For my parent’s 63rd anniversary, I decorate a cake for them and deliver it a day early so the staff can serve it when Dad visits Mom for lunch. He has quickly become the darling here, and everyone—CNA to manager—chats with Joe See, since he visits twice a day. When my dad shows me the photos from their anniversary (my parents posing happily with each of the CNA’s on duty that day, Carmel and Sammy), I realize that this has truly become my mom’s home. It also has become my dad’s home away from home.
Other residents here have frequent visitors like my mom, but a few of them have no one. Delores owns a dozen books, paintings of nuns and cats, snapshots of dead family members, three Rosaries, a deck of playing cards, two tattered Word Find books, and a small flat screen TV. Easy to say of this woman, based on the contents of her room, What a small life. That cannot be true. The plaques on her walls reveal that she was a popular teacher and involved in her community. One says “Thank you Ms. B. We love you! From the class of 1969.” Another: “In thanks for your hard work, Chippewa County Historical Society.”
Carmel tells me that Delores was deserted by her mother when she was a week old. “Her mom took her to the hospital and left her, and a family adopted her.” That would have been about 1925.
“Where’s her family now?” I ask.
“She has a niece in Minneapolis who comes to visit maybe two times a year.” I swallow hard. Abandoned twice in her life, but she wouldn’t have noticed either time.
I’ve done research on the Internet and talked to people who might have known her. Delores was a high school music teacher for over thirty years, and she never married. She often dressed in a man’s trousers, car coat, and Fedora hat. She still is sort of butch looking, if that’s possible here in this Grandma land of stretch pants and sweatshirt-cardigans covered in birds or rabbits. When she retired in 1981, she became known as our town’s resident historian. She wrote a book about the local shoe factory, and she led an oral history project in which she interviewed the town’s eight oldest residents. In the mid-1980’s she wrote a script for a film on Old Abe, Wisconsin’s famous Civil War-era eagle mascot which the Eighth Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteers called their “soldier bird.” She designed a huge mural painted on the side of Leinenkugel’s Brewery, which is still there today. Her book, a history of early Chippewa Falls, she titled Memory’s Stream, an irony that makes me choke up each time I think about it. A resume like this, she must have ridden on a Pure Water Days’ parade float as this town’s hero. She hasn’t had a visitor in the three months I’ve been coming to Golden Age.
Today at lunch Delores holds a large, stuffed teddy bear on her lap. While she waits for her food with the others at her table, she yells to the staff in the kitchen, “Is someone coming to get me?”
“Not today,” Carmel says.
I move from my mom’s table to Delores’s and put one hand on her shoulder. I tug on the bear’s ear. “Who is this guy?” I ask her.
“I like him,” she says.
“He’s a cute one,” I say.
I tell her, “I know you take good care of him.”
“Am I gonna die here?” she asks me.
I could lie—I really want to lie—but I know Carmel can hear me.
“Yes, Delores,” I say. “You probably are, but it’s a good place to be.”
“Ok,” she says.