Martha looked up at me as I stood by her walker and said “I know I can’t live at home just now. It’s too cold and they tell me my drive is frozen solid. I could slip on the ice and hurt myself. I have to wait for the summer before I go back.” I looked at the profusely flowering sweet smelling rose beds beside us as I walked slowly with Martha around the nursing home garden. The July heat was intense. “Of course,” I reassured her “your farm is in good hands while you’re here.” But Martha was already gone from me in that moment, looking out of a window far away in her mind. It was summer for her, then and through the open kitchen window she smelled the roses that she had planted just underneath.
She saw her two youngest children playing in the shade of the tree in front of the house. The older ones were sitting at the picnic table beside the winding road that led to the barn and the fields. Mary was reading and the two boys were playing a game. It would soon be time to bring them a cool drink and then get the chickens fed and bring the house cow in for milking. Those children and her farm were all she had. She had lost her husband a few weeks after her youngest son was born and since that time she had worked hard to stay on her farm, in that house with her young family. She had refused to take social assistance because that would have meant giving up the tractor and some of her land. She had never been afraid of hard work. She dried her hands and turned from the sink. She wanted those children to have a chance at a good life that she had never known.
Suddenly Martha started and looked around at me and through the door that led into the nursing home. She was getting cold, it was time she went in. What was she doing out in this weather anyway? Turning to look at me she said plaintively “I want to go home. Take me home, I don’t want to be here. Please.”
Martha is 93. When I first met her on her farm, years before, she must have already been in her late 70’s, though we never spoke about her age. Then, she never stopped talking about her family, of how proud she was of all of them. She told me how she had taken in laundry and sewing which she did at nights when she had finished her farm work to be able to send the oldest girl to secretarial school. Her daughter had studied hard and graduated well. She got a good job and at once sent money so that her next oldest sister could go to college too. Each of her children in turn had done this for the next until the last one finished and he repaid his mother.
It was wonderful to hear her talk of the love they had as a family. They all married and moved away except for the oldest boy who looked after his own farm a little further up the valley and the cattle that he kept on his mother’s land. They called her often, particularly the oldest girl who was a supervisor in the telephone company. She and her husband did very well, with a cottage at the lake that was bigger than most people’s homes. But that’s what people expected now she told me. Sometimes her younger son drove out from the city to take her back with him to look after his children during the school holidays as he and his wife both worked and were very busy. She loved the grandchildren but they were always in their rooms with their games and didn’t like to sit down with her for meals. There was a note of sadness that began to creep into her voice when she mentioned this.
I went to visit Martha on her farm as often as I could, sometimes with a friend or Steven as I knew that for long periods she was alone and that our visits cheered her. Sometimes we would find her working in her vegetable garden or tending her old fashioned roses under her kitchen window. Just over the fence was her apple orchard and the smell of blossoms and drowsy hum of bees was something she loved to experience as she dug and weeded and planted. Her son’s cattle would often be grazing under the trees and the spot was one of the most tranquil I knew, as it seemed still to be in a forgotten time.
I was also worried that she might hurt herself. Even when well into her 80’s she remained fiercely independent. She had a cat that used to come and go in the farmhouse kitchen and a little dog that one of her daughters had given her “She doesn’t have time to look after him, poor little thing.” She used to pretend that she didn’t care much for it, but I could tell by the way he leaped onto her lap that she cherished his companionship. Her hearing deteriorated until she couldn’t hear my knock on the door, nor when I called out to her when I stepped into the kitchen. I was worried about her one day when her car was in the drive but I couldn’t get a reply from her and she was nowhere to be seen in the house. As I stood and listened,uncertain of what to do next, or who to call, I heard a knocking coming from the basement. A little nervous of what I might find down there, I cautiously made my way down the steep wooden steps and saw her. She had an axe in her hands and was chopping her kindling. “Don’t tell my son. He wouldn’t want me to be doing this. He wants me to leave the farm and move into town. But I like it here.” She was 86 years old!
I knew that her time on the farm was, nonetheless coming to an end. The winters were long and though the lane leading from the road to her house was plowed for her, at times the power would be out for days and if she fell and hurt herself it might be a long time before anyone found her. The house badly needed repairs and began to look neglected. One time when I went to visit I found that she had gone. Her family had persuaded her to leave before the next winter set in, “Just for the winter.” they assured her. The house and farm sold almost immediately, though they never told her, as far as I know.
Martha never settled into the nursing home. She had to share her room with a stranger, someone who chattered on endlessly though she could not hear her because she removed her hearing aids.
Every time I came to see her she complained that she didn’t know why she had to be in there. She was still capable of looking after herself, she said. On one visit she suddenly said “If I had been a dog, my daughter would have taken me into her home.”
After that, little by little, her memory began to fail her and she drifted between past and present, reality and dream, back to the days on her farm when she had been needed and useful. She would look out of the nursing home window and see, as on that July afternoon, the winding lane to the barn and the fields, the tree and the picnic table, with the children running in and out with their games.
She sits quietly now in the chair in the nursing home sitting room. “My family are coming to see me this afternoon. They might take me home.” Her gnarled and spotted hands, once so capable rest in her lap. Her nails have been painted bright pink.
Post Script: Within a couple of weeks of my last visit to Martha, during which I took the photograph that you see at the end of this story and after which I wrote this, I heard that Martha had died.