The Little Things

When you are 105 years old, it's the little things that get to you.

Emmaline never knew her father.  Her mother and grandfather raised her and her sister until Emmy was 8 and her mother married.  Their new father told them he was taking them all to a new town far from their South Carolina home.  Life would be better, he promised.

But it wasn't. Emmy and her sister, Sarah, never got to return to school. Instead they had to work- first in the fields and later, when they were older, as housekeepers.

Emmaline and Sarah were living in servants quarters, out of their mother's home, by the time Emmy was 14. 

Emmaline doesn't tell me this because she feels sorry for herself.  She worked hard because that was all she knew and she was good at cleaning. Doing a good job mattered. She was proud of her work.

Emmy's husband was a porter for a local department store.  Porters unloaded the crates of goods as they came in.  They starched and ironed the new clothes and linens before setting them out on the display floor.  Benny was good at his job, too.

Emmaline still talks about her last job as a school housekeeper, about how the principal always called her Miss Emmaline and treated her with respect.  "He told me I was the best one out of the three of us," she confides.

When Emmy smiles, I see the sweet, shy, little girl she must have once been.  Her wiry gray hair is pulled back in a ponytail.  The collar of her floral sprigged dress lies flat and neat against her schoolgirl cardigan.

I have been sent to see about her because her nurse and the aides on her hallway say she is spiteful and mean, that she lies and picks fights and is forever driving off roommates.

The nurse wrinkles her nose, shaking her head as she describes this torn-down terror who awaits my visit.  "You can't do nothing with her," the nurse scoffs. "She's just mean! She hit her aid yesterday.  All the girl did was go in to take her to the showers and she hauled off and whopped her! She may be 105 but she's got some strength in her."

I am always secretly happy to hear this. There's still fight left in my new patient. Perhaps I will always be an old hippy, marching on Washington, shouting "Up the Revolution!" or whatever it was we used to say...I digress.

The final straw resulting in Emmy's referral for a psychological evaluation is her apparent fixation with the curtain that divides her half of the room from her roommate's.

You probably already know why Emmaline was so put out but I'll tell you what she said anyway.

"It ain't nothin' but aggravation," she sniffed. "Look at that curtain. It ain't nothin' but wrinkles. At night they come in to change me and cut on the light.  All I see is them wrinkles. I think 'Oh, Lord, what must they think of me with these wrinkles?"  She looks across the room to the privacy curtain hanging around her roommate's far wall.  "Look at that.   They ain't no wrinkles in it. They just give me this old wrinkled one for spite. I'm 105 years old, been here nine years, don't got no family left and they don't think no better of me than that."

It takes three weeks to get her a new set of curtains. Three weeks of wheedling, coaxing, begging and story-telling.

That was two weeks ago. This week I come in and the nurse practically snarls at me.  "Well, that didn't do no good. She tried to hit her aide this morning.  Said her tray wasn't right! I tell you, she's just mean!"

When I walk in the room, Emmaline tells me I might not be able to stay. The maid is starting to mop the floor and I'll be in the way.  I stoop down beside her chair and tell Emmy I won't stay if I'm in the way but "I'm right good at scooting out of the way, Miss Emmaline. Besides, I hear you haven't been having such a good day and I just wanted to stop by and see how you are."

The first tear spills over her eyelid, her lower lip trembles and in her soft voice, Emmaline cries "I'm 105 years old and when that girl brings in the breakfast tray she just cut on the lights and puts the tray down like she hates me. She knows I need my milk and water close to me. When I'm up in a chair I can reach it, but when it's morning and I'm in the bed, I can't."

Emmaline stretches her arm out to show me and I realize she can't even extend her arm fully. She must shift her entire body as she moves in order to swing her poor arm toward the tray.

"Then she come to wash me and she cut off the heat cause she be hot, but she don't ask me how I am. She put that rag on me and sometimes she ain't careful how she handle me. She don't mean to be rough but she spills the water down on the pad under me and then she put my clothes on me while I'm lying down."

"So your clothes get wet and you're cold too," I murmur, laying my hand on her arm.

"I don't want to be no trouble," she says, her voice broken by hiccupping sobs.  "I know what they say about me. They say I'm cantankerous. I'm old and mean but really, I'm not a mean person. But what am I supposed to do? I can't be a doormat. They don't never ask you do you want to take a bath or do you want to turn the heat off."  Emmy's face crumples as she gives in to the wave of sadness she's been feeling all day.  "I'm a hundred and five years old and I just want the Lord to go on and take me! All my people are gone. I only got one friend from the church to look after me and now she got her daughter coming and she's working at the First Citizen's Bank. She don't got the time...I just want the Lord to let me go home!"

I stay there, patting her arm until the sobs subside. The next thing she mentions the aides don't have time to do, I do.  I pour mouthwash from the big economy sized bottle into the small, Emmy-sized bottle and carefully put everything I touch back in its place. I feel utterly useless.

When you are 105 years old, it's the little things that matter.


Beth said...

What a wonderful post---very moving and beautifully written. Thank you, Nancy.

Nancy said...

Thanks, Beth. Sometimes I just have to push it all out onto paper...I suppose so I can have room to catch my breath and breathe again. Thanks for noticing!

Kisa said...

So evocatively written. I can see Emmy there before me. If people read more (true) stories like these, they might pause for a second before being in such a dang hurry to get things over with, unmindful of the human being across from them.