Ms. Vivienne was my oldest clients at 95 years young. Her daughter Dianne would bring her in once a month for a manicure/pedicure. Ms. Vivienne had the prettiest hair, which was always coiffed & held in place with a hair net. The color was snow white, with no tinges of yellow, while her eyes were a beautiful shade of azure blue. They reminded me of how blue the ocean waters were in Cancun & just as crystal clear. When I first met Ms. Vivienne (which that was a wild story for another time) her mind was still pretty sharp, but over the years she developed some senility.
The first time I became aware of the problem was during her manicure she said she was leaving to go back home. As she put it, she “wore out her welcome” here with her daughter! Home for her was Iowa, but her daughter (who herself was in her 60’s) had moved her here to Kentucky in order to take care of her, in addition to taking care of her own wheelchair bound husband! Ms. Vivienne went into great detail about how she was going to take the train back home & stay awhile.
When her daughter came to pick her up I cheerfully asked if she was all packed for her big trip, assuming she would be going, too. That was when her daughter rolled her eyes, saying “Now Mother, you know you aren’t going back to Iowa. We told you that this wasn’t a good time”. Then I caught on to what she really meant. Every month after that when Ms. Vivienne came in, she’d tell me the story of her impending trip home & it would always go like this:
She’d be taking the train right after her nails were done & it should only take about 4 hours to get there (to Iowa!). Her father is a physician & her mother helps him in his office, but both of them could use her help, too. Remember, Ms. Vivienne was 95 years old, so it’s safe to assume that both her parents were long deceased. The train station was just a short walk from her house, but someone would be there to meet her. Usually it was the “constable” of the town, she’d tell me. He’d escort her home safely.
They have 2 women that help her mother around the house, one being a cook & the other a housekeeper. Her father makes house calls to sick people or women in labor & sometimes he’s gone all day. He’s delivered many, many babies over the years. Her brother would help tend to the garden, along with the gardener they employ, while she kept busy in her fathers office.
It never varied. I heard this story 1x per month for a few years.
I aways played along like I’d never heard any of this before, because to say anything contrary would only cause her confusion. I would ask the same questions at each visit & she’d get great pleasure from telling me about her life in Iowa. It reminded me of the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day” where every day he wakes up on Groundhog Day & it’s the same day over & over & over again until he gets it right (whatever “it” is I cannot recall).
Back when Miss Vivienne’s mind was clearer I asked her what it was like living through the Great Depression. Every elderly person that lived through the Depression remembers how horrible it was & how they just barely scraped by. My own Aunt recalled how as kids they would chase the coal wagon down the street & take home chunks of fallen coal, later to be used to help heat the house. Aunt said they’d also chase the “ice man” down the street in the summer to pick up chunks of ice that fell from the wagon as it transported the big blocks of ice from house to house.
There wasn’t modern refrigeration back then, so each household would buy whatever size chunk of ice they’d need to put into their “ice box” to keep their food from spoiling. Since there was no such thing as an ice cream man to make the rounds back in the day, these ice chips were wiped off & the kids sucked on them to keep cool in the summer! It’s hard to imagine now. We who are living through the “Great Recession” need to stop being such whiny little tittie-babies. So cry a little…..”waaahh, you can’t find a job that you like”. These people couldn’t find FOOD!
Typically during the Depression families conserved what they had, reused & repurposed things without throwing anything away, sewed their own clothes, baked their own bread, grew their own vegetable gardens, bartered livestock, & generally did what they had to do in order to survive. It was a very lean & scary time not remembered with fondness. My Grandfather told us of how he “jumped a train” (I presume hobo style) to go find work in Chicago. He left my Grandmother behind in PA. to care for the children & house, sending money to do so until times got better & he returned. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask what kind of work he did, how long he was there, where he stayed, etc. & wrote it down when I had the chance. But they’re long gone now, so that part of their history we’ll never know. Take note, young folk! Document your kin’s stories NOW while you can!
Anyway, Ms. Vivienne’s Great Depression experience was like none I’d ever heard. She truly did not remember going without. Her physician father provided amply for her, her brother & their mother. The 2 siblings had no chores, either. Instead she recalls having music lessons & recitals. Her mother didn’t have to really do much around the house, since they had the cook & the housekeeper. She mostly ran her husbands office & kept the files. This was a very, very interesting view of the world from what I assume was a small minority of privileged people & I was fascinated by it!
You could tell that Ms. Vivienne was well cared for just by looking at her. Her skin, although wrinkled, was still porcelain & believe it or not she still had most all of her own teeth! No false teeth or bridges! Her brother had long been gone, as well as her husband, but I don’t know those details. When I once asked her questions about her husband she couldn’t really recall him, so I changed the subject before I distressed her. I only wanted her to remember the happy times whenever she saw me.
On one visit Ms. Vivienne told me that something bad had happened. This was out of the normal “Groundhog Day” routine visit for us, so I asked what it was. She looked upset & whispered to me that her whole family was dead! Her mother, her father, & her brother, but she couldn’t remember what had happened or how they died. I pretty much figured out that she must’ve been pestering her daughter about going home to Iowa & her daughter in frustration finally snapped & told her that there was no more family there for her, nor the house in which she grew up in. It was a sad moment, but thankfully it never happened again.
It was always a joy to see Ms. Vivienne, but every month around the time when she was due for a visit, I’d anticipate that dreaded phone call from her daughter informing me that she’d died & each month when it didn’t happen would be such a relief. I really cherished her visits because she was so sweet & kind, even when we’d talk about the same things over & over & over again!
Finally it just got increasingly too hard to get Ms. Vivienne up to the 2nd floor location of my salon. Her daughter would slowly walk up the steps behind Ms. Vivienne, one step at a time, using her hands to half push, half guide her Mom’s rear end up the steep steps (about 15 of them)! Then I’d stand at the top of the stairs encouraging her to keep going. The whole process would take about 15 minutes! Then we’d guide her over to the chair to get her nails done first, after which her toes. Between services I’d always take a restroom break while she was soaking in the pedi tub & I’d pray that she wouldn’t die in the 3 minutes while I was gone!
We had to call it quits when Vs. Vivienne developed bursitis in her hips, but I’d call her every so often….like on her birthday & holidays. The last time I spoke to her, her daughter said she wouldn’t remember me because her mind was too far gone, but to speak loud because her hearing was feeble now, too. So there I was cheerfully yelling into the phone & trying to engage her in conversation. She sounded very happy, but I don’t know if she recognized my voice or not. That was the last time I ever spoke to her.
Later the next year I bumped into her daughter in the grocery store & she told me that Ms. Vivienne had passed away around Thanksgiving. I think she was around 96 or 97 years old by then. I immediately teared up & almost started crying right there in the pharmacy section! Ms. Vivienne will always have a good place in my heart & it makes me happy that I could tell her story. Easter always makes me think of my own Grandparents, so I guess that’s why Ms. Vivienne came to mind today.