Recently, my cousin, Jon, sent a photograph around to family members of our grandfather, Albert Werthan perched—sitting’s too casual a word, really—at a picnic table, impeccably dressed in a blue suit despite his surroundings, pipe in mouth, and looking just a tad bit impatient. His thick silvery white hair is perfect.
There is something so improbable about the photograph, the juxtaposition between elegant man and casual setting, the juxtaposition between bucolic nature of the moment and his obvious impatience. Jon explained that he wasn’t quite sure of where or when the photograph was taken. He wrote, “So, Ann and I have been trying to write captions. So far the leading candidate is, ‘Come on, Mary Jane! Let's have a damn picnic!’"
Jon’s guess was that the photograph was taken in 1960. Turned out (thanks to another family member) that we learned the specific time and place for that image: 1980, our cousin Bobby’s wedding to Becky in their Mendocino, California backyard.
I was quite taken—everyone seemed to be—by the photograph. My grandfather lived till just shy of his 97th birthday. He was old for a very long time, long enough that memory somewhat obscured the handsome, hard driving, scotch swirling businessman he was for much longer. The photograph cut right to the quick of why I’d put that dapper man aside so willingly; it wasn’t simply that the last chapter did go on a long while, it also was true that although I had plenty of images and memories of that gruff, funny, successful man, I didn’t know him half as well as I did the older grandfather. And I felt—I still feel—so incredibly fortunate for those later years with him.
The demarcation between Albert Werthan of Werthan Industries in Nashville, Tennessee (formerly, the Werthan Bag Company; originally, the company manufactured burlap feed bags) and the one I really got to hang out with came when he was 80 and developed skin cancer. The proposed radiation treatment covered the entire body. It’s a pretty harsh treatment, and he was told many people half his age found it grueling. Because cancer moves more slowly in older people (generally), he was given the option not to treat it—he was 80, for goodness sakes and who really knew how long he had, anyway—but he chose the treatment. He reasoned that he planned to stick around a long time more and he’d really had a pretty charmed time up till then so he could weather it. And he did.
Now, my memory of that experience was that it was indeed grueling and uncomfortable and that my grandmother, Mary Jane, was extremely worried throughout and also that she mourned his losing his gorgeous hair. That radiation process is aimed at skin and hair, leaving the patient susceptible to hot and cold—skin and hair are regulators—and very physically raw. That it so say, he required a lot of worrying and help during that period. He did get hair back, but it wasn’t the voluminous, silver white hair with an almost buttery sheen; it was just white hair.
After the skin cancer, there were other ailments and infirmities.
Macular Degeneration pretty much took his eyesight, and he had to rely upon a walker, all sorts of magnification and voice recorders for things he’d just read once upon a time.
Add a little more this and that, blood pressure, a medication that contraindicated alcohol—this was a Southern man, who enjoyed his single malt scotch nightly, so everyone worried that dropping that evening drink at 93 or something would be terribly difficult for him, and he surprised us all, himself included, with finding this a relatively easy task—and it was kind of the expected terrain of older years. His was not the worst by any means, nor was he out climbing mountains or ladders.
During the second half of her eighties into her early nineties when she died, my grandmother sort of faded. Technically, she did not have Alzheimer’s but her short term memory went and she repeated herself constantly and eventually repeated fewer things constantly and seemed increasingly uncertain of her surroundings’ particulars. While he’d “taken care” of her—breadwinner, family stature, and all that kind of family patriarch stuff—until her frailer years, he hadn’t had to worry over her or look after her in that day-to-day (even minute-to-minute) way before, and despite its having worn on him (as it would have on anyone), he also prevailed, caring for and about her throughout her fadeout. That was pretty unexpected (to me, at least).
He didn’t simply care for and about Mary Jane, though. When I became pregnant with my first child (the first great-grandchild, followed soon thereafter by Jon’s first son), Albert wanted to feel the baby move. It was as if his hand on my stomach signaled his directing interest in and caring for his family in a new way, directing some of the vigor he’d previously employed toward business and social endeavors and community works toward, well, toward us. Over the years, seeing how he’d have someone look up a word for him, or ask about Google, or earnestly try to obtain a water filter pitcher, I glimpsed how he must have approached the world when all I caught were glimpses at the end of the day, scotch and cigar or pipe in hand.
A lifelong Republican, he switched affiliations in his eighties. Why? He was furious that the first President Bush switched his position on abortion. Albert Werthan favored abortion rights. While he remained fiscally conservative, he wasn’t conservative about reproductive rights or gay rights; in “real life,” he actually became much more comfortable with his family’s myriad experiences than Mary Jane, a lifelong Democrat, who instilled in each grandchild her wish that rather than date (the opposite sex), we’d all stick to dancing (until marriage).
And although at times he was gruff and demanding (plenty of them), he really and truly appreciated his family’s efforts on his behalf. No question, we each—even the five grandchildren, three of whom grew up in Nashville and thus interacted with him much more frequently—have different experiences of Albert. What I witnessed during my grandfather’s ninth and tenth decades was simply that getting older does not necessarily mean a person has to stop growing. I hold onto the way he gave this gift twofold: as he loved us, we got to love and appreciate him so much more than if the image of the handsome man was the one we were left with, and through those later years, he demonstrated that life indeed always holds possibilities.