It was Hildegarde’s 92-year-old sister who finally pulled the strings that opened the gate to St. Joseph’s Villa. My sister-in-law had been knocking on doors all over Montgomery County for a few months, since Hildegarde’s time in rehab was just about up and she wasn’t well enough to go home. Decent nursing homes with empty beds were in short supply, and St. Joseph’s had turned Hildegarde away once already after hearing that she was uncooperative and had no private insurance. So when her sister, Florence, decided to call the monsignor for whom she had worked as a secretary thirty years before to ask him for a favor, no one expected much. But a week later, the call came and the gate swung open: Hildegarde was in.
Founded in 1908, St. Joseph’s was as peaceful and orderly as the convent had been for the nuns that still occupied the top four floors of the building. There was an air of determination and hopefulness in the eyes of the elderly residents on the bottom floors, as if they trusted that this little ship they shared was headed in the right direction, steered by the nuns, closer to heaven than they. It seemed a perfect fit for my aunt, who had lived a quiet life with her family until she fell down the steps of church one Sunday morning, twisting her ankle and landing in a rehabilitation center.
Sharp and efficient, Hildegarde had been the secretary to the President of a large Philadelphia advertising agency for forty years before she retired. When she was feeling well, she had delighted in every page of the newspaper each morning, and stayed up every night to watch Larry King and Charlie Rose. Thin, with pale blue eyes, a quiet voice, and a pixie haircut, she wore a band-aid between her brows every night to keep the wrinkles from forming.
Her sister Florence was two years younger than she.
They had lived together their whole life.
They had lived together their whole life.
They had come to our house every week to cook and clean and help their oldest brother, my father, after the death of my mother when I was 11. Every Saturday, Florence would set up the board in my brother’s room and begin to iron some order back into our lives. As the steam iron spluttered, with the piles of clean clothes surrounding me, I would lie down and listen to her stories, soothed by the smell of the clothes and the sound of her voice. Florence talked and talked.
“We went to school in one straight line,” she would begin, describing their journey through the all-girls catholic school system, and why they had never married, or even kissed as far as I could tell. “We never looked to the right or left. We never even talked to boys.” All the stories included Hildegarde, with whom she had shared a room since she was born.
We never called them “aunt,” always “Hildegarde and Florence” – bound together, in that order, forever. My brother and I sometimes slept on cots at their little apartment across from the train station in Narberth, and along with the train whistles lulling us to sleep, I would hear them talking over the events of the day in their twin beds, reminding each other of whatever the other had forgotten. They discussed what they’d had for lunch years before (“the good egg salad, remember, Florence?”), the beautiful coat Hildegarde had purchased in her twenties (“oh, it was that lovely shade of blue, wasn’t it, Hildegarde? We got it at Bonwit’s that rainy day.”), the time they traveled together on the train to Chicago (“remember your legs going up that set of steps to the top bunk?”), giggling and teasing - always the past, it seemed to me when I was a girl focused only on the future. They never asked us questions about our world and did not really invite us into theirs; we were spectators, not participants. Part of me liked being an outsider, for I disdained the orderly world they had created for themselves; it felt claustrophobic. But another part of me yearned to be Florence’s friend, to leave the chaotic life I shared with my four brothers and father after my mother’s death. Florence explained to me once that at one moment in time they’d each had their own friends, until the day she woke up and realized that all her friends were Hildegarde’s, too. (“Didn’t that bother you?” I asked impatiently “No, not really.”) “Would Florence and I be friends if it weren’t for Hildegarde?” I thought to myself.
My father lived with them until his surprising marriage at 39, then rejoined them at the age of 64 in a four-story townhouse in Center City Philadelphia, once a convent owned by the catholic church next door, who discounted the rent. The three of them combined their social security checks to pay expenses. Hildegarde cooked; Florence cleaned; my father shopped. I do not remember ever hearing them argue.
The five of us, my brothers and I, were grown and gone by the time Hildegarde fell. We had created our own worlds far from theirs, visiting and helping as much as we could from a distance. Proud and self-sufficient, they had been slow to ask for help and perhaps we had been slow to recognize how much they needed it. But when it became clear that Hildegarde would be at St. Joseph’s for a while, we arranged for a van to take Florence and my father on the hour-long trip to visit her each week. The van ride was hard on them, but they had not missed a week.
It would have worked better at St. Joseph’s if the caregivers had liked Hildegarde. If she had let them get to know her, they might have been more patient. But she didn’t talk to them or thank them. She refused to exercise or walk to the toilet. She turned down most of her food. She simply sat, anxiously playing with her blanket, waiting for her sister, looking off into the distance.
Depression had swooped in and stolen her again. In the past, it had been a change - a new job, a marriage or death in the family - that shook her up and made her easy prey. This time, it was the stress of the stint in the rehab center after her fall. Thrust into an unfamiliar world of doctors and aides who didn’t know her, and without her sister in the bed next to her, she had stopped trying to get better. When she was forced to dress and walk to an activity, her nurses would coax her, “Look up, Hildegarde. Look up! You can’t walk looking down!” Chin tucked, back bent, gripping the walker, she shook her head “no”.
In the past, when she had felt the darkness of depression coming on, she had tried to escape. As she got “upset”, she had stayed up later - to watch more tv, read more magazines, eat more of the foods she liked. Once, in her twenties, she typed all her favorite poems, hundreds of them, into a little book while on the job as a secretary to an ad executive.
She must have been staving it off more often than we knew. And when she lost one of her battles, it was always the same. During the night, she was snatched. Replaced by a ghost who stayed for months. Curled up in a fetal position in her twin bed. Unable to get dressed, read, eat, or speak. She would have one good day every month or so, when she would return, make eye contact and apologize to everyone before she headed back in to the hole.
In her youth, her mother had been able to nurse her through it. When Hildegarde was thirty, my grandmother had put her on a train from Philadelphia to Iowa, thinking fresh air, wholesome food and the cousins who lived there might help her. “I got to Chicago, looked over the bridge into the river and thought I just might as well throw myself in,” she said. But something good must have happened there, for after two months, she came back and got on with her life. Electroshock treatments or the right combination of medication had pulled her through a few other times. When she was herself again, she would order groceries delivered and buy gifts for everyone. One time, she put a bologna sandwich on a china plate, poured coca cola into a glass with ice and brought it to a homeless man sleeping on the church steps, as if to share her joy with someone who looked as down and out as she had felt.
But this time the doctors gave up; at 94, Hildegarde was just too old. My father, 98, and Florence, 92, had kept her at home with them for as long as they could. Florence had changed her sheets in the middle of the night, bathed her, nagged her to eat and get out of bed, to get through the tunnel to the other side where she could join them. But when Hildegarde was in this far, she couldn’t really see her way out of the tunnel, didn’t even know that she was in a tunnel, just that there was darkness all around.
Whenever I called from Pittsburgh, it was the same. Florence was in an agony of indecision; Hildegarde was pleading to come home. “Should we bring her home? Are we doing the right thing? I think we could handle her if she came home, don’t you?” Florence would ask again and again. It was clear that she had to stay. If she couldn’t get out of bed, she couldn’t come home. They didn’t have the strength to lift her out of bed or out of her depression and they couldn’t afford to pay for round-the-clock care. But Florence continued to agonize.
I listened to Florence, as I had always listened. When I was 11, I had needed my mother and settled for Florence. Now she needed Hildegarde and settled for me. So we talked. It was like eating store-bought apple pie – not as good as homemade, but better than nothing sweet. I called her a few times per week; she was often crying.
“Oh, Holly, I didn’t tell you what happened to me last night, did I?”
“No. Tell me,” I said, for I had discovered that Florence’s stories sometimes held surprises if you hung in there.
“Well, okay then. You know, when our mother was dying, she lived at home and Hildegarde and I took care of her. I guess she knew she was dying, but we never talked about it much. She was almost blind at the end, and I used to take her out on the porch of the apartment in Bala Cynwyd to sit.
One night, there was a full moon. ‘Mother. there’s a full moon tonight.’ I told her. Mother couldn’t see it, and she was quiet at first. Then after a little while, she said to me, ‘You know, after I’m gone, you’re going to look at that moon. Every time you see it, I want you to think of me, and of me looking down on you.’
So you know, for years, ever since she died, I’ve done that. I never remember to look for it, but sometimes, when I was walking home at night from work in the city, and I looked up between the buildings, I’d see the moon, just a sliver, between the buildings. I’d think about her, and that old porch. ”
“I never heard that story, Florence.”
“Well, wait till you hear this part. Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night. The shades were open and there was a full moon shining in on me, just shining in that big window in my room. Well, I got up and I just couldn’t believe it, it was so bright. So I just sat in the chair under the window in my room – you know the one – that little leather chair? Well, I sat down in that chair and let the moon come all over me. I just sat there for the longest time and then I woke Herman up. I told him, ‘Herman, wake up. Come look at the moon!’ Well, he got up, and in he came - but he wasn’t much interested. You know your father.
But I stayed up for a long time, and when I finally went to sleep, the moon was shining on Hildegarde’s bed, filling up the whole bed, just shining down on it. So as I was going to sleep, there it was. What do you think of that?”
Her voice broke, and mine, too. “Oh, Florence, that’s a really nice story.”
“Wasn’t that something?”
Back and forth, every Thursday, Herman and Florence bumped in the van, more wrung out and ragged with each trip. Every night Florence would call Hildegarde. Most times Hildegarde didn’t pick up, and Florence called the nurse’s station and they would take the phone and hand it to her.
“Hildegarde, are you okay?” Florence would say.
“Yes, can I come home?” Hildegarde would respond.
“No, I don’t think so, Hildegarde. Maybe when you’re better. Did you get up today?”
“No, not today. Not today. Maybe tomorrow.”
Florence called her one night at the end of September, when the days were getting shorter. Winter loomed ahead, making it tougher for them to travel. It had been six months since she’d checked into St. Joseph’s.
“Hildegarde, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m feeling kind of down.”
“Oh, Hildegarde, please don’t get so down. If you get down, you’ll never come home. Try not to get down, okay?”
“You know, tonight’s a full moon. Why don’t you ask the nurses to raise the shades so you can see it. It will be nice and bright tonight. Remember what I told you about the full moon? The story about mother? Remember that?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Look at the moon tonight, Hildegarde, and we’ll see you tomorrow. Okay?”
She died that night.
* * *
Visit with Flo (Holly Maurer)
we were playing a game where
you pull a card and tell a story about your life and the first one
was tell about weather and Florence said there was a rainbow once when I was riding the bus and the bus driver told me about it and I saw it and we loved her and kissed her for that and pulled the next card and told our stories and asked her and she looked away like an Indian scout and said I have a story about that too but
I don’t want to tell.
yellow-white face on the pillow next to red and green pudding containers with one taste from each - not real pudding - she says and
three gray plastic water cups
and the bright
RED line OCCLUDED but it doesn’t seem to be important since no one comes and finally the
nurse who knows shows me how to
she misses her brother so I
comb hair/hold hands/read the next chapter of the book did you
know that your belly was growing? Yes, she says, staring straight
ahead like Mt Rushmore
rush lift push probe the transport guy ran away when he brought her up to her room after
X-Ray since there was pee and more
not only Weak but a Wimp, too, the nurse said
Rhonda, of the big arms and soft voice rolled
her over, careful of the broken arm careful now you’re
good/there now you’re fine/now you’re all fixed up
swaddled and warm and clean what
are you thinking? I ask about
heaven, she says and she looks straight
ahead like a poker player and I say really and she says no - just a foolish old
woman you shouldn’t listen to me and
maybe it was true and maybe it wasn’t because maybe
her secrets are all she had left.