My great-grand mother, Ethel Leona Clark Bailey, recently passed away on the morning of April 21st 2011. Born in 1907 she lived for 103 years, 9 months and 26 days if my calendar math is correct.
Since about 1990 she lived together with my grand mother, her daughter, just 5 minutes away from my parents in Asheville, NC. For the latter half of my childhood and thus far in my adulthood she's been around at all the family gatherings, celebrations and holidays. "Are the grandmas coming?" was a common question.
During her life, she moved some 60 times (yes, I said sixty moves), because her husband helped to build railroads. She later bought an old church and remodeled it into a hotel in Nebraska. She did so many other things which I couldn't possibly or adequately recount here.
Until just after her 103rd birthday she was a regular and avid volunteer at ABCCM, an Asheville based crisis ministry out to alleviate the effects of poverty in western NC.
You can view her obituary here.
Grandma Bailey spans the gap, for me, between today and the American Civil War, because her grand father (as I understand it) fought in the Civil War. And so, she was alive during his time and during our time. Amazing.
All the years she's lived in Asheville has been a blessing to me. I don't think many people have a chance to get to know their great grand parents. I think I got part of my sense of humor from her too, because even at 100+ years of age she was still cracking jokes that you wouldn't expect. One of my favorites was at lunch one day when we somehow got to talking about politics and government. Grandma Bailey chimed in saying something like, "I'll bet the government did expect me to last this long when they started writing social security checks."
I once got her a birthday card that read something like this, Front cover: So, how old are you now? 50? 60? 70?..." Inside cover: "Just start banging your cane when I get there." That card was a hoot that got reference for years down the road, mostly by grandma Bailey (who didn't have a cane, mind you).
What was truly amazing was her physical health. As I understand it, she only took one prescription medication and some vitamins. Though her hearing and vision were strongly impaired, she still listened and looked at you as if you were of utmost importance. She walked on her own up until her final few days in a nursing home and only needed aid with steps or getting out of big cushy chairs.
Crossword puzzles kept her mind sharp. For years, everyday she did the news paper crossword. When her eyes began straining too hard, the family bought her this viewer which blew up the image on a bigger screen just above the table top (like those viewers for archived news papers or something). She once got a daily calendar for Christmas with a crossword for each day. They were supposed to be tough New York crosswords too. And, I think it was March when she'd completed the entire year's worth of puzzles. That rascal.
About a month ago it began increasingly difficult for her to swallow, and she developed a bladder infection. She went to the hospital and a few days later to a nursing home as she needed just a little bit more attention than my grandma could give her. Two and a half weeks ago, I flew into Asheville in preparation to do a wedding (see previous post). I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit with Grandma Bailey one final time in the nursing home. Though the early stages of dementia were creeping around inside her mind, my wife and I caught her on a good day. Lucid and spunky, she knew who we were and wondered why she had to be there when she should have been home peeling potatoes for dinner.
During my work as a chaplain I've seen the pain of dementia and how it often manisfests as aggression toward those close to a person (e.g. family). And, I experienced this pain first hand after the first two times I told her "I love you." She responded with a slight bit of hostility. I understood this response, but I cannot say it still didn't hurt a little. We visited and talked about her room, about starving children around the world (a topic which she's very passionate about), and she talked briefly about the hotel in Nebraska. After a wonderful but difficult 30 minute visit it was time to go. I risked another, "I love you," to no avail. We slowly said goodbye and slowly rose from our chairs to slowly leave, knowing this would be our last chance to see her. But, as we walked out of the room and waived, the last words I heard her mutter in that 103 year old voice box were, "Bye, I love you I love you I love you."
Heart = warmed.
Goodbye grandma Bailey.
You will be always remembered,
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.