‘Ladysitting’

In a new memoir, Lorene Cary writes about caring for her centenarian grandmother.

Professor standing in front of a blackboard.
Lorene Cary, a senior lecturer in creative writing, has written a memoir about caring for her grandmother in her final year, “Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century.” (Photo: Eric Sucar) 

At 100 years old, Lorene Cary’s grandmother came to live with her. A senior lecturer in creative writing at Penn, Cary shifted gears overnight, from helping her grandmother manage, to being responsible for her care. 

The story of their last year together is now a memoir, “Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century,” that unveils an African-American family history going back five generations while at the same time describing details of daily life with Nana. 

“It’s about class. It’s about South and North. It’s about immigrant cultures. And it’s about race, for sure,” Cary says. “These are the social subjects. But it’s also about the intense family experience of loss that happens when one member dies.” 

It is also about the Philadelphia where Cary has spent her life, growing up in West Philadelphia, attending Penn as a student, working at Penn as a professor, and participating as a Penn parent.

Mostly, though, the story is about Rosalie Lorene Hagans Cary Jackson, who lived 101 years. In achingly personal detail, the narrative describes Cary’s earliest memories, from “a golden time” of playing in her Nana’s living room until the last difficult days as her grandmother’s body and mind were deteriorating. 

No longer able to live alone in her home in New Jersey, and with no other plan in place, Cary’s grandmother was moved into the church rectory where Cary lived with her priest husband and one of their daughters, then in middle school. Cary arranged for a village of family, friends, and hired nurses to help care for her grandmother, including another daughter, care they called “ladysitting.”

The description of a middle-of-the-night crisis that was the beginning of the end starts with Jackson calling Cary for help when her legs get tangled in the bedrails, resulting in an exhausting struggle to put the complicated situation to rights. In frustration, Jackson asks if Cary wants her to die. Cary admits to the reader how badly at that moment she wanted to end the relentless work and what she describes as “the collapse of the Nana I’d known.” 

“We know it’s coming, Nana.” I said it close to her, so that she could hear me without the constant unintended emphasis of shouting. “We both know that. But, listen, hey, you’re still here. I’m still here, how about a snack.”

The tender account of their “substantial low tea” in those early hours was the kernel that started the book project for Cary, she says in an interview. “I just had that one little bit, the sitting up and the snack, the tea,” she says, cupping her hands and gently blowing as if on a glowing coal to start a fire. “Often there is a little core, that is the ember.” 

Attempting a challenging new move in a yoga class about four years ago opened her mind up to “writing her way” out of her grief.That’s what we do in yoga, we make space in the body, she writes in the book.  

And writing is what Cary is all about. She graduated from Penn in 1978 with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English. She wrote and edited for national magazines before publishing her first book in 1991, “Black Ice,” also a memoir, about her experience as a scholarship student at St. Paul’s boarding school in New Hampshire, among the early classes that admitted girls. 

Cary has been a professor at Penn since 1995, teaching writing and literature, often for academically based community service courses. She is the founder of the online publication, SafeKidsStories.com, which publishes writing by her students and other students in Philadelphia. 

She is a celebrated author and social activist, the 2003 recipient of the city’s Philadelphia Award for her leadership in the arts communities. Her historical novel about a young female slave, “The Price of a Child,” was the first selected for the Free Library’s One Book, One Philadelphia project to promote reading and literacy. She has twice won Penn’s Provost Award for Teaching Excellence

Cary is the founder of Art Sanctuary, a nonprofit to advance black art and artists, which figures prominently in “Ladysitting,” because she was juggling the planning of a 10th-anniversary celebration while caring for her grandmother just before her death in 2008. 

It took Cary more than eight years, until 2016, before she took that yoga class and started blowing on that ember of a story and writing. She signed with publisher W.W. Norton & Company in 2017, and turned in the first draft in February of 2018.  

While trying to finish that draft, she used her grandmother’s story to write a libretto for a mini-opera, “The Gospel According to Nana,” part of a three-year residency with the American Lyric Theater. Cary explains in a recent blog post that the libretto imagines a grandmother’s ghost haunting the writer’s computer to try to take control of the story. A portion of the opera will be performed at Kelly Writers House on Oct. 23. 

The grandmother sings: 

I’ll be gone, and
You’ll be free 
To write anything 
Your little heart desires.

“Writing this book says now she’s gone. I’ve admitted it,” Cary says in the interview. “But, in a way, my wrestling with the story, saying her name, singing it, keeps her memory alive.”  

Cary will soon be packing to go to Europe to teach in the Penn in London summer abroad program, a class on writing for children. The itinerary includes attending live theater performances at least twice a week, which, she says, will act as a tutorial for her upcoming project, “My General Tubman.” The time-travel fantasy about Harriet Tubman will premiere at the Arden Theater in January, directed by Philadelphia playwright/actor/director James Ijames.

But at the moment Cary is traveling on a 10-city book tour to launch “Ladysitting.” The book is already getting attention, including an interview with Michel Martin on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” And it is No. 1 on Oprah Magazine’s “10 Titles to Pick Up Now.”

Cary’s first public reading was at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month. Penn Today had a low tea and a conversation with Cary the next day. 

 

How did you feel after that first reading at the Free Library? 

The truth is, it was like the second child: Labor comes and you say ‘Whoa, how could I have forgotten? How did I think this was doable again?’ It was sort of like that. That crazy vulnerability. I hadn’t quite made the switch from, ‘This is my story,’ to, ‘This is a book, this an art product, and it’s out in the world.’ I thought I had made it separate, but I hadn’t, quite. It’s always, every step, admitting again that she’s gone. We did the best we could, and there is nothing else I can do to make it better.

The details in the book are so personal. How were you able to share those details? 

I’m most touched when I really keep company with somebody. I can’t make sense of this unless I tell the story. You turn pain into beauty. You keep rubbing it until you figure out how to make a pearl out of a thing. There’s something about this I wasn’t able to finish without writing about it.

Do you feel finished?

I feel ... I don’t know if I feel finished. I felt that I was supposed to do this. I feel like I’ve done as well as I could with it. Which is when you end the book—when you’ve done your best. In addition, I feel as if I’ve gotten the experience back, like I have access to it now, emotionally and spiritually, from wherever I’d tried to lock it away.

What do you hope will come from sharing your story of caring for your grandmother?  

I really don’t know. I write it and I try to make it honest and beautiful and clear and do the best I can. But it’s an inside job until I publish it. In the proposal you pretend you know what you want the book to do. I think I said there I wanted this to keep company with other caregivers. I want to have it spark conversations with people who don’t know how to talk about this. You walk into the store and ask me, ‘How are you doing?’ and I can’t say, ‘She fell off the pot this morning,’ but, for real, that has been my morning. What I don’t say is, ‘I don’t know how to handle the disintegration of personality of a person I love.’ You can’t tell people that. You have this part of your life that’s not shameful but is still very hard to talk about. It’s too long, too deep, too complicated to share in our above-ground workaday world. Just knowing you are not alone is hugely important. That’s what books have always done for me.

How do you decide what to share and what not to share? 

I ask myself, ‘What is the story I’m telling and how much do I need to put in to tell that story?’ None of it is gossip, or to get back at people, or making fun, only what needs to be told. Another rule is to use what happened in public, what happened in front of other people or with me, so that it is not made up. I also make sure not to speculate. I don’t go into anybody’s mind. I can say what they said or what they did or what they had told me. These are the rules that journalism taught me.

What about telling Nana’s story?

I went ahead and figured I’m going to do it. I’m going to write about Nana. Full stop. And there were so many stories, full of the joy of living in the moment when she was losing life. There’s Nana’s asking me to take a shovel to the graveyard at night, for instance, to dig a hole and pour her ashes in. No service, no burial, no liner, no nothing. I refused. Then, after she died, my dad tells me that her last request of him was—you guessed it—to dig a hole and pour her ashes in. As Nana would say. ‘Whaaat?’ So, she left us to fight that one to a draw.

Nana gave me stories. I’m a writer. I’m going to thank her for them and craft them into a narrative. That’s a great gift she gave me. I’m going to take it.