I stood at the foot of my mother’s bed in her generic hospital room. It was the end of July in 2005 and I had just run to CVS to buy a selection of nail polishes. I helped her choose a vibrant rosy red, drew back the covers from her feet, and began to give her curled toes a pedicure. As a good WASP, who isn’t one for the touchy-feely, this wasn’t something I ever thought I’d do for her, not to mention she wasn’t really a rosy red, let alone a pedicure person. We had both been raised to think nail polish was cheap. But as times changed, we got with the program and I, in particular, enjoyed my pink and red nails. The few times my mother did do her toes, she chose subtle pinks, but this time the bright color was a good distraction from the medical tests she was undergoing and the inevitable bad news we knew was headed our way.
My mother was energetic. She was constantly on the go. Even when she was relaxing, she was doing something like playing cards or gardening. She rarely watched TV or sat still for long. The only time she really unwound was at the end of the day in bed with a book. She was exhausting to watch sometimes and hard to keep up with, but impressive.
After she retired from teaching 2nd and 5th grades and being the librarian at an independent school in Cambridge in her early 50s, she and a friend started a curriculum company. BookWise created workbooks for teachers about different children’s literature, including Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
, Sarah Plain & Tall
, and Charlie Needs a New Cloak
. About ten years later, they sold their company and my mother started tutoring reading to first grade students in the Cambridge Public Schools in an intergenerational program. Soon, she was running that program.
Gabby, the moniker my oldest daughter gave my mother when she couldn’t spit Grammy out as a toddler, and Dads, my stepfather, divided their time between their Cambridge condo overlooking the Charles River they bought after selling the big Victorian home where they raised four children and Martha’s Vineyard. Each year, they stretched their Vineyard time just a little bit longer every week, until they finally moved full time in 2000 when Gabby, which almost all her family called her because she did indeed like to gab, was 64. They kept the condo in Cambridge, however, for visits back to the city.
I missed her in Cambridge, where I also lived, because she had been my go-to babysitter for my daughters and she was my buddy. Gabby and I spent hours in J. Miles, the upscale clothing boutique in my neighborhood. The store was a little out of my league as an adjunct professor, but occasionally I would purchase a shirt or scarf, or Gabby would gift me a skirt or dress. Gabby loved clothes. Absolutely adored them. They covered the insecurity she carried around with her. Not only did she worry incessantly about her thin brown hair, which she regularly permed and kept short, but she also compared herself to everyone around her, and I picked up the trait from her. We never measured up to our friends. Our houses weren’t as nice, and we weren’t as skinny or smart. But clothes like those designed by Flax, Bettina Riedel, and Eileen Fisher made her feel good. And she invariably made the sales staff at J. Miles laugh with her entertaining stories when she was in there.
By the time she moved to the Vineyard full time, my daughters were ensconced in elementary and middle school and while she was a bonus to their days, she wasn’t a necessity any more. Instead of seeing her during the winter months, we saved it up for the summer months when we stayed with her in Chilmark on the Vineyard.
Gabby played tennis almost daily in the summer. She lived in her tennis whites. When I was with her, I played at least once a week with her friends and mine in the woods near the town dump. We appropriately called the two courts surrounded by trees the dump courts
or just The Dump
. On days before the real dump was changed to a transfer station we were often enveloped in the smell of rotting garbage when the wind blew in a southerly direction, and we could hear the seagulls cry over their finds. We named our game The Young and Olds
. We played our own version of mixed doubles: one old with one young. Gabby and I were often partners. She was a consistently stronger player than me, but I had a wicked crosscourt shot and we made for a formidable team.
Gabby couldn’t just play tennis and garden, however. She started an intergenerational literacy program on the island similar to the one in Cambridge and eventually helped initiate an affordable housing project in Chilmark that would provide houses to full-time island residents at below market value, giving local teachers, police and firemen homes to live in on the ever more expensive island.
My mother was organized and orderly. She taught me how to make a bed without wrinkles by using hospital corners. I taught my daughters to make beds by throwing duvets over them. She knew where every pen, especially her special Pentel pen, was in the house and God forbid if you used it and didn’t return it to where it belonged. Her voice would ring out, “Who took my pen?” My house, however, has pens on every surface - the dining room table, the kitchen counter and the coffee table. Put your hand out and it’s liable to land on a pen. An entertaining game her four children played on her was shifting an armchair or side table just a quarter of an inch to see if she would notice when she entered a room. My younger brother once turned a little figurine of a man to face the corner of a bookshelf to look like he was taking a leak into a cup. She always discovered the erring furniture or geegaw. I think she appreciated the joke, but she quickly righted the mistake. There was only so much she could take. She did, however, leave the man alone for some time.
While Gabby loved her order and daily lists, I go with the flow. I know she didn’t understand my housekeeping habits. It’s not just that I am fond of the clutter that shows a life well lived, and felt a bit suffocated in her museum-style house. I simply don’t have the skill in my back pocket or the time, with my teaching job and volunteer work, to keep on top of my husband, daughters, dogs and myself to keep our house spotless like hers.
While Gabby and I were buds once I was married, we weren’t always simpatico before that. My teens and twenties were about as messy as my homes. I was an angry, unhappy and confused teenager dealing with my parents’ multiple divorces and remarriages. When I finally reached my twenties I spent them searching for an appropriate career while dabbling in inappropriate relationships. I’m not sure Gabby had the patience to handle my growing pains. She was eager to see me settle down professionally and personally.
But once I was married with kids, she became invested in my life, babysitting for my daughters regularly so I could teach and she excelled at being a grandmother.
The winter my older daughter turned twelve, Gabby hosted a birthday party for her on the island in the snow. We took the eight girls skating on Squibnocket Pond and she organized a relay race around the house where each girl had to don an outfit Gabby put together of her clothes - dress, hat, coat, gloves, and LL BEAN boots - all of which were too big. After each girl ran around the house, she removed the outfit and passed it on to the next girl on her team. There was a lot of slipping, sliding and laughing.
In the summers, she hosted the breakfast club in the mornings for my daughters so I could sleep in. She watered plants on her back deck with my older daughter and taught my younger one how to read. She was always ready to go to the beach. She loved the beach, while it was not a place Dads particularly enjoyed. If she wasn’t in her tennis clothes, she was in a bathing suit.
In the evenings she played cards, either Solitaire alone, Gin Rummy with Dads, or Slapjack with my girls. And there was always chocolate for desert…brownies, chocolate pie, chocolate chip cookies and of course chocolate mousse.
We established a pattern during the summer months while I lived in my parents’ guest house. The girls spent the mornings at the Chilmark Community Center, which hosted a morning program for kids, playing board games and sports, making art projects, and acting in plays, while my mother and I played tennis with our friends. After lunch in our separate houses, we convened and went to the beach together, if she didn’t have work to do, where the girls ran around, built sand castles, read books and played in the Atlantic Ocean. It was pretty idyllic and our conflicts were limited.
The biggest one was when we got our dog, Splash, who turned out to be highly anxious and leapt through screen windows to get to us when we drove away from him. Gabby did not find this amusing in the least. As a puppy, Splash also chewed some of the baseboards in the new guest house. He did not endear himself to my mother, but he was our puppy and we brought him with us every summer.
I left the island at the end of my 46th August with the girls, after a busy summer and we all started school again. I was at Emerson teaching two writing classes; my kids were in 7th and 4th grades. By Thanksgiving, my mother was slowing down which wasn’t her. Her back pains that had started at the end of the summer were hard to ignore. She was not one to complain. When her knees started to hurt from tennis, she, without fanfare, simply started wrapping them in ice packs at the end of every game.
While the Vineyard was predominantly a summer home, my husband and I often went there off season as well bringing the girls when they were young for Christmas, Easter and many Thanksgivings, but this year, Gabby hosted Thanksgiving in the Cambridge condo so Dads’ brother and sister could come from New York and Connecticut. She hired a family friend to help with the clearing and cleaning because she was too tired and her back hurt too much.
She celebrated Christmas with my family in our Cambridge home and I gave her a fancy back pillow to use in the car as she intended to drive to see my brother and his family outside DC right after Christmas. She didn’t make it. Her back was too painful and nothing anyone suggested she try improved it. Physical therapy didn’t help, nor did massage.
Finally, in January, after x-rays and MRIs, she was diagnosed with Small Cell Lung Cancer that had metastasized to her spine with tumors that were causing the pain she couldn’t manage. The irony was, her lungs were clear.
She left the Vineyard and her work with the affordable housing project and settled into the Cambridge condo. She commuted to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute where she received Chemotherapy and radiation treatments for her illness. She was outfitted with a plastic clamshell brace she wore during the daytime to support her back and for which she needed new clothes to fit over it. She hoped the new wardrobe, which was baggier and bigger and came from J.Miles, would camouflage the brace. When she told the sales staff she thought she was getting better because the pain was more manageable, and I said it was probably because of the painkillers, she snapped. “That is not helpful.”
She set two goals when she was diagnosed. She wanted to get back to the Vineyard for the summer where she could sit on her back porch and enjoy the view of the meadow Dads had created with his own hands in the valley behind their house by clearing the brush one summer. The second was to have a 70th birthday getaway for the entire family at a resort in New Hampshire in October. She even found a place that would take dogs. Three of her four children had dogs by then.
My mother loved parties. She stressed about hosting them, worried about the guests and if they would get along, worried about the food and if it would be yummy, and worried about how she would look in her outfit. She just worried – a lot. But she loved dancing and socializing. She wanted to be at the center of our lives and her parties.
Late in her illness, she, Dads and my siblings were at my house for dinner one night and she said, “I’m going to miss so much.”
I took a leave of absence from Emerson and helped my stepfather care for her, driving them to doctors’ appointments in my cleaned up Volvo wagon, advocating for her when necessary with doctors and nurses, hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst, as the social worker urged me to do. When I wasn’t with them or running my daughters to and from school and their extra-curricular sports and activities, I was often in the basement studio of a Harvard dorm throwing pottery, a place where I could hide from the sadness and stress in my world.
After a long winter and spring of treatment and wishing her well - she insisted we tell her she was getting better - we did get her to the Vineyard where she could look out her window onto the meadow and watch the deer cavort. My brother and his family came and stayed in what used to be the guest house near my grandmother’s old house, now owned by my uncle. My mother went to the beach with them, insisting on carrying her own beach chair. She hosted friends and her sister on her back porch and offered them grilled cheese sandwiches. My sister, who lived in Sudbury, and youngest brother, in law school, also visited that July.
But as the month wore on, her behavior became more and more erratic. She started talking about parties she was going to when she hadn’t been invited to any. She went to the beach one more time and didn’t carry her chair. She began to trip and had a hard time getting up the stairs. She was exhausted and slept a lot and was confused.
Dads and I suggested we see one of her doctors off island. She would only go if we promised to bring her back. I remember waiting in the line of cars on the Oak Bluffs ferry dock on a beautiful beach day when my uncle showed up unexpectedly to say good-bye to my mother. Always the one to keep up a good attitude, he joked around with her and said he’d see her soon.
At the hospital, waiting to be seen in the ER, I pushed her around the air-conditioned lobby in a wheelchair and into the gift shop where she made me pause while she checked out the baby outfits. She wanted one for her baby, she said. Okay, I said. We were really looking for birthday presents for my sister whose 39th birthday was fast approaching. We bought a necklace.
She was admitted to Brigham and Women’s, and I spent a lot of time on my phone with Vineyard friends. When the doctor told my mother the cancer had gone to her brain, Gabby said, “Now I won’t get my birthday party.” Quiet tears slid down her face.
She stayed in the hospital for a week and made less and less sense – wondering why there was butter on the TV screen, why the nurses were talking about her and plotting against her outside her door. I stood at the bottom of her bed painting her toes.
We got her home to her condo with hospice care in early August and watched her deteriorate more. I wanted to reach in and pull out my real mother. She called out for her father once and she called her siblings on the phone. We celebrated Dads’ mid August birthday a few days early. I baked him a pound cake, his favorite, and gave him my mother’s present – a subscription to a local theater so they could go together or if she wasn’t here, he’d have a reason to get out on his own.
A day or two later, I left for the Vineyard with the kids and my husband. I had always thought I’d be with her when she died. Not only did I consider that part of my caretaking responsibility, I wanted to be there. I wanted to hold her hand as she passed from our world, but I needed to attend to my family as well. The girls wanted to go to the Vineyard Agricultural Fair where they had entered sewing projects – a bag and a pillow- they made that spring while I took care of Gabby, and they wanted to go on the carnival rides. They needed a change of scenery and activity. The future was calling me.
I told my mother I was leaving and if she had to go while I was gone, it was okay. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever said. I wasn’t sure if I was abandoning her. The next morning, the phone rang in the empty kitchen in Chilmark. Will, my youngest brother, and I listened as Dads told us that Gabby had died that night. Gabby loved being with people and the more we were with her, I think the harder it was for her to let go. Alone, she could finally relax and leave.
But, when I arrive on the Vineyard every summer, whether for a week or more, I still see her running out the front door of the big house, in her tennis whites, with the screen door slapping shut behind her. She’s flapping her arms and yelling, “YooHoo, welcome, welcome” as she runs through the opening in the stone wall Dads made to get to the car. She was so excited by the summer months and having her family all around her.
As every summer passes, and I blow my car horn as I drive by my parents’ house, I say good-bye to her once again and am reminded of all the things she won’t be here for. I thought she’d be here to watch my kids graduate from high school and college, to see me win an award for my teaching, to roll her eyes at my family breeding one of our dogs. But she’s gone and I’ve created a life without her in it, something I never thought I could do.
We buried Gabby’s ashes the September after she died in the Abel’s Hill cemetery across from her favorite beach in Chilmark under drizzle and umbrellas. That same weekend we had a memorial service for her at the new Agricultural Hall where we sang, “You are the Sunshine of My Life”.
While she may be gone, the Vineyard is still here. It’s just a little quieter without her around.