For Nancy Leighton Calfee, April 26th, 1919 – January 28th, 2013.
By Lee Chilcote
Nancy opens the door and stares at me, furrowing her brow as she tries to remember who I am. I’ve just spoken with her on the lobby phone, but by the time I take the elevator up to her apartment, she’s forgotten all about me.
“Hi Nancy – it’s Lee,” I say. “I’ve come by to pick you up for the concert.”
“Ah, yes!” she says, suddenly remembering. “I’ll just get my coat.”
She finds it lying on the arm of the sofa. I look around at the white apartment walls that are decorated with family photos and pictures of Nancy as a little girl. A magnet on the kitchen fridge holds up Christmas cards, a sheet of phone numbers and a pad where she jots things down. Despite living at Judson Manor, a retirement home, she’s decorated her apartment so it feels like home.
I pick up a photo of Nancy in her early 20’s from the hall table. Her hair is cut in a short bob and she has a playful smile on her face; she reminds me of my grandmother Kay, who was ten years older and Nancy’s first cousin. Both women, I believe, rebelled against their world in quiet, domestic ways.
I watch as Nancy pulls on one arm of her coat, marveling at her strength – a foil to her fading memory. She’s just celebrated her eighty-seventh birthday, yet she still goes for walks and swims in the pool at Judson almost every day. She’s stopped driving, though, so we usually pick her up for family outings.
She fastens the last button on her coat and says, “I’m ready.”
The first time that I met Nancy, she opened her front door, welcomed me into her house and said, “We’ve got so much to talk about.” I knew she was the family history expert and a relative of my grandmother’s, but not much else.
“Sorry about the mess – I never was much of a housekeeper,” she apologized, gesturing towards the piles of paper strewn about the floor. “Lately, I’ve been trying to get things organized, but I’ve been so busy taking care of Jack.”
That was three years ago. Nancy’s husband was still alive; he used a walker to get around and needed constant care. I sensed our visit was a welcome break from the caretaking that consumed her life. As we sat down at her dining room table, she opened a binder filled with genealogy charts, photos and letters. An old photograph slipped out onto the table. She held it up – a girl with a ponytail was standing on the sidewalk in front of a bright marquee.
“Walking to the old Cedar-Lee, I’d rub my two nickels together in my hand,” she said. “In those old movies, someone was always getting tied to the railroad tracks.”
Nancy was a little girl during the feverish boom of the 1920’s, and when the Crash came, her parents couldn’t afford to send her to private school anymore. It was all right – she hadn’t liked it anyway. “It made us tougher,” she said of the Great Depression. “We were the Greatest Generation – I do believe that.”
The women that raised Nancy, including her grandmother Nanny, were big influences. “Nanny grew up in a small town in Southern Ohio, and rode a white mare to a one room schoolhouse when she was nine years old,” she said.
Nanny was central to her stories. Over the next few years, I heard many versions of the Nanny story, all portraying her as a hardy, pre-feminist pioneer eking out a living on the knife edge of the frontier. Like most family lore, the facts were a bit fluid and the telling was probably exaggerated over time, but there was something true in the story’s heart.
After meeting her husband Tracy, Nanny moved to Cleveland as a young woman. They lived on the east side then moved to the suburb of Cleveland Heights. “As a girl, I’d sit at her feet while she told me stories about her childhood. She loved to read, and her house was filled with books.”
Nancy held up a black-and-white photo of a grey-haired woman in a rocking chair. Nanny wore a simple, flower print dress and her face was creased with wrinkles. I’d never met her, yet I felt like I knew her through Nancy’s stories.
As we talked, Nancy excused herself several times to check on Jack. When she came back to the table, her face was pinched with worry. Jack’s health was slipping, and I’d heard it was only a matter of time.
As we got to know each other, I realized Jack was like her final assignment in a lifetime of caring for other people. She’d raised four boys, cooked, cleaned and kept house – now this. She was in her early 80s at the time, and already a bit absent-minded; I sometimes got the sense that she held things together just for him.
Nancy and I talked for hours that day. Each time she turned a page, she thought of another story; I felt like a child who was watching a string of paper dolls unfold.
I finally said goodbye and stepped into the brisk night air. As I drove away, I saw her binder, brimming with memories – the faded, black-and-white photos, the tattered letters soft to the touch. Who would take care of them?
After the concert, I ask Nancy if she enjoyed it. “Very much,” she says as we walk into the church hall. “This place looks familiar. Have I been here before?”
Nancy had grown up within walking distance of here; as a girl, she’d skipped rope on the slate sidewalks just down the block. “We’re at Saint Ann’s,” I say.
She nods and smiles. I can’t tell if she actually remembers, or if she’s just faking it. We help ourselves to frosted cookies and punch at the dessert table. “So what did you do this week, Nancy?” I ask.
“Well,” she says, pausing to think for moment. “We have a water aerobics class at Judson. I do that once a week. Oh, and I like to walk to the grocery store, too.”
Then she smiles, remembering something. “Monday, I’m going to five dollar movie night at the Cedar Lee with a friend,” she says. “Brokeback Mountain.”
“It’s good,” I say, although the idea of her watching a movie about gay cowboys is slightly jarring. It doesn’t fit the cute, grandmotherly image I have of her in my head – but then again, not much does.
Then, apropos of nothing, Nancy says, “This hall reminds me of where I went to dancing school as a girl. Did you go to dancing school?”
“Oh yeah,” I say, laughing. “I pretty much hated it.”
“Me too, I was such a tomboy. I protested every time I had to wear a dress.”
Dancing school was a rite of passage for kids from well-to-do, east side families, yet until I met Nancy, I didn’t realize how deep the roots of this adolescent torture chamber ran. Every Wednesday starting in fourth grade, I donned a jacket and tie and penny loafers and carpooled to Hathaway Brown to learn the fox trot.
It surprises me how much Nancy and I have in common. Despite being at opposite ends of our lives and half a century apart, we’re connected.
Changing the subject, I ask, “How often do you walk to the store?” I’m concerned about Nancy trudging through snowdrifts in her overcoat.
“You think I’m an old lady, don’t you?” she says, and we both laugh.
Then, without any warning, Nancy disappears again. Her eyes haze over; she stares at me blankly and looks around, searching for something familiar.
Then she says, to whomever is listening, “I don’t know why I’m still here, really …” and gazes into the distance, like a castaway squinting at the horizon.
As Nancy’s memory fades, she splits her time between two worlds, the present and long-ago past. This is something that started happening a few years after we got to know each other. At first, she had been doing well enough to gossip with me at family events.
Not long after that first visit to her house, I saw her at a Christmas party. Jack had recently passed away, and she was getting ready to sell the house. As we started talking over a beer in my parents’ dining room, she told me another story about my grandmother Kay.
“Your grandmother – she was unflappable,” Nancy said. “As a teenager, Kay was so beautiful that she had to fight off the boys! We were both interested in genealogy, so we spent a lot of time together, traipsing across Ohio.”
“We went looking for our relatives’ gravesite down in Southern Ohio once, near Pennsville as I recall, but we got lost, so we stopped to ask for directions at a bar,” she went on. “The bar keeper came out and pointed up at a nearby hillside and said, ‘It’s up there.’ Your Kay charged up the hill without a second thought!”
Holy crap. My grandmother, who always appeared poised for a dinner party at the club, bushwhacking through the woods? This was a side of her I hadn’t seen. She died when I was eleven years old, and although I remembered her fine dresses and fancy home in the suburbs, there was obviously more to know. Nancy gave me a window into another life.
She also had stories about marriage and kids. “You know, I married Jack just a few days before he shipped off to war,” she told me. “We both lived in Boston and knew each other from going to school. When the war ended, we moved back home. We had four children – all boys.”
“When you marry someone, you think you’ll be the same person forever,” she continued. “Jack finished law school, and I stayed home – back then, that’s just how it was. I would have fainted dead away if I ever saw him do the dishes!”
Even now, in her 80s, Nancy was feisty and outspoken. Perhaps now that Jack wasn’t around, she could speak her mind, yet knowing her, she’d quietly asserted herself all along. Still, she seemed to enjoy the chance to say whatever she wanted these days.
With the house up for sale, Nancy and I talked about sorting through her attic. Her kids were grown now and had families of their own. They didn’t all share her interest in family history, so she had to decide what to keep and what to throw away. The process was difficult, but also a relief.
Six months later, Nancy moved to Judson. Her memory was still pretty good then, so the important stuff was still in her head. She shuttled between past and present, always coming back after her brief trips across oceans of time.
After the concert, I drive Nancy home. She invites me in for cup of tea before I go back to my house. It’s after seven, and the Judson dining hall is nearly empty. She orders a pot of tea and a slice of pecan pie from a waitress who calls her Mrs. Calfee.
“I loved that old farm out in Claridon – the rich, crumbly soil,” Nancy is saying. “It was formed by glaciers, you know. There’s nothing like it in this world.”
Nancy is telling me about an old farm where she spent her summers as a girl. Like many well-to-do families in the ‘20’s, her father had a gentleman’s farm. It wasn’t far from Claridon, the farming community where Tracy Rowley grew up in the 1800′s.
She eats her pie and ice cream slowly. “Romping through those fields of tall grass and corn, I had a glimpse of what Nanny’s life was like,” she says.
As her memory fades away, I collect Nancy’s stories. They form a crude sketch of her rich, colorful life. She’d lived through the Depression and had her values shaped by it. She’d been inspired by the women in her family. With these role models, she’d stayed independent and good-humored in a house full of men.
Somehow, Nancy had found the time to pursue her passion for storytelling and family history while raising four boys. Throughout her life, she returned to Nanny’s stories as wellsprings of creativity, strength and wisdom.
After each visit, I write down Nancy’s stories, trying to capture them before they disappear forever. As she shares them, she follows them like stepping stones to a faraway place.
When Nancy looks up, she’s forgotten who I am again. She looks around the room, clearly frightened, searching for someone she knows, something familiar.
“Nancy,” I say, touching her hand. “You’re home now – back at Judson. You were telling me about the farm that you visited each summer as a girl.”
For a moment, Nancy just stares at me. Slowly, a light comes into her eyes and she smiles.Then she lifts her fork and takes a bite of her pie, chewing as if tasting it for the first time, and says, “That’s right – now, where was I?”