Friday, September 26, 2014


When we left off telling the story of Ailzia McElroy Drake (Babe) and her husband T.H. Drake (Dukie) they had just bought a bungalow at 1020 Harvard Terrace in Evanston, Illinois.  It is the early 1950s.  My family moved to 1027 Harvard Terrace in 1953, although I did not come along until 1956.  My family was already living on Harvard Terrace when Babe and Dukie moved in across the street.

My best friend growing up was Freddie Murray who lived next door to the Drakes at 1016 Harvard, so all through my childhood the Drakes were there, although in the background.  We would say hi when we ran into each other but that was about it.  Babe and Dukie did not like answering their door on Halloween, but they always gave  Freddie and me Hershey Bars ahead of time so we wouldn't think they had forgotten us.

The first long talk I ever had with Babe and Dukie was during the aftermath of the "Big Snow" blizzard that hit Chicago in February of 1967.  It was weeks before the snowplows were able to get down the side streets in Evanston, so you had to walk to either Ridge of Asbury to get a cab or catch a bus.  There was a small footpath in the snow down the middle of Harvard Terrace, but that was it.  Luckily food stores, a Walgreens and Woolworths were all within walking distance, but your grocery shopping was limited to what you could carry back home.

My mother and I were returning from grocery shopping and walking down the footpath when we ran into Babe and Dukie.  They stopped and we chatted about the aftermath of the blizzard and Babe mentioned that her mother was in the Three Oaks Nursing Home four blocks away at Oakton and Asbury.  They were walking over to check on  Babe's mother because many of the staff at the nursing home were unable to get in to work.  Anyway, we chatted for 15 minutes or so - it was a nice conversation.

Later that year we read in the newspaper that Florence Dascombe McElroy had died on August 22, 1967, just short of her 91st birthday.  She was, of course, buried next to her husband at Rosehill:

Florence McElroy was an unusual person.  Although Babe and her brother Robert had each received bequests from their father, the bulk of Robert McElroy's fortune went to his widow.  Babe said that up until Florence McElroy's will was read, they did not know for sure that they had been left anything by their mother.  Florence McElroy had an unusual sense of humor, and she used to tell Babe and Robert that she was going to leave all he money to a shelter for homeless cats. 

Back in 1933 the US government forced all US citizens to turn in any gold coins or gold bullion they held.  One day Florence McElroy got a letter from the government telling her they were coming for her gold.  She did not want to be bothered, so she asked Babe to meet the treasury man at the bank where she kept her gold in a safe deposit box.  Babe told the man that her mother always kept $20,000 in gold in her safe deposit box.  This was during the Great Depression, and the treasury man said they heard stories like that all the time, but most turned out to not be true.  Well, the box was opened, and the treasury man apologized after he gave Babe a receipt for exactly $20,000 in gold.

Florence McElroy did end up leaving the bulk of her estate to Babe and Robert.  She set up a trust with the Northern Trust Company in Chicago, and after a lump sum payment, Babe and her brother received annual payouts for the next twenty years.

I really got to know Babe and Dukie during the summer of 1971.  The Murrays were gone for most of the summer on vacation and they asked me to take care of things while they were away.  So I was over at their house every day watering the garden or cutting the grass or picking up the apples that had fallen from the apple tree - a myriad of duties around the house and the yard.  Almost every day I would run into Babe and Dukie working in their yard or around their house.  My father had died the previous October and Babe told me later that they knew that I had been close to my father and wanted to see how I was getting along.  Babe told me that she had been close to her father so she knew what I was going through.

We talked about everything - politics, the economy, religion, current events - you name it, we talked about it over that summer.  One day we started talking about reading.  Babe and I both loved murder mysteries and when she found out that I was a Perry Mason fan, that sealed our friendship.

One day they asked me to come inside their house.  I don't remember why they invited me in, but I will never my first trip inside 1020 Harvard Terrace.  Although they lived in a bungalow, the inside of their home was filled with beautiful antiques - from the oriental rugs on the floor to the paintings on the walls.  I had never seen so many beautiful things in one place before.  I was captivated.  On her own, Babe's taste ran more to the modern, but the house was filled with beautiful pieces that had belonged to her parents that Babe took when they broke up the big house at 704 Sheridan Road.  There was a story behind each piece and Babe knew them all.

Days turned into months and toward the end of the year Babe asked if my mother and I liked to play cards.  Did we like to play cards?  I think my mother would rather play cards that eat or sleep.  We both enjoyed playing cards but my mother loved to play cards.  So, they invited us over to play canasta on January 2, 1972 and for the next twenty-seven years we played cards every other Saturday night.  

Canasta, unlike bridge, is a game you can play while chatting about other things.  By 1972 Babe was 70 and Dukie was 68.  He had retired at 62 because Babe said that she wanted to enjoy some time with him before he died.  Most of their friends were widows, having buried their husbands after retirement (or in the case of my father, before retirement).

You can imagine that in twenty-seven years of card games we covered any and all subjects in our chats between hands.  Very early on, my relationship with Dukie, and especially with Babe, developed into more than a casual friendship.  Perhaps they saw me as the son they never had (or in Babe's case had and lost) and I used my friendship with them to help fill the void that my father's death left in my life.  Our every-other-Saturday card games were supplemented with phone calls and frequent visits.  If Babe was having a particularly bad day she might call and ask me to come over that evening just to chat.  As we grew closer they began to tell me about the events of their lives - all of which I found extremely interesting (as I hope you are, as I pass them along to you).

Dukie and Babe c1975

Babe's daughter Florence and her husband George had settled in the Salt Lake City area and had five children of their own, but they were one thousand miles away and I was just across the street.

One of the many interesting things about Babe was that she had a wonderful memory.  I would say, "Tell me about the tornado that ripped through Wilmette in the 1920s" and she would proceed to tell me all about it - in detail.  Or "How did the stock market crash of 1929 affect your father?" and she would tell me in-depth, not only about how it affected her father, but would then tell me the stories of her father's friends who had lost everything and jumped out the window.  Talking to Babe was like having a live, historical encyclopedia.

50th Wedding Anniversary - 1980

One day in the late 1980s Dukie called to tell us that Babe had fallen in their backyard and broken her hip.  Babe was in her mid 80s at the time and I thought this was the beginning of the end (as it would be with my own mother, years later).  But I had under-estimated Babe.  By the time she died in 2004 she had recovered from five broken hips - three breaks on one side, and two on the other.

Another fascinating topic to discuss with Babe was investments.  She had started investing in the stock market in the 1920s and she and Dukie managed all their own investments until they turned the management over to the Northern Trust Company in the late 1980s.  Babe had an interesting investment strategy:  she invested 50% in stocks and 50% in US Treasury Bonds.  Some said her strategy was too conservative, but people who had lived through the Great Depression tended to be very conservative where money was concerned.  She felt that even if all her stocks were wiped out, she would still have half of her investments - and if US government securities were worthless then everything had gone to hell and nothing would be worth anything.

People who saw Babe as just a little old lady were in for a rude awakening.  One of her best friends through the years was Kate Jans, the widow of Matt Jans the golf pro.  One day Kate told Babe about a man she had met who worked miracles with investments.  He promised incredible double-digit returns on an annual basis and had the figures to prove it.  After Babe talked to the guy for 5 minutes she knew he was a shyster and told him so - and told Kate as well.  Kate was very insulted and things cooled between her and Babe, especially after Babe turned out to be right and Kate lost a lot of money.  Babe invested in nothing but blue-chip companies, and once she bought a stock she kept it.  When she finally turned her investments over to the Northern Trust to manage they could not believe the portfolio she had amassed without any professional investment advice.  

Time passed and by 1990 we noticed that Dukie was starting to have some memory problems.  He made mistakes when we were playing cards, and Babe said that she would send him to the store for something and he would return with something entirely different.  By 1990 Babe was 88 and Dukie was 86.  Babe said that she realized that age was catching up with them. 

The first radical change that took place for them was when they gave up their car.  After one scare where Dukie could not remember the way home on one of their drives, Babe realized that keeping their own car would no longer be an option for them. 

But what happened next almost ended the story for both Babe and Dukie.  In the fall of 1991 they arranged to have their furnace serviced as they had every year since they had bought the house.  The furnace man came, did his work, and told them that everything was fine.  After he left Dukie went downstairs to make sure everything was put away and turn off the lights.  After several minutes Babe realized that she didn't hear any noise coming from the basement and called out for Dukie - no response.  She called louder but still no response.  She walked over and started down the basement stairs only to find Dukie passed out on the floor in front of the furnace - carbon monoxide.  Babe dialed 911 and was able to open the front door for the firemen before she, too passed out.  They both were revived by the paramedics who insisted they spend the night in St. Francis hospital because of their age.  Although both appeared to have come through the ordeal in one piece, Dukie was never the same again.

In early 1993 Babe told me that they would have to give up the house.  She looked around, and after consulting with her attorney and the Northern Trust Company where she had her trust, decided on Lincolnwood Place in Lincolnwood, Illinois.  Florence had asked them to move to Utah where she and the grandchildren were, but Babe felt that they needed to keep some continuity in their lives, and so decided to stay in Chicago where they still had some friends and doctors, dentists, etc, they were used to.  And there were relatives here as well.  Although Robert McElroy Jr and his wife Ruth, nee Van Ness were both dead, their daughter Valerie and Val's husband Joe Hunley were still in the Chicago area and frequent visitors.

In the Spring of 1993 Babe and Dukie left Harvard Terrace and moved to Lincolnwood.  Babe got an apartment in the Independent Living section and Dukie was put into Managed Care.  This was the first time they had been separated for any length of time since they got married in 1930, and it was very hard for both of them.

Lincolnwood Place

Time passed, and Dukie slowly but steadily declined.  In late 1997 he could no longer feed himself, and although mentally alert he could not communicate much beyond "yes" or "no" answers.

One night years before, when my mother and I were over at Babe and Dukie's for a card game, they asked me if I would be their Medical Power of Attorney.  They both had filled out and signed Living Wills and they wanted to make sure that all their affairs were in order for "when the time comes."  Their daughter Florence would have been the logical choice but she was in Utah and I was just ten minutes away.  When I agreed to be their Medical POA I asked them what their final wishes were.  They were both adamant that they wanted nothing done that would prolong their lives unless there was hope of a recovery.  We discussed food and water as well, and again both were adamant that under no circumstances did either one of them want a feeding tube - ever. 

Back to early 1998.  Dukie could no longer swallow much beyond ice cream, and finally not even that.  Their doctors suggested that Dukie have a feeding tube inserted so he could continue to receive nourishment.  Babe told the doctors that Dukie had always said they he did not ever want a feeding tube.  It was cruel the way the healthcare professionals tried to "guilt" Babe into approving the feeding tube,  Every day when she went to see Dukie, they tried to get her to allow it.  They even said things like "We thought you loved your husband.  Do you want to see him starve to death?"  Finally I had had enough.  By this time I was stopping by every day to check on them and make sure everything was OK.  I arrived to find Babe in tears after she had spent another day being bullied by the healthcare staff and the doctor.  I said, "Let's settle this once and for all - let's go ask Dukie."

We went downstairs (Dukie was now in the nursing home part of Lincolnwood Place),  and found Dukie in bed watching TV.  The minute Babe walked into his room Dukie brightened up.  I sat on the side of the bed and said "Dukie, do you know who I am?"  "Yes."  "Are you in any pain or discomfort?"  "No."  "Do you need anything?"  "No."

Dukie, they want us to agree to having a feeding tube put into you so that you can receive nourishment."  The minute he heard "feeding tube" he said "NO!", loud and clear.  "Well," I told Babe, "there's your answer."  Then I went and told the staff that under no circumstances were they to even utter the words "feeding tube" around either Babe or Dukie or they would have more trouble than they bargained for.

I understand where they were coming from - healthcare workers have a duty to prolong life - but we should have the ultimate say about the health care we receive.

In the afternoon of January 14, 1998, Babe called to tell me that the nurses said the end was near, and early in the evening Dukie slipped away at the age of 93.  As I mentioned before, they had been married just short of 62 years!

Florence came in from Utah, and the three of us, plus Babe's caregiver, attended his funeral.  Babe felt that if anyone else was there it would be ever harder for her, so it was just the four of us.  There was a short service at the William H. Scott Funeral Home in Evanston, and then Dukie was cremated.  His ashes were placed in the plot in Section S at Rosehill, with Babe's father and mother.

At this time, Babe was 95 years old.  Although she had slowed down somewhat, and used a wheelchair for long distances, she still walked unaided and mentally was sharp as a tack.  Every morning after breakfast at Lincolnwood Place, she joined a group of fellow residents who did the crossword puzzle in the Chicago Tribune.  Each did the puzzle separately and competed with the others to see who could finish the puzzle first.  Babe was the winner of that competition on more than one occasion.

Although it wasn't home, Babe enjoyed living at Lincolnwood Place.  The food was excellent and she quickly made friends among the residents.  One of the first friends she made was Margaret Rockola, the widow of  David Cullen Rockola, the founder of the Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corp, manufacturer of classic jukeboxes for homes and businesses.

In addition to her daily crossword puzzle competition, Babe also participated in frequent bingo games, sing-alongs and even the Catholic Mass offered at Lincolnwood Place every week.  These activities were supplanted by yearly visits from Florence to celebrate Babe's birthday and Mothers' Day, frequent visits from her niece Valerie and Val's husband Joe, and of course, our every-other-Saturday night card games.  After one of her falls, Babe decided that she did not want to be alone, so she made arrangements for round-the-clock caregivers to look after her.  Once Dukie was no longer able to play cards, Babe would teach her caregivers how to play canasta, and the caregiver would take Dukie's place in the card game.

Florence and Babe - May, 1998

Next week I will finish the story of Ailzia M. Drake, the most unforgettable woman I ever met, by telling you about her 100th birthday celebration and her declining health which led to her death in 2004 at the age of 102.  Believe it or not, there are still stories that remain to be told about the twilight years of this fascinating woman. 

1 comment:

  1. She sounds like she was a wonderful woman! I look forward to reading more.