"Do you suppose those are free for the taking?" my great-aunt Doreen asks, gathering the dozen eighteen-inch rhubarb stalks someone left beneath the retirement home's mailboxes. She immediately faces a problem: with her arms full of rhubarb, she can't push her walker into the dining room. Why would a 91-year-old who subsists mainly on eggs, orange juice, coffee yogurt, bananas and soup want an armful of rhubarb in her six-foot kitchen? It may go back to the same thing which my mother claims compels her to hoard leftover soy sauce packets."I was raised by Depression-era parents!" Mom says, as she squeezes the packets' contents into the soy sauce bottle.
"Aunt Dor, why don't we leave the rhubarb there for now? We're going into dinner right now and we really don't have anywhere to put it."
The Thursday-night community dinner starts at 6:30, but Doreen and her friend Ruth, white-socked feet dangling comfortably from her motorized chair, have their salads cut and doused with Ranch by 6:15.
"Did you bring two dollars for Bingo tonight?" Doreen asks me.
"Yes, I did."
I pour her water but let her manage buttering the roll herself. We begin on turkey slices, stuffing, and Brussells Sprouts. Ruth brings forth a square plastic container for her leftovers.
Doreen misses nothing.
"Boy, that's just what I need. Where did you get that, Ruth?"
"Oh, the supermarket."
"Well, I tell you what. Next time you go, why don't you pick up some just like that for me."
"Aunt Dor, your cupboard is already full of those containers." Not to mention wax paper dating from 1964.
"Are you sure? I don't remember seeing any."
"Trust me. I saw them when I fixed your lunch."
She looks at me with benign disbelief and leans over to whisper to Ruth. "Anyway, you be sure to get some for me, next time you're out." Bereft of a container like Ruth's, she puts a bite of turkey and two Brussells sprouts into her empty coffee cup. She takes one bite of the remaining half of her roll, and then puts it on top of the sprouts.
"Did you bring two dollars for Bingo tonight?"
"Yes, I did."
I collect four battered Bingo cards and a dish of red plastic chips.
As play commences, I realize that I've rarely played Bingo outside of retirement homes, but there are probably fewer games which are more difficult for the elderly. A "What was that number?" greets every call. It's not only tough on those who are hard of hearing - it also challenges those whose memories are impaired. As we commence to the "H", "T" "X", picture-frame and solid board rounds of the game, we continually stop for someone who forgets what she's going for, and shouts Bingo when she gets five in a row.
Doreen's friend Marge prefers constant checks on the state of things rather than risking a mistaken Bingo. "What are we going for, again?" she whispers to me every few moments, since Doreen lost little time in removing herself to sit right next to the caller, so as to hear better.
But everyone is having a marvelous time, and the only thing that annoys me is someone's jovial adult son. Through 20 Bingo games, he has an audible response to almost every number the dealer calls.
"Tie your shoe!"
"Shut the door!"
"Close the gate!"
"Drink some wine!"
"Shoot your gun!"
To make matters worse, he gets six Bingos and I get one. By the time he shatters the end of the solid-board Bingo round - that most pregnant of pauses - when I'm just one number away from winning, I'm ready to launch my Bingo card like a discus.
Afterwards, Doreen approaches the rhubarb, which, despite her fears, remains unclaimed. She pauses. "I wonder if I got the mail today," she says.
I keep quiet as she opens her empty mailbox. She saves bitten roll halves. I don't even want to think about the qualms that would accompany such an excess of rhubarb.
I've cared for her through many daytimes, but it's the first time I've ever put her to bed. I help her into a nightdress. She is the oldest person I have ever tucked in, and I'm not sure what else I should do.
From her pillow, she puts her arms up like child. "Well, my dear, thank you very much." she says. She forgot my name long before she forgot the rhubarb. She kisses my cheek tenderly as I bend down to hug her.