The elderly… what a manipulative, cunning bunch.
Just wait! Give me a second to explain.
This weekend I went with Aya to a senior assisted living home in Buckhead. She and the members of her Daisy troop went to the home to make Valentine’s Day cards with the residents so that they could earn their service badges. I wasn’t sure how the whole thing would pan out, largely because I did not have much confidence in the girls’ social skills. Generally, kindergarteners and first graders have not developed a strong filter or a keen sense of what’s appropriate to say and when. What if one of the residents farted? I could hear it already.
“Ewww! What stinks?!?” they would shout in unison.
I was mortified before we walked through the automatic double doors. The girls’ conduct before we began the event did not give me cause for much more confidence.
As we sat in the lobby waiting to be ushered upstairs, the girls were getting increasingly fidgety and louder. I heard one of the older ones say that she had been to this facility before, and that old people sometimes smelled funny. I gasped, grunted, and pulled Aya away from her friends.
“You listen to me very closely,” I warned under my breath. “You don’t say ANYTHING that isn’t kind to or around these grandparents, you hear?”
She nodded that she understood. Unconvinced, I rattled a short list of stereotypical things about old people that she was not allowed to say. Anything about smell, walking, hair loss, bumps or warts were chief among these. Chastised in advance, she walked away to go sit with her friends. Soon we were called up to visit with the ‘grandparents’, which was the unofficial moniker that had been assigned to the elderly charges we were visiting today.
We walked into a neat, but almost sterile meeting room where almost 20 residents were seated. The girls paused at the entrance and looked around. The other moms and I encouraged them to walk in and greet the men and women sitting and waiting expectedly for us. Personally, I was thrilled to be there. These were the types of things I dreamed of doing when I was a kid myself. It was all very Sweet Valley High and all the quintessential American experiences I’d read about as an impressionable child, but rarely got a chance to experience. (Like that camping trip last year.)
“Why don’t we have each of the girls pick a table to go to?” the charge nurse advised.
Aya and her friend Leelee walked cautiously over to a table next to the window where two very old women were sitting and smiling shyly. One of them had a scarf tied securely around her head. The other had a pretty brown wig with bangs that she had carefully arranged around her eyes – one of which was milky. In a weird way, she reminded me of my own grandmother who also had a fondness for wigs.
Aya and Leelee were talking to each other and ignoring the grannies. I approached the table and had them introduce themselves.
“My name is Eileen,” said the one with the wig.
“This is Aya,” I said, smiling. “My name is Malaka. I’ll be back with some paper so you can start making your cards.”
“I want paint!” Leelee shouted enthusiastically.
“I’ll be back with some paint then!”
The other moms were busy getting the stations set up as well. I looked around the room and discovered that there were not enough Scouts to sit with grandparents. Not knowing whether it was appropriate or not, I asked a trio of old women if I might join them.
“Sure honey,” one of them croaked. “Come on and set down.”
I looked around the table and smiled to cover up my nervousness. All of the ladies had silvery, brown hair. They were all wheelchair bound and one of them looked like she was dead. She hadn’t flinched or fluttered her eye lids since we came into the room. I extended my hand to the two who were alert.
“My name is Malaka,” I said with a grin.
“I’m Bishop, Jessie Bishop,” replied one. She was not smiling.
“I’m Esther,” said the other sweetly. She returned my smile and made me feel welcomed.
“Pleasure to meet you both!”
I sat down and handed them some colored paper and busied myself with folding the one I had in front of me.
“What are we supposed to be doing?” asked Jessie Bishop. (She always said both her names in conjunction.)
“We’re making Valentine’s cards,” I repeated.
“Well…I don’t know how to do that.”
I looked at her in disbelief as she stared blankly at the neon pink sheet of paper I had set in front of her. She was being sincere – she honestly did not know how to make a card. Gingerly, I walked over to her wheel chair and showed her what to do.
“First we’ll start by folding our paper in half,” I said gently. I didn’t want to sound condescending, like I was talking to a child. I was overwhelmed by how much it felt that way…almost like I was showing Stone or Liya how to do craft.
When I looked to my right I saw that Esther was busy sticking lips and hearts on a perfectly formed sheet of blue paper.
“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” I said mischievously.
“Oh yes,” she said softly, never taking her eyes off her art. “I used to teach pre-kindergarten for almost 40 years. Getting’ the children to learn their colors and shapes, ya know.”
I was impressed. Sometimes you forget that the elderly had a life – a real, meaningful life – before age set in.
After I had gotten Jessie Bishop started on her card, I went and sat down to finish my own craft. She called me back.
“Well I stuck this sticker on there…what do I do now?”
Her paper was yellow (she didn’t care much for the pink one I’d offered her before). I guess she could have colored it?
“Why don’t you write a note on it?” I suggested.
“What should I say?”
I looked at Esther, who was smiling privately too herself. She had written BE MINE on her card and was gleefully penciling red hearts on it.
“How about ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’,” I said simply.
Jessie Bishop paused and mused over that. I thought I had lost her to some mental break. I interrupted her thoughts to make sure she was still with us.
“Is that alright, Miss Jessie?” I asked.
And that’s exactly what she did.
We were supposed to stay for an hour and a half but we ended up staying for two. The Scouts were chattering with their grandparents about colors and classes, and I had discovered a lot about my two new friends and they about me. (The third lady never woke up). Jessie Bishop was 89 years old, and would turn 90 on March 2nd. Esther was 85 and had given birth to 12 kids. Both were native to Georgia, second-borns, widows and great grandmothers. We talked about everything; from C-sections to cornrows to gang violence and Jacob Zuma.
I showed them pictures of my children and my vacation in Axim. They were genuinely impressed to find out I was from Ghana.
“You’re from Africa, you say?”
“Yes ma’am. I just got back to Atlanta from a trip home as a matter of fact.”
“Is that where you got that skirt? It’s beautiful!”
“Yes, my friend has a fashion line called MAKSI Clothing. She made this.”
Esther eyed my red and black skirt and nodded.
“I bet that material cost about $5.00 a yard. That’s good quality cotton.”
They practically begged me to source a skirt for them, which of course I could not refuse to do.
“I’ll save up my money for when you come next time,” said Jessie Bishop wistfully.
“Mmmmhmmm,” agreed Esther.
“It was so nice meeting both of you,” I said earnestly, hugging them both.
Miss Esther gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“I love you,” she told me matter-of-factly.
“And I love you too,” agreed Jessie Bishop.
Before I had a chance to think about it, I told them I’d loved them as well and gave them both another hug before we departed. I had to come and see them again. They were so sweet, and complimenting, and delightful…just cunning!
I’m glad I was conned though, and in such a pleasant, loving way too. It was undoubtedly one of the best days I’ve had in recent memory.
Have you ever visited an old folks’ home? Was it a happy or sobering experience? If you haven’t it’s definitely worth a trip.