by Marc Moran

July 31, 2002

Sarah Emily Van Nest was born on September 11th, 1911, the same year that the Titanic went down in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The story that I have heard innumerable times about her birth was that at the time of her delivery, she was small enough to place in a soup bowl. She was born, like nearly everyone in her generation, at home, in her parents' bedroom. She survived against all odds to live to the ripe old age of ninety-one years old before succumbing to a particularly virulent strain of the flu in February of 2002.

Emily, as she came to be known to those who loved her, was what would be described in her day as a pillar of the community. She was not from a family that possessed material wealth, but they were well respected by their neighbors, and they had a reputation for their fierce loyalty to one another and a deep and abiding patriotism. Emily in later years was active in the Daughters of the American Revolution as well as in the local Presbyterian Church and if anyone needed anything, no matter what, he knew that Emily would move heaven and earth to do what she could. She quilted and cooked, put up preserves and gardened, and she was a midwife who delivered so many children in the community that to this day people will open their conversations with me by mentioning that my grandmother was the one who helped to bring them into the world.

Emily, if nothing else, was a person of true value, an honorable woman of the type not often encountered these days.

In the early days of our marriage, my wife and I had very little. I was, at the time, a stand-up comedian who spent a great deal of time away from my wife on the road entertaining rooms filled with drunken strangers. I slept in hotels or in 'comedy condos,' apartments rented for comics by the clubs that booked them. It was a life style that had worn me down, emotionally and spiritually. What had begun as a lark had turned into a career, but it had gone stale and wasn't fun any longer. I loved my wife and wanted to be with her, not half way across the country working at a Yuk-Yuk's for a thousand bucks a week and all the tap beer I could drink. I wanted to be home with the woman I loved, in the town that was my home, surrounded by the people and things that were familiar to me.

I knew that I could do something else, but I felt as if I were trapped. One night, not long after our son was born, my wife and I were discussing the future and what our plans were. We talked about the strain that my absence caused us, and what we might be able to do about it. While we talked I cleaned house as my wife nursed our baby. She talked about our lack of money and the fact that we didn't own a home and might never at the rate we were going. Like a typical man I felt responsible for our situation and I was working as hard as I could, auditioning for anything and everything in New York when I wasn't on the road.

"What are we going to do?" she asked me, tears in her eyes. "We don't have any savings and our rent alone is more than we can afford. How are we going to keep going?"

I don't remember saying anything to her, but rather I remember unloading a bookshelf on the wall and wiping the dust from the volumes of Gibbons and Twain and Jefferson.

Money was an issue, sure, but it was something more than that. It was a lack of leadership on my part, a lack of direction. I was allowing myself to be held as a hostage to a shitty little career with less than no future and I hadn't the character or the strength to do anything about it.

"We'll be okay, sweetheart, I promise."

"How do you know, Marc?"

I didn't know and I didn't have any answers.

At very nearly the same instant my wife asked me that question, I removed a single volume, the name of which eludes me now, from the shelf I was cleaning. There, lying perfectly flat, was a single one hundred dollar bill. I cannot express to you the certainty I felt at that moment, that the money lying on the shelf before me was not my money. We didn't have an extra hundred dollars to spend, never mind to lose and we certainly weren't about to accidentally store our cash inside a bookshelf, yet there it was.

I turned around and held the bill up for my wife to see and said again, a smile crossing my face.

"We'll be all right, sweetheart. We'll be all right."

We talked more that night, and my wife came up with an idea that wound up changing our lives forever.

She suggested that since we were in a difficult situation and since my grandfather had passed away leaving my grandmother Emily alone, that we might move in with her, rather than see her sent to a nursing home. We could build on to the house ourselves and have a place where we could all live together, happy and safe.

I agreed with her and as she was getting ready for bed I pulled on my boots and jacket.

"Where are you going?" she asked me.

"I'm going to church."

"It's eleven o'clock at night. What on earth are you going to church for?"

I held up the hundred-dollar bill and placed it in an envelope.

"This wasn't our money and I don't think you would have come up with the idea if we hadn't found this."

She looked concerned, but she didn't protest.

"We're going to be just fine," I told her, and after I slipped that envelope under the door to our church, we have been, ever since.

Emily graduated from nursing school in 1929, just in time to start accepting chickens and potatoes as payment for delivering children. Her own father had died at the age of 49, just three weeks before her graduation, while working on Charles Lindbergh's home, Highfields, located on the southern flank of Sourland Mountain. He was installing slate shingles on the steep roof when his heart gave out on him. His co-workers carried him down the mountain and by the time the doctor arrived, he was dead, leaving a widow and three children behind.

I don't know a great deal about the Depression, but I know what my grandparents and aunts and uncles had to say about it. There wasn't much money, but no one ever went hungry, they told me. They raised huge gardens and preserved what they grew. The men hunted squirrel, rabbit, pheasant and deer. The children fished in the streams and ponds and collected mushrooms, greens and tubers from the marshy areas. They raised chickens and ducks and had apple and pear trees growing in the yard and raspberries and blackberries in the fields. They lived together, two families in one house and they spent time with one another for recreation and entertainment, playing cards at night and horseshoes on Sunday afternoons.

It was a time that was looked back on fondly in our community, not with bitterness and sadness like the stories I have read, written by the city dwellers and Okies. It was a time that solidified the spirit of that small town and strengthened the character of the people who lived in it.

Our entire family got together to discuss the plans for moving in with Emily. My wife and I had already discussed it at some length with her, but as a grandchild, I was still subordinate to my Father, my Aunt and my Uncle. Their opinions and decisions were as important as our commitment. The questions they asked were hard for us. How, my uncle wanted to know, would we deal with things if Emily became bedridden and needed attention. It pained me to think that he would ask me that question, knowing that I would do anything for my grandmother.

"That's all fine and well," he said "but you are not home all the time. You are on the road half the year and your wife is not Emily's grand-daughter." I made our argument. We would build an addition on to the house for my wife and son and I, a second story on the small cape cod my grandparents had built and raised three children in themselves. We would foot the bill, we would do the work, and when the time came and Emily was no longer with us, we would buy the house from the estate so that they would not lose a penny of their own inheritance. We would put it in writing if they wanted us too, and they did.

"If it's okay with you Mom, I suppose it's okay with us." My uncle said. Emily smiled at my wife and nodded her head.

"Oh, I suppose it will be just fine." She looked around the room at her assembled brood and smiled. "Now, let me hold my great-grandson."

We began construction on the addition in the spring of 1999. We had decided to do the job ourselves, not only to save money, but because it was something we were capable of doing. My father and uncle both took off time from work to help me with the demolition and framing portion of the project, but once the walls to the second floor had been erected, I was on my own. During the second week of construction I had installed a huge blue tarp to cover the exposed ceiling joists on the first floor. The tarp, heavy and large, presented a significant challenge to a single man securing it, and as the weather began to change from bright sunshine and fluffy clouds to brisk winds and dark skies, the necessity of such actions was obvious. Twice I was nearly blown off of the house as winds caught the tarp like a sail. I scrambled around the perimeter of the house securing the trailing edges of the tarp firmly to the framework while trying desperately to maintain my balance. On the first floor my grandmother sat serenely in her recliner, listening to the frantic sounds above.

When the sky finally opened up I was standing beneath a canopy of blue plastic that sucked in and out as the winds buffeted the house. As torrential rains poured down on that sheet of reinforced plastic, and the crack of thunder and the flash of lightning bolts turned the darkness into bright blue light, Emily waited below with nothing between her and the elements but her faith in God and her absolute belief in her grandson's ability to protect her. I was less sure of my capabilities, but at that time, in the midst of one of the worst thunderstorms I had ever seen, there was a calm that I will never forget. The two of us shared the risk of losing the tarp and flooding the house, but we never gave up our resolve to endure. When the storm finally passed and I came downstairs to check on Emily, she was as cool and reserved as ever.

"That was quite a storm." I said.

"It sure was." She replied.

Outside the lawn was littered with wet branches and scattered leaves. "Were you worried?" I asked.

"No. I knew you were up there." She said calmly. "What could happen?" I smiled in relief and knew in that instant that Emily was right. Together, nothing could threaten us. We were family and we looked out for one another. That's just how Emily raised her children.

My grandparents never traveled. Once my grandfather had gone to Madison, Wisconsin, to take a class, sent by the U.S. government during the Second World War. My grandmother flew a single time with a wealthy patient to Chicago, in the late forties and then flew right back home. Other than that, they rarely ventured much further than Trenton, less than ten miles away.

When I was in the service I would send postcards to my grandparents from places like Cairo and Balboa. I would describe as best I could the spread of stars at night over the Sahara, the sounds of troops of howler monkeys that shadowed my squad as we moved through the jungles of Panama, and the smells of the marketplace in Tenerife. They loved the cards and saved them in an old drop-front desk. Whenever I returned home they would bring out the postcards and ask questions about my travels. Later, when I traveled cross-country doing stand-up, I carried a framed photograph of Warren and Emily with me and would place it next to identifiable landmarks, like the Grand Canyon the Mississippi River and the Badlands, where I would photograph the photograph of my grandparents. These I would send to them, a gallery of their virtual tour across America.

When I was five years old my great grandmother, Mammie Van Nest passed away. She had been blind for the last five years before her death and my grandparents had cared for her in their home. My aunt and uncle were still in their teens and the house was cramped with bodies. I never witnessed any friction, but years later, when my wife and I made the suggestion to move in with Emily, it was my aunt and uncle that voiced concerns based on their experience of living under the same roof with their grandmother. They remember my grandfather simmering with resentment at having his mother in law move in just as his children were all but raised. While I have never known this side of my grandfather, I do not doubt it. If my great grandmother were anything at all like her daughter Emily, then she would have been a force to reckon with. Warren, while he was the undisputed head of his household, was not a particularly demonstrative man. His was a quiet kind of leadership that left no room for doubt as to who was in charge, yet he rarely stood up to others when they caused friction. He would allow them to run off at the mouth and when they were through, he would do as he pleased. It was a technique that worked for him and I am sure it vexed Mammie to no end to find that she had no power in their home. What she surely must have realized at the age of ninety was that life was sometimes harsh and unfair, but if there is family and love, at the very least, there is security.

I loved my great grandmother dearly. She made ham salad sandwiches for the two of us and sat with me beneath the apple tree, shucking corn or shelling lima beans in the late summer, all the while telling me stories about family members long since passed and the way that she had lived as a child. To a five year old it was like having a living library at my very fingertips. Mammie died on a Sunday morning. The entire family assembled at my grandparents' house and the men from Cromwell Funeral Home came to pick her up after our doctor had come and pronounced her death. She had died, as she had been born, at home and surrounded by those who loved her.

Emily was able to help her younger brother Irvin fulfill his dream of attending college by sheer dint of will and hard work. Although married with a young son, she was already contributing to the family income through her career in nursing, and at night, after my father had gone to bed, she hired herself out as a private duty nurse for the few people in Princeton who could still afford such luxuries at the tail end of the Depression. Irvin went to Cornell in a time when an Ivy League education was still a meaningful achievement. He majored in Geology and intended to work in the oil fields of Texas upon graduation.

Of course the events in Europe would soon put a damper on those plans, and not long after receiving his degree, Irvin was bound, not for the southwest and his fortune, but for North Africa and his fate.

During the early morning hours of February 18th, 1943, while brewing coffee next to their Sherman tank, my great uncle Irvin's unit found themselves under attack by forces of the German Afrika Corps. The story that I have heard recalls an attack by a Stuka, the result being the death of Emily's only brother in the far off reaches of Tunisia. His remains, disinterred at least twice and moved from one gravesite to another, are still unaccounted for to this day. While it was my grandmother's greatest dream to see her brother brought home, it was not to be. A monument was placed, several years after the war, next to the gravestone of his father in Highland Cemetery, overlooking the Hopewell Valley that he loved as a child.

It was a loss from which my grandmother never fully recovered.

In January of this year I noticed a change in Emily's eating patterns. Although she had been using a walker for the better part of a year, as soon as she had to begin going to church by wheelchair, something happened to her. She hated the fact that she no longer could walk on her own, but my wife and I did whatever we could to make her life easier. The loss of freedom, the severely curtailed responsibilities and her many aches and pains began to take their toll.

There were times in the first couple of years after we had moved in together that I would come downstairs before bedtime and find Emily standing at the sink eating a piece of cake with her fingers in the dark.

"What are you up to?" I asked her.

"Oh, I'm just putting away these dishes." She replied.

"Grandmom, I put those dishes away hours ago." I said with a smile. She turned slowly, her face covered in chocolate and a smile spreading across her lips.

"Caught me." She giggled, and we both laughed in the kitchen in the dark. Since the holidays had passed and everyone had returned to Virginia and New Hampshire and we had slipped back into a routine, I noticed that Emily had stopped snacking. She would go whole days without getting up out of her chair and occasionally she would call to either my wife or I to admit, often through tears, that she had wet herself. We would get her cleaned up and into her nightclothes and as she would stand on shaky legs she would weep softly and say that she was sorry, that we shouldn't have to clean up after her and we would do our best to comfort her and to remind her that we loved her and that she was important to us and that she had changed my diapers when I was a baby. That was how family operated and it was an honor to help out.

I remember our friends from church wondering aloud how we did it.

"What do you mean? " I remember asking on one occasion.

"Taking care of Emily is such a big job."

"What would you do?" I responded with incredulity while my friend shook his head slowly and tried to imagine.

"I don't know." He said. "I don't know."

I see how it is these days. People put their elderly relatives in nursing homes as a matter of course, as if that is how it has always been done. They have forgotten that we are connected, that we owe one another not only our love, we owe our lives, if need be. We are a society of strangers whose compassion is wasted on invaders and aliens. We ignore our children so that we can have more things, warehouse our parents when they become inconvenient and drop our spouses like bad habits when we see greener pastures somewhere else.

We are falling apart and we don't even see it.

I called my uncle Irvin, my grandmother's youngest son and her brother's namesake, at his office in Richmond.

"Irv, it's Marc." I began. "You should come home. Grandmom isn't doing well."

"I'll be there in about six hours," he said, and true to his word he was. My aunt Mary arrived the next afternoon. My father, who lives in the next town was over within a half an hour and we talked out on the porch in the freezing cold about grandmom and her decline.

After a bout of the flu she had stopped eating altogether, a sign that I understood as the beginning of the end. Our doctor, a fellow deacon in our church, made a house call and determined, as I had, that Emily had given up the will to live.

"There's not much we can do except to keep her comfortable," she said.

"We'll do our very best," I replied, holding my wife tightly while our son played with his dinosaurs on the living room floor.

"I know you will," she said, smiling at my wife and I. "You already have." Emily lasted nearly a week without eating. She passed, peacefully, surrounded by her loved ones, in the same bedroom where her own mother had passed thirty-seven years earlier. I was at work that morning when the phone call came. It took me an hour to get home as a sleety rain fell.

The men from Cromwell Funeral Home were waiting by their vehicle when I pulled into the driveway. The rest of the family was red-eyed inside and when I hit the door, the tears began to fall. My wife ran up to me and hugged me hard, telling me that the men had tried to take Emily before I got home, but she told them they would have to wait until I came home. Our minister gave me a hug and asked if I wanted her to come in with me. I said I would prefer to be alone with her and slowly I walked to Emily's bedroom. I sat down on the edge of her bed. She had already gone cold and I knew that she was gone, no longer suffering from the aches and pains that had plagued her in the end. I touched her face, her crooked nose that looked like mine, her hollow cheeks, her soft gray hair. I cried, but I was happy in a way, happy that she would be with her family once again, happy that we had made the decision we had to live together as a family. I was so grateful for the time my son had with this woman who loved him unreservedly, for the memories I would have of her and the lessons I had learned. After a brief while, my tears stopped and I said my goodbyes to Emily and left the room to be with the rest of my family. My son was sad, but at five he was still unfamiliar with the concept of death, no matter how well we had prepared him for it. He was, ironically, the same age I was when my great-grandmother passed away and I understood quite well how he was feeling and what those feelings would turn into with time.

I hugged the living in that room and I was glad for our home and the love that filled it.

Last week, not long after we had gotten ready for bed, I went downstairs to check the locks and set the alarm. When I opened the door at the top of the stairs, I was engulfed by the scent of Emily. It was pronounced and distinct, like the smell of her powder after a bath. I stood at the top of the stairs in the dark, my heart beating in my chest.

Emily was gone and the smell was simply in my mind, but I smelled it just the same. I went downstairs with the dog at my heels. When I finally climbed into bed I said nothing to my wife about what had just happened.

She got out of bed and left the room and shortly after I heard the door at the top of the stairs open. I listened as my wife walked downstairs and then as she walked back up and into our room. She was holding a glass of water and she smiled at me in the faint light coming in from the window. "The strangest thing just happened." She said.

I smiled at her slowly.

"Did you smell Emily, too?" I asked.

She almost dropped the glass, she said later.

"Yes. Yes I did. It was like she was standing right there. Like she'd just showered."

My wife climbed into bed with me and we fell asleep in one another's arms as the moon slowly sank in the distance.

Emily lies in a grave in Highland Cemetery, next to her husband Warren, not far from her own mother and father and the monument honoring her brother Irvin.

I like to think that they are together, but I don't really know. I do know that our family is together, inhabiting the same rooms, the same house, the same town and the same valley that my family lived in before me. I do know that this house, like this country was not given to us, but it was something we worked for, sweated for, risked and gave our lives for and it is worth defending. I walk up to Highland Cemetery with my wife and our son and we point out all the gravestones of our family members, the ones we knew and the ones who passed before we were born. I tell the stories in the same way the stories were told to me and I hope that one day my own son will bring his children up there to tell the stories to them.

Not long before Emily shut her eyes for the last time, a friend asked me if it was worth it. The time we gave up, the difficulties it caused, the friction between my wife and I, all for the benefit of my grandmother. I remember shaking my head at the thought that someone I count as a friend would ever ask me that question. I am not sure if I even answered him, but I can now.

It was worth everything.


Tell a friend about this article:

Back to VNN Main Page