Out to Pasture (but not over the hill)
WILD LOOK AT RETIREMENT COMMUNITIES
by Effie Leland Wilder
I simply can’t resist any longer. When Augusta—or Gusta, as we all call her—described why she wanted her funeral luncheon catered, I knew I just had to start putting down some jottings about life here at “The Home.” They won’t be jottings, really; typing will be easier on my hands.
I’ve set up my faithful old Royal, and I’ll keep a loose-leaf notebook. I will work on this right after Jeopardy and before the nine o’clock movie. I wish I had started this practice the night I got to FairAcres, fourteen months ago, and had caught my very first impressions. Anyway, here goes.
Gusta is one of my tablemates. Eight of us are assigned to each table in the dining room for a period of two months. Then it’s fruit-basket-turnover time. I will hate to part with a few of my mealtime companions next week, but not all. I won’t much mind saying bye-bye to Augusta Barton.
She can be entertaining at times, but she talks a mile a minute, nonstop. What with bragging and eating and complaining, her mouth gets a continuous workout. Much of her complaining is about her daughter-in-law Inez. Inez is why Gusta wants a caterer to handle the luncheon after her burial.
“I’ve written out my Final Instructions to my son,” she announced. “Which preacher, what hymns, which clothes, which pallbearers—everything. And I want my funeral collation to be catered!”
“You want your what to be what?” somebody asked.
“I’m going to make all the arrangements for the food and entertainment after the burial. I don’t want Inez making her Low Country Tuna Casserole or her Potted Meat Paté. Those things are so bad they’d make my friends sorry they paid me the respect of coming. If Inez has to cook, she’ll get tired and flustered, which will take away part of her pleasure at getting rid of me.”
Some of us raised our eyebrows at that. Gusta insisted, “Of course she’ll be glad to get rid of me! I guess she’s pretty good as daughters-in-law go, but I’m sure that in her mind I’m a Problem with a capital P. And everybody’s glad when a problem goes away, no matter in what direction!”
Gusta noticed that her ice cream was melting, so she tackled it and we had a few quiet seconds to digest the thoughts of arranging a catered funeral luncheon and of writing out “Final Instructions.”
I haven’t written any. Maybe I should. I know I don’t want any eulogies or any emotional hymns to make people cry. Sometimes in the vast commixture of Gusta’s babbling there’s a smidgen of substance.
Tonight after supper I went into the library to look at a copy of one of the good magazines The Home subscribes to. I sat on the sofa near the door to the brick terrace where some folks like to sit in good weather. It had been a very mild day, and, of course, the heating system continued to operate at its December level. Two men were sitting on the terrace, and I enjoyed the fresh air from the door they had left slightly ajar. As it turned out, I inadvertently also enjoyed their conversation. They were talking about a plane that was flying over our bailiwick, low and loud.
“Sometimes I wonder if those fly-boys know how high our long-leaf pines are. Gonna clip ‘em one day,” said Curtis. “Paul,” he asked his companion, “have you ever been up in a plane?”
“A few times,” came the answer. “Have you?”
“Once. Just once. I didn’t want to, but my Mama was over in Georgia visiting relatives, and she got real sick. They phoned me and said I’d better get there quick. So the only thing to do was to fly to Atlanta, so I did—but I’ll tell you something, Paul...”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“I never did put my whole weight down!”
They thigh-slapped over that remark for at least five minutes. Then they started comparing notes on Geneva Tinken, a highly vocal resident here.
“I’m scared of that woman, Paul,” said Curtis. “Spreadin’ tales is her favorite indoor sport.”
“I know,” said Paul, “she’s sitting at my table. She’s dangerous. Last night I couldn’t sleep, and I made up some lines about her. Want to hear ‘em?”
“You know I do.”
You’re a stinkin’
Curtis laughed ‘til he choked, and I had to leave the library for fear they would hear me chuckling.
One way I can use this journal is to respond to a letter from my college classmate Henrietta Gooding telling me that she has put her name on the waiting list for this home, and telling me of her great misgivings. She asked me to write to her in detail about FairAcres Home.
“Give it to me straight,” she said. “I haven’t put any money down, and I can get my name off the list, or get it put on the bottom. God knows there wouldn’t be time for it to rise to the top again!”
I am inserting a copy of my letter to her. (Every day I think of something I sold or gave away that I wish I had, but thank goodness I kept my slightly beat-up portable typewriter.)
I loved your letter. I know what you mean about decisions, about uncertainty, about your name moving up the list for this place. I agree that waiting around for people to die is “ghoulish.” When they phoned me and said my name had reached the top of the list (had crept up via trips to the cemetery, I knew), it hit me like a blow. I wanted to sit down and bawl.
Even though life had become right much of a briar patch, and even though I had made the application and gone through all the motions, I suddenly found I wasn’t ready for the smooth grass of pastureland. Not yet. Maybe next year. Maybe in five years. But I knew that if I waited too long, they might not take me. You have to be able to dress yourself, and walk to the dining room.
Getting here wasn’t easy. Closing up a house where I had lived for forty-seven years was the worst trauma I have ever experienced. Memories of Sam and the children hit me with every drawer and closet I cleaned out. The attic nearly did me in.
I finally had to start pitching, and I felt like I was throwing my life away and my family’s lives. You know what killed me? Leaving the door to the den! On the back of that door were measurements of our children through the years. Sam would put a ruler on the child’s head, make a mark with the name by it, and then show each child how much he or she had grown since the last birthday. They were so proud of those marks, and now I’m sure they are painted over. Oh, me.
I survived, however, and I’m here, and now I’m mostly glad. Not altogether, but mostly. At least the children know that I’m safe (there are security guards and an infirmary with nurses) and that they won’t have to figure out how to make room for Mama. They would have done it, and with good grace. But would I have had the necessary grace? And would a grandchild who lost a room have hated it?
You said it would help if I put down some of my impressions and sent them to you. I had been thinking about starting a diary, or even a story (“The Last Chapter,” maybe?), but I have been lazy about it. So now I am glad to be spurred on by your request. I will try to write something down nearly every night, and you can read these jottings when you come to see me to “case the joint.”
Meantime, please keep writing to me. Your letters will help keep the dust out of my mailbox. It’s a much bigger box than I need for my hot correspondence with AARP, Ed McMahon, and Medicare.
Not only that, but I enjoy your style. Your wit and fluent pen take me back to meetings of the Wild Thyme Literary Society at Converse College. Remember what scared freshmen we were at our first meeting, when they had us read something we’d written?
The funniest thing was the name of that group. I remember when a girl got up in the dining room and said, “There will be a meeting of the Wild Thyme Society in the library tonight.” I pricked up my ears—Wild Time? Oh, boy! But in the library?
I stray, as usual...There are a lot of really nice people here. They take some discovering, because they’re quieter than The Nuts. I will probably be spending most of my writing time on The Nuts. They’re much easier to portray.
I enclose copies of my first “jottings,” which will not convey much of an idea of this “Home, Sweet Home.” But more will come, deo volente.
One really good thing about this place is that we are all members of the same generation. When people talk about Ronald Colman or Billy Sunday or Lum ‘n Abner or Lydia Pinkham or Studebakers, they don’t have to stop and explain.
I heard a lady the other day ask, “Tom Cruise? Who’s he?” When told he was one of the hottest movie stars around, she said, “Shoot. I’m a Joel McCrea fan myself.” I made a circle with my thumb and finger to show her I agreed. Old Joel was a love. He looked and talked and acted like a man.
Perhaps we can’t work computers and are a little embarrassed because our youngest grandchildren can. But, on the other hand, there are some of us who can write sonnets. We have one woman here who makes up crossword puzzles and has sold several of them to The New York Times. People in our conversational French class are parlez-vooing all over the place.
Many of us can knit handsome sweaters and can crochet heirloom items with intricate, beautiful patterns. One resident makes all of her clothes from scratch, starting on a loom! She lives in one of the cottages and has turned her second bedroom into a “loom room.” She weaves the yarn into the softest materials, which she fashions into stylish skirts and dresses. That takes patience, and more care and work than most young people want to invest these days, it seems to me.
Some of us in our tiny kitchens turn out some wonderful things: artichoke relish and orange marmalade and blueberry preserves, among other things. So you see, everything is not rocking-chair and Medicare.
Not only do we have the same kinds of memories; many of us seem older than we are because we absorbed our parents’ memories. Children in the old days sat quietly at the table under threat of punishment, and there was nothing to do but listen to visiting aunts and uncles and grandparents as they held forth—sometimes interminably.
When my cousin Boo Starrett came to visit, it was kind of fun. I didn’t squirm as much listening to her because I was waiting for her to get things mixed up. Mama told me when I was about twelve that Cousin Boo’s mix-ups were called malapropisms. I was proud to learn such a long word. Cousin Boo would say things like, “My friend Tooty has a hyena hernia. They’re bad.” And when she was trying to get a driver’s license she said she had to learn “paralyze parking.”
One day she said, “I told him if he did that, it would be catamount to throwing in the towel.”
I thought of Cousin Boo the other day when I heard one of the residents here say, “The dogwood trees didn’t look right this year. They must have a plight.” That was the same lady who said, after hearing someone complain about a meal, “Well, I’ll tell you something. That dinner tasted real good to me. Of course, I’m no common sewer.” And the rest of us—not a connoisseur in the crowd—had to try to keep straight faces.
I may not get too many words tangled, but I find I’ve been getting an embarrassing number of details mixed up recently, such as the days of the week, the days of the month, the day for putting out the garbage, the day for the dentist, the day for paying my monthly maintenance fee, the day for making a deposit before writing the checks!
From what I hear, I’m not alone. I’ve decided that the main religion in this place is not Presbyterianism. It’s Confusion-ism. We are the Mother Church, and I am an elder.
Louly’s door was slightly ajar, and as I passed down the hall I heard what I thought was crying. I pushed the door a bit, and sure enough, Louly was in her chair by the window, bent over and weeping.
“It’s Hattie,” I called. “May I come in?”
She gave me a come-on motion with her hand. I shut the door and went over to her.
“What is it, Louly?” I asked, holding on to her shoulder.
She shuddered, and then said in a
shaking voice, “I...
I patted her shoulder, wondering what to say. She blew her nose, straightened up a little, and continued.
“When you’ve worked hard and tried hard, it looks like your life should get better toward the end, not worse.” The sadness on her face as she looked out of the window was painful to see. “Lucius said today at lunch that his life would really be pitiful if it wasn’t for his memories. Well, Hattie, I’ll tell you something: I haven’t got good memories. My life is pitiful and always has been...How could it have been anything else with a face like this?”
She looked up at me. Tears softened the faded eyes, but nothing softened the shape of the nose, or the unfortunate mouth.
I started to speak, but no words came. I couldn’t make myself say, “Oh, your face is all right, Louly.” It wasn’t all right. It was pitiful—a damned shame—a loathsome trick to have played upon you.
“I used to run home from school,” she went on, sniffing and blowing, “racing to show Mama my report card. She’d say ‘That’s good, Louly.’ But she didn’t really care. I could tell. You should’ve heard the way she carried on when Theresa came home and announced she’d been made Junior May Queen, or Miss Ninth Grade.”
“Was Theresa your sister?” I asked. She nodded. I reflected, as I had many times, on the cruelty of a plain girl having a beautiful sister. What could I say to this poor creature?
I patted her shoulder again and said, haltingly, “I’ll bet you were a wonderful teacher, Louly. I’ll bet you inspired many a youngster—left your mark on them for life.”
Some mark. A fifth grader’s memory of an ugly woman who could be mean
because she was unhappy.” She looked out at the trees, her mouth drawn
down. “I’ll tell you something, Hattie. Don’t ever tell anybody; but
I had the audacity to love a man once, a principal at the school where I
taught. He was nice to me, out of the goodness of his great heart, and I
leaped at that goodness and tried to make something more out of it...All I
got was disappointment and embarrassment.”
I thought of some lines by Dorothy Parker:
“The sun’s gone dim, and / the moon’s turned black;
For I loved him and / he didn’t love back.”
I didn’t say them out loud, of course, and she melted into sobs of self-pity again, saying something that sounded like, “What’s the good of any of it?”
I squeezed her hand and said I would see her a little later, and I slipped out, feeling as helpless and depressed as I had ever felt in my life. What’s the good of it, indeed, with a life like that? But I know that I have to find a way to help that miserable woman. Now that I think about it, I don’t believe it’s the thought of further aging and death that gets her down, as much as it is the fact that she hasn’t done much living—good living, that is.
I walked around the perimeter of our campus late yesterday afternoon. When I passed the Lyerlys’ cottage, I noticed Arthur Priest washing and polishing the Lyerlys’ car. Arthur
is one hardworking young man. Nearly every day and on
Saturdays, he does overtime jobs for the residents to supplement the salary he makes in our maintenance department, and he does the jobs superbly. There is nothing that he can’t clean or paint or put back together. Whatever he mends stays mended.
was so impressed with Arthur when I first came—at the way he could hang
pictures and arrange furniture and put up curtains—that I asked Cora
Hunter how FairAcres could afford to keep such a fellow. “He ought to be
using those talented hands in manufacturing or inventing or even
decorating,” I said.
“Oh, but he can’t,” said Cora. “I mean he could, but he can’t get to those places to do those things. He can’t drive.”
“He’s not allowed to drive,” she explained. “He doesn’t have a license.”
“No driver’s license? Why ever not?” I was incredulous.
“He’s tried several times to get one, but he can’t read well enough to figure out the test questions.”
“Didn’t he go to school?” I asked.
“Yes, but there must be something wrong. He couldn’t pass the tests, and finally when he was about fifteen he quit and went to work. He got married at nineteen,” Cora continued, “and had two kids right away. The family lives in a tiny trailer about a mile from here, so he can ride his bicycle to work, which is lucky for us.”
Indeed it is, not only because of his amazing efficiency, but also because of his very likable personality. Arthur knows all of us, smiles and calls us by name whenever he runs into us, and seems genuinely interested in our welfare. What a difference that kind of positive attitude makes in a staff member.
Later that night I was still thinking about Arthur—his dark good looks, his nice nature, and the trap he was caught in. Surely somebody could teach him to read. I never studied that reading method—what is it called? Lorback? I never taught school, but surely, among the two hundred people here...And then it hit me! Louly! I wanted to jump up and go see her right then, but it was after eleven, so I waited until this morning. I wasn’t disappointed.
“Arthur? That nice young man who fixed my commode? You mean to tell me he can’t read?” A gleam came into Louly’s eyes. “Why, Hattie, do you really think I might help him?”
“I believe you could do a better job of it than anybody else in this whole place. You spent many a year teaching children to read, didn’t you?”
“That I did. And a few of them were a real challenge, I can tell you. Some were just lazy and no-account—but I had two that had dyslexia.”
“That’s what I think is Arthur’s trouble. Do you know how to handle that?”
“If that’s what it is,” said Louly, “then he’s not seeing the words right. It takes patience and time to help him—more time than public school teachers have—but what else have I got to do? I’d love to work with that boy. Anybody who can be that polite and nice while he’s fixing a commode is worth helping.”
I think it’s working! Arthur jumped at the chance to get help. It is usually evening before they can get together, what with Arthur’s after-hour chores. They meet in the library, which is a pleasant room and usually deserted at night.
Louly had saved some of her textbooks, which they started on, and she called the State Library for assistance. She must have gotten the right person, because they have already sent her some books on dyslexia and told her where to order some special reading manuals. She has also gotten much help from that wonderful group, the Literacy Association.
Yesterday, Louly told me, “Sometimes we spend fifteen minutes figuring out one word, but he is so smart he immediately relates it to a whole class of words.”
As she talked, Louly beamed. I wish I could say that she was suddenly pretty. She wasn’t, but she looked glad to be alive and that made her much easier to look at.
One of the residents who is nearly blind came into the chapel for the service this morning, late. As she turned into a row about midway down, the rest of us held our breaths. We could see what she couldn’t: that there was not an empty seat on that row.
We had visions of the sedate lady squatting into a gentleman’s lap. It would have been a dreadful embarrassment to her and to him. Fortunately a kind soul stood up and led her back into the aisle and found her a seat. Disaster was averted. There’s kindness here, all around. I see it more and more.
The staff arranged for two doctors to come and have a session with us about how to improve our memories. I thought, Oh, boy! That’s for me! The only trouble was, I forgot to go! I hope my children don’t hear about that.
Cora told me a “funny” tonight. Maybe it’s an oldie, but it was new to me. An old lady said to the bartender at a party, “Just put a jigger of water in the glass and fill it up with whiskey.” When the bartender looked astonished, she lowered her voice and said, “You see, I can hold my liquor, but I can’t hold my water!” Whoo-eee.
Last night I heard a comedian on television say, “I had a Christmas card from my paper boy. It said ‘second notice.’” He said when the paper boy came to collect, he told him, “You’ll find your money in an envelope up in that tree—right where you usually throw the paper.”
Out to Pasture (but not over the
hill). Copyright © 1995 by Effie Leland Wilder. Excerpted by
arrangement with Peachtree Publishers, Ltd. $9.95. Available in local
bookstores or click here.