Visiting an Old Relative, Part II
Preparing to Visit an Old Relative, Part II
In early February I posted a story about a planned trip to visit my 87 year old Aunt Addie as she recently relocated to an assisted living facility in Minneapolis. My original intent was to write before, during and after my visit however, I didn’t have the time or Internet access I assumed I would. So here is my wrap up of the recently completed trip.
As a sign of the times, yesteryear becomes today. Upon entering Addie’s eldercare facility, aka nursing home, I noticed some differences. The community DVD and videotape collection featured titles such as “Doll Face” starring Vivian Blaine, Perry Como and Carmen Miranda, “Some Like It Hot” with Marilyn Monroe and “Curly Top” starring Shirley Temple. The dining room serves black coffee with every meal and is poured into cups on saucers. Diners tuck napkins under their chins to protect shirts from drips and drops. And in each private room, medication is locked and stored in a tackle box propped atop each resident’s refrigerator; up high and away from prying hands.
Contrary to my imagination, the chairs in Addie’s room were neither upholstered with flowery fabric nor comfy and the windows were curtain bare. My pre-travel imaginings of English country fabrics and overstuffed chairs and rooms complete with Victorian lace curtains collided with the stark reality upon setting foot in her room. Outside Addie’s room, in the central halls of her third floor wing, the scent of cinnamon effectively camouflaged smells related to urine and Pine Sol; two scents I previously associated with old-time nursing homes.
In the month between my decision to travel and embarkation at Denver International Airport, Addie showed no interest in seeing my uncle Tommys’, her first husbands’, World War II medals. In the meantime, my cousin Bob unearthed information about Tommy’s last mission on July 28, 1945. The Blue Jackets of Air Group 87 left the USS Ticonderoga aircraft carrier, under the command of John McCain Sr., destined to destroy Japanese battleship Tone at Kore Naval Base in Honshu, Japan. The irony is that the ship had been “sunk” four days prior however, the water was very shallow and the ship remained largely above water. Tommy’s mission was to completely destroy the remains. The squadron’s mission was successful however, Tommy failed to return from this bombing attack.
Telegrams with cut and pasted words advised Tommy’s family that he was missing in action. One year later, on July 30, 1946, James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, wrote a letter to Mrs. Schaefer “In view of the probability that your husband lost his life when the plane in which he was flying crashed, because no official or unconfirmed reports have been received that he survived, because his name has not appeared on any lists or reports of personnel liberated from Japanese prisoner of war camps, and in view of the length of time that has elapsed since he was reported to be missing in action, I am reluctantly forced to the conclusion that he is deceased.”
The stories in my family about Tommy death center on the great loss and deep grief. Tommy’s parents, sisters and Addie went on a cruise to help their recovery. One box of 3x3 black and white pictures with scalloped edges show the travelers standing on piers and docks as they progressed along the Great Lakes to Niagara Falls. No one smiles and all hold cigarettes in their hands. While smoking was fashionable in that era, I wonder if the smoking was more of a stress reliever for my sad family.
Today, the family that remains will remember Thomas George Schaefer in a memorial at Fort Snelling to be held over the summer. Another irony to add to the story, Addie and Tommy married at Ft. Snelling on September 11, 1944.
I asked Addie why she married Tommy. I wanted to hear some words of wisdom from the woman who was happily married to two great men (her second marriage to Charles lasted over fifty years). “Something clicks and you have fun with that person.” Then, she continued, “All the fellows that I met were so nice. I truly liked all those fellows.” Then she whipped out a stack of love letters from some guy named Chuck. Chuck and Tommy were both at the same prep school/university and knew each other. Tommy and Addie met at an ice skating rink. I am unsure about the details regarding Chuck. And while Tommy borrowed his dad’s car to race over to Addie’s high school to ensure he was the first “fellow” there to offer her a ride, Chuck lurked in the background. Chuck joined the National Guard and was called for duty before completing high school which left Tommy to woo Addie in peace. When Chuck learned of Addie’s marriage to Tommy, he wrote congratulations but added that “if he were around that wouldn’t have happened.”
Love letters from another man that Addie saved over the course of two marriages. I brought these letters home with me along with assorted family pictures, some old crystal and shiny silver pieces.
Despite the stiff chairs, plastic flowers and scent camouflage, the authentic bond of family, love and tenderness carried us through the emotion of saying good-bye to both the past and each other. The five days were filled with heartbreak and tears as well as hugs and smiles. After day one, I didn’t think my heart would survive another round but, of course, I went back for more and yes, I survived.