I bent over my wife in her nursing home bed. "Hazel," I whispered. "I love you." She lay still, open-eyed, unsmiling.
"Hazel, your friend Jody is here to visit you." No response. "Hazel, we have lots of chocolates for you to eat." She didn't seem to care, though normally she was as fond of chocolates as Eliza Doolittle.
That scenario took place four years ago when Hazel Stedman was 86, bedridden and sunk in a sea of despondency.
We could not fault her health care. Doctors, hospital and nursing home had served her well. Physically, she was on the mend.
But our usually happy Hazel remained listless and lost to the family. The sparkle in her eyes had given way to a stare. She seemed unaware when loved ones watched and waited at her bedside. This mother to three, grandmother to 11 and great-grandmother to four would not communicate.
We were baffled, beaten and at wits' end for ways to help her. At that time we knew nothing of reminiscence as a terapy for the aging and depressed.
Then rummaging through the attic, I discovered Hazel's diaries boxed away. That she had kept personal journals I knew. But I had never read a line in one of them. I opened the box and spilled the dog-eared notebooks and hard-cover yearbooks on the attic floor.
One tiny red maverick in folding covers caught my eye: Hazel's first diary, stated at Pembina N.D., on Jan. 1, 1901, when she was 10. "The ther. was 20 below" the childish script began, "and a big blizard (sic) was on the way."
Hope dawned. Was there a chance echoes from a past so distant could awaken Hazel now?
My hopes swung to the other diaries. I thumbed through them, one after another. In number and time span, the diaries were amazing. From 1901, they jumped to college and Hamline graduation in 1914, followed by three years of high-school-teaching in North Dakota and Minnesota. They resumed in Washington D.C., in 1934 and followed us back to St. Paul until 1974. Forty years without a miss.
Stories of our lives poured from the pages: college courtship, St. Paul newspaper days, Washington adventures in press and government, wartime scrambles for beef, butter, bacon and fuel, Hazel's chockfull life in home, church, ration board, Red cross, school and as capital sightseeing guide for visiting friends. What might better arouse her than hearing her stories of her life?
The next day, I took some diaries to her bedside and began to read.
But that night, the way home was sadder and lonelier than ever. She had not responded.
Day after day, I tried and failed.
But in the second week of daily readigs, I had a feeling that Hazel was listening. A few more sessions and she asked the meaning of a sentence. Then I read a line about her making bean muffins. "Not BEAN muffins," she said. "BRAN muffins."
Response! Progress! So a few days later, a diary mention of our favorite fish, the walleye, signaled a ruse. "For dinner," I misquoted, "Al fried a delicious wild-eyed pike."
Hazel just laughed. That's all. She laughed. What music! We hadn't heard that happy sound for months. We had wondered whether we would ever hear it again. It left no doubt that she was emerging from her shell.
Since then, unless snowed in or something, I have missed scarcely a day with Hazel, reading diaries from cover to cover. We haven't even skipped painful episodes like illnessess, surgeries and auto smash-ups. But we especially like the bright, meaningful events, whether they occurred when Hazel was keeping diaries or not.
How grand was that shining, new Model T purchased in 1923 for $547.22, a third down and a year to pay. How inspiring was Franklin D. Roosevelt's first iaugural, proclaiming "All we have to fear is fear itself. . ."
What pomp and ceremony among the honored state's favorite sons adorning the grand opening of "Oklahoma!" in Washington's National Theater in 1943. And how moving were the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of American farming people in the midst of industrial revolution on the farm.
Beginning as my monologue, the diary readings have generated conversation between us. Hazel asks questions and remembers more of the past. Our lines of communication are restored. Again she greets loved ones with warmth and smiles. She has rejoined her family.
My family's experience convinces us that Hazel's escape from dejection has been greatly aided by our diary readings. They have, we think, helped restore her ties with the past and present. She had been withdrawn, morose and listless, but now her personality is expressing itself again.
Authorities at the nursing homes do not disagree. They say that our diary readings have been a form of reminiscence therapy, which is contributing increasingly to health care for the aged.
But what fun we have had reading her diaries together. Probably I was the most jilted swain on the Hamline University campus when she finally relented and said "yes" to my proposal. The ink on the endearments in her diary is a little dim now. But the sentiments are treasured.
It was 56 years ago this June that she wrote them.