Life History: Nancy Whittier
Nancy Whittier was born in 1911. She is white‑haired, thin bodied with delicate features. She is soft‑spoken and has a gentle childlike quality about her and angelic smile on her lips. Her eyes are kind, bright and alert.
She has been a wife and mother, having weathered many illnesses within her family. For the past five years, Nancy time has been devoted to her husband, Walter, who has pro~ressively worsened with alzheimer’s disease and died last year. She is living in a retirement setting in Falmouth recuperating from the exhaustive years of watching her husband deteriorate.
She stills owns the large family home in Falmouth where she and Walter raised their two children and also enjoys a home near Sunday River Ski slopes where she skis regularly and loves to entertain her qrandchildren.
Nancy has sustained her faith over the years throughout many hardships where as she says, “my back was against the wall.” She attributes her positive outlook on life today to her membership in the Order of St. Luke the Physician, a membership that calls on prayer for healing and empowerment for chanqe.
It doesn’t seem possible, but I was born in 1911. My mother said she was always so happy with me because I was a cuddly baby. Bless her heart, she had my older sister two years before who was born with such a severe case of ecsema that they had to wrap her in cotton batting. Mother wasn’t allowed to hug her or cuddle her. So when I came along, I got all of Mother’s cuddling, which was really quite special. That was the first thing I remember my mother saying about my babyhood.
I think I was a reasonably good little child. I think I must have had periods of sulking, however, because I remember my maternal grandfather, Grampa Lowe, taking me aside when I was very tiny and saying, “You know if you would only learn to smile, life would be much brighter for you. You’d have much more fun.” He was just a dear.
He and my grandmother lived with us until he died. As a matter of fact, the Bible there by you ‑ you might want to look inside. He wrote, “To my sweetheart.” I just happened to be cleaning some books and came across that. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. When he retired, he volunteered to work in the factory at night during World War II. It was more than he really should have done; he died of a heart attack. So when my grandmother was widowed, she continued living with us.
She was a typical qrandmother of those days. She loved to bake cookies, donuts, crocheted, played hearts, checkers, Parcheese. She was always there, which was fun. I can still remember when there were heavy snowstorms. Mother would say, “Now you can clean up your rooms. We’ll have lunch and then we’ll have all the neighbors come in.” Our house was the gathering place for all the neighbor children. Everyone loved to come to our house because there was always something good to eat that grandmother had made. That was really great fun. On Sunday nights, we used to have hot chocolate in front of the fireplace and Mother would play hymns and we’d sing. No one else in the neighborhood did anything like that ‑ not a very “churchy” neighborhood.
That was in West Medford, just outside of Boston. It was a neighborly neiqhborhood. We’d have croquet matches and suppers. Everybody would just bring something.. It was just a real old‑fashioned neighborhood. We would shut off a great hill for coasting, no cars were allowed on it. We could coast and coast. And we used to have neighborhood circuses. I’d have such a head of hair ‑ so thick and crinkly ‑ that they’d put me behind a sheet and for three cents you could look at me and for five cents you could touch me. It really was such a head of hair that my mother used to take me to Boston to get it shampooed. We would take the train and go into to Boston to the beauty parlor. They’d see me coming and crinqe and all hoped that they didn’t have to be the one to comb out my hair. We had big straw hats in those days with elastic bands. The only way mine would stay down was if it was especially tight under my chin and then the streamers would flow out behind it.
As it happened, most of my age group were boys, so I always had a lot of boys to play with. We’d skate and do all kinds of things. Then when I was around nine years old, I got rheumatic fever. I was thin and labeled a frail child, a word which has always annoyed me. I was out of school for a whole year but the worst thing was, I wasn’t allowed to run, bicycle or roller skate and I had to walk up the stairs backwards. Mother tried to tutor me. She was a very brilliant woman. She had gone to Wellsley. In this day she would have been an architect. She used to say, “I wish I could have gone on to MIT ‑ imagine.” She and my sister both had a flair for numbers. They tried to teach me arthimetic, but I had no appitude for numbers.
It was a hard year with lots of stresses. Going to school was a challenge because I was two years behind my sister, Mattie, who got all A+’s in everything. Teachers would be so happy to see me. They’d say, “Oh, isn’t this wonderful, we’ve got another Gooch girl,” and I’d sort of shake my head because I was just average. But Mattie wasn’t athletic. I loved being physically active. I would go out and shovel off a little place not as big as this room just to skate in. If there was no one to play tennis with, I’d just slam balls. That was one of the ways I’d rid myself of frustration ‑ slamming balls. Another way was banging on the piano when on one was in the house. I would just play loudly and crazy, and it would feel so good.
My paternal grandparents lived in Whitefield, a half‑an‑hour or so away, and we’d used to go there almost every Sunday afternoon. There were six sons and no dauqhters. Three of them were married including my father.
His twin brother was not married. It was rather a different household from outs, more formal. My grandmother was not well. She always had a housekeeper and frequently a nurse.They had the first radio that we ever heard. We’d go over on a Sunday afternoon and they would turn on that radio it was quite exciting.
It was really too bad, but my father’s twin brother never quite adjusted to my father being married. There was an atmosphere there that was quite mysterious for us children. They would go off by themselves and talk. If Uncle Alfred came to our house, he’d go up to the third story where my dad had a study. It was rather unfortunate because this thing grew and grew. In fact at one point, he persuaded my father to leave home and live in Wakefield with him. It was very, very strange. Uncle Alfred died soon after that and Dad came back as though he’d never been gone. It was very peculiar, very.
My father’s other brother, his older brother, was in business with a Dartmouth friend in United Fruit Company in the tropics ‑ Central America. He came home the year Roosevelt was first runninq for president and kept his residence at Asbury Park. The story went that he came back with a huge suitcase that he put into a closet, and never opened it to anybody’s knowledge. He was at Wakefield for a week and then went to New York staying at one of the hotels there. That was the last anybody ever saw of him. We, as children, never heard what happened to him. It was a great mystery to the family. The taxi driver who took him to Grand Central Station remembered him because he was very small and he had this huge heavy bag. They had been having problems in Central America but nobody could figure out what happened. Even his co‑partner couldn’t figure it out. That was quite an episode in our family. The suitcase was never found either. It disappeared. There were detectives looking all over this country and Central America. This was back in the early thirties ‑ very shocking.
My Dad used to travel a great deal too. It was Mother who was the closest to the children in the household. I really don’t think I knew my father. He was very gentle and quiet. It was very easy for my uncle to dominate him. But I do remember when I was quite young and we were taking a long walk in Kennebunkport. We had taken the ferry across the river and were coming back. I got such aching leqs that I was crying. He carried me all the way home. I’ll never forget that.
Both my dad and his brother developed a disease where later in life the skull gets bigger and the bones in the legs bend and get very bow‑legged. Now I believe they have something for this, but at the time they didn’t. His brother died first of pneumonia. It was quite something to go through carrying this big head around, and then Dad died of a heart attack.
My parents had moved to the old family place in Kennebunkpoit. I’ve always said I would never leave any of my family alone at night if they were ill in the hospital.
My father was coming home with us the next day which was Thanksgiving. Mother was with us in Falmouth, and a nurse who had been with me when I had had my children, was on the floor that Dad was on. She was taking care of a very sick patient down the hall and realized that there was a lot of commotion going on in Dad’s room. She suddenly realized too that nobody was paying any attention to it. She hurried to the desk and as a result, they did finally go in. He was dying, and he was all by himself, which was so sad.
Now my mother’s death….that was a whole different story. At 78, she married our minister who was 85. It was absolutely fascinating. He had christened all of us, married all of us and buried all of us and now was courting my mother. She said to me, “Mr. Smith is calling me and inviting me to concerts and church, and I don’t know if he’s got anything on his mind or not.” His wife had died of cancer five years before, and I told her he just wanted a friend. But he really wanted to marry her and within two months they were married. He used to swim in the ocean and jog, but after five beautiful years together, he too died of a heart attack. My mother said it was harder to lose him in that time of her life than earlier. She was in her eighties.
When she was ninety, she went to Burmuda where she had a heart attack. We brought her back here where she seemed to be getting better. We were up at Sunday River. She loved it up there. Went to all the parties. She had a lot of spunk. But about midnight one night, she called me and said that the pain in her chest was very severe. She took a double dose of medication, but I called the doctor, even though the only doctor in Bethel was an alcoholic. Walter went down the path in the woods to meet him.
In the meantime, she began to fill with fluid, which I had hoped would not happen. It was the most beautiful qift she could have qiven me though. She told me to kneel down and said, “I want you to keep praying.” At that stage I was not very comfortable praying outloud with anybody, but I did the best I could. By this time she was qurgling more and more, and the words were no lonqer understandable. She took my hand, put it to one side, patted it and said something to me. To this day I would have loved to have known what it was she said. She just burst into the most beautiful smile I had ever seen in all my life. And she went to sleep.
It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful. The doctor came through the door just after the smile and said, “She’s had a beautiful death.” Throunh her death, the baby’s death and Walter’s death, I’ve had such real spiritual experiences.
When Walter, my husband, was diagnosed in 1981 with alzheimers, I was very aware that we had some rugged years ahead of us….but maybe I should 90 back to the beginninq…back a ways and come back to this.
Walter and I were blessed with Charles and Rennie, two little boys. When Rennie was ten months old, he developed pneumonia. He had picked up the bug from Charles who was 3 years older. Walter was in Florida, so I was alone through this until almost the end.
Rennie had to be ih the hospital with n~rsing care aro~nd the clock. They did everything they could, but there were no medications in those days.
Two weeks after he died, they had released sulfur drugs so that was on the verge but….
Rennie passed the crisis at one point. They called me and said they knew everything would be fine, but within a few hours, his heart hem orraqed and he died. It was just…well just as awful as you could think because he was just so beautiful.
Several months after that Charlie developed asthma. It was all new to me because I had never known anyone or a child with asthma. As we looked back though, I’ve thou~ht many times, as careful as we were at trying to protect that little three year old from feeling that there was any connection between him and giving his brother that bug….but you never know. (Many times asthma is diaqnosed as a psychosomatic illness.)
This started when Charlie was three and lasted until he was twelve really severe asthma. Every sprin~ when it would be ragweed season here in Maine, I’d have to go upt to Rangeley until the frost came and killed thre ragweed, then we’d come back. He got so severely handicapped that he was in bed most of the time which was awful.
Finally when he was nine years old we went to a doctor in New York who said, “You’ve got to get this boy out of Maine. He can’t take another winter there.” So we took him to see this doctor in New York by train Walter on one side, me on the other, with a plastic bag in case Charlie began choking because we knew the train would be dusty. We medicated him and finally got to New York.
The doctor wanted us to stay a week but Walter could only stay four days. I stayed the whole week. Charlie was given castor oil to cleanze his whole body and it flushed everything out of him and qave him enough pep so he could walk up the Statue of Liberty …this after hardly being able to qet on the train in Portland. Then the doctor told us to take Charlie to a warmer climate.
This was during World War II. We went to Sarasota, Florida for six months and the next year we went back for another six months. He got so he could ride a bicycle and do normal things. He got back into school and was just beqinning to have this wonderful change in this pattern of living when my daughter, Julie, was thought to have something wrong with her vision. Her teacher called and said, “We were testinq her eyes and she can’t see out of one eye.”Do you know she had only 3°/~ vision in her eve? She hadn’t squinted or anything.
We took her to Boston where it was explained that we would have to devote alot of time to brain, hand and eye coordination activities. He thought it would take about three years to get the eye back to normal. I worked with her a certain period of time during the day for six months at which time we went back for a checkup. I don’t cry easily but he looked at me and said, “You haven’t done much of anything have you?” I told him I had done everything he had told me to do. I had done all the hand‑eye‑brain coordination with her, I had recopied all her school work in large print. I just broke down and cried. “Well, summer’s cominq and time’s running out,” he said.
Well, I worked all the harder and got all of Julie’s friends to help me which made it great. At the end of three years we got her vision up to over 60%~ and it held there. But when she went away to college, she didn’t continue, and today at 50, her eye is completely gone again.
There have been so many times when I felt my back was against the wall so to speak, where I felt I needed more inner strength. There were two episodes when I was still under 30 where I started reachin~ out spiritu ally.. One was when I was in Florida and really on my own because Walter couldn’t be there. They brouqh~Charlie home from school one day, I remember. He had gotten into a peanut butter cookie at a party someone was having and that made him turn blue with his asthma, a complication with peanuts. Our landlord was a doctor, and I called him to come down. You can’t imagine what he did without thinking ‑ he qave Charlie adrenalin that was in peanut oil. Charlie almost died right there. We rushed him to the hospital where they gave him oxygen.
A couple of months after that Julie had to have her tonsils removed. I was all alone again. I stayed in a hotel room close to the hospital and then walked there. She was really scared and I was doinq this all alone. They asked me to carry her into the operating room. It was after that that I really began searching for inner strength. I began to study spiritual books more and I began to think more about my mother’s interest in The Order of St. Luke the Physician. I remember takina her to meetings where speakers would come. But I had never quite decided that that was what I needed. But as it has turned out, I have had incredible spiritual growth through the organization.
It was almost twenty years aqo, when I decided to attend a silent retreat in Augusta. I qot up there a little late, everyone had gone off into their little rooms that had been blessed for them. No one could go into the room but the person for whom it had been blessed. There was a pad and paper by the bed, and you were encouraged to have brought a Bible. I attended the evenin~q service and went to bed. About 2:00 AM, I woke up and even without thinking what I was doinq, I started writing down the people who had been channels for the Lord’s love to come into my life. I had gotten as far back as when I used to go to church and saw Mrs. Smith, the minister’s dignified wife, sitting there looking so beautiful. There were so many instances, but that was the furthest one that I wrote down. I had all these pages….
I be~an to realize how this burden was lifting. I went from Rennie’s death to Dad’s death. I felt what a blessinq it had been that Rennie had gone to be with Jesus…that he had been saved from all the heartaches that I’d seen my children go through. It was such a comfort. I just had to get up and take a shower which I did. I felt just wonderful.
When I came home after that retreat, Walter said, “What’s happened to you?” As a result, he went the following year. This organization believes in healing with prayer. The contacts I’ve made and the people I’ve met have been incredible. If I hadn’t had it to lean on when Walter got ill, I don’t knnw what I would have done. I wouldn’t have made it.
My daughter had warned me ahead of time by saying I should turn our house into a nursing home and then find myself some place to sleep. Walter’s illness had turned night into day from 1981 on until he died last year.
It got so that there always had to be two people around. I never knew what he would do. If the tele~hone ranq, he would go out the door or go down to the cellar and start fixing the furnace that didn’t need fixing.
The last year, I had 24‑hour coveraqe so I would always have someone there. He would get up at all hours.
He developed pneumonia, but they couldn’t keep him in the hospital. I put him in Falmouth By the Sea nursing home until I could pull something together, but he was put in a room with another fellow who had alzheimers and he thought Walter’s bed was his wife’s bed and kept crawling to the side trying to qet in. It was so sad. I was gettinq more and more rundown. I thought putting him there would give me a rest, but unfortunately it wasn’t the place for him. In fact, Walter just continued to walk out of the place so I brought him back home.
At the end , I had one RN, three nurses aids, and two housekeepers. I was exhausted.
That last ~ear, I felt the Lord had directed me here to Ocean View. I had two people call me and wanted me to give them information about Ocean View in the same week. So I went over and looked at it for them and put down a payment for myself’ I saw this wonderful room and could see my furni ture in it. There was full sunshine coming through the window. It was like h~Av~n T could have Walter safe and taken care of in the house, and I could be here and rest. It had been seven years that I had to balance all this… it was such a blessing.
One Tuesday morning, there was great deterioration in Walter. I had my prayer group meeting that morning. In the past 24 hours, we were sure that Walter had gone blind and were pretty sure that his hearing was gone too. He was dressed and sitting in the living room. One of the cats was in his lap but we didn’t think that anything was getting throuqh. Carlise, one of the women in the group, took his hand and said in a soft voice, “Walter, it’s perfectly all right for you to go on because Nancy is strong. She’s got her family and she’s got many friends and it’s perfectly all right for you to go dear.”
Then others prayed, and I prayed. They were simple little prayers and then they left.
My housekeeper and I were having a cup of tea together a little later on, and I couldn’t tell what was happening, but something nudged me. I get these nudges. I went over to take Walter’s pulse, and it was as strong as it could be. I remember thinking it was probably stronger than mine. I sat down beside him, and there was this little blue line starting at the rim of his ear slowly, slowly going around his ear and stopping. I took his pulse once again and he was gone. I had watch this line…I couldn’t believe it. Nobody has been able to explain it to me. It just faded away.
Another wonderful little blessing happened. Julie, weeks ahead had ma~ r~servations to come from London that very day. She arrived two hours after he died.
I was so thankful that he had gone. It was such a relief. It was like a celebration. I had my family and all my friends and Walter wasn’t suffering. The grandsons rolled the coffin down the aisle, all the qrand nephews, neices ‑ everyone was there. Everything flowed together so wonderfully, ~t was like a celebration of joy.
But it also delayed my grieving. I had to go up to the mountain and do some skiing ‑ the separation ‑ it was really hard.
My subject related her adult life in terms of family illnesses and her growth in terms of spiritual development in response to the stresses brought on by these illnesses.
Nancy has been through some very unfortunate circumstances during her adult years starting with the death of a child and subsequent illnesses and deaths of close family members. Her story, as she told it, centered mainly around these illnesses and neglected happier moments such as the marriages of her childrenor the period when she and Walter were alone together before his disease set in. Joyful times were seen at death ‑ her mother’s and her husband’s funeral. I think it’s important to look at the content of a person’s story as well as the parts they leave out. By only concentrating on the hard times, if seems to me that Nancy considers much of her growth and development to have taken place mainly through these adversities.
Nancy’s background, I believe, was a powerful influence on her adult years in terms of her own inate personality and temperment, socio‑economics and relationships with her parents.
By looking back with her into her childhood, it is clear that she was a good, compliant, loving and happy girl. She was very active and given love in return by a supportive multi‑generational family structure. There is a strong consistency in her personality and temperment as it was then and as it is today.
I think this is significant because they have shaped the way she has always related to her environment. She has accepted the hardships that have come her way with a stable, loving and optimistic attitude and has not altered her approach or her role in life in any radical way.
Her relationship to her father was not a close one, which she admits, because of his frequent absence from the home. She says, “It was Mother who was the closest to the children in the household. I really don’t think I knew my father.” She seems to have identified with her mother’s role and in addition married a man very similar to her father. Walter came from the same educational and socio‑economic background as her father and was very often not able to be at Nancy’s side when she needed him. In relating episodes of illnesses in her children’s lives, there is always mention of the fact that her husband was unable to join her or be with her, that she had to do it alone.
Fears of being alone seemed to be a bi~ theme throughout Nancy’s story. She referred to it when she talked about the fact that she would never leave a member of her family alone in a hospital because her father died alone in one. In the last staqes of Walter’s disease, when she was exhausted and needed to have him hospitalized, because of his fears, it was impossible for her to take that step. Having her young son die unexpectedly in a strange hospital also contributed to this fear.
Her childhood background certainly did not prepare her to lead a life of solitude in the childbearing years. She had been surrounded by family members, friends and neighbors which had a strong impact on her need to continue in that kind of environment.
But knowing Nancy and after hearing her story, I believe she has been very accepting of her situation. I sensed by her story that she has always taken life as it came, without a qreat deal of thought about where her life was going, just allowing life’s circumstances to shape and mold her life givinq it meaning and purpose as she went along. With the stresses she was under, it would have been very difficult to make the kind of difficult decisions it takes in living out a more self‑directed way of lif~
Nancy seems very much at peace with the way she has handled life; and because she has had a lifetime of enjoying physical activity, I predict will be enjoying quite a few years ahead. Coupled with the fact that she has practiced good health habits over the years and that her mother died at the age of ninety, her chances are good that she can experience some quality time in old age.
She had no trouble articulating her experiences to me and seems to have a sharp memory. She knew all the names of the personnel staff at the nursing home where she is staying and was up on most of the activities available during a tour of the facility. She demonstrates the likelihood that physical exercise maintained over the adult years helps maintain optimum intellectual functioninq.
Nancy’s role as caretaker continued all throuqh her adult life up until a year ago when her husband died. This transition away from the caretaker role could become an issue for Nancy. But I feel that her cheerfulness and optimism towards life is an attitude she will continue to follow and will probably find other ways to be of service to others.