Working Thanksgiving

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 where my office is, and put on a pot of coffee.  He was working 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 one-hundred acre cattle farm single-handedly in addition to his forty hour work week at the nursing home. 

Residents 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.

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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