"Can you deliver the hospital bed before noon?" I glanced at my watch: 9:30. "Eleven? Yes, that's right. Englewood. I'll be waiting."
I ran my fingers through my short blond hair. This gives me time to arrange nursing.
An hour later, I lightly knocked on the door of my parents' house. No answer. I unlocked the front door with my key. My eighty-six-year-old father was napping in his brown recliner in the living room. The blaring television was switched to the local twenty-four-hour news channel, which he regularly watched. The same news over and over. How much new news can there be? I shook my head. I turned down the TV volume then gently tapped my father's shoulder.
"Dad? Dad, wake up."
Confused, his light blue eyes gazed up at me, not recognizing me at first.
"Oh, Cookie. It's you, honey."
I smiled at my father and the nickname my family called me all my life. It wasn't until I went to college did anyone call me Sandy.
"Hi, Dad. They're bringing the bed for Mom. After they set it up, I'll leave for the hospital."
It was 1:30 before I started for Sarasota Memorial, an hour's drive away. Bone tired, I reflected on the last few months. I prided myself on my resilience, yet recent events proved otherwise. Life can indeed be tough.
Arriving at the hospital, I tiptoed into my mother's room. Barely visible, my mother looked lost in the hospital bed. Always a wisp of a woman, she had become smaller through the years. A closer look revealed she was crying.
Oh, no. It's too soon.
I held my mother's hand. They were ice cold.
"Mom, your hands are so cold."
"The nurses were trying to warm them with heated towels a while ago but they're still cold. No circulation, Cookie," she explained in a ragged breath.
"Do they hurt? Is that why you're crying?"
"No," she whispered, wiping the tears with her tissue, "I didn't think anyone was coming."
"Oh, Mom," I said, my voice cracking. "I told you I was picking you up."
My mother glanced sideways at me. "I thought I was like that young soldier at Crile Hospital."
"What young soldier?"
"The paraplegic," she murmured softly. "Remember I was a Gray Lady?"
I nodded as I rubbed her hands.
"He had to live at Crile," my mother wept. "He was paralyzed from the neck down. The first year I was there he never had a visitor. He waited and waited but no one came. One day when I walked into his room to help him with his lunch, he was so excited.
"Grace, my family is coming to see me tomorrow! My mother! My father! My sister!"
I was almost as happy as he was. A few days later when I returned to Crile, I asked him, "How was your visit?"
"They never came," he sobbed.
I wrapped my arms around my mother's frail body. "Oh, Mom, I would never forget you. The arrangements for the bed and nurses took longer than I expected."
I tenderly stroked her arms.
She sunk further into the pillows. "Cookie, I'm dying."
"Don't say that," I pleaded.
"It makes little difference if I say it or not," she mumbled.
"I'm not ready for you to die," I cried.
My mother wiped a tear from my cheek then lightly patted my hand.
I had just finished dressing her when there was a rap on the hospital door.
"I'm here to take Mrs. Balogh down," a voice announced.
The hospital aide pushed the wheelchair into the room. He carefully lifted my mother into the chair and wheeled her down to the hospital exit where my car was parked. Frail and weak, Mom dozed the hour home. As I pulled into my parents' driveway, Mom awoke.
"Do you think you can walk into the house?" I asked.
"I don't think so."
I knew my father wouldn't be able to help.
"Okay, Mom, here's what we'll do. You place your feet on my feet when we get out of the car. Wrap your arms tightly around my waist. I'll be your feet. We'll walk slowly, so don't be afraid. I left the door unlocked. Your bed is in the living room next to the window. Ready?"
"Ready," Mom repeated.
My mother rested her head on my breast as she wrapped her arms around me. With her tiny feet encompassed in slippers, she planted a foot on each one of my feet. Like Siamese twins, we shuffled toward the front door. I twisted the doorknob.
Hearing a sound, my father turned to see us meshed together. "Can I help?"
"No, Dad, we've just about made it."
I gently sat my mother on the edge of the bed while I went back to the car to get her hospital bag.
Mom peered out the large picture window. "This is nice. I can watch the birds from here." She started coughing. In a wheezy voice, she said, "I should've gone to that other place."
I heard her as I carried in the bag. "Mom, you mean hospice?"
Mom coughed again. "That's what the nurse called it."
"Is that where you want to go?" I asked, surprised.
"No. No. I want to be here in my own home."
"This is where you are and this is where you will stay."
Dad didn't say a word. The love of his life was dying and there was nothing he could do about it.
Mom winced as I carefully lifted her legs onto the bed. Any movement was painful for her. Cancer had taken its deadly toll. I propped up pillows behind her back. She had to sit up now. She couldn't breathe lying down.
"I'll stay with you and Dad until the nurse gets here. She should be here in a few minutes. Then, I'll go home to call the kids to tell them you're home," I said.
My mother was exhausted but I knew she would fight sleep as long as I was there. As soon as the nurse arrived, I kissed her on the cheek. "Rest, now." I held my dad a few moments to comfort him. "I'll be back later, Dad."
I telephoned my sisters and brothers in Ohio, 1200 miles away. "She doesn't have much time left," I told them. "If you're coming, better leave now."
My mother died six days later at home surrounded by Dad, the five of us, and the grandchildren. She was cremated without services. Years before, she and Dad decided individual funeral services would be too devastating for the one remaining. They would have services together when the time came. Their encompassing love extended beyond their lives and into death.
"Well, everyone's gone now," I said to Dad, who was resting in his recliner. "Just us again."
"You know, Dad, I think I'll spend the next few days over here with you until things settle down."
"I'd like that but what about Mike?"
"He's restoring that 1935 Essex he bought. He'll probably appreciate the free time," I smiled. "Besides, we're only a couple of blocks away. He'll have meals with us."
Dad leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. "Cookie, there's some boxes in our bedroom closet you should go through."
"What kind of boxes?"
"Mom's boxes?" I asked surprised. "What's in them?"
"Stuff she's been saving for you kids."
"She never mentioned saving anything."
"It's in the boxes," Dad explained as he pulled himself up from his chair. "I'm tired. I'm going to take my nap."
"I'll go in the room with you to take out a box. I'll start going through it while you're napping."
In the back of the closet were several boxes stacked neatly against the wall. I carried the top box into the spare bedroom to set on the chair. When I opened the box, I saw a journal. I picked up the journal and started reading.
* * *
October 10, 1983
Regret. The only word to describe how I feel right now. Bill and I just got back from my cousin Wilbert's funeral in Sarasota. I read his obituary in the Sarasota Herald yesterday. I didn't even know he lived in Florida. I haven't seen him since I married but I felt I had to go. When we walked into the Toale Brothers Chapel, Delbert came up to me and said, "For Heaven Sakes, Grace. How the hell are you?" Then he hugged me. Tears welled in my eyes. I whispered, "It's been too long, Delbert." Delbert answered, "Yes, it has been, Grace." He had tears in his eyes, too.
I stopped reading.
Wilbert? That's Butch's name. Mom told us kids she and Dad couldn't agree on a name for my brother, so they named him after the doctor who delivered him. We always thought it a strange story, but that was Mom. Mom never mentioned she had cousins. She never talked about her family much at all.
I emptied the contents of the box on the bed. I began sorting through journals, letters, legal documents, yellowed newspaper clippings, and old photographs. This was only the first box.....
November 20, 1983
To My Children,
I never told you much about my life before I met your father. It has always been difficult for me to talk about my childhood. It was easier for me to write. I started writing a journal after your father and I married. My journals are in the boxes that you have already discovered since you are reading this letter. I realize for the journals to make sense, you should have an understanding of the past. This letter is my past to you. But even the past must have a beginning and, for me, my beginning is the memory of my mother.
I remember my mother as loving and kind. She was very good to me. I loved her and she loved me. At six years old nothing else mattered.
My mother was fun. She had this passion for clothes. She made a shopping trip an adventure. We'd take the streetcar into the Higbee Department Store in Cleveland. She'd eye the latest fashions at Higbees and then claim, "It's a new day for women, Grace!" After shopping, we'd have lunch at a Chinese restaurant before riding the streetcar back to Lakewood.
Funny the things you recall. On our last trip, my mom bought a black sport suit with the skirt hem mid-calf. She topped the outfit off with an elegant flowing feather hat. For me she bought a multi-colored polka dot cotton frock with a light blue cardigan sweater and black canvas shoes. My dad said we looked like we stepped off the pages of Vogue. We wore our new outfits the following weekend to the county fair to see the famous racecar driver Barney Oldfield. My mom said Barney was some sort of relative. When Barney slowed his racer to pull off the tract, she ran up to him. Barney parked and jumped out of his car to hug her.
Later, as we were walking toward the bandstand, my mom suddenly turned to my dad and said, "Harry, I'm tired. Let's go home."
My dad was surprised. This was not like my mother. She loved fairs, especially the bands. She usually wanted to spend the entire day. The next evening, my mother and I were sitting on the living room couch browsing through family photographs when she grabbed her side and screamed for Dad. Dad rushed into the living room. Mom's face was gray.
"Get your coat on, Grace!" he yelled. "We're taking Mom to the hospital!"
Dad carried mom down the stairs of our apartment building. He gently laid her on the back seat of our car. I jumped into the front seat with Dad. He sped to Lakewood Hospital. The doctor said my mom's appendix burst. She died three days later, on November 16, 1921. I couldn't believe my mother was gone. I loved her so much. At six years old, my whole life changed.
My dad and I had a very difficult time getting over Mom's death. I don't think he ever did. I know I didn't.
Dad refused to live in our apartment without mom. Luckily for us, about this time, my father's brother, Orrie, and his family moved to Lakewood from Uhrichsville, Ohio, where the Lattos were originally from. Uncle Orrie rented a house and we all lived together Dad, me, Uncle Orrie, Aunt Maude, and their twin sons, Wilbert and Delbert.
Aunt Maude was special. Always laughing and ready with a kiss. Just like my mom. She dressed like my mother, too, wore shorter dresses. Aunt Maude liked the cloche hats, which were popular. Those tight-fitting hats that tilted to the side of the head. I liked them, too. She'd let me wear one around the house. I could hardly wait to have one of my own, but by the time I was old enough they went out of style.
Aunt Maude helped me so much. She treated me like a daughter. There never was a dull moment in that house. I grew especially close to Wilbert. There was only a year difference between the twins and me so we were always together. But we couldn't live forever with Aunt Maude and Uncle Orrie. It was pretty crowded.
By summer, my dad rented an apartment not far from our old one. We did everything together. My favorite was going to baseball games. My father was a die-hard baseball fan and he passed the love of the game to me. We spent most Saturdays at League Park in Cleveland where the Indians from the American League played. I'll never forget the game where the Indians played the New York Yankees. My favorite player was the Indian Tris Speaker. He and the Yankee Babe Ruth played. Tris hit a home run. The fans went crazy, including my dad and me. When it was the Yankees turn up, Babe Ruth hit a home run. Talk about excitement. The stadium actually vibrated. When Ruth ran around the bases, I was amazed by the size of his feet. Babe Ruth was a husky guy with these tiny feet. I asked my dad how he could run around the bases with those small feet. He laughed. "See for yourself, Grace. He does a darn good job of it!"
During these years, I was too young to stay home by myself while my father worked so he hired girls who emigrated from Ireland to take care of me. My dad was very Irish. The Lattos came to America in the early 1800s, but my dad acted like Ireland was his second home, even though he had never been there. Anyway, he hired them at the YWCA in Cleveland. The girls lived at the Y until they could find work. I was nine years old when my father brought Molly Quinn home. I liked Molly right away. She had red hair, green eyes, and lots of freckles. I never saw so many freckles! I thought she was beautiful. Molly came from Belfast. She never tired talking about Ireland. I never tired listening. After all these years, I still remember Molly describing Ireland to me.
"Ireland is God's country, little Grace. God saw this Isle. He decided to put all manner of land there rolling hills, mountains, forests, rivers, lakes then He named it Ireland. Ireland means `The Beautiful Land.' God thought his work finished. He planned to rest but the Irish will not let Him. The Irish are fighting over Him and Ireland. Does God want Ireland to be Catholic or Protestant? To the Irish, Ireland can't be both. The Protestants want Ireland to be Protestant. The Catholics want Ireland to be Catholic. They fight. Too many bombs. Too many deaths. My two brothers died fighting. That's why I left."
"Who killed them?" I remember asking.
"I don't know who killed them," she answered. "What difference does it make? Dead is dead."
We lived in our apartment about a year when my dad began having an affair with the woman upstairs. Elizabeth Basnett. My father liked to call himself an interior decorator but he actually was a self-employed paperhanger who was able to set his own work hours. Every morning after Mr. Basnett and their two daughters left, my dad would climb the stairs to their apartment. I found this out by accident. I was usually in school before my father went to work. One day I stayed home with a bad cold. When he left our apartment, I sat by the window waiting for him to get into our car parked out on the street but he didn't. I asked Molly where he went. She told me not to think about such things.
After about six months, Mr. Basnett became suspicious. I overheard a couple of women from our building whispering about it outside. According to them, one morning Mr. Basnett left for work to return later to discover my dad and Elizabeth in bed. No whispers now. It was the talk of the building. Mr. Basnett was granted a quick divorce on the grounds of Elizabeth Basnett's adultery. The Basnett's two young daughters, Georgia and Lillian, remained with Elizabeth in the apartment. Mr. Basnett moved to Cleveland.
As I think back on it, I can't imagine my dad being attracted to Elizabeth. My father was a tall, attractive man with black wavy hair. I remember my mom as petite, with short curly blond hair and sparkling green eyes. Elizabeth didn't look or act anything like my mother. In fact, she was the exact opposite. Elizabeth was tall and buxom. Long brown hair and dull eyes. Dress hems to her ankles. Everything about her said yesterday.
Almost immediately, Elizabeth insisted she and my father move in together. After all, she reasoned, the divorce was my dad's fault. Elizabeth convinced him she could take better care of me than Molly. Besides, she insisted, Georgia and Lillian would be my "sisters." For some strange reason, my dad thought "sisters" were a good idea. I thought it was a terrible idea. We all lived in the same apartment building and none of us had ever talked to each other. That told me a lot. But my dad wouldn't listen. No matter how hard I tried to stop it, Molly was gone in a week.