Grampa is 93 years old. His voice is weakening over the phone. It's important to me to visit him regularly, to express my respect for my driven progenitor and to learn about myself from watching him.June 2001
Back to Bassett
After years of languishing in a rest home in Stuart where they were taking care of Grandma, Grampa was finally moved half an hour away to Bassett, where he was superintendent of the school for decades. He's in the thick of his community. Eating at the Range cafe with him, people stop by to say hello and remind them of who they are, usually the son, daughter, cousin or sister-in-law of one of Grampa's students or old friends. Of course this sort of greeting happens regularly in Atkinson or even O'Neill, this is a small place, but Bassett has a deep familiarity for him.
Men about town
We leave the ParkSide Manor and head over to Harvey's house across the street. We drive, because walking quickly tires Grampa out. Harvey sees us pull up and comes out of the house. He's 67, housebound with an injury, and he's wearing a cool belt buckle. He invites us in, but we have a schedule to keep to, we're on the move, we just wanted to drop by to say Hi to Harvey, because Harvey was a good neighbor, you see Justin, we used to look out for one another, and try to out do each other.
Back in the car, driving to Atkinson, where Orlan Clausen is put up at a Lutheran Good Samaritain's rest home there. The lengthy corridors reflect the most pleasant rest home aesthetics of the three homes I've seen today - each door has a picture of the older resident posted on a wooden plaque outside. At the ParkSide Manor, the pictures are taken at a great distance with a Polaroid camera, so each of the shots appears to be a midget's mugshot. Here, the photos were clearly taken with a 35mm camera, more close up. The old people are smiling, they look less catatonic. They look like people with personalities.
As we enter the building, they announce dinner is beginning and the Lord's Prayer echos over the building loudspeaker through empty hallways as we search out the dining room. Seated at a table in his overalls with a cup of coffee, Orlan Clausen is the soul of wit, even at the ripe age of 91. Here finally is someone I could imagine making an effort to search out - he jokes with Grampa, listens to what he says, responds with something lively. His eyes are bright, if watery. We're again invited to sit down and pass some time, but Grampa's on the move. I linger for a few moments to trade remarks. Hope to see you again soon is the sentiment, but as Orlan put it, he's there in that home until he dies, and I'm probably only likely to see him again at Grampa's funeral.
At the rest home we inquire after some dinner. A 12 year old girl with a funny little dog points us to the new place in town, Rhonda's Cafe. There were some other options, but the idea that some place might be new certainly out-tantalizes anything we've seen before. I'm warmed to see that Grampa shares my interest in the untested.
New is still patronized largely by people over 60 years of age. And new is just about the exact same menu you'd find at any other restaurant in the nearest four counties. Chicken-Fried Steak. Friend chicken. Steak. Friday night, fish night - fried Pollack. Saturday night, prime rib. Chicken strips with french fries. Fried shrimp.
Of course in the midst of all this strange fried food you look for variety between experiences. Here they had a delicious cucumber and tomato and onion salad in some kind of a thin creme; it was slightly greek. Also, they had no butter, only margarine. I asked after some real butter; they said people complained - they only wanted the low cholesterol spread. Please enjoy our deep fried chicken/steak/fish with low cholesterol spread. Huh.
Eileen was serving as cashier; I took a moment to speak with her while Grampa communed with the bathroom. She lives on a farm near N? with her husband. Sure there's a lot to do, feed the calves, take care of the horses, pets. But after a morning, afternoon and evening of that, you're still alone. So she cooks at the high school when it's in session, and she works here at her sister-in-law's cafe, mostly to help out and to get some socializing in. Her three kids are grow up and gone, so this is a good chance for her to get out.
Anyone we talk to, mostly women at the rest homes or in the restaurants; Grampa tells each of them that he is 93, and getting along pretty good, and he tells them that I am his grandson visiting from California. Then he tells them that I flew into Lincoln and his son loaned me his car and I drove here this morning. Then he says it was great to talk with them. Maybe some remarks about the weather are exchanged. But there's always an agenda to stick to, something to keep moving on for.
Driving back to Bassett, Grampa pulls his hat down over his eyes, asks me to put on the Nebraska Huskers college baseball game, he loosens his velcro and felt shoes ("great for poor circulation") and he goes to sleep. When we arrive at his room, he asks me to help him get ready. He sits down and I remove his shoes, and peel off each of his two socks on each of his two spindly calves. He remarks repeatedly that it's a great relief to have help with his evening routine - obviously I'm a holiday from pride; typically he removes all his own clothes and teeth and ear pieces and wallets and keys without asking for help from the staff. After the socks come off, Grampa has me retrieve a pair of vice-grip pliers from the top drawer of his cabinet, and he clamps the four socks together to hang them over the exhaust vent from an electric air purifier. He expects to have fresher socks this way by morning.
He disrobes down to his undershorts. Seeing a mostly naked body aged 93 years is a bit astonishing to see and be near and touch. Human, but loose and bent and swollen in particular ways. Like his body has been adjusted by all his living to reflect his life somehow. I wonder for myself what I might look like after that many years.
We turn down each of his five blankets to ready his bed for sleeping. He needs to find some special socks he wears for his cold feet during the night. Since he does most all his own dressing and undressing, he's responsible for inventory management. And while I've been admiring the wild amount of stuff he has crammed into this little room, I begin to see how it might clutter his brain. We were trying to get him asleep by 8pm; he confesses, "Sometimes it's ten thirty before I'm able to get myself sorted out for bedtime."
He's stubborn insisting to dress himself when a staff would keep him from having to stoop over to undo his shoes or become distraught over lost socks. But what else is there to life?
[The next day the socks are discovered, as the staff had come in to take them to be washed. Grampa scolds them; only things in the hamper are to be washed, and they should know this. His is a precise routine, easily disturbed. It's reassuring to see that his missing socks were not at all in his mind.]