It was a long walk to the nursing home
. The place was never our initial destination but we seemed to end up there two or three times a week near the end. The Ebenezer Extended Care Facility was on the far side of town, miles from home and marked the frontiers of our pedestrian hooliganism
. On the days we walked to the nursing home we had to call for a ride home or blow off our curfew.
My buddies and I called ourselves "The Men of the Oasis." Our name derived from the fact that Minnesota winters are a harsh challenge to street urchins so a part of every day was spent searching for warm places to congregate and smoke cigarettes. We would gain access to an empty warehouse or office building and declare the space our conquered oasis from the cold. Compared to what gangs are like today we might as well have been wearing Boy Scout uniforms but in our minds we were a force to be reckoned with.
The nursing home was always open and always warm so it became one of our favorite hangouts. They offered free hot chocolate and donuts for visitors so the place was truly an oasis. Many of the seniors were decrepit and unresponsive but a handful of live ones made up for the rest. One of the old guys, Oscar, spent the whole day on a bench near the front door and harangued everyone that passed by. He'd yell, "Who the hell are you and what the hell are you doing here?" to every visitor. It was particularly funny when it was a clergyman or a doctor he was yelling at. Oscar would say something like, "Hubert H. Humphrey didn't know his ass from apple butter," and we'd absolutely bust a gut.
When the staff realized that we were juvenile delinquents and not actual old people visitors they asked us to leave. Oscar rose to our defense and told the head nurse that we were his grandchildren and that we had more right to be there than she did. He stood unsteadily and shook his finger at the fifty-something nurse and said, "remember which side your bread is buttered on, girlie!" We were never hassled again.
Jane was a hottie, no doubt about it. The sepia
toned photograph on her dresser was from her wedding in 1899 and she was breathtakingly beautiful. She buried her husband thirty years ago and had been waiting patiently to join him ever since. Jane had haunting, infinite gray eyes and she was no less lovely at ninety-two, than at sixteen.
Her husband Charlie was among the last casualties of World War II and was actually killed after the final cease-fire. Word of the Japanese surrender hadn't reached the jungle airstrip that was his charge and an uninformed sniper ended his life a full week after the end of the war. Charlie was a month away from retirement and a full Colonel's pension as a veteran of both World Wars. He was twelve hours away from his reunion with Jane in Hawaii when the curtain was drawn.
Jane was sixty-two when she lost Charlie and though she bemoaned the sacrifice of their retirement together she presumed they'd be reunited soon enough. When she was born the average life expectancy was something like fifty-five so she could not have anticipated the decades of terrible solitude. The nurse told us that Jane hadn't spoken to a soul since her arrival at the home ten years before. The daughter who wanted to be rid of her died years ago and she had no other living relatives.
The Chaplain who delivered the news of Charlie's death had given her a Bible that day and she read it from cover to cover in one sitting. She spent every day of the thirty years since, waiting to die, with her brain in a book. When she finished reading the last paperback in the nursing home's meager library, she quietly devoted the remainder of her estate to its expansion. When I met Jane the library contained more than ten thousand volumes and she had read every word of every last one of them.
She told me that I had Charlie in my eyes and I was her favorite. I'd get lost in a conversation with her and my buddies would get bored and split. Jane had an amazing memory and could relay the exact phrasing of a minor work she had read twenty years before. Pick a subject and Jane had studied it to completion, though she had no formal education beyond the eighth grade. I was thirteen years old and I fell in love with Jane
and her infinite gray eyes.
I was with her when she died and it occurred to me what a terrible loss the world suffered with her absence. The wealth of knowledge and the dots connected behind those eyes went unrecognized and would pass unmourned. I looked around the cafeteria as the paramedics took her away and noticed the other ancient faces for the first time. I saw the same deep pools behind every sad expression and realized that the rest of the old geezers had been all but invisible to me until that moment.
We seem to equate old with useless and I'm afraid we do so at our peril. We herd up the wisest among us and put them out of sight and out of mind. Most will take their secrets to the grave. If you ask John Prine what his favorite John Prine song is, he'll tell you that it's "Hello in there," a sad chronicle of lives ignored.
Reading a great old book is not done as a service to the book but to the reader.
It is ultimately selfish.