For the Big Three, this time of year is a season for Ramadan, Easter, and Passover — observances of sacrifice, renewal, and reunion. No matter who we are in our faith practice – and even in our atheism — rituals are intended for children to absorb lessons in our inheritance. For our elderly – and I am quickly joining this category – these rituals are profound. Whatever condition we arrive in as we age, our faith tradition is entwined with our beings like woven cloth. I cannot imagine myself without my religious origin; I will always know by heart the melodies of my earliest faith ritual.
Opening up the activities room in the nursing home at 7:30 every morning, Edith is waiting for me beside the door. She pushes her wheelchair slowly with her feet, back and forth, like a glider. Two inches forward; two inches backward; two inches forward again. The taupe foam of her puffy shoes sticks to the floor an inch below the soles of her feet. Back and forth. Her hands are folded across her abdomen. Her chin rests on her collar bones. She studies her hands and slides her chair.
“Good morning, Edith.” I am cheerful. The keys clink between my fingers as I unlock the door and reach in to switch on the lights.
“Good morning!” she answers. Her eyes meet mine and she sparkles with anticipation. I know she’s wondering what fun we’re going to have today. She reaches her hands down alongside her chair, aims for the doorway, and follows me inside. I forgot to turn off the radio last night so we are greeted by a tinny din of country music. My bags of supplies scatter across a table and I reach for the coffee pot and search the cupboard for filters.
“What are we going to do today?” asks Edith. She slides her chair underneath one of the sturdy tables and rests her forearms on the edge. With her fingers, she traces imaginary circles on the plastic; I notice she needs a new coat of polish.
“We have sewing this morning and baking this afternoon.”
In this single word “Oh,” I can hear Edith when she was the office manager at a nearby grain elevator. Her authority and her approval need convincing that “sewing” and “baking” are, indeed, the activities we should pursue today. I love this about my elders; the patterns of who we were in our work remain with us like habits. Even in this small, “Oh,” from Edith – I can hear her 60 years ago tapping her cigarette in a tray on her vinyl topped desk, casters on her steel-framed chair protesting as she pushes away to rise and meet a customer at the front counter.
“Yes, sewing and baking today. But first, the laundry has two full loads of towels for us to get through. Do you want coffee before they get here?”
She’s weighing her option for coffee. “Oh, I suppose I could take half a cup.”
My co-workers, Maureen and Jane, appear in the doorway behind industrial carts piled high with white towels. “Morning,” they say in unison.
“Oh my, look at that laundry!” says Edith. I park the coffee between her knuckles swollen with arthritis. I wonder if my hands will look like that someday; I wonder how I’ll feel about those hands too.
We have a lot of folding to do. Instead, I pull up a chair beside Edith with a bottle of nail polish remover and cotton balls. “Let me take this off before we fold towels so that we can put a fresh coat on before you leave this morning, OK?” She agrees.
I can smell sausages from the dining room down the hall. There must be eggs, pancakes, sausages, and oatmeal choices for breakfast. The others will wheel in after breakfast. They will slide into their spots at the tables and we will fold hundreds of towels. The ladies will gossip while we fold. I will hear about their impressions of new nurse aides; complaints about food; frustrations with a son who doesn’t visit enough. Some will be paranoid about things beyond their control. Others will be bossy about how to fold towels correctly. And then we’ll have a half cup of coffee before they disperse for physical therapy, a haircut, or listening to piano music in the chapel. We’re a lively bunch.
Anticipation is a thread of our awareness that keeps us going — a routine of folding fresh towels or a delight in familiar food. The emergence of new life and hope to be near loved ones again; anticipation. There is no difference between Edith who greets her customers at the grain elevator or Edith who waits patiently by the door until I arrive in the morning. She is timeless and so am I; we anticipate and we hope.
A privilege of long life is this singular pleasure of anticipation. The “good morning” of our days invites us into this soulful communion with life’s current. Our faces rise to see who is coming down the hallway; maybe she’s coming for me; good morning again and always good morning to you. It is the season of springtime in the Northern Hemisphere, and no matter how old we are, new life is in us. We are timeless in our comings and goings. We are wildflowers who return season after season.
Be well, country… and be in touch.
Sara June Jo-Sæbo is the author of an upcoming volume of history and story telling from 1800’s Virginia and Wisconsin and is curator for the Midwest History Project.