By Stephen Ballou
[Note: Steve is a physician living in Ottawa, Canada. He is the son Bill Ballou – who was the son of Bertha’s brother Senn.]
In 1982, when I was a young student in Montreal, my father called me one day. His Aunt Sally, living alone in Spokane, Washington, was not well. Could I go to see her?
My father had lived with Aunt Sally and her sister Bertha during high school. The aunts had brought him out of a chaotic home, where his single mother had recently died. His father had been absent for years. Sally was a city librarian, and Bertha was a professional artist, and they civilized my father. By the time he was old enough to lie about his age and join the army, he was educated, polished and determined to succeed. He was forever grateful to them.
Bertha had died several years before my father’s phone call. Sally was living alone in the old house, with 17 cats and 5 dogs. Severely handicapped by rheumatoid arthritis, her world was an armchair, with a path between waist-high piles of newspapers to the kitchen and the bathroom. When I first opened the front door, I fell back from the smell. In the darkness I heard her small voice, asking who was there. This is how our friendship began.
I went back for several visits, the last time to help her move to an assisted care center. It was painful for both of us. Sally lost her last bit of freedom, while I did my best to empty her house of seventy years of hoarding. Under the newspapers and rubbish there were a number of fine pieces of furniture, paintings and books. All had the unforgettable odor of feral dogs and cats. Everything was trucked to my parents’ house in South Carolina, where it spent many months in the garage. Most was eventually recovered and restored, and the collection gave a fine image of Sally and Bertha’s life at their prime.
My father eventually decided to bring Sally to South Carolina to be near the family. My last memory is of her lying in a hospital bed, looking very small. My wife Louise sat our baby daughter Eloise on the bed beside her. Aunt Sally was unable to talk, but she smiled. I had only seen her smile a few times in all the years that I had known her. She died of a stroke two months later.