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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 29-May-14 11:28:40

Life lessons from the building site

When Edith Wilson Macefield refused to sell her house (and inspired the Disney film Up, no less) to developers building a shopping mall, she achieved local hero status. After driving her to a hair appointment one day, for construction supervisor, Barry Martin, an offer of help turned into a deep and rewarding friendship that taught him some important lessons when his own father became ill years later.

Barry Martin

Life lessons from the building site

Posted on: Thu 29-May-14 11:28:40


Lead photo

We shall not be moved: Edith's house and the shopping mall that now surrounds it.

I'd never have guessed it, but a hair appointment changed my life, forever and for always.

Not my own, mind you. It's been a long time since I had enough hair to worry about, not that I ever thought about it much in the first place. But one day I found myself offering to help out an old lady who lived right next to the construction trailer I was working out of. And she happened to accept.

Her name was Edith Wilson Macefield, and from the day I met her, nothing was ever the same. Edith owned a little run-down house on a run-down block where developers had decided to build a big shopping mall. They bought up the whole block, but Edith refused to sell. They offered her a million dollars and she told them to take a hike. Overnight it became a big national story in the US.

So, just like in the Pixar movie "Up", I was hired as the construction superintendent, and we started to build the mall up around her house. There's a heck of a lot of noise and dirt and to-do when you're building a shopping mall right next to someone's home, so like I said, I'd offered to help her out any way I could while we were creating havoc all around her.

The morning that she asked me to drive her to her hair appointment, I didn't think too much of it. But once we got to talking, we didn't stop. For the next few weeks, I'd wander over to her house, which wasn't 20 steps from my trailer, and we'd yakkity yak about everything and nothing, just like two old neighbours hanging on the fence, passing the time of day.

At one point, I worked up the courage to ask her why she didn't accept the million bucks and move. The newspapers had made her out to be a local hero, standing up to the evil developers and the forces of change. But Edith told me a very different story.

Edith taught me that you never know where the lessons you need to learn are going to come from.

She said she had been living in Europe but came back to America to take care of her sick mother. Her mother's only wish was to die in her own home, not in some old-age facility; and now that was Edith's wish as well.

"So it's not what people think, is it?" I asked her.

She turned toward me, with a wry, knowing smile, and said, "It's never what people think."

As time went by, and Edith's health started to fail, I found myself at her home more and more. Pretty soon I was taking her to all her doctor appointments, cooking her meals, changing her bedding, doling out her medicine. Sometimes, in the course of just trying to get through the day, I'd find myself helping her out a little too much - I'd see her struggling to feed herself, so I'd grab the fork and start to feed her, and she'd swat the fork out of my hand.

"I'm not helpless, you know!" she’d bark at me. And I learned an important lesson in dealing with our ageing loved ones: You may need to take over their lives, but you may not take away their dignity. You have to help, but you have to help with respect.

Her old oven would get as hot on the outside as it did on the inside, which is why I wouldn't let her near it. But when I tried to talk her into getting a microwave she refused – "the wiring in this old house isn't made for microwaves," she'd argue, which was patently absurd; I knew she just didn't want to admit that she was afraid she couldn’t learn to use it.

But it occurred to me: getting the microwave wasn’t something I wanted to do for her. It was for me. It would make my life easier, and it would make me feel less guilty if I left her to fend for herself for a day or two. I realised that a lot of the things we do for people when they get older aren't for them;
they're for ourselves. That's another important lesson to remember.

When Edith passed, I was inconsolable. I had come to love this woman like a member of my own family. Since then, though, a lot of people asked me why I did so much for a woman I didn’t even know.

I guess one reason is that I was brought up to believe that you do the right thing. I was lucky enough to have an incredible wife and kids who supported me in that - my teenage daughter even said she was proud of me, and how many dads can say that?

But there's another reason, one I wasn't even aware of until I was in the middle of it all. Just as Edith was starting to fade, my own dad was stricken with Alzheimer's. As I dealt with him through those painful days, all I kept thinking was: Thank you, Edith. It's a good thing you came along when you did, to teach me what to do now.

A lot of people think that Edith was lucky to have me in her life. But I know I was the lucky one. Lucky, because of the lessons I learned from her. Lessons of strength and courage and dignity, and what it means to give of yourself, when it matters most.

Edith taught me that you never know where the lessons you need to learn are going to come from.

Barry's book, Under One Roof: How a Tough Old Woman in a Little Old House Changed My Life, is available now from Amazon and we have ten copies of it for people who post on the thread.

By Barry Martin

Twitter: @Gransnet

dragonck Fri 30-May-14 11:21:30

Old people can be inspirational. I think they both learned from each other.

rosesarered Fri 30-May-14 11:47:36

You have to think though, she could have bought a lovely little house somewhere near, in the neighbourhood and had money left over for healthcare.She would have still been able to 'die' in her own house.It sounds rather peculiar to me.

harrigran Fri 30-May-14 11:58:52

I respect her decision to stay in her home but she had to put up with an awful lot of noise and mess to achieve it. I don't think I would be strong enough to sit tight.
I loved the film UP smile

HelenRidley3 Fri 30-May-14 12:06:21

What a great story, it just makes you want to hear more. We are all guilty of thinking we know better than those that are older than us because we are all living in our own moment and because we don't appreciate that they have lived a long life and learned a great amount along the way. I have grown to realise this myself after losing my elderly father last year. The older generation are very wise, ALWAYS know their own mind and are not afraid to make choices based on their life experience, we should listen more intently and appreciate their contribution to society no matter what that may be.

gillybob Fri 30-May-14 12:16:34

It sounds pretty odd to me too roses. I remember not so long ago in our town there was a notorious housing estate demolished to make room for a new development of mixed local authority and private housing. One resident of the "old" estate refused to move despite generous, well above value financial offers and offers of home exchanges. The house was what could best be described as a dump and they had apparently purchased the house from the council for the princely sum of £2,000 and would only move out if they were paid £200,000 !! the development went ahead with them still sitting in the middle of it. They were ring fenced in and finally moved out after two years. I fail to think what settlement they eventually came to. hmm

Nana2TVJ Fri 30-May-14 13:05:12

I really enjoyed reading an extract of Barry's story. I shall certainly read his book and wonder why I haven't watched the movie Up. I'm glad he was there for Edith and her for him.

grandmac Fri 30-May-14 17:57:23

Have watched Up several times with the grandchildren but didn't realise it was based on a true story. Must tell them.
Well done Barry Martin, the world needs more like you ready to help. smile

rubysong Fri 30-May-14 18:31:11

What a kind man he sounds, to help her in so many ways. Change can be very difficult for old people and her attitude could have caused problems in that situation. I'm glad he was able to help her end her days in her own home.

oscargoodenough Sat 31-May-14 13:12:00

Really very inspirational story!!I think we all should have to learn a lot from this story.Our grandparents used to teach us some lessons based on their own life experiences and instead of pretending as if we are genius than them,we should listen and try to follow those lessons.

Geraldine62 Wed 04-Jun-14 05:26:17

What Barry learned from Edith " Lessons of strength and courage and dignity, and what it means to give of yourself, when it matters most."

Everything happens for a reason, what Barry learned went on to help him with his own father.
I would love to read more, and I don't think I have ever seen the film, although there was a 70's Disney film that was similar.

AnneMaria Tue 24-Jun-14 10:54:52

UP is one of my favourite films. If you haven't seen it the first few minutes are great and may just bring a tear to the eye - spoiler alert.