Trapped in Tropical Paradise: Part Six

By Eleanor Motley Richardson | Jul 15, 2020
Cathy on her bike, ca. 1924

I dreamed about my mother last night. Although I am old, I am still lucky enough to have her, a bulwark against mortality. Now 100, she lives in an excellent facility which she chose herself 17 years ago, in Bedford, Mass.

She can no longer talk intelligibly, but when we visit on Facetime she can smile or laugh with understanding. She sits in a wheelchair with our pictures on the wall behind her. She likes to skootch around using her feet, but last week someone had put one brake on, so she was going around in circles and I was talking to her back. My brothers can now visit her outdoors in the fragrant summer garden while I must make do with a screen. But we both adapt. She has always been my best friend.

Family history is a good diversion, if you are confined to a little air-conditioned condo in Florida. The leaf blowers roar outside my window. Today I'm researching my great-great-grandmother, Catharine Adams Little (1823-1923).

Her husband died at age 58, but she continued as Head of Household on their farm until age 99. She bore him six children and raised four grandchildren as well. The household in 1910 numbered 14, including three farm laborers.

It's amazing how you can get into the head of someone using census records: their residences, and their family members – those who lived and the ones that died. “Don't talk to me about the Good Old Days,” my mother used to say, “If we'd had a shot of penicillin, my baby brother Edward would not have died of spinal meningitis.” We probably would have had some more cousins.

My mother tested positive for COVID in March, but never developed symptoms. She was born in 1919. Did she somehow get immunity in early childhood? I've been following a TV lecture series about the Black Death, which had its worst mortality in 1347-49. Apparently, there are some people today immune to AIDS, who are descended from Western European survivors of that Black Death. It's in their genes.

Catherine Adams Little was my mother's great-grandmother and namesake. Mum remembers visiting her at the 17th Century farmhouse in Newburyport, Mass. Little Cathy, four years old, was taken up the creaking stairs to the master bedroom where Great-Grandma lay in the four poster, which had a lacy ruffle around the top.

"I thought she was a witch," said Mum. “They left me alone with her! She called out, ‘Come over here, dear,’ but I plastered myself against the wall and would not move.” My mother told this story sheepishly in her 90s. By then, she could identify with the wizened old woman, who wanted a closer look at the pretty little blond, blue-eyed great-granddaughter.

As I travel through time and space to that moment in the bedroom, what strikes me is the longevity Cathy inherited from Catharine, along with her name.

Catharine Sr. lived to age 99 3/4 and little Cathy would live to be over 100. Together, the two people in that room would remember two centuries of our history.

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