What Would Susan Do?
February 21, 2013
A few days ago Alice called to say she felt sad to see Libby sitting at her old table for every meal.
“Now that you’ve gone and interfered,” she said, “she sits back there in the corner, facing the wall. Poor thing.”
It’s true. I did interfere. 95-year-old Libby had been driving 97-year-old Alice into a state of high anxiety nearly every meal time. Alice herself had asked the powers-that-be to move Libby away once before, but the administrative team from that era is gone. So I asked a couple of weeks ago for the move to happen again. I did it without a qualm.
But as the saying goes: No good deed goes unpunished. Now my mother was suffering every time she saw Libby staring at the wall, her back to passersby. She was upset all over again, and this new anxiety included being anxious to pass some of her suffering on to me.
It was a mystery as to why the staff had moved Libby back to her previous table when there were plenty of empty tables in the dining room.
A meek and well-mannered woman in her seventies used to sit across from Libby at this old table. Angela, the kind of person who had probably never once asked anyone for any of her needs to be respected and met, had moved away to another facility. I suspected that she had moved on rather than requesting a new table and taking the risk of hurting the boorish Libby’s feelings. As soon as she was gone, the staff had taken away both Angela’s chair and her place mat.
Alice concluded Libby must have been lonely after Angela’s departure. “That’s probably why they put her with me again. She should not have to sit back there facing that wall.”
“But why does she have to face the wall?” I asked. “Why can’t she just shove her place mat to the other side of the table where Angela’s used to be? That way she can face the room and shout at people and grab at the men walking by – her favorite things to do.”
Alice was quiet. Finally she said, “That wouldn’t have occurred to me, and I’m sure it hasn’t occurred to her.”
We said good-bye and I bowed my head in frustration. How deep runs the River of Authority in women of Alice’s generation! How rare for most of them to even trifle with a rebellious thought! What would Susan B. Anthony do when the place mats were passed around?
You can bet she wouldn’t sit long with someone who cleaned their fingernails with their fork.
Luckily, Meg was here to listen to my laments. “It’s not up to the 95-year-old to come up with the idea to move the place mat,” she said sensibly. “It’s up to the staff.” She has a Buddhist’s patience with nonsense.
But the people on the dining room staff at The Place, a young bunch, serve and clear plates of food, roll carts around and pour coffee, and then run out to get new tattoos. They have not exactly been trained in service by Carson over at Downton Abbey.
Yet, like Downton Abbey, the drama at The Place takes unexpected turns. Alice called the next day to say that Libby’s place mat had mysteriously appeared on her table once again, with Libby herself showing up moments later and happily seating herself.
Wheresoever the place mat goeth…
“So she’s back with you?” I was incredulous.
Alice only sighed.
That night Meg and I took action. On our way to Alice’s apartment we cruised through The Place’s darkened dining room, lifted Libby’s place mat from Alice’s table, traveled stealthily through the maze of tables, chairs and service carts, tiptoed into the corner so as not to be heard by the lone jig-saw puzzle solver in a nearby brightly lit alcove, and delivered the place mat back onto Libby’s own table but in Angela’s old spot.
We moved the single chair around to the other side too, so that when Libby sat down she would face the room. Then we slipped quietly away to visit Alice.
The next day a jubilant Alice called. “Guess what?” For a few minutes she was excited for Libby’s new chair-and-place mat good fortune, but then suspicion hit. “Wait! Did YOU have anything to do with this?”
“Maybe,” I said coyly, but when I heard her revving up for a scolding, Dear Reader, I confess that I sidestepped. “But how and when would I have done something like that?”
She relaxed and hurried on with her story of Libby’s newfound happiness. How cheerily the woman now waves! How eagerly she grabs at the boys again, holds their hands tight within her own sticky hands and prays for them! Long, long prayers.
Meanwhile, Alice has had a good week of her own. For Valentine’s Day, Meg sewed two cloth bags for her so she’d have pretty containers for storing all of her stolen rose petals.
And, although there was a delay of a few days because the staff had misplaced the package, she finally received the boxes of motto hearts sent by her nieces, Marty and Karen, in Wisconsin, a tradition their mother Pearl had continued for seventy-two years, until her death.
Also, Meg and I gave her a single perfect rose, which she told me this morning is alive and well and still blooming.