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Kris Cameron


Against Her Wishes

My son told me that my mom and I were “engaged in elder abuse”. He had been learning about the rights of seniors in health class in 7th grade, and was very concerned that we were hurting his great-grandmother, not helping her, by trying to follow her wishes to stay on the farm and be left alone. We were shocked that with all the love, care, time and attention we were devoting to keeping “Gammy Fay” on the farm, could be construed in any way as elder abuse. It was those words from the “mouth of babes” that got our attention and stopped us in our tracks.

We agonized over what to do. My grandma had asked my grandfather to leave their home a month after he lost his mother…they were both in their 60s. None of us knew why that happened, least of all my grandfather. She had lived on the farm alone from that day on. Now 30 years later, as much as we wanted to deny reality, we had to accept that our attempts to honor her wishes were indeed falling into “elder abuse.” We didn’t want to see, or face the fact, that we couldn’t leave her alone any longer. It was time to take my grandmother, off the farm at age 92, against her will.

She had been living in the one room log cabin my grandparents had built during the depression. They chose to live a David Thoreau-Walden Pond-like life in a “Greenwich Village like cabin” in the woods. They lived a subsistence farming life, raising ducks and geese and goats and children.

The log cabin was a place of wonder and refuge to me. The baby grand piano sat in the corner of the living room area surrounded by shelves and shelves of books lining the walls. Satiny golden dresses shimmered in the dark depths of the closet. They called out to me to play dress up and dance in front of the huge studio mirror in the living room. There was no indoor bathroom, but there was an outhouse and a chamber pot. The Persian rugs Gammy inherited from her mother when she died, bumped up against that old brown tattered linoleum at the edge of the kitchen reminding us of their former lives of privilege.

My grandmother was a talented beautiful woman, a classic pianist who played in the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra after studying music in Paris and attending Julliard in New York. She shocked her family when she married my grandfather and moved to the farm. She could not relate with everyday people in any way. She was an intellectual, a recluse by choice, and would only talk about politics, Carl Sagan and the universe, and most importantly the population explosion.

Off the farm, she dressed with an incredible flair for the dramatic and always had a cosmopolitan style of her own. She would wear her velvet pumps, black mini-dress showing off her shapely figure even in her 70s. Her shoulder length silky silver-blonde hair flowed under her navy blue straw hat perched rakishly on the side of her head with ribbons tied under her chin.

The last half a year, before we stole her away, what had been going on behind closed doors, unsuspectingly crept up on us like the dark of winter. We didn’t even know what had really been happening until the layers began to unravel. Gammy’s desire for privacy and her leanings toward being a “hermitress” kept all of us away from her physically.

Once she let us into the cabin we realized that things had slipped to the spot where it was clearly not safe. She had gotten a note from the garbage men that recycling was starting. She didn’t know what that meant so she just started hoarding her garbage….all very neatly stored away in her bedroom and closet… even her used toilet paper was neatly folded and stored in Kleenex boxes by the chamber pot. The little dabs of food she did eat were carefully stored in plastic bags but the fruit flies had multiplied and were everywhere….you had to talk through your clenched teeth to keep them out of your mouth. She blamed my mom for the flies stating that “Beryl had brought them in when she gave me flowers for Mothers Day.” She was only drinking a little bit of milk each day, we knew that because all the food we left for her each, just sat there in the Tupperware containers in the refrigerator. She was always tiny but she was absolutely disappearing in front of our very eyes.

As we walked away from the cabin that time, we realized we couldn’t just let her do what she wanted because she wasn’t safe and couldn’t take care of herself. As much as neither of us wanted to admit it, we hadn’t really been taking care of her either. Maybe the uncomfortable relationship my mom and grandma had between them added to the willingness to let things slide, especially when Gammy wasn’t calling for any help in between. It’s surprising to realize how much you can ignore when you don’t really look-you see what you want to see.

We looked at our teacher calendars and saw that Presidents Day weekend was coming. We’d have some extra time to whisk her away, steal her away, kidnap her away, spirit her away…that’s how it all felt to us. We felt like Storm Troopers. The last thing we wanted to do was go against her wishes. But we had to. We set a time on Saturday, 5:00 P.M. to meet at the farm, each dressed unknowingly in matching outfits….our black pants and our YWCA black sweatshirts with hot pink writing on them from the Mother’s Day Breast Cancer walk we always did together. We felt like imposters pretending to have a nice visit with Gammy, just like we always had, knowing we were taking her away from the place she loved without talking about it at all.

We came into the cabin and had our visit, checked on things, and then said to Gammy, “We want to take you for a car ride.”

My grandmother, at this point, totally trusting, responded, “Where are we going darlings?”

We replied, “We’re just going to get you some fresh air and see the snow and the lights of the city.”

We tucked her into her enormous and heavy parka my grandfather had ordered from northern Canada decades ago ….she had her black rubber boots on over her wool socks and big leather choppers on her hands. The parka almost weighed more than she did so we sort of carried her, each of us holding her up and dragging her through the snow path to our car. We visited like everything was just normal, but headed straight towards my grandfather’s triplex in Proctor where he and my mom and sister lived while taking care of him.

She had asked him to leave a month after his mother died in the late ‘60s. None of us really knew what had happened between them, but we knew she had asked him to leave, and he being the gentleman he was, did what he was told. He left with his little slouch leather bag, his painting box, a few clothes and an electric griddle. He moved into an alley-way apartment on Superior St. to recover from the loss of his mom and his wife, the two women in the world he loved the most.

We pulled up to his house 30 years after she had asked him to leave, he knew we were coming. His gift to her had been to care for her all these years while giving her the solace and the silence of the farm, a place he also loved but couldn’t call home anymore. He had called her every day at 3:00 P.M. to talk, he had pulled food to her on the red sled through the snow when she quit driving in the winter, he had taken care of everything she needed. She had slowly but surely lost her amazing mind because she chose to live alone. Without conversation or stimulation she began to close down… and she hardly knew any of us, although she knew we loved her.

She looked at my grandfather and said, “John, where have you been all this time?”

He could have told the truth but instead he gently said to her, “I’ve been waiting for you to come home.” He patted towards a chair next to his wheel chair and she sat down, turned towards him, and held his hand while he patted hers.

We ate and visited as we always did and then she said, “John, are we going to bed?” She had forgotten that she had asked him to leave so many years ago, but my grandfather hadn’t.

He told her, “Fay, I get up so often in the night, I don’t want to interrupt you. We have a bed for you and I’ll be here in the morning when you wake up.”

They began their life anew at that time. They both loved each other and my grandfather was really the one person my grandma knew for sure. She never argued about being taken off the farm against her will. The few times she mentioned going home we would gently remind her that, “This is your home and we’re all here together.” Her memory loss helped ease the pain of leaving her home on the farm that she loved so much.

My grandparents would sit side by side in their wheelchairs and hold hands…his big, still strong gnarled hands holding her delicate hand cupped gently in his. They would watch the sun set over the cattails in the backyard, overlooking the swamp, listening to the redwing blackbirds sing just as they had at the farm.

A few years later they both passed peacefully into the next world at the age of 94 each, my grandfather lying in bed with his brown leather shoes on, waiting for the caregiver to get my grandma ready for breakfast. His heart had just given out quietly between dressing and breakfast. My grandma slipped away two years later, lovingly cared for in a home suited to take care of her, on the 4th of July….her Independence Day.

They continue to be with us in the fabric of our memories of family and love.