By Michael Gutgsell
“I want you to try and remember what it was like to have been very young [..] You’re just a little bit crazy. Will you remember that, please?”
– Thornton Wilder
One of the best things I did in college was work with an intergenerational theater group combining my college and the neighboring retirement community. The group was the brainchild of a fellow student who was gifted at organizing a diverse group of people. Once a week, a group of ten or so students walked the short distance to Edenwald Retirement Community, where we were met by a smaller group of residents in their theater.
Our leader, Eryn, would lead us in (too long, too gentle) warm ups, and then a few standard theater games. We would write skits to be performed at Edenwald by both the residents and students. In one of our shows we wanted to show the similarities of our community living experiences (and there were a surprising amount of those). It was like the Golden Girls, only more risque. The students wrote how you always knew the party was over when that certain girl cried after having too much to drink; the retirees wrote about the resident who grew pot on his balcony, the ladies who fought over the one man with all his teeth, and the backbiting that went on about the woman who came to dinner with a different gentleman every week.
My friend Gretel and I agreed we wanted someday to be as cool as Elsie, the resident with the various male dinner partners. She showed up to rehearsals with perfectly dyed and coiffed brown hair, an impish smile ever present on her face. She wore fitted pants and a wrist brace from when she fell visiting her granddaughter. With the help of the other ladies, she would provide the most shocking bits of gossip. She was vital, undaunted by age.
The group was largely made up of women–scintillating Elsie, matronly Helen, sweet Margaret. We had one man who came, wheelchair bound and hooked up to a breathing machine. God bless Al, and may he rest in peace. I learned this week that he passed away.
For our last show, we decided to put on a traditional play, with lights and costumes and all. Eryn decided on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a classic show with a good mix of ages represented, but pretty much utterly boring. I played the male lead and still had trouble staying alert through rehearsals. I was sort of in love with the woman playing my sister, and after rehearsal we would sit on the green and look at the stars and the moon, her petite body perfectly nestled in my arms, and we’d ironically recite our lines to each other. She’d make fun of the way I looked when delivering a line, and I’d try to act like it bothered me.
After the show had ended, after Eryn moved to Israel and the group disbanded, I went to Edenwald to see if they had a job opening. My work with the theater group helped me get a job working in their dining room. They started me off in their cafeteria, standing behind a line putting food on a tray. I was there for about two shifts before they moved me to the formal dining room, which came with a uniform, but unfortunately, I had to keep the hair net.
It was such a different interaction with the residents than the acting group. When I saw the ex-group members, like Elsie with her dates, it was lovely, but for the most part I was just a waiter among elderly strangers.
The staff were all college or high-school students, all of us so young. They showed me the horrifying shortcuts to take in the kitchen, like grabbing fistfuls of lettuce themselves to make the salads. Looking back, it was actually a pretty fun job. We didn’t work for tips, so we knew what we would make every shift and there wasn’t that anxiety that can come with other serving jobs. It could get busy and we’d have to move fast, but if you could manage your time well and multi-task, it was kind of a fun challenge. The servers were their own kind of community, and everyone would help each other out, polishing the silverware together at the end of the night and helping whoever was behind roll theirs up in the cloth napkins. We were in the same boat. We all tried our hardest not to get anything on our uniforms, because we were only issued one shirt, and most of us had just one pair of black pants. I kept my hair net stuffed in a pocket when I wasn’t at work, and reused them until they were ripped or lost. Working while in school was a new experience for me, unlike my coworkers. People in my high school didn’t have jobs. I liked it. I felt capable, responsible, busy.
They renovated the dining room, with impractical stations for our enormous trays. The first time I worked one of the new stations, my tray hit the corner of a counter, tipping the drinks I was carrying. A glass of orange juice dumped down the back of a lady visiting her parents. I had never felt so sick at a job, and I was sure I was fired then and there. She was the sweetest woman in the world, so composed, and she assured me it was fine. It was the only time I spilled something on a person I was serving, and I was really lucky.
Each shift, we had set stations, and most of us dreaded getting the one Etna sat in. She was a big, dribbly woman, sour and unhappy. She was never satisfied with the food (I wonder if any of them were) and grumbled at us throughout the meal, smacking our hands if we removed a plate with any scrap of food left on it. I had a better rapport with her than some of the other servers, something I probably inherited from my mother, who can make friends with the most difficult of people. Etna and I could get through a meal with a minimum of grouchiness, and it came to the point when I didn’t mind serving her at all, and she would actually smile at me, with her big, red-painted lips.
A few shifts went by, and I hadn’t seen Etna. When I asked what had happened, my coworkers told me she’d had a stroke one night during dinner. The server noticed she was quiet and not eating, and asked for a nurse. The nurse glanced at Etna and said she was fine, and left. She was probably dismissive because, what did this young kid know? When Etna didn’t grumble when her salad was taken away, untouched, the server asked for the nurse again, and said something was definitely wrong. It turned out she had had a stroke, and after that night we didn’t see her again. When residents started down that decline, they were moved to another wing, and once they moved, they didn’t come back.
It was brief, and passed mostly unnoted, mostly just thinking about other places, other people. I left, excited to move on to something else, something hopefully better. Only when saying goodbye did I feel sad to leave, and remembering my time at Edenwald brings to mind Emily’s closing monologue in Our Town: “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute?”
Michael Gutgsell is a regular writer for Tumbleweed Diaries. You can read more of him on his weekly blog, Making a Mess of It, or on the blog for Tree House Humane Society, the no-kill stray cat shelter where he works.