Little Ethel

Little Ethel has an angelic face. It beams with happiness always. Even when she is sad, it has this beatific glow about it. Her head bobbles just slightly in a tremor come of old age. All of four foot eight, slight and fragile like a little happy bird, she waits for someone to talk with. She will never be too lonely because she works at greeting every newcomer to the residence. And yet she is lonely.
“It’s hard making friends in here,” she tells me. They don’t stay around for long and then you are sad and lonely again.”

That statement made me think of something my grandmother said about six years before she died at the age of one hundred and nine. “I have no friends left,” she complained, adding philosophically , “but it’s my fault.” She had outlasted them all. It was something that was a difficulty for the elderly. There were very few of their contemporaries left to talk to who would understand the context they had come from.
In the residence, there were a greater number than if one stayed at home, but that was a statistic that was suspect in value because that number could be divided by ten when counting those who could not communicate due to deafness, disappearing cognitive functions and isolation.

Little Ethel took an immediate shine to Mother. Held back by her native British reticence, she would skirt our table and never intrude. It was Lizbet who first noticed her, gleeful that she had found a little old lady that reminded her precisely of our own Granny. It was her nature, not her appearance, that reinforced this impression, although in height and weight they could have been equals.

It was Lizbet who befriended her first, during her summer holidays, but Lizbet lived in the Kootnays and was teaching. She had to go back so she asked me to look in on this delightful lady and just keep her a bit of company. Lizbet started to send her cards with a bit of news.

Slowly I drew her into our family circle. I brought her down to have tea with mom in the afternoon. When I saw her alone after dinner time, I would bring her bowl of ice cream and her tea over to our table and she would join in our tales and our laughter. We had adopted her into our family!

We gained a new adopted grandmother and Little Ethel gained a family.

As I got to know her, this gentle tiny lady revealed a mischievous side and a strong will that could not be dismissed by the staff of this residence, as they so often seemed to do.

She told me a story of her first days in the residence.

She had become very ill and fell during a dizzy spell from the steps of a bus to the sidewalk. She didn’t remember too much what had happened to her after that except she found herself in a hospital with only the help that a government can give. Her daughter was mentally challenged – not retarded but officially slow enough to have been in special schools for her education and undertaken, Provincially, intoa group home for her adult living. The daughter was incapable of managing her mother’s affairs. The Health Authority had arranged, then, for Little Ethel’s affairs outside the hospital.

In the process, Little Ethel’s house had been sold and only the things she could remember to ask for were brought forward to her at her new residence. As she brought nothing with her, the Residence furnished her room with desk, bed, visitor’s chair and table.

As she improved in health and was able to deal with her surroundings, she noticed that she had a mouse in her room. Now this little lady had no fear of mice, but she knew this was not their place and that she should advise the Residential management that someone should take care to remove the poor mouse. An infestation of mice in an elderly residence could create havoc with those who had not had the experience of pet mice in their youth. Besides, health authorities now knew that tey sometimes carried fatal diseases with them such as the Hanta virus. Better to let someone know, she thought.

And so, she told the care aide who promptly dismissed her mouse visitation as fabrication. Not to be ignored, Little Ethel mentioned the new resident in her room to the nurse on the fourth floor. The nurse accompanied her down to her room but the mouse, being a timid creature, did not come out to greet the nurse, so the nurse, too, dismissed the “story”.

Little Ethel is not of a nature to get angry about this sort of thing. Nevertheless, she is proud and she did not like being branded as hallucinatory or fabricator of untruths for sensational value. She had already taken to watching for her rodent room mate. Where did it live? Where did it go to hide when the nurses and the care aides came to visit?

There it was, nesting in the old armchair that had been down in storage before it became a part of Little Ethel’s residential decor. Ethel was patient. She enticed the mouse with offerings until the mouse would let her feed it, then stroke it, then capture it! Gently she held her prize in her hand, stroked the wee co-habitant of her digs and then nestled it under her left arm.

With a triumphant and mischievous smile on her face, head bobbling in glee, she walked carefully down to the elevator, pushed the down button with her left hand, waited until the cab came to take her down to the reception.

She waited patiently. The receptionist was gossiping in a foreign tongue, obviously on a personal call as she inspected her nail polish and brushed non-existent crumbs from her lap, animatedly talking on and on, giving little attention to the resident waiting before her. Finally she looked up at her, resignedly, as if she really did not want to deal with this interruption, still holding the telephone receiver high in her hand as if to say “be quick, I have someone waiting on the line”:.

“Yes, Mrs. Wilson? What can we do for you?”

“I’ve been telling you about the mouse in my room….” she began.

“Yes, Mrs. Wilson. We’ve already looked into that. There is no mouse in your room.””

“I know that now,” Little Ethel replied, as she slowly removed her hand from under the warm wing of her left arm, “because it’s here now.” And she held the mouse in front of the receptionist’s face just long enough to ensure the receptionist had seen it very clearly then let the mouse loose into the lobby of the residence, and she turned on her heels to go back up to her room.

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