The Wisdom of Age Project—Hampton Roads, Va. 2013 Documenting Life Stories & How We Get By
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"Ted Davis: A Hard Life with Good Memories"

by Anna Irre

Meeting Ted

TED AND I SIT IN THE LIVING ROOM of Mennowood retirement community where he lives. In front of him sits a puzzle very well lit by a lamp standing next to the table. The same puzzle is there every day, but is never completed. A fire blazes in the background, making the room uncomfortably warm. Ted complains about the heat each time I see him. As we sit, Ted lets me into his world.


The Beginning

 Ted Davis was born on April 23, 1927. “That makes me 85,” he tells me during our first meeting. Ted, the oldest of two children, was born in High Point, North Carolina, but he did not live there long. Ted did many different things in his life. He had a few different careers, attended school at Georgia Tech for a short time, and while telling me breaks out in song: “I’m a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech, and a helluva engineer…” But what I’m most interested in is Ted’s family. He begins to tell me about them: when he was four-and-a-half years old, Ted’s father left. He did not say goodbye, he simply disappeared and was not heard from again. Ted’s mother was two-and-a-half months pregnant with his younger sister at the time. Since there was no help available for women on their own, as Ted puts it, he and his family moved in with his grandfather who lived in Thomasville. Ted lived there until he was 17.


Ted’s Father

 After some passing of time, Ted tells me that the story of his father did not end when he left. When Ted was 16 he started looking for his father. After not very long, he found an address for him. Unable to contact him by phone, Ted decided to fly to Florida and look. When he arrived at the address, he thought for sure he had the wrong house. He was at a mansion on the waterfront in Tampa, Florida. Figuring that he may as well check after traveling all the way down south, Ted knocked on the door. A young woman answered; he estimated her to be about 10 years his senior, but quite a bit younger than his father. Ted discovered that his father was not married at that time, but had been married twice since leaving his mother, and had gotten both women pregnant before disappearing from their lives as well.


 About a year after visiting his father’s home, Ted received a call from the young woman he had met and was informed of the heart attack, which killed his father. Once again, Ted traveled to Florida, but this time with the goal of getting some money to help his mother. Ted did not appear to have any negative emotions about the death of his father. While he relayed his story, he was very matter of fact. It seemed as if he were talking about a stranger. When he arrived in Florida, however, he was told that his father did not in fact have any money, but instead was “in debt up to his ass,” which Ted told me multiple times. His father had talked the young woman into co-signing a mortgage with him for the mansion they shared. Ted’s visit did not last long when he realized there was no help he could find for his mother. But before he left, the young woman asked him to move in. Her obvious desperation had left her looking for a new companion after Ted’s father died. Ted told her no and explained to me, “I didn’t believe in people living together unless they’re married. I still don’t,” and I could tell this was his subtle way of imparting his wisdom onto a younger generation.


Ted’s Family

 The second time I go to speak with Ted, I realize the extent of his memory problems. From then on, each time I see him, I know I must reintroduce myself. “Hi I’m Anna. We’ve spoken before, but it’s okay if you don’t remember,” I say. “Your name is Anna?” he asks. After reiterating my name, Ted tells me again, “My sister’s name was Annie. I used to joke with her all the time. ‘Annie, get your gun!’ I would say.” After a few meetings I learn to expect this story. I laugh every time because I know how much Ted loves to make people laugh.


 It is clear that Ted does not remember very much about Annie or any of his other family members. I ask him about his family multiple times, but it always ends up turning into a different conversation. One day I get lucky and he opens up to me about his family. Ted glances nervously around the warm living room. “You want to hear about my family?” he asks, “are you sure you’re ready for that story?”

 Once again, Ted began with the story of his father leaving. I had heard it before, but I let him continue anyway. Then I learn about wives one, two, and three.


Wife #1

 Ted’s first wife asked him to marry her. Being young and naive, he agreed. They met in Florida, but moved to New Jersey for Ted’s job shortly after being married. His wife hated it there. She stayed at home with their two children while Ted worked. His job only allowed him to be home one day per week, and, when he was, he always noticed how filthy the house was. After a bit of time, Ted discovered his wife was using drugs and alcohol. When he confronted her about it, she said it was because she did not like living in New Jersey and was very depressed—she wanted to go back to Florida. Ted, trying his hardest to save his marriage, moved his wife and children to Florida. The move didn’t change anything, and his wife continued using. Eventually, she died from a drug overdose, he said, so his children moved back home with him until they were adults.


Wife #2

 Ted’s second wife proposed to him also. He tells me, “I made the mistake of marrying her, but thank Heavens we didn’t have any children. She said she would be a bad mother.” Ted couldn’t even remember her name because it had been so long, and clearly was unimportant to him. He couldn’t remember if she passed away, or if the marriage had ended in divorce.


Wife #3

 Until this point in our conversation, Ted’s voice was gruff. His brow was furrowed and his face was tense. When he begins talking about Susan, his face softens. His eyes get wider and his voice becomes calmer, quieter, and more soothing. Ted had talked to me about Susan only once before, but didn’t tell me very much. The second conversation we have begins when he says, “she was a wonderful lady, but died a horrible death.” After a short pause he adds, “how did she die?” When Ted asks this I am completely caught off guard. This older man is asking me, practically a stranger, how the love of his life died. Without much hesitation, I remind him that she died of ovarian cancer and his story continues. Ted tells me that Susan was the one to pop the question as well. I find it odd that all three women were the ones to ask Ted to marry them, but allow him to continue anyway. “When she proposed,” he tells me, “I told her I’d only marry her on one condition: no yelling and screaming at each other. And we never did.” Even after all these years, Ted still speaks of Susan as if she were sent down from Heaven to be his saving angel. They never had any children, but he informs me that it was better that way because he got to have her all to himself.


 When Susan developed ovarian cancer, Ted was devastated. He took her to multiple hospitals and was told at each one that there was nothing they could do for her. Finally, Ted took her to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was told she would only live for another two weeks. After the diagnosis from Hopkins, Ted sat by Susan’s bedside every second. When she slipped into a coma about eight days before her death, Ted began praying for the Lord to take her. “I didn’t want her to die,” he assures me, “I just wanted her pain and suffering to end.” Susan died about two weeks later, almost down to the day. When Ted tells me this, his voice gets very quiet and I can see the memories flood his mind even after so many years of trying to keep them out.


 I have always had a theory that occasionally older people only remember what they want to remember. Ted solidified those thoughts for me even more. The way he remembered Susan was truly as if she were perfect, their marriage was perfect, and he had absolutely nothing bad to say about her. But I am also a firm believer that it is better to remember the good in people rather than the bad—especially when they are gone. Ted remembered all the good parts of Susan. His upbeat personality and fun-loving nature allowed him to focus on the joyful moments in his life and eradicate the sorrowful ones from his memory. Until the day he dies, I know that Ted will keep Susan close to his heart and continue telling his story of everlasting love.



 I ask Ted if he likes living in Mennowood retirement home. He tells me the story of losing his house and freedom in New Jersey. A court order sent him to Mennowood because his doctor labeled him as “incapable of taking care of himself and mentally deranged.” I really can’t tell if this is accurate or not. He has family in the area, but still wishes to go back to New Jersey where, he said, his home and belongings are being held by the state. Overall, he doesn’t seem to mind Mennowood very much. He loves the people who work there (and thinks I am one of them). Ted longs for human contact in any way. He is outgoing and always cracks jokes. He is a true testament to the argument that your attitude can make the world of difference. Ted had a troubled life, but despite everything, he manages to hold his head high and keep a smile on his face.