Archive for November, 2011

Working Thanksgiving

November 26, 2011

Nursing homes never close.   Weekends and holidays are included in the work schedule.  The most popular holidays to have off are Christmas and Thanksgiving.  New Year’s Day is special to those who party the night before.

I worked Thanksgiving last year. It was my turn. We planned our meal at home around my absence. I was annoyed. Holidays are family time and I hate missing my routine, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in my flannel pajamas and fuzzy slippers, spending most of the day in the kitchen, basting the turkey, mixing batter for pumpkin bars, smacking the boys’ hands as they dip a finger for a taste, peeling ten pounds of potatoes, listening to Johnny Mathis croon Christmas tunes, and later, after the feast and dishes, football games.  Next year, I thought with a sigh.

Oh well, I reasoned, go in early, leave early, dinner with in-laws by four o’clock, help with dishes at their house, and finally football at home. The day won’t be a total wash, but not what I love.  I hit the time clock by the nursing home kitchen door at seven twenty-six, making Thanksgiving a work day.

The halls were quiet, not like a usual nine to five day.  I got the daily newsletter printed and delivered. As I visited room to room, my elder friends greeted me with “Happy Thanksgiving, It’s so nice to see you here today.”  

Most every room’s television displayed marching bands, floats with popular singers, and giant helium balloons coming around the corner onto Sixth Avenue from Broadway in New York City.  Mary and I watched  Kermit the Frog wave to the crowd. Down the hall and around the corner Olive and I laughed at Ronald McDonald as he looked to be running to catch up to his fellow helium-filled buddies.  I sat on Earl’s bed while we watched a marching band move into formations while keeping tune. Earl kept time with his right foot tapping on the linoleum floor tile.

I dropped by the kitchen to see how the holiday dinner was coming along.  Three, golden brown twenty pound turkeys lay side by side in baking pans, Raymond, the chef, kept an eye on the candied yams, green bean casserole, oyster dressing, and glazed carrots.  He was chopping cranberries for the relish and had a pot boiling on the stove for ‘real’ mashed potatoes. Yeast rolls rose in the warming tray and gravy bubbled in a pot.  Twenty-five homemade pies cooled on the rack. In my thirty years, I’d never seen such a feast. I smiled with anticipation for the elders and went back upstairs to transcribe the list of “things we’re thankful for” residents had turned in the week before.

Robert, the maintenance assistant walked into the Activity Room for his break, and put on a pot of coffee.  He was working Thanksgiving day too. As the smell of brewed coffee filled the room, Robert pulled up Tractor.com on the computer and drooled over several John Deere four-wheel drive machines with enclosed cabs.  Robert’s a farmer at heart, keeping up with a small cattle farm single-handedly in addition to his forty hour work week at the nursing home. 

The elders love Robert.  They’ve adopted him as their son.  His daily rounds include a tool box filled with wrenches, hammers,  hugs, cups of coffee,  and often, just five minutes of time to listen to stories. 

“What are you doing at noon?” I asked him.

“I don’t know, probably checking the tags on fire extinguishers, why?”

“Can you carve the turkeys in the dining room?”

“Sure,” he said. “Where’s the knife?”

We searched the cabinets and finally came up with a fairly large, straight edged knife.

“Can’t cut hot butter with this thing,” Robert said, running his thumb across the dull edge. “Let me go find a file.”  Suddenly, he was in his element, finding an implement he could sharpen, like a blade on his hay mowing machine.

Robert and I met upstairs at 12:00 sharp. There are sixteen tables in the dining room. Sixty-four people, dressed in their finest, bowed their heads as Nannie gave thanks.  “We gather today to count our many blessings,” she said. “Thank you Lord for everyone here, for the hands that prepared this meal, and for another year of life. Please help us remember to appreciate each day we are given and to love those around us. Amen.”

Robert carved, and the rest of the staff members served the feast.

The large, flat screen television over the fireplace is perfect for football. Dallas and New Orleans faced off and old men stared intently at the action. One shook his fist at an Umpire’s call. Several cheered when their team scored, and a few on the losing side cursed. It was just like home, only with wheelchairs.

I brought the craft materials into the dining room where several ladies helped me glue the Thanksgiving quotes onto a tri-fold poster board. Earlier in the week, each elder had been given a strip of paper. “Think about what you’re thankful for,“  I said.  We’ll post them on Thanksgiving day for everyone to read.”

“I’m thankful for my health.” –Albert

“My children.” –Jim

“The staff here.” –Mary

“Science Club” –Sonny

“To have won the battle against Cancer.”—Hazel

“Friends” –Anne

“I wasn’t born a woman.” –Robert

“Having enough food to eat, and a roof over my head.” –Patty

We unfolded strip after strip of paper, transcribed with so many blessings in shaky handwriting, by nursing home residents who still felt thankful.

“You write one,” Constance said to me.

I took one of the strips and wrote in bold letters:

Spending Thanksgiving Day with my Friends here.

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The Importance of Apples

November 20, 2011

Margaret-Dawn Thacker

Usually, when corporate executives visit the nursing home, the experience raises everyone’s blood pressure. Their expectations seem so unrealistic. After all, they sit in some office somewhere and make policy. We are busy taking care of basic needs and attempting to add a little light into old, frail lives.

This week, the biggest of the corporate folks arrived in force. The company has re-organized due to cuts in the Medicare program. The new directors are moving across country, visiting all the homes, offering assistance, best practices they’ve seen on their travels. They’re asking us questions. They’re encouraging us to share our best practices with them. They’re listening.  Our blood pressure has leveled off, maybe even decreased.

Prior to their visit, sometime over the weekend, someone dropped off a bushel of apples from a local orchard. They were on my doorstep at work Monday morning. I was excited. Here was an unlimited variety of meaningful activity for my elders, a week’s worth of fun, pies, apple butter, applesauce, dried apples, sliced raw apples, juice running off whiskered chins, wrinkled hands peeling, shared recipes, stories of orchards, harvests, and senses enhanced by cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and real butter.

“You cannot use those apples,” someone said. “They haven’t been FDA approved.”

Something stopped me from getting rid of them. I left the basket of apples on the counter. When staff asked about them, I said I had a plan for them. I wasn’t sure what it was yet, but I knew there was one.

The corporate wheels rolled into the parking lot at varying times on Tuesday afternoon.  They converged in the conference room as our staff whispered, and wondered, and wrung their hands in anticipation. The surface of the place shined, the halls smelled of aerosol orange essence.

There were a whole lot of us, so we met in the activity room. It’s the place where residents feel most at home. There’s a green Formica-top kitchen table with chrome legs, a distressed white-washed kitchen cabinet housing mixing bowls, spices, a flour sifter, a Rumford baking powder cookbook and a china tea set.  Against one wall, a wooden workbench sits under a pegboard with tools attached, a hammer, wrench, oil can, spark plug, fan belt, garden hose sprayer, carpenter’s level and a screwdriver. The piano sits against the other wall with music books. Spider plants and terrariums enjoy the sun from stands in front of the windows. A couch, love seat, and glider rocker sit in a group encouraging rest or reading of the books and magazines on the shelves. It’s a place I’d want to go to find refuge if I lived in the nursing home.

 The VP had us sit in a circle. He introduced himself and asked each of us to do the same and tell everyone how long we’ve worked here. There are five of us who have been working here over thirty years. We are considered the elders of the staff. The VP was in awe of our longevity. He shouldn’t have been. It’s what we do, it’s who we are. These elders are our hearts.

When the meeting disbanded, when we understood the goal, the company director of dining services walked over to my basket of apples.

“You planning some apple activities this week?” she asked.

“I was,” I said.

“And you changed your mind?” she asked.

“They’re not FDA approved,” I said.

“Let’s see,” she said taking one from the basket, washing it thoroughly with soap and water and biting into it. “Seem like perfectly good Granny Smith apples to me, great for cooking and eating. They’d make wonderful pies. Just wash them well,” she said, turning toward the door.

Celia and I peeled a colander full of the crisp green apples this afternoon. She had her own knife, the one she keeps locked in my desk drawer. We tried to outdo each other in making the longest spiral of peel. She beat me hands down. I cored and sliced the juicy quarters into one-eighth inch slivers.

Betty gave up her mother’s apple pie recipe. It took very little coaxing and brought a warm smile to her face.

Robert, a former chef, explained the difference between nutmeg and cinnamon and how much to sprinkle over the pie because Betty’s mother didn’t measure, she just sprinkled.

Elise, whose fingers don’t work like they used to, sugared the apples, and Tessa fussed over the crust.

Ethel tasted the fruit, extolling its tartness and declared it “a good cookin’ apple.”

Laura, who has difficulty finding the words for her sentences, read each step of the recipe with her glasses perched on the end of her nose.

And Sonny, who’d never baked anything in his life, measured out the butter because he didn’t think it was fair to eat a piece of the pie if he didn’t do something to help.

With the oven preheated to 350, two apple pies slid inside and onto its metal rack. We waited the hour of baking, telling more stories of pies from the past, of other mother’s recipes, of days in kitchens from years ago. The scent of cinnamon and nutmeg, butter and sugar filled the room and drifted out into the hallway. Staff members drifted back to us to see what smelled so good. They wanted us to start a bakery. They complimented the group on a job well done.

The only thing better than warm apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream is the feeling of accomplishment in making the pastries from scratch. If you don’t believe it, just ask Celia, Betty, Robert, Elise, Tessa, Ethel, Laura and Sonny.

Birthday Presence

November 14, 2011

 

Tonight I opened the hinged wooden box on my dresser and dropped a solid white glass marble and a 2003 copper penny into it. The two items found their own spots among the collection in the small pine container.  They joined a menagerie of keepsakes including a rusted gate hinge, a quartz rock, a hand-forged nail, a triplet of brown acorns attached at the stem, a brass button with an anchor embossed on it, a heart shaped rock,  and a small scrap of blue paper folded in fourths. I smiled at the contents.  If the house should catch fire, and my family and animals were safe outside, I’d grab this box second only to the photographs of my children.  

I’ve known Bruce for thirty-three of my fifty birthdays. As I sat in a hotel bed this morning, sipping the cup of coffee he brought me, I tried to think of the birthday presents he’s given me over the years.  I can’t remember a single wrapped gift placed in my hand or on a table in front of me. Bruce hasn’t even presented me with the proverbial vacuum cleaner that women complain about.  He’s not one for fancy trimmings, romantic gestures, or grand hoopla.  What he does, is proclaim a rousing “Happy Birthday,” and then, he gives up his whole day to me.

This year I wanted to go to Chincoteague, to spend the weekend of my birthday walking the grounds of the wildlife refuge, feeling that ever-present wind blow through my hair. I wanted to take as many photographs as the memory card could hold, and wander the island thrift stores in search of a good book to read. I didn’t want to cook. We packed the car and left early Friday morning. We didn’t come back until tonight.  

When I was a little girl, I remember making wishes on my birthday candles. This year, fifty candles would cover the entire cake top. Even at my age, I still make birthday wishes.  When I think back on it, I’ve rarely wished for things, even when I was very young. What I mostly wished for was the presence of someone I loved, or the presence of someone who would love me.  

Saturday we woke early and rode over to our half acre lot. I pulled out the folding chair, and sat at the edge of Big Glade Creek, reading Out of Africa while Bruce ran the weed eater for the final time this year. Canada Geese honked overhead in their migration south, ripples stirred across the top of the water and the few leaves left on the trees rustled in the breeze. I smelled wood smoke in the cool air.  I didn’t hear Bruce come up behind me, but I felt his presence.  “Hold out your hand and close your eyes,” he said.

I did. When I opened my eyes again, there was a round white glass marble there.

“I think it’s a pearl,” he said laughing and bending to kiss my cheek.

“First real pearl I’ve ever gotten,” I said, admiring my gift.

“Must have come out of an oyster in this very creek,” he said. “I found it a few feet from here.”

I put it in the pocket of my jeans. Bruce went back to work on the broom sage, and I went back to reading.

That same evening, we walked the beach of Assateague, picking up and admiring shells. I was turning a conch over in my hand, watching the light play off  its pink iridescent wet underside, when Bruce bent down and picked up a shiny copper disk in the surf.  “Look,” he said, handing it to me, “pirate treasure.”

“2003,” I said, holding the penny up close to my bifocals. “Some of Jack Sparrow’s booty maybe, but not Black Beard’s.”

Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “Treasure’s treasure,” he said. “Doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

I put the penny in my pocket with the white marble. We walked on, continuing to search the shoreline, stopping to watch a boy skip shells off the waves, and another learn to fly a kite.

Tonight when I opened the treasure box on my dresser and dropped my two new gifts inside, I glanced at the other things housed there, each one special,  each one given to me by a man who doesn’t use pretty paper or ribbon to wrap his gifts to me. He wraps them in memories.

Milk Toast

November 4, 2011

I was listening to the radio one evening this week and the book reviewer mentioned that a story was as bland as milk toast.  I hadn’t thought of milk toast in years and the thought of it didn’t conjure boredom as the commentator intended. It reminded me of my Grandma Payne and how she cared for me when I was a little girl. 

Mama worked and couldn’t stay home with me when I woke with a temperature, chills, upset stomach or bad cold.  She’d wrap me in a warm blanket and carry me to Grandma’s house. She met us at the door, gathered me into the soft warmth of her lilac smell and hugged me tight.

 My bed was already prepared on the living room couch with feather pillows, crisp white cotton sheets that smelled like the Yardley Lilly of the Valley scented soap she kept hidden in the linen closet. Only the two of us were allowed to open a cake of that soap for bath time.

Grandma pulled the maroon and orange afghan that her sister Ruby had crocheted over me, plumped my pillows, put her cool hand to my forehead, and asked me if I wanted the ice in my gingerale whole or crushed. The last thing she did before heading to the kitchen was turn on the small black and white Zenith television to the channel with Gilligan, Petty Coat Junction, and Green Acres on it.

With my cold drink on the table beside the couch, I watched TV and dozed until lunchtime.

If I was feeling up to it, I ate my lunch at the kitchen table with Grandpa and Grandma. She always fixed me milk toast and fussed over me.  To this day, If I close my eyes, I can still see the steam rising from that flowered china bowl in the center of her table. My portion was ladled into my own china bowl, the one with the picture of a rabbit in the bottom. My spoon was the only one with tiny flowers etched into the handle. The steam from the milk toast warmed my face, while the buttery liquid warmed my insides all the way down to my toes.

 

Milk Toast

2 cups chicken broth

1 cup milk

½ stick butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat all ingredients  in a saucepan on  top of the stove. When butter is melted, add some thickening to taste. (flour mixed with some cold water, pour in gradually and stir until it’s the right consistency). Pour liquid into bowl. Float pieces of toast on top. 

Grandma also fixed this for holiday meals to spoon over dressing.