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At age eight, I was begging my mom to let me babysit the kids in my neighborhood. By 10, I was stuffing mailboxes with fliers advertising my child care services. At 14, I had decided that having kids would just never be for me. My new theory was formulated after an impressive four years of research. Temper tantrums, bad attitudes, tattle tales – my life would be exponentially better without them all. My mom was devastated to hear from her 14-year-old daughter that her son would now be solely responsible for providing her with grandkids.
At 16, after months of job searching, I was happily employed by a catering business serving meals in a local retirement home. Yes, I leapt from five-year-olds to 85-year-olds. No, the two seemingly opposite demographics are not actually that different. Tantrums, attitudes, and tattle tales were still parts of daily life, only the discord arose over food as opposed to toys and games.
“Out of applesauce? This is absolutely ridiculous,” Betty would pipe up.
“Honey, your hair did look much better the other day,” Ann would chime in.
“Everyone, the waitress gave Richard two desserts. Shouldn't we all get two?” Again, Betty.
“Compliments to the chef. Have a great night, gal,” Bob Dahlerup would exclaim upon exiting the dining room at least ten minutes after all the other residents had returned to their rooms. He never failed to flip my frown.
At age 80, Robert was an exception at the nursing home. Dinner was served at precisely 5:30 every evening. The residents would pile in as a herd around 5:15. Not Mr. Dahlerup – he was there as the hour hand just passed five. Before I had even finished setting the tables, I'd hear his walker scoot in the entrance. I would have minded if it was anyone else coming down that early, but Bob was good company.
Over months of pre-dinner conversations, I learned that Bob had lived and worked in Detroit. He met his wife, a professional ballroom dancer, on a blind date. His brother was the star quarterback on his high school's football team. I even met his best friend once when he came in to visit. He brought Bob a hat that read “Robert $-Up.” Bob was beaming that day.
“This here is my best friend! We used to work together in the factory.”
His smile spanned from one cheek to the other. It was a smile that I hadn't see when I asked him about kids. He didn't have any.
Mr. Dahlerup learned about my life too. He'd bring down clippings from the Oakland Press of last night's basketball scores for Warren Mott. I went to Waterford Mott, but Warren Mott probably had a better record anyway.
When Bob turned 81, I made him a card. Everyone who worked in the kitchen signed it.
“Oh, that Bob – he's such a good man,” they all said. Although different from the rest of the crowd, he was liked by everyone. That night every resident who filed into dinner wished Bob a happy birthday. Of course, he had been talking about how proud he was to be turning 81 for a solid week, but regardless, they all liked him well enough. I presented Bob with his birthday card from the staff.
“Well, look at this! I recognize that beautiful handwriting from the menu. How nice!” How unnecessarily hard I worked on that menu each night.
The next night, Bob called me over when he strolled in. The clock read 5:06.
“I brought you something.” It wasn't a clipping from Warren Mott, I could tell. I really hoped he hadn't bought anything for me; I would feel much too guilty. Bob pulled out a little green coupon booklet. It was $5 in gift certificates to National Coney Island. Absolutely perfect. I really did like a good NCI breakfast. I thanked Bob and took the booklet. Looking through it in the kitchen later, I saw it had expired in 1997. Yet even the camera I had received for Christmas couldn't compare. Bob's gift earned a coveted spot on my bedroom wall.
When holiday season rolled around, I had to sign up for a shift on one of the days: Thanksgiving, Christmas eve, or Christmas day. Thanksgiving was my choice. I had never really thought about it, but I understood why we couldn't skip serving dinner for even one night; for some of the less able residents, this was probably their only meal all day. However, I felt sad and confused when I wondered how many residents didn't have family coming to take them home for a real, loving meal on the holidays. I wondered how many residents could be staying for Thanksgiving dinner. My guess was five of the usual 30, at most.
Walking into work at noon on Thanksgiving day, holding up my own family caravan to Ohio, I asked my boss how many places I should set.
“I think there are 16 on the sign-up sheet.”
Shocked, I began pushing tables together into one long one so no one would have to eat alone. I made sure the chairs were orderly and the centerpieces perky. While I waited for the residents to arrive, I glanced at the list to see whom I should be expecting.
A wave of sadness washed over me. I started slamming the plates and cutlery down at the places as if they had insulted me. Bob had friends, family. What could they possibly be doing that prevented them from inviting Bob for a home-cooked meal? It demanded an explanation.
“Happy Thanksgiving!” Robert Dahlerup exclaimed as he scooted in. I asked where his family was – I didn't care if it wasn't my place.
“They live pretty far away. Maybe if they were younger and stronger they could handle me and my 81 years.”
Then and there I revised my theory about having kids. I never want to spend any holidays in a retirement home. Any time at all, actually. I never want to have to come to dinner 20 minutes early to have someone to talk to. I never want to complain about there not being any more applesauce, or that someone got more food than me. My kids will take care of me.