Monday, April 06, 2020


There was a term in use when I was growing up that doesn't seem to be much used these days, but I expect it will be coming back into fashion as we continue to shelter more or less in place. Shut-in.

I had friends growing whose ancient grandmothers lived with them, never leaving the house. In one instance, I don't believe the ancient grandmother ever left her bed.

The old lady next door became a shut-in after making an ill-advised attempt to walk down her steep front steps during an ice storm to get to Midnight Mass one Christmas Eve. After breaking her hip, Grandma L became a shut-in for the last few years of her life.

There was a rest home just up Main Street from us. It was for people who didn't need a nursing home, but who had no place to go. Most of them were shut-ins, although there was one man (named The Runner by my grandmother) who, whatever the weather, wearing suit pants and a white shirt, buttoned up to the neck, ran by every day on his way to wherever he was running, and ran back by a few hours later. This was in the 1950's. People didn't jog. Except for Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile, people didn't run.

There was a mother-daughter duo who lived up Winchester Ave. from us. They seemed ancient to me - the mother in her 60's probably, the daughter in her 20's or 30's - who didn't seem to do much of anything, although once a week they walked out together to take the bus down city to go shopping. They were modified shut-ins. (I just found the daughter's obituary. She died in 2011 at the age of 80, so in the 1950's she would have been in her twenties It appears from the obit that the daughter had been married at one point - we always referred to them as The Flynns, although as it turned out, that was the daughter's married name. "There they go again. The Flynns," my grandmother would announce whenever they walked by. There's a vague mention in the obit that at one point she'd worked as a bank teller. And that one of her greatest joys was cooking holiday meals with her mother. She "went out of" O'Connor Brothers, the funeral home my family "went out of," too.)

There was a shut-in who lived on the top floor of a three-decker, across Main Street from my grandmother's three-flat on the corner of Winchester and Main. My grandmother called him The Blue Jay, and he sat on his front porch - in Worcestere three-decker terminology, his piazza - leaning, looking out, watching the world go by.

There was plenty of world to see.

This section of Main Street was quite commercial. There were two grocery stores - Morris Market and Kaplan's. Vic-the-Blind-Barber's barber shop. The Paree Beauty Salon. Sol's Maincrest Pharamacy. A drycleaner/tailor. An electric repair shop that also sold lightbulbs. On the corner of Winchester, kitty-corner from Nanny's, there was a used car lot. Across Main, a double-wide triple decker, set well back from the street, sold gravestones out of the front yard.

Lots going on as, other than purchasing a gravestone or a used car, people had call to stop in at all these shops pretty regularly.

We knew that The Blue Jay had nothing to do all day but hang on his porch, watching, because my grandmother was sitting in her kitchen window all day watching, too.

Although, oddly, we didn't use the word when we spoke of her, my grandmother was a shut-in.

Nanny had been a school teacher, retiring at the age of 70. I was just two when she retired so, although we lived in the same house, I don't remember her going out teaching. I remember her sitting in her kitchen.

She did move around a bit, hobbling into her parlor to bang away at the old upright: Mockingbird Hill, I Wandered Today to The Hill Maggie, The Blackhawk Waltz.

When it was nice out, she hobbled out to her piazza and sat.

She also got out to hang her washing up on the clothesline that swung out from her piazza.

But her trips to the outside world were few.

She went out for rides with our family, with my Aunt Margaret's family when they came up from West Newton, with my Uncle Charlie (with whom she lived).

When we moved out of Nanny's house to our own standalone house on the next street, she came to dinner every Friday.

She got out for holidays: Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving with us, Easter and Christmas Day at Margaret's.

Once in a blue moon, she got out to visit her sister Alice, the sibling she was closest to. Alice lived in a three decker next parish over. When I tagged along on one of these visits, Aunt Alice gave me a handkerchief with Pluto (the Walt Disney dog character) on it, which was quite nice, given she had eight kids and plenty of grandchildren of her own. But Alice died pretty young - late 70's, I think. So no more visits with Alice.

Nanny kept up with friends - mostly her fellow teachers - via phone, which must have been a challenge, given that we had party lines back then.

And she had visitors. My Aunt Margaret up (at least) weekly. My father daily, even after we moved. My sibs and I would stop in fairly often, as we cut through her yard to get home from school. She made us cups of sweet milky tea, fed us brown-edged wafers, and gave us Brach's toffees, peanut brittle, or left over ribbon candy, gone all sticky. Nanny's candies of choice were a bit odd, given that, after a time, she lost some of her teeth. (She lived to be 96, a few weeks short of 97.)

Her brother Arthur was a retired cop who worked as a driver for O'Connor Brothers. When there was a funeral down the hill at Our Lady of the Angels, Arthur would swing up and park the hearse or the family car in the driveway and come in for a quick cup of tea. I was impressed by his fancy clothing - funeral parlor men wore formal dress at the time - and the fact that sometimes he gave us nickels to buy popsicles.

Somewhere along the line, a nursing home was built in the field next to my grandmothers. Her brother Pat who, like Nanny, lived to great old age, ended up there, and Nanny would go out onto her piazza and wave to Pat.

Nanny did get out to go grocery shopping with Charlie, and I must have accompanied them at least once, as I have a pretty clear memory of Nanny leaning on the shopping cart.

Nanny was mostly a shut-in, however, thanks to her seriously arthritic knees. The Trainor Knees, named after her family. The Trainor Knees precluded her from going to Mass, but I'm pretty sure she wasn't all that interested in going to Mass, anyway. Priests would regularly visit shut-ins back in the day, and I don't recall a priest - other than a priest friend of my Aunt Margaret's family - ever paying a call on Nanny. When the parish priests went door-to-door to take the annual parish census, she refused to answer the door.

Who knows if there was anything that could have been done about those seriously arthritic knees. They ran in her family, just something you learned to live with. At any rate, she never went to a doctor. The one time I remember her being sick, down with the flu, I found her and Charlie huddled in the parlor, shrouded in blankets, sipping blackberry brandy. (Neither was much of a drinker.) She was well enough to complain to me about Rose Kennedy's jet black hair. Did she dye it with tea, Nanny wondered?

Once a year, my family went to Nantasket Beach for the day and Nanny came with us. We sat on my father's old Navy blanket, under an umbrella, on the sand. Nanny spent the day, in a silk dress, pearls (fake, I'm sure), earrings, her spring topcoat, her hat, and her sensible nun-like shoes, on the Pavillion, enjoying the seabreeze. At lunch time, one of us would pop up to hand her a sandwich.

I don't know exactly what Nanny did all day to occupy her time, other than watching out the window. I don't remember her sitting there reading anything, other than the newspapers, but she was quite brilliant, so I'm sure she read something. (When she left her house, at the age of 92, to live with Aunt Margaret after Charlie died, we found a book by William James, checked out of the library during the 1920's and never returned. So she did read.) She recited poetry and bits from Shakespeare she'd learned as a girl.

There was the piano, and the phone, and the small b&w television in the kitchen, which she always had one. During the Watergate hearings, when any of the pro-Nixon Republicans was speaking, she would lean over, and using a pole she had rigged up, turn the sound down.

She liked to watch Lawrence Welk, but mostly to make fun of the regular performers.

There was a cat-food ad that featured a cat doing the cha-cha, and Nanny always wondered how they got the cat to dance backwards.

When my cousin Barbara was married in 1966, Nanny was unable to go to the wedding. She wasn't able to get out for my father's wake or funeral in 1971, nor for my Uncle Ralph's (Margaret's husband) or my Uncle Charlie's a few years later. Who sat with her, I wonder? Probably one of her nieces. Surely she didn't sit there alone while her sons were being buried...

Nanny never seemed bored, or at a loss for something to say, some opinion she wanted to share, some story she wanted to tell.

Other than getting out for my walks - my knees are a little wonky, but I don't (yet) have the Trainor Knees - I'm pretty much a shut-in myself these days. As we all are.

So far, so good. Maybe the ability to cope well is in my genes... Or maybe I should wait and see how much I like it if it stretches on and on and on...

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