Sometimes we meet someone whose Buddha nature shines so brightly that they are like a lamp showing us the way ahead. My Aunt Elinor is that kind of luminous Buddha. She is a form of the bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta, Never Disparaging.
Elinor was sent to a mental hospital in 1936 when she was twenty-three years old and the mother of a two-year-old son and a five-month-old daughter. We know now that Elinor had postpartum psychosis, a condition that is treatable. It’s likely that Elinor recovered within several years. And yet she stayed in the mental hospital system for the rest of her life. Her husband died of a heart infection the following June and the children were raised by his sister. Elinor was abandoned by everyone in the family until it was said that she had died.
A Life in Institutions
Elinor was my mother’s oldest sister and I grew up wondering who she was and what had happened to her. Until I counted the number of grandchildren in my grandfather’s obituary, I didn’t know that she had children. When I found her married name I began to look for her, hoping to find where she was buried so that I could bring her flowers.
I searched for many years. Last year I found Elinor alive in a nursing home in Canton, Ohio. She was ninety-four years old and had spent the past seventy-two years in the mental health system, including forty-two years in the mental hospital, sixteen years in a group home, and fourteen years in the nursing home.
Even before I met her, I saw Elinor’s Buddha nature. During a phone conversation, the social worker at the nursing home told me, “Elinor calls the nurses Mother and some of them call her Mother. The others she calls Dorothy or Margery.” The social worker was surprised to learn that Dorothy and Margery were the names of her sisters.
Elinor made everyone around her into family! She embodied the quality of kshanti, all-embracing inclusiveness. As Thay explains in Peaceful Action, Open Heart: “When our heart is large enough, we can be very comfortable, we can embrace the sharp, difficult thing without injury.” Elinor taught me that if I could see everyone around me as my mother, my children, if my heart were large enough to include everyone, I would feel happy and safe and live without the burdens of judgment and fear.
“Will You Be Kind to Me?”
The week after tracing Elinor, my husband and I drove from Washington, D.C. across the Appalachian Mountains to visit her in eastern Ohio. I immediately recognized her white hair and blue eyes, so like Mother’s. She was sitting in a wheelchair at the table eating dinner. I pulled up a chair and sat beside her. She stopped eating for a moment and looked intently at me. Then she offered to share her dinner. A little later she said, “Do you love me? Will you be kind to me? My mother loved me and she treated me like she loved me.”
“Hello, Sadaparibhuta,” I thought to myself. “You speak directly to my heart. You’ve protected and preserved your heart through the long years without family to visit or support or care for you. You know that love is the most important quality and you call forth love in me. I bow to you.”
When Elinor finished eating, she picked up her napkin, shook it out, and folded it with complete concentration. Two people who lived in the nursing home were arguing, the TV was on, a person was moaning behind us, and another person was listening to the radio. Elinor’s response was, “Quite a chorus.” In the midst of the noise and chaos, Elinor accepted the life around her just as it was and she seemed to accept herself as well. When she was tired, she folded her head into her arm and slept. When I rubbed her back too hard, she told me, “That’s awful!”
I enjoyed sitting with Elinor. I felt free to just sit and be present. There was no pressure to please or entertain or even talk. Elinor reminded me that the heart of practice is acceptance. It’s so easy to struggle against the way things are, big things like illness and death, everyday things like traffic jams and frowns. With Elinor at that moment, all was well.
Elinor put her hand on top of mine and I enjoyed the soft warmth. She had long thin fingers that could reach octaves on the piano. When Elinor was young, she was a pianist and played the piano on the radio. “I heard that you play the piano beautifully,” I said. “Yes. I do play the piano. I play Let Me Call You Sweetheart and You Are My Sunshine.”
She nurtured her spirit with music for many years. And she gave music to everyone around her. “When she first came here, she’d walk over to the piano every night after dinner and play for us.
Elinor has a lovely voice and sings often,” the nurse said with a smile. “Everyone here loves Elinor.”
Accepting What Is
How did she manage to keep her heart open and her spirit alive? She had no family. She lived without hearing her children’s laughter. She owned nothing and wore what was handed to her. She ate what was given. She lived without privacy. She wasn’t able to walk down the street for a cup of tea. She was not bitter or angry, although she did not suffer fools. Her life was not cluttered with things she didn’t need. “I don’t want anything at all,” she wrote on a sheet of lined paper clipped into a blue binder. She had little choice except how she related to herself and to those around her. She learned to live beautifully with herself and others. I take strength from the way Elinor survived so well with so little, that she kept what was most valuable — her heart and her music. She was a Buddha in her simplicity, her affection, and her sense of interbeing.
I found the group home in which Elinor had lived for sixteen years after the mental hospitals were emptied of patients in the mid-seventies. “Yes, I remember Elinor,” said the woman who ran the home. “The day she came here she walked up the front steps and when I opened the door she held out her arms and called me Mother! She endeared herself to me ... She loved to sing!”
Elinor was my teacher. She showed me how to be aware of love, to give and receive the energy of love, to give space for love to exist and to ripen. I became aware of what cut off the flow between us, things like needless questions and extraneous comments. Elinor spoke out of her true nature and not as I might have wished or expected. That encouraged me to be less concerned about results and more aware of what was true within and around me. Elinor always responded to love and affection. “I love you,” I told Elinor. “That’s the way it should be,” she said.
Elinor’s mother passed away suddenly when Elinor was sixteen, and her father, who could have signed her out of the hospital when she recovered from the post-partum psychosis, never came to take her home. “I love my dad,” she said. “I always will.” This too is Sadaparibhuta’s nurturing love, even in the midst of betrayal and rejection. I come from a family that tends to end relationships when pain or shame overwhelms love. When I think of Elinor, I am aware that when the seed of love has grown small or been lost in the face of fear or hurt, I can find that tiny seed, and with nurturing, it will grow strong again.
In July I asked Elinor, “Do you have children?” “Yes,” she said. “I have two and I love them very much.” That was the permission I needed to search for her children. I was able to find them, and Elinor’s daughter and granddaughter came right away to visit her.
In January Elinor took her last breath. The weekend of her memorial service, Elinor’s family and four of my siblings met for the first time. During the service I read a passage from the Bible: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Tears fell as I read, knowing that Elinor was and is the love that bears all things, endures all things.
Before I began to practice, before I found the Sangha, I would have fallen into sorrow and seen Elinor’s life as an unbearable tragedy. Belonging to a Sangha that is supportive and affectionate, I am more aware of the energy of love even when it springs from the muddy ground of a life lived in a mental hospital.
Sitting with Elinor enlarged my heart. The weeds of mystery and tragedy and fear withered as Elinor watered seeds of love and simplicity and interbeing. What an amazing surprise to find that the person who the family abandoned is the one who restores our lost connections and the love that goes with them.