This past weekend just about all of my waking hours were spent submerged in a captivating real life story. I’m not always the first to hear about something (as in this case) and it apparently took eight years for this one to cross my “hmm, that’s interesting” radar.
I do not recall how I heard about the story a week or so ago, or what exactly about it caught my attention. All I know is I was intrigued and had to learn more. After researching all I could find online I knew there had to be more depth to the details than what was lightly brushed over in news articles and blog posts. I researched a little more and found a book, written first-person by the gentleman in the story. BINGO…NOW, that’s what I’m talking about! Who would know the details better than first-person?
I quickly ordered the book Monday, received it on Friday and started reading it that night; finishing it on Sunday afternoon. I would have had it completed by Saturday afternoon, but there was eating, sleeping, and chores that sort of got in the way.
I am completely fascinated by the story of Edith Wilson Macefield (she once told Barry, her unintentional caretaker, “that it is important for a woman to keep and carry her maiden name to maintain her identity“) and simply could not put the book down until I read it in its entirety.
A Glimpse of Edith
When Barry Martin took on the role of construction supervisor of a huge Seattle shopping complex, he never imagined that he would end up caring for Edith Wilson Macefield, a stubborn 84-year-old who had refused $1 million from the developer to move house. Here he describes their unlikely friendship.
I was nervous, that first day on the job, walking up to her house. I’d heard so much already. The developers had bought every inch of a block to build on, except for this one ramshackle house, so they were having to build around it. If anyone tried to talk to her, she was more likely to bite their head off than give them the time of day.
Edith was tending to her garden when I walked up to her and introduced myself. ‘Miss Macefield, I just want to let you know that we’re going to be making a whole lot of noise and mess, so if you need anything or have any problems, here’s my number.’
‘Well, that’s very nice of you,’ she said, taking my card and holding it close to her one good eye. ‘I’m glad to have you here. It’ll be nice to have company.’
Edith’s gate was just 40 feet away from my trailer, so whenever I saw her outside I found myself wandering over for a chat. Then one morning she rang my mobile and asked if I would mind driving her to the hairdresser. I was surprised by the request as she seemed to value her independence above everything else. Whenever I went to check that she was OK, I had to make it look like I just happened to be there, otherwise she’d get angry. At the appointed time I stood next to her 1989 blue Chevy Cavalier. It was a sturdy car with a dent in the front. She had a booster seat on the driver’s side so that she could see over the steering wheel. I sat down on it and hit my head on the inside of the roof.
‘I guess you’re a little bit bigger than me,’ she laughed.
‘Yeah, and getting wider every year, too.’
When I dropped her home after her haircut she thanked me.
‘Not a problem. Let me know if you need anything else. And Edith, your hair looks really nice.’
As the weeks went by, I found it easier and easier to talk to Edith, yakking about everything and anything. But then, six weeks later, I went to collect her to take her to the hairdresser again and she was furious with me. ‘I just want you to know I didn’t appreciate that call this morning. You boys keep on hounding me to move – well, I’m not moving, so save your breath!’
I had no idea what she was talking about. ‘Your friend over there at the developers, he tried to sound all polite but I know what he was up to.’
‘Listen,’ I replied. ‘I work by the hour and it makes no difference to me whether you stay or go but let me ask you one question: why don’t you want to move?’
She looked out of the window. ‘Where would I go? I don’t have any family and this is my home. My mother died here, on this very couch. I came back to America from England to take care of her. She made me promise I would let her die at home and not in some facility, and I kept that promise. And this is where I want to die. Right in my own home. On this couch.’
She seemed so frail and so strong at the same time. So vulnerable and needy and yet so fiercely independent. I was moved by what she had told me and felt strangely protective of her. It was such a simple request. At another meeting the developers offered to bring someone in to take pictures of her house so that they could build an exact replica somewhere else. They mentioned the $1 million [over £600,000] again and said they would buy a new house for her. ‘I’m not sure why I need $1 million,’ said Edith. ‘If I get sick it probably won’t cover the medical bills and if I don’t get sick I don’t need it. And if you’re going to make the new place look just like this one, well this place already looks just like this one, so why should I bother?’
Edith’s house, which looked a little sad and lonely to begin with, looked even sadder once all the buildings around it were torn down. It resembled some last outpost of a bombed-out village after the Second World War. Before long I was taking her to doctor’s appointments as well as to the hairdresser. Then I was scheduling her appointments myself. On one of our drives home she was wondering out loud what she might make herself for lunch. I told her that one of the boys was going out for hamburgers and she said that sounded good. I told them to bring her back a vanilla shake as well. That was the day I learned what a sweet tooth Edith had. She would stick the straw into her mouth and not stop until the shake was gone. Then she started calling me about once a week to ask for ‘a hamburger and one of those vanilla things’.
As Time Went By
It wasn’t long before I was making her a TV dinner, too, before I went home. One evening I noticed a picture sitting on the dusty bookcase in the living room. It was Edith wearing wire-rimmed glasses and holding a clarinet, looking for all the world like the great jazz musician Benny Goodman.
‘Edith, how old were you when you started playing the clarinet?’ I asked.
‘My cousin Benny gave me one of his old clarinets, that’s how it started.’ It was the second time she had mentioned him and it got me thinking. Was this actually true, or was this just an old lady with a few loony tunes? So I started flipping through her Benny Goodman albums and sure enough one was signed ‘to my cousin Edith, with love, Benny’.
As the shopping centre was beginning to rise up from the ground I got my first call from Edith’s social workers. They didn’t think she was capable of staying in the house by herself. Could I help convince her to move? What if something happened? And I said that something could happen anywhere and I was just 30 seconds away and would keep checking on her. ‘Well, if something goes wrong, you’re going to be responsible,’ they told me.
At that point something welled up in me; it was the first time I understood how much I was learning about growing old from Edith.
‘How am I responsible? I’ll check on her but she’s a grown woman and she can make her own decisions. She’s perfectly capable of knowing what she can or cannot do and if she wants to take that risk because it means staying in her own house, well that’s her right. People have rights you know.’
I was beginning to understand how much we do things for old people just to make things easier for ourselves. We don’t always listen to what they are trying to tell us. Every time Edith swatted my hands away as I tried to help her wipe her mouth or tie a shoelace, she would roar, ‘I can do it myself.’ Just as with a child, you try to convince them to let you help them, not for their sake but for your own, just to get through the day a little quicker. Dignity is a hard thing to let go of, especially for someone who had lived the kind of exciting life that Edith seemingly had.That autumn, as the days grew shorter, I had given up all pretence that there was some separation between my life with and without Edith. I wasn’t spending weekends with her but during the week I was in and out of her house from dawn till way after dark, making her meals, taking care of the bills and the chores, the shopping and the laundry, as well as watching TV with her. On the days when I’d make it home before dark, more often than not Edith would call me on the mobile with some problem or other, some excuse to make me drive back. I’ve had an accident, she’d say, or you forgot to leave water for me – I swear she’d take the jug of water I left on the table and struggle over to the sink to pour it out just to get me to come back.
I wonder, looking back, how my wife Evie coped with all this. She’d get irritated, of course. With two teenagers at home, there was always too much for one person to do. But when I asked her about it all she would ever say was that she was proud of me: ‘It takes a special person to do this.’
Edith fell down a number of times that winter. Too often I’d come over and find her on the floor. But still she wouldn’t let me bring in any help and she was getting more and more demanding of my time. It seemed like every time I tried to leave she manufactured some kind of crisis. One night she called me at home and told me she’d fallen. Evie was really starting to get irritated by these middle-of-the-night calls, but I still got a Thermos of hot chocolate and a kiss goodbye as I headed out of the door.‘You don’t know,’ Edith said as I left after one of these crises, ‘how sometimes I lie awake for hours waiting for the morning, longing for the sound of your key in the door.’
It was probably the first time that she had got close to saying thank you. I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. ‘I love you, old woman. Now get some sleep.’
Edith seemed more fragile every day. I knew something was wrong. No one could eat as much as I was feeding her and keep losing weight. Finally she agreed to go to the hospital for tests. The news was not good – she had pancreatic cancer. I guess when a woman reaches 86 you’ve got to at least consider the possibility of what she might be facing. But Edith was so self-assured, so in control that I never wanted to look around that particular corner. I had come to love her in the same way I loved my family. For a long time, Edith had been in a long dark tunnel, incontinent, unable to read or write. Now at least we knew why and she seemed at peace with the news. For Edith the darkness had been lifted even though it revealed a horrible truth. Now she knew what the future held.
How It All Began
That she was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp, but escaped, taking 13 children with her to England.
She said she had a son who died of meningitis at the age of 13, fathered by her lover, the Austrian tenor Richard Tauber (below right), and that she went on to marry James Macefield who had a plantation in Africa where they spent months at a time.
‘Was she making all this up? It didn’t help Edith one bit if I figured out whether or not these stories were true,’ says Barry.
‘If I was going to be her true friend, and steadfast, then I was going to have to accept Edith for who she was: someone who had changed my life by giving me the chance to be a better person. She opened up my world and challenged me to do the right thing, even if that sometimes meant just listening.’
Edith became a symbol of the power of one individual against corporations. In the process she became something of a folk hero, and her story is said to have inspired the opening scene of the Pixar film Up (below), in which an ageing widower’s home is similarly surrounded by a housing development.
Edith died, aged 86, on 15 June 2008 at home on the same couch on which her mother had died. She left her house to Barry and his family.
Barry chose not to sell it to the developers but to a man who wants to preserve Edith’s spirit of resistance.
The story above is an edited extract from Under One Roof: How a Tough Old Woman in a Little Old House Changed My Life by Barry Martin with Philip Lerman. You can order the book through Amazon online.
Some of This Author’s Favorite “Edith Quotes”
- “Change is change.”
- “Not philosophical at all” she said. “Realistic. World of difference between the two.”
- “Why the hell people dwell in the past is beyond me.”
- “Tell them to get the hell out of here!”
Good night Edith.