Tuesdays at the Nursing Home-The Art of Happiness


Her hat is purple. Her sweatshirt is large and bright red, the huge hat embroidered on its front is rimmed with rhinestones but Emma's face is pale and gray.

"What's new?" I ask.

Emma likes when I dance in her room wearing boots and a wild skirt. She likes to sing "Them boots is made for walkin' and that's just what she'll do!" while I twirl around and flop down in mock exhaustion onto her bed.

For once, her nosy roommate is out of the room and not listening in.  Bessie is crabby and throws her two-cents-worth into our sessions whether we want to hear her opinion or not, so it's nice to have this time to ourselves for once.

"They wouldn't let me come down to the lunchroom today," she says, frowning.  She points to the tray that's been set before her.  A wilted hotdog and plain, unseasoned baked beans languish beneath a green plastic dome.

I cock an eyebrow and pretend not to know she and the nurse have been into it over Emma's refusal to bathe.

"I think they were giving a party for Bessie.  She's leaving, moving in with her niece or something."

Bessie, as it turns out, isn't going anywhere, but neither of us knows this yet.

"If they'd told me it was a goodbye party, I would've gone down there," she says.

I take this to mean she would've bathed but I'm too polite to say so.  In the nursing home, power and control are mighty hard to come by so I'm all in favor of people hanging on to what little they have.

Emma points to a picture, an abstract landscape hanging on her cork board, and says "I did that. You like it?"

I walk over to the board and bend down to examine it.  I note the tiny holes where she's pinned and re-pinned the worn, glossy reproduction to the wall.  I see the torn edge running along one side of the page where the picture's been torn from a book or magazine and give Emma the sharp-eye.  "You painted this? Really?"

"Yep," Emma says, her gaze never wavering from my own incredulous expression. "All by myself!"

"It's beautiful! What is it?"

Now, I know I'm not supposed to ask that. Hell, I learned that when the boys were in kindergarten. You're supposed to say "Tell me about your picture," and then wait.  But kindergarten was a long time ago and Emma's too sharp for that anyway.

"Ha!" she cackles. "I don't know what it is- you tell me!"

Told you she was sharp.

"It reminds me of mountains in fall," I say. 

I'm thinking perhaps Emma did paint this. Perhaps the art teacher made a copy of it because she wanted to hang the real picture down in the lunchroom.  In fact, I find myself coming up with every plausible reason I can think of to believe Emma's story.

"It's really beautiful," I say again.

"If you think it's that good, I reckon I should've signed it then, huh?" she says when I continue to inspect the picture.

I start to answer her but notice her attention has wandered. She is staring at the photo and seeing something far beyond it.

"It don't take much to make me happy," she says, her voice soft with some emotion I can't quite grasp.  "I know it's stupid little stuff, but I like it." She looks up and I see the sadness in her eyes and in the sad set of her jaw line.  "I tell you I got a son that's an artist?"

I remember. The businessman who divorced his wife and quit his job.  He moved to the country and lives in a cabin by a lake, where he paints alone by the waterside.

"The sad man by the lake?" I say.

Emma nods.  "You know, it don't matter how much money you got, if you don't like yourself, you'll never be happy."

I sit back down on her bed, pull my legs up under my cowgirl skirt and settle in for a good, long visit.  My friend, Emma, knows the truth.  Life isn't about what's on the outside. It isn't about how you look or even, mostly, how you smell. It's not about big homes overlooking the water or shiny, new toys. 

Life is all about what's on the inside.

1 comment:

Beth said...

This is truly wonderful writing, Nancy. I like it a lot. And Emma, bath or no bath, is a very wise lady.