Friday, November 25, 2011

Elise.....

.....arrived one winter day in March of my 11th year. It was a Saturday and my Uncle 'F' and his wife had gone to the small city on an 'errand'. Rather an unusual occurrence in winter, especially on the sketchy backwoods roads of Maine in the 1950s. Around two in the afternoon I heard his old Studebaker straining and spinning its way up into Uncle 'Rs' barnyard. Going out to see why he'd come here rather than his farm across the road, I saw a tall (to me) willowy slip of a young lady climb from the back seat.
   Being of the tender prepubescent age of eleven, I was immediately fascinated by this slender, but well shaped young woman. Breaking my through hypnotic reverie, F's wife was introducing this vision of wonder to me, me! I managed to awake from my stupor in time to hear that her name was Elise Cote and she was F's wife's cousin from France. The reason for her coming wasn't revealed then and I actually learned the details later from my aunt E. In those times you were thought, and rightly so, to be rude to inquire after such personal information. In many ways I miss things being that way, but in many other ways I relish the openness that has forced 'family problems' into the open. If you read the first few posts of this blog you'll find my reason for feeling so strongly about this issue.
    As the winter morphed into a gorgeous spring, I learned a deal more about our quiet guest. She spoke English with a smooth and lilting French accent, made all the more sensuous to my young self by the mellow, soft tones of her voice. She was nineteen and would be twenty in mid-summer, she read every chance she got. Aunt 'E' placed her in the room at the top of the rear stairs beside the 'dry' bathroom with the lime toilet. She decorated her room strangely in my opinion, simply a collection of mismatched dolls, stuffed animals, crinkled photos of groups of children, and other odd mementos of things from her past.
   As summer burst forth she and my, quite smitten, young self started to venture for walks in late afternoon before supper and evening chores. Our steps seemed to always draw us to a spot beside where the small brook emptied into our farm pond. There was a large flat rock and we'd just lie there in mutual silence watching clouds or sit observing the fish in the clear pond water. I didn't dare ask many questions, like why she always wore a headscarf that covered her face starting just behind her beautiful blue eyes. The scarves invariably were worn in the same manner and she never was seen (by me) without one on. Her features were near perfection and her hair was very dark brown and slightly wavy. She helped around the house and taking care of the elderly folks in residence at the time during the day and evening. Then she'd retreat to her room where I'd have been dispatched several times carrying buckets of hot water. I wondered if she bathed herself with the scarf on. One of life's mysteries.
    Another mystery was why a doctor from Canada came to visit her once a month and always entrusted my aunt E with a package when he departed. As a former nurse she kept a locked medicine cabinet where the packages invariably were deposited. Elise also seemed to shy away from fireplaces, stoves, direct sunlight, etc. At our rock she'd always remark how nice it was that somebody planted a huge oak tree so it allowed a great view of the sky while shading us from the sun's rays. Some days she'd even wade into the pond in pants and blouse, but never allowing her head to get wet. Another thing that worried me was that she'd often awaken screaming at night, but only my aunt had the key to her room. Sometimes she'd go down to her sewing room and come back with little packets, sometimes I could hear only E's voice calming her back to sleep. I knew something wasn't quite right, but also knew enough to refrain from watching and prying.
   Elise stayed through the next winter and into the summer. That summer she was noticeably paler and distracted. Toward the end of the summer she started to go to our rock earlier and I'd find here there after my chores were done. One afternoon was so different that it turned my world upside down for months and still remains in my memory as though it were yesterday.
    Elise had gone off earlier than usual according to aunt E, and she noticed she'd seemed especially troubled. That was also the only time she'd ever told me to leave my chores for others and go to check on our young guest. I hurried down to the rock and was relieved to see Elise laying in her usual manner, but when I drew closer I noticed something was amiss. It was too quiet, no happy greeting. I climbed to her side and my world shattered. She was cold to the touch and her eyes were staring into the skies unseeing. I don't recall running back to the house, but I do remember not being able to tell my aunt what was wrong, just took her hand and half-dragged her to the rock and Elise. As she got closer, she bent over and scooped up a tin that I recognized as medicine for the horses, especially the oldest workhorse who was lame.
    In the next few days my aunt paid special attention to me as I did little but grieve for my friend. Finally, she took me into the parlor where Elise lay and pulled back the colorful scarf for me to see. After I settled back down, I could understand the scarves. Her left ear was gone, as was much of the hair on that side of her head. In their place were terrible scars from deep burns. Her upper arms and back were badly scarred as well. My aunt explained that the Dr that came each month was a burn specialist and the packets were morphine vials and syringes so E could administer the drug when needed. Elise also suffered from horrible nightmares, what today would be known as PTSD. 
    On graduating from school at sixteen, Elise had gone to work at an orphanage where she mostly cared for the younger children. One night the place was hit by lightning in the barn area attached at the back. By the time the fire was discovered it'd spread throughout the rear upper level where the young children and Elise slept. Elise had carried children from the burning rooms by twos and threes and led older ones. After many trips she was overcome by smoke and exhaustion and collapsed just inside the rear area. A fireman found her there and carried her out to safety. After several operations and recovering some of her lung function, they could do no more. Today they'd be able to do far more, but things weren't advanced as much in 1954.
     The nightmares were filled with the screams of the frightened children and pain was mainly from nerve endings that had become heat sensitive or scar tissue that pulled the tissue too much. Aunt E explained what I'd already figured out, the pain and memories had become too much for Elise to bear and she'd taken the animal pain medications to end her suffering at a place she loved. Uncles R and F and the local minister buried her between the oak and the rock where the sun shone through in bright speckled dances.
     Later a man from the big city came and created a smooth spot on the rock above her head and inscribed: 
                                     Elise Cote
                                     1936-1957
                              Her pain is gone and 
                             the screams are stilled.
                              She joined those she
                                  could not save. 
   Not a sad memory for me, she gave me two magical summers of afternoons learning how to lay on a rock and quietly enjoy life's many treasures. I only wish it had been the 1990s or later so she could have found the relief she needed. At least a little of it. Until next time, take care and be well.  

8 comments:

Mel said...

I am struck immediately by your beautiful and vivid writing...and then by the story. Both sad and beautiful.

Cherie said...

Wow. What an experience for a young boy. For you to have fond memories of Elise would probably make her so happy. Thanks for sharing this very human story, Mike.

deanna said...

Haunting and beautiful, Mike. What a memory; as Cherie and Mel said, very well told.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful.

John said...

So sad, just the wrong moment in time. Thank you for giving us this

Sarah Sofia Granborg said...

Just saw this one. Sigh.
Well at least she wasn't a concentration camp survivor. That's what I was afraid of when I first started reading and you mentioned your accent...

I'm really, really sorry, both for you and for her! good people don't deserve this!

But nice of your uncle and aunt to take care of her! And so sweet of you to care so much! She's quite an amazing woman to have saved all those children!!!

LH said...

I've been out of things for a while, but am so disappointed you aren't still writing your stories. I love them. I know you have a lot going on. I hope you come back.

Mike S said...

It's been a long rough winter, but I hope to return to writing soon.