Martha’s Farm

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Martha’s farm read by the author is also available to download from the Podcast page and Tell Me A Story page

Martha looked up at me as I stood by her walker and said “I know I can’t live at home just now. It’s too cold and they tell me my drive is frozen solid. I could slip on the ice and hurt myself. I have to wait for the summer before I go back.” I looked at the profusely flowering sweet smelling rose beds beside us as I walked slowly with Martha around the nursing home garden. The July heat was intense. “Of course,” I reassured her “your farm is in good hands while you’re here.” But Martha was already gone from me in that moment, looking out of a window far away in her mind. It was summer for her, then and through the open kitchen window she smelled the roses that she had planted just underneath.

It was getting to be winter and dangerous for Martha to live there alone - photo Ellie Kennard 2015
It was getting to be winter and dangerous for Martha to live there alone – photo Ellie Kennard 2015

She saw her two youngest children playing in the shade of the tree in front of the house. The older ones were sitting at the picnic table beside the winding road that led to the barn and the fields. Mary was reading and the two boys were playing a game. It would soon be time to bring them a cool drink and then get the chickens fed and bring the house cow in for milking. Those children and her farm were all she had. She had lost her husband a few weeks after her youngest son was born and since that time she had worked hard to stay on her farm, in that house with her young family. She had refused to take social assistance because that would have meant giving up the tractor and some of her land. She had never been afraid of hard work. She dried her  hands and turned from the sink. She wanted those children to have a chance at a good life that she had never known.

Suddenly Martha started and looked around at me and through the door that led into the nursing home. She was getting cold, it was time she went in. What was she doing out in this weather anyway? Turning to look at me she said plaintively “I want to go home. Take me home, I don’t want to be here. Please.”

Martha is 93. When I first met her on her farm, years before, she must have already been in her late 70’s, though we never spoke about her age. Then, she never stopped talking about her family, of how proud she was of all of them. She told me how she had taken in laundry and sewing which she did at nights when she had finished her farm work to be able to send the oldest girl to secretarial school. Her daughter had studied hard and graduated well. She got a good job and at once sent money so that her next oldest sister could go to college too. Each of her children in turn had done this for the next until the last one finished and he repaid his mother.

It was wonderful to hear her talk of the love they had as a family. They all married and moved away except for the oldest boy who looked after his own farm a little further up the valley and the cattle that he kept on his mother’s land. They called her often, particularly the oldest girl who was a supervisor in the telephone company. She and her husband did very well, with a cottage at the lake that was bigger than most people’s homes. But that’s what people expected now she told me. Sometimes her younger son drove out from the city to take her back with him to look after his children during the school holidays as he and his wife both worked and were very busy. She loved the grandchildren but they were always in their rooms with their games and didn’t like to sit down with her for meals. There was a note of sadness that began to creep into her voice when she mentioned this.

"They might take me home. The cows need me to look after them" - photo Ellie Kennard 2015
“They might take me home. The cows need me to look after them” – photo Ellie Kennard 2015

I went to visit Martha on her farm as often as I could, sometimes with a friend or Steven as I knew that for long periods she was alone and that our visits cheered her. Sometimes we would find her working in her vegetable garden or tending her old fashioned roses under her kitchen window. Just over the fence was her apple orchard and the smell of blossoms and drowsy hum of bees was something she loved to experience as she dug and weeded and planted. Her son’s cattle would often be grazing under the trees and the spot was one of the most tranquil I knew, as it seemed still to be in a forgotten time.

I was also worried that she might hurt herself. Even when well into her 80’s she remained fiercely independent. She had a cat that used to come and go in the farmhouse kitchen and a little dog that one of her daughters had given her “She doesn’t have time to look after him, poor little thing.” She used to pretend that she didn’t care much for it, but I could tell by the way he leaped onto her lap that she cherished his companionship. Her hearing deteriorated until she couldn’t hear my knock on the door, nor when I called out to her when I stepped into the kitchen. I was worried about her one day when her car was in the drive but I couldn’t get a reply from her and she was nowhere to be seen in the house. As I stood and listened,uncertain of what to do next, or who to call, I heard a knocking coming from the basement. A little nervous of what I might find down there, I cautiously made my way down the steep wooden steps and saw her. She had an axe in her hands and was chopping her kindling. “Don’t tell my son. He wouldn’t want me to be doing this. He wants me to leave the farm and move into town. But I like it here.” She was 86 years old!

I knew that her time on the farm was, nonetheless coming to an end. The winters were long and though the lane leading from the road to her house was plowed for her, at times the power would be out for days and if she fell and hurt herself it might be a long time before anyone found her. The house badly needed repairs and began to look neglected. One time when I went to visit I found that she had gone. Her family had persuaded her to leave before the next winter set in, “Just for the winter.” they assured her. The house and farm sold almost immediately, though they never told her, as far as I know.

Martha's gnarled and spotted hands rest in her lap - Ellie Kennard 2016
Martha’s gnarled and spotted hands rest in her lap – Ellie Kennard 2016

Martha never settled into the nursing home. She had to share her room with a stranger, someone who chattered on endlessly though she could not hear her because she removed her hearing aids.

Every time I came to see her she complained that she didn’t know why she had to be in there. She was still capable of looking after herself, she said. On one visit she suddenly said “If I had been a dog, my daughter would have taken me into her home.”

After that, little by little, her memory began to fail her and she drifted between past and present, reality and dream, back to the days on her farm when she had been needed and useful. She would look out of the nursing home window and see, as on that July afternoon, the winding lane to the barn and the fields, the tree and the picnic table, with the children running in and out with their games.

She sits quietly now in the chair in the nursing home sitting room. “My family are coming to see me this afternoon. They might take me home.” Her gnarled and spotted hands, once so capable rest in her lap. Her nails have been painted bright pink.

Post Script: Within a couple of weeks of my last visit to Martha, during which I took the photograph that you see at the end of this story and after which I wrote this, I heard that Martha had died.

34 Responses

  1. Ellie,
    Beautiful story. It takes me back to days with my Father in the Veteran’s Memorial wing of the QEII. He suffered from Parkinson’s with dementia. Our daughter was in grade school at the time, I believe grade 3 and she had to do an assignment for Valentine’s Day on the topic of “What Is Love?” She wrote “My Poppy lives in Veteran’s Memorial and he has alzheimer’s and forgets my name but my Nanny goes everyday to visit him and that is what real love is.” The story still brings tears to my eyes. I still find it amazing that a child so young was actually so observant to the feelings around her.

  2. A lovely person for you to have met. I have always loved her farmhouse set so far off the road with a winding driveway through the woods – it must be a wonderful memory for the family.

  3. Thanks for sharing this story with your own inimitable eloquence. How each family cares for each other is as different and similar as fields of wild flowers. Such sadness. Such joy. Such beauty!

    1. Very true, thank you for your comment, Kim. And you might well be interested in the book I mention above, “Being Mortal- Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande. I borrowed it in audio format from Halifax in digital format.
      Happy anniversary by the way!

  4. Beautifully written, hauntingly sad story Ellie Kennard. So true in so many families these days…. The care that our’s and past generations took of their parents is slipping away… As the world becomes more self centred and uncomfortable nursing homes proliferate….
    Your photographs are beautiful… And would look much different in hot dry Australia… But no less distressing…. Congratulations Ellie Kennard

    1. Thank you very much Pammy. I know it is a sad story, but I felt it had to be written. In the early days when I used to visit her, her stories of the love and closeness in her family always made me feel good as I didn’t have such a family myself. I think that was why what happened to her and is happening at the end is so poignant for me and so compelling. At times I have left the nursing home practically in tears as she has been begging me not to go, not to leave her. She is beyond that now and so it’s a little less painful. I try to always show a smile and make everyone there feel good and bring them some hope and sunshine from outside. But my heart is breaking for everyone in there. Thank you again, Pammy.

  5. This is a wonderful written story and if left me sad… She must be happy to have you visiting her! The images are beautiful and suits the story so well and her hands tell so many stories by themselves!

    1. Thanks a lot, Ursula. I know the story is sad, but I am sorry if it made you sad for her. I felt I had to write it, that it had to be told. I think I knew that when she said that about if she had been a dog her daughter would have taken her in. It broke my heart for her. She doesn’t really know who I am when I visit now and she probably forgets as soon as I am out of sight, maybe even before. I had been working on this for many weeks. But last Saturday when I photographed her hands when she was asleep and then when she woke up and I saw the pink nails, it really was the final touch for me and I was ready to finish it. The old house was not hers, but as soon as I saw it in the frosty decay, I instantly connected it with this story. It just seemed right.

  6. Lovely story, Ellie – very poignant, and a tribute to the enduring spirit of Nova Scotia women… if only they were all able to stay home for their last breaths.

    1. Thank you, Don. You are so right about the strength and endurance of such good, solid country people. I know that there are just as many men as women who have lived their lives like Martha and see themselves at the ends in just such a situation as she. If only they were able to die peacefully at home surrounded by family and friends. It does happen and no doubt could more often if only people had more choices offered to them and their wishes were able to be taken into account. (It is becoming much more common in the US now with hospice care available for many.)

      1. That’s an urgent area of reform, in my opinion. Thanks for taking the time to know her, Ellie, and staying in touch with her!

      2. If you can get hold of a copy of the book “Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande, it is an excellent work that I think should be required reading as it offers great hope and insight. I borrowed it from the library in audio format.
        She doesn’t really know who I am any more, Don. But she likes it when I smile at her. And I show her pictures of animals when I bring in a magazine with some she will like.

    1. Thanks very much, Stephanie. I know it was hard to read as it was hard to write. But I felt I had to write it. And you are right, but so often people see no other choice.

  7. Ellie, I can only begin to understand how incredibly difficult this was for you to write – and thank you for doing so. It’s a really beautiful piece, possibly your best. The photos reflect its sadness. The hands are inexpressibly moving. As someone else has commented, we all know or have known ‘Martha’, but there is a second message, so very cleverly conveyed, about the changes in life over the last fifty or so years which have resulted in families being split across generations and – for reasons of ‘convenience’ elderly people being taken away from their homes. This piece will haunt me for a while. Well done!

    1. Prue, I know that you knew what I was going through as I wrote it and I’m only glad that some of that was transmitted through the words without (I hope) being offensive to anyone. I so much appreciate your thoughts on this, though of course I feel that I failed both Martha and myself in not quite getting it as I wanted. But I had to get it out there in the end. The hands were a gift to me on Saturday as when I visited her she was asleep. She barely woke the whole time I was there, sitting beside her. I had my phone and had wanted a photograph just like this. Thank you, though I am sorry if it haunts you. I think I recommended the Atul Gawande book to you. If not, check it out. It is wonderful. (See my comment to Bev Potter, below.)

      1. Ellie when you write from your heart, sometimes it’s agony and it wrings you out – and I can see that this piece did for you. The fact that it haunts me is good – such a piece deserves to haunt as many people as it can!
        Thank you for the recommend, I’ll definitely follow it up. Take care…

  8. Beautiful and poignant story. It speaks to many of us who have aging parents — my Mom is now 92 in a nursing home, sharing a room with a stranger. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for making a comment, Bev. I have not long finished reading a book by Atul Gawande (quoted on my site logo) entitled “Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End”. I think it made me more sensitive to the whole issue so the writing of this took longer than usual and was, if I’m honest, rather emotional for me. I think that book should be required reading. I got it from the library.

  9. What a wonderful story Ellie. It is so sad to see how some of the old are treated. It tears the heart out of you. Look to a time when these will be things of the past.

  10. Beautiful writing and photography, Ellie! I read the story in my email, so I didn’t see your photos until afterwards. I wasn’t expecting such a run-down farm – seeing these makes the story even more powerful.

    1. Thanks very much Laura. The photographs were chosen (and taken) specially with the story in mind (though, like the name, they are not the actual place).

  11. Most of us know a “Martha”……..too bad families don’t live like they did years ago….up to three generations together…it was such a good way to care for the elderly….many of the better ways of life have changed..I believe for the worse…..but sadly my generation is not the one making most of the life style decisions in our current world…..some of us still cling to the “old ways” as much as we can…..but they will be gone when we are……thank you for this insight into Marthas life………

    1. So true, Mac. And I just had to tell it as some of it really bothered me. It was all so much better organized in the days of our great grandparents. Thank you for the lovely comment.

  12. a beautiful moving story. What a magic little cottage and the surrounds in winter are to die for ..We are all heading that way so while we can we travel and just go for it . Ellie we leave Sunday for 100 days of sailing so yes while we can . 38 c here in Oz yesterday …..

    1. Thanks very much Len. Have a wonderful time sailing. I can’t imagine where you will sail for 100 days, but your weather certainly sounds better than ours at the moment.

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