Mrs. S. died a few months ago. She was 92, although woe betide you should you have mentioned that fact to her; she maintained to the end that she was 91. And who are we to argue?
She also maintained that the stuffed cats in her room were real. This was not actually a point of contention, but a matter of settled fact, one that I, and, mercifully, most of her caregivers at the nursing home, entered into in all seriousness. She would hold the cats and stroke them with concentration, talking to them softly, much the same sort of encounter she had with all her cats the entire time I knew her, which is to say, most of my life, and, if reports are accurate, much the same as she had done her entire life.
(At night, she said, the windows and doors would sometimes fly open, and dozens of puppies and kitties would come running into the room. It was very funny, she said, chuckling a little.)
This is not to suggest that Mrs. S. had ‘lost it’ or was ‘suffering dementia’ or whatever other clinical or dismissive term we might put to it. To be sure, there were times when she was confused, speaking as if out of a dream, but much about her remained unchanged nearly to the end. She was patient in affliction, tolerant of people’s shortcomings, and deeply confident.
“There’s just not enough work for me to do here,” she’d complain. (She was almost entirely paralyzed, but her sense of her own limitation wavered.) “I don’t know how I’ll manage to put the house back together; I’m afraid it’s all been put out of sorts since I’ve been gone.”
“I’ll help you,” I offered, knowing, of course, that she would never go home.
“Oh, you have enough to do!” she told me. “You are very busy.”
“I’ll make the time,” I said. “You’re a good girl,” she said.
Once Mrs. S. could no longer take solid foods, and the Fannie Farmer project—wherein I’d made dishes of the creamed and breaded and glazed variety so beloved of the WASPier members of the Greatest Generation—was over, I turned to puddings, which I’d bring after the dinner hour, when we’d sit in her room and watch Jeopardy. This was not the idle turning-to-television instead of conversation brought on by the degradations of age; we’d gone to the S. house to watch television since I’d been tiny, since we only got one channel, and that frequently snowy and full of static. We came for the Super Bowl and other big events; on ordinary days, we watched the news and the game shows, and there was always a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses, or, even better, a box of Andes mints, or, best of all, a carton of After Eight chocolate mints.
The first time I ever visited Greenport—the place in this world that I think of as ‘home,’ though I’ve traveled and lived far from there most of my adult life and, if I’m counting years, much of my childhood too—I ate at her table, slept at her house. I can remember nothing specific about that first visit, except a sense of deep and satisfying comfort. There was nothing unctuous about her hospitality; nothing pretentious or flashy, just a dignified ease to her welcome. I could play with the Barbies that were older than my mother, dress them in the clothes that, even as an eight year old, I recognized as incredibly superior in quality to those available in the 1980s. I could have a cold drink or a hot one; I could tag along behind Mr. S. as he made things out of wood and ask a thousand questions; I could feed the cats and try to catch the skittish ones in my scrawny arms for an entirely one-sided hug.
I was not just playing along with an old lady’s dementia the day I carefully took her kitten—the one pictured above and below—home to wash him and return him the next day.
(She stroked him and asked him to behave himself. Which he did, naturally.)
And there was nothing imaginative or fanciful in my promise to help Mrs. S. put her house to rights when she returned home. I was, rather, meeting her in the place she was, a place as real and true as her home in Greenport with its sensible furniture, beef stew, vintage Barbies and percale sheets. A place where her hands were not enfeebled by age and paralysis but were still the strong confident hands of an Army nurse, a woman who assisted surgeries and calmed the soldiers who shrieked in the night in the psychiatric ward where she worked during the war. A place where she daily and for decades bound up the still-weeping Purple Heart wounds of her husband; a place where she cooked meals and ironed shirts and petted cats and treasured her beautiful, carefully-kept china.
Place, Robert Farrar Capon writes, does not merely mean ‘location.’ Place is about encounter between beings. The kingdom of God cannot be plotted out by longitude and latitude; it is instead the place where God meets us, and we meet God and one another, with all the justice and love and goodness of heaven.
“What really matters [in the question of ‘place’] is not where we are, but who—what real beings—are with us. In that sense, heaven, where we see God face to face through the risen flesh of Jesus, may well be the placiest of all places, as it is the most gloriously material of all meetings. Here, perhaps, we do indeed see only through a glass darkly; we mistake one of the earthly husks of place for the heart of its mattering.” (The Supper of the Lamb)
My mom brought the kitten with her to Malawi; one of Mrs. S.’s last ‘things,’ a thing that she encountered with all the love and tenderness she ever had for every animal—and everything, really—that she ever touched. A bit of the placiness of Greenport—of Mrs. S.—is there when I look into his plastic button eyes.
I’ll take care of him for her, for now.