Colleen Wells, 11/19/2018

Current Occupation: Writer, Activities Assistant, Junk Dealer/Furniture Painter
Former Occupation: Adjunct Faculty Member
Contact Information: Colleen Wells’ writes from Bloomington, Indiana. Her work has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Potomac Review, Ravensperch, The Ryder Magazine, The Voices Project, and Veils, Halos & Shackes – International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. She is the author of Dinner with Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness & Recovery and editor of One in Four – a student anthology of narratives on mental illness.,
Many Mansions
Steam rises from my coffee mug. Stacks of handouts, spiral notebooks and pens are piled on a vintage chair. I take a sip of coffee, keeping my eye on the computer screen. I’m teaching my first creative writing class to a group of seniors at the retirement home where I volunteer. The agenda includes a plan to cover description and dialog, and read examples of both fiction and nonfiction to illustrate the point that they should be indistinguishable from one another in terms of craft. Then we’ll write for ten minutes, share our work, and wrap up.
        I decide to insert another sample of writing in the handout and type a paragraph from E.B. White’s Death of a Pig. I’ve still got to pack the snacks I bought for the residents—soda, pretzels, Doritos and a bag of Hershey’s Kisses.
        The stately brick building houses both assisted living rooms and independent living apartments. A long, inviting, front porch with fat, white columns is lined with rocking chairs like at a Cracker Barrel. Out here some of the residents who aren’t restricted by diet can drink a mint Julep or two, a favorite beverage here in the South. While the exterior of the structure inspires a homey feel, the inside tells a different story. There are brightly lit offices off to the right and left that hum with activity. The covering up scent of cleaning products masking urine is not profound, and the lobby space does open into a sort of living room complete with a fireplace, couches, plants and even a piano in the corner, but it still elicits the feeling of a fake home. Just off to the right of this space are apartments for independent seniors, and straight ahead are rooms for those who require higher levels of care.
Bustling into the conference room, I note the clock says it will be 10:30 in seven minutes which doesn’t give me much time to set up.  Flipping on the lights, my eyes rest on the large, wooden table mottled with drink rings. This is where decisions are made about the residents changing levels of care. Attending the meetings are the home’s administrator, the head of nursing, the director of admissions, and if appropriate, hospice. When it is empty, there’s a heaviness to the room. I place the food in the middle of the table and arrange seating so there is access for wheelchairs.
        Miss Evans inches her walker through the door. She’s five minutes early. I still need to go over my notes.
        “Hi!” I say rather loud because she is hard of hearing.
        “Good morning,” she says. “Am I in the right place for the book club?”
        “Yes!” I help her settle into a chair surprised by her thin frame. In the four months I’ve known her, she has lost considerable weight.
“We’re going to do some writing.”
        “Writing? I don’t know if I can write but I’ll sit here and listen.” She smiles. Her piercing blue eyes emanate serenity as she squeezes the plain gold cross on an even simpler chain hanging over her white turtle neck.
        I’m interrupted again, this time, by Mrs. Murphy standing in the doorway, tapping her cane against the frame. “This the writing class?” she asks.
        “Yes, come on in.”
        Mrs. Murphy limps to the nearest chair. Her left foot drags as she navigates her way. I wonder if she has plantar fasciitis or something more serious.
        She lowers her bulky body into a chair, scratches at her scalp, then examines her fingernails. Soon Mr. Sparks, a tall man with thick silver hair, quietly takes a seat two down from her.
        For the next fifteen minutes I continue to make room for wheelchairs and walkers and arrange notebooks, pens, and handouts at each participant’s place. I had not anticipated how long it might take to get everyone settled at the start of class, and now I’m nervous we won’t even get to the writing prompts I have planned: writing about a favorite pet, a humorous situation or a time of illness.
 As I set supplies in front of Mrs. Murphy, I see she is already helping herself to the bag of chocolates; a trail of silver wrappers lines from her notebook to the bag.      
“Thanks for coming, everybody,” I say, glancing at each of the seven weathered faces. Three seats remain empty.
        “Let’s go around the table starting with Mrs. Ewing and say our names and what type of writing we’ve done.”
        “I’m Jane Ewing, and I haven’t done much writing.” She adjusts her bun and continues. “But I’ve always enjoyed writing letters. When I fell ill I stopped doing it.” She lowers her dark brown eyes toward her notebook.
        “You know the nice thing about any kind of writing is it’s always there for you again when you’re ready,” I say with an encouraging smile. I rest my hand on Miss Evans’s shoulder and she jolts awake which causes her cross to bob a little on the chain.
“The Bible is the only book you need to read,” she blurts.
        I thank her, and she nods, eyes shining.
        “Mr. Smith, it’s your turn.”
Mr. Smith’s khaki pants are held in place by striped suspenders.
“I’m Walter Smith,” he says. “I grew up on a peanut farm in Virginia.” He places emphasis on the words peanut and Virginia. “We also grew tomatoes.”
Mrs. Murphy cuts him off.
        “I grew up on a farm in Minnesota. Talk about cold. Sometimes the wind-chill was sixty below! There were eleven of us kids. My son is a heart surgeon and his wife is a doctor, too. She’s got her PhD.”
        “That’s good, I say, moving the bag of candy from her reach There’s a pile of foil wrappers in front of her. “You must be proud.”
        “We also grew tomatoes,” Mr. Smith says.
        As we work through introductions, I realize it is already ten minutes to eleven and the class will be over in forty minutes.
“There are some writing samples on page two of the handout.”  The students shuffle through their papers. Some of them have trouble turning to the second page. Miss Patricia Parker, who’s in a wheelchair and wears an oxygen tube, looks in her notebook instead of at the handout for my reference.
I scan for the shortest example from the selections, then read an excerpt of a memoir while doing my best to use inflection. “On a particularly hot and sticky night in August 1998, I stood in front of the display kitchen in the restaurant where I worked and waited for my food to appear. The cooks, sweating, frantic, and bad-tempered, shot me dirty looks.”
        I can tell the passage doesn’t resonate with the group as I discuss creating tension in writing. Miss Evans is asleep again. Miss Parker is fiddling with her oxygen tube. I make a mental note to keep an eye on her. She often removes the air supply from her nose and isn’t supposed to. Mrs. Murphy starts taking apart her pen. Mrs. Madison, the only one in the group who lives in the independent wing and often keeps to herself, looks uncomfortable.
        “Let’s go ahead and write,” I say.
        “On here?” asks Mr. Smith, flipping through the hand-out.
        “You have your own notebook.” I point to his green one.
        The sulfuric scent of a spoiled egg fart engulfs the room, but from whose direction it emanates, I cannot tell.
        Mrs. Madison quietly gathers her things and slips away, leaving the door open behind her. Mr. Sparks, who has been listening intently, begins scribbling as if he has hypergraphia.
        Noise from the hallway filters inside. I close the door.
        Remembering it’s time to break out the remaining refreshments, I offer Mr. Sparks a drink.
“No thanks,” he says, barely looking up from the top of his second page.
        Miss Parker wears a blank expression under a crown of perfectly coiffed, white hair. She slowly picks up her pen.
        “The prompts are just ideas if you can’t think of anything else to write about,” I say. The room is quiet. They are writing. This bolsters my confidence. “Remember to use description,” I instruct.
        Mr. Smith gets up to go to the restroom. He makes it half way around the table, and then decides to go the other way. I notice we only have five minutes left, and ask those remaining in the class if they’d like to share what they wrote. I’m especially curious about what Mr. Sparks has penned, but to my disappointment he closes his notebook when I prompt him to read.
        Upon request I pour Mrs. Murphy a refill of Diet Coke.
        She burps quietly as I pour. It smells like Doritos. A sharp hair pokes out from her chin.
        “Well I guess I’ll go if no one else wants to,” says Mrs. Ewing while adjusting her glasses and her bun.
        “I came home with groceries in my arms and dropped them on the floor when I saw my husband of 42 years slumped over in his seat at the kitchen table.  I screamed and don’t remember the rest. They tell me I fell and broke my hip shortly after he died. That’s how I ended up in here.” Her voice wavers but she continues. “At first I didn’t want to be here and I couldn’t remember things. But everybody was real nice.”
        Mr. Sparks removes a pen from the pocket of his plaid oxford and fiddles with it.
        Mrs. Murphy starts crying. “My husband died seventeen years ago.” She reaches for the chocolates I had moved just out of her reach. I push a few of them back closer to her.
        I make my way toward her to pat her arm. Pain shoots through my knee when I accidentally bang it into Patricia’s wheelchair. When I get closer to Mrs. Murphy, I can more clearly see her anguished expression. I squeeze her hand. On the way back to my seat I stop to rest a hand on Patricia’s shoulder because she’s fallen asleep. I catch a whiff of her rose-scented lotion, my grandmother’s smell. Startled, she jolts awake. I see at some point during class she’d written “Patricia Parker” over and over on her notebook. I ask Mrs. Ewing if she wants to keep reading.
        She nods.
        “I started to remember again and my hip got better. Everyone here was real nice. But I hope to go home again because like I said, everyone is real nice here, but that’s my home.” She sets her notebook down on the table and closes it. The room is quiet.
All eyes are on her.
She looks around and says, “That’s all I wrote.”
        “There are many mansions in God’s house,” says Miss Evans, nodding her head on the word “God’s” for emphasis.
        Mr. Sparks softly adds, “My wife died last summer.”
        The room grows still once more, then Walter, who is fumbling his way back to his seat, breaks the silence by stating, “I come from a long line of peanut farmers. In Virginia.”
The writing group continues to meet over the next several weeks. I carefully plan for each session from the comfort of our home where all my favorite things surround me in my cozy office. There’s the snow-globe with photos of my husband and I during our engagement party embedded inside, pictures of our children, a whimsical long-legged doll with a porcelain face beneath her crown. She is wearing long, striped socks like Pippi Longstocking. Bright colored pillows and soft blankets are piled on my vintage-inspired chair with Queen Anne’s legs. It has a cheerful floral pattern embossed into a burgundy material.
Despite the time it takes to plan my agendas, they are never adhered to. Sometimes new faces join us and we have to squeeze in and spend time orienting the newcomers. Other times only two or three residents show up. Two consistencies are Mrs. Ewing always attends, and when Mrs. Murphy is there she eats too much.
        I learn where everyone is from, and what their parents were like, how many siblings and grandchildren they have, and whether or not their families come to visit. I hear about a another time when people grew their own food, and sitting down to eat it together meant something different than it does today. They share how after dinner instead of sitting in front of a TV, they often gathered around banjos or sang around a piano.
Miss Evans turns 100 years old toward the end of the course, and unexpectedly meets her beloved Jesus a week later. Walter grows ill and stops attending shortly after that. I stop by his room and ask him about the peanut farm on occasion, but his enthusiasm has been replaced with hollowness.
This is the way it is in many retirement communities. People get sick, people die, and new residents move in. It is rare that anyone gets to go back home.
And yet with only one session to go though, Mrs. Ewing returns to the house she shared with her husband for over forty years. When the course ended, I stayed on as a volunteer for the life enrichment department. Mrs. Ewing stops by from time to time when her niece can bring her for a visit. Though happy to see us, my former student is even happier, I think, when she leaves, because she knows where she is going.
One comment on “Colleen Wells, 11/19/2018
  1. Charles says:

    Sweetly sad Nice work.

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