Sunday, April 11, 2010

Rose Harris (1911-2010)

Leslie's Aunt Rose Harris passed away this morning at the age of 98 years, 8 months. Until she fell and broke her leg two weeks ago she lived alone in her own apartment.  While her ability to move about was increasingly limited,  mentally she still had everything together. Many people decades younger than Rose envied her memory and mental faculties. I was one of those people.

This is Rose at Leslie and my wedding in November 1992 when she was 81 years old.

Rose Harris, November 1 1992

Here is a picture of Rose as a small child.  The year is, maybe, 1915.  The small boy with his arm around her was her cousin.  The woman standing at the water pump is her mother Frieda.  This may have been taken at a farm in upstate New York, although Rose's family lived in Philadelphia.

Rose Harris as a little girl

Rose Harris as a little girl detail

While still a child Rose's left leg was trampled by a team of runaway horses pulling a wagon. Medical science of the time did what it could (although it would have done better with a sober doctor). She underwent numerous operations and spent years in bed. Ultimately she walked again and lived a normal life.

Her family moved to Pasadena in the twenties, living first in a house just south of what we now call Old Pasadena.  She lived in this area ever since working as an executive secretary for many years.  Her last residence, in the Green Hotel Apartments, brought her back to within blocks of that first house.

Here's a snap of her as a young woman at the beach, probably on Catalina Island.  The picture was taken by her lifelong friend Burma.  Below that is a formal portrait of her at about the same time.  The portrait hangs in our hallway paired with a similar picture of Rose's brother, Leslie's father.  The two pictures were signed by photographer Maurice Constant.

Rose Harris at the beach

Rose Harris portrait

Rose was the first of Leslie's relatives whom I met.  She told Leslie "I want to meet this new boyfriend."  She took us to lunch at a fancy restaurant.  I was completely charmed by Aunt Rose. Indeed, people who met Rose liked her.  She had no troubles holding up her end of a conversation.   She had many friends.

Eventually, however, gravity stopped being Rose's friend.  She became increasingly frail through her 80s and 90s.  Although she could still get around with the help of her walker, even the smallest door jamb could become an insurmountable impediment.  We wanted her to get one of those electric scooters that the government gives away free to seniors.  She absolutely refused.  She was determined to move under her own power.

Rose Harris with her walker, January 2009

We were always expecting her to fall.  She did several times.  Once, when she opened her front door, the handle came off.   She fell backwards and basically just bounced off a cabinet.  She was fine.  While getting checked out in the emergency room she started talking with a woman who later asked me about her.  She said "What a charming lady."  Rose demanded to go home before the tests were complete.

Last fall Rose fell and fractured her arm.  We convinced her to stay with us while she recuperated.  Once she got to our guest room she decided that she really wanted to be back in her apartment sleeping on her own bed.  When we tried to dissuade her, she threatened to call the police and claim that we had kidnapped and abused her.  She spent one night in our house.  Within a month she was completely recovered.  Did I mention that she was independent and determined?

This picture shows Rose about age 91 at our dining room table.

Rose Harris, age 91

On March 26 we got the call that she had fallen again and fractured that same left leg that had been trampled in her childhood.  This time the break was above the knee.  One doctor compared it to a hip fracture, the legendary injury of old people.  As had happened in her childhood, her leg was fixed by a surgeon, this time a good one.  Orthopedics may have come a long, long way in 90 years but it hasn't figured out how to help a frail, near-centernarian overcome excruciating pain. We knew what it meant when her determination to keep moving didn't reappear.  Her last five days were spent in a hospice with Leslie by her side almost the entire time, both day and night.

Other things besides medicine came a long way during Rose Harris' lifetime.  Things like automobiles, airplanes and radio had yet to take over the world when she was a child.  Rose gave us a connection back to those times when (we'd like to believe) things were simpler.  My last conversation with Rose, then already in the hospital bed for more than a week, was about old-time ice deliveries and California Coolers, the way they kept food fresh before refrigerators.

And Rose was a precious link to the generation of our parents.  We loved her dearly both for who she was and for those people no longer with us who she came to represent.  Leslie and I have realized that we're now at the age when finding a new parental figure to replace Rose is very unlikely.

And we loved and admired Rose for her courage and determination.  The resolve, tenacity and independence that kept her small, weak body going on and getting out, always with a remarkable good humor, gave us a role model for growing into our nineties.

Rose has been a large part of my marriage to Leslie.  And of course she's been a huge part of Leslie's entire life.  We are devastated that Rose had to go, but we're glad her pain has stopped.  We will miss her and we will remember the things we learned from her.  She will remain our role model for living keenly into old age.

Here are Rose and Leslie in February 2009 waiting for pastrami sandwiches. 

Rose Harris and Leslie Harris February 2009 waiting for pastrami sandwiches

On Sunday, September 2, 2007 - when Rose was 96 - Leslie and I visited her apartment to help find items she could donate to a White Elephant sale.  We also went through boxes of old pictures and Rose told us who the people were and something about them - sometimes touching on the slightly darker family secrets.  I made a 52-minute audio recording of the event.  Today I edited this down to 16 minutes - mostly there's a sense of continuity.  In other words you can follow the discussion. I'll warn you in advance: my voice is too loud, Leslie's is too faint, but Rose's is just right.

If you like evesdropping this recording might be for you.  You won't know who these people are nor should you.  Leslie and I don't know them either. But this recording will give you a splendid feeling for what it was like to talk with Rose.  You'll notice how she gets very quiet at the juicy parts of the story.  Plus you can get a feel for how a woman born in 1911 might swear. And she has a couple favorite phrases that pop up again and again.  This is the Rose Harris I will remember.

Listen to Rose

Alternate link

The final picture is Leslie helping Rose outside her apartment building - probably on the way back from breakfast, January 2009.

Leslie Harris helping Rose Harris on the sidewalk, January 2009


paul bailey said...


i really enjoyed reading about rose and her incredible life. my grandfather had similar stories and which were an amazing insight to the past. i did one learn one good thing if we can make it into our 90's

we get to make the rules!

Pasadena Adjacent said...

My mother spent the last week in the hospital with that other elderly killer "pneumonia" Many of the thoughts expressed here are similar to those I've been having.

I love old people. I always have. When I was a kid at the Arroyo Seco stables all the other kids would run when the old folks got to reminiscing. They thought it odd that I didn't. I'm so glad you put Aunt Rose on tape. I'm now going to listen to her story

warm thoughts in your direction

David Ocker said...

Thanks for the kind thoughts. Today I realized that Rose's presence in our lives is too big to rapidly fade into just a memory. It sounds like the same is true for both of us. They'll always be with us.

Unknown said...

I only met Rose one time. She definitely remembered everything and was a great conversationalist. She lived a long and full life and will be missed by the many people who's lives she touched.

Larry Lovell

drjan said...

What an incredible life she lead and how blessed she was to have you looking after her! My mother Marianna also sends her condolences and commented on how much Rose will be missed! Warm wishes your way. Jan

Lynn said...

Lived a long life like Rose, always makes me wonder how was everything, every moment she had been through in her life. I knew Rose when we lived in same apartment before she moved to Green Hotel. She was like grandma, who tells you the stories, gives you advises. I admire her how sharp and charming in her mind at this age. I remembered when I went to visit her on New year's day, 2008 after she settled in Green Hotel. I asked her on the phone what she likes me to bring to her, she said, black chocolate bars. And I did it. And we had a chatting for one and half hours till it was dark outside.

Rose will be missed, as friend, as grandma, as a amazing woman who lived in a long life.