A person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way; a storyteller; a narrator
The first time I entered an assisted living community, I was five years old. My first-grade class and I went equipped with gifts of bananas and carefully copied Bible verses on colorful handmade cards. We passed our offerings to residents situated in a circle of wheelchairs. A tape of instrumental Cajun music played softly in the background.
My peers were mostly uncomfortable, hanging back in groups or huddling by our teacher. I was an exception to that discomfort. I eagerly handed out cards, said hello, and made friendly conversation.
I vividly remember encountering one man leaning back in his wheelchair with his head unnaturally cocked toward the ceiling and drool dripping down his chin. My mother, who volunteered to join us that day, asked me to take special care telling him hello. She said that his name was Mr. Nathan; he was the dad of one of my dad's friends and had been the district attorney a long time ago. I didn't know what all that meant, but I happily told him hello and gave him my favorite card—one with a big rainbow on it—even though he didn't seem to hear me and failed to acknowledge the slip of paper I left on his lap. Something inside me knew there was more to him than the shell before me.
As I went down the line of residents, I met some women who clutched baby dolls to their chests. On the bus-ride home, Mom explained this was because they had held so many babies of their own in their younger years that now they felt safe and relaxed holding a baby again. My cohorts were confused; to me, it made sense.
I was seven the next time I went into an assisted living community. Prompt Succor was located in a rural town north of Lafayette, Louisiana, where I lived. Mom took me there to see my granny, who worked there as a beautician. (Years later I learned that in the wake of her own mother's death, my granny found great comfort in serving other people's mothers. I thought that was overwhelmingly beautiful.)
The day I first visited Prompt Succor, I wore a green velvet dress. I remember it well because several ladies wished to touch it. That day as I walked to meet Granny, a beautiful woman named Dorothy not only said hello to me, but asked me how old I was, where I went to school, and what my favorite color was. I told her and then countered with the same questions. She answered them—91, Opelousas High School, purple. I carried on a conversation with her just like I would have with any child I met on the playground—with any friend.
I was nine years old when my mom, older sister, and I started carting our harp to assisted living communities a few times a year. My sister and I would each play three or four songs. The room would fill with oohs and aahs and offbeat claps. There would be humming and singing. Whether the words were right or wrong didn't matter—there was joy. Even at nine years old, I recognized it. It was the same joy I felt on Christmas morning when I unwrapped a new baby doll, the same joy I felt when my baby sister came home from the hospital, the same joy I felt when I raced into the ocean on the first day of summer vacation. Joy was joy—rather it was experienced by someone 90 or nine, it was the same—and I knew it.
As I grew older, the practice of visiting assisted living communities didn't subside. It blossomed. Once I had my own car, I made weekly trips to Maison de Lafayette, a community near my home. Over the years, I made a plethora of friends there.
I visited Mrs. Nettie, who put together more puzzles than I thought humanly possible. Once upon a time she had owned a flower shop, and she showed me album after album of her floral creations.
I visited Mrs. Opal, who loved to decorate her room for every holiday. If she didn't know which one came next, as she took down one's decorations, she would ask a nurse. When they responded with “Mardi Gras" or “Halloween" or “4th of July," she would excitedly pull décor from a plastic tub under her bed. Twice I happened by and helped her decorate.
I visited Mr. Al, an Italian man who reminded me of my grandfather. He always wore blue, button-down pajamas, no matter the hour of the day.
I visited Mrs. Virginia, who seemed to always be sitting on the side of her bed, an empty bag clasped in her lap, as she waited to catch the train. She would inform me over and over again that she was about to travel up north to meet her fiancé's parents. She would ask where I was traveling to. At first, I was confused. Eventually, I'd smile and sit beside her and tell her I was heading north, too, and that we could make the journey together.
I visited Mr. Larry and Mrs. Margie, an inseparable couple who moved into the community after Mr. Larry's many falls. Although Mrs. Margie was healthy and capable of staying at their ranch outside of town, she refused to part ways with him. They would do crossword puzzles together and ask for my “young brain" help when they got stuck. Mrs. Margie once opened her locket to show me a picture of her beloved rat terrier, which wasn't allowed to join them at the facility and had to live with their niece instead.
And then there was Miss Lola. One day, I headed to the side door at Maison de Lafayette and discovered her sitting outside smoking a cigarette. As I passed her with a polite smile, she stopped me to ask if I smoked. I told her I was only 16 and that I did not. She told me, “Good, these damn things will kill you" and took another drag. I liked her already. I sat down beside her. This was the beginning of our friendship.
What ensued was rating the male nurses on a cuteness scale from 1 to 10, sharing snacks, and my reading scripture—the Psalms were her favorite—aloud to her, since she could not read the small print in her Bible. I eventually bought her a large-print Bible, which she treasured. What ensued was advice about my high school boyfriends, consolation through my break-ups, and approval of my prom dresses. She told me sad stories about her childhood, outlandish stories about her ex-husband, funny stories about raising her children, brave stories about going to nursing school as a single mother. And then, one day, when I was 20 and newly married, I went to visit like I always did and found her room bare. A nurse informed me that she had passed away three days earlier.
My husband and I moved to Florida when I was 22. There, I hosted writing workshops in the assisted living communities near us. I visited dozens of facilities and met hundreds of people.
Mrs. Jan sticks out in my memory. She prided herself in being the resident ambassador at Oakmonte Assisted Living. She wore a name tag and greeted guests with a warm handshake and smile.
And I'll never forget the two women whose names I didn't get, who, during a workshop, both fell silent and became teary-eyed when prompted to recall memories of World War II. One of them, in a heavy German accent, said that her husband had been killed in the war. The other, a native Floridian, burst into tears, saying her husband, too, had been killed in the war. Both got up, hugged, and cried together.
Over the years, I experienced a multitude of other names, faces, and interactions. I played the harp. I helped with writing memories. I listened. I learned.
After graduating from college, I began writing life stories for people 65 to 105 years old—for veterans and doctors and stay-at-home mothers and entrepreneurs and educators and everyone in-between. I wrote them for the sole purpose of sharing cherished memories with family members. In the process, I fell in love with many of my subjects' spirits. I gleaned grandfatherly or grandmotherly advice. Some women shared secret family recipes; some men shared gut-wrenching heartaches. I have carried burdens and wept; I have laughed until I cried.
When I look back, I can trace the lines of my passion for my profession and my affection for the people I work with back to a certain field trip—back to a five-year-old handing a colorful card to Mr. Nathan. I can trace it to what I recognize now as a realization that inside what looked like an idle old man was actually 100 other versions of himself—a curious child, a bold young man, a loving father, a brilliant attorney. And with it came the realization that behind every mask that appeared aged and perhaps less productive than it once had been lived a vibrant young person waiting to be heard, to be seen, to be known, to be befriended.
Olivia Savoie is co-founder of Raconteur Life Story Writing, a family heirloom biography writing and publishing company based in Louisiana. She can be reached at Olivia@RaconteurWriting.com.