Emma’s Story

Emma: Music … a form of love which has me remembering.

In great old age you are driven inwards. Are one’s core strengths –for Emma, the sounds of nature and music,”forms of love which have [her]] remembering” enough to stave off indifference, fear, loneliness and boredom?

Coming Home: Emma’s Story

Emma remembers Queen Victoria in her horse-drawn carriage and her frail, black-gloved hand waving acknowledgment to the people cheering her Diamond Jubilee, and waving her own small two-year-old hand.

“I remember all the way back. An actress friend of mine said that if I can do that, I must have total recall.” Emma says: “You see, everything has a sound, a picture: I can hear the clucking of my mother’s chickens riding on the roof of the carriage on the way to our new home in Sheffield. It was the one possession she insisted on taking.”

She remembers sitting around the table just before they left England for Canada: her father let the Bible fall open (“the custom at the time”) and read the first verse on the page: “Be not afraid for I will be with you wheresoever thou goest.”

“This was a prophetic verse for my family. We had years and years of poverty and hardship, and whenever my mother felt downhearted he would quote it: ‘Don’t worry, Mary, remember that verse.’ And I always have: when I’d used up all my savings looking after my brother (there was no OHIP [Ontario Health Insurance Plan] then, you know), after my husband died intestate. I was almost 70 and only the house was mine, so I kept house for my nephew’s family. When my grandnephew was in school, and they didn’t need me anymore, I nursed, cleaned houses, and babysat. I gave music lessons until I was 80.”

Music has been Emma’s lifelong joy. A strong, vibrant thread running throughout her life, it provides meaning and continuity, context and connection, a loving memory web weaving together the cloth of past, present, and future. A springboard to a wide variety of personal and professional interests, it is also a link to family, friends, and community, a means to earn a living, and an enduring comfort and companion.

“Music comes unbidden; I will wake in the middle of the night with the sound of a concerto or a fugue playing. I listen, maybe sing a little, and then go back to sleep.”

“It’s not age that affects my memory; it’s illness—it’s distracting, it puts you off your beat. It’s just that on some days you remember better than others. I think you do when you’re 90.”

When a name gives her “temporary trouble,” she will tell herself, “‘It will come in a minute,’ and it does.”

“You seem to trust your memory,” I said.

“That’s right, I do. I have complete faith in my memory; when waiting a minute doesn’t work, I leave it, wake up at three in the morning, and there it is! Like the writing on the wall. I have my ways, like a mental filing cabinet, of how people and places look, which registers in my mind the way patterns of sound do.”

“Oh, I can remember anything I want to anytime, it’s a special gift and I’ve treasured it all my life. Everything that happens to you is in your subconscious, which we all have, only it can lie dormant when no demands are made upon it. People who say they have a bad memory just talk themselves into it. They make no demands on their mind.”

When she wants to remember something, she will think back to where she heard it the first time, what the person looked like, the surroundings. She remembers every detail of a person’s home. “I could make you a list of pictures, furniture, ornaments. I don’t try to do that, it just registers in my mind.”

“So you have a good visual, as well as auditory, memory?”

“Yes, very. Shapes, colour, sounds … music … are a pleasure for me … I suppose it’s love, a form of love which has me remembering.”

Unhappy memories are as vivid to Emma as happy ones. In fact, according to her, the habit of “deliberately forgetting unpleasantness is the beginning of a bad memory.” She doesn’t forget them but doesn’t “dwell on them,” rarely talks in any detail about the hardships and humiliations in her life, even to people she knows well. As she says (and as I’ve learned over the years), “No one wants to hear about your troubles; they just want to hear what’s interesting to them.”

As she becomes older she “switches off violence” and makes a point of remembering only good, because, she says, the evil in the world is only a minority. “The great number of people the world over, what I call humanity, is concerned with marrying, family, keeping a roof over their heads, and having enough food. Those who are weak enough to indulge in crime I am not interested in. I don’t want to know them. Just think of the thousands of volunteers who help people, including me.”

For Emma, the whole purpose of life is to keep mentally alert, and the only way she knows to do that is to have a vital interest. She never has to “improve” her memory because she always has “a little more than I can do. But I’m kind to my mind. If something is too worrying, I put it aside and come back to it. As you get old, your energy declines, that’s inevitable. So I don’t fritter it away but use it only to a comfortable point. But lazy minds, that’s appalling! I have young neighbours who sleep till noon on weekends. They miss so much, they never see the trees and birds in the light of early morning.”

Emma needs a magnifying glass for the telephone book, arthritis hinders the long walks she loves, fatigue overtakes her “more quickly and more often than it used to, which is inevitable.

“But I don’t worry, that would be useless. I rest every afternoon if I’m going out at night, groceries can be delivered for seniors, although I’ll miss talking to people I meet—small towns are like that, you know. I’ve always said that the best way is to make a plan, and then forget about worrying. I have designed a pattern for living for when I cannot drive, like buying concert tickets for me and a friend who can still drive. I have the money from selling the cottage, and so now I can do a bit of travelling too.”

“You plan ahead so you won’t be taken by surprise,” I say.

“No” (quietly), “change won’t come as a shock.”

When she reached 90 (which she had never expected to do, because her parents had died much younger), Emma said that she could think of herself as an old woman of many years of experience, which gave her a “certain authority” on quite a few subjects. In her opinion, the causes of a poor memory are indifference, fear, loneliness, and boredom, which must all be “deliberately avoided all of one’s life because they have a debilitating effect on the mind.” Everything that happens to you must be deliberate, because indifference is a “dangerous habit.” She talks about indifferent parents whose children “go astray” because they have not been brought up with “loving rules.” And indifferent children who put their parents in an old age home, “forget about them and condemn them to loneliness because they are afraid of the old, afraid to see what they will become, afraid of death … which is inevitable, so there’s no point in being afraid.”

Emma met adversity by continually reframing what well-being meant for her, what was worthwhile, enjoyable, workable, meaningful—and memorable—to make the “best life possible under the circumstance.” But at 97 she was “too tired to do everything that needed to be done” and had to leave her beloved home: the place she “could always come back to,” and move to the nursing home she had helped to build.

Although the Order of Canada hangs framed on the wall with her family pictures, the community she served for so many years has grown old too, and there is almost no one left who has known that “wonderful, feisty old woman.” Fewer still who have read her column “Voice of Aging” in the community newspaper with the header: “Dismiss the impossible, submit to the inevitable and take on a new interest.”

She becomes angry and querulous at the extent of the impossible and inevitable. Her rebellion is not seen as “feisty”; it “turns people off”—as she had foreseen about others. Caregivers have no fond memories to temper their impatience. Her relatives have heard her stories time and again and know what is between the lines as she “deliberately selects from the past, and from the now” the memories she wants (can bear/bare) to remember, the memories she needs to talk about to maintain her well-being. But there is rarely anyone to talk to or who wants to listen to her story.

And so Emma let go of expecting herself to be active and useful, the ways her society—and she—define “aging well,” and turns inward to the sights and sounds that still give her pleasure. On my last visit she doesn’t hear me at first when I knock on the door of her room. She is looking out the window at birds darting back and forth at the feeder, Chopin’s Ballade # 4 fills the room. Perhaps, as she did long ago at family dinners, she is “thinking of something else until someone comes.” Are the sounds of nature and music—”forms of love which have [her] remembering”—enough to stave off indifference, fear, loneliness and boredom?

I hope so.

I remember her telling me: “I can’t play the piano, but I can still listen to music. I won’t hear all of it, but I will hear it in my mind. I don’t read much anymore, but I can still recite poetry (mostly to myself; there aren’t too many who have been brought up to enjoy it). I can still envision all that I saw in my travels and enjoy nature. When I can’t get out, I watch the birds at the feeder.”