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Su Lum: My mother’s caretakers

In the years since she started needing more than companion care, my mother has been tenderly tended to by a series of Jamaican ladies, all of whom come from the same improbable place: East Orange, New Jersey. East Orange being pretty much up there as the armpit of the state, it’s hard to imagine a bleaker place to settle a Jamaica North, but a sizable society lives there now and a lot of them are in health care.

Call me a racist, but if I ever get too infirm to live alone, let my living will state that I want a Jamaican lady to see me over that last door sill.

My mother’s caretakers are Carol, who works five 24-hour shifts a week and Myrtel (Mer-TEL) who works the other two.



Carol is 38, has three children who live with her parents and ex-husband, and her goal is to get all of them (except the ex) to the United States, a long process. I asked her if she wouldn’t rather, as the ads say, “come back to Jamaica” than to bring her family to East (gag) Orange, New Jersey, but she says the opportunities are better here.

Carol spent her formative years in England, where she was born, and speaks in the Jamaican dialect but without any aitches.




Myrtel is in her 50s and is a Deacon at her church. One night when she came in to put my mother to bed, she wore a bright-yellow nightgown with “I souled my heart (heart shape) to Jesus!” emblazoned in red letters across the bosom. Since Myrtel seemed quite reserved at first, I asked her if her church was quiet and she said NO, that it was a rocking, singing call-and-response LOUD church.

The house my mother has lived in since 1937 is a far cry from both Jamaica and East Orange. It’s big, it’s old (the original was built in the 1720s, the bulk of it in the early 1800s) there are lots of woods around it, and there are no blinds on the windows.

Carol and Myrtel keep all the locks bolted and don’t step outside after dark. I grew up knowing every creaking floorboard and all the breathing radiators in that house and was still afraid of it, so I could understand why, when we offered Myrtel the option of coming along on one of mother’s forays in the car, she said, “I’M not staying here by myself!”

When Riley announced that she was “freaked out” by the large portrait of my mother’s great-great-grandfather in the downstairs bedroom, which Carol and Myrtel share on their shifts, saying that his eyes followed her around the room, they were quick to join in the chorus, Carol saying that sometimes she had to sleep on the couch because his eyes watched her. We put a towel over the portrait and all were relieved.

In addition to my sister and brother-in-law Hal, who handles mother’s finances and stops by once or twice a week to deliver supplies and pick up bills, the Hospice people who come by to take vital signs and negotiate with pharmacists and oxygen suppliers, old pottery and quilting friends of my mother’s who beat a steady stream to her door, and her doctor, dentist, podiatrist and haircutter who make social and house calls, there is Mike the gardener, who has worked for her for a couple of decades and is like her grandson, and Kathrine the housekeeper, who is a tiny sparrow of a black-haired white woman, now 85, who has been with Mother for over 40 years.

The Jamaican ladies clean up before Katherine’s 6 a.m. arrival every Wednesday, only to gasp when they find her scampering up ladders to wash high windows, and Mother’s ongoing battle to get more time from Mike is family legend. She’ll call him and say she thought she might have missed the newspaper containing his obituary, because she’d assumed he had died since the grass was KNEE HIGH.

All in all, it’s a good situation for my mother, who would rather die than go into a nursing home.

[Su Lum is a longtime local who would rather die than put her in one. This column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times]


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