Jul. 21, 2020

WHEN NO ONE TAKES RESPONSIBILITY...IT'S UP TO YOU.

An easy life is impossible for many.  My grandmother seldom smiled.  She always looked serious and I attribute that to the fact that-- for her-- life was a serious matter and not to be taken lightly.

My grandmother was one of two daughters born to parents who were extremely poor but….during the mid to late eighteen hundred…it would be accurate to say most everyone was extremely poor.

My grandmother, Bertha Mae Owen and her sister, Celestial Belle Owen, realized early in life that—like most everyone born into that era—every person worked to support the family.

 Because my grandmother refused to talk about her sister in great detail, I never knew about her desires; her talents; her ambition.  I only know Belle married early and even before her only child, Marceil, was born, Belle’s husband was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and immediately sent to a Sanatorium. Belle died soon after her baby girl was born and Belle’s husband died in the Sanatorium without ever-seeing his daughter.

By this time, my grandmother was working fulltime as a telephone operator. Barely in her teens, she began taking care of her parents --- when both became physically-ill. With the death of her sister, my grandmother “inherited” her sister’s baby.  Not only was my grandmother taking care of herself and her parents….she now had full responsibility of a baby-- her niece.  Assuming her role as “head of the house”….my grandmother took a mail order-secretarial course...in hopes of making more money.

Somewhere along the way, she met a typewriter salesman named Arnold Joseph Heist from St. Louis, Missouri.  Judging from his picture, he was a nice-looking man. My grandmother refused to talk about him but once, she mentioned he played the violin.

 I’ll never know if my grandmother married him for love or because she needed help in shouldering her very-heavy load of responsibility.  Remember: many years ago, people didn’t discuss their private lives; intimacies; or personal details.  Those were the days when people didn't "rattle" family-tree skeletons or expose relatives' secrets. 

 I only know that--one day-- Arnold Joseph Heist left Bertha Mae Owen-Heist.  He was seen leaving their small town one afternoon and...no one saw him there.. again.

My grandmother was pregnant when her husband left her.  Within a few months, she was "in charge" of--- not only her parents and her niece—but also for Rosemond, her new daughter (my mother). With so many responsibilities, my grandmother was determined to succeed at her full-time secretarial job with The Cotton Belt Railroad.

My grandmother never made much money.  She lived in a rented apartment near the Cotton Belt Railroad and walked almost one mile to work each day then walked the same mile home in the afternoon.  Sometimes, when she had some extra change, she rode the city bus. I never heard her complain. If it was raining, she carried an umbrella; if it was cold, she wore a coat.  Nothing stopped her from going to work.  She knew that her job was her family's only means of survival.

When my father moved us to Pine Bluff’s West Side of Town…thinking my brother and I would have more opportunities there…he added an apartment-- over the garage-- for my grandmother. He believed it was time for her to have a better life, too.

Years later, when my father built our family a much larger and nicer house, he designed a separate wing of the house especially for my grandmother.  That’s when she retired from her many years with the Cotton Belt Railroad.

For as long as I can remember-- my grandmother attended church, every Sunday.  Growing up, she was my Sunday School Teacher.  As she got older, my grandmother sat  alone--always in the same pew--  when I sang in the choir.  She wore the same hat, the same dress pinned with a gold and ivory cameo pin (a gift from the Cotton Belt), her railroad watch, and her very-sensible black-laced Dickerson shoes.

Nothing about her life was frivolous, impromptu, or reckless. My grandmother was not affectionate---either physically or verbally.  Yet, I knew she was there for me when I needed to talk, listen, or simply visit.

One night, alone, she fell in her small apartment.  She lay on the floor—in serious pain from a broken hip-- until early the next morning when my father--failing to see her outside feeding the squirrels-- opened her door.

She never gained her mobility after the hip replacement. In a short period of time, her eyesight diminished and my parents moved her out of her apartment to my old bedroom.   My father hired a fulltime caregiver named Minnie who had a lot of energy which pleased my grandmother.  She enjoyed wheeling my grandmother everywhere…both inside the house and out.

The day Minnie called me about a concern-- I stopped everything to examine the problem.  My grandmother couldn’t get out of bed.  She couldn’t bear for anyone to touch her right leg. Observing the leg, I noted the area behind the knee was swollen and dark green in color.

Those were the days when Doctors made time for people and friendships and house calls. It probably took Doctor George Roberson only fifteen minutes to get to my parents’ house after I called him.  One look at my grandmother’s leg and he pulled me aside. My grandmother had a blood clot in her right leg.  Because of her age (82 yrs.) and her fragile condition, amputation was not a consideration.  The leg was already “dying” and the dark green color was gangrene.  My grandmother must be hospitalized immediately; death was imminent.

I rode with my grandmother in the ambulance. By this time, she was barely conscious. The few times she tried to talk, she called my mother’s name several times, saying: “Rosemond, where are you? Oh, Rosemond, help me, please… I hurt so much!” She also cried out for her own Mother…like a small child.

Doctor Roberson advised me to tell her goodbye before six p.m. because that’s when he’d been giving her the first of three shots.   Any remarks or signs of affection toward my grandmother must be made before that first shot. When I called my mother and my brother to share that information….I heard their tears and all their reasons for not coming to the hospital.

Minnie stayed with me through the endless night. We didn’t sleep; we only sat on either side of my grandmother’s bed and watched her die. We watched the ruthless discolorations spread as gangrene traveled from my grandmother’s leg---upward---to take-control of her lungs and finally--- her heart.

By 10 am—after having been admitted at 4pm the day before…my grandmother, with eyes tightly- shut—took two very deep breaths then expelled them with one huge and lengthy shudder.  Her body seemed to flatten deeper and deeper into the mattress until she was almost buried in the sheets—then—everything was still.

I rang for the nurse.  Yes, my grandmother was dead. I was the last one  to touch her hand and say “Goodbye.”  Bertha Mae Owen Heist died just like she lived…plain and simple… with no final celebration. And....I was the only Family Member by her side. My Mother never offered an excuse for why she wasn't with her Mother at "the end".

It’s true.  For some—nothing about Life and Living—OR Death and Dying-- is easy.

Sally Miller