Theirs (the “oldest old”) is a generation that still writes handwritten notes.
The other day I got a letter from Elizabeth, sent to my university office. I wasn’t surprised. Elizabeth was never able to call me directly, because she didn’t pay for a long-distance service. So instead she called my husband and left a message (a local number I gave her), or wrote a note.
I met Elizabeth in her women’s Fortnightly research club in Albany about five years ago. She was not shy. She wanted to tell me all about her life story. She taught high school English in a black school in Georgia during the civil rights era. She was also a codebreaker for the Navy during WWII. And boy, the stories she could tell about these things! At age 88, Elizabeth was about as fiesty and independent as they come. She insisted on continuing to live alone in her suburban home, and though her family wanted her to come to Georgia and live with them, she wasn’t willing to give up her autonomy, her space, and her busy social life.
Elizabeth and I had a common friend in the research club, Julia. When Julia passed away while in church, Betty called to tell me. “She had a heart attack in the pews,” Elizabeth said. She kept talking — saying this was the most amazing thing – an independent woman, age 95, still driving herself to church. And to die amongst her friends, with the church choir singing, how great was that? I had to agree.
Elizabeth didn’t feel the need to be sentimental about Julia’s death. Julia was old; and she died the way she would have wanted.
So now, a few years later, in flowing cursive, Betty thanked me for the advance copy of the book I sent along. She was thrilled, in particular, with the fact that she was Elizabeth in the book, a name she treasured, and one that was rarely used as her friends all called her Betty. She was also thrilled that my daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth, and she wanted to invite me and my daughter over as my earliest convenience. She made a reference to our friend Julia, also in the book. I made a mental note to call her.
Then I got word today, only a week or two after Elizabeth wrote that note, that Elizabeth died during Hurricane Irene. She was checking her flooded basement when she died.
That day all of us Central New York homeowners were checking our basements. For most of us the power was out, the wind was whipping, and the heavy rain was never-ending. Elizabeth was doing what all homeowners were doing. But she was alone. This makes me so sad, but she wanted it that way.
A year ago her housekeeper found her “white as a ghost” and took her to the hospital. She had pneumonia. She was hospitalized for a long long time. She made new friends at the hospital. And then she returned home, and thrilled in recounting this story over the phone. She wasn’t ready yet, she said, to make changes in her life. She loved her independence too much.
And so, another life ended in line with how it was lived. A stalwart independent, a local hero, confronting the latest storm.
Goodbye dear Elizabeth.
Read the Sept 1 piece in the Times Union honoring Elizabeth, with more details from her amazing life story.