picture yourself in a boat on a river



On Wednesday, Lucy met her namesake for the first time, Tessa’s grandmother Lucille Tessman. Actually, my great-great-grandmother Lucy Rigby was also a factor, but Lucille – known as Nonnie to everyone in the family – was the steadfast rock upon which Tessa affixed her entire childhood. Those of you who have Netlfixed (or bought) “Five Wives” will remember Nonnie as the grandmother on the back porch saying that Tessa’s dad could buy anything except “those four letters L-O-V-E.” Needless to say, Nonnie rocks.


four generations of incredible women

I got there a little late to the Nonnie show, and so did Lucy. When I saw her in 2001, she was still driving herself around, but a bad car accident, a broken jaw and some tiny strokes landed her in the old folks’ home in Huntsville, Texas by 2003. She drifts in and out of attention, yet when Tessa shows up, she lights up like a Christmas tree.

Across the hallway from Non’s room was a door with a wreath on it, and some sort of medical tape sealing it shut; my guess is that someone had just died. Next door to that was a huge sign saying “Everyone Please Welcome Mrs. Woo!” It struck me as positively existential, the idea of moving to a place you know will be your last. There’s no getting out of there, it’s the final stop. Judging from some of the looks of the patrons, they’re quite content with the notion.


footwear: Nonnie wears the ankle monitor keeping tabs on her whereabouts, with Sandy and Tessa’s feet as well

It was Nonnie’s 89th birthday, complete with ballons and cake, and though it was great to celebrate it with her, it’s just the nature of history that Lucille and Lucy’s paths will cross but for a few years, and neither will get to know the other. Think of the time span – say Nonnie met an 89-year-old when she was 6 months old. That person would have been born in 1827 during the presidency of John Quincy Adams. Say Lucy lives to be 95. That means she will live to see the 22nd century. And both will have touched Nonnie.

It’s so hard to see someone you love deteriorate, but modern medicine has still not taken the chill off extreme old age. For Nonnie, I believe she is forgetting what feeling good feels like, and is thus not doing the things she ought to be, like taking oxygen while she sleeps. And the worse this gets, the more you slip into a dream state where you can no longer quite be sure if the life you are seeing really exists.


Furthermore, you don’t care. It’s not a flippant lack of care, like the ones we engage in as young people, but an actual inability to muster concern. This must be the defense mechanism inserted by the Higher Power of Your Choice to keep you from going crazy. In all, a nursing home is a strange environment in which to bring a baby. So incongruous, yet so alike.

Nonnie finally got sick of all the commotion and wheeled herself away. In the recesses of her memory, she knows her family loves her, she knows goodbyes are painful, and now she knows that she made such a huge mark on the world that another lithe spirit will carry her name into the distant future.


0 thoughts on “picture yourself in a boat on a river

  1. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    THIS IS MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE POST OF YOUR’S, EVER. I am crying buckets here at my computer. I named Helen after my favorite person in the whole world, my grandmother, also known as Nannie. Helen and Tim got to the Nannie show late in life as well — after Alzheimer’s had already begun to ravage her mind and body. Helen was born in 1999 and Nannie died in 2002. Nannie lived long enough (and her mind was just intact enough) to know that I named my only child after her, and it delighted her. I have a few photos of Helen and Nannie and I treasure them.
    The other day, a kid in Helen’s class told her that her name was a bad name because it rhymed with a curse word — HELL. My Helen was upset, but I reminded her that she was named after my beloved, wonderful grandmother, and she was delighted with the reminder. She said, “I love my name, Mama! I wouldn’t want to be any other name!” I cried.
    I remember Nonnie from Tessa’s excellent film — she was wonderful. I did not realize later that Lucy was named after her. I think that I have a bigger crush on you, Tessa, and Lucy now! I send you all a huge hug via the Internet. And God Bless Nonnie.
    Oh dear. I am crying so! This was such an excellent post. I can’t say that enough. Have a good day.

  2. JJE

    I was also very moved by today’s post, Ian. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own beloved grandmother, who also went the retirement home route with deterioration due to a few strokes, so this one stirred up some bittersweet memories.
    I’m sad my Grandma’s not here, sad she didn’t get to meet Connor and a just smidgen sad I wasn’t able to name my first and possibly only child after her. Had Connor been a girl, he likely would have been named Naomi Kaylor, her middle and maiden names respectively. (Uh, I love and miss her dearly, but there was no way I was saddling any modern day child with Grandma’s first name, which was Vernice.)
    Geez, I’m starting to feel like the Kathi Lee Gifford of your blog commenters…”Cody, Cody, Cody!” ;-)

  3. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    JJE – I think Vernice is a fine name. After all, I named my baby Helen! And, if you are the Kathy Lee Gifford of Ian’s blog, then I am the blubbering fool of Ian’s commenters. I just had to read the post again. “Everyone Please Welcome Mrs. Woo!” — oh dear! I am still teary-eyed.
    Lucy is indeed a little piece of Nonnie’s immortality . . . isn’t she?

  4. Andrew

    My grandmother is 97 and in a home exactly like the one in your photos. Same cord to pull for help. Same long hallway. Same look on her face when she holds my daughter.
    I was to go see her yesterday. Did not make it because of other things that were less important. Seems I need to make amends. Thank you for reminding me of that.

  5. hilary

    another beautiful post, ian. i need to visit my grandmother. have you seen the film “assisted living”? i’m not sure if it’s gotten distribution yet, but i saw the director interviewed on charlie rose, and it sounded like such an important work.

  6. Susan

    Great post! My own grandmother was in a retirement home too the last few years. I was fortunate enough to be nearby to visit her almost daily. Sometimes I would read to her, do her nails or hair, or go for a walk outside. your post reminded me so much of those times. Cheers to wonderful grandmas!

  7. LFMD

    Thanks, kjf. I wanted to kick that little girl in the pants for making my baby feel badly about her name. Of course, the little girl had one of those cul-de-sac names Ian has mentioned in the past. . .Ugh. That night, all Helen could talk about was “What is Hell?”, “Does the Devil live in Hell?”, “Am I going to Hell?”, “Is the Devil going to get me?” Apparently, her little Catholic school has not even mentioned the Devil to the kids. . . it is all Love and Hugs and God and Jesus and Do-Gooding stuff that she is learning now. Whatever happened to the Fire and Brimstone classes of the old Catholic schools? Ha! Anyway, I was left to my own devises to explain the concept of Hell to her, and it was more than she and I could bear.
    Ian, that picture of Tessa, Lucy and Nonnie is one of your best.

  8. Beth

    The thing about kids is that they’ll find a way to turn even the seemingly vanilla ones into something icky: “Bad Breath Beth,” “Death Beth,” “Braces Beth.” Granted, they were reaching, but kids will be kids, no matter what. LFMD, my mom’s name is Helen, and I too think it’s a lovely traditional name, not even an unusual one, no defenses necessary, especially not against the cul-de-sac-named of the world.

  9. Martha

    Great post Ian. You captured, in a much more articulate manner than I ever could, the feelings I had when visiting my grandmother in a nursing home. The last stop before oblivion and the dissolve into terminal apathy. So sad. I hope my mind goes well before I’m aware of this.

  10. eric g.

    Great post, Ian. You captured the full circle of life in a few paragraphs. Writers have toiled for years to achieve less. I got the same sense of the circularity of life that you express here when I fed my grandfather his dinner with a spoon this summer. Rather than being ashamed at his inability to do it himself, he was grateful and remarked to my grandmother that he had once fed me and now I was returning the favor.
    The four generations pic is awesome, by the way.

  11. kaz

    i almost feel too sad to respond. my 98-year-old grandmother is wasting away in a similar home in israel…she is finally, thankfully, starting to lose her awareness. her body went almost 10 years ago, and she was cursed with complete lucidity. and we are cursed with knowing she’s half-way around the world waiting to die…

  12. JJE

    LFMD – I think Helen is a lovely, elegant name. I like classic names like that. Plus the first Helen that comes to mind is the beauty of Troy.
    Vernice – as in rhymes with “furnace” – well…not so much. ;-)

  13. LFMD

    I just love y’all! Thanks for being so sweet about Helen. Now I feel kind of ridiculous about being so mad about that little girl’s comments. It is amazing how being a mother brings out all the “Mommy Bear Protecting Her Cub” emotions. The fact is that I don’t want anyone to hurt my baby’s feelings EVER. Which is an exercise in futility, of course. God help the first boy who breaks her heart! He will have to deal with The Wrath of Helen’s Mama.
    Ian, I shared your entry today with the Ladies at the Insurance Job, and we were all bawling. Everyone wants to Netflix Tessa’s movie, which I highly recommended.
    P.S.: All of the Ladies in the Legal Department (ranging in age from 30 to 60) have a big crush on you. You are known as “that adorable guy with the red hair who articulates and emotes the way we wish our uncommunicative husbands would”. Anyway, keep on building your fan base! Everyone at that Insurance Job wants to know about your big TV news as well! They are ready to Tivo whatever you and Tessa are working on!
    And, I am going to tell the Ladies all about Nicola’s blog. I just visited her site, and I cried a whole new set of tears! Little Lindsay is so adorable! Nicola — you are such a good writer!
    I have to find some more Kleenex. Good night.


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