She would have preferred someone taller and a little better looking, someone whose family had some money, someone who was more forceful, someone who was a little more suave about table manners and clothing; someone who was a doctor, or at least had a PhD, but most definitely someone who did not wear a beard or a “toke.” That was what I got from Val on the way back to Cambridge from our weekend visit with Pauline and “Doctor” at their elegant old home in East Greenwich RI. Of course Pauline knew that Val was her own woman, and that there were many areas where Pauline’s advice would be ignored. I learned that the “toke” was the knitted cap that I pulled down over my ears when it was cold. Pauline insisted that it almost automatically identified one as mentally retarded, and she would know because the had worked at the RI State School for the mentally retarded. She had married her boss, the school’s founder, Dr. Joseph H. Ladd, 30 years earlier. He was 90 and 10 years retired after a 50 year career at the school. Of course Val reminded Pauline that “Doctor” still wore a beard, a small goatee, but a beard nonetheless.
About a week after our visit, I received a tall black Russian style hat from Pauline, and I wore it whenever we visited in cold weather. I still wore the “toke” inCambridge, since it was easy to roll up and stick in a pocket when I didn’t need it. “Tokes” and beards would occasionally reappear in discussions with Pauline for the next 45 years, but we learned to live with our independent views.
At the time of our first visit with Pauline and “Doctor,” Val and I had already decided to marry, the question was the timing. We both would have liked a small informal wedding in the near future, but Val knew Pauline would be against it. When we finally announced our intentions, Pauline said, “I’ve been going to weddings all my life. I’ve given plenty, now it’s my turn, and they all owe me, and I’ve only got one daughter.” She let us know it would take a year to plan the wedding. We agreed to her plan and continued to “live in sin” in my small Cambridge apartment. Val still paid rent to her roommates apartment and they covered for us. I don’t think Pauline ever knew until we told her a few years ago, and she laughed about it then. The wedding took place in a brand new Catholic church on Mayday 1965. It was the first wedding held in that church. It may have been the largest wedding I have ever attended. Almost exactly 45 years later, we held a memorial service for Pauline in that same church. It was a month before her 100th birthday.
After the wedding I was treated differently. Instead of the intimidating hospitality showed to guests, and the suspicion shown toward her daughter’s suitor, I became a full member of the family, and privy to all the history and details of Pauline’s large family and friends. I really began to know Pauline, and to understand her needs and wants. When “Doctor” died at 99, Pauline was left with only a small income from social security. She had to sell the big house in East Greenwich. She missed a big run up in-house prices by 2 or 3 years, She bought a small house in North Providence, near her roots, and carefully invested the extra money. A few years later she married an old friend of “Doctor” and her, whose mother had worked at the school. They soon moved to Florida and we didn’t see them more that once or twice a year. Al was a big man, bigoted and opinionated, but he loved Pauline, and he never let her forget it. He had been a mill boss at several textile mills around New England,Canada, and the South. He hated blacks, unions, taxes, and the new deal. He was hard to talk to, since he was nearly deaf, and he liked to do most of the talking. He sometimes embarrassed Pauline at social events, but because of his age and his deafness people let it pass. They were married nearly 20 years. By the time he died, he no longer hated blacks, but Pauline never changed his mind about unions and taxes. She had kept him going past 99, but like “Doctor” he didn’t reach 100. After a few more years in Florida, Pauline finally gave in to Val’s inducements to move back north. She settled in Easthampton at a retirement place called Lathrop. She complained bitterly at first. She felt that the place for an old woman was with her daughter, but her great social skills made her almost the “belle of the ball” in spite of the fact that she was older, poorer, and less educated than most of the other residents. She almost enjoyed herself until her macular degeneration worsened and she decided to stop the watercolor painting that she had learned at Lathrop. Around that time, we moved to Greenfield, and she was diagnosed with a mild form of Lymphoma. Her doctor said it would never kill her, but she came to visit with us in Greenfield and ended up staying. I think, the gradual vision loss made it difficult to make new friends as the older ones died off.
In Greenfield, her social life consisted mostly of phone conversations with friends at Lathrop and with her few remaining older relatives in RI. She did manage to visit or receive guests on occasion. She complained every day about the MD, but never about the Lymphoma, which was in deep remission, with only a tiny pill 3 times a week, and an occasional hospital injection of the expensive anemia drug Procrit. During the three plus years that Pauline stayed with us, she never forgot to let me know how much she loved me and appreciated being with us.
Last summer, while Val and the kids and grandkids were at our camp in Vermont, Pauline received a phone call from some old friends in RI. They had moved to upstate NY, but were in RI and planning their trip home. They asked if they could stop by for a few minutes on the way home. Of course we said yes. Pauline had known both of them 20 or 30 years ago when they were with different partners. Pauline insisted they come for dinner, but they said they couldn’t possibly do so. Nonetheless, after the call, Pauline made up an extensive list of items for me to purchase at Stop and Shop and a small bakery. I argued that they wouldn’t be staying for dinner, but she insisted, so I went. When I got back, she put Sharon, her young woman personal care attendant to work preparing a bunch of fancy appetizers and small sandwiches. When Charles and Dianne arrived, they were in their 10th year of marriage and they seemed like newlyweds, both in their 80s. And Pauline seemed to join them. She acted like the grand hostess that she’d been so many times before, when she’d been married to “Doctor.” Sharon and I almost couldn’t believe the great energy and happiness that she showed. The visitors were clearly amazed. They stayed for nearly four hours. It was the happiest I had seen Pauline since the day her daughter married.
The doctor was wrong about the Lymphoma. The drugs stopped working in September, and even two emergency blood transfusions didn’t help. Pauline finally accepted her coming demise, and faced it directly without complaining. I could tell it from her phone calls. I was proud of her at the end. Looking back, I can see that our relationship had always been based on mutual respect, but in the end there was genuine love. I guess I came to know her better than any woman other than my wife.
This story was published in tales & TREASURES A Senior Sampler, coordinated by Anita Phillips, Staff Writer, The Recorder 2011 Haley’s