Tuesday, September 5, 2017

On the 100th anniversary of Charlotte Clark's birth, a look back at 2009

         I wrote the essay below, entitled "One More Year," in 2009, after I had visited my mother for a week in March or thereabouts at her home in Harwich Port, Massachusetts.  She died in late May of that year, a few months shy of her 92nd birthday. 
Charlotte and Charlotte
         Here she is, at right, with her granddaughter and namesake Charlotte Spring Clark.  
         Today, on what would have been Charlotte Clark's 100th birthday, I hope you enjoy this snapshot of her at 91.
                     Brooks Clark
One More Year
“Well,” says Charlotte, elbows on the church folding table, one hand holding a piece of coffee cake, “everybody says I should think about going into assisted living.” 
      She annunciates the last two words with the emphasis she might use to punctuate sentences like, “He got mixed up with that female,” or, “That dress was perfectly dreadful.”
      Around the tables, arranged in a U, the members of the Wednesday morning post-service breakfast discussion, many of them octogenarians themselves, turn their heads to hear Charlotte’s nearly nonagenarian voice.
      “I guess I need to think about it,” she says, “even though I don’t want to.”
      “Thank you, Charlotte,” says Father P____, just a hair too patronizing, as usual, not like the interim rector, Bill, who had preceded him.  Bill had always understood that, even as Charlotte’s hearing and sight grew weaker and she got slower moving her walker down the aisle to Communion, she most definitely had all her marbles. 
       Bill gave great sermons.  He never used any notes and stood near the front pews, so he was easy to hear, and he was popular with everyone. Charlotte says that, at his previous posting on Martha’s Vineyard, he had “done something bad” – which sounds for all the world like something good in the conspiratorial way she whispers it – to earn his interim posting at such a small church with such an old congregation.  “He went astray,” she adds, in case you hadn’t figured it out.
       In her years as a clergyman’s wife, Charlotte always hated it when parishioners said they liked the old rector better than the current one.  “It’s so unfair to the new guy,” she explains.  “So I always stood up for John P____.”  But she did like Bill better.  
       “It was with the wife of a Congregational minister,” she finally adds, having held out the juicy detail long enough.  
      “Change can be hard in our lives,” Father P____ continues. “Just as change can be hard in the Church.  Many of us love the Episcopal Church because it has so many traditions and so much history, and because the words we say haven’t changed, going back to the early centuries of Christianity.  But we now have female clergy.  We have gay clergy, and gay bishops, and we know there are differing opinions about all of that. And we have many different ways that we approach what the Church is all about.  The Youth Ministry is a great example.  We’re still trying to figure out what works.”  Nods all around.
      “I’ve thought a lot about it,” says Charlie, a vestryman in his 70s, “and I’ve decided that these changes are good. They keep our Church up with the times and able to reach young people.  If the only people coming to church are all of us, we’re sunk.”   
      That was several years ago.  
      Just this fall the church got a new rector, Judith Davis. “She went to Yale Divinity School,” says Charlotte, “and she gives great sermons. It’s so great to have a person of thinking.”   Judith had been rector at a church on Capitol Hill for 12 years and a hematologist in a previous career.  She and her partner, Ann, who’s also a priest, have an adopted son, Jamie, 6½, whom they are home schooling.
      A few people left the parish when they heard about the new hire.  “Some have come back,” says Charlotte, “because they heard she was good.  There were a couple of weeks between the announcement and her arrival. That gave people time to talk and get upset.  It would have been better if they’d made the announcement and she started right then.”
      Change comes in many disguises.
      A couple of years ago Charlotte started remaining seated during Communion.  That was after Jack Doran, the head usher, made her feel uncomfortable about moving her walker down the center aisle. “He said, ‘You can go this way,’” Charlotte recalls.  So now, after everyone else is finished, Judith and the chalice bearer come down and administer the wafer and wine to Charlotte in her pew. “It’s OK,” she says.  
       On weekdays, Charlotte watches The Today Show, doing her flexibility movements sitting on the side of her bed.  Then she pilots her walker into the kitchen a little before 10 a.m.  Her Special K is in a bowl with a light blue Ziploc cover on top. She pours her coffee and milk and sits in her white wooden chair that has been recently reupholstered and reconditioned. 
      Barbara, her beloved caregiver for five years now, arrives “at the stroke of ten.” 
      “Hello-oo!” chirps Barbara, putting her bag down on the round kitchen table. The table has looked the same since 1969, when Charlotte made a collage out of newspaper clips from the moon landing and sealed it under poly-urethane.  “Some still say . . . earth is flat,” reads one headline, placed over a close-up of the lunar surface.
       On the kitchen wall, alongside a door jamb, are pencil markings marking the heights of the children and grandchildren over the years.  From a black-and-white photo on the wall, Charlotte’s husband, Bayard, gone some 15 years now, beams with pride as he holds up a fish that stretches from his shoulders to his white Top-Sider sneakers.  A blue-tinged certificate signed by Governor Endicott Peabody declares Bayard’s catch to be the biggest striped bass taken from Massachusetts waters in 1968.
       On the wall there’s also the family photo from 1970 – the boys with the moustaches and long hair, everyone dressed in brightly colored attire from India, brought back by two sons from the Peace Corps.  That year Charlotte’s mother, beginning her descent into senility, had taken a pair of scissors to her copy of the family shot and snipped the tops of the boys’ heads – and their hair – right out of the picture.    
       Beneath glass in seven motley-sized frames are dozens of business cards.  The tradition started as a retort to the question, asked once too often, “What is your job, anyway?”  As if anyone in a large family ever listens when you say your title and the name of the company you work for.  And anyway, in this kitchen you worry about other things:  How is so-and-so doing in school?  Are Tommy and Jeanne going to get married?  Does the roof need to be replaced?  Can we afford it? 
        Nonetheless, there they are, those cards – decades of jobs and titles and companies gone by, preserved for posterity, testament to the changing paths of our lives, even if things don’t change much in Charlotte’s kitchen.       
       Barbara takes Charlotte’s blood pressure, reads Charlotte her mail, as well as the headlines from the Cape Cod Times, and a column or two, especially Maureen Dowd. Charlotte closes her eyes to listen and punctuates each of Dowd’s witty barbs with a hearty laugh. 
       “That’s been the hardest thing,” says Charlotte, “not being able to read.”   Last March she learned to use a small portable CD player.  So now she listens to books on CD on Saturdays and Sundays, when Barbara isn’t there.  Last spring she “read” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, about Lincoln’s cabinet.  So many people were reading and talking about that book that uninitiated listeners, hearing discussions about the precocious “Belle of Washington” Kate Chase and her elegant parties, thought Charlotte was talking about someone she knew.  
     Barbara makes up a meal plan for the evening and a shopping list, and then heads out to the Star Market.
     Charlotte talks on the phone with children, their spouses and ex-spouses, grandchildren, neighbors and friends.  One granddaughter is graduating from college in May. Another is getting married in June – to “a good guy.”  Another is engaged.  Another will be soon.  It’s a lot to keep up with, but Charlotte is on top of each development. 
      Weddings and graduations have always been Charlotte’s favorite occasions. Three years ago she made it to a granddaughter’s wedding in Boston, with a son piloting her wheelchair through game-day crowds for the reception at Fenway Park.  Two Aprils ago she did the same for a grandson’s wedding in Philadelphia. But she’ll miss the college graduation and the wedding. “It’s very upsetting,” she says, “but it’s just too much for me to make long trips, and for someone to look after me.  Ideally, Barbara could take me.”
       It’s challenge enough for Charlotte to make it to the 10 a.m. service on Sundays, if it’s not too cold or icy.  Bo Coursen, the senior warden of the church, and his wife, Sidney, are so nice to come by and drive her.  Nowadays the Wednesday 7:30 a.m. service is “just too early.”
      Charlotte has had occasional mini-strokes – TIAs (transient ischemic attacks), they call them – as well as a fainting episode and other health moments, but now she’s doing pretty well. A few days after her 90th birthday party she had a TIA, and they found she wasn’t getting enough oxygen.  “I was incarcerated for three weeks,” she says of her stay in rehab at Liberty Commons, when she learned to breathe better.  They also gave her an oxygen machine to use at night   
       Each week Barbara puts Charlotte’s pills for the week, morning and evening, in two one of those M-T-W handy containers, and, says Barbara, “she’s good about taking them.”   Barbara is also good at changing the batteries on Charlotte’s hearing aids, thank heaven.
      At least once a day Charlotte talks with Lucy, her best friend since they were 6.    They can tell you anything you want to know about anyone who attended or taught at Phillips Exeter Academy, where their fathers were professors, in the first half of the 20th century.  Charlotte remembers seeing James Agee moving through the garden behind the dorm they lived in. “He was a very odd walker,” she recalls. 
      People come by, some for tea, some for lunch, and chat. 
      Before she leaves at around 4 p.m., Barbara reads again to Charlotte.  Right now they’re in the early chapters of Dreams from My Father.  “An extraordinary story,” says Charlotte.  Really extraordinary.”
     It’s important for Charlotte to get her nap in the afternoon, but it can be hard to get her to nap when the children or grandchildren or great grandchildren are visiting. 
      In the evenings Charlotte watches The Situation Room and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer in her bedroom.  She then moves to the kitchen, heats up the dinner Barbara has made for her, and eats while watching Hardball.
     “When everything is the same, she’s the happiest,” says Barbara, who comes five days a week now.  So don’t move that stack of New Yorkers on the living room coffee table.  She likes them there, right next to the Smith Alumnae Quarterly and a Boston College hockey media guide that her grandson Tim worked on. 
      And don’t touch anything on that foldout desk and its cubbies overflowing with envelopes.  Many of the bills are paid automatically these days, but there are a few that Charlotte has to deal with.  A friend comes by every now and then and helps her mailing birthday cards and other notes.
      Charlotte’s ring binder with everyone’s phone numbers printed in 24-point type stays right on the kitchen table.  “Judy [a daughter-in-law] was so nice to put that together for me,” says Charlotte. With her macular degeneration, Charlotte is having trouble reading even with the big numbers, but she can get Barbara to dial them for her.
     The house is full of Charlotte’s paintings and lithographs.  A few years ago her eyesight and unsure hands ended her life as an artist, but she took it in stride.  Right now, she just wants to keep being able to live in her house, with Barbara coming in and cooking for her and driving her to her doctor’s appointments, and friends and family coming by and calling to say hello.
       “I think I have one more year,” says Charlotte.  Of course, she said the same thing a year ago, and the year before that.
        “Our rule,” explains Barbara, “is that, as long as she can get up and out of her chair, and get the bathroom, and into the kitchen, I can take care of her.  But if she can’t get up, I can’t look after her any more.”
       The specter of not being able to get up and having to leave her house for assisted living inspires Charlotte to do her eight minutes of movements on the side of her bed while listening to Matt Lauer every morning.   
      “[Sons] Rocky and Stocky wanted to buy me one of those chairs that you push a button and go flying in the air,” she says.  “I didn’t want that.  It was brown, so it didn’t match.  They said it was only $150, and you could never get a chair like that for $150. Ordinarily they cost $600.  But I said no. To keep living here, I have to be able to get up, and if I had that chair I’d stop being able to.  And anyway, I like this chair,” she says, hitting the white wood arm rest with the heel of her hand.
      “People my age don’t like change,” she explains.  “We like things to remain the same.”
       Rocky comes for dinner on Wednesdays, usually with his daughter Anna and her boyfriend Chris, both of them just out of college. “Both of them have jobs,” says Charlotte.  “You know, all 14 of my grandchildren have made it through college,” she has said more than once. “I’m proud about that, and I don’t mind saying so.”     
       The summer months will bring waves of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, filling up the house and sparking those storied, more-the-merrier family dinners, at which those of all ages are expected contribute to the conversation.  
       One granddaughter described the family dinners in her application essay to Williams. Last summer another granddaughter, counseling at a Fresh Air Fund camp north of New York City, brought co-counselors from Germany, Scotland and England during one of their breaks between encampments.  
     For the past six decades or so, these dinners always begin with joined hands and the singing of “For health and strength and daily food, we praise thy name, oh Lord. Ah-h-h-h . . . men.”
      If she’s not careful, Charlotte, at 91½, can get worn down during these months of activity, but she hates to miss a minute and of course wants to be up to date on the constant changes in everyone’s lives.

       “Really,” says Charlotte, “I’m just so happy to still be here.”   On earth and in the kitchen, for one more year.