after the picture. Chances are, Aunt Birdie stayed with us over the holiday weekend, making trips to Florence during the day.
One Wednesday evening toward the end of January 1975, Mom, Amy, and I were watching the weekly installment of Name That Tune on television. The phone rang, pulling Mom away from Tom Kennedy’s playful banter with the contestants. It was Dad, letting us know that Grandma had passed. I don’t know that Amy and I had been told that her end might be coming soon.
Dad had revered his mother throughout his life, though I recall hearing him say afterwards something to the effect of, “That wasn’t my beautiful mother in there; she had been gone for some time.” Nonetheless, I believe her physical death hit him hard.
I’ve mentioned before that listening now to the American Top 40s Premiere rebroadcast in 2014, when I was spending most weekends with my ailing mother, sends me back to her townhouse (especially the ones from the 70s). The last weekend I spent with her there was the one following Thanksgiving; the show they played was 11/30/74. While her favorite song from the show was almost certainly John Denver’s “Back Home Again,” I’d bet that “Longfellow Serenade” wasn’t too far behind (she was a pretty big Neil Diamond fan). Neil’s first hit after moving to Columbia Records was hanging out at its peak of #5.
It’s a morning in the fall of 1974. A fifth-grade boy and a fourth-grade girl are at the table for breakfast. Since it’s getting colder out, maybe this morning their sweet mother Caroline has fixed oatmeal or cream of wheat on the stove. As usual, the kitchen radio is on, tuned to WLW. The morning DJ, James Francis Patrick O’Neill, doesn’t play all that much music—he’s a performer at heart—but today he spins a new song from Neil Diamond. The boy doesn’t remotely parse that it’s about seduction; he just likes the way the chorus soars. He’s also certainly not thinking about the weight his father is carrying, or about his grandmother’s state. If anything, he’s wondering about what will happen in Mrs. Layne’s class this day, or what he’ll do with the friends on his street after school, or…
…as Diamond’s voice fades after weaving his web of rhyme, it’s suddenly forty years later: the morning of Saturday, November 29, 2014. The fifty-year-old considers what he still has to do before heading home that evening. He’s made arrangements for his mother to spend a few days at a Hospice Care facility, beginning Sunday evening—“respite care.” Someone from the companion care service will be showing up soon so that he can run a few more errands. In conversations with his mother, he’s eliding what will happen at the end of the coming week, though he doesn’t yet know the full details himself. He doesn’t consider there might be parallels with the situation his father had faced in the early 1970s.
Tomorrow he’ll return to drive Mom over to the facility and help her settle in. She’ll have just spent her final night in her home.