They're all old. In a nursing home, it's hard to tell a generation of ninety-year-olds from their seventy-year-old children. A few more wrinkles, a lot more creaky joints. The only thing I knew was that Ida was really old.
I first met her in the Colonial Acres "lounge" three years ago, as she was moving in. She had on a pink and blue striped housecoat--those dresses that snap up the front and hang like a tent canvas--glasses, grey just-out-of-the-beauty-parlor hair, and a bottle of Chantilly hand lotion.
"Wheel Mrs. Mills to room 206, station A-south," ordered nurse Barb Eastmark, as she shoved some terrible orange medicine down Emma Rafferty's throat. "You drink this up, Mrs. Rafferty. Doctor's orders."
Ida was watching this. She crinkled her eyebrows, cupped her hand to her mouth, and out of its corner asked me, "Don't they say please around here?" I smiled, noticing that she didn't wear a hearing aid like most of the residents. She talked softer, too. We started the trek down one of the many long halls. On the way to her room, Ida was flipping her head back and forth, looking at the residents lined up on either side.
"Is this the welcome wagon?" she swung her head back and asked. I explained that everyone was lining up in front of the dining room for lunch.
"It must be something pretty good. Look at that woman drooling," she said. I didn't know what was for lunch, so when we passed the bulletin board, Ida told me to "Whoa! Honey, stop here, let me look at the menu." She squinted, looked up and read, "Cod with white sauce, peas, cornbread, and Jello for dessert. Sounds like creamed crud."
Just then a resident yelled: "Hey, nurse, I hafta piss." Al Stecker was his name. He used to be part of the Stecker Brothers, an capella male country group. He told everybody everyday, "Hi, I'm Al Stecker. I'm a Stecker Brother."
"Al, you shouldn't talk like that. This is a new resident. Her name is Ida," I said.
"Yeah," bellowed his roommate, Ivan Reed, who was in line right beside him. "And you just peed a half an hour ago. 'Sides, you shouldn't say 'piss' in front of the ladies." Ivan winked and tipped his crumpled grey derby hat in our direction. "You'll have to excuse him. He ain't got much left upstairs. Though I don't s'pose he ever did."
"Shut up, Reed!" yelled Stecker. "Maybe she has ta piss too. If you don't take me now, I'm gonna make a leak on this floor. Say, do you know the Stecker Brothers?"
Ida squinted her eyes, smiled, bent forward, and said, "Nice to meet you, Mr. Pecker. I hope you like cod. I don't have to wee, thank you, but you go right ahead. Go on and take him, dear, I can push myself the rest of the way."
Smiling, trying not to laugh, I grabbed the handles on Mr. Stecker's wheelchair. "It's room 206," I reminded her. She just said, "Yes, thanks," and paddled away at the floor with her brown orthopedic shoes, all the way to her room.
This nursing home, owned and run by members of the Covenent Religion, housed its fair share of "godly" people. Ida was an "ungodly" Catholic, like me, and she scoffed at the pious ideas of no smoking, no drinking and the suggestions that certain nurses made about the residents' choices of television programs. Ida was usually pretty tolerant, pleasant to the nursing assistants and orderlies, but there were a few nurses she could "just as well do without," especially if they tried to change her TV channel.
One evening, just before her bedtime, Ida asked nurse Barb Eastmark for her nightly, doctor-prescribed dixie cup of beer. I stood in the hallway and watched Barb purse her lips and frown disgustedly as she stood in the med room, measuring out tablespoons of Coors. Then she carried the cup to Ida's room, holding it between just her thumb and index finger as if she couldn't stand any more "sin" to touch her hands. Ida ignored Barb's face and said, "Why, thank you," as she was handed the cup. "Would you like some, too, nurse? There's more in you fridge."
"No, thank you," Barb trilled. "I don't believe in drinking."
"What's not to believe?" asked Ida. "Here's the beer. Now I'll drink it," and she downed the whole dixie cupful in one swig.
I had entered the room now and was turning back Ida's bed, when out of the corner of my eye I saw Barb gasp and swing around, her hand flying up to her chest as if to protect her soul underneath. She was looking toward the TV screen. It was one of those evening soaps like Dallas. Two people were ripping each other's clothes off, muttering something about hurrying before the kids got home from the movies.
"Sit down and watch some television with us, dear," Ida asked me as I took out her Efferdent tablets and tooth cup from the drawer. I told her I would, but I still had five people to put to bed. Barb looked at me, then at the TV screen, and turned red.
"Why don't we turn the channel here, Mrs. Mills, and see if that Billy Graham special is on yet. All of the other residents have their TVs turned to channel four, waiting for the show." Before Ida could answer, Barb turned the channel and whisked out of the room. Within minutes, I heard the phone ring at the desk. It was the nursing home director calling; Ida had called her at home to ask her if it wasn't a violation of her first amendment rights to have to watch Billy Graham instead of Dallas. I peeked out the door and looked at the main desk. Barb looked flustered when she hung up. Suddenly she appeared back at Ida's door.
"Would you mind turning the channel for Ida?" she asked me. "It seems she can't reach it from the bed. And stay with her until she's feeling comfortable." I turned about-face to carry out the orders. Ida had propped a pillow beside her for me to rest against.
"Sit down on the bed by me, kiddo. You heard what the boss said. Let's watch Dallas until I'm comfortable. Your skin looks dry. Here, have some Chantilly."
The funniest thing Ida ever did happened at the annual Fourth of July picnic. Every Independence Day the staff had to haul all of the residents to the back door, most of them in sweaters, hollering about catching a chill or having to go to the bathroom. At the door we had to put sunblock on all of their faces, "paying particular attention to the nose." Nurse Barb would direct us. Then Cindy, the activities director, would pass around straw hats. Each resident must wear one, "state health regulations," Cindy would sing.
Ida wasn't overly excited about this picnic either. Barb had insisted that the fresh air would do Ida good, then ordered me to escort her to the picnic. Ida was even more aggravated because she was missing her favorite soap, Days of Our Lives. She asked me to quick call her grandson, Bob, at work and tell him to tape it for her over his lunch hour. "The number's by the phone, dear. Hurry!" she begged. So I left her at the door and ran back to her room. I reached Bob, gave him the news, and ran back down to the picnic, hoping Nurse Barb hadn't noticed me missing.
I quickly pitched in with the back-breaking work of hauling the residents in their wheelchairs, uphill, over the bumpy grass, to the picnic tables under the canopies. The festival was in full swing, complete with sweaty volunteer banjo players singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "Bicycle Built for Two." In the background you could hear the din of "Nurse, I'm tired. Lay me down" or "Where's my supper? He's got his" with a few residents accompanying, "Buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks." I wondered how the banjo players kept playing through all this noise and heat. I stared at the one who looked like Richie Cunningham with slicked-back red hair, wearing a styrofoam hat with a red, white, and blue paper ribbon around it. He was serenading nearsighted Hildur Christensen when Mr. Stecker started yelling.
"These guys are pansies. Get me the Stecker Brothers. Where's the Steckers?"
And his roommate, Ivan, hollered back, "They're all dead!" I thought I was going to lose it. I searched the crowd for Ida's knowing look when I spotted her.
"Help! Help! Nurse, that man's trying to kill me with a stick!" Hildur Christensen was screaming and waving her arms at the Richie Cunningham banjo player. Ida was sitting right next to her, looking perturbed, when I saw her glance at an untied canopy string flapping in the wind on the other side of the year. Then she looked at a second string tied to the tree right beside her. I watched in gleeful horror as her gnarled fingers untied the string and the whole canopy cam crashing down on three tables of residents.
For five minutes, utter confusion pervaded the scene. No one was hurt, of course; the canopy was thin like a tent canvas. But it was just enough time for Ida and me to slip back to her cool, air-conditioned room. "Why did you do it?" I asked her, laughing and out of breath.
"If I had to listen to one more minute of that off-key banjo player or that blind Mrs. Christensen, I would have needed more than a dixie cup of beer tonight. Say, kiddo, your hands look dry. Take a squirt of Chantilly. Would you turn on the rest of Days of Our Lives? Maybe we should invite that nice Mr. Reed over too. And call Bob. Tell him to call the director and tell her that Barb Eastmark untied the canopy strings."
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