It was early June, and I had just returned to my cubicle from a lengthy editorial meeting. I had dozens of new e-mails, a pile of manuscripts to go through, and five voice mail messages. I sighed. My phone rang. It was Ed, my cousin.
“Holly had a fall last night. She’s OK, but she’s in the hospital,” he said. He gave me a second to let the news sink in. “It was so odd,” he continued. “I went out to move my car last night, which I’d parked near her apartment, on 79th and Amsterdam. I saw an ambulance at the door of her building and thought, ‘What are the chances?’”
Holly was Ed’s aunt, his mother’s eldest remaining sister. She was 86 and still lived by herself in the same rent-controlled apartment she’d been in since I was five. Holly had no children of her own—so Ed and I, her only relatives in the city, had been keeping close tabs on her. Only Ed, who lived just ten blocks south, bore the brunt of this responsibility, since I lived in Brooklyn—an hour-long subway-ride away. Still, I often made the trip. Holly had long been one of my favorite great aunts—and when I moved to New York City in 1995, we grew even closer, seeing movies, having dinner at the Cottage (her neighborhood Chinese restaurant), or hitting the museums at least once a month.
When I asked how she’d fallen, Ed told me she’d tripped over the Moroccan coffee-table on her way to the bathroom. This ornate copper table was nowhere near the bathroom, but I let that slide. Holly, I knew, was prone to midnight ice-cream raids. She probably stumbled over it on her way to the kitchen.
Though she didn’t break anything, Holly sustained a few bruises and was rattled enough to call 911. The EMT guys must’ve taken her down the elevator in her bathrobe. As they were lifting her into the ambulance, Ed rounded the corner. He jumped in and rode with her to the hospital.
Now, on the phone, Ed gave me Holly’s room number, saying she’d only be at the hospital for a few days. What he didn’t say was something neither of us wanted to talk about: Holly couldn’t live on her own anymore.
Ever since I can remember, Holly has been capable and self-sufficient—she could bail out a waterlogged motorboat as easily as she could whip up a dark chocolate cake topped with cocoa-infused whipped cream and a layer of toasted almonds. Even though she went the conventional route at first, marrying a Congregationalist youth minister when she was just 22, she also—somewhat mysteriously—divorced him in Las Vegas seven years later. (There was talk of another man while her husband served oversees as a chaplain during World War II; but family members say she just didn’t love him.) Though she never had children, she was actively involved in the lives of her nieces and nephews, and never once expressed regret to me for not having had her own.
For most of her adult life, Holly lived by herself on the upper west side of Manhattan, where she was a playwright and a freelance journalist. She wrote provocative “musical revues” about the church—one of which, For Heaven’s Sake, got a fifteen minute standing ovation when it premiered in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1961. A searing satire of the church—one number about Jesus begins “He was a flop at 33”—it also got a rave review from the Saturday Evening Post: “For Heaven’s Sake handles delicate issues without mincing words.” Holly’s position as a staff writer for the United Methodist Church’s Board of Global Ministries took her around the world—from Panama and Brazil to Pakistan, Burma, and Beirut. In my seven years as an editor at a glossy travel magazine, I was never sent to such exotic locales; Holly published 16 in-depth articles after one six-week trip around eastern and southeastern Asia. Today, as I read her fact-filled dispatch on Christian relief efforts in Bangladesh and her vivid story about the three “lady preachers” of Rangoon, I’m in awe of how she managed such thorough reporting in such a short amount of time—without the Internet and at a time when costly follow-up phone calls would’ve been out of the question.
As a young girl, when I played “dress-up,” I aspired to pull off Holly’s signature look: boldly-patterned blouses, silk scarves, ethnic jewelry, and fiery red lipstick. To my impressionable five-year-old eyes, Holly resembled a movie star—her painted lips were carefully delineated, like Bette Davis’s, and she wore her auburn hair in a short and poofy, gravity-defying coiffure that required wearing pink foam curlers the night before. The composer Fred Silver, who collaborated with Holly on For Heaven’s Sake, also remembers Holly’s glamour. On his Web site, he reminisces, “Helen Kromer and I hit it off at once. She struck me as very chic and strikingly beautiful.” She also had fabulously long and shapely legs—“Kromer legs,” she would call them (though they were more like her mother’s than her father’s)—which we’d admire when we went swimming at Beaver Lake, New Jersey, where she owned a summer cottage.
When my parents and I drove up to Manhattan from our home in suburban Maryland, Holly would take us to a Broadway show—I vividly recall an androgynous Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan—and then to Serendipity’s, where everything, including the hotdogs, was larger than life. On such visits, I glimpsed Holly’s bohemian lifestyle. I imagined her throwing cocktail parties in her swish, Upper West Side apartment, where the shimmering peach drapes hid the cityscape sixteen floors below and precious objets from her travels adorned the walls. Even though Holly didn’t have a romantic interest at the time, I never doubted that she had an emotionally rich life. She was surrounded by a coterie of intellectually stimulating, loving friends—thespians, musicians, artists, writers, and theologians.
The day after Holly’s fall, she and Ed met with a gerontologist. Ed had wisely nabbed the doctor in the hallway outside her room and warned him not to employ the “g” word. “She won’t listen to you if she knows that’s your specialty,” Ed told him. More than most octogenarians, Holly was in denial about her age, which she never divulged to friends or family. According to Ed, the doctor entered Holly’s room and greeted her warmly, introducing himself as her physician. He proceeded to ask her about the fall and then told her, firmly but kindly, that her family was worried about her safety, and that if she didn’t get some kind of regular nurse, she would have to move into an assisted-living facility.
Holly did not take well to this notion. It wasn’t the first time someone had broached the idea—but this was the first time she’d heard it from a doctor, an authority figure she’d always imbued with absolute wisdom. Doctors were second only to ministers in Holly’s book—charismatic, all-knowing, and always male.
In recent weeks, both Holly’s watchful neighbor, Robin, and her long-time family friend, Perry-Lynn, had alerted Ed and me to Holly’s increasingly odd behavior. Her apartment was littered with piles of junk mail and sweepstakes mailings and she’d insist that she’d just won two million dollars. She would habitually “lose” her keys when you were visiting, then make a big to-do when you were ready to leave, thereby conveniently postponing your departure. And the most unsettling: she would occasionally turn up at her door wearing nothing but her underpants and a bra.
These behavioral tics weren’t exactly breaking news to Ed or me—so at first, we chalked them up to Holly’s always-colorful, theatrical personality. Lately, though, we had to admit her behavior was more manipulative than usual. Holly wanted attention—she always had. But whereas a year earlier she would’ve gracefully let me go after a two-hour visit, now she’d invent emergencies to keep me sequestered in her apartment.
Where was the letter that notified her she had won the “the Sweeps?” I had to unearth it from the mountain of junk mail on her kitchen table. I had to locate her keys, even though she could lock the door behind me after I had left. And where was her address book? She’d misplaced it yet again, and she could not function without it. Pulling my hair out after several evenings of this, I decided to ignore Holly’s antics as I would the antics of a 3-year-old, hoping they would go away. They didn’t.
After the meeting with the gerontologist, we moved fast. Ed hired a home-care attendant to come every day from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 in the afternoon. I e-mailed Holly’s closest friends and family to let them know—and to encourage them to drop by or call her in the afternoon and evenings, when she’d have more privacy. I came to visit one evening and found her in good spirits, though resentful of the nurse, a Trinidadian woman named Juanita.
“I can go shopping by myself,” Holly muttered to me, when I tried to tell her that that was one of the aide’s main duties. I tried to make having a health aide sound like the most coveted thing in the world. “I wish I had a housekeeper,” I said. “I’m too busy to clean our apartment, let alone cook dinner.” It was true: my boyfriend, Michael, vacuumed and mopped more than I did and we almost always ate out at restaurants.
We had just finished eating Juanita’s lasagna, which she’d prepared earlier in the day. “Juanita is such a good cook!” I enthused, trying not to sound forced. (Holly, a veteran of the theatre, knew when you were acting.) There wasn’t a trace of lasagna left on Holly’s plate.
But Holly stared glumly at the tomato-stained FiestaWare. “Well,” she said, with a look of disdain. “I don’t need her. I can take care of myself.”
“But what if you fall again?” I’d always trot out this hypothetical question, reminding her how far away I lived and how Ed was often out of town on business. “We’d feel terrible if you fell and couldn’t get to the phone. What then?”
“Ha!” she would chuckle in her self-deprecating way. “That wouldn’t be a problem. I’d just lie there until I felt like getting up. I’ve done that before, you know. I was once there,” she pointed to the parquet floor by the phone, “for about four hours.”
Once, when I was five, Holly babysat me while my parents visited friends in the city. We had wandered over to the playground on 77th and Amsterdam and while I was climbing jungle gyms and hurtling myself down slides, Holly was unusually quiet. Ordinarily, she would prattle on about this or that, but she was lost in her thoughts. According to Holly (who would tell this story to me when I was an adult) I didn’t say much, either. After I’d worn myself out on the playground, I came over to her and said, simply, “Holly, I miss Adam.” Adam was my buddy from Montessori school—I was fiercely attached to him. His parents and mine took turns babysitting the two of us; we were inseparable. While I had been missing Adam’s company, Holly, it turns out, had been lost in thought about Jim Sharpe—a long-time family friend she’d fallen in love with.
“This was the moment I knew that you were a smart cookie,” Holly would tell me years later, when I was visiting her from college. It was as if I’d absorbed her amorous mood, she said, and mirrored it by reflecting on Adam.
Jim was my grandfather’s best friend—as students in the engineering program at Ohio State University, they had designed bridges together. Jim’s first wife, Ginny, died young, leaving him a bachelor and a single parent. Initially, he and Holly continued their platonic friendship (Holly had known and loved Ginny, after all). Jim kept joining our extended family on holidays and other occasions and would find himself playing charades with Holly or washing dishes with her after a big supper. My grandparents would invite him to dinner at their house in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on the weekends Holly was visiting. Soon, their solid friendship blossomed into a mid-life romance. In 1981, when I was 7, Holly and Jim were married at Riverside Church. My father (a Methodist minister) performed the ceremony and my sister and I were the flower girls.
As the weeks passed, Holly’s eccentric behavior grew into paranoia. She’d always been strange about money—there was never enough. (Hence “the sweeps.”) But now, she’d hide it and claim that Juanita had stolen it. At first, I took her seriously. After all, one of my grandfather’s caregivers had skipped town after using his credit card to purchase thousands of dollars worth of jewelry.
I soon realized that there was a pattern. Ed would get money out of the cash machine for Holly and he’d tell me how much he’d left with her. Two days later, I’d come by, Holly would say someone had stolen it, and I would root around in her linen closet and find her purse—full of money—stuffed behind a stack of towels. Or I’d find it under her bed. Or, I’d find a wadded-up roll of bills at the top of her wardrobe, hidden behind her sweaters and hats. She’d look hurt when I’d find it, but instantly—still a dramatist—would switch to genuine surprise. “How did that get there?” she’d say, no trace of disingenuousness on her face. Then, she’d quickly change her tack and thank me. “What would I have done if you hadn’t found that, darling? I’m so thankful to you—now I have my money.”
She was also fleeing the apartment in the afternoons, despite repeated reminders that her legs were too unstable for solo walks, even to the bodega on the corner. Some days, as soon as Juanita left at two, Holly was out the door. Other days she waited until later to make her exit. I knew this because Robin sent frequent updates. One alarmed e-mail read: “On my way out to dinner last night, I saw Holly leaving the apartment with her purse. She said she needed groceries—but I just ran to the store for her yesterday. What can we do?”
One afternoon, Robin called me at the office in a panic to say that two young men had escorted Holly back to the building after she’d stumbled into Broadway near 71st street. She had been trying to cross the street, they told Robin, when she lost her balance and capsized into an empty lane. Fortunately, they were able to help her to her feet before traffic resumed. She couldn’t remember her address, they said, so she rifled through her purse for her I.D., which Ed had thankfully safety-pinned to the purse’s lining. I could imagine Holly, disheveled but recovering her equanimity quickly—what luck, to have a pair of (male) good Samaritans come to your rescue. When I questioned her in person that evening, she said she’d been headed to her bank—“I needed to get money!” she exclaimed.
“You were so lucky, Holl,” I said. “These guys could’ve been thieves—they could’ve knocked you over the head and stolen your purse.”
She looked solemn for an instant, but then giggled girlishly.
“My, were they handsome!” she said.
All hell broke loose a few days later, when a substitute caregiver named Annette called Ed to say that Holly had locked her out of the apartment. Ed rushed over from his midtown office to unlock the door. Apparently, Holly was miffed that Annette wouldn’t wash her windows and clean out her closet. (My “housekeeper” plan of attack had backfired!) He sent an e-mail to the family that night detailing Holly’s bad behavior, including the fact that she was refusing any attempts to organize her medicine into a daily pill dispenser. “No one knows when or if she’s taking them,” Ed wrote. But his missive ended on a humorous note. He had recently been out of town on business, giving Holly plenty of advance notice. But Holly had her own ideas about why he hadn’t visited her that week—she was convinced he was having an affair with her old friend from the Methodist Church. No matter that Ed, in his late 50’s, was happily married to his college sweetheart, and that he’d only met this friend of Holly’s (who was at least ten years his senior) a few times. At least Holly’s imagination was as wild as ever. Ed’s e-mail ended, “Bless you all & pray for every little merry one of us.”
Neither Ed or I had ever helped an aged relative make the transition to assisted living. We were fumbling along as best we could—but navigating this process with no prior experience and with someone as strong-willed as Holly was a daily challenge. Holly needed an intervention, but so did we.
It was Perry-Lynn who spurred us to action. Her observations, along with Robin’s, were already our main source of information about how Holly spent her days. (Holly herself was no longer a reliable narrator.) But soon after Holly barred Annette from her apartment, Ed and I received a long e-mail from Perry-Lynn with the subject heading “A crisis is brewing.” In it, she matter-of-factly detailed things she’d noticed on a recent visit—how Holly had “lost” the I.D. that Ed had affixed to the inside of her purse, how her diet consisted of nothing but Cheese-Puffs, diet Coke, and Entenmann’s sweet rolls, and how the WestWay Deli would no longer extend her credit because she owed them $89. (A balance incurred for the aforementioned junk food as well as multiple pints of Häagen Dazs’s dulche de leche.) She also expressed concern that Robin was taking on an unfair share of responsibility, merely because she lived next door. But it was the news that Holly planned a covert escape to Beaver Lake that shocked us the most: Holly had revealed to Perry-Lynn that her grand-nephew Chris planned to drive her out to Beaver Lake for the 4th of July. When asked if Chris and his girlfriend planned to leave her out there, Holly replied, “Why wouldn’t they?”
The letter was well-meaning and full of smart ideas for rectifying these problems, such as starting an account at the deli and contacting Chris ASAP. But as I read it, I felt a dull ache form in the pit of my stomach. Were we shirking our duties as Holly’s family? Here was an outsider—a dear friend, to be sure, but no blood relation—telling us in so many words that Holly’s situation was rapidly deteriorating despite the fact that she now had a regular caretaker. What else could we possibly do?
A lot, as it turns out. Two days later, at Perry-Lynn’s upper west side townhouse, I took a deep breath as Ed and I sat down at her dining-room table. She had made a memo entitled “Holly’s Committee” on which she’d listed issues we’d have to confront in the coming weeks—everything from who should fix Holly’s broken air conditioner to how we’d pay her bills before she signed over a power of attorney. Perry-Lynn explained that a decade ago she’d almost lost a friend to AIDS. She and his other friends had teamed together to manage his care. Clearly, Perry-Lynn was good at handling such situations and wanted to lend her considerable energy and organizational skill to this project. Over the next two hours, we went down the list—assigning tasks and throwing out possible solutions. Ed would be responsible for doctor’s appointments and medications; I’d buy Holly a cane and a new phone with big programmable buttons (and persuade her that both were hip and cool); Perry-Lynn would buy Holly healthy staples at Fairway whenever she did her own shopping. And then there was the notebook.
The notebook was a three-ring binder where we would keep track of Holly’s medications, billing information, and personal contacts. Each of us took charge of a different section: I’d track down Holly’s account numbers so we could pay her utility bills at both her apartment and the Beaver Lake cottage. Ed would write up a short medical history, including her doctors’ contact info, health insurance number, and a list of her medications and dosages. Perry-Lynn would e-mail the final draft to family members so that each of us could keep a copy of the Notebook, including Ed’s sister, Helen, who lived in Los Angeles and who we hoped would obtain Holly’s power of attorney, allowing her to pay Holly’s bills for her. When the notebook was finished, it even had short sections on “food” and “social life.” We’d just have to keep the Notebook a secret from Holly, or she’d think we were all plotting against her.
Holly was able to spend that summer at Beaver Lake. We found two sisters with angelic dispositions who already knew and loved Holly and were willing to care for her during the week. (On weekends, family members visited, offering these two a much deserved break.) But that fall and throughout the winter, Holly’s behavior rapidly deteriorated; some doctors diagnosed this change as senile dementia, but others diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s. In September of 2005, her mental agitation grew so severe that Holly required hospitalization. (Among other things, she had hit her new caregiver over the head with a fat issue of Vanity Fair and told several family members—with a deep-rooted anger that scared us—that she wanted to kill this woman.) At NYU Hospital, her geriatric care team—which consisted of an internist, a psychiatrist and a geriatric care social worker—told us she could not return home.
Holly is now living at a spectacular Alzheimer’s facility, Hearthstone—not ten blocks from her old apartment. Her transition there was miraculously smooth—her agitation seemed to evaporate overnight and her jolly good humor and sociability—core personality traits—returned. In fact, whenever I visit, the nurses remind me that Holly is their favorite. “She’s the life of the party!” they say. “She’s always telling other residents to cheer up.” To our great surprise and relief, Holly never showed any anger or embarrassment at being placed in a group facility. She calls her new home a “fabulous hotel” and never mentions her apartment on 78th and Amsterdam or her house on Beaver Lake (which sadly had to be sold in order to pay for the monthly fee at Hearthstone). The schedule at Hearthstone keeps Holly’s creative side stimulated—there are arts & crafts sessions and “sing-along” hours, an “Artists for Alzheimer’s” series in which Julliard musicians and School of American Ballet students perform, and even pet therapy and Caribbean dance lessons.
During a recent visit, Michael and I brought Holly a CD of For Heaven’s Sake. We found her finishing up dinner in the main dining room.
“How ARE you?” Holly asked, with her usual gusto. (Though she has Alzheimer’s, Holly is what is known as “high-functioning,” and so far, she still recognizes family and friends, even though she can’t always come up with our names.) She was thrilled to see us—especially Michael, who she’s always adored.
She looked smashing—she was wearing a crisp pink blouse that matched her nails, which a nurse had painted. Holly has surprisingly unwrinkled skin—likely due to daily doses of the estrogen drug Premarin over the past thirty years (though she’s always claimed her secret is a cream called Revanescence)—and her face that evening was glowing.
I wheeled Holly over to the CD player and put For Heaven’s Sake on. At first, though she listened intently, she looked quite somber. But when a jazzy number called “The Gimme God Blues” came on, a big smile crept over her face and she said, “This is a fabulous song!”
“Well, it should be—you wrote the lyrics to it!” Michael said. This caused Holly to emit a hearty laugh, but she didn’t seem surprised. The song, a jazzy number about a greedy lady who wants worldly riches and beauty but is spiritually impoverished, is brilliant. In it, Holly compares God to a casino dealer—“God’s at the 21 table, shuffling the dealer’s pack” a male voice tempts. “Bet your lot on the house jackpot and you’ll surely get it back.” Though the more complex lyrics eluded Holly, she easily sang the refrain: “ ’Cause God won’t give me what I want him to give me. I got the Gimme God Blues.”
When the song had ended, Holly studied the album cover, which I’d Xeroxed and shrunk to fit the CD case. “This is a fantastic album!” she said. One of the aides came over and noticed the title of the CD. “That’s what Holly always says, ‘For Heaven’s Sake!’” she said, chuckling. “Oh, Holly Berry,” she said. “Now I know why.”
Now, when I listen to For Heaven’s Sake, there’s a line from the song “Gimme God Blues” that reminds me of Holly, the feisty, youthful twenty-something Holly I never knew, but still see traces of.
Wanna have beauty, want to have IT
That makes men champ and stamp at the bit
Like Helen of Troy and Cleopat
The kind of glamour that knocks ‘em flat
I wanna be goddess, wanna be queen
Saint, siren, and in between
Wanna be mother, wanna be wife
Wanna shake the life outta this one life!
I wrote this essay in 2009. Soon after I moved to Oregon in the spring of 2010, Holly relocated to the Jewish Home in Rockleigh, New Jersey. She died there on November 21st, 2015. Just the day before, Ed was visiting Holly while a music therapist from hospice—who had been singing to her for months—came one last time. “She had a lovely voice and deft plucking style,”e-mailed Ed a few days later. “She serenaded Holly with Edelweiss, Time After Time, You Are My Sunshine and her own magnificent rendering of the Irish ballad May the Road Come up to Greet You.” Our hope is that Holly was comforted by these familiar songs and was spirited into the beyond knowing she had lived her life to its fullest, and that she was well loved.