One day in 1950, Frances was in the church vestry attending a quilting bee when she realized her glasses seemed dirty. “Three times I tried cleaning my glasses but it did no good. The lady that sat next to me said, ‘What is the matter, Frances?’ ‘I can’t seem to get my glasses clean,’ I said. She looked at them and said they are clear. So I went to see my optician, but he found nothing wrong. He said, go and see your family physician and I did. He said I was OK. Then I went back to the optician and he made arrangements for me to see a specialist in Portland. It did not take the specialist long to find out that I had glaucoma and he immediately started treating me every week. But he said over and over again, I wish I had had you earlier. When my eyes were ready, he operated and saved enough sight so I can tell day from night. I am so thankful for that. But when I was back home I told everyone to be sure and go to an Eye Doctor. If Glaucoma is taken in time, some sight can be saved.”
For the next 40 years, Frances would live in darkness. Inevitably it took awhile to adjust to her new condition. “My head ached so I could not even stand to wear a hairnet. Every time Leon got in bed or turned over it seemed as if my head would split in two, so I wanted to sleep in our front room, but he said, ‘We have always slept together so we are not going to stop now.’ Even doctors or nurses could not change him. When we travelled, he always asked for a big bed. If they were twin beds, he would push them together. He always wanted me near him.”
She was determined to continue with the pleasures of her life despite the blindness. They took day trips in the “Green Hornet,” Leon’s 1950 Studebaker, which he kept going for almost twenty years, tinkering with it in his garage at 8 Essex Street. Frances recalled, “In the summer time we liked to ride around the beaches – at least twice during the season. First, down to Wells, then Ogunquit and York beach where we would enjoy a shore dinner and walk along the sands of Long Beach. Another time we would go to Kennebunk beach. Then around the coast to Cape Porpoise where we would enjoy watching the boats come in with their fish and lobsters. We always enjoyed our seafood; we knew where to go to get the best; we would pick out our own lobster for them to cook; one couldn’t ask for anything better.”
“We spent lots of time down to Wells Beach after the tourists had gone home,” Fran recalled. “Then we would park down by the stone wall at Webhannet and watch the waves crash against the rocks. We both had a dinner box and I would put up a lunch before leaving home. Our names were on the boxes as I liked my coffee black and Dad wanted milk and sugar in his. We each had our own thermos bottles. We liked a cheese sandwich and an apple. It was quiet and peaceful; just the pounding of the ocean on the rocks. After a storm, the waves would go over the road!”
Together, Leon and Frances were comfortable and secure at 8 Essex Street. Thanks to the help of Frances’ father’s sister, Dell and her husband Henry, they were able to pay off the mortgage. There were six rooms and a bath and a big cellar and large back yard – “a fine place to hang my clothes out of doors.” Particularly in her blindness the house worked well. “Everything was so handy and I knew where everything was. I enjoyed taking care of my home. … It was comfortable and I could whip up a batch of cornbread and have dinner ready when my husband came in from mowing the lawn or taking care of our many flower gardens. When we were alone, Leon preferred to eat in the kitchen. It was a pleasant kitchen and we each had a seat by a window.” When it was time to rest, they enjoyed sitting in the backyard, in comfortable chairs with footstools that Leon made or on the swinging couch on the screened-in porch. “We had fun just by ourselves and we also enjoyed it when our children and grandchildren came to visit us. I kept plenty of extra food down in our cold cellar. Always enough, no matter how many came to visit. The welcome mat was always out. Happy memories.” They still had their big, white canvas tent to set up down at the Roundabout if children and grandchildren showed up.
On June 29, 1964 the children and grandchildren gathered at Goodall Park in Sanford to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Frances and Leon. The cousins swam and ran around; Dorothy, Bob, and Bill and their spouses helped set up the food for a picnic. They enjoyed chatting and being together. Eventually they realized Frances and Leon were not going to show up – wouldn’t it be just like them to elope again! So the families enjoyed their celebration and headed back home. Sure enough, soon Dottie received a postcard from the lovebirds. They had returned to the place of their honeymoon – Revere Beach, Massachusetts and enjoyed the fun and humor of eluding the official crowd and ritual once again.
One Sunday in May of 1970, Frances recalled, “Leon and I went to Church as usual. Came home, changed our clothes as usual. He came down stairs first and when I came down, he came to me and said, ‘I like your dress; you look so nice.’ Then we had dinner and after cleaning up we sat on our screened in front porch. It was quiet and restful.” The next night, Monday, Leon died.
For awhile Frances was in a kind of shock. Her children invited her to stay with each of them for a period of time before she made a decision about selling her home. In the end she decided to live with each of them for varied periods of time.
In Dorothy’s house, she sang hymns for the granddaughters, taught them how to dance the Charleston in the kitchen, and told stories about life on the farm. She was tickled that some of their schoolmates wanted to return to older skills – “homesteading” in places like rural Maine. And when Bob’s son Amin visited, she taught him how to darn a sock.
In her 70s, sometimes in the darkness of her blindness, in the middle of the night, her loneliness without Leon would overwhelm Frances and she would talk to herself – and him, crying quietly. She missed her home –“being among my own things and my friends and church.” But the hardest part was just simply missing Leon. “When one has been together as long as Leon and I were together, you really know one another, and you miss talking things over.”
Being blind also brought moments of the paralyzing fear she had not known since years before when she encountered a snake as she carried water from the well. It was a terrifying sense of being lost. “Many times it is hard for a sighted person to comprehend – the emotion of fear that captivates a blind person. That is why I like to be near a table or chair or something solid – because it is a great big world out there. Not knowing the lay of the land sometimes causes me to ‘freeze.’ My white cane helps, but I still like to be near something solid. I also feel better when I take the person’s arm when I am walking, rather than for them to take mine. One way is security, the other force. The blind just need love and understanding.” It helped to have doors closed to help her orient her self. “I like to know that the stair door is closed and I close my bedroom door so I can find my way around the room without fear of falling. When I open the door myself I know where I am.”
Outdoors was even more daunting. The white cane helped, “but when I have been walking I find that some people that are driving cars do not always respect the white cane. That is a shock that will cause one to freeze. The outside world is a big place to move around in and I prefer to be with someone or near a chair.” Security Guards and Stewardesses were always particularly kind. Frances recalled that at one airport, as she prepared to fly to one of her children’s homes, “someone compared me to Helen Hayes. I always loved Helen Hayes. She was a great actress.”
As she looked back at her life, Frances enjoyed remembering what she titled “The Golden Age.” But sometimes she seemed to feel self-conscious about writing memories. She worried about seeming too self-aggrandizing. She listened to an audio book of family stories in which the old woman is called the “old matriarch” and she wondered if she had been such a person. “It seemed impressive but I myself never, never, never, ever, ever was or could be an Old Matriarch. I always had too much of the Me Last instead of the Me First in me. My family always came first. But, believe it or not, many times I was called The Queen by young and old on both sides of the family. It was always said in a very loving way – Queen of the Davis-Plaisted family.” Now that she thought about it, she realized there might be some truth in the comparison: “ I am the size of the diminutive Queen of England. I also used to ride horseback. Oh so much fun.”
She found some solace in Talking Books, which kept her up-to-date with news and reliving history through stories. She liked remembering a 1906 novel by the American author, Winston Churchill, who settled in Cornish, NH and wrote Coniston (based on Croyden, NH), a novel about economic and political battles around the railroads and state house dramas in NH. The “Coniston” he rendered reminded Frances of her summers at Maple Wood Farm with her father’s sisters, not far from Croyden. “I remembered the blacksmith shop, the church, and the school.”
When she moved into a nursing home, she tried hard to adjust. She wrote letters with her clipboard that had metal rods to guide her fingers across the page in a straight line of handwriting. When I brought my toddlers to visit, Grammy asked me to sing a favorite hymn. When my husband Bill and I brought her back to Sunnyacres from Thanksgiving with the family, she sang all the way: “Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree.”
She wrote down her favorite truisms:
Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you.
Laughter is the best medicine.
Keep smiling; when you smile, there are miles and miles of smiles and life is worth while.
Take Time to Pray.
Look at Mother Nature.
Listen to the Birds.
Keep your self-respect and keep your Identity.
We need knowledge and love; love comes first.
Keep a listening heart.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Don’t cry over spilled milk.
Romans: 12:21: Be not overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
It helps to think before speaking.
Keep on keeping on.
Sometimes she wrote homilies:
“True paradise lies in the heart of man. It is not what you have or how much you have, but what you do with what you have. The kind spirit that you show to one another is what counts. Then, in whatever state you are in, you will be content. Politeness is to do and say the kindest things in the kindest way. True worth is in doing each day that goes by some little good, not in dreaming of great things to do by and by.”
Sometimes, at the end of a writing session, she would tire of her own voice: “Enough philosophy for one day.”
Or she imagined who might read these memories one day. “After you have finished reading these memories, you will think that I am a stick-in-the-mud or a square. I’m not either one. Just like you, a lover of life, people, and nature. In whatever state I was I learned to be content because Love enveloped my whole life.”
And then, in her mind, she returned to the 14th pew in the Sanford Baptist Church, remembering a version of Corinthians in which the concept of Charity is replaced by the concept of Love:
“Love suffers long, and is kind; love vaunteth not itself; Love is not puffed up,
Love does not behave itself unseemly, Love seeketh not its own, Love is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth
I Corinthians 13 Chapter”
In the King James version, the next line is:
“Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”
Frances noted this was one of her favorite passages in the Bible. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable unto Thee, My Strength and my redeemer. Amen – So be it.”
In her final entries, Frances seemed to be preparing for a kind of closure in her life – although she would live for another decade. “Words just skim over the surface of living. As you read you can’t even guess the ups and downs and joy and sorrow combined in just living. It was my strong faith in God that always helped to keep me going and I would take one day at a time. We prayed and gave thanks to God for his many blessings.… I really am thankful for the wonderful life I have had.”
A week before she died at 98, she asked her grandson Amin and his wife Nahid to bring her some sardines even though she was on a strict, bland diet. The nurses said, “If she wants it, let her have it.” That same week I called to say my new baby was named after Leon and Frances – Plaisted his middle name. Frances died exactly one week to the minute after he was born. The next day, Frances’ son Bill’s first grandchild was born.