There’s a woman in town who now spends her days confined within the walls of a convalescent home. She’s well known to many a local, not by name or relation, but as that old black woman who’s always walking the streets alone. An obvious target of questions or ridicule in a small town where everyone has a car and there’s no public transportation. If someone’s walking outside of Main Street, there must be something wrong. Quietly strolling the blacktop at a relaxed pace, without an apparent care in the world, can quickly label you as a bit odd, a crazy eccentric. Most locals haven’t noticed her absence and others have happily not missed it, and even a smaller segment even knows where she went.
But she does, all too well. In her late seventies, she’s surrounded by “all these old people”, and bites at the bit of her chance to return to the outside world. Interaction with younger people had always re-energized her, but now she finds herself surrounded by the cries and moans of men and women stuck in a similar predicament.
The local area has long-since been a mecca for retirees, with affordable homes and low taxes, surrounded by beautiful countryside and a small-town way of life. If you didn’t recently settle here, chances are that your family’s been living in the area for years, with a surname that rings familiar as a ‘Valley Name’. Descendants of the original settlers. The family homes have been handed down from generation to generation; “This is where I was born, probably be where I die”.
Those that have relocated to the area in the past thirty years have been, for the most part, accepted into the community in the typical small-town fashion. They’re people, just like their new neighbors. The older crowd has a lot in common, no matter where they spent their first sixty years. Memories of WWII and air raid drills as a child. Ration stamps and adding the packet to margarine to make it yellow. The first appearance of the television and business deals closed with a handshake.
There’s irony in the injury that brought her to this place. An injury to a foot that had once led her around the streets of town, now restricts her in a wheel chair since her surgery and ongoing rehabilitation. There was even talk of amputation, another cruel twist of “just getting old”. She spends her days wheeling herself around the rectangular hallway of her new home. Her mind is clear, but vocally frustrated with the captive audience with whom she tries to entertain and be social. Her roommate is “like having a dead person sleeping next to ya”. Several patients “aren’t right in the head” while every third or fourth is described as “a really nice person”.
A possible suitor, a double leg amputee living on the far side of the ward, recently gave her a nice, gold watch. It’s a men’s watch, quite handsome, just like the gift’s giver. “He looking for a wife” she smiles. “I don’t want no husband! I ‘ve been single all my life, and better off for it”. Then, with the over-sized watch tangling from her wrist, she mentions that she’s heading out to the lobby. “There’s a guy(employee) who says he can make it smaller, so it can fit proper”. “Plus, he can change the battery. The time’s not right”
Being a Southern woman, the food served everyday is politely described as being “pretty good, sometimes”. Her mother, who she often refers to when recalling memories, always said that “I made the best fried chicken”. But the hospital food doesn’t really compare to the homemade meals of a self-proclaimed great cook. “They don’t add no spices. No fatback in the beans. Too many special diets, I guess” But apparently, the dietary guidelines aren’t too strict. She’s forever with a bite-sized candy bar lying in her lap and gifts of cookies brought by visitors are eaten faster than the conversations last.
When staff is asked about her whereabouts (she’s rarely in her room) they all seem to reply first with a perplexed laugh, and then with similar responses. “Oh, it’s hard to tell!” “Did you check out on the porch?” “The sitting room?” “Maybe she’s getting her hair done” “You just never know with her”
She consistently gives high praise to those with which she spends her days. The facility’s staff, not the fellow patients. And rightfully so, if you think about it. More times than not, the patient list at an office of the typical pediatrician or occupational therapist or general practitioner is coming for a visit that’ll help those patients get on with their lives. Whereas the employees of this facility, and the dozens of similar facilities in the area, are providing care for people who may soon be getting up for the last time. It’s no wonder that there are always help-wanted listings in the newspaper, searching for these special individuals. The emotional burden must be brutal.
It’s funny that she gets such pleasure from watching the caged birds housed in the large enclosure out in the sitting room. Memorized she is, as the little birds hop from perch to perch, she seemingly knows every detail of their day. What they eat and when. Who’s mating who. The schedule and routine of the birds’ caretaker. It’s as if she sympathizes with the birds, knowing how they must feel, their natural flight restricted.
Her Mother’s long gone, most of her siblings have passed, and now her one sister’s spiraling downhill with Parkinson’s. Visitors are few, but always welcome. There’s an unspoken understanding of the inconvenience that those occasional visitors have gone through to sit with her for just a while. Flowers and sweets aren’t really necessary, just smiles and conversation. Gifts that she’ll no doubt share with others.
Like the other residents of the home, she’s not happy to be there. But she’s very happy when you are.