Tag Archives: Aging

Frank’s House

by Kate

This is the story of a man named Frank, a man who was generous and gentle and kind and possessed an extraordinary collection of fine ties. This is Frank’s birthday week. Frank’s birthday fell just before St. Patrick’s Day. I always thought this fitting for this man who loved to celebrate life with good food and song and conversation, a man whose blue Polish eyes welled up with tears at the sound of an old ballad. Four years on St. Patrick’s Day I put my tiny baby Olympia in a sling and hauled my harp across the gravel driveway and up the steps into Frank’s home and played a private concert for him as a birthday present. He wasn’t well, had battled heart trouble and cancer and lung problems for years, but he cried at all the ballads and laughed at all my jokes and somehow from his battered leather armchair he made me feel like the much more important artists he had hosted in his early days, when he was a dashing young bachelor managing the Stanley Theater in downtown Pittsburgh, the theater that would later become the Benedum.

Frank and his wife Catherine loved Olympia. They married late in life, well into their 50’s and 60’s.They met when Catherine moved in with her aging mother two doors down from the home Frank had shared with his mother, and somehow Frank the eternal bachelor was finally induced to take the plunge into matrimony. Of course, they had no children of their own. We met Frank and Catherine in a miraculous manner just before Olympia was born. We were living in an apartment above a loud and smoky bar and our baby was due in two and a half months. A chance meeting led us to tour the house they had for rent just behind theirs, with two bedrooms and a washer and dryer and a huge yard with space for a garden and a clothesline. It was a perfect home for newlyweds and a new baby. The new baby was a great source of delight for Frank and Catherine, who were delighted to have the unexpected chance to act as Grandparents after all.

Olympia was a constant presence and joy for Frank in the last year and a half of his life, as his health declined. When he died, I stood with Catherine beside his bed, holding his hand. Olympia slept quietly in the sling while Frank’s wife and I sang Old Man River one more time, told stories, laughed a little and cried a little more as his life slipped away. It was a quiet passing and a peaceful one. A few days later Frank was buried on a high windy hill while a long bagpipe keened a haunting and beautiful lament, but his great generosity has remained a powerful force in our lives.

First of all, there are the ties. The hundreds of designer ties and finely woven, sharply cut collection of dress shirts and suit coats and overcoats too. At six five, my husband couldn’t quite fit into this finery, so at Catherine’s request, the bulk of his collection was delivered to the farmhouse at Sweet Ridge Farm and distributed there to all the men in the family, from my father down to my youngest brother James. These days, weddings, holidays, and formal gatherings of any sort guarantee that Frank’s finery will be sported by one if not all of the Slattery men.

For my family here in Pittsburgh, ties are the tip of the iceberg. Last August, Casey and I bought Frank’s house. For fifty years, Frank lived in a stately yellow brick house high up on a hill, overlooking the hundred year old trees of Arsenal Park and through them the glimmering skyline of downtown Pittsburgh and beyond that Mount Washington, the Incline, and the famous Bayer sign. It’s a beautiful house, but it had been cut up into apartments and after Frank’s devoted (and very business savvy) mother died, it was quite the bachelor pad. Frank lived on the second floor, and his devout and good tempered but untidy hoarder friend occupied the first in a dark, dingy warren full of dusty heaps of books and high unsteady piles of videocassettes, DVDs, and CDs.

Frank always wanted us to have his house. He thought it would be a perfect place to raise a family, something that for one reason or another had never happened in the hundred year history of the house. He loved the idea of Olympia growing up in his home, but when Casey and I stopped in to check the house out we were overwhelmed by the vast size of the place, the filth of the first floor, the pink tiles of the 1950 time capsule kitchen, the amount of money it would take to buy and renovate the house and the amount of work that needed to be done. Once and then twice we looked at Frank’s house, then literally ran down the hill to our safe, solid, 950 square foot apartment and there we stayed, perfectly content until the day suddenly arrived when our cozy little home seemed far too small for a growing family with a legacy of great height and wildly enthusiastic movements. After long months of conversation with Catherine and many requests for aid and counsel sent heavenward to Frank, we took a deep breath and worked out a deal to purchase Frank’s house.

This February in the icy wind and driving snow, exactly four years after moving into the perfect little house behind Frank and Catherine under the same conditions, we moved a block and a half up the street and into a different world. Frank’s house is a strong, sturdy, and stately home. It’s a lifetime kind of home- a place to settle into and live from.

frank's house

This house is a comfort and a joy, and I can’t express the gratitude I feel for the fact that we were able to move in here.

Both Casey and I believe that Frank was directly involved. I know that he would be glad that we are here- and in fact, Olympia has inherited his room and the antique bed his mother purchased for him long ago.

This is a hundred year old house, but instead of ghosts I believe it is full of the communion of saints. I am daily reminded that our stories continue long after we are gone, that death is not the end of life, and that love lives on beyond the grave.

Happy birthday, Frank. Thanks for giving us a new beginning.

Housekeeping

By Kate

I have not been keeping my house. Instead, I have been housekeeping. At this moment, I am glancing over my snow covered garden across the gravel drive and at the back door of the little brick house where Teresa lives, heart in my throat, waiting for the back door to open and let me know she made the perilous daily journey down her stairs and into the kitchen of her little brick house. The door opens, my breath eases, my morning begins again.

I have been taking care of Teresa for two and half years now.

teresa polish wwII stories

For the first two years, I was alone in this task. Introduced to her by a neighbor, I walked into a home that smelled so strongly of incontinence, neglect, and filth that it was all I could do to stay for five minutes. For the first several months, when I returned from Teresa’s house my husband made me strip off my clothes at the door, bag them up in plastic, and shower off before I touched the baby. There was so much to do to remedy the slow slide her house had taken over the years from an immaculate Polish home to a stinking hovel that I had no idea where to start. “I just need you to do a little laundry now and then.” said Teresa, in her quavering accented English.  I started with the sheets, stripping the stiff yellow fabric unwashed for years, bleaching them, and stretching them out on the line in my backyard to let the sun burn away the stains and wind billow away the lingering scent. Slowly, surely, the sheets turned white. Slowly, Teresa began to trust me, to let me wash her hands, her hair.

Progress was slow, and there were setbacks- the one period of several months she refused to let me in, a fall on the kitchen floor, an ambulance trip and a hospital stay. Still, with time, I could see the house becoming a home again. After bleach and vinegar and sweat and tears it was clean enough that I began to bring my toddler with me when I went to care for her, and Teresa stopped telling me daily that she welcomed death, and instead waited in eager anticipation for my second child to be born. In the last trimester of my pregnancy, after another fall and stay in the hospital, we finally hired another helper to help with Teresa. It was a godsend. Not only was I relieved to know that someone would be taking care of Teresa so that I could go to the hospital and deliver my baby, but the lovely young woman who we hired managed to work a miracle and convince Teresa to rip out my nemesis- the stained and stinking carpet that was far beyond saving, no matter how many times I scrubbed it on my hands and knees- and replace it with a fresh, clean, new carpet that was the final step in transforming the home back to the order and serenity that her mother had created decades before and left in place when she left Teresa alone by dying.

Two weeks ago a shooting in the rough neighborhood where my co-worker lived created shock waves in her life and sent her out of town abruptly and likely on a permanent basis. Just after she left, a violent stomach flu hit Teresa and my two year old at exactly the same time, deep in the middle of the night. It was a long and sleepless night and the weeks following as a solo caretaker have been tough too. Teresa’s home remains serene and ordered while across our yards and the gravel drive that divides us my laundry is heaped in drifts like the aftermath of a blizzard on a windswept prairie plain, dishes are piled in the sink, and sometimes I stand in the middle of the room and cry.

I never planned on being a housekeeper, though it amuses me to think that I am following in the footsteps of my father’s grandmother, an Irish immigrant who came over at a young age to work as a maid in the great houses of Chicago at the turn of the century. In America roles are fluid, and there are days when I am a maid in the morning and harpist in pearls and velvet playing underneath a chandelier after sunset. Meanwhile, all the while, I am a mother. Being the mother of two in diapers, one 75 year old is not so much to add, and I can take my children with me when I care for her. That said, bundling up two little ones at the beck and call of an elderly woman four times a day is often challenging and occasionally seems impossible. So does keeping my own house.

Ten minutes ago the cheerful woman I hired two days ago to help with Teresa waved to me across the yard. She started this morning, and I am eager to hear how it goes. Meanwhile, my sister Mary just arrived at my home after a grueling 24 hour trip involving a train, a snowstorm, and a Greyhound bus. She is in the kitchen making cocoa and unpacking a cardboard box of heirloom China and ballgowns that (mostly) survived the trip. Mary is here for a week, and during that week I fully intend to scour my home from top to bottom sorting, dusting, organizing, keeping, and throwing things away. Mary is great at that sort of project. In fact, my housekeeping officially begins here on this blog, where I just re-posted two entries that Mary accidentally deleted in a well intentioned but unfortunate organization and cleanup effort on our blog. She has also in the past jettisoned my late season garden and the internet line into my parent’s home. However, I believe that this time her powers will work for good.

We will keep you posted.

More on Teresa- or harp playing!- can be found here:

Enough

Winter Harpist

Finding Balance

by Kate

I cannot do everything at once. Lets start with laundry. I have not been caught up on laundry since Francisco was born. It has prevented me from using cloth diapers which triggered a whole heap of guilt in my country girl in the city soul. I am happy to report that I started using cloth diapers again yesterday and (so far) it is going splendidly. My theory is that now I will be forced to do laundry more often.  Also it is almost spring and in the spring I hang all the laundry on the line. I am much, much better at getting the laundry done when half the job involves stretching my limbs under an open sky.

But more to the point, there is this rise and fall, depths of desperation and peak of elation pattern to my life of late. Let me paint a couple brief pictures for you.

I am pushing a jogging stroller (with Olympia in it wearing a velvet party dress and a blanket tucked over her coat and hat and boots and with my bags containing sheet music and library books etc. precariously stacked above her) up a steep city street one handed, using the other hand to boost up and nurse the baby in the sling under my winter coat. I am sweating because it is quite the climb and because I overstayed a tiny bit at Teresa’s house to do one last thing for her after making her breakfast this morning and as a result I am running late (again) to punch into the Memory Care Unit at Canterbury Place and spend half an hour playing the harp. I am trying to get F to nurse as much as he can so he will be relaxed and happy and I won’t have to awkwardly play the harp for the dementia patients WHILE wearing him in the sling and nursing him and using a pashmina to (hopefully) cover my breast while doing so. There is another block uphill to go and I feel like it is too much.

Then.

I am in the sunny room overlooking an enclosed garden, in the Memory Care Unit. I am wearing jeans and boots and long dangling earrings and playing the harp, to the delight of some of the lined familiar faces in the room. There are others I suspect enjoy the harp as well, though their heads are bowed. Francisco is being held in the arms of the beautiful stylish black aide who has 3 year old twins herself, and he is cooing at all the old people and just won a smile from a man who hasn’t smiled all week. Olympia is in the middle of the room, twirling like Shirley Temple. She has been sitting still with apple juice and graham crackers that she knows to expect, looking at my books of music, and now she is dancing. I am proud of her.  There is so much peace and joy in the room, and in this moment, for me.

Or…

Maybe it is the hills. The hills and the stuff, the big bursting bags of badly packed stuff that I carry around with me, the stuff that is not goldfish or wipes or diapers, those I either don’t carry or don’t have enough of. The thought of the drive up the hill to the Dance Studio after loading a toddler and a baby and my overflowing bag of fringed dresses and huge carimbo skirts and hair flowers and a sequined hat and ballroom shoes and the spiked silver five inch heels, and carrying them all up the steep steps after crossing the icy parking lot with a shrill winter wind whipping across the street feels like too, too much. I feel fat and tired and am castigating myself for trying too hard and not staying home and doing my laundry.

Then.

There are flamenco dancers pounding patterns on the other side of the long studio, samba drums on the stereo on our side. Francisco is asleep in the midst of heaps of costuming after a long conversation consisting of much cooing with a beautiful Brazilian woman. I am sweeping a skirt through the air and spinning through a swirl of rose and gold. Olympia is underfoot at my right side in the midst of the dancers, grinning and leaping joyfully but so far I haven’t knocked her over. I strap on the five inch heels I will wear for a Fat Tuesday samba performance at a nursing home, the one at the top of the hill, the one where my harp is, shaking my head at the ridiculous nature of my life.

I am trying to find balance. True to my nature, for me this means samba dancing in platform heels for elderly people, accompanied by a toddler and a fat five month baby. It’s not wonder this involves so much lurching wildly from despair to elation.

And now, I really must do a load of laundry.

A Family Friend So Dear to Us

by Clare

This man is crazy. But in a good way.

Peter Drake has been living with us since I was five years old, and I can barely, if at all, remember a time when he wasn’t in our house. At times this makes me angry, feeling that I shouldn’t have to share my family and my home all my life with a man who’s not even related. But I know that Peter has been nothing but a gift to us, and living here has been a giant blessing for him.

Peter is a very eccentric person, truly one of a kind. After leaving the Navy, he spent much of his money buying an encyclopedia set and read the entire thing. And somehow he retained all that knowledge, spouting out things most people will never know. He loves digging into visitor’s family backgrounds, and gets awful excited when he finds something interesting (he loves to tell everyone about how he is 1/32 African American). He often comments on how much he’s enjoyed meeting our family and our family’s friends, and how these people are some of the best he’s ever met. He especially enjoys telling Ole and Lena jokes, which are always a crowd pleaser.

He grew up in what was probably the craziest town with the craziest people who ever lived, and the stories he tells about his younger days are things you’d think only happen with characters from a ridiculous Hollywood film. A lover of all things Norwegian, he often attends Norwegian events in the area, and loves parish lutefisk suppers.

Peter is not a picky person to house. He eats pretty much everything we serve, and loves it, and it very quiet and peaceful. Except for when he is on the phone. I think he think that for the person on the other line to hear you, you have to shout very loudly and distinctly into the phone. It’s kind of amusing. He only complains when his heater is not heating his room well enough, or if, God forbid, the coffee runs out. For Peter, when the coffee runs out, the world stops.

Peter’s a hater of sports, and couldn’t care less about any of it. My dad teases him terribly about it, asking him if he’s been keeping up with the Green Bay Packers, and if he thinks they’re defense is off or not. This disturbs Peter greatly, and makes him raise his voice and shake is head and state , “I don’t know, I don’t know!” There are often a few swear words mixed in too. Swear words are a regular part of Peter’s vocabulary. I think it’s just a habit. He and my dad have kind of a love-hate relationship. They’ve been friends for years, and my Dad’s the reason Peter’s not still stuck in a nursing home.

He’s also extremely generous, and is always giving away Social Security money to a worthy cause. A convert to Catholicism, he sometimes has trouble making it over across the road to church, because he’s often struck with a sudden dizziness that inhibits him from making the long walk. We call it dizzy disease, but we should call it a mental disease, because its all in his head. There’s nothing wrong with him really.

Fact is, I could tell you a million things about Peter Drake, and I’d still have more to say about him. He’s a character alright, and we’re sure glad to know him.

Happy Birthday, Peter Drake!

Everybody Loves Italian Men

By Kate

The other morning I headed down to Pittsburgh’s Strip District. I was looking for a package of Egyptian henna, and the maze of street vendors and ethnic shops in the Strip is the best place to find henna- or saffron, Peruvian panpipes, knockoff designer sunglasses, or a cheap pashmina.

The Strip District is also a great place to eat and drink. For a few bucks your taste buds can be transported all over the globe. The men gathered on the sidewalk in front of La Prima Espresso were definitely experiencing Italy.

Judging from their accents, it is safe to say many of them were recently living in Italy. This was easy for me to determine because their voices were raising at a precipitous rate.

I love the details of this series of images- the tiny cups of espresso, the loafers, the cigar, the newspaper, the sunlight. The expressions on the faces of these men.

I was so glad to have captured a few moments of that sunny Italian moment on the sidewalk in the Strip. I also picked up a package of henna with Arabic accolades scrolled inscrutably across the box and a couple pairs of pretty fantastic earrings. On my way home I saw this sign, and laughed.

I do enjoy the Strip District.

You may not have time to sit on the sidewalk and have a pitched battle with Italian men this morning, but here are some more pictures and stories of the Strip District to peruse with your coffee:

After Atlas Shrugged

Farmers in the City

Bikram Yoga in the Strip

Gary Elson: Son of Middle Ridge Soil

By Patrick Slattery

Not many farmers are fortunate enough to have a silent sidekick. I do in the personage of Gerard (Gary) Elson. Gary is a genuine farm article. Born and raised just over the hill west of Middle Ridge, he has had a lifelong love of all things agricultural. Unfortunately, in later times his farming life unraveled: he suffered a stroke about 12 years ago. As a result, his dairy herd went down the road.

The farm which had been in the Elson family for four generations was sold to a childless cohabitating couple, and Gary moved into a subsidized senior citizen housing complex in West Salem, Wi which is about 12 miles away from his home farm.

Gary is not the kind to sit and do nothing. I tried to help him though his divorce, and when it was clear that the subsidized housing complex was where he would reside, I suggested he come and help out here in the neighborhood if it were to his liking.

It has proven to be an option to his liking, and most days Monday through Friday, Gary can be found here. A senior citizen bus provides very convenient transportation to my house. In previous times,  he drove a Polaris ATV 12 miles back and forth from West Salem, but alas! The sheriff’s office pulled him over and put an end to the 5 times a week drive.

Let me state emphatically that I am a big beneficiary of Gary’s regular visitations. Gary is a true farmer and has helped fill some of my knowledge gaps especially when it comes to mechanical understandings. Gary pays attention to the likes of dipsticks and tires, things that don’t seem to capture my attention. He has saved my neck more than a few times. I especially enjoy Gary’s company because we don’t have to talk too much.

Gary’s stroke impeded his speech. I can understand him most of the time, but most people cannot. Hence, I do a lot of his business transactions. A lot of his sentences end with oh, sheete…. There are times that I am glad that he can’t talk because then he can’t say oh shit, I told you so!

Gary has settled into his own groove, and has ended up on his own two feet pretty well considering the life blows that he has taken. He likes livestock and the first thing that he does when he arrives each morning around 8:15 is to feed the chickens. He had got a real nose for finding egg nests in the strangest of places. Whatever the undertaking, Gary has a practical knowledge of how to set up work and get it done. He did a masterful job of organizing my barn’s basement, and spends many a happy hour down there, hammering, sawing and chopping things.

It is a wonderful male domain. The only point of contention is that Gary loves country western music. This doesn’t sit well with my wife. She turns it off when working with us packing produce in the basement of my barn. Detoured, Gary turns the Cow Country station right back on when she isn’t around. To be truthful, I have developed a whole new appreciation of  the socio-economic observations provided by county music artists.

Gary and I often times work on projects together in the morning. Things always go better when you have two sets of hands. Gary is a chow hound and is quite appreciative of good fresh food. He communicates thanks to the chef. Afterwards, a half hour nap on our tv room couch is in order, then it’s time for more work.

I knew Gary’s parents who were really beautiful people. His Dad had the kindest look about him and a gentle soul. Gary has much of that in him too. He comes from good stock. I trust that Gary and I have a mutually beneficial relationship. I know that I am grateful for anything that he does. He may not live on the Ridge any longer, but he is and always will be a son of the soil of Middle Ridge.

This article is part of an occasional series written by Patrick J. Slattery, patriarch of the Slattery clan. Pat was a journalist for over 30 years, writing about faith, farming, and family. For the past few years he has stepped away from the keyboard and into the fields as a full time farmer. The first articles in his series is available here:

Cute Tractor

Christopher

Working in Season

by Kate

In Wisconsin, my sister is climbing the boughs of apple trees in the orchard and pulling berries from the raspberry patch. She is cutting and preserving fruit and making jam and applesauce. Her hands are busy with this work. Here in the city the peaches have fallen from the tree behind my house. They are heavy and ripe, hit the ground with a thud and roll underfoot as I rush by. Last year I spent weeks on my back porch peeling and preserving peaches, baking peach crisps and pies and tarts. I was dizzy with the abundance of sweetness and wanted to capture every single peach to last through the long winter. This year, most of the peach season has slipped away. I am passing by fallen peaches every day, pushing through and old wooden gate and down another garden path and into the home of an elderly Polish woman who needs cleaning and cooking and conversation more than I need a freezer full of peaches.

Somehow without seeking I have slipped into a season of service to the elderly. When I came to Pittsburgh, I dreamed that I would play the harp in a ballgown at society weddings- and I have. What I didn’t expect was that I would play the harp with a baby on my lap in a locked down Memory Unit. What I didn’t expect was how much I would come to love playing for these people- some sleeping, some dreaming, some with faces alive and alight with joy as the songs and poetry bring memories of love and joy and sorrow back to life. I had no idea that I would learn so much about flexibility in mind and body from men and women in wheelchairs in my Gentle Stretch class. Living so far from home and from family, I never imagined that my daughter would be given so many generous and loving acting grandparents.

Yesterday someone asked me if I had always planned to work with old people. I laughed, and said not at all. I married and moved to this home, on this street, with peach trees and Polish ladies in the backyard and a huge old mansion turned multimillion dollar old folks home at the top of the hill five minutes up the street. Somehow the harp playing and dancing and eldest of nine children cooking and cleaning and farm strength all combined to make me the right person to reach out and pick an old man up off the floor, make a fresh bed for a shut-in woman, cajole a group of arthritic and depressed people to stretch a bit more than they think they can, and play a song that reminds a bright eyed woman beset with Alzheimers that she sang it at her son’s wedding.

A few years ago, I worked in the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina. I lived in a one room cabin and drove over twisting mountain passes meeting farmers, taking pictures, and working with restaurants and grocery chains and schools and hospitals to connect  local produce to local markets. It was great work, spreading the message that supporting farmers and eating fresh local food in season is important for the health of the individual, the community, and the land. I believe that food should be local, and seasonal. I believe that in many ways work should be seasonal too. The work on a farm is not static and unchanging. Some of the work is entirely physical, with calloused hands hard at work while the mind is free to reflect, and some of the work involves intricate planning.  Tasks shift along with the seasons.  There are days of hard labor from dawn to dusk and frozen winters when the soil is buried deep and resting, and the farmer is forced to rest as well.

For me, the concept of working in seasons means being open to using the talents that I have been given in different ways at many different times. The variety of  my work has made it far more joyful. These days I miss my farmers, but I love my old people. This year the peaches have fallen unpicked, but next year they will come again. Next year, perhaps I will have a season full of time to preserve them.