Grandma Cries Alone in the DarkbyHeathen Hemmingway©
Why Grandma cries when the lights go out
When I was young, I remember one winter day when my mother came home in tears. I was sitting on the porch waiting for her, wearing a brown doeskin jacket she had made for me the winter before. There was a dogwood tree in our front yard, and I could hear the dead leaves hanging from its limbs rustling in the easterly breeze. I heard the familiar sewing machine drone of my mother's brown Pinto station wagon as it approached from the direction of Tallassee, the nearest neighboring town. As her car pulled into our driveway and came to a stop, I could see her face through the windshield. She was crying. I met her as she was opening the car door.
"What is it mama?" I asked her, hesitantly.
It takes a lot to make my mother cry, you see. She's one of those infinitely patient and resilient old souls of the South. When she cries, there is always good reason.
She embraced me with a strong hug. "Nannie's sick, son." She told me through a veil of tears.
Nannie was my grandmother. I don't have too many clear memories of her. My childhood was very stressful and distraught at times, so some memories that I wish were clear to me are not. When I think of my Nannie I have a very clear image of her sitting in a faded white rocking chair on the front porch of her tiny little Tallassee house. Her hair was mostly dark, shot with silver and grey in places. I believe that every time we visited her there she was waiting for us on the front porch. A can of snuff was always tucked discreetly behind the chair. Sometimes, I think I can faintly feel the unique warmth I felt when she would embrace me. Old and frail, yet strong and masculine somehow. She was a survivor woman in the heart of the dirt-poor old South. She saw the turn of the century as a child, and witnessed the country change from a meandering network of dry dirt roads into a bustling machine made of asphalt and Model T Fords. Her hands were hard and calloused long before America was thrust into the path of the German machine of war in the 1940's. While the Nazi cavalcades were powering Hitler's engine of destruction through Europe, she was watching my mother take her first step, say her first intelligible word. By the time Nannie was a teenager she knew the bitter pains and aches of childbirth and loss.
As hard as I try, I can't remember her face.
The house she lived in was a light shade of cool green, almost a washed turquoise color. The sides of the house were paneled in thin sheets of crude plywood, applied at random and painted over in green. It sat in a neat row of five houses just like it. I remember that people called houses like hers "mill houses". I'm not certain if it was because they were all close to the only industry in town, the Tallassee sewing mill, or because they all looked the same and appeared to be made as cheaply as possible. "Fir'd out'a saw mill, they was" as the old folks would say. When the wind blew you could feel the house heave and sway against it. Cheaply built, it was, but it was always warm and inviting in the winter and bright and cool in the summer. It was much like her in its ways. Simple and strong.
After seeing my mother cry I decided it would be best not to ask her any more about why Nannie was sick. I remember her sitting at the kitchen with her head cradled in her hands. Her face was covered and she was silent, but I knew she was crying.
"Nannie's going to a nursing home." One of my sisters whispered into my ear. "Mama says they don't take care of the old folks like they ought to there."
I can remember my first time visiting my Nannie in the nursing home. My mother drove us to the neighboring town of Alexander City in her faithful old brown Pinto station wagon. Somehow, she managed to fit ten anxious kids into that poor old car. Looking back on it, I often think it's a miracle that thing didn't fall apart at the rivets. The nursing home had a grand porch on the front with huge rocking chairs lined up in neat rows like wooden sentinels. Soon we piled out of the Pinto and stood in the parking lot so my mother could make sure we were all presentable. Collars straight with shirts buttoned up and hair in place. When you have ten kids people take notice, and my mother took great pride in all of us. Still does, truth be told. I noticed that all the rocking chairs were empty. Not a single Nannie or Papaw sitting there whiling the time away. That was somehow ominous to me. For the first time, Nannie wasn't waiting for us in her rocking chair with a warm smile. The halls in the nursing home were stark white. Nurses ambled here and there. At random there would be an old person in the hallway, sitting in a wheel chair muttering to themselves indecipherably or leaning against a wall with their heads cocked at an odd angle. It was cold in the hallways. I wondered how the old folks could stand it. It gave me chills and I was a healthy kid. My mother took time to speak to each of the old people we passed. She must have introduced all of us one at a time to ten different people.
I imagine it was a pleasant surprise for some of them to see ten bright eyed children walking down the hallway behind my mother in a neat row. There was always a sad looking resident whose eyes caught fire at the sight of us. One moment she looked vacant and cold, and the next she was talking up a storm. I didn't understand it then, but it makes perfect sense now. No way my mother was just going to let us walk past those people without stopping to talk. Maybe they had grandchildren they hadn't seen in a while, or maybe they had family that never visited. Either way, something about seeing our little caravan made those old people smile. My mother knew it, and she would not deny them. I was unwittingly the center of attention, being the youngest and the only boy. I knew my mother was beaming with pride as we talked to those old folks. We weren't just being polite, we were being compassionate.
The first time I saw Nannie in her room at the nursing home was a frightening experience. She seemed somehow reduced, only a fraction of her former self as she lie there in that cold mechanical hospital bed. Her hands were drawn and clutched. We hugged her two and three at a time. She managed a feeble smile to us all, but there was a terrified absence in her eyes. My mother looked at her with a nervous apprehension. I could tell she hated that place. Not only because Nannie hated it, but because she feared it.
"They don't take good care of those people there." She said on many occasions.
Nannie died months later, and my mother cried silently again. Life went on, and many years passed.
As chance would have it, I got a job working as a chef in a large nursing home here in Charleston, South Carolina. I had reservations about working in a nursing home. I decided it would be another feather in my cap, yet one more area of expertise to add to my resume. I have been cooking for other people since I was a kid, and at the time a nursing home kitchen was just about the only type of kitchen I hadn't worked in. The kitchen was entirely unremarkable, a small rectangle of stainless steel sinks and gas stoves surrounded by plain white walls. What I saw while working in that kitchen, however, was very remarkable. Often I heard my mother's words echo in my mind. She was right, after all. They don't take good care of those people there.
I won't improve upon my professional standing with some of my previous associates for writing this, but dammit when something needs to be said, well it needs to be said. I was the only white person working in the kitchen, with the exception of the head man. He was a likable enough fellow, but he was too quick to let the kitchen hands have their way. There was a standing rule in the nursing home kitchen: The residents eat first. I found out quickly that particular rule was enforced casually, at best. (And usually only when someone came in to inspect the kitchen). I did the majority of the cooking in the kitchen. I came in early and prepared breakfast, then cleaned up and prepared lunch shortly thereafter to be served by eleven o'clock each day. When possible, I would cook special foods for the residents. It improved their moods greatly when they felt they were being given something special. Something as simple as a good meal was like a special occasion to them. Most of the residents ate in their rooms the majority of the time, but when word made it down the hallway that the chef was preparing something special, some of the residents that spent most of their time in their rooms would decide to get out and move about a little. It was good for their spirits and mine as well.
One day I cooked fried oysters for the residents. I checked the dietary guidelines closely, and most of the residents could eat them safely so long as they were adequately cooked. I mixed up a big batch of hush puppy batter and loaded the fryer with fresh peanut oil. I propped the kitchen doors open and soon the smell of fresh hush puppies filled the entire building. Several residents stopped by to ask about the smell. I was proud to know that I was able to lift their spirits. I could tell they couldn't wait to eat, and that made me feel very accomplished. I considered it to be a moral obligation to make those people able to look forward to a good meal. I cooked off a huge tray of oysters and sat it in the warming table to be put onto plates for the residents. I left the kitchen to take a kettle of soup out to the dining room, and when I returned the cooks and aides were standing around the tray of fried oysters and hush puppies. They were picking them up with their bare hands and literally cramming handfuls into their mouths. They had taken to go boxes and filled them with hush puppies and oysters, leaving absolutely none for the residents.
"What the hell are you doing?" I asked them angrily. "That's all the oysters we have and those were for the residents."
"They can eat that pureed shit." I was told. "Or you can go buy some more oysters if you want."
I went right into the head man's office and complained. He gave me a deflated glare and told me to cook another lunch for the residents.
"So I have to cook a meal twice and serve lunch late because the cooks and aides ate all of the food that was meant for the residents?" I asked.
He held his hands up in an exasperated gesture. "What else can I do?" he said.
"You can go into the dining room and explain to all these people who PAY to live and eat here that your kitchen staff just ate their lunch. They have been smelling this food for an hour and now they can't have any. That's cruel." I said. "Some of them got out of their rooms just to sit down and eat in the dining room for a change just because they were looking forward to today's meal"
He had no response. This happened several times during the months that I worked there. The kitchen staff would eat the food prepared for the residents before they were even served. The residents were literally eating their leftovers. I was furious when I left work that day. I immediately started looking for another job.
Being a nursing home, we had to prepare many of our meals in a specific fashion to benefit the residents. Old folks eat old folks' food, to put it bluntly. There was a great big book full of the dietary guidelines that we were expected to follow. I observed the recipes in that book down to the letter, and I discovered that I was the only person there who did. This was a serious problem, since many of the residents were on strict diets. I brought this to the attention of the management and was told that the head man over the kitchen would take care of it. He never did.
Certain foods that we served were modified to bulk up the residents' intake, such as the oatmeal we served. The recipe called for butter, brown sugar, milk and heavy cream. I took care to prepare it precisely according to the recipe book. One day I was told by one of the nurses that the resident never ate the oatmeal on the days that I was not working. I asked her why, and she replied bluntly "They make it with water when you ain't here." She had an apathetic look that made me weary. I asked the cooks why they didn't make the oatmeal according to the recipe, and was rudely told "They don't eat that mess anyhow." I was instantly unpopular for asking.
When time would permit I would go into the dining room and meet with the residents before and after their meals. I enjoyed it and the residents were always eager to talk. The nursing home had aides who worked in the dining area to assist the residents while they ate. I overheard an older white lady ask one of the aides for a glass of water with her meal.
"Yeah, gimme a minute." The aide replied rudely.
I took the aide to one side and asked her why she was so rude to the resident, and she snorted "Who you is, Uncle Tom?" and stomped away. I got a glass of water and took to the resident. I spoke with the resident briefly and apologized for the aide's behavior. I decided to walk around the dining room and visit each table and meet all of the residents. There were several tables of residents that were missing items such as drinking water, napkins, trays and utensils. Several of the residents were waiting for their food to be brought to them, while other people at their tables were already eating. I went to the front of the dining room to find the aides, and saw them sitting at a table with several residents. It struck me that there was an overabundance of everything at the table they were sitting at. Extra beverages, plates and to go boxes stuffed with food. Suddenly I realized that every table in the dining room that was missing food and necessary items was occupied by white residents, and the tables seated with black occupants had an excess of everything. All of the aides were black, mind you. Some of the black residents had two and three plates of food sitting close to them, while white residents in the same dining room had no food at all brought to them.
I immediately stormed into the kitchen to talk to the head man, but he was nowhere to be found. I went to the back of the kitchen to find the other cooks, and the two of them were asleep in the stock room. These were people who were in charge of helping to feed the residents, and they were sleeping like babies while residents who paid dearly for their services went without the basic necessities they were paying for. I woke them both up and told them I wanted them in the dining room right away to help serve the residents. "It ain't my job." They both told me. I reminded them that it wasn't their job to sleep while they were supposed to be working on behalf of the residents, either. They both gave me an apathetic stare.
"You's a racist." One of them told me.
The next day before my shift started I went to see the Director of the nursing home. He was a tall lanky guy with a mop of curly silver hair. I waited for over an hour in the lobby just to speak with him. One of the aides came up to the lobby and asked me "Shouldn't you be cooking right now?" to which I replied "When I cook you don't feed all the residents anyway." I was quite loud when I said it. Oddly enough, less than a minute later I was sitting in the Director's office. I spent over an hour detailing the problems in the kitchen. I had written down every instance of neglect and irresponsibility I had seen. When I was finished, he leaned over his large desk and pegged me with a hard stare.
'Do you like your job?" he asked me.
Not one to be intimidated, I replied. "Do you like it when people call the State?"
Suddenly the man was possessed of a desire to be accommodating. Or so I thought. He took several notes and thanked me for my time. I could tell he was displeased with my visit. I honestly thought I had made some progress, but less than a week later the same things were happening the same way. I also noticed some of the nursing staff taking advantage of the residents. There was a rule in place that stated that each resident's room was to be treated like their home. The staff was expected to knock on the door before they entered a resident's room. On several occasions I saw a nurse knock quickly on a resident's door and them immediately open it before the resident had time to respond. When the resident would complain the nurses would often respond with "Don't you get no attitude with me".
Occurrences such as this happened every day. I made endless complaints and spoke to countless people who were supposedly there to prevent just this type of thing, and one day I decided I was fighting a losing battle. I wrote a long detail letter and forwarded five copies to different people at the state and city level. I felt I had done as much as I could to improve the situation.
I found another job shortly thereafter and turned in my two weeks notice. My last day on the job, one of the cooks told me that "I need to learn to get along with peoples." This was one of the same cooks that regularly ate the resident's food. "I know how to get along with people just fine, just not with you." I told him.
I was shaken when I left the nursing home for the last time. I tried and tried to improve things there, but I was left with no faith that things would get better. The thought of the residents depending on people who didn't care bothered me to no end, and I couldn't quite place why. When I opened my mailbox to find my final paycheck waiting for me, an image of my Nannie sitting in her rocking chair suddenly came to me. She was smiling at me. She knew I tried, and she was smiling. At that moment I realized something.
I could remember her face.