Tonight after my dad has kissed my mom goodbye and she puckers up in his general direction, I wheel her to the livingroom. Eleanor and Sandy are in their usual spots across from the television. Bernadine is in her recliner, fuzzy blanket draped across her. I have only seen her out of this chair once, at mealtime, and she put her head down on the table and cried.
Now she says to me, “Where am I supposed to be?”
“Right here,” I say, “watching television with us.”
“Good. And you’ll tell me where I’m supposed to be next?”
“Yes, I will. Just stick with us girls.” She smiles. Without their teeth, older folks have that ability to alternate between looking like babies and Cookie Monster. She has recently had her hair done and tight gray-white curls cover her head. She is always bare footed, a quirk among the many socked and layered women in the frigidly air conditioned Golden Age. She has long slender feet that could be a teenager’s. How odd the way parts of us age differently: my 81-year- old mother with the heart of a young woman or this decrepit Bernie with the feet of a girl.
Eleanor tells me that the Rainbow Room just burned down.
“Oh really,” I say. Time is suspended here. It could be 1949 or 1974 or present day, depending on the conversation. “When did that happen?”
“Last night,” she says. “I used to dance there with my husband. I went to Cadott High School, class of 1941.”
Molly yells from the kitchen, “The bar that burned is Misfits. Used to be the Rainbow Room.”
“I saw that in the paper. Anybody get hurt?”
She tells me about a propane tank exploding near an employee.
“Oh no,” I say.
“The Rainbow Room burned down,” Eleanor says again. She’s wearing her fuzzy polka dot pajamas, the first of the ladies to get ready for bed tonight.
I say, “I bet it was a great place to dance. Virgie used to go to the tavern to dance with her husband. She loved it.” I run my fingers through my mom’s hair. It’s being washed too often here and not conditioned. It’s still a beautiful color—silver gray—but it’s dryer than I’ve ever seen it. “I always loved going to the tavern myself,” I say.
Eleanor says, “Molly’s from Cadott and so is Sandy and Bernie.”
“Bernie’s from Georgia,” Molly says.
I turn around. “I guessed the South from her accent. But you’re from Cadott?”
“I’m a lot older than you,” I say. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but I know what flatters any woman. “I graduated in 1986. When did you?”
“I’m 36. I was married and pregnant at 17,” she says. “I thought you looked familiar. Did you hang out at the View?”
“I did around 1989 or 90,” I say. She would have been about 15 then.
“I’m sure we met there before,” Molly says. This is Wisconsin, after all, and it’s not that uncommon for teenagers to hang out in a bar before they could legally drive much less legally drink.
Eleanor says, “Did you hear about the Rainbow Room?”
“I did. And I heard you graduated in 1941. Let me guess your age.” She smiles at me. “Do I win something if I guess correctly?”
“I don’t have anything for you,” she says. She smiles some more.
“If you graduated in 1941 I bet you were born in 1923. Right?”
“I don’t remember that anymore.”
“Let me guess your age then. I bet you’re 88 years old?”
“Right,” she says, like I’ve guessed what’s in her pocket by laying my hands on her cheeks. “Right!”
“88? Eleanor you look really beautiful for 88 years.”
Sandy plays with her charm bracelet and chatters. “It’s nice when people have manners,” she says. “Nice when people say how are you today.”
No one can argue with that. Sandy is docile and talkative, most often in a conversation with herself.
Bernie asks me, “Can I go swimming now? I have my suit.”
“Where?” I ask.
She points at the blue carpet. “Right here.”
“I don’t think we’ll swim just yet. Why don’t you sit here with us? We’re watching Wheel of Fortune. You can guess the puzzle.”
“It’s too hard for me,” Eleanor says.
I play with my mom’s hair while we talk, rub my nails into her scalp like I know she likes. She smells so bad I can almost taste it.
“Your mom has lots of nice hair,” Eleanor says. Sandy nods.
Sandy says, “I can see you in her.”
Eleanor says—maybe a translation on my account: “You look alike.”
“Pretty,” Sandy says.
Bernie starts to cry. “I don’t know where I’m supposed to be.”
“Right here with us. We’ll take care of you. Don’t worry about a thing,” I say, exactly what I said to my mom for many months.
“I don’t know where to put my hands,” she says.
“Put them around your blanket. Hold onto it tight with your hands.” She stops crying.
Keep it simple. Isn’t this how I spoke to other people’s two-year-olds when I babysat, my own small son? Keep it simple, keep it positive. Bernie looks up at me, puddles in her blue, blue eyes. If she were my mom I’d wedge myself in the chair with her and wrap my arms around her skinny frame in an old lady swaddle. A pang of sadness hits me. Sweet Bernadine, lost soul. I wonder how she arrived in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin from Georgia.
I realize that I’ve never sat down in the TV area except for the first night when I sat on my mom’s chair with her. She’s so small that we both fit in one lounge chair. Now I stand behind my mom and run my fingers through her hair, turn my face to inhale non-smelly air. Each chair or loveseat has a plastic lined bed pad on it, to block leaks from the fabric. Each time I go near them I can’t help but think about leaking adult briefs.
As I pack up to leave for the night I notice the door to Eugene’s room no longer has his name on it.
“Where’s Eugene?” I say to Molly, still in the kitchen doing supper dishes.
“He’s not coming back,” she says.
“He’s not—” It comes out almost accusatory, like she personally sent him away.
“No. He had to go to another nursing home because we can’t take care of him here.”
I peer in at the neat room, the made bed. Who will enter next? One thing’s for certain, there are always more dementia patients, a waiting list of the deteriorating and dying.
I say, “It really sucks to be that old and just hang on by a thread for this long.”
“It sure does,” Molly says. She goes back to her dishes.