The smell was the first thing I noticed when I walked in the door. It's beyond hospital smell, it's the hovering reek of human waste, the overtone of cleaner and that other smell, some would say it is the smell of death. If you want to put it that way. For me, it will always be a smell I associate with a dark place called The Sunshine Home. My first job, twenty-six years ago. I choked back on the smell and about a million memories, and walked down the hall to the dining room.
This place was a friggin' Taj Mahal comparatively. They had hot tubs and lifts. And staff. Not me, though. I was not there to work, but to visit. My 90-year-old grandfather fell and broke his hip. He is recovering pretty well post-surgery. He's a tough, proud old man who has worked hard his entire life, since fifth grade, in fact, when he left school. He's not giving up. He's going home.
We walked in at dinner time. Grandpa was staring down a plate of pretty much unidentifiable mush. He was ready to roll back to his room. I didn't ask him if he wanted to finish that meal, either. On the way back, he complained about the food. With good reason.
On either side of the hall, other patients were parked in their chairs. It's supposed to be good for them to be out in the mix, not alone. One man was wailing nonstop and others just stuck there, no way to roll themselves away from it all. Staff going about their business. I didn't see the good in it. We walked past to my grandfather's room.
I thought again of those same empty hours for the people I cared for. All day stretching before them, three channels, rabbit ears, and a couple urine-stained couches. No activities, no therapy, no music. No bingo. Perhaps an occasional game of checkers when I had a free moment, which was rare since there were twenty residents and one of me for a regular shift. Otherwise, nothing. Except meals.
Meal times were the few bright spots in a day. A time to gather, the be able to fulfill one need, one function, for themselves. Meals were a huge focal point to say the least. And weekend meals were a real cause for celebration.
Weekends, we were staffed up, all two of us. Weekends were the hard shifts where we did all the bathing, cleaning, laundry and care that should have happened all week. It didn't. Weekends also meant that the cook, Lola, was not on duty. Lola was a huge woman, who did a lot of sitting and not a lot of cooking. What did get cooked, was meat boiled in water with canned vegetables and no seasoning. Or dried up rocks passed off as roast. It was not the Taj Mahal, but the food was from the third world.
So, we cooked. Oh, hell yes, we cooked. Still a teenager, I learned from the older woman who worked with me all of the foods that these people loved. Yeast rolls that smelled so good while they were baking that for a moment, you couldn't smell that other smell. Gravy, pan gravy. The cuts of meat were cheap, so we slow cooked them and always served gravy. Greens, overcooked, and the reason I had trouble these years later to embrace them, but a favorite. Mashed potatoes, real ones, no flakes. Butter. And cobbler, or cake if we had the time.
The ingredients were not much to work with. And, we were constantly getting bitched at for cooking too much, using too much. Betty and I, we did not care if the owners complained. These were the people who changed the pay period start day randomly to avoid over time pay. I made $3.35 an hour. I got regularly got screwed out of maybe twenty bucks a week of pay. For these people.
We cooked in spite of them. Perhaps to spite them. But mostly because, I realized, cooking is all we had to offer the other people. The ones who counted. Those meals were the one little bit of happiness in an otherwise long, empty day. It was the most we could do, and the least we could do. I was barely sixteen, and I understood the meaning of food even before I really learned to cook it. What a gift a meal can be, and just how many memories are wrapped up inside the warm, soft dough of a homemade roll.