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Grandma Lela

18 Nov


Janet, Grandma Lela, Grandpa, Johnny, Bruce, and Kathy


Janet, Kathy, Karen

A couple days ago I went searching through the card box looking for a blank card, only to find four letters written to my parents by my Grandma Lela Mapes in the months before her death. The letters are written in a sloping, elegant style I associate with my father, and each letter is headed with the day and time, but not the date. Her sister, Becky, has decided that she must not be told she has cancer, but the letters reveal an ever-encroaching awareness that she is very sick. She doesn’t know about the cancer, but she does know she is getting progressively weaker. I’ve covered the background of these events in my grandparents’ lives before, but suffice it to say that the letters reflect that the State of New York had taken half of their land through the power of eminent domain and they are still living on the confiscated piece when she writes the letters. My grandparents’ bedroom slowly becomes her sick bed.

The threatening legal maneuvers of the state face my grandparents and my aunt and uncle, who live together with each family living in one half of the old-fashioned side-by-side. Grandma Lela relates this predicament in a straightforward manner in a letter written on Thursday at 2:30 pm: “We were all served with summons again yesterday telling us we were living her illegally. There will be a hearing in the court September 17 to show why we have not vacated and why we should be here.” My mother was present during one of the times a process server came to the house. She told me that when the man said he needed to serve Lela Mapes, Grandpa said he would kill him if he got near her. She had never heard Grandpa, who was a gentle man, talk that way. The next day Grandpa went to the judge and made arrangements for her to die in her own house. It was clear she wasn’t going to make it to the new one.

In the same letter Grandma reports that “the men are putting up the forms for the foundation but I don’t think the foundation will be poured this week.” In the meantime she is happily choosing bathroom fixtures, a bath tub, and tiles. She didn’t live long enough to see them. One bathroom was tiled blue with pink towels; the other was tiled in pink with blue towels. The blue bathroom contained the tub, and, as my mother always reminded me, the long wooden bench that was chosen by Grandma so her grandchildren could sit down when they toweled themselves off.

All of the letters contain references to her grandchildren. Unfortunately, she was never to meet my cousins, Corinne and John, or her six great-grandchildren. In this letter she is taking a strong interest in my schooling and that of my cousin, Bruce. She says, “I am so glad that Kathy was anxious to go to school. Does the school pick her up at the door, or does she walk to a central point.” My Aunt Alice has told her that “Bruce’s grade [is] going to try and do a year and one half in one year. . . . Maybe they won’t have time at the end of the year just reading comic books.” She finishes her thoughts with “Friday morning. A beautiful day. Plenty of rain in the night. Dad is waiting for me so good by for now. Love to all, Mother.”

However, even as she became more ill, my grandmother focuses on the foundation of their new house on the remaining land. One Wednesday at 7:30 pm, she writes, “I think–I hope–everything is ready for the foundation to be poured tomorrow. It has seemed an interminable length of time getting it ready but they have worked steadily on it and I never realized the detail that is involved in getting forms ready. It doesn’t look as though they skimped or cut corners in doing it and it should be very sound when it is done. If they pour the cement tomorrow, Dad says they probably won’t do any more on the house this week as it takes several days to dry.” Even though she is headed toward the end of her life, she is making decisions about her future house.

Behind all this is a deeper anxiety about being evicted: “Tomorrow is the date of the court hearing. Bill said none of us needed to go unless Dad wanted to. Guess their office has prepared some affidavits.” This concern is accompanied by her frustration with her family who were reluctant to have her take care of my cousin, Karen, while my Aunt Carol and Uncle Bill were on vacation: “Alice and Becky are going to look after Karen. I want to help too, but they are still carrying me around on a silver platter.”

In her next letter, headed with the inscription, Wednesday, 10 pm, she initially seems much more relaxed.  Her sister, Becky, and daughter-in-law, Alice (my aunt), have held a Smorgasbord at the church and raised $430.  Other people are taking care of Karen, but she finally gets her hands on her: “Karen seems to be enjoying her vacation too.  Becky took care of her from Fri till yesterday morning, then Dad and I went to Wanaksink and then brought her home and looked after her yesterday afternoon and today and Alice will probably take over tomorrow.”

She’s getting out with Grandpa and Ida, her sister, on a Sunday outing to the Forstman Estate at Claryville, where the New Jersey Y.M.C.A. has taken over and built a new conference center, and on a Monday visit they drive to see a Mr. Brimelow, whose wife had just died, but admits “I overdid a little Sunday and Monday and haven’t been feeling so brisk.” Later she says, “Guess I’m not the gal I used to be, it seemed to be too much for me.”  Her health must have given the coming move a new urgency: “Did I tell you we must vacate here by Dec. 31st?  When I think of everything that has to be done between now and then, I want to give up.”

Still, she continues to focus on her grandchildren. I am the next one she mentions in the letter: “Jack asked me the other day if you had said anything about Kathy’s eyes lately. He seems to think they are better. What do you think?” She closes the letter with “Love and kisses to that little school girl and her brother.” But she can’t end without a P.S.: “Tell Kathy I’d like to see her without her teeth.”

I’m not sure if she did see me “without my teeth,” but I did see her in the final months. The moments  I remember are like the letters–dateless. One time we drove to Monticello to visit her and she waved to us from the balcony of her room in the hospital like a queen–she was about three stories up, so I couldn’t touch her. There were strange attitudes about visiting patients in hospitals back in those days. Many years later, when  our Grandfather Mapes was nearing the end, my cousin, Corinne, climbed into his room through the hospital window. I guess she was just more enterprising. On another occasion, when I visited the Old House, I found Grandma  in her bedroom, surrounded by big oxygen tents and too many people. She had beautiful white hair and I remember how it looked as she lay there among the pillows.  I feel as though the letters help to fill in some of the blanks concerning what I didn’t know at the time.

The last of the letters, headed Wednesday, 7:15 pm, reveals the gravity of her situation.  She is now bedridden: “The Doctor was here this morning, he has only come every other day since Saturday, said to continue to take my medicine and stay in bed.  To tell the truth, that’s what I want to do.  He said I had three patches of pneumonia but was now more in the pleurisy stage.”  The extent of her confinement becomes obvious one day when she is left alone and one of my father’s work friends from Cornell drops by.  She admits to being frustrated because she cannot go downstairs to greet him: “I heard someone around the house that day and saw a car drive out of the driveway but I didn’t attempt to go downstairs to find out who it was as I knew I wasn’t supposed to.”  Her handwriting looks smaller  on the page in comparison to the three previous letters.  I don’t know if that is because of her fading health or the fact that she is using a smaller piece of stationery.  The construction of the house continues: “The four men, two Averys and two Couch’s are working steadily on the house.”

I was only six years old when she died, but remember her well, partly I think because she had such a lively personality and partly because she was so interested in her grandchildren.  At the beginning of the last letter, she wonders  what gifts my parents have bought with  Grandpa’s and  her money: “Our telephone visit interrupted so quickly Monday that I didn’t find out what you shopped for in Rochester, I only know you each got one thing.  Do you suppose it will be ‘continued in the next’ or will it be a mystery ‘whodunit’ that leaves you guessing.”  I cannot help but ponder if she was talking about the Great Beyond or just being whimsical.