Regal. That’s what folks would say. Like a queen, sitting on her throne. She sits, silently, in the right-hand corner of room 2139E in the nursing home. Sitting as always in her blue satiny upholstered recliner. She rarely reclines anymore, though, because she hasn’t got the strength to pull the lever to lift the footrest. Her purple-striped veiny hands clutch a paper napkin saved from breakfast. A stack of other saved wrinkled napkins lies on the floral tray table next to her chair, along with her diary, Bible, church paper, and a collection of typed sermons.
Her name is Tess Hoitenga. She is ninety-five years old. Today, Saturday, January 17, 1998, is her birthday. She looks, as the books say, frail and fragile. She weighs 115 pounds, down from the 125 she meticulously recorded in her life-long diaries. A tiny woman, scrunched by osteoporosis, she stands only about five feet tall. Fluffy waves of silvery-gray hair frame her face. Her startling blue eyes, always an attention getter, now stare vacantly, though expectantly, through her pale plastic-framed glasses, at the doorway. She wears her new red and white polka dot dress. Bright and perky with its shirt collar, gold-buttoned front, three-quarter length banded sleeves, and permanently pleated skirt.
The red polka dot dress was a gift by special request. One of her daughters once wore a new blue polka dot dress. When Tess spotted the dress, her eyes lit up like the overhead light above her hospital bed. Instantly she demanded, “That’s what I want, a polka dot dress. Only I want red.”
“Okay, Mother,” her daughter, resigned to shopping, replied toward her hearing aids, “I will be on the lookout for one.” It took two years to find the red polka dot dress. On sale. Tess was thrilled. Tess loved bargains.
I must not forget her beads. Tess always wore beads. Always. Today she has on her lavender and cream twenty-two inch beads, no matter they don’t match, beads that were new for her husband’s funeral four years before. A dainty gold cross lies on her throat. Her bony left wrist looks weighted down by her husband’s bulky Bulova watch. Her left ring finger displays a loosely fitting thin gold engagement band and solitaire diamond. Reset, of course, somewhere along the road of sixty-seven years of marriage.
Completing the picture, Tess is wearing nylons. And black oxford shoes she doesn’t like. She’d rather wear dress shoes—she never is not dressed up—but she needs the support now of lace-up oxfords for her slow, unsteady hunched-over gait.
Sitting there in her chair, Tess really does look regal. Folks always say so. She glances up at people passing by in the hall. Now and then she smiles wanly—it takes too much energy to do more—and waves listlessly. This woman who was a grocer’s daughter, minister’s wife, mother of five, piano player, fifth grade teacher. A competent, courageous, compassionate woman.
One wouldn’t know about Tess’s accomplishments today. Her life is reduced to her blue chair, floral tray table, and hospital bed covered with a ribbed-cotton, teal-colored bedspread. At the foot end lies a donated crocheted lap robe of clashing colors.
Oh, and don’t forget her pictures on the wall. The wall arrangements are about the only thing this once take-charge person can control. Tom, the maintenance man, knows Tess well. She asks for him to come to rehang her pictures regularly. They must be hung just exactly so. “No, a little more that way; no, a little more to the left,” she directs, sternly pointing her teacher finger. Pictures of her wedding day in 1928, her husband in his WW II military chaplaincy uniform, and her fiftieth wedding anniversary.
When a daughter came to visit the day before this birthday, Tess, blue eyes sparkling, announced, “I think ninety-five would be a good round number to die.” It was as if she had taken a dose of alertness. Her daughter, delighted to see her mother’s sense of humor wake up, quipped back, “We gotta get through your birthday, Mother. People are coming for lunch. So you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
So Tess did. She waited—until after her party. As two of her daughters were putting her to bed, she clutched her chest in pain. She got a dose of morphine. She waved for her daughters to leave. “Get going now. You have a long ride.” One daughter leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I love you little, I love you big,” Tess, weary eyes now shut, weakly finished the phrase, “I love you like a little pig.” Their private expression of love.
Tess soon lost consciousness. She died forty-eight hours later. She was buried in her red polka dot dress. Regal to the end, folks would say.
Me, too. She’s my mother. I’m her baby. I was born on her thirty-ninth birthday. That Saturday was my birthday, too. I bought her the red polka dot dress. I loved her little, I loved her big, I loved her like a little pig.
A version of this essay was printed as “The Woman in the Red Polka Dot Dress” in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, January 14, 2001.
Now, January 17, 2015, if I could still chat with my mother, I would tell her about my life now–about my husband, my kids, my five grandkids, my life downtown, my thankfulness for health on my seventy-third birthday, and my thankfulness for her example of living a faith-based life. And I would tell her I still love her little, love her big, and love her like….