My first impression of Edith Hooper was of white hair framing a wizened face and wide blinking eyes that looked as though she’d drawn a screen just behind them to keep people from seeing further inside. I had recently moved to Chico, California, and had been asked to accompany for one month a visiting teacher whose partner was ill.
Our visit with the elderly widow, who was a recent convert to the Church, was my first experience visiting teaching. Once inside Sister Hooper’s home, the center of attention was several glass cabinets containing a large collection of interesting seashells. She brightened noticeably when we asked her about them. Although she seemed happy enough to see us, she kept a sense of distance and her television remained on during our entire visit. It was also apparent that she still struggled with a smoking problem.
I thought I felt her breathe a sigh of relief as we stood up to go, and I left wondering what good, if any, our visit had done. I had no way of knowing what a profound effect this woman was to have on my life.
It was eight years before our paths crossed again. I had forgotten all about Edith Hooper until I was assigned to be her visiting teacher. Our first visit to her home confirmed that she had not yet conquered her smoking habit. We soon learned that she no longer drove her car and didn’t get out much. She had few visitors, though she often spoke of two neighbors who checked in on her occasionally. Her main companion was her dog, Cindy.
During the next few months my companion, Virginia Lavender, and I discussed ways we could best help her. We decided to invite Sister Hooper out to lunch and, since this was just before Christmas, we also bought her a small gift.
As we walked back to the car following the meal, Edith asked “Why are you doing this for me? No one else ever has.” The lump in my throat wouldn’t let me answer. That lunch date was the beginning of many to come.
As we made our monthly visits, we found Edith to be well-informed on world and community news; she even had a favorite baseball team. What she didn’t see on television, she read about. On several occasions, however, her speech seemed slow and her responses dulled. We would check back on her often after such visits.
One of her interests was genealogy. Sister Hooper had collected a lot of information that she needed help compiling, so I offered to help her type it up. We accomplished little in the first few hours together; I was inexperienced, and she wanted to visit. We decided that both of us would benefit from attending the genealogy class in Sunday School. Saturday evenings I would phone and remind Edith, then pick her up the following morning.
We really came to know each other during those Sundays together. I learned that Edith’s mother had died when she was two, and Edith was raised in a convent for the next eleven years. She thought she might have a younger sister, though she could never confirm that. Edith’s father remarried, and at age thirteen Edith was brought home from school to live and do housework. She had little opportunity to spend time with her father, as her stepmother would send her from the room after her chores were done.
Edith attended Polytech High School in Los Angeles and planned to go on to college to study architecture. Then she met Gilbert, her husband to be, and one evening they eloped to Bakersfield.
Gilbert was a career Navy man, and when possible, Edith traveled with him. It was in Guam and the Philippines that she dived for her beloved shells. She had catalogued each shell in her collection with origin, specie, and the depth and place she had found it. Often she would dive all day and become extremely blistered by the sun. She had skin cancers on her face at the time I knew her.
She loved her husband’s family as the family she never really had and was pleased when in our genealogy work we were able to get clearance for baptism and temple work for her father, husband (who had died years before), and several members of her husband’s family. She was disappointed, though, that we were never able to get enough information to have her mother’s work completed.
Edith enjoyed classical music and always encouraged my piano playing. Once when I performed in a two-piano concert, my husband escorted her to the performance. Gradually our relationship grew and deepened.
One day I received a phone call from her neighbor saying that Edith had fallen and had been unable to get up. The neighbors had taken her to the emergency room and then to a rest home, where Edith was to reside for the next several months. I went to see her, taking several things she wanted, and could see that, under their constant care, she was doing much better.
While she was gone, several women in our ward thoroughly cleaned her home and repainted her kitchen as a surprise. When she returned home, the sisters were organized to check on her daily, reporting any problems to me.
I learned that the difficulty she had been having with her speech was because she was not eating properly and had become weak. We talked about her diet and arranged to have a balanced meal brought in daily by a public service organization. We also discussed her smoking problem. She knew what was best for her, but she also knew that I loved her whether she smoked or not.
I began visiting and phoning her more often, sometimes several times a week. Wanting to be independent, she declined my offer to sit in her living room as she showered, just in case she needed me. But as she realized she did need more help, she soon let me come. Her neighbor and I took turns washing and cutting her hair.
As Edith’s health worsened and she became more helpless, she often cried with frustration and embarrassment. I would put my arms around her thin shoulders and reassure her of my love and concern. Gradually this woman, who had never accepted or given affection, except perhaps to her husband, began to respond to my hugs and friendship.
One day another call came from Edith’s neighbor: Edith would not respond to knocks on her door. I arrived and, seeing how sick she was, called my doctor. He came quickly, diagnosed pneumonia, and we took her to the hospital.
I visited Edith daily during her hospital stay. “I don’t have time to visit Edith today. I’ll go tomorrow,” I would occasionally tell my husband.
“Yes, you have time,” he would encourage me. “Edith needs you.”
Edith consented to rent her home to help pay expenses. I had begun writing out her checks, which she would sign, to pay her bills, and was eventually appointed conservator of her estate. Her attorney advised that I be present and make an accounting of household items her family wanted kept and stored. Although family members seemed uneasy with my presence, I felt responsible to Edith to carry out her wishes. In the meantime, sisters from the ward were helping pack her household and personal things to ready her home for renting.
Edith had decided to donate her cherished seashell collection to Chico State University, with the understanding that she could choose a few to keep with her. Two university representatives, my husband, and I spent hours carefully packing the shells so none would be broken.
“How much money do I have in savings? How much in checking? What has become of my shells?” Edith asked me one day as I entered her hospital room. After I answered all of her questions, she gratefully replied, “I knew you would take care of them.”
One day as I visited her, she emphatically insisted that she wanted to go home. She yelled at me, ignoring my explanations. I still remember walking down the hall and out the door, crying as I drove home.
Many days Edith was incoherent when I visited. But other times she would look at me with love in her eyes, protesting that I shouldn’t do so much for her. “Maybe I can be the daughter you never had,” I would reply.
One Saturday when the pneumonia had worsened and Edith was seriously ill, she was unable to respond to me. Again I cried all the way home. The next day my husband visited her and said she had recognized him and suggested that I go again the next day.
When I got there, I took Edith in my arms, as I had many times before, and asked if she knew who I was. She nodded that she did. I told her she was doing a good job and that I was proud of her. “You know I love you, don’t you?” I added. She nodded again.
That was our last meeting in this life. Edith passed away the next morning.
As we had agreed, I made the arrangements for her funeral. As I sat there at the services, noticing that there were no family members present, I wondered how often this sweet lady had heard the words, “I love you.”
“Impossible,” I would have said to anyone who had told me eight years ago that I would learn to love this withdrawn, stubborn woman. But she has touched my life in a way I can’t express.
I promised Edith that I would complete her temple endowment, and I have. The chapter is complete.