This is a tale about a woman named Myra Stratton who had no memory of her own life story. It’s about how I became her closest companion, and how I grew increasingly obsessed with figuring out exactly who she was. But she had no friends or family, and virtually all I knew about her was her name and her age. She could tell me almost nothing more. So it was all going to be up to me.
It’s a long story, so you might want to get your beverage of choice and settle in.
A few years ago, I realized that I needed to get back into volunteer work. I had tried it when I was younger, but I’d never found a volunteer stint that was a perfect match. My first assignment was reading books to sick children at Kaiser Hospital. That was a terrible fit. Those poor little souls had absolutely no interest in hearing me read them a story, and it made me horribly uncomfortable to barge into their rooms and inform them and their parents that I was going to be interrupting their day. All in all, I had neither the aggressiveness to start the process nor the stomach to remain dispassionate about those suffering children.
Then I worked for an organization called Little Brothers: Friends of the Elderly and visited lonely elders on their birthday. But most of them wanted me to come back regularly, and it broke my heart every time I had to tell them that I would never see them again. So that didn’t work out for me, either.
Finally I decided to volunteer for the Institute on Aging (IOA). One of their programs paired volunteers with elders who had no friends or family, and our charge was to provide them with companionship a few hours a month. This, I thought, was perfect for me. I sent in the paperwork, got my required TB test, and showed up for the orientation in March of 2009. After the orientation was over, of course I got lost trying to find my way out of the building, so no one was around when I promptly fell down the stairs. Quite a bit of time elapsed while I sat alone that night in the building’s empty lobby waiting for the searing pain to subside. Finally I dragged myself to my car, drove home, and was taken to the ER. I left the hospital on crutches, but luckily it was just an ankle injury. When I recounted this story to my sister-in-law Janet, who had been trying unsuccessfully to persuade me to post my various misadventures on Facebook, she noted that my tumbling down the stairs and injuring myself at the Institute on Aging was ironic, hysterical, and the perfect example of a Facebook gem.
I had indicated on my IOA application that I was open to being paired with an Alzheimer’s patient because I had lots of experience in that area. My father lived with that cruel disease for 15 years and I had developed extreme patience in responding to his repetitive questions and comments. I came to understand his fears, his paranoias, his limitations, and the ways in which he communicated.
Months passed before I finally got word that a match had been found for me. There was a woman living in a residential care facility out in the Avenues who had no known living friends or relatives. I was told only that her name was Myra Stratton; that she was 85 years old and had been born and raised in San Francisco; that she had once been a nun; that she was “friendly, polite, reflective, and confused”; and that she had Alzheimer’s.
I met Myra in January of 2010. She was living in a small house with other dementia patients. Generally the caregivers there were very kind, but because of language barriers Myra did not have a single soul to talk to her. She lived her life sitting in the living room staring at – but not comprehending – a blaringly-loud television. The first time I visited, the television was tuned to a sports program about baseball catcher Joe Mauer. Neither the residents nor the caregivers had any idea who he was, nor were they able to follow the narrative, nor did they care. The residents were just parked there. I sadly realized that for Myra, it was just one day in what could be many years of a completely empty existence.
But I would end up injecting a bit of human connection and brightness into that existence, and I would come to find joy myself in discovering Myra. By the end of that first visit, I could tell that she was a diamond. She had wit and intelligence and that certain kind of virtue and grace that I often ascribe to people of previous generations. I had to figure out who she was. I had to learn about her life. I had to honor her. I had to do her justice.
What Myra told me during that first visit was that she was born in San Francisco in 1924 (which seemed to be the correct year, according to the age I’d been given) and that her father was a famous politician. She also said she had a sister Myrtle Marie, who was four years older, and a brother Chuck who was eight years older and had been killed in World War II. She seemed to recall that she had become a nun before she finished high school, but she had no idea why she eventually left the convent. In fact, she remembered nothing beyond the age of 18. But there were bits and pieces of her childhood that always made her smile. She said that she lived near a big park (which I assumed to be Golden Gate Park) and that there was always lots of love and energy in the house, with friends and relatives coming and going, and big meals over which everyone talked passionately about politics. She adored her parents and her siblings, and she said that her childhood was a deliriously happy one.
But I would learn soon enough that the things Myra told me were often colored by the fluctuations of her declining mind. She got the emotions right, but not necessarily the details.
When I got home after that first visit, I sat down at my computer and started my year-long quest to decipher who this woman was. First, of course, I did a Google search for Myra Stratton. And I came up with absolutely nothing. Normally I’m a crackerjack sleuth, if I must say so myself, but the initial results were nada, zip, zilch.
I then decided to look for her brother Chuck. If he was eight years older, that would have meant he was born in 1916, putting him in his mid-thirties when he would have enlisted in the war effort. So that was definitely possible. I combed through every online World War II record I could find relating to military casualties, but again, I came up with nothing. That seemed odd to me. If a Chuck Stratton from San Francisco had been killed in the War, I think I would have found something.
There was so much I wanted to ask Myra. First and foremost I wanted to know what it was like to live in San Francisco in the twenties, thirties, and forties. I wanted to know about labor strikes, high society, the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the dealings of big-city politics back in those days. I wanted to know why she became a nun and why she left, and what she had done with the rest of her life. But other than the scattered bits she recalled about her childhood, there was just no way to unearth the rest of her buried memories.
I enjoyed our visits nevertheless – especially during that first year. She was curious and kind. She spoke with elegance. And despite her dementia, Myra had a sense of humor. She once told me that she was going to get her hair dyed so that she wouldn’t look old. She also told me that that she had come from a family of Republicans, and that she was shocked to discover that there weren’t very many Republicans around her now!
In the beginning, she also understood my own lame attempts at jokes. When she claimed that she had once seen an Alcatraz prison cell, I asked her whether it was as a visitor or as an inmate. She thought that was HIGH-larious.
And in her clearer moments, she could spin a few yarns. One of them was that she was named Myra because when she was born her father was at a baseball game. He was a huge fan, she said, and her mother kidded him about cheering at the game while she was in labor and suggested they name the baby “Rah.” Allegedly Myra’s dad looked down at the baby and said, “My Rah,” and they ended up with “Myra.” I was pretty skeptical about that one. After all, the Giants wouldn’t get to San Francisco until 1958 (although I supposed that her dad may have been a fan of the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League).
Sometimes our visits broke my heart. Once she told me that she prayed to Jesus every day that He would give her memory back. She also suffered from anxieties influenced by her strong sense of dignity and propriety. At one point her dentures became loose and made a clattering sound when she talked, and the poor thing was profoundly ashamed. I reassured her that I couldn’t hear her teeth unless I put my ear right up to her mouth and that she needn’t be embarrassed. She said that she was relieved because it had been worrying her so much.
I tried to come up with interesting things for us to talk about on our visits. I repeated the names of her siblings each time, because I knew that soon enough they, too, would escape her memory. I also brought my San Francisco Then and Now books so that we could look at old photographs. She didn’t seem to recognize any of the old places or landmarks, but she appreciated the photos nevertheless and even commented to fellow residents about how interesting they were. Remember, these visits were Myra’s only real interactions of substance with anyone in many years.
One day the living room was occupied with too many loud people, and Myra and I went to her bedroom to chat. I took the opportunity to look around for any personal effects she might have, but the only thing on her nightstand was a plaque. Myra proudly insisted that I look at it. It commemorated her 22 years of service with the United States Department of Labor. Of course I went home and Googled the DOL, and I found an online reference book that listed her as the agency’s San Francisco Regional Director, 1972–1994.
Later that month, Myra finally remembered the name of her father. It was Charlie Stratton, she told me. So I rushed home to do more Internet sleuthing. This time – finally – something startling popped up. It was a question posted on the Ancestry.com message board in 2003: “Looking for info on Charles Stratton and his wife Rose McMonagle, my deceased grandparents. They lived in Chicago IL. Children: Myrtle Marie, Charles, and Myra. Rose died of cancer circa 1937, Grandfather died circa 1950 in Chicago, IL.”
Myrtle Marie, Charles, and Myra. Holy smokes.
Myra did not grow up in San Francisco, as everyone had told me. Myra was from Chicago.
When I saw her next, the first thing I asked her about was the baseball reference. “Myra, when you said your dad used to bring you to baseball games, were you talking about a place called Wrigley Field, where the Cubs played?” A huge smile crinkled her eyes. “Or maybe it was Comiskey Park, where the White Sox played?” When I mentioned the White Sox, she got a look on her face like she had just smelled a pile of rhinoceros poop.
That proved it. The famed rivalry was alive and well in her head. This lady was raised in Chicago.
Although I could read that Ancestry.com post, I could not get onto the actual Ancestry site unless I was a member. The annual fee was a couple of hundred dollars. It took me all of 5 seconds to decide that I needed to join. That’s how possessed I was.
After I joined, though, I spent many weeks in dismay. It turned out that no one had answered the question I’d seen posted, and when I searched for the Strattons on the full Ancestry site I could find nothing. That made no sense! Over and over again I looked for the names of Myra, her siblings, and her parents. Nothing. I practically got an ulcer over it.
At one point I decided to change tacks and try Googling “Sister Myra Stratton.” Usually nuns change their names, or at least eliminate their last names, but in this case I did find two interesting search results. There were a couple of brief references to a Sister Myra Stratton who was a student at the University of Nevada at Reno in 1969. “I suppose that’s possible,” I thought, “but it still doesn’t tell me much, other than that Myra was still a nun in 1969, at the age of 45 – if that was indeed her. But why would she have been a student at that age, and why Reno?”
The second link, though, was a more interesting discovery. It led me to two pieces written by a Sister Myra Stratton for a Catholic journal called Commonweal, which still exists. In May 1968, Sister Stratton authored “Sister Scabs in the Suburbs” about tense relations between unionized teachers and the school administration. Among other things, the administration instructed the teachers that they were not to allow the “Negro” students to have a mass for Dr. Martin Luther King after he was assassinated and that such a request would “cause trouble.” The article said that the author – whose sympathies clearly did not lie with the administration – was a teacher at St. Mary’s High School in Chicago. Aha! There was now no question in my mind that this was my Myra.
In 1970, Sister Myra Stratton of Reno, Nevada, wrote a letter to the editor of Commonweal, recounting the story of her trip with other nuns to Washington, D.C., for a peace march in 1968, only to be summarily turned away by the Catholic nuns and given lodging by the Presbyterian church. She wrote that she and her fellow nuns had “taken seriously the ideas presented in Pacem in Terris” but that the Washington diocese seemed to be a place “where obedience to Humanae Vitae seemed to allow for no such discussion.” I have absolutely no idea what that means. But it’s quite clear from both pieces that Sister Myra Stratton was a brilliant writer.
After many weeks of frustration with my fruitless searches for the Stratton family on Ancestry.com, I had a breakthrough. I had been looking at some of the Bocciardi and Steger records related to my family, and I’d noticed spelling mistakes galore. The 1930 census, for example, indicates that my father’s last name was “Boccirdi,” and even more ridiculously, my grandmother Ambrogia’s name is listed as the decidedly un-Italian “Amblonia.” It occurred to me then that the census takers in the 1920s and 1930s walked from door to door and recorded their notes in longhand, and whether immediately or through subsequent translation, spelling errors were rampant. So it popped into my head that maybe even the simple name “Stratton” could have been misspelled.
So I tried “Stratten.”
I found her.
Myra Stratton (“Stratten”!) was born in Chicago on May 30, 1924. Her siblings were indeed Chuck and Myrtle Marie. Chuck did not pass away until 1981 and was thus not killed in the War. Her father, Charlie, was not a famous politician but an iron welder. Her mother, Rose McMonagle, was from Holy Hill, Wisconsin, and had died when Myra was only 14. The family lived near Garfield Park (aha! – not Golden Gate Park) on the west side of Chicago. I began meticulously building the Stratton family tree on Ancestry.com.
As soon as I started mentioning Chicago, Garfield Park, Holy Hill, Rose McMonagle, and the other tidbits I’d gleaned, Myra opened up. She would smile and laugh and tell me about the wonderful childhood she had. She could walk to the train station and go downtown (on the Garfield Park L-Line, I later figured out, which no longer exists) and help her mother and sister, who had a dress shop there. Sometimes she and her sister would dance for money in front of some sort of audience (which puzzled me). The family would take fall vacations to the most wondrous place on earth, Holy Hill, with its farmland and fall colors. And she often mentioned visits from her favorite cousin Mary Ann, who apparently lived in New York and had a very exotic mother.
I shared all of this information, of course, with Myra’s social worker, and shortly afterwards I got an e-mail from her city-appointed conservator. He told me that he actually had addresses for two of her old friends, and also for an unknown person named Mary Ann Hogan. She was still living!
It took me just a few hours to fire off a long letter to Mrs. Hogan.
A couple of weeks later, I got an eight-page handwritten letter from Mary Ann Hogan in Flushing, New York. That dear woman told me as much as she knew. She was widowed, was getting on in years, and had a disabled daughter, so she hadn’t been able to see Myra in quite a few years. The last time she saw Myra was at the Broadmoor, an independent living facility for the elderly in San Francisco. But she could already tell at the time that Myra’s memory was fading. And shortly afterwards Myra stopped answering Mary Ann’s notes and did not answer phone calls, so all contact was lost.
Mary Ann finally cleared up the mystery about the political affiliation – and in a big way. Myra’s great-uncle William J. Stratton was the Illinois Secretary of State from 1929 to 1933, and her cousin William G. Stratton was the Governor of Illinois from 1953 to 1961. According to geneaologytrails.com, Governor Stratton (a Republican) not only “built the economic backbone of the State of Illinois” but “spoke out against racial discrimination, attempted to create a fair-employment commission, and named the first woman and first African-American to a gubernatorial cabinet.” To this day I wonder what Myra’s politics (if any) were. It became clear that her family was well known in Republican circles, but Myra may have leaned Democratic, considering her labor and civil right causes. Then again, the two major political parties were much different then. [Ed.’s note: That is the Understatement of the Year.] Interestingly, I would learn later that Myra played a small part in the eventual trial of Governor Stratton – a trial in which he was quite likely railroaded by a powerful political machine, and during which she came eloquently to his defense. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Mary Ann told me that, as a nun, Myra had gone to New York for a few years to teach part-time at a Catholic school on Long Island while going to college part-time and earning her degree at St. John’s University in 1959. She later got a master’s degree in English from Creighton University in Omaha and finished her coursework for a Ph.D. at the University of Nevada at Reno but never completed her dissertation. While she was there, according to Mary Ann, Myra contributed 10 percent of her income to her order (the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, centered in Dubuque, Iowa) but was so poor that she sometimes hung out in casinos, scouted out slot machines that weren’t paying off, waited for the gamblers to leave, and then tried playing the machines in hopes of a payout. And although Myra was happy to contribute to the convent back home, she was deeply, deeply disappointed that the order completely abandoned her emotionally and spiritually. “She felt alienated,” said Mary Ann, “and decided to leave.”
According to Mary Ann, Myra went to New York after she made the agonizing decision to leave the order. She joined the U.S. Department of Labor there, transferred in time to Washington, D.C., and eventually went to San Francisco when a position as regional director opened up. So that’s how she got to the City.
I looked up some Department of Labor records and discovered that Myra was the Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance in San Francisco, where it appears that her last role involved helping women find work in nontraditional jobs formerly dominated by men. She retired from public service in 1994, at the age of 70, after 22 years of service. Hence the plaque in her room.
By the way, around this time I learned another vital piece of information. Although she would eventually use her given name, the name Myra initially chose when she became a nun was not Sister Myra Stratton. It was Sister Mary Charlesita.
Now I needed to start searching for “Sister Mary Charlesita,” just in case there was anything there. Sure enough, there were two tidbits.
A journalist named Kathy Farren, a past-president of the Illinois Press Association (IPA), recounted that in high school she’d opted out of classes with a dour 80-year-old nun and decided instead to take journalism and literature “with the smiling, 30-year-old Sister Charlesita.” Ms. Farren’s career began then and there.
It was from the second tidbit that I first found out about the tax evasion trial of William Stratton. (He was completely exonerated, by the way.) I also learned of the existence of a book called A Political Passage: The Career of Stratton of Illinois. Of course, I promptly ordered myself a copy. What is notable is that during the trial, Senator Everett Dirkson read aloud a letter he received from “a humble little nun – Sister Mary Charlesita, BVM, a teacher in the Regina convent in Dubuque, Iowa who wrote that her prayers were with the former governor in this case.” She wrote that “there are few whose lives could be scrutinized as was yours in this endless presentation of minutiae without revealing weakness or vice.” How beautiful a line is that? According to Chicago writer and broadcaster Thomas F. Roeser, “After that, there was such quiet in the courtroom that the ticking of the clock could be heard.”
I started writing furiously to anyone I could find who knew her. I wrote to Kathy Farren, I wrote to Thomas Roeser, I wrote to the two long-lost friends that the conservator had told me about, and I wrote to the convent. And I heard back from almost all of them. A couple of her sister nuns (now long retired) recalled her fondly and remained impressed by her intellect and progressive ideology. One remembered that Myra encouraged her to include Film Study in the Communications curriculum in the 60s, at a time when high school students were typically not yet being exposed to the cinema as art. And her students absolutely adored her, believing her to be the most impressive, brilliant, forward-thinking, beautiful, loving teacher they had ever known. A journalism student of hers recalled that after St. Mary’s had abandoned the school newspaper for some years, the students wanted to resurrect it and Sister Charlesita was a “vital advocate in that regard. Working with her and learning from her was a joy. I remember her as a kind and patient teacher; a true educator. Our class of ’67 had more than its share of strong personalities and Sr. Charlesita embraced all of us.” Kathy Farren mentioned that Myra’s nickname as a teacher was “Chuckles.” I could see that. Even in her eighties, with dementia, she was still smiling and chuckling.
The best return on my investment, though, was an actual telephone call. One of Myra’s students, Susan Endre, was so excited to get word that Myra was still alive that she found my phone number and wanted to talk. She had been looking for Myra – well, Sister Charlesita – for THIRTY-FIVE years and wanted to thank her for her support and influence all those years ago. She told me that Myra was “gracious, sophisticated, kind, and beautiful.” I told her about Myra’s dementia, and we both cried.
After making all these connections, I decided to build a website in tribute to Myra. I did it for two reasons: 1) I didn’t want her to be forgotten, and 2) I wanted to put her name out there so that anyone else looking for her could find her. So I published a simple site (after all, I didn’t have that much information about her), and Susan sent me a photo of a young Sister Charlesita that I could use. I asked someone at the residential facility to snap a photo of Myra and me, and I posted that as well. Done. (http://sistermarycharlesita.weebly.com/)
During a visit with Myra one day, I went looking for a Kleenex for her and noticed a manila envelope in her nightstand, full of photos. I hadn’t known that Myra had any personal effects whatsoever except for her Department of Labor retirement plaque. So I took the envelope home, scanned the photos (some of which are now on her website), and returned them the next week. Shortly after that, the envelope disappeared. Myra had just gotten a new roommate, and it looked as if the new person’s family had commandeered the nightstand. They probably cavalierly threw out those photos. I was absolutely apoplectic. I mentioned it to the staff, and they did a cursory search, but nothing ever came of it. Nobody really seemed to care.
I can honestly say that my determined search for Myra’s identity was self-serving in many ways. I felt like the detective I had always wanted to be. But ultimately my discoveries helped Myra as well – to a degree more profound than I could ever have imagined. Now I was able to buy her a book called Chicago Then and Now, which was filled with photographs of places and landmarks in Chicago. It turned out that Myra was able to recognize, however faintly, a few of those places, including churches, libraries, and of course the famous Marshall Fields department store. I also made sure to repeat names of her family members, which now included cousins and other extended family and produced surprise and smiles. Most importantly, I continued to delight her with all of the wonderful comments that were pouring in from her students. Remember that this woman had no tangible connection with her own past. Day after day she sat alone in front of a television, her memory mostly shredded. But the gratitude I delivered to her from her former students put her on Cloud 9.
I clearly remember one day when she kept repeating how happy she was to hear about the lifelong influence she had had on her former students. Right about then, a caregiver entered the room. The caregivers there were very capable at conducting their business, but they also tended to be loud and brusque, and they had thick accents. So when the caregiver curtly tried to tell Myra that she needed her clothes changed immediately, she didn’t understand, and I could see by the look on her face that the usually sweet and docile Myra was not happy. I quickly assured her that I was not leaving and would wait for her on the couch, and she turned to the caregiver and said, as she was being led away, “Okay, but I hope whatever you’re going to do with me is as wonderful as what Paula was saying to me!”
In December of 2011, I had my first contact from someone who had Googled “Myra Stratton” and found my website. This was precisely what I had been hoping for! On the other end of the phone call that awakened me that morning was a woman named Cynthia who knew Myra in the period long after she was a nun, when she used to visit her brother Chuck out in Indiana. Cynthia was Chuck’s landlord, and of course she absolutely adored Myra and had been wondering about her for years. She told me that Myra had had a “gentleman friend” at some point. I remembered that, early on, Myra had told me that her long time spent as a nun had prevented her from being able to relate as well to men as she would have liked. That was the most lucid thing she ever said to me, actually. After talking with Cynthia I asked Myra about the gentleman friend, but of course the fog of vanished memory had already crept in, and she couldn’t remember anything about him.
In the spring of 2012, a woman named Patricia found the website. Pat had worked for Myra in the Bay Area when both were at the Department of Labor. “Myra was very involved in the area of equal opportunity,” Pat wrote to me. “She was the Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance in San Francisco. Although her position was managerial, she did a yeoman’s job of helping all of us with inadequate resources. She would work with contractors and their representatives and put in far more hours than anyone else I have seen in her position. She taught many of us well. She lived a very cosmopolitan and full life. Her stories were enriching and thought provoking. She and I would go shopping at I Magnin in San Francisco. I marveled at her taste in clothing. She always pulled the beautiful tailored suits as we walked through the sale racks together.
“I found your web site just because Myra came to my mind and I had to see how she is. I went on the web and Googled her name and the city. After I read your web site I knew I had the right person. Thank you for doing this for her.”
The next year, Myra began losing her ability to converse. She clearly appreciated the things I kept reminding her about her past, but she wasn’t able to really respond other than to repeat the things that were meaningful to her (like her siblings’ names) and to smile. The caregivers told me that although she had recently forgotten my name, she continued to ask where her “friend” was. So I hoped that somewhere deep in her brain, I was still having an impact. I printed out a map once of the area near Garfield Park where she used to live, and I pointed out her old neighborhood to her. “You are very good,” she said.
Every so often, her impish sense of humor would still come through. I remember that once she made a point of showing me that after she blew her nose, she wadded up the Kleenex and rifled it under the bed with a pitching arm like a shotgun. She said she liked to throw it back “as far as possible” and demonstrated this technique a couple of times for me until I was snorting with laughter.
As the months went on, I reveled in the brief moments of peace and lucidity that came over Myra. Once, after I told her that she now lived in San Francisco, for the first time ever she started singing! Of course, it was “San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate,” and I sang along with her. So I brought in some CDs of 30s and 40s music. Unfortunately, whether it was because of her fading hearing or her lack of focus, the music didn’t resonate with her. But “San Francisco” always did, as long as I was singing it.
Later that year, I began to be contacted by long-lost relatives. A second cousin, and then her nephew Roy, found the Stratton family tree that I had created on Ancestry.com. Both sent me photos, some of which I posted on the website. Roy wrote, “Dear Paula, you have no idea how you have enriched our lives just by letting us learn that Myra is still alive. Since we lost contact with her we have felt that she must have died all alone not knowing that there were still those of us who loved her dearly. As for the dancing in Chicago for money, she is right on the money. She and my mother used to go into town and dance with the servicemen for a dime a dance at a USO dance pavilion.” He went on to tell me that Myra started having health problems after she had taken a fall stepping off a streetcar, and that “[a]t one point a few years ago I had the SF police go by her old apartment only to learn that she had moved to a nursing home two years prior but it was unknown as to which home she went.”
A Bay Area cousin named Cathy found the website, sent photos, and helped me identify some of the people in the pictures I had scanned. She mentioned that Myra had become a member, and later president, of a chapter the San Francisco Lions Club. Like some of the other relatives, she talked about how Myra just seemed to fade away and disappear at some point. “We tried to call and write to her. But she no longer returned calls or answered her phone, and the letters came back ‘undeliverable.’ In June 2005 I attended a three-day seminar in San Francisco and I walked up to her last known apartment on Jones Street. Her name was still on the buzzer/mailbox but someone else had just moved in. I spoke to the manager who said that Myra had been moved out just the week before. He wasn’t very clear about where she had moved. He just said it was somewhere in San Francisco. He probably couldn’t give her new address to anyone. He did tell me that she hadn’t been paying her bills or rent so I assumed that perhaps she had some dementia. Since she had a Federal Pension I assumed that she had resources to pay her bills. We hoped that whoever was taking care of her would somehow figure out that she had relatives in the area and try to contact us.” Well, that didn’t happen.
Another cousin remembered Myra’s brother Chuck and said that he had lost an eye in World War II. So that finally cleared up the mystery of Myra’s belief that he had been damaged in the war. “I remember her transformation to a strong unionist and outspoken critic of the Cardinal,” the cousin said. “Myra was teaching in the late 1960s. That was a very turbulent time, not only in American history, but within the Catholic Church, as well. She became very angry with the Archbishop, John Cody, regarding his views on nuns, their emancipation, and the poor working conditions for lay teachers in the Catholic schools, which he fostered. There was a strike, and Myra became very much an activist and very vocal. I remember my mother sitting on the phone talking with Myra for at least two hours the night Myra told her she had decided to leave the convent. I was pretty surprised because I had always thought Myra was very ‘nunny’ and pretty docile. Boy, was I wrong.”
Around that time, my neighbor Mary Clare lent me some CDs of old religious hymns, along with a “meditative book,” as she called it, and an old Catholic missal, thinking that perhaps those things might have some meaning for Myra. It was a wonderful gesture. When presented with them, Myra didn’t recognize, as far as I could tell, any of the music or prayers, yet she declared them to be beautiful – especially the Latin pieces. (She also loved my boombox and its antenna!) The look that came over her face when I recited “The Lord’s Prayer” was beatific. Her cheeks flushed, her eyes got bright, and she gasped, “Oh, my God!” As far as I could tell, she had no grasp of the concept of God at that point, but the recitation of the prayers really moved her. When I reported this back to Mary Clare, she taught me about “being present.” She said that my frustration at not seeing many glimmers of memory from Myra and not being able to “accomplish” anything anymore with her was something that I could perhaps let go of, and that maybe instead I could just focus on getting out of fate’s way and just being present with Myra and holding her hand. Why hadn’t that occurred to me?
Over the next couple of years, Myra’s dementia reached a more advanced stage. She started to worry obsessively about how she wasn’t doing “the right thing.” I assured her constantly that she always did the right thing, but I knew that as soon as I left, she would fall back into bleak anxiety. And she began to get into the sometimes-paranoid “loops” that I recognized from my own father’s illness. Try as I did to deflect from the pattern, she would talk in an endless circle about the embroidery on her bedspread, or how groups of people were traipsing through her room at night, or how the [imaginary] man she was dating was angry at her. She would begin a sentence lucidly and then trail off into gibberish halfway through the thought.
In 2013, Myra started wandering, so special locks had to be installed on her door.
It was then that I began to recognize the heartbreaking irony that all the while I was finding Myra, I was also losing her.
On April 15, 2014, I arrived at Myra’s facility only to be told that she had tried to walk without her walker and had slipped and hurt her leg. The caregivers didn’t think she had a serious injury, but because she was so vocal about the pain, they had her taken to a hospital. I was worried. If she was that vocal about the pain, she must have broken something. I went home and notified the social worker and the conservator.
The next day, I learned that Myra had indeed broken her hip and had undergone surgery. I was about to head off on my ’cross-country train trip, but I knew there would be no visitors to see her at the hospital so I made sure to go down there. She was asleep most of the time, but when she did wake up, she was happy and almost buoyant – a sign that the pain medications were doing their job, I imagine. The surgeon’s associate came by and said that the plan was to transfer her to a skilled nursing facility after a few days, but he warned me that sometimes patients with dementia are unable take care of themselves as well as non-dementia patients and that it remained to be seen whether she would be able to return to the residential care facility. I was just glad to see that even though she was all alone, she wasn’t terrified.
Three days later she was transferred to the nursing facility. From what I heard, she was doing very well in physical therapy, was in a good mood, and was able to stand at the parallel bars.
At my request, Jeff the conservator kept me posted. On May 14 she was able to go back to the residential facility, and I was ecstatic.
On May 19, though, Jeff wrote to me that Myra wasn’t doing as well as it had sounded in previous reports. She had lost a lot of weight and wasn’t eating or drinking much.
Finally, on May 28, I got this e-mail from Jeff:
I just wanted to let you know that Myra passed away this morning at about 9:15. I can’t thank you enough for everything you did for her.
It’s been a bit of an arduous task, writing this post about Myra. I wanted to do her justice, but I know so little about her. I can tell that she was a woman of dignity and virtue. I know that she felt a strong religious calling at a young age and that she spent many years teaching students who would never forget her. And I know that at some point her conscience persuaded her to veer off in a different direction and to devote the rest of her working career to public service, helping women find work in nontraditional jobs and leading her employees by example. She was energetic and progressive and generous. And I don’t know the half of it. What is certain is that all along the way, she touched the lives of countless people.
People are often asked, for fun, questions about whom they would choose as a dinner partner if they were able to name anyone, living or dead. For me, much as I would like to say Aristotle or Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman or Katharine Hepburn or Hank Aaron or my boyfriend Bruce Springsteen, my biggest wish would be that someday I could meet Myra as she was, with her clear and brilliant mind, her wit, and her unending sparkle. For now, though, all I can say is that I think about her nearly every day. And I marvel at this unquestionable truth: Myra Stratton – even as her mind and memory failed her – continued to bless others with her presence every minute of her life. She certainly blessed me.
I would like to dedicate this blog post to my friend Val (Vienot) McNease and also to her father Robert B. Vienot, whom she lost on September 19. Val may not remember this, but she was the person who initially suggested I write Myra’s story. Bob Vienot served in the Marines and fought at the Battles of Guadalcanal and Okinawa in World War II; he was married to his high school sweetheart for 69 years; and he had a full and distinguished career as a San Francisco police officer. As Val said, he “exemplified the common values of the Greatest Generation – duty, honor, courage, personal responsibility, love of family and country – and lived his life by example, with dignity and deep devotion.” Myra was a member of that same generation. Hats off to both of them.
OK, on a lighter note . . . . I will be boarding the California Zephyr train on Tuesday morning and, if all goes well, I’ll be gliding across the Sierra Nevada mountains by mid-afternoon. On the other end of the trip, I’ll be spending time with friends in Maryland before heading back home on the same route. What this all means, my friends, is that the Rail will be on hiatus for awhile. But stop your cryin,’ ’cause I’ll be back with more stories.