September 19, 2018
The fog is so thick it surrounds the photographs lining her mantel, the faces within so obscured they might as well be those of strangers. The voices in the room – surely they hold a clue. Each spoken word is a hint. They call her Gramz.
But that fog. It is indiscriminate, hiding everything. A twin sister. Seven children. Faces. Names. Telephone numbers and birthdays and her favorite flavor of chewing gum. Memories, big and small.
As the cold blanket fills every corner of the room, Hazel Louise Corts reaches out, somewhere beyond the insidious cloud, to find something, anything, that will tell her where she is. Who she is.
When nothing works, she finds solace in a simple act. She peels potatoes.
Hazel Louise Corts was a woman ahead of her time. Adventurous and independent, she worked both in and out of the home – something that, while not unheard of, wasn’t the norm in 1950s' America. A pastor’s wife and secretary, she raised seven children. Three became college presidents, two were preachers, one a lawyer and another a teacher.
Dr. Deborah McEniry, chair of the South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University’s Theatre Department, is one of her 15 grandchildren. It’s been 20 years since her “Gramz” passed, and McEniry is left with the very thing Alzheimer’s stole many years before from her grandmother: memories.
Like the one in which Hazel Louise Corts, on her last day on earth, peeled potatoes for her family’s dinner. Or that she took McEniry on her first roller coaster ride; Gramz was 52, her granddaughter six. Neither were afraid.
Her pocketbook always smelled of chewing gum, McEniry remembers; she can close her eyes today and still smell the purse, redolent of peppermint. “I loved it when I had to get something from her purse because even if she was out of gum, her purse had that smell to it.”
As McEniry tells these stories, she briefly leaves behind the accomplished actress and professor she is today. She’s transported back into a little girl, enamored with the amazing woman – Hazel Louise Corts – who taught her so much, loved her so much.
But the moment passes, and McEniry understands that as life moves on, memories hold incredible value. Keeping them inside, you see, subjects them to the fog.
It means risking their loss.
That’s why McEniry decided to open the windows and let the sunlight burn it away.
On Oct. 4 at Anderson’s Daniel Recital Hall, McEniry performed a play she wrote called “Hazel Louise,” a one-woman show about her grandmother. Next, she’s off to the theater capitol of the world, New York City, where she is one the select performers presenting at the United Solo festival on Theater Row. It’s the largest solo theatre festival in the world. Dr. Alicia Corts, McEniry’s cousin and a theatre professor at St. Leo University, co-wrote and is the play’s director.
It’s a love letter to their grandmother, who died in 1998. A 75-minute journey through Hazel Louise Corts’ life, McEniry portrays her as a child in Illinois during the Great Depression – a time that saw her twin sister pass away at just nine-years old – to her final days in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“Gramz practiced kindness until it became a habit,” McEniry said. “She never spoke harshly to anyone. I think her kindness and thoughtfulness was so habitual that even though she didn’t always know much about what was happening those last few years, she still knew how to be kind and polite.”
The play is more than a love letter, though.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, and the only one for which there is no cure or effective treatment. More than five million people suffer from it. It is progressive, and it is incurable.
Cindy Alewine has spent nearly 30 years of her life fighting Alzheimer’s. The executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of South Carolina, she said the reason the illness is so devastating is tragically simple.
“The hardest part, I think, is a patient losing their memories,” she said from her office in Anderson. “Families tell us it’s like losing their loved ones a little bit at a time. They are still there, of course, but they lose their ability to communicate and they lose their personality. They forget who their children and grandchildren are. And that’s so painful.”
It’s a pain McEniry knows well.
“Even at the very end, she never got that combative spirit that can be common in Alzheimer’s patients,” McEniry said. “She didn’t know my name at the end, but she knew that I was someone she loved and so she just called me ‘sweetheart.’ And that was good enough for me.”
But it’s not good enough. Not really. McEniry is demonstrating that with her show. More than celebrating Hazel Louise Corts’ life, McEniry hopes her performance will generate awareness – and that awareness will lead to a cure.
“The disease has been around for a long time; Dr. Alzheimer’s discovery took place in 1906,” McEniry said. “The National Institute for Aging was formed in the 1970s. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America was formed in 2002. Significant progress has been made, but more research is needed — particularly with an aging Baby Boomer population. My hope is that the more we can make our public aware of the disease and what it takes from the person and the person’s family, the more we can increase medical research and funding.”
Alewine with the Alzheimer’s Association agrees. She said that while progress is being made, “it’s going to take all of us to end the disease.”
As a professor, McEniry understands the mindset of youth. It’s all around her, every day. The importance of memories is often lost on college men and women, going about their studies while looking ahead to the next day, the next month, the next year. What good is looking back when what’s ahead is so full of promise?
But life is but a vapor, the Bible says. A fog. Here one day, gone the next.
“Memories are important – both the good and the bad,” McEniry said. “Just as important is the relationship we make with those memories. They help structure our lives and make us who we are today.
“The bad are important to remember so we learn from them and don’t repeat our mistakes," she said. "The good are to be savored — they make us smile and laugh when we are going through tough times.”
If you or a loved one is impacted by Alzheimer's, you can reach the Alzheimer's Association of South Carolina at Alz.org/SC or by telephone at 864-224-3045.
In the video below, Dr. Deborah McEniry talks about her grandmother, Hazel Louise Corts, the inspiration behind the one-woman show "Hazel Louise."