Five years we knew Kate. We cared for all her bodily needs, washing, dressing, feeding, keeping her warm and relatively free from the pain caused by her Arthritis. She was a very ‘proud’ ninety one year old, her startling white hair was waist length but always worn plaited round her ears to form two headphones. None of us could master the art of creating her hairstyle, so every morning before breakfast we helped Kate across the room to her dressing table where with gnarled but slender finger and the assistance of a silver hairbrush she made the task look surprisingly easy. She always ate breakfast whilst wearing a flame silk dressing gown. Her clothes seemed to come from another time; smart two-piece suits, blouses always buttoned to the neck and an amazing assortment of historical underwear. Another task of the day for us was to ‘lace’ Kate into her foundation garment. Visitors to the nursing home must have wondered what we were referring to if they overheard one of us ask another “Has Kate been laced yet?” She usually had because although she never complained we all knew that Kate was a lady who did not like to sit in her nightclothes.
Kate spent her days quietly in her room she really did not enjoy socializing with other residents in the lounge. She enjoyed listening to the radio; classical music was her love.
In the corner of her small room was her treasured bureau, the key was kept round her neck on a length of pink satin ribbon. This was only removed once a week when she had her bath and all the staff knew it was removed in the bathroom placed carefully on the glass shelf whilst she bathed and placed back round her neck before leaving the bathroom. She never forgot it and we very often had to be prompted to replace it.
During her five years with us, Kate only ever had two visitors, one the local doctor who had known her for thirty years. She would enjoy his visits, which were more of a social event than a medical necessity. The Sherry bottle and the two glasses were put out on a small silver tray that was always kept in the wardrobe. They would sit and chat for an hour or so and he would write his next visit in a small black notebook Kate kept in her ‘portmanteau’ – a handbag to you or me! After he had left Kate withdrew back into her own little world, where she always appeared content but was fiercely reluctant to talk to us about her former life. The only person she ever spoke of was her Mother whom she loved dearly.
Her doctor told us he first got to know Kate when she was caring for her elderly mother. She had lived alone for twenty years following the death of her mother in a large rambling house full of dark heavy furniture and equally dark heavy paintings. The last year in the house had been a difficult one for Kate according to her doctor. The house was always cold and upstairs out of bounds as her Arthritic knees could not be trusted on the stairs. Kate did not like or trust the home helps that her doctor and social services had arranged for support and help. Finally she had agreed with her doctor and solicitor to ‘try’ a nursing home at the end of an exceptionally cold, windy autumn. Fear of a cold winter and maintenance bills on the house had aided her decision. When she first came to us she criticized our every attempt to assist her. It was either the wrong time or the wrong meal or the wrong day but slowly and surely she came to trust us and we in turn respected and honoured her ‘funny ways.’
The seasons to Kate were something that never need concern her the only other change in her daily routine was an annual visit from her solicitor’s secretary who helped her organize Christmas. Her one task was to arrange an annual hefty donation to a children’s charity. Christmas day we all ran round demented and wore ridiculous headdresses – tinsel on our hats and dangly earrings. Kate would break with her routine, for this one day, and join the residents in the dining room for lunch then head straight back to her sanctuary as soon her napkin was folded. Her only Christmas cards were from the staff, these she seemed to treasure, refusing to part with them after Christmas.
Early one January morning I entered the car park of the home to find a police car and a strange car in the car park. This immediately made me wonder. Had someone gone missing or worse still had we had an unwanted intruder? Walking in the kitchen door, I found the three night staff and two policemen sat round the kitchen table. This in itself was unusual as at this time in the morning the last thing the night staff ever did was pause to draw breath let alone drink tea.
‘It’s Kate she’s passed away,’ night sister informed me, ‘On-call doctor is with her now – she was fine at six – had her early morning tea but when I went to take her tablets she’d gone – thought she’d fallen back asleep at first. ’
One by one the rest of the staff arrived to be told the sad news. The solicitor and her own doctor were told. Kate was taken to the local funeral parlour. We all went about our morning work, no relatives to inform no residents missing their companion. Her solicitor’s secretary arrived after lunch and we went in the strangely vacant room. As she set about looking round the room she explained to me that she believed Kate’s will was amongst her papers. I gave her the key on the ribbon and went to make her a cup of tea. On walking back into the room I was surprised to find the secretary sat on the bed staring blankly into space holding her glasses in her hand. She handed me a birth certificate ‘Look’. I read Mothers name - Kate! Fathers name unknown, fathers occupation – serviceman. The baby: a girl Anna Kate.
‘Wait’, added the secretary handing me more paper, it was Kate’s Will.
‘To my daughter Anna I leave…………’ – I read no more I felt I should not.
‘But she had no relatives, none that we knew of.’ I could not understand it.
‘Yes’, the secretary informed me ‘She has a niece, Anna, living in Canada but Kate never even acknowledged her. Kate had a twin sister you know. Who sadly died before their mother and she had one daughter Anna – well we thought that was Kate’s niece’.
She handed me more papers – an adoption certificate and a sealed envelope with beautiful copperplate writing on it. To my darling daughter it read.
‘Does her niece – er daughter know?’ I asked aware that the secretary probably could not answer.
‘Don’t know,’ she confirmed, ‘I don’t think she could because surely she’d have told us. Shortly after she came in to stay with you, we received a letter from a lady in Canada explaining she was Kate’s niece and telling us how she always had a ‘soft spot’ for her aunt despite the fact her aunt never showed any interest in her. She asked us to keep her details on file so when the time came, as she put it, we could contact her.’
We sat together on the bed staring blankly at the papers each of us engrossed in our own thoughts. We at the nursing home thought we knew all our residents, even though Kate was a very private lady we surely should have known. She had always watched the calendar from her children’s charity go round each year, how had she felt on Birthdays and Mothers days, did she remember the dates I wonder? Why was her niece now in Canada? Had Kate’s sister taken her there as a baby? Did she really have no interest in her niece or was that how she coped with it. Is that why the key was so precious to her? There were so many heartbreaking secrets. Did Kate ever wish she could unburden herself of them? We could never know.