A promise to go home

A few years ago I helped my mother keep a promise. We took Nan home.

Nan was my Mom’s friend in the small Massachusetts town where they both lived. “Friend” was a gracious description of their love/hate relationship. Nan was difficult … and mean.

​She had a tongue that sliced through the good intentions of the even the most tender-hearted who wanted to help her. As she aged, she needed help.

Nanette Simon was born in 1923 and raised in Brockville, Ontario, just above the Thousand Islands. After her mother’s death in childbirth, Nan was raised by her father, grandmother and eventually an aunt. The Scots-Presbyterian household was staunchly proper, not the carefree childhood most of us know. Neither Nan nor her brother ever married. Some people would have called her an “unclaimed jewel” though she wasn’t exactly a sparkling personality.

But Nan was bright, and proved very capable. She graduated from the Kingston, Ontario Hospital School of Nursing. After a few years working near home, she ventured south, answering a nursing shortage in Boston. For three decades, she worked in the city’s fine hospitals, eventually rising to supervisor at a major medical center.

Nurse Nan was not warm and fuzzy – more the “eats nails for breakfast” type. Nursing was her whole life. Old-school and uncompromising, she never asked of anyone what she wouldn’t do herself. She resolutely wore the cap and pin, white stockings, and cape over a uniform so starched that she looked as if she were standing in a stiff wind. Smirking, she once confided that she loved the new ripple-sole work shoes: “I could sneak up behind them during their jokes and smokes and read them the riot act.” She must have terrified those young nurses. I grudgingly admired Nan’s exacting standards, but after hearing some of her stories, I think I’d pass on one of her enemas.

Years before she should have been sidelined, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis took her from the hospital floors. Wheelchair bound, she was confined to home, with infrequent forays to her card club. Even as a semi-invalid, her raised eyebrow and imperious chin announced to all, who was in charge. Her few bridge-playing friends tolerated their cantankerous grump, but respected her abilities and pluck. When all the stars aligned – and her arthritis behaved – Nan reverted to the old-world manners of her upbringing … for a few pleasant hours.

Being one of Nan’s caretakers was almost impossible. She bossed and criticized them as she had her young nurses, mistreating most of the agency’s candidates. Finally, in her last few years, one young woman responded to her bark, “Listen to me, please. You need help, but no one wants to work for you. I need this job and I’m a nice person, but I won’t tolerate this kind of treatment. Why don’t we just be nice to each other and see how that goes?”It went swimmingly.

My Mom met Nan back in the 80’s, when she first needed assistance. Mom slept over for many months until Nan could find professional caregivers. The two older women forged an unlikely friendship that continued down to me and my daughter. If Nan liked you, she loved you. Gradually, we became the family she no longer had, and she joined us for holidays when she was able.

One evening over cocktails, Nan reminisced about her girlhood back in Brockville. And when she asked my mother, Mom promised she would return Nan home when the time came. She died that year.

We drove about seven hours from Warren to the other side of the St. Lawrence River. The following morning, the funeral director and his assistant waited somberly in their respectful mourning coats and striped pants, despite the August sun. Mom and I sat near the grave in our funereal best. Nan would have inspected the four of us head-to-toe, and approved.

After the Pastor arrived in his long, flowing Presbyterian pleats, five people, three of whom had never met her, celebrated the unbending stoicism that was Nan Simon’s life. In his homily, the minister stressed the love we share with each other on our life’s path and how Nan had channeled hers into her thousands of patients. I sat thinking about how much Nan belonged here, returned to the place that formed her.

Soon after the service, we began the long ride home. Mom was pleased to have kept a promise to a lonely old friend.

I read once that “Home is the place that when you need to go there, they have to take you in.” Nan needed her return to Brockville. And by its gracious demeanor, Brockville welcomed her home.

Marcy O’Brien lives in Warren, Pa with her husband, Richard, and Finian, their timorous Maine Coon cat. Marcy can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com.


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