There we were—my ninety-year old Granny and I, sitting in front of the small-town Grocery, waiting for my mom and my daughter to finish shopping. Grandma was chattering away in the back seat, but I knew she wasn’t talking to me.
“You feel cold?” she said. “I don’t want you to cry.” Granny peered at her doll for a moment, then reached down to scrub the spaghetti sauce from the doll’s face—leftovers from dinner.
The doll grinned back at Grandma with a goofy, buck-toothed smile. His name is Mortimer Snerd and he’s really a ventriloquist’s dummy….But Granny doesn’t know the difference. To her, he’s just her little baby
She held him up to the car window to let him see the big red Ford driving by. Grandma smiled. “Look at that big red cow.” Her gaze wandered on, taking in the scene about her. “You’d be so much happier climbing out there in that green grass, wouldn’t you?” she said.
I followed her tired gaze. There was no grass in sight. Just signs and windows and cracked sidewalks. Granny sees things I don’t see. She hears things I don’t hear. She does odd things, too—like taking out her dentures and combing her hair with her teeth. But she’s still my Granny and I love her.
“Look here!” Grandma told Mortimer Snerd. Opening her mouth, she grimaced at him, jutting out her lower gums. “See?” she said. “No teeth.” The thought seemed to please her. She’d managed to lose her lower set of dentures. Likely buried them in the garden somewhere with the help of Mortimer Snerd.
The two of them shared a conspiratorial grin. Granny hugged him close. “Are you cold?” she asked again. The sun was blazing through the window, but Grandma still had her doubts. She covered the dummy with her coat and sat there hugging him tightly while the rest of the world bustled past her car window.
Granny watched the bib-overalled farmers and the plump farm wives. Everyone was carrying bags of groceries. Everyone was busy. That used to be Granny out there—mingling with the farm folks. Stopping to chat about the high price of food and canning jars.
But now Grandma sat silent, shrunken into herself. I longed to draw her out.
“Remember, Granny?” I wanted to say. “Remember when we went shopping together in town–”
But Granny can’t follow my conversation any more. It would be gibberish to her. Her mind has retreated into a dark cavern…a twilight world of confusion.
Granny’s eyes were cloudy as she stared out the window. A laughing couple walked past. A young couple full of happy chatter and lofty dreams. “There goes somebody,” she murmured in Mortimer’s ear. “It’s somebody’s cousin,” she said. “They’re so young…aren’t they pretty?”
Granny watched the couple till they were out of sight, then turned to watch her daughter and great-granddaughter coming out of the store with bags of groceries. There was no recognition on Granny’s face—just vague interest at the sight of a child bouncing down the sidewalk beside her grandmother… A young child, pink-cheeked and full of fizz.
I sighed. That used to be me and my Granny. And before that, it was my mom and her Granny. And even before that, it was Granny and her grandmother. I had to quit thinking about it then. It was too strange.
Dropping her gaze, Granny looked down at Mortimer Snerd cradled there in her arms. Gently she kissed his cheek then leaned her gray head against his. “You sure you’re not cold?” she whispered.
Poor Granny. I felt sorry for her, but I knew she’s a lot better off than many of the elderly nowadays. Most of them end up in the nursing home…forgotten by their kids and kinfolk. I’ve worked in a convalescent home, and have seen it first hand. Observing the plight of the elderly is a heartrending experience.
I remember one night in particular. It stands out in my mind.
I sat at the the nurse’s station gazing at all the faces around me. Tired faces of people waiting to die. A faint voice drifted to my ears.
“In the good ole summertime….In the good ole summertime.” It was Ray singing his favorite song….a haunting sound that carried me back to barefoot days and warm, full-moon nights. The sound of crickets and the rustle of weeds in the summer breeze. “….good ole summertime….”
The words faded away and I was left staring at sterile corridor lined with sad faces. Many of them have gotten lost in the fog of Sundowner’s Syndrome. About sunset, they wander to the nurse’s desk, thinking it’s the train station. They request a ticket on the next train out of here.
Home. They long to go home—back to the world they once knew. They’re locked in a time warp…locked in the prisons of their own minds. They spend the last of their days trying to pick the lock on their memories.
Wondering… Wishing… Wanting. So many unfulfilled dreams. So many regrets and broken promises.
I sighed. A call light blinked on at the far end of the hall. It was Beulah—the loneliest of the Lonely. I went to her bedside. The old lady’s eyes were brimming with tears.
“Beulah!” I said. “You need a hug, don’t you?”
She nodded and the tears spilled over. She clutched me tightly. “You don’t know how bad it hurts,” she said. “The days are so long. They go on and on and on. People come and visit me once or twice. They promise me they’ll come back. They promise! I wait and wait—but they never come back. How come they do that to me?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe they forget.” I adjusted her pillow and picked up a stuffed animal, placing it in her arms. It made her look more forlorn than ever. “Beulah,” I said. “Do you want me to tell people how lonely you are? I’ll write about you in my articles. Maybe then people will remember to come and see you.”
A small flame of hope kindled in Beulah’s eyes. “You’ll tell them for me? You promise?”
“I promise, Beulah,” I said, grasping her hand. “I promise.”
I left her then. Left her clutching her stuffed animal and staring out the window at the deepening twilight….listening to the words drifting down the hallway.
“In the good ole summertime….In the good ole summertime.” The song wandered the lonely hallways and drifted out the half-open window. A haunting sound that tugged at the heartstrings.
Maybe the song would be heard by those on the outside. Maybe they would remember the plight of the elderly within these walls.
And maybe….just maybe they would come.