Posted on June 16, 2012 by Samara
After graduating from Skidmore College in 2010, Claire Solomon lived in Jackson, Mississippi and worked as an Education Fellow at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. She now lives in New York City and works as a Program Officer at the Covenant Foundation. She enjoys singing and telling and gathering stories–especially stories of those who came before her.
Love in the Time of Geriatrics
In the middle of the night, I knew he had died. I opened my eyes, lifted my laptop from the floor, and Googled his name plus the word “obit.” I pressed “search.” Sure enough, there it was. Three months before, at ninety-three, he had passed away. I had loved him, even though 71 years stood between us. His voice grew to be the one I listened to the most as I rewound and pressed play on my tape recorder. The last time we met, he kissed me on the cheek. I didn’t wash my face until the next day.
He was one of my “SingerStorytellers,” those with and for whom I wrote my senior honors thesis in college. We met every Friday for a year and created musical memoirs, singing songs and telling stories. I wanted to be the keeper of their life moments, the one who saved them from their bodies, from their minds. I had overzealous notions of being a champion for the aged, an award-winning ethnographer, modeling myself after anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff who, like me, once found her subjects in a retirement community. I took pages and pages of notes, transcribed until my eyelids shut. I wanted to remember those who were forgotten. I didn’t realize I would fall in love.
When answering my questions, he was fond of saying “I don’t want to expound on it,” and then smiling, almost slyly, his playfully bushy eyebrows rising ever so slightly. Ten minutes later, he’d tap me on the shoulder, run his hand over his non-existent hair, and tell me the rest of the story. His eyes were bright, though he could hardly see. “My eyes just don’t work,” he’d explain as he adjusted his thick wire-rimmed glasses. During an early session, before I knew about his poor vision, I passed out song lyrics to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” so that we could sing as a group and share our memories of the holiday season. He put the lyrics down, and when I asked him why, instead of responding “well, you naïve and insensitive college student, I can’t see because my eyes are ninety-two years old,” he replied, “I’d rather dream about that Christmas.” He promptly fell asleep.
He cried often—especially after songs that reminded him of his wife—yet when I asked if he was okay, he took his handkerchief out of the pocket of the plaid shirt he always wore, wiped his eyes, and said “Of course…it happens.” By the next song, he was tapping his mahogany cane to the rhythm, smiling. At the end of our sessions, he was always smiling.
I was nervous about leaving him and the rest of my SingerStorytellers for winter break. Of course I wasn’t going to pass up my month-long vacation to stay in the tundra of upstate New York, but the thought did cross my mind. “You’re crazy,” my housemate chided me. “I’m not crazy,” I joked, “I’m just in love with my old people.” “I knew there was a reason you weren’t hooking up with anyone right now,” my other housemate chimed in. “You’re in love with some ninety-year-old!” I explained to both of them that of course I didn’t want to date my thesis subject—I just didn’t want to lose him. Loss was something we, as soon-to-be college graduates, collectively and conceptually understood, as we were on the cusp of losing the only things we had ever known: school, structure, security. By the end of our conversation, I was contemplating living in the woods behind our on-campus house during break, just so I could visit my SingerStorytellers to make sure they weren’t going anywhere, and my housemates didn’t think I was completely crazy. In the end, I resigned myself to going home.
My first visit back after break, I assembled the group and saw him walking in the hall. At first he didn’t recognize me, but as I got closer, he excitedly proclaimed, “My God! It’s you! I didn’t think I would see you again!” He grabbed my shoulder and kissed me on the forehead. I felt the same way I had felt when I was twelve and my boyfriend of three days told me I was “hot.” I melted. After a month apart from my SingerStorytellers, I understood that I could walk into the doors of the nursing home and be greeted by one fewer participant, one fewer voice. Death and uncertainty were uninvited guests at our sessions each week, and often they spoke the loudest. I didn’t know if I would see him again. But there he was—and he wanted to see me. He remembered me.
The weeks flew by. Some in the group moved, some died; the rest of them sang and talked and bickered and chastised me for being late to our sessions even when I was twenty minutes early. I found myself humming “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” in between my classes, talking about different types of walkers when I was slightly drunk at parties, and sleeping with my tape recorder beside my pillow. I looked forward to greeting the woman at the desk who called me “the singing student” each Friday morning.
He started to sit next to me: each time he claimed it was because that’s where there was the best light, and then winked. He became more vocal, joking with me about the time I handed him the piece of paper that he couldn’t read—“I knew you were a real tenderfoot,” he chuckled. He regaled me with stories of his children and his “wild” youth. He showed me pictures of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, telling me that I must “meet them and sing with them! They love to sing and are much better than me.” He invited me to join him in the dining room after our sessions. I declined all of his offers (I was, after all, a budding ethnographer and couldn’t play favorites). But each afternoon as I left, I thought of us sitting underneath our own apple tree.
And then time did that funny thing that it always does—it kept ticking. I accepted a two-year fellowship far away from upstate New York. I had a future, a job, a tentative plan. I was a few sentences from finishing my thesis, a few songs from completing my project. I desperately tried to hold on to those sentences, to hold out those notes, but I knew it was time to say goodbye to my SingerStorytellers, to him. I had always thought that by holding on to their memories I would somehow be able to hold on to them, and while this was true on paper, I didn’t anticipate how much it would hurt when I let go of their hands. How empty I would feel. How much I would grieve, how much my heart would ache. I was breaking up with them—“It’s not you, it’s me.” I can leave, you can’t. I was going to pack up my stuff and never come back. I knew the more time passed, the more they would forget, the more I would become just another song that they vaguely remembered, just another sweet girl who came and then left. But I knew I had to let them go, and that meant letting him go too.
In the middle of our last session we started to talk about birds. He told our group that grackles—black and purple birds—had begun to appear outside his window. “I know that the other animals are coming when I see them,” he explained, “I know that a new season is around the corner. The grackles are the first to arrive.” I asked if the birds were pretty, and he thought for a minute. He looked me in the eye and took his time forming his thoughts. “Everything that is alive is pretty,” he said. I blushed.
After the session ended, I walked him back to his room. I held on to his right hand so that he could keep his balance. I tried to say goodbye, and he firmly kissed my cheek. “Claire,” he said, “for birds like you, I am alive.” I smiled. I sniffled. I closed his door. I went home.
The night I found his obituary I stayed up thinking about grackles. What do grackles sound like? Grackles, the creatures that are the most alive. It wasn’t that the birds were beautiful, it was that they marked the renewal of time.
I’m in a place now where time is moving quickly. I can’t believe this is another month out of college, another month as a grown-up. But time was moving slowly for him. He had to remind himself that he was still here. His body was gradually being taken from him; he was gradually leaving, watching others leave. So the grackles reminded him. It wasn’t their beauty that was striking, it was their presence.
I googled “grackle,” pressed “search,” and listened to their call. Their voices were calm but assertive. Grackles function as helpers to other birds of the species. They are older, wiser. They walk instead of hop—deliberate in speech, and in action. They were exactly like him.
I can’t say I’ll recognize a grackle if I see one, but I can now imagine how it feels to look out of a window and witness the passage of time. I now know how it feels to love a man attuned to sounds and signs. He saw beginnings and endings in a bird. He heard its call and knew he was alive.