Growing Up in a Rest Home

I grew up in a 19 room house.  In the late seventies my parents turned it into a private rest home and it was like growing up with 15 simultaneous grandmothers.  It was very sad to see them pass on to new life, surrounded by us, their new family – usually.

A news reporter commented that 81 was too soon for Joan Rivers to die.  What is the right age to die?  75, 80, 98?  It depends on the person and the life lived, I guess.  Joan once said while she was in her sixties that she could die right now knowing that she has lived a full, satisfying and productive life.  In the rest home, I knew 65 and 90 year old women who prayed nightly to die.

When my mother was in her sixties, she told me the same thing and gave me the dreaded instructions most children are uncomfortable with. . .  While on her deathbed, her four week long deathbed, in a morphine induced coma, her body fought long and hard to stay alive.  My pal Nancy jokingly said, “Give her the whole damn bottle.”  My mother would have approved but I was not strong enough.

That was the most pain-filled experience in my life and I would do it all over again for grief is just love with a bad reputation, love hurts.  Illness and death bring enormous amounts of love, patience, humility and forgiveness into our lives and the lives of our families and friends – if we let it.  Illness and death are not the enemy.  Selfishness, greed, being judgmental and hateful are.  They remove us from the bright/dark places of real life which help us to grow.  I often listen to musicians and singers perform and think to myself that they have not experienced deep and profound loss yet.  There is nothing wrong with heartbreak for it is love that breaks it and that love and loss can come through a musician’s craft.

Have you ever noticed that after somebody has a heart attack, loses a child or goes through anything really heavy, their outlook can change overnight?  They see life on a deeper level than before.  They tend to think about the bigger things and not care so much about their hair, makeup, clothes or what anyone thinks.  That is how many of my mother’s residents were like.  How they loved desert, a sip of wine, the raunchiest of R-rated movies or a can of beer, then more desert.

One of my mother’s ladies once swiped another resident’s un-eaten hotdog off her plate while clearing the table.  Trying to eat the whole thing fast it got caught in her throat and she began to choke.  It’s a long story but I saved her life and she had to spend a few days in the hospital.  When she came back, this woman who prayed for death was a new person.  She took our dog out into the two hundred acres of field behind our house and walked for hours.  She became a very hug-happy person after that event.

When my parent’s first opened their home, they did not need a license to operate but eventually the state laws changed and they had to get one.  In those days the state laws were a little more lax than they are today.  For instance, the residents would have a glass of wine or brandy in the evening.  Today that would not be permitted.  The residents used to love helping around the house with cooking and cleaning but that would not be allowed today, either.

Since we all lived in the same space, shared the same kitchen and the same bathrooms (we had four), they were all part of the family.  They even took turns going with my mother to do grocery shopping.  That is one of the reasons there was a list of people waiting to get into my mom’s home, because it was a home, complete with pets, children, home cooking and inclusion into the dynamics of a family household.  There was always the smell of food cooking or baking.  I don’t know how my parents did it.

The residents  participated in all the holidays with our family and even on Christmas morning, they opened presents with us around the tree.  My mother always made sure everyone received gifts since many of their biological family failed in that responsibility.  She was careful to label the presents “From Santa.”  For some reason that was acceptable as my mother found that if a gift came from any of us, the residents would be upset that they didn’t get us something in return.

My mother contacted the local Roman Catholic church to have the priest bring Holy Communion on Sunday.  The priest wouldn’t come but sent lay Eucharistic Ministers.  I was okay and enthralled with that but the ladies were from another generation where they viewed the priest as a little more elevated than the rest of us mere humans (many priest continue to believe that today).  The ladies didn’t respond to the laity and my mother sought another priest from another church.  He came but refused to administer communion to the residents who were not Roman Catholic so my mother made contact with a Protestant pastor who would come every Sunday afternoon and administer Communion.  He was wonderful to the ladies.  He would often stay for half an hour to an hour to pray privately, chat, hear confessions and sing with my mother’s people.  They didn’t know or really care about his denomination and they often called him “Father” and he never corrected them.  Everyone loved him and my mother started giving him an envelope each week with fifty dollars cash in it.  At first he refused it but my mother said that if he wouldn’t take it, do something with it for the church or a needy family.  I know many priests who would have just pocketed the cash.

He made our rest home part of his church’s ministry.  The choir would come caroling around Christmas, the church would provide little gift baskets for the ladies during the holidays and he always wore a collar which which meant a lot to the residents. His Sunday School kids would make cards for them and receiving those cards was a source of great joy for the ladies.

The state was good to my mother.  She was licensed to have only six people but she had room for more if she doubled the beds in the rooms as some of them were quite large.  DSS contacted her one day asking if she would be willing to take additional people, despite the legal limit.  My mother said she didn’t have the beds or furniture.  They said no problem and a shipment of beds arrived a few days later.   As the laws began to change, for instance, requiring the house to have hard wired smoke detectors or safety railings around the toilets and tub, the state provided that, too.

One day a law or regulation was passed requiring rest homes to provide menus displaying a whole month of meals.  My mother refused saying that she goes shopping every few days and she never plans a month let alone days in advance.  She shopped at the Farmer’s Market and never knew what she was going to find.  So, one of the state representatives gave her a pre-made menu and told her if an inspector ever wanted to see one, just present them with that one.

My mother was an amazing cook (I wish I paid attention) and the ladies loved her meals.  No matter what my mother cooked though, the ladies loved the simple things like BLT’s, toasted cheese, tomato sandwiches, hot dogs, egg sandwiches or fried bologna.  The state provided free eggs, milk, cheese, butter and bread.  Having 15 ladies there meant that there were a lot of dairy products coming in but there was no problem with the ladies consuming it.   My mother would make the thickest toasted cheese sandwiches, or the richest mac and cheese.  One of my mother’s secret ingredients was all that butter.  My God, everything tasted so good.  The ladies were in gustatory heaven.

Many of the women had amazing stories.  Mary was from Canada and when she was 15, she got pregnant.  To spare the family of her shame, they sent her down to Troy, NY for several months to live with relatives until the baby was born.  While down here, Mary met another boy and fell in love with him.  After giving birth, she traveled back to Canada where they gave the baby to their neighbors who then raised the child as their own.  Mary moved back down to NY to be with and marry her new boyfriend and her parents watched their grandson grow up from next door.  The boy never knew his relationship to them until they died and his adoptive parents told him the truth.  He got the address of his birth mom, Mary, and began writing to her.  Mary corresponded but refused to allow him to come down and visit as she had gotten married and started a new family down here.  After Mary died, the son from Canada, now with his own family, contacted the son in NY to connect with his step family.  It was both shocking, exhilarating and sad for Mary’s NY son to discover that he had a half brother and nieces and nephews up in Canada.  It saddened him greatly that his mother took her unnecessary secret and shame to her grave.  The Canada son was willing to let Mary live with him and his family while in her old age but she refused because of that seventy year old shame.  Her story reminds me of the song NO MORE from “Into The Woods” sung by a father who ran away, leaving an infant child who grew up to contemplate running away, leaving his infant child:

Running away – let’s do it,
Free from the ties that bind.
No more despair Or burdens to bear
Out there in the yonder.

Running away – go to it.
Where did you have in mind?
Have to take care: Unless there’s a “where,”
You’ll only be wandering blind.
Just more questions.  Different kind.

Where are we to go?
Where are we ever to go?

Running away – we’ll do it.
Why sit around, resigned?
Trouble is, son, The farther you run,
The more you feel undefined
For what you have left undone
And more, what you’ve left behind.

We disappoint,
We leave a mess,
We die but we don’t . . .

I would often sit down at the piano and the ladies would wander in to listen to me play.  It was amazing how these elderly women would not know the names of their own children but would know every word to a hymn, song or prayer.  I would play music from the 20’s and 40’s for them and they would suddenly come alive, singing along, tapping their feet or “dance” with my father.

Every one of my mother’s ladies had a story, some sad, others filled with great joy.  All of the women were filled with tremendous love and stories of regret.  I learned that some of the greatest saints were murderers first.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t grow up in a rest home.  I know my work as a pastoral musician would be different, I’d be more a worshiper of music than of people (or worse – a worshiper of the institution).  For certain, if we don’t suffer pain, we give up a good deal of spiritual growth.  I think I will go play the piano.

“Time weaves ribbons of memory,
to sweeten life when youth is through.”


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