I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing, Each to Each.
I grow old…I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think they will sing to me.
The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliott
Where does the mind go when a person of such enormous vitality is confined to a body not quite used up? What happens to the hellions, and cynosures, the “Bad Pennies” who outlast their adventures yet find their way to the nursing home? My grandmother, Mary J. Rafferty, is one such person. Born in a Chicago taxicab one wintry day in January 1915, she has traveled far from her unconventional beginning. Today, at 98, she journeys in memories, carried now on bright wings of practical fleece. Nothing, not even the confines of her hospital bed can arrest her.
Haplessly, I’ve escorted her to the chair exercise class, the Sunday service and the concert, only to have her announce on arrival with a look of consternation and a voice shrill with rebellion, “Not this…No, I HATE this!” Despite her many years, she is ageist, dislikes old people, refuses to “be” old.
There are many stories I could tell you by which you’d measure her extraordinary life, her zeal, and her eye for beauty. In her prime, she talked her way onto Marlon Brando’s private island for lunch. She dropped in unexpectedly to visit A.S. Neill at Summerhill and saw the students burn the classroom furniture. She toked with Neil Young at his estate in Woodside and was invited to drop acid–not once, but twice–by members of Jefferson Starship.
Until age fifteen, she rode an adult sized tricycle, impervious to the comments and jeers of her age mates. She disdained ill will, chalking it up to a limitation in reason. She was the essence of empowerment, assertive and driven, and derived that power at no one’s expense. Gracious, thoughtful, artfully dressed in eye-catching clothes reflective of her travels, she was a wonderful raconteur and could see the merit in anyone, especially, any man. Even in the nursing home, she maintained a string of paramours, the youngest, Dr. Joe, a former pioneer of open-heart surgery, now her boy toy at 97.
One day in spring of 2007, the house phone rang. I, now the owner of her beautiful, old Cape Cod Style house, answered it. As always, I braced myself. The phone–black, dial faced, hardwired to the wall–had been in its location since 1962. It was the lost letter office of the family, the place you called with news of births, marriages, divorces, and deaths. It was the way to spread news to every lowly branch of the now widespread Rafferty clan.
Hearing the phone ring, I answered it with some trepidation, short on time.
“Hello, Rafferty residence,” I said, even though it wasn’t anymore.
“Hello,” a lovely, cultured voice replied, “Is this the home of Mary Rafferty?”
“Yes. How can I help you?” I answered, curiously.
The lovely woman drew in wind, and said politely, “I’m calling about Mary Rafferty. Can I speak to her please?”
Adjusting my purchase on the phone and grabbing a chair, I sat down to give this my full attention. “I’m sorry, but Mary doesn’t live here anymore.” I waited to hear her response, key evidence in determining if this was an old friend or just another phone scammer preying upon the elderly.
“Oh,” said the polite caller sighing, “Do you know if there’s a way I can get in touch with her?”
I sighed too, hoping this recently learned rapport-building gesture would terminate our conversation quickly. “She’s now a resident at the Sequoias in their memory care unit. May I ask to whom am I speaking?”
“Oh, excuse me, I didn’t want to trouble you without due cause. My name is Cindy Nickerson and I am a biographer,” she replied brightly.
Now, genuinely curious, I queried, “Maybe I can help you. I’m her granddaughter and have Power of Attorney for her. I handle her affairs.” I meant it, literally.
Cindy considered this. Clearly, the matter involved some delicacy and I sensed her search for an entre. “Well, before I waste anymore of your time, can I ask you a few other questions?”
I paused thinking, was this an oxymoron? When has asking more questions led to time saved? But she was so pleasant, and my manners overcome me. “Well sure,” I said, “How can I help?”
Cindy asked tentatively, “Did your grandmother visit Cape Cod in the 1960s?”
I paused thinking it over. It’s hard to say. She visited MANY places back then, was quite the rover, and possibly, Cape Cod was on her list. “Well, she could have. I know she traveled frequently. She was an antiques dealer.” I replied.
“Oh!” Said Cindy in evident delight (something I had said rang a bell somewhere…) “Can you tell me her middle name?”
At this, I grew uncomfortable and walked to my computer to goggle Cindy, putting her off as long possible while I verified her story. I asked, “I’m just curious, how did you get this number?”
“Well, I’ve been searching for two years for Mary Rafferty. I’ve tried every Mary Rafferty on the East Coast and all through the Midwest and have been working my way west from there” Cindy offered.
Having verified that Cindy was a real person with notable academic credentials, I relaxed. “Well, her middle name is Josephine.”
At this, the caller became still more excited. She could hardly contain herself. “Oh my God! I’m mean gosh,” she said, not sure if I was the type to be offended. “Finally, I’ve found her!”
“Oh” I said, “Found who?”
“Well, this is all so exciting!” She said. “As I mentioned, I’m a biographer and also, an art historian specializing in American Primitive Paintings.”
“Okay,” said I, thinking this was going to be a question about some long ago painting my grandmother owned. Inspired, Cindy asked, “Are you aware of the artist Ralph Cahoon?”
“Ralph Calhoun,” I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t say I am.”
“Cahoon…it’s pronounced CAHoon,” she replied. “He was one of the most prominent painters of the American Primitive School. He lived in the Cape Cod area, primarily, Cotuit, until 1982. Joan Whitney Payson, a socialite and art dealer who co-owned the Mets, discovered him. He was very popular with Jackie Kennedy and her crowd.”
“That’s very interesting,” said I, “Though I’m not sure how this relates to my grandmother.”
“Well,” said Cindy “I’m writing a biography of Ralph Cahoon in junction with the Cahoon Museum of American Art. Ralph and his wife, Martha, are the most famous folk artists the Cape has ever produced. For many years, they even painted side by side. I came across a letter while reviewing their personal effects. I think it may have been written by your grandmother, though I’d like to verify a few other details since the contents are possibly of a personal nature.”
Immediately, I sensed the letter WAS written by Mary J. “Go on please,” I said.
“Can you tell me anything about her handwriting?” Cindy inquired.
I considered this and replied, “Yes. It was distinctive. She always wrote with a fountain pen, her letters were very round and delivered with a firm hand.”
“Ah,” Cindy said in a clearly excited voice, “Anything in particular about the signature?”
“Yes,” Said I, “She always used black ink. She felt strongly that all other inks revealed a woeful lack of commitment and she used the letter J. in lieu of her middle name which she loathed.”
“May I read you a short segment of the letter to confirm it was written by her?” Asked Cindy breathlessly.
“Yes,” I said, “Go ahead.”
Clearing her throat, Cindy read the first two sentences carefully with emphasis on each word, though from the direct, opinionated tone and ladylike yet suggestive speech, I deduced its author immediately.
“Yes, she wrote it,” I said.
“Excellent.” Cindy remarked, “There is more if you’d like to hear it.“
“I would be very interested,” said I.
“I can send it to you in an email if you like. Your grandmother’s letter is particularly charming because it was hand written on hotel stationery and included a drawing in the style of the artist. If you and your family are willing, I’d like permission to reprint the letter in my upcoming book. I’d need your written authorization though.”
Knowing my grandmother sketched, I expected it would resemble the bags for her shop with her quaint yet authoritative drawings of Welsh Dressers, Staffordshire Spaniels, Cannonball Andirons, and Irish Hunt tables.
“That would be great. Let me give you my email address and you can send it to me. I’ll reply back with appropriate authorization,” I said, “And thanks for the interesting news.”
The next day, I received the following attachment to an email.
Dear Mr. Cahoon,
I don’t actually know why I should be writing to you tonight because I told you repeatedly today that I like your paintings very much.
But it is very strange. They excited me so that I cannot stop thinking about them. I consider their discovery the greatest thrill of my trip and I have never run into anything so spellbinding and spot-hitting to me.
As I drove along, I could not wipe the smile off my face – remembering their hilarious absurdity combined with smashing authority. They are the way I like the world to be – clear, colorful, understood, yet imaginative, fanciful, tongue-in-cheek, and fun. The surprising thing is that they were made by a reserved, apparently serious, understated sort of person like you seem to be. If one saw just your pictures, one would think they were done by some uproarious fellow – I simply cannot think of whom – they are so unprecedented.
This appreciation does not mean at all that I can buy one. … But whether I do or not, I just thought you might get a kick out of knowing there is somebody who was more moved by your work than by anything she saw in the Louvre.
In any case I will go to your show in Carmel and make some other people come with me.
Mary J. Rafferty
This is only the text of the letter. Suffice it to say, my grandmother’s drawing was not just in the style of the artist, it was a self-portrait, done to his favorite theme. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Ralph Cahoon, he loved mermaids and depicted them in various secular pursuits–baking cakes, tattooing sailors, partying with whales, climbing trees–yet always half naked with prominently displayed breasts and buttocks. This is how my grandmother drew herself for the artist’s appreciation. White hair, beautiful sinuous fish tail, resplendent and bare breasted with an unmistakable, come hither look. She was 51 years old at the time.
A few days later, I visited my grandmother. I brought her pictures of Ralph Cahoon and his work, hoping to spark some memory, or better still, some humorous confession. Seeing the drawing and knowing her, I suspected she was not subtle about her interest while in his presence.
I showed her picture after picture. She squinted, she looked, she smiled, yet nothing sparked recognition. She must be too far-gone to remember I concluded. Having gone through roughly fifteen pictures, her face suddenly lit up, she developed a happy smile reminiscent of long ago sunny days, and seemed prepared to effuse words profound.
“What is it grandmother?” I asked expectantly.
“I remember these…I remember this artist!” she said, rather wistfully.
Grabbing a notepad to jot down whatever pearls might then come, I waited eager and attentive.
She reflected again, paused and then spoke, “Yes, I remember him. He was lovely,” she paused recalling more, mind wandering a little. “Tender, attentive, resourceful, even a little cheeky…” she said with a happy sigh, “Now his wife–she didn’t take to me at all!”