Honoring A Wilting Matriarch During a Global Pandemic
December 1st, 2020
By Nicole Araujo
Photograph by Isabella Steinhauer
My grandma, Elizabeth Jean Babine, is the most resilient, intelligent, and creative woman I have ever known. I love her with all my heart, and would not be the woman that I am today without her. She has been the matriarch of our family for a long time, and is my hero that I adore. Today, nearing the end of her life, she suffers from dementia, and has spent the past several years in her assisted living home. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, she has had very little contact with her family since March.
Grandma, or, as most called her, Bette, was valedictorian of her high school and salutatorian of Our Lady of the Elms College in Chicopee, MA in 1948. She was fluent in French, Spanish, and English, and was a Spanish teacher in Boston during the tumultuous bussing era. She loved to travel; her favorite spot being Paris. She is most praised in our family for raising her 5 kids on her own. When my mom, the youngest, was 5, their father left the home and left my grandma and their children to fend for themselves. This seemed to have only strengthened her resolve and resilience.
My grandma is sassy, and has always done and said whatever she felt like doing, and this habit of being increased with age. I recognized her as a feminist before I even knew what the term meant. All I knew was that she was outspoken, gregarious, intelligent, and didn’t answer to anyone. The summer after divorcing my grandfather, she took all five kids on a road trip across the country and into Mexico. She never, after my grandfather, dated any man ever again. She was tough, and has a classic, educated Boston accent with dropped “R’s,” not in the rough “Southie” type of way…but the slightly formidable yet charming JFK type of Boston accent, where you feel like they know a lot more than they’re letting on.
I remember being out to eat with Grandma and a bunch of other family members on a sunny summer day out on a patio deck. Grandma was very involved in an animated conversation she was having with the person across from her, and she knocked over her drink, a Stinger Up, which was her favorite, and spilled its contents all over the table. Without skipping a beat, she mid-sentence, brushed all the ice and booze off the table with a brisk flick of her hand and continued on with what she was saying. It was an admirable recovery.
Our conversations a lot of the time were reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary, like taking a trip into the past, many decades ago. Grandma would tell me about how devastated she was when her crush, JFK, was shot, and how shocked the country was when Marilyn Monroe died.
Often in my youth, I felt very alone. In contrast to the matriarchal family led by Bette, the one I grew up in was very much run by my father, and we didn’t get along well. Grandma was my savior. My best memories as a child are going over to my Grandma’s home in the rolling hills just outside of Worcester, MA. I remember her prized Oriental rugs, her booming grandfather clock, and her ornate grand piano.
We would go into her garage which resembled an antique shop in that there were hundreds of little artifacts. Ceramic vases, paintings, and little jewelry boxes filled spaces throughout. Grandma would always give me a gift or two each time I visited. A devout Catholic, she did the rosary and attended church every Sunday. She was physically active into her old age, and would describe herself as, “disgustingly healthy.”
Yet, despite her meticulous physical health and fastidious spirituality, as she got older, her mental functioning began to be not on par, and in her 80’s she was diagnosed with dementia. At first it was smaller things, like not being able to remember how to make the short 5-minute walk to CVS, (her favorite pastime at that point), from my aunt’s house where she had been living. But then it got to be bigger things, like paranoia that people were out to get her and had plans to take her life, which would awaken her in the middle of the night in a panic, needing to be pacified. Eventually, it was too much for anyone to take on, and she was moved to an assisted living facility.
Besides our very close relationship, there has often been a parallel between me and her, as if our souls were connected. The exact same day grandma arrived in her assisted living facility, scared and distraught, was the same day I landed in rehab for the first time, broken and terrified. On that same day, both of our lives changed forever, and I would say over the course of the next few weeks, a part of each of us died.
The arduous journey didn’t end there for either of us. Visiting grandma for the first time at her assisted living facility, Whitney Place, was difficult and I wasn’t able to hold back tears. To say she hated her new home would be an understatement. She would scream in protest each time we left and wonder aloud how we could do something so terrible to her.
My time in rehab did not look much different. Changing everything about myself and devoting my life to being in recovery looked about equally appealing as being committed to a nursing home. But similar to the love and comfort she offered me as a child, in the middle of my wreckage and despair in my mid-twenties, she was a nonjudgmental reprieve. I am incredibly grateful that today, I have found freedom in recovery.
Despite the sadness of Grandma’s entire essence fading away, we aren’t without laughs, and her tough confidence hasn’t faded quite as fast as her memory. Me, my mom, and sister would often go pick Grandma up from Whitey Place and take her out to lunch. One day, on our way back, we pulled into the parking lot of Whitney Place and parked the car. We helped Grandma out of the car and got her set up with her walker. We approached the entrance of the building, about to walk inside, when Grandma noticed the large, wooden, painted blue sign.
“5 Lyman St….” she reflected thoughtfully, knowing she recognized the address from somewhere...
Finally, she growled with irritation, “Oh Good God, is this Whitney Place?”
“Yes, I’m so sorry for the bad news, but this is Whitney Place,” we were forced to reply.
It makes me sad that my younger sister says she can’t imagine Grandma as the intelligent woman me, my mom, and aunts and uncles talk about. Most of her memories of Grandma are of her being silly and goofy. I worry about getting dementia myself when I’m older. Unfortunately, we as a society don’t know much about how to prevent it. (Should I avoid sugar, or real deodorant? Probably both, but I’m not willing to give up either.) I often think, and this is a dark thought, that at this point I’d rather be dead, and frankly, I think Grandma would be too.
Today, I am able to find comfort in looking at her watercolor paintings. My favorite is of an old cottage reminiscent of the one she owned on Lake Winnipesaukee. It seems to be near sunset in the painting, and the house has a large lattice-paned window with dusty broken panes through which amber sunlight is streaming into the home. To me, this painting evokes a life that has been virulent and tumultuous, but also beautiful and meaningful; the rays of sunlight evoking poignant truth reaching someone’s soul.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we weren’t able to visit her on her 94thbirthday, so we facetimed her from our homes. Conversation these days with Grandma is pretty minimal, made even worse over Facetime. Even a “How are you?” usually elicits no reply. But the one reliable pleasure that still exists for her is music. Grandma adores relaxing to the sound of Italian opera singer, Andrea Bocelli. So, I played his music, which gets as much of a reaction out of her as one could get. She lightly swayed to the music, and even sometimes would smile and lift her hands up in exaltation.
Perhaps it’s not ideal, and it’s definitely not worthy of the classic piano player, the Claude Monet lover, the watercolor painter, the trilingual valedictorian, the hard-working single mother, the outspoken opine. It's but a fragment of her incredible worth, of her magnifying entity, but I’ll cherish all I can get. I am grateful, and actually in awe, that I am descended from this person.