In the height of my Enlightened to Domesticity years, when I cooked meals from recipes and kept the house in order, ironed shirts and made beds, used linen napkins and darned socks, I met Thelma, the oldest woman on the block. I adopted Thelma to be my grandmother and the kids’ great grandmother. We adored her.
A few days after I met Thelma, I visited her. She pulled out a photo album her daughter-in-law made for her. It was filled with black and white photographs of Thelma as a little girl, with her brother and sister, and her parents. They didn’t have much but they weren’t poor, either. Her parents ran a general store in Grandview, Ohio, that survived the Depression.
Her only brother was very handsome in his military uniform. In all the pictures of her brother leading up to this photo in the military uniform, in front of the Christmas tree, you could see how handsome and thoughtful he was.
We turned the pages and there weren’t any more pictures of her brother, a wife or kids. Thelma said sadly, his plane was shot down in World War II. I scooched closer to her on the couch, so the album spread across our laps and we turned back to the beginning to see all the pictures of her brother again. Here he is as a baby. Here he is in your arms. Here the two of you are on your bikes. You were really close, weren’t you? Oh, look at this one when he came home for Christmas. That was the last time she saw him.
As the years went on Thelma gave up her car. She didn’t think it was safe to drive with her vision and reflexes being what they were. Prior to when we met, she had a heart attack that began the slow decline to housebound.
You might not be able to get around as quickly, but your mind is still sharp as a tack, I’d tell her on our walks. She told me her mother, who lived to be 94, lived out her last few years in a nursing home. Her mind never gave out, but her body did. She believed this would be how she would go, too.
Thelma stood in her driveway, pointing to her car in the garage, and lamented her loss of freedom. I can’t just get out and go anywhere anytime I want. I have to rely on other people. I gave Thelma my number and told her to call me any time she needed a driver.
The beauty in this relationship with a declining Thelma was that I was a helicopter mom at the time. I needed an outlet for this over abundant desire to “help”. To spare my children the curse of a doting mother, the Universe brought me Thelma.
I helped Thelma muscle her front door closed, while turning the key to lock it behind us. I helped her keep her balance when the screen door tried to close with us in it. I helped her down the steps, one step at a time to the minivan, walking on the grass so she could have the sidewalk. I helped her up into the minivan and strapped the seatbelt for her. With mother and child intimacy, I reached over her lap, placed the strap across her chest, untwisted it, and buckled it before closing the door.
When I straightened out her jacket that was stuck underneath her, I said, “Thelma, this is the ideal relationship. I never have to worry about how you’re going to turn out if I do too much for you.”
She got dressed up to go out. I’d tell her that her hair looked nice, and she would say “Oh, it’s a mess!” In the produce section, I’d tell her while I held the bag and she slipped the pears in one at a time that she is beautiful. I love that she never denied it.
I carried the frozen dinners to the basement and put them in her freezer. I put the perishables in the fridge, and wadded up the plastic bags in her special spot in the garage. She offered to pay me money and I refused. “I am supposed to be helping you, Thelma. I’m home all day while my kids are in school. This is how neighbors are supposed to be. Put your money away.”
She insisted on paying me and shoved a gas card in my hand one day when I was distracted behind the wheel. I kept it in my car. If I didn’t use it, she would be offended. I would need to fill my tank with it and tell her about it and thank her. I would tell it to her like she saved the day: I was riding around on fumes, Thelma, and I didn’t have my wallet on me. But I remembered I had the gas card that you gave me in my glove box! But I never did. I misplaced the gas card.
Thelma was on her twelfth year as a widow. She had two sons. One nearby was grouchy. She yearned for his love and he would never show it. When he sent her an oversized Mother’s Day card, she read it each time I visited. I pretended she didn’t already share it with me so she could re-experience her son’s love.
In her old age, her younger son thought she was uncooperative and set in her ways, and hoarded too many plastic bags, too many fears and should be in a nursing home near him so he wouldn’t have to worry about her anymore. The older son, two hours away, was kind. He would do anything for Thelma, except his job and the drive got in the way.
Some time after her 91st birthday, Thelma began falling. One time her younger son found her on the floor next to her bed. She had been stuck, partly under her dresser and partly under her bed, for hours, unable to get up. The arguments about her resistance to leave her home heated.
She would tell me about it when I visited. I promised her I would visit her in the nursing home when the time came. In the meantime, I liked that she was holding out. I could still take her to the doctor, the pharmacy, the grocery, the hairdresser.
The inevitable happened. Thelma’s declining health convinced her sons to move her into a nursing home. They painted her house, ripped out the carpet, held a yard sale and sold the home quickly. I visited the yard sale. I could have purchased anything that was Thelma’s to remember her by. The only thing that stood out was the freezer from the basement. I didn’t buy it.
I walk by Thelma’s old house that is now owned by someone I’ve only seen once or twice. I walk by at night when the lights inside are glowing yellow through the curtains. I imagine Thelma sitting in her the living room in its 1950′s decor, with her cat on her lap and her TV turned up loudly.
I walk by her house feeling guilty for not visiting her in the nursing home. I called her twice. I sent her a letter in large font once. Three years have slipped away and I still haven’t visited her in the nursing home.
Yesterday, I dialed her number at the nursing home. The recording of three sour notes, followed by an operator’s apology played in my ear. I waited for her apology to say “the number you have dialed has been changed. The new number is…” but it didn’t. It was the “the number you have dialed has been disconnected” apology.
I wondered how long it has been disconnected. Was it just this week? Should I call her older son and find out? I told him she was like a grandmother to me and I wanted to be on the call list. He promised me he would call.
Then I realized. In the last three years, my number changed. He probably tried to call me and got the recording with the three sour notes, followed by an operator’s apology.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking back to when she might have died. Was it shortly after the last time we spoke after she got my letter? Was she talking to me from the other side when I found the gas card she gave me last month while cleaning out the garage? I thanked her when I finally used it. I carry around the empty gas card in my wallet.