Springfield, PA - 2016
At ninety-five George’s knees supplied defiant resistance whenever he went upstairs. This morning was no different but here he was at the top landing – surveying the hall and doorways for a clue as to why he was up there. “Glasses!” He said with a snap and went in and grabbed them from his night stand and headed downstairs. He sat at the kitchen table with the paper. The smell of coffee and toast with melted butter reminded him of his childhood.
“Don’t start with the newspaper George, this is ready.” Ann said as she organized plates, utensils and cups into the perfect, two-person setting. Ann could still do this without missing a step. She may have programmed this progression of movements into her nervous system as a young girl setting up pretend tea parties. If not, the last sixty-five years of marriage had set her morning routine on auto pilot. Memory extends well beyond the mind, into the nervous system through the bloodstream, into the muscles and gets woven into every human fiber. Memory moved within her informing many of the now automated processes of her daily routine.
“You’re not ready for work yet? you need to leave soon!” Ann’s aggravated tone brought him back to a time when life was an eight legged monster with so many complications and moving parts – kids, careers, oil changes, mortgages, shift work – the entire complexity of a middle income American family. And Ann was the head honcho of the organization. But now life is simpler. The kids have families of their own, there’s no mortgage and George doesn’t have to go to work soon. He’s been retired for close to 30 years. As Ann’s tone begins it’s familiar ascent George accommodates her demands to get ready for work. He exited the kitchen, passed through the dining room and living room, up the stairs and into their bedroom.
At a glance their exchanges resemble those of the last 30 years. But Ann’s demands and instructions, while familiar on the surface don’t match the terrain of their modern life. Much of what she says seems to be pulled randomly from what remains of her memory. While her body moves with confidence through the familiar routine of her day, her mind misgives and misaligns her cognitive direction. With sadness George dresses, remembers, regrets but rejoices that she’s still here and he’s still here.
A contentious discussion regarding the days of the week dissolved into another round of storytelling and revisiting old memories. Though he knew it was Thursday, George insisted it was Saturday as many times as it took to get her off the subject and back to the fifties. “Ann, do you remember when we first moved into this house?” Such questions could be the gateway to a peaceful afternoon or possibly the rest of the day. Once Ann got on a roll with stories from the past she could go on for hours. They were the original owners of a two story brick colonial in the Philly suburbs. Both grew up in South Philly during the depression. George enlisted during the war and spent three years as a communications specialist in the Army Signal Corps. When he came home, they got married and eventually sold their small row home in South Philly and moved to Springfield.
Timing was everything. George knew that a well placed question about their past would lead to long walks into their history. Stories embedded in Ann’s long term memory would flow eloquently and pass time well into the afternoon. George would listen. He calmly and compassionately acknowledged the occasional misaligned fact as gospel so as not to interrupt the flow of her story. Ann said… “I don’t know how you did it” speaking of his time in Europe during the war. “All of you guys just did what you had to do…”
One of the most defining moments of George’s ninety-five years came in the spring of 1945. He was a tech sergeant with the 35th signal construction battalion of the United States Army. On orders from high command they advanced to the Buchenwald death camp near Weimar, Germany. Here they witnessed first hand mankind at its very worst. In the early morning hours, they entered the recently evacuated camp. The ****** fled due to word of the advancing Allied liberation force. What they saw would stay with them forever. There were stacks of human remains, bones mixed with ash and corpses lay in piles. They lined the streets and they rest in crudely excavated pits – cast aside from the rest of humanity with the lowest regard from their **** tormentors. His family was only aware of these events from George’s life because of a collection of photos that he took and brought back. Those photos remained in a cabinet in his home in Springfield for the rest of his life. It seems to defy logic, how anyone can go on to become such an exceptional family man and citizen despite the stories that lived in silence in his head and in his heart for the entirety of his adult life.
Their days went on like this into weeks, then months. But over the course of time the gaps in Ann’s memory would widen. Facts that seemed absolute to her found no basis in reality. The family knew that she couldn’t function in the house anymore so arrangements were made for her to go into nursing care at Freedom Village. Their oldest daughter took on the responsibility of coordinating the move.
“Kathleen’s here!” George shouted up the stairs as he struggled with a suitcase. Ann came down and in a panicked tone said “I didn’t make anything. What’s she going to eat?”, “She ate already, we have to get you to your appointment”. They made arrangements for the transfer under the guise of a doctor’s appointment. There was no way Ann would have been able to grasp the idea of moving out of the house – and certainly not without George. Their home was meticulously maintained. Ann executed a strict weekly ritual of vacuuming, ironing and cleaning – appliances, floors, counters, drapes and every surface of the home was tended to on a weekly rotation.
In contrast, the sparse accomodations at the nursing home would command significantly less attention. In Ann’s room there was a bed with an end table and lamp, a wall locker and dresser and a reclining chair with one of her blankets from home. The blanket along with a few other select items were the only hints of the home in Springfield. As the holidays approached, their grandsons brought a small table and chairs from the sunroom at home. This gave her a place to sit with George during his daily visits. The staff was helpful and caring. They knew what type of questions to ask in order to stimulate memories. And of course her discourses with George would fill the hours.
Amy from the staff was a good listener. And she was skilled at sparking meaningful conversations with Ann and the other residents. As it got close to lunchtime, Amy asked… “What was your favorite thing to eat when you were little Ann?” Ann replied “When I was little there wasn’t much. During the depression it was all my Aunt could do to put a decent meal on the table… and we wouldn’t dare ask for anything.” Ann’s stories would flow from there and she would share details of moments and conversations from seventy years ago with pinpoint accuracy. She spoke with pride of her brother John, a United States Marine and notorious troublemaker in his adolescence. She praised her Uncle Bill Mellina. When Ann was just two, her mother passed away and her Aunt and Uncle took her in. In the Mellina home there was no separation between siblings and cousins. “I was a cousin but I was treated like I was part of the family. I don’t know if they felt sorry for me or what. As tough as the times were and with losing my mother so young, you would think I would have been sad but I wasn’t. It was a good life and a really good childhood.” Ann’s temper only rose when circumstances brought her attention into the present. Her disease had degraded any movement of mind that would give her a reliable reference point for matters at hand. George seemed to show up in those moments of disharmony and their exchanges brought her back into balance.
Ann’s room along with the hallways, the resident’s living room and reception area were decorated for the holidays. There were strings of silver garland pinned to the chair rail down the hallway, wreaths on every door and Christmas music was playing from the TV which was set to the all-holiday music channel. This morning George brought brought their discussion back to 1977… “Do you remember the Christmas when Kathleen and Gene stayed at our house with the kids?” Ann shot back… “and the Dog? You bet I do.” The retelling of holiday stories could go on endlessly. There were so many memories spanning the better part of a century. They shared stories from when their three daughters were little. Ann remembered with impressive clarity, Christmas time at her Uncle Bill’s house – sparing no detail. Even later that evening after George left, one story would lead to another.
Amy would usually get her started but this evening Ann was already off and running. Ann amused herself and whoever was listening with her stories. But sometimes she took on a more serious tone – like when she told Amy how worried the family was during the holiday season of 1944. “We kept hearing news reports of a major German attack. They said the American forces were surrounded and pinned down… Not just George, but most of the young guys we knew were over there and we didn’t know if they were coming back. It was terrible.” The Battle of the Bulge had the whole country’s attention that Christmas.
As the stories approached more current times the details were dim. Ann would remember a situation but she would forget who was there – randomly injecting inaccurate names in an effort to save face. Even the long held memories tended to end with a pause as she tried to remember. Then she’d say “I forget where I was going with that” or “…oh it doesn’t matter.” With a big smile Amy would say “I love your stories Ann!”
It was the end of a long day for Amy. She had covered for a coworker and was coming to the end of an extended shift. “Ann, is there anything I can do for you before I head home?”
“Where’s George?” Ann asked as she refolded the blanket and placed it on the chair with symmetrical perfection. “Oh here” Amy said as she motioned toward the nightstand. She arranged the eight by twelve picture of George and Ann from their wedding. Amy positioned it so that Ann could see it from her bed… “How’s that?” In the corner of the picture was a weathered prayer card. On the front was a photo of the blessed mother and on the back a brief, memorial prayer with George’s name below it – at the bottom of the card the dates June 11th, 1921 – May 2nd, 1997.
Over the course of a lifetime the deepest, purest kind of love creates a residue which grows and self perpetuates into energy. It goes out into the world and fills up the space left by loss, pain and the disintegration of once precious memories. If only in the form of a gentle kind of grace, George stood faithfully by Ann for twenty years past his death in 1997.