Old Gertrude . . .


Old Gertrude would have been 86 today.  She loved her birthday, loved getting the attention, loved all the things that young children love, but so much more.  I sometimes remember her and think about what she was like and how she colored our lives in so many brilliant ways.   This is a story that was written some years before she died.  Some of you will enjoy it — some may not.  But it is the way it was . . .

Poor Walter, Old Gertrude and Little Johnny

        Certain Man’s Wife came home from a Doctor’s appointment today to find a message on her answering machine. It was Old Gertrude’s niece, Kathy, telling of the passing of Old Gertrude’s brother, Poor Walter.

        The story of Old Gertrude’s Family is a heart rending tale of a hard‑drinking, poor Irish immigrant and the misfortune that seemed to dog his footsteps.

        His oldest son, Walter, was born normal, but inexplicably deteriorated from birth until he was obviously handicapped. Today we know that PKU will destroy a normal child’s brain if not detected at birth and steps taken to prevent it. In the early 1920’s, there was neither cure nor explanation. This family went on to have six children, three normal, three profoundly retarded.

        In the early 1930’s the way to deal with this was to institutionalize the children and forget that they were born. Families were told that it was better that way. It was better if friends and relatives did not know they even existed. So one day in 1935, when Poor Walter was in his early teens, Gertrude was nine and Little Johnny was but six, they were brought to “The Colony.” This is the place that Delawareans know as “Stockley Center,” and it would be the place where a lonely little girl would grieve the loss of everything that she held dear. She would be one of the more fortunate ones, because she had a sweet personality and a desire to please, but she would witness the brutality that was prevalent in the early days of institutionalization. She hates the mention of this place to this day.

        It is the understanding of CMW that they never saw their daddy again. At least twice a year, their mother would get on a bus and make the trip downstate to visit her children. What she would find would break her heart. Her young, nonverbal Little Johnny chained to a tree in the hot summer without water. Mental retardation in large doses without hope is a terrible thing. Her normal children told stories of a mama who cried much, but did what she thought was best.

        The children were placed with the direct instructions that they were to be isolated from each other, that they were to have no contact with one another. For some reason, the parents felt that this would be easier for them, somehow. Thank God for staff members with compassion who saw their despair and grief and chose to circumvent parental instructions. Someone saw to it that they had regular contact of the sort that would celebrate the fact that they were FAMILY. Walter, Gertrude and Johnny grew up knowing they belonged to each other, and Walter, especially, loved Gertrude and kept the link as strong as he could with phone calls and visits whenever possible.

        Walter was not an easy man. His mind was not very good, but what he had tended to be quite made up. After nearly thirty years of being institutionalized, the State of Delaware happened upon the idea of foster care homes for the mentally retarded.  While Gertrude and Johnny did well with this “new” concept, Poor Walter really had a time.  He went through home after home after home until it was decided that the best place for him was a group home. In this environment, he thrived. He could talk to people, wander about somewhat unrestricted, watch TV, even smoke if he wanted to, and call his sister.


        As the years have passed, the family has thinned out. There is only one of the normal siblings left and she is struggling with Alzheimer’s. This is the first of the ones afflicted with PKU to pass on. But there is a strict injunction on the records at the State. There is to be no public notice of any of the deaths of these three. Their names and pictures are never to appear in the paper for any reason. They have not been and will not be listed as survivors for any of their siblings. 

        Several years ago, the Delaware State News did a feature story on the foster home of Certain Man and Certain Man’s Wife. They wanted pictures. Old Gertrude would have loved to see her picture in the paper. Because she has been with the family for so long, CMW wanted to talk about her. Of course, permission had to be given, so she called to obtain it. It was then that she was told that it was something the family had strictly forbidden. Now CMW is pretty naive about such things. She supposed that it was from the parents, way back in the 30’s and that it could very easily be rescinded. Imagine her surprise when she found out that it was kept current at all times.

        “Our friends don’t even know about them,” said Old Gertrude’s sister, when CMW asked, “And I just feel like it would be too much of an embarrassment to have to explain it at this point.”

        Old Gertrude knows who her family is, and she prays for them every night, even the ones that are gone. But she does not feel any great attachment to them as far as wanting to talk to them or wanting to visit them. She most determinedly does NOT want to go to Poor Walter’s funeral. It is interesting that he died almost two weeks ago, and they just called today. The funeral is but a graveside service on a Thursday morning, and Old Gertrude is adamant that she will not go. She is hardly healthy enough, anyhow, at this point, but if she really wanted to, there would be a way.  “No,” she says, shaking her head in her determined, dogged way.  “It makes me feel bad to see people dead like that.”

        This afternoon, the memories of Poor Walter are the things that keep crashing around the head of CMW. For years, he would, now and then, call in the evenings, when things were starting to settle down for the evening. The only problem was that he would have a difficult time getting started, and he would huff and puff before he finally got around to asking to talk to Gertrude. CMW hung up on him rather frequently in the early years of Gertrude’s stay because she thought some dirty old man was making obscene phone calls. The poor fellow was scolded more than once because he was simply misunderstood.

One evening, there was a girl staying with Gertrude and another lady that was living with the family, and when Certain Man and his household returned home, they found all of them barricaded in the bedroom with all the lights out. The young sitter was sure that someone was going to come get her because she kept getting these phone calls with all this “heavy breathing.” It was just Poor Walter, wanting to talk to his sister…

        Old Gertrude would talk to him when he called, but she was usually more than ready to get off the phone. She is a marvelous conversationalist, but she doesn’t do so well when she can’t see the other party. One night, she was on the phone with him and Oldest Daughter was in the same room, peeling and eating a big, sweet, navel orange. The smell was filling the room. Old Gertrude cut the conversation short, and brought the phone across the living room to CMW.

        “Gertrude,” said CMW, “are you done?”

        “Yeah,” said Old Gertrude. “All done.”

        “Well, how was he?” queried CMW.

        “Oh,” replied Old Gertrude, “He’s alright. He was eating oranges. I could smell it on his breath!”


        Several years ago, Poor Walter’s group home brought him to visit the Day Program where Old Gertrude and Little Johnny both attend. Some alert soul took Polaroid pictures, and Old Gertrude brought a copy home. A copy was made to put into a frame to sit on the toy box beside Gertrude’s Lazy‑boy. In the picture, three people are sitting in a semi‑circle. Old Gertrude sits somewhat off to the side in a shaft of sunlight. She looks sunny and peaceful. Almost pretty. Poor Walter and Little Johnny sit together on a piano bench. They are in the shadow, a bit, somewhat scrunched together. Poor Walter is in his element. He is with the two people he loves best. His eyes are obscure behind the dark, coke‑bottle glasses. But if you could be close to him, those eyes would be shining. You would know that what he is living and tasting is love in the purest form. You could, I believe, smell it on his breath.



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3 responses to “Old Gertrude . . .

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It is very touching. Gertrude was a very interesting person. How blessed she was to have you folks, and you to have her.

  2. There isn’t one of the least of these that aren’t precious!!! 

  3. This just breaks my heart! I wonder how many Poor Walters, Old Gertrudes and Little Johnnys there are out there. Surely there is a special reward in heaven for them.

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