From Chicken Soup for the Working Mom's Soul

A Child’s Playground

A child’s playground could be anywhere—a backyard, the sidewalk, a ball field, a nursing home. A nursing home?

That’s exactly where I spent my afternoons as an eight-year-old. The red brick building, whose back door opened up into our church parking lot, had been the local medical clinic until a modern hospital opened just a mile down the road.

When the new hospital opened, my mother informed me of another business opening in its former residence. It would be called a convalescent center. Those were mighty big words for an eight-year-old.

“A what?”

“A convalescent center. It’s like a hospital but only for older people.”

I had no reason to question my mother on this subject, especially after learning that she would be working at the conva . . . well, nursing home, which was what everyone else called it. This would be her first job, at least since I could remember, and would most likely alter my everyday routine. Coupled with the departure of my sister, who married earlier that year, this was really going to shake up my world.

Luckily, the nursing home was a short distance from school, which allowed me to walk there some afternoons. At first I enjoyed my visits—learning about my mother’s job and getting to know the patients. My mother walked me down the hall and into the individual rooms, introducing me to the occupants of each bed. Some I knew already, many by name, most by association with their families.

Few patients were mobile; most were not able to venture out of their beds or much farther than a nearby chair. Many could not feed themselves or tend to their personal needs without at least some assistance. Others could not even express themselves well enough to make their wants and wishes known.

Always spreading cheer, Mother was an angel-in-waiting to many of the patients, and I was the tagalong on her shirttail. I would peep around from behind her, too shy to speak aloud, when she introduced me even to those who couldn’t see beyond the foot of their beds. Some couldn’t remember my name after I left.

Still, I enjoyed seeing the wrinkled faces light up as Mom entered each room. When I tired of being a shadow, I would sit in the front waiting room, which retained its clinical aroma. It was there that I met my friend.

She was old, though at age eight I couldn’t tell the difference between a fifty-year-old and a ninety-year-old. To a child there is no degree of old, just old. The skin of her face was wrinkled, and her hair was white, two of my prerequisites for old age. What made her different was the way she moved about, as though she were dutifully carrying out a task and stopping only long enough to check on the child sitting alone in the brown Naugahyde chair. I rubbed my hands along the silver metal arms that appeared more like the guardrails on the patients’ beds.

Pausing in front of the chair and peering from up above me like the Grinch looking down over Whoville, she grabbed under my arms and hoisted me into the air before settling into the chair herself and plopping me onto her lap. Story after story she told until I became antsy and bolted, sprinting down the hall to find my mother.

Occasionally, my friend chased after me, and I would discard my shoes, sliding down the hall in stocking feet until a heavy wooden door or a concrete wall blocked my path. When the hallway wasn’t my track, it was my playing field. I sometimes brought my own playthings, like a rubber baseball or a miniature football that she tossed to me as I slid down the hall and made diving catches up against the wall.

Having to retrieve an errant pass or fumble, I frequently ventured into various rooms where I happened upon surprised but delighted patients who were pleased to be visited by an eight-year-old with a football in tow. Lonely and longing to belong, many were happy to be visited by anyone.

In that year, I’d learned more about life than school had taught me about any subject. From the men and women in those rooms, I learned that what we need most is one another. From my mother, I saw that one caring soul can make a difference in the health and happiness of others. From my friend, I learned that age doesn’t matter, and the differences in people when measured by age is far less than we envision.

One year later I grew from an atypical eight-year-old into a typical nine-year-old. At that age, one year represents a generation of transformations. The time came for my mind to wander and my interests to change. After-school playtime with friends and neighbors took priority and captured the place of my trips to the nursing home. My visits became sporadic and eventually ended.

Never forgetting that year of fun and frolic in the nursing home, my mother kept me abreast of the latest proceedings on a regular basis. Occasionally, I would inquire about the status of certain individuals, particularly those who were related to my friends and classmates. Some were doing well, some weren’t, and some had passed to a better place.

Remembering my friend and worried that she may have died, I asked my mother if the patient I used to play with was still alive. If so, I wanted to know how she was doing.

She gazed at me with a quizzical look on her face. “Which patient?”

“You know. The white-haired lady that used to play ball with me and tell me stories.”

Quickly her appearance transformed to one of comical disbelief. “Son, she wasn’t a patient. That lady was the director. She was my boss.”

I was humiliated. Maybe I should have guessed because of her behavior, but I based my assumption on how she looked, which to me was “old.”

Through the years, my nursing home days found protective shelter far back into my recollection. High school passed and college arrived, while that year in the nursing home was hidden from my thoughts, only to be revived on the evening news.

The year was 1976 and I was home for a few weeks, taking a break from college studies. One Saturday evening our family was relaxing in the den with the television on, although no one was watching closely.

Reading the paper, I glanced up if something caught my attention. While sewing, mother occasionally peeked up at the screen, only to go right back to her task.

Suddenly, she pointed at the screen and looked over at me. “Do you recognize her?”

Not really paying attention, I asked, “Who?”

“Her.” She pointed at the white-haired lady being interviewed by the newsman. “Do you remember her?”

“Not really,” was my honest answer. I had seen her on television before, but as far as knowing her personally, I couldn’t say that I did.

“That’s the lady you used to play with at the nursing home. Remember now?”

I did. Her face and mannerisms were no different than they were thirteen years earlier. She still seemed vibrant and active, nevertheless she looked old. A chill came over me as I realized this was the same woman that used to tell me stories as I sat in her lap and chased me down the hall, laughing as I slid and crashed into the wall.

Now, here she was on the national news. They called her Miss Lillian. She was helping her son Jimmy Carter campaign for president of the United States.

Tony Gilbert

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