There are no locks on the residents’ doors at the Greenwood Retirement Community. When I first moved in, I was surprised at this lack of privacy and so unnerved that I stashed a baseball bat under my bed.
I hadn’t planned on living in a retirement facility—I was only sixty-two. My mother though, at ninety-two, thought it would be sensible for her to transfer to a facility that provided a wide range of care. I argued with her. “I’m going to retire soon. I’ll look after you.” “I know dear, but I’d feel more secure living in a place with no stairs, handrails in the halls, and a nursing staff—and if I need assisted living or, god forbid, a nursing home, Greenwood has them.” I couldn’t persuade her to change her mind.
Mom’s name is Anna Rose, but she goes by Rose. Her parents emigrated from Sicily to America when she was two. She’s five feet tall and has bright brown eyes that miss nothing. She still dyes her hair black and wears colorful smocks over polyester slacks and rhinestone-studded cat-eye glasses. She loves a good laugh and tells dirty Italian jokes when she knows they’ll be appreciated.
Mom made the move to Greenwood. I visited once a week, and we often talked on the phone. About a month after she’d settled in, she called me in tears. “Mom! What’s wrong?”
I immediately flashed on all the things that might have happened—TVs blaring from her neighbors’ rooms, bad food in the dining room, her hypertension skyrocketing, a fall, a newly diagnosed disease.
She blew her nose and said, “I’m so frustrated. There are over two hundred people living here and I expected to make friends easily. You know how much I like company.”
I did know. Mom is quite the conversationalist and she’s proud of her quick mind, even though her hearing’s not so good. Mom went on, “I sat at the common dining table a few nights ago. I introduced myself to the four ladies sitting there and I thought we were having a nice chat when one of them asked my age. Ninety-two, I told them. I thought they’d be impressed, but they looked shocked and ignored me for the rest of the meal. I’ve never had an experience like that. I felt like I was back in high school and they were the popular girls, the elite clique. The only people who talk with me are the staff, and they’re too busy to chat for long. I don’t know what to do. I used to be the belle of the ball; now I’m the lady with a contagious disease—old age.
I tried to comfort her and told her not to worry, that I’d talk with the administrator. Here’s how that conversation went: Yes, I know there is friction among certain circles of women. But it’s that way all through life. Your mother just needs to find her group. It’s only been a month; she’ll adjust.
I told Mom to be patient, to look for other women to befriend. She agreed to give it more time, but I fretted. This was not the way I wanted her to pass her last years. Maybe if I joined her for dinner one night a week, she wouldn’t feel so alone.
The first time we had dinner together, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the evening. The dining room was elegant—taupe Berber carpeting, apricot walls, gold-framed pictures, comfortable chairs, linen tablecloths and napkins. A Steinway grand graced one corner of the room. A white-coated waiter brought the menu. I looked it over. “What will you have Mom?”
“I feel like steak tonight. The filet mignon sounds good. How about you?”
“I don’t have fish often. I think I’ll have salmon. I brought some red wine, a pinot noir.” Mom laughed and clapped her hands, “Bella!” I put the wine on the table, reached into my pocket for the corkscrew, and opened the bottle. “We’ll let it breathe for a while.” “Let me have a little taste,” she said. I poured a half-inch into her wine glass. She drank it and said, “It’s very good. Let’s not wait.” I got up, draped my white napkin over my arm, walked around to her side of the table, and poured her wine with a flourish. I filled my glass and we toasted each other. Salute!
The food arrived and my salmon with asparagus spears and rice pilaf was delicious. Much better than my cooking. After my first bite, I heard music. One of the residents sat at the piano and played for half an hour—Broadway show tunes and standard ballads. I loved it. Turned out the pianist was a professional musician with the Cleveland Symphony before she retired to Greenwood and she always performed after her dinner.
When I returned home that night, I couldn’t sleep. Thoughts ricocheted through my mind. How else could I help Mom? Would she eventually adjust? Should I bring her home?
When dawn came, I took my coffee outside and sat on the back step. The morning air was still and warm. Red alder trees and the white oak were in full leaf and chestnut-backed chickadees were singing their spring song. I looked over the back yard. The roses needed pruning, the lawn needed mowing, the hedge needed shaping. I walked to the shed at the back of the property and pulled out gardening gloves and pruning shears. The America climbing roses planted along the fence were spilling over into the neighbor’s yard. I began to snip. I slipped into a calmer frame of mind, and as I worked, fresh ideas emerged. What would it be like to never prune another rose bush, never shovel snow, never cook another meal, never dust and run the vacuum, never rake and bag autumn leaves, never snake out a clogged drain? I didn’t need to convince Mom to come home. I could go to Greenwood.
I was retired by then. I’d never married. Mom was an energetic matchmaker but nothing ever came of it. I’d always lived at home and I had intended to stay there until I couldn’t manage, but moving to Greenwood now could solve a lot of problems.
When I told her what I was thinking, she surprised me. “Oh dear. I don’t think that’s wise. Most people here are in their eighties. You’d be surrounded with old people. I recently overheard one woman say, “We come here to die.” I’m afraid you’d draw into yourself. You’ve worked hard; you should have some fun while you’re still young. Travel, join some clubs, learn something new.” But I knew Greenwood would be ideal for me. I had my car; if I wanted to do something different like travel or take up a hobby, which I didn’t, I had the freedom. And truth be told, I’m not like my mother. I enjoy a quiet, solitary life.
I settled in and it worked—up to a point. Mom and I watched the Young and the Restless, the national news, Father Brown and other PBS shows, worked puzzles, read to one another, and took our meals together. I enjoy reading mysteries and there was a well-stocked library with comfy chairs where I often spent a pleasant afternoon. I was content, but Mom still needed more. Greenwood is filled with women. I’ll bet not more than 10 percent of the residents are men and most of them are married. You’d think it would be easy for her to make friends.
Here’s the rub. I’m a single man, sixty-two years old, fairly slim with a full head of hair and all my teeth—although I later learned I could have been eighty, fat, bald, and toothless, and it wouldn’t have mattered. Women started rapping on my door and inviting me to a card game or a reading group and asking if I dance or play a musical instrument. I didn’t like it. I was tempted to tell them to knock on my mother’s door instead of mine. I didn’t have a clue how to handle the situation until Max the maintenance guy stopped by to repair the thermostat. We got to talking. I made a pot of coffee and we sat down.
“You know, the strangest thing’s been happening,” I told him. “Women, total strangers, are coming to my door with invitations to socialize. I’m not interested, but I don’t know how to discourage them. They’re very persistent. I’m afraid one day someone will walk in without knocking.”
Max laughed and put down his coffee. “This always happens when a single guy moves in. They’re like a swarm of bees around a blooming rose bush. Just ignore them, Ernest. They’ll give up.”
Talking out loud to Max about my problem gave me an idea. I decided to turn the tables. If a woman expressed an interest in getting to know me, I’d invite her to lunch with Mom and me. They always accepted. I hoped once they got past her age and realized they had to speak clearly and face Mom when they spoke, they’d enjoy her wit and conversation. It didn’t work. They ignored her to concentrate on me. I was upset and Mom certainly noticed the snubs. Maybe I’d made a mistake.
One day, a previous luncheon guest, Sarah, stopped by our table to introduce her friend, Theresa. I’d noticed Theresa before; she often visited the library when I was there reading. She was a slender woman with long white hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her gold-flecked hazel eyes were a pleasant surprise. She moved like she had a crown on her head and seemed so serene. I invited Sarah and Theresa to join us. They accepted and sat down at the table. Theresa pulled her chair closer to Mom. “Rose, what a lovely name. How long have you lived here?” Mom’s cheeks grew pink and she smiled. They had an animated conversation about their favorite pastimes and learned they had much in common, especially bridge. Theresa invited Mom to join her bridge club and Mama Rose, as Theresa came to call her, quickly accepted. Mom loved the table talk and began to gather a circle of friends.
The women knocking at my door and the barrage of invitations tapered off, and I settled into the life at Greenwood. Theresa taught me to play bridge and I turned out to be pretty good. I signed up for day trips and created a community movie night. I found out I’m a gregarious guy
We had a big celebration for Mom’s hundredth birthday. She had lots of friends by then, and they were enthusiastic partygoers. Mom had always hoped to be a centenarian and she was thrilled with the festivities. Six months later, she died in her sleep.
Theresa consoled me during this time and helped with the arrangements. We were in front of the altar in Greenwood’s chapel discussing flowers for Mom’s memorial service, when I suddenly broke down. Theresa placed her arm around me and rubbed my back. I leaned into her, wiped my eyes with the handkerchief she pulled out of her pocket, and looked into her glorious gold-flecked hazel eyes.
I know this sounds silly for an old man. I never expected to have feelings of romantic love at my age, but there I was—like a silvery dolphin skimming through the water, leaping, spy hopping. I proposed on the spot. Theresa laughed, said yes, wrapped her arms around me, and we kissed. We kissed again and then again. Breathless, exuberant, I pulled back and asked, “What do you think Mama Rose would say about this?”
Theresa smiled, lowered her eyes and then gave me a sidelong look. “Maybe she had this in mind all along.”
Susan Knox is an essayist, short story writer, and author of Financial Basics, A Money Management Guide for Students published by The Ohio State University Press, 2004, 2nd edition 2016. Her stories and essays have appeared in Blue Lyra Review, CALYX, Forge, Halfway Down the Stairs, The MacGuffin, Zone 3, and elsewhere. In 2014, her essay, “Autumn Life” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She and her husband live in Seattle, near the Pike Place Market where she shops most days for the evening meal.
© 2019, Susan Knox