One usually arrives early and sits patiently. Others file in slowly, leaning on walkers. Some carry oxygen tanks. Many come in wheelchairs, a rolling procession that looks like a car race just as the caution flag comes out. Some amble in using canes and the newer style walking sticks, the kind you can stand on its own. One or two, perhaps, walk in unaided as they have done all their life. What is their secret?
They live in homes that generally lean on nature for their names. Words like leaf, forest, oak, pine, woods, laurel, spring, and morning. Let me approximate one such name. Let’s call a place Magnolia Glen. I suppose such names hope to convey a sense of peace, of tranquility, and I pray that they do.
By now you understand that I am writing about assisted living centers, what we used to call in antique parlance “old folks” homes. Or rest homes. These centers can be large places. To me, they seem to be a mix of apartments, hotels, cafeterias, and activity areas all rolled up into one campus-like place where older folks live out their last days. I’ve been to six recently to share stories from my books, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It and Classic Carolina Road Trips. I take these stately ladies and a few good men on trips across the South and I take them back in time.
Always the group is by far mostly women. It’s true, men. You do die earlier. In a group of 16 women, there may be one man. The women’s men have died, and here they live in an assisted living center where people try to make life enjoyable for them. They get regular meals, medical care, exercise and activities, occasionally take road trips, and attend programs where people like me, it’s hoped, will provide a bit of entertainment and enlightenment. In the last few months I have been to six such places and I have another three scheduled at this writing. It makes me feel good to go to these places.
The women (and occasional man) come to hear me speak about my books, the places I go, and the things I see. It’s not always an easy audience. Some fall asleep. Others try to ask questions but can’t. Some repeat themselves, but let me tell you one thing. They do not sit there and scroll through their smart phones or tablets and pads as I talk like the younger crowd does. They listen. Last month I was talking about the days when people churned butter, used outhouses, and swept their yards with a dogwood “bresh” broom. With great difficulty a lady slowly raised her hand.
“Yes ma’am,” I asked.
“I’ve lived the life you are describing. I–lived–it,” she said with emphasis and her face lit up as if she had won a new lease on life.
Now, I do a lot of talks. I speak at museums, libraries, schools, bookstores, and civic group gatherings. I speak at banquets and annual meetings, but I had never spoken to the people who live in assisted living centers. I came to this audience thanks to a friend who works with a company that provides assisted living centers services. It seemed like a good idea to have me make the rounds and speak to residents. From the start, this good idea proved to be a great idea. A lot of times I give illustrated talks, projecting photographs of rural scenes, covered bridges, country stores, the Goat Man, and more. My goal is to spirit these people far from their wheelchairs, canes, and walkers into the countryside where things grow, where the breezes carry the fragrance of flowers, summer wheat, rocky shoals spider lilies, and the brackish waters of swamps. I want them to feel the wind and rain on their face and to smell a dirt road just after a cloud has come up. My goal is to take them back into youth.
I consider myself a tour guide, and I always describe myself as a Georgian who grew up with one foot in Georgia and the other in South Carolina. Thus, I explain, that’s how “Georgialina” found its way into my book’s title. Always there is a woman in the audience who grew up in Georgia. One day a woman from Athens and I talked about them Dawgs. Rapport was instantaneous.
I’d be lying if I said all this is a bother to me. It is not. I always leave these centers feeling better than when I walked in. I leave with the feeling that these elders love hearing about their days of youth when they were green and supple and filled with all the passions life gives us. The days before air conditioning locked us inside. The days when you knew to get to town Wednesdays well before noon. The days when the arrival of the Sears Roebuck catalog was Christmas come early. The days when many men had an able-bodied mule about. The days when you could go into a country store, buy a week’s worth of groceries, and sign an old ledger for credit and walk out. The days when you made biscuits from scratch with fresh flour milled maybe a mile away down by a river or creek. And nights when you rocked on the front porch and watched heat lightning turn the horizon into an incandescent jack-o’-lantern. Nights when the fragrance of gardenias sweetened a glittery bit of pageantry put on by fireflies. And nights, perchance, when romance blossomed beneath the roof of a covered bridge.
When my allotted time is done, several ladies linger to share their memories from the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and other years. I detect a small gleam in eyes that are aged, tired, and not always able to see clearly. An undeniable sadness permeates the air. A lot of women now live far from their true home, the home where they maintained a house, rocked babies, raised a family, and gave their soul to. Their children have gently, I hope, uprooted them and moved them nearby. They come from all over … Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, South Carolina, and as we used to say in my bus station days “points beyond.”
I study their faces. I see traces of beauty that linger. I try to imagine them as women in their 20s when life’s dreams were magnificent and sure to come true. Of course, we all know better than that for life has a way of beating us into submission. If only we could age as Angel Oak has aged. If only, we too, could rack up 500, maybe even 1,500 years and retain our greenness. But that’s not in the cards for us. So, I see these women in these places with names that refer to forests, lawns, seasons, woods, and flowers as falling leaves. They have lived through a beautiful spring, a blazing summer, and arrived at autumn whose winds pull on them hard. Winter’s coldness surely is next but for now life goes on and today they’re in for a bit of nostalgia and longing for days long gone. Memories live anew and for now all is well.