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A different kind of adoption... bittersweet

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  • A different kind of adoption... bittersweet

    Article published Mar 31, 2005

    The adoption of a bag lady

    Years of homelessness changed by a little kindness

    Telegraph Staff

    EDITOR’S NOTE: This story first appeared in The Telegraph on July 25, 1988.

    NASHUA – Lillian was the city’s undisputed bag lady. For eight years, she freely
    wandered the streets of downtown, sleeping on park benches in the sun and hiding
    at night in alleyways behind stores.

    In the bitterest of winter nights, she sheltered at the favored haunts of street
    people everywhere: laundromats, coffee shops, warm lobbies and doorways.

    She kept to herself and owed no one anything. Always a little to the left of the
    law, her protection was her vicious mouth. Her ability to swear and curse was
    without rival.

    Her apparel, whatever the season, never varied. It could be the hottest of
    summer afternoons, but Lillian wore her crew cap pulled down over her ears and
    her jacket buttoned tight to her chin.

    Her bright blue eyes peered guardedly at the world from a face the color of an
    October acorn. She was thought to be tanned; later it was found the color was
    the product of years of ground-in dirt.

    Lillian, now 78, was mocked by some, reviled by others and feared by many.
    Rumors grew up around her, the foremost of them being that she was wealthy. As a
    result, she was frequently attacked, beaten and robbed.

    Yet Lillian’s only source of income was her monthly Social Security checks,
    which would have ceased long ago if someone at the post office hadn’t been kind
    enough to hold them until she came to retrieve them,

    Always alone, the homeless woman pursued her strange, solitary ways. While many
    people pitied Lillian, offers to help were spurned with stony contempt.

    But Carolyn Gish, a kindergarten teacher at St. Patrick’s School, took Lillian’s
    rebuffs as a challenge. “At first, she wouldn’t respond to me, but I persisted
    until she would, occasionally, talk to me,” said Gish.

    As the friendship slowly matured over four years, Gish became increasingly
    concerned for the woman’s welfare. She used to visit Lillian in the evenings and
    sit on the curbstone talking with her.

    “I became obsessed with Lillian. I had to help her,” said Gish, who consulted
    various human service agencies in her search for a way to help.

    “People laughed at me when I said I wanted to adopt Lillian. Whoever heard of
    adopting a bag lady?” she said, laughing.

    As time passed, Gish became dismayed to see that Lillian was getting “dirtier
    and dirtier” and was being turned away everywhere she went.

    One early November night in 1986, the weather turned suddenly harsh with an
    unusually severe snowstorm. Lillian had a cold and her chest was badly
    congested. Worried, Gish went to Lillian three times that night trying to get
    her to come home with her.

    Finally, insisting that Lillian spend the night in her car, Gish returned home
    in another vehicle.

    The car remained Lillian’s abode through seven days of terrible cold. Gish
    brought soup and coffee to her friend and layered her in blankets. “I worried
    she would freeze to death,” Gish explained.

    It was during this desperate time that Gish met city Welfare Officer Jean Field,
    who had herself been unsuccessful for many years trying to settle Lillian in a room.

    When Gish told Field she wanted to become Lillian’s guardian, it answered
    Field’s dream. But time was needed to file the necessary papers and go through
    the court proceedings.

    Meanwhile, Lillian, still in Gish’s car, complained of leg pains and wanted to
    be taken to the hospital. Gish called the ambulance.

    By this time, the car reeked of filth and urine. “I had to get her out of the
    blankets and a passerby helped me. All the time, Lillian was screaming and
    swearing,” said Gish, her words tumbling out as she described the scene.

    Lillian remained 3½ weeks in the hospital, but before the guardianship papers
    could be put in order, she had acquired some clothes and had simply walked away.

    Later that winter, Lillian caught a virus and collapsed in a snow bank. She was
    picked up for vagrancy and packed off to the Hillsborough County Jail where she
    stayed until the county Probate Court decreed Gish her legal guardian.

    The court decree gave Gish full responsibility for Lillian’s finances and her

    Gish and Field found an apartment on West Pearl Street for Lillian and prepared
    to take her there after the court session. Lillian, however, was not pleased.

    Screaming and cursing, she was escorted to her new home by police.

    Field and Gish followed, one carrying a lamp and the other carrying clothes,
    while Lillian’s court-appointed attorney trailed behind.

    The two women had a six-pack of beer and some money waiting for Lillian. They
    showed her around and Gish patiently explained she was to return nightly to the

    All went well for a while, but then thieves broke into the apartment, ransacked
    it and, finding no money, beat up Lillian. The incident was repeated.

    The sad experience, plus the return of warmer weather, sent Lillian back to the
    streets. Before Field and Gish could settle her in another place, Lillian’s
    distressing habit of relieving herself in public was brought to the attention of
    the police.

    Field, by now desperate, remembered an offer of help from Brookside Psychiatric
    Hospital. She called, explained the situation and the medical staff agreed to
    take care of Lillian, “who was furious,” Field said.

    Although Lillian resisted, Gish now had the right to sign for hospitalization
    and medication.

    The bag lady remained at Brookside for six weeks at the hospital’s expense,
    Field said.

    Lillian was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, but assessment by the hospital
    ruled out the need for medication and the hospital began helping her learn
    community living.

    It was during her six weeks at Brookside that Lillian “began to come out of it
    The security seemed to appeal to her,” said Gish.

    It had been four years since Gish and Lillian had met. In that time, a bond had
    developed between the two and, slowly, the former bag lady’s story unfolded.

    Lillian, whose last name is Michaud, was born in Nashua, and had been married
    and divorced several times. It was the birth of her one child, a boy, that
    marked the beginning of her mental illness. Gish doesn’t know what happened to
    the child.

    “At one time, Lillian worked as a waitress and she had also worked in the
    mills,” Gish said.

    She rented a room in a Nashua hotel, but after the hotel was sold and renovated,
    a new clientele moved in, apparently making Lillian feel uncomfortable. That’s
    when she left.

    One thing Gish made clear: “Lillian was never an alcoholic. She was never seen

    After Lillian’s stay at Brookside was concluded, Field arranged for her to get a
    room in a residence operated by Harbor Homes, a nonprofit group that provides
    housing for the mentally ill.

    Today, she’s happy, clean and her dignity has been restored.

    “I like it here,” Lillian said recently, a comfortable hostess in her tidy
    surroundings. Warming to her visitors, she smiled and added, “The people are
    very nice to me.”

    Although her guardian still worries that Lillian may return to her old ways, the
    staff at Harbor Homes has nothing but praise for Lillian’s progress.

    “At first, she kept her distance, but now she starts conversations. She likes
    the interaction with other clients,” said Jean Bradanick, assistant director of
    the facility. Bradanick said Lillian does her own laundry, cleans her room, and
    sets and clears the table for the evening meal.

    In good weather, Lillian takes daily walks to the store, but prefers to stay
    inside in the winter. “She likes to supervise and spends a lot of time in the
    office,” added Patricia O’Brien, the director of another Harbor Homes residence.

    Gish says her friend is delightfully witty, entertaining, has an extensive
    vocabulary and seems to retain everything she reads. She also has a keen
    interest in clothes, but she continues to wear her crew cap whenever she goes out.

    For Gish, the highlight of this past Christmas season was taking Lillian to a
    party at The Gathering Place, a social club for clients of Community Council of
    Nashua’s mental health center.

    “Everyone attending knew Lillian. Everyone greeted her and said how well she
    looked,” she related. “Lillian seemed to blossom. She served tea to the guests,
    offered sandwiches and acted as if she were the hostess at the event.”

    Remembering the holiday season of the previous year, Gish sighed and, with a
    satisfied smile, said, “It was wonderful.”

    © 2003, Telegraph Publishing Company,
    Nashua, New Hampshire
    Reprinted for educational purposes only.