My Nanny and I went to visit Mrs. Ruby the other day at the nursing home. She is one of the happiest people I know, while also being honest. She was born ninety-six years ago during a snowstorm in North Dakota, into a community of Norwegian immigrants. After the war, she and her husband returned there and built a house together, and she misses it.
We brought blueberries, one of her many favorite things, and sat on the bed and talked to her. We talked, mostly, about her room, which, even in her pleasantness, fell from perfection as totally as the demons themselves. She has lived here eight years and it has taken her that long to tire of pretending that she likes it. There is not enough space for her few possessions, the door has no lock (enabling old men to wander in at all hours) and the windows overlook the congestion of downtown Augusta’s medical complex. She is not allowed to hang anything on the walls.
“What would you say that was?” she asked, pointing to the one abstract and mass-produced picture.
“Maybe goldfish?” I said, squinting, head cocked.
There was a mirror over the little sink, but directly in the middle of it was a large metal paper towel holder.
“I can’t see myself,” she said, moving on, clockwise. “That blocks my face completely. I asked them to move it. They just smiled and nodded. I may be old and senile, but you have to be some kind of stupid to design something like that. But the worst, the worst, is the food. It’s horrible to see what they do to vegetables. It’s a massacre, that’s what it is.”
Visiting her in this place, even with the offering of blueberries, was not enough. Mrs. Ruby wanted out. The difference I’ve found, between girls and women, is the wherewithal to follow through. I had all sorts of plans as a little girl. The plans continue to be hasty and ambitious, but results follow, and people even move in response, most of the time. It is so hard for the aged to lose this ability. It is a special, tenuous gift to be able to say, “Let’s get out of here and find some place good to eat!” and then accomplish it, in a matter of minutes. If this doesn’t seem like a marvel, you can neither remember your childhood, nor imagine your old age, and you’re missing out.
So I found myself driving through lunchtime traffic with two of my favorite ladies, two delightful and fragile and trusting ladies, crossing the river bridge, getting a little corner table at Antonio’s and ordering pizza and salad. Nanny and I held hands and prayed, unable to get Mrs. Ruby’s attention, and then foolishly ate like Marines. For the next two hours, we sat and watched as Mrs. Ruby feasted. She ate the onions first, then the cucumbers with the dressing, then the pizza, picking it up with her hands, then the lettuce, all the while moving slowly, carefully, pleasurably, forgetful of us and absorbed in the experience. She ate it all, every last bit.
I had just read that morning the verses in Deuteronomy about the Feast of Tabernacles. If there ever was a dispersed Israelite, living in a makeshift present, Mrs. Ruby is that one. “Thou shalt rejoice in thy feast,” it says, and she did. With joy for what was— the home in North Dakota, the pheasants and moose, her own kitchen full of vegetables treated right, her husband and children. With joy in what is— the little table at a downtown pizza joint. And with joy in what’s to come— soon, a better feast than any she has known.
There was a routine cognizance test waiting for her when we got back. The nurse had a list of mechanical questions. Can you spell ‘world’ backwards? Can you draw two octagons overlapping? Would you write me a sentence at the bottom of this page?
Mrs. Ruby took it bravely on the chin. I thought of a few questions of my own. Could you leave your home in the vulnerability of your old age, cheerfully? Could you be bossed, herded and institutionalized and still have the heart to love blueberries and onions and cucumbers? Still have the pluck to enter the outside world and return again, unshaken? Could you wake up every morning in one of these unfeeling rooms and exhale thank you?
As the nurse turned to leave, I looked over her shoulder at the clipboard. At the bottom, Mrs. Ruby had written in her clear, familiar script:
It is a beautiful day to be in Augusta, Georgia.