A light snow freckles the path at my feet. It’s an aching kind of cold. I doubt any of the residents are outside right now — except maybe Joe, because no force of nature or weary healthcare worker could keep that old man from waddling about the complex as he pleased. He wasn’t allowed sugar, but you could count on him to ask you for a soda on the down-low.
I work at a retirement home called The Moorings, where things operate at a walker-assisted hobble. Stroll around on any given day — there are residents gazing, some blissfully and others with a certain aura of disappointment, out at the pond. The swans that live there (nasty things) poke and bite at the ground-level picture windows like they want to speak to admin. Yet, from a different picture window overlooking the pond, these thick-necked Karen birds are pieces of fine china. Porcelain beasts are the marvels of the complex — they compete with the weather in terms of conversational relevance.
It’s all very even-keel, obvious, often boring. But after a semester in the throes of college life at UR, in the type-A frenzy chamber, I savor that kind of boredom. Usually they have me pouring soda and scooping fruit cups in assisted living, the Highlands, the home to residents who live semi-independently. Many of them are in the earlier stages of dementia or otherwise semi-lucid.
Most of us wait staff are just a tiny bit, maybe begrudgingly, attached to the Highlands residents. It’s the kind of attachment that surfaces when you, with an eye-roll, grab Mrs. Nitchall’s prune juice for the thirty-seventh time. An outside observer might mistake it for exasperation.
When Mr. Becker bats at his wheat roll with a thick, veiny finger and insists sternly in his German accent that he wants a “yellow one” instead, you complain out of obligation as a part-time food service worker. But, at least for me, it’s hard not to get all smiley and misty-eyed on your way down to the kitchen for it. A typical shift in the Highlands is chock-full of these sorts of partly annoying, partly funny, and (in a way) serious interactions.
There’s Laura and Rico. Their TV speaker is distorted beyond all reason, but they don’t seem bothered, because the news is always cranked. Laura makes it her duty to get up and let us know which of the dishes we are allowed to clear and which ones we aren’t, one by one. This one, but not that one; that one, but not this one. Rico doesn’t say much. Four cranberry juices, two each, which often go unfinished.
There’s Mrs. Stitt, who has an elementary school named after her. She once gushed to me about it over an order of fresh oranges that she’d asked for. She prefers NPR over television, and it smells like flowers and oatmeal-raisin cookies in her suite. Immaculate vibes. A glass of water for her.
There are the Lydons. Mr. Lydon is an open-hearted teddy bear of a man in a wheelchair with a slight memory problem. He likes to talk Chicago sports and seems to spend a lot of time waiting for his wife to get home. Mrs. Lydon is more guarded and calculated, with no memory issues of her own. She looks out for Mr. Lydon, but they need each other equally. Two cokes.
Mrs. Mackeever. Gone now, but you’d better get her exactly three dishes of ketchup, or who knows how she’d react? I do — she once threatened to “growl and bite” at me when I foolishly offered her two, which turned out not to be an empty threat. A fabled exchange between a wait staff member and Mrs. Mackeever goes something like this:
“Nice walker Mrs. Mackeever.”
“Thanks, I got it for my birthday.”
“Oh? When was your birthday?”
“Seven years ago… ”
I’d be lying if I said I remembered what she liked to drink. Cranberry juice is the default.
There’s Sue Wilson. It’s refreshing to deliver to her room, because otherwise I am subconsciously absorbing FOX news all day — her rare propensity for CNN is a detox from all the dog-whistling. This past winter, sometimes I’d stick around for a few minutes so we could shake our heads in mutual disappointment at the TV. Coffee.
There was Mrs. Sadler, gone now I think. Several times when I’ve offered her a drink — as in V8 or prune juice — she’d look up at me with a wry, unknowing smile and ask, “At this hour?” We once made uncomfortably intense eye-contact as she licked chocolate cream pie off of her (for some reason) knife. Wine?
I could go on. When I come back from college, I am comforted to see that not much has changed at The Moorings. Things go a bit too fast in college sometimes, and it’s nice to be reminded that there are other paces to life. Less frenzied ones.
We’ll all keep seeking internships and love and sex and clout and whatnot, as it should be, but I think it pays off to slow down every so often. While many of us are forced to the brink of insanity and driven to question our entire life direction on a weekly basis, Mr. Becker bats at his wheat roll, Mr. Lydon waits for Mrs. Lydon, and Mrs. Stitt sits happily at her radio with dinner and the evening traffic report.