It reminded me of middle schoolers, vying for social status, self-esteems too trampled to care what means they used to achieve the social significance they slavered after. Those that hurt the most so clearly hurt the most, you know?
We'll say that her name was Elma (it wasn't) and in describing her, we'll say that if you ignored the pinched expression on her face, she looked like someone's beloved grandma (perhaps she is). She had sweetly curled white hair and round spectacles with pretty gold chains securing them to her person for fear, I assume, of misplacing them. She wore a warm purple cardigan and elasticized slacks, as surely all good grandmas do at times, and she was significantly more mobile than most of the rest of the ladies I met that day. Perhaps this no-doubt-coveted mobility was a key to her supremacy over some of the more mild-mannered ladies there. Perhaps mobility is to life in a senior's home what name brand clothing is to life in a middle school. Most of what you read so far is speculation. What I can say for sure, though, is that the way she treated some of the other ladies reminded me very much of how my children act immediately prior to a time-out here at home. Unkind is a word that springs to mind. Bossy is another. And tattling.
My first job of the day was to go to the laundry room and wheel a big bin of freshly washed towels and face cloths to the TV room. When I'd sorted the laundry into manageable piles onto a table I had set up earlier, the ladies began to congregate. I was interested to learn that they (or most of them, anyway) love to do work like this. It's a way where they can contribute and feel useful. As we chatted in loud voices to make ourselves heard by everyone, Elma began to critique. She didn't like the way certain other ladies were folding. I ignored her and chatted obliviously. Elma then ramped her strategy up a notch and her voice raised discontentedly. She looked at me and said She's doing it all wrong! We don't do it that way! It's all wrong! I was fascinated to note that she looked to me as an authority figure of sorts, even though I was a mere volunteer, and brand new at that. But even as a green, green rookie, I could see that she was genuinely upset and I felt a pang of remorse that I had discounted her concerns so immediately. Her voice rose further in a plaintive helplessness and I began to see that maybe the perfect folding of the laundry helped her to carve out some meaning and some order to her existence here. I began to see that mean-spiritedness wasn't the only thing at work. I comforted her in the way that I used to shush a fussy baby pressed close to my chest in a snuggly and said, It's ok, Elma. It's ok. Don't worry. I'll show Margie how to do it your way. It's ok. My heart was touched to see that this approach seemed to connect with her and that she calmed. Her powerlessness was palpable.
Later I served tea and coffee and Elma yelled out emphatic orders every step of the way. The cups aren't in that cupboard. No! Those cups are special. You can't use those. She's not allowed to have two cookies. Don't let her! Honestly, it was all I could do not to laugh right out loud. As they finished up with their refreshments, she announced aggressively to the other quiet ladies in the room I'm going to the chapel now. You should too. Bertha, are you coming? Marta, come along! When I told her we weren't slated to do our exercise class in the chapel for another 15 minutes, she responded that she needed to warm her chair. I thought she was showing a promising flash of humor and immediately leapt at the chance to lighten things up a bit. I laughed and she very scornfully lashed out I'm not kidding. Those chairs are cold, you know!
Ah. It's going to be fun. I truly can't wait.