Back in the fall of 2000, my friend "Lucy" and I were asked to care for an elderly sister from church. She was homebound, and the women that cared for her were leaving for a family vacation. We gratefully accepted the request and so began our adventure.
Driving to her home, we were wondering what we would encounter. We had never met this woman and we did not know anything about her at all other than we were to administer her medicine and make sure that she ate her Meals-on-Wheels dinners. Our imaginations, fertile as they are, could not begin to compare with the real thing.
We arrived at her house and knocked on the door. Again and again. Finally, the door creaked open and we were greeted by a slight, elderly woman with fly-away gray hair, her left arm caught up in a permanent bend, the odor of cat wee and thirty-year-old Estee Lauder perfume. Oh, my goodness. This was Mabel.
We walked into a home that had not seen sunlight in years. The curtains, closed to the world, were yellowed with age and cigarette smoke. The murky darkness held the swirling dust of the unhappiness and tragedy that had consumed her life.
Off of the kitchen, there was a room that had originally been a carport. This is where Mabel lived. Darker than any other room in the house, it held a sofa, a television, a small table and chairs and a space heater. On the walls were shelves with tattered silk plants, paintings and decorations that bore the weight of years of dust and grime. She would not sleep in her bedroom or go to the back of the house except to use the bathroom. This cave-like room had become her home, the only place she felt safe.
It wasn't always that way. There was a time when her home was filled with light and love. When her husband and sons were there, and they were a close-knit family of four. But things changed. And the world came in and stole away all the things she loved, one by one.
Mabel was born on July 28, 1916 in West Wyoming, Pennsylvania, an only child to her parents, William and Nancy. They lived in a house that sat on a hill, and from her description, was the home that everyone came to when they were in need. Her father was a doctor and her mother was her best friend.
This is Mabel at the age of four- You can tell by the smile on her sweet face that this was a happy little girl.
Her childhood was filled with wonderful things and her mother taught her well about love, kindness, friendship and charity.
All throughout the year, she told us, her mother collected the clothing that Mabel and her family had grown out of or no longer needed. Tucked away neatly in the attic, Nancy would save it for those in need and in the Spring and Autumn, she opened her home to them and shared what she had saved. There was no waste and no one was turned away.
Winters brought sledders to their hill and skaters to the pond that stretched in front of their house. I can just picture that little miss, bundled in a fur-trimmed coat with matching hat and muff, watching them with her father.
She told us of her first travels away from her parents, off to secretarial school in a suit that had been tailored by her aunt, made from one of her father's suits- but "no one could tell, because it had been so expertly crafted." She was able to keep them close to her, even when she was away.
The telling of those memories brought a light that changed her before our eyes. We could see the beauty in her now, the gentleness and the esteem in which she held others was the source of her energy. And it was slowly fading away.
Mabel quickly consumed us. In the mornings, Lucy and I would drop our children off at school and drive to her house. Every day brought new insight to this woman. We discovered that the writings we found on small bits of paper, books, door jambs and walls, were her notes to herself so she would not forget. She knew her mind was failing.
Her home was filled with ceramic dolls and plates and figures. We initially thought that she was a dedicated collector. But we were wrong. She was a brilliant artist, who created each and every one. Her husband had made her a small shed where she could pour and fire and paint each delicate piece. Her work was exquisite.
She shared stories of her family- about a husband whom she loved and who loved her. About her two sons whom she doted on, and who in turn came to despise her. Not because of her, but because they had become tangled in things of the world that consumed and altered them.
Her bent arm was from a son throwing her into a wall, shattering her shoulder. The loss of her husband came from an arguement with a son that escalated into a fight that weeks later caused a blood clot to break away and extinguish his life.
We came to understand why she did not go to the back of the house. It held the ghosts of a life that no longer existed. You could feel them there. It was a place we did not like to go to either.
Not all of the things associated with Mabel are sad. We had many times when we had to laugh.
Such as the time we got there and she could not eat breakfast because her teeth were missing. After a mad search for her missing choppers, they were found in a cup under the kitchen sink. Another time they were tucked inside her pillow.
One thing we noticed about Mabel was that she had not been able to tend to her nails, on her hands or her feet. So, being the angel of mercy that she is, Lucy took on the task of clipping them. It was almost an exercise in futility.
Thick with age, her nails were nearly impossible to clip. Toe nail shards flew through the air like missiles. Had they hit one of us, we surely would have been impaled or lost an eye. Ew.
She spent a lot of her time with us trying to remember where things were, those things that she held dear to her heart, like the Family Bible, photo albums and coin silver spoons that belonged to her mother.
We set about one afternoon in search of said bible, and with Mabel directing us, we began to look in, on and behind furniture in her living room.
Piles of papers and magazines came tumbling out all around us like an avalanche on an unstable mountain. Dust flew up in small tornadoes, causing our breathing to become heavy and labored. And still no bible.
Leaning over a chair, I found a small, white box. Lifting it I found it to be quite heavy for its size. Maybe this was the elusive bible at last! Opening the box, I lifted out a thick plastic bag. The further it came out of the box, the more concerned I became.
Inside the bag was not the family bible I had hoped for. I began laughing one of those silent laughs that come with shock and make your shoulders shake. I could not stop.
More laughter, now not as silent.
"What are you laughing about?"
"I think I just found Mabel's husband."
Mabel seemed overjoyed. "There he is! Will you put him somewhere safe?"
I put him in what had been his dresser, third drawer down, on the right. It seemed the safest place for him to rest.
For two and a half months, we tended to this darling woman. We brought our children to visit her after school, and after realizing she was not a scary witch, they learned to love her.
Mabel passed away on Thanksgiving Day that year. She had awakened, chosen an orange for her breakfast, sat back on the couch, and died.
When I heard, I placed her baby shoes, the small brown leather ones she had given me as a gift, on my dining room table and cried.
She still comes to mind frequently. If we happen to be in her neighborhood, we drive by her house, now cleaned and painted with the curtains open to the sunshine. Only the outer shell resembles the home of our friend, the woman who filled our days and our hearts.
And she has the one thing she so longed for- a place of safety and her husband beside her.
Farewell, Mabel, until we meet again.