Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Of Poets and Empanadas

The woman sitting next to me at the half moon table in the dining room of the nursing home clutched my hand and caressed each nail slowly. “How pretty,” she said with a smile, then turned her hand over, showing me her newly lacquered red nails. The other three ladies at the table with my mother-in-law nodded in turn as I admired each one’s manicure. One of the women only stared mutely and offered me an empty coffee cup when I turned to look at her nails. Behind us, two men commiserated with each other so loudly and animatedly in disconnected sounds that it echoed off the walls while cafeteria workers cleaned up from lunch.

Although I was there to visit my mother- in- law, I was glad to see these other ladies, each over 90 years old, who had befriended her. We talked of the empanadas (Mexican fruit filled pastries) I had brought for their merienda (afternoon snack) and one of the ladies commented while patting the bag of empanadas that it was nice to find such treasures with wonderful fillings in a nursing home. My mother in law pushed off in her wheelchair to get some napkins.

As quickly as Alice falling down the rabbit hole, though, the woman I assumed didn’t speak suddenly picked up on the word empanada, loudly turned it into a similar sounding Spanish word that has a slang, sexually vulgar meaning, and the conversation took a deep swerve into a direction I’d never anticipated, complete with loud chortling and thigh slapping by the formerly silent woman.

Since I've never talked with 90 year olds about sex, I was caught momentarily speechless by the intimate questions two of these nonagenarians now felt free to pepper me with. They interpreted my dumbfounded state as innocence and both chimed in, trying to educate me on advanced topics in the birds and the bees. My mother- in- law pulled up behind me and whispered in Spanish, “They can be so immature! Let’s move to another table.” Even as their laughter continued, I stood and we looked around the room for another table.

The elderly man who sometimes thinks he is my husband waved excitedly as we turned in his direction, gesturing us over with fervent ooh’s and ahh’s and bouncing in his wheelchair. I smiled at him but scanned the other side of the room quickly, and another man with a short crew cut and dark rimmed glasses beckoned us to his empty table. I reasoned we didn’t have much to lose, so we headed his direction.

I’d never met him before, and smiled a hello as we settled in. The two men who were loudly communicating with each other with an array of booming sounds were now closer to us and it was difficult to hear anything else, but our new table mate extended his hand and introduced himself.

“I am Oscar Hernandez Ortega (name is changed). I am her second cousin on our mothers’ side,” he said as he patted my mother in law’s arm. “I was a double major, English and Spanish, in college. That was 70 years ago when I graduated,” he added.

“Were you a teacher or professor?” I asked as I mentally calculated his age.

“Actually, I’m a poet. I worked other jobs to put food on the table for my family. My last job before I retired was as a newspaper editor, but I’m a poet. You can’t retire from a passion, you know,” he added genially.

I nodded appreciatively as I shared I had just retired as an English teacher. A nurse’s aide came to retrieve my mother- in- law for her bath. “Ahhh, if you don’t mind, could we talk of poets and poetry for a while? I really miss that in here,” Oscar Hernandez Ortega confided. So for the next half hour, we talked of Donne, Plath, Lorca, shaped verse, free verse, and meter, in what was the most satisfying literary conversation I’ve ever had.

They wheeled my mother in law back in and he held up one palm. “Please wait- don’t go until I can get back. I have something for you,” he asked.

I assured him I wasn't moving as he wheeled himself down the hall. My mother-in-law was munching on her empanada happily when he maneuvered his chair back to the table holding a creased piece of paper. “This is the last poem I wrote before I came in here. I’d like for you to have it because I think you’ll give it a good home.” The neatly typewritten poem on the paper sat atop a shaky inscription to me, and was signed Oscar Hernandez Ortega.


And indeed the treasures in a nursing home are filled with wonderful things. 

62 comments:

  1. Oh Shelly this made me smile and shed a tear of joy. What a wonderful story I too spend a lot of time in a nursing home as you know and the people in there never cease to amaze me. To meet a poet and his giving you such a personal incredible gift makes me smile I am so happy that you are a person that will listen, there are a lot of treasures in a nursing home and on the other note a lot of laughs. HUG B

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    1. Buttons: I LOVE to sit and listen to their stories. Finding a poet in this unexpected place will always be one of those blessings I will forever cherish.

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  2. Oh, wow. How fabulous. The unexpected poetry and conversation.... and the other 'conversation , too! Well, you have to laugh don't you?! Rude talk, sex words ..... and aggression,,,, go hand in hand with Alzheimers and Dementia. Although they may also just be having a laugh!! Great story :-) xx Jazzy

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    1. jazzygal: It did look like they were enjoying my discomfort a great deal! And laugh about it, so true!

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  3. Hi, Shelly! These tales of yours from the nursing home are always funny and enlightening. They could easily be turned into a new vehicle for Betty White, perhaps entitled Golden Girls and Boys. Obviously, the residents of the home hunger for fresh faces like yours because it gives them an opportunity to reconnect with the outside world and retell their old stories to a patient listener. We tend to forget that many of our elderly citizens remain mentally active. They retain their sense of humor, their curiosity and their libidos. Society as a whole tends to devalue old folks, assuming they have little of value to contribute. The poet proves them wrong. It was powerful when Mr. Ortega chose to give you one of his cherished poems knowing that you will give it a forever home. My M.O. is the same. I believe in sharing all that you are and all that you have, not only with family and friends, but with strangers. Plant your seeds of wisdom, kindness and compassion wherever you go knowing they will take root and grow.

    Enjoy the rest of your week, dear friend Shelly.

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    1. Shady: I love what you said here: " I believe in sharing all that you are and all that you have, not only with family and friends, but with strangers. Plant your seeds of wisdom, kindness and compassion wherever you go knowing they will take root and grow." What wise, wise words my friend. How satisfying life is when we heed what you said. Thank you for your terrific, thought provoking comment!

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  4. First off,...now I'm craving a pineapple empanada. Why, I don't know. ;-)

    Your tales are always so enriching our lives. You have a talent that you share freely with us so we can jump in with your stories and live for the day. I always enjoy that. But, did you ever ever think you'd be considered a young squirt, 'wet behind the ears' so to speak at YOUR age on the topic of sex? Yes, I must say I have to agree with your MIL...they're seeming immature...but then, I've never been that age before so I don't know what I'd be doing or saying if I ever make it that far in years.

    Enjoyable.

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    1. HOOTIN ANNI: Aren't those empanadas good??? And I was thinking about that- despite my own advancing age, I must appear pretty young to them. Now that's a switch! And I kind of like having the tables turned like that~

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  5. "You can't retire from a passion," is the most wonderful thing I've heard all week. I'm so glad you are able to spend time with your mother-in-law and the cast of characters in her home. What will you do with the poem? Maybe share it with us? ;)

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    1. Amy: Yes, I hope to share it! It is really good, but it is in Spanish. I understand it, but I need my husband's help to translate it well. I would be happy to write good poetry in one language, and this sweet man has been doing it in two- so talented.

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  6. Oh, my word! As I started reading, I thought to make some trivial comment about my love for empanadas. But what an experience. Your "most satisfying literary conversation" I am most certain was a gift to the other party who will treasure it so long as he lives. Beautiful.

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    1. vanilla: I have come to believe there are really no accidental meetings, and I am so glad it was meant for his path to cross mine. I will always treasure that poem.

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  7. This was a most enjoyable post, and I could feel the vibes int hat room. That dear man gave you a true gift. Blessing to you and all those in nursing homes.

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    1. Linda: It was a most unexpected day, and sometimes those are the ones that turn out the best!

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  8. Another wonderful post. You have a fabulous way of writing personal stories that touch on the universal. Take care.

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    1. Stephen: Thank you- and yours are some of the best in this genre.

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  9. This is wonderful, Shelly. It would make me cry if I received a gift like that. He certainly knew a good home for his poem when he saw it! I'm looking forward to reading your translation, and wishing I knew Spanish. Would you consider a video in Spanish so we could hear the original? I've no idea how difficult or not that would be for you, so please consider it just a suggestion.

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    1. I meant audio, but video would work too :)

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    2. jenny_o: It certainly did choke me up later. And it's beautiful- I hope to get it fully translated soon.

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    3. jenny_o: Now that's an idea!

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  10. Oh, what now? I wish you could share it. How very special. He loved the conversation, you must have made his day. You are always so loving and generous of your time. I love it.

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    1. Jamie Jo: I was thrilled he opened up to me like that. So unexpected, and yet so wonderful.

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  11. How wonderful! We just assume that at that age, people would be a shell of their former personalities, but I'm glad that they're all going strong, from the sexual innuendos to the beautiful poetry!

    Roshni
    http://www.indianamericanmom.com

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    1. Roshni AaMom: Oh my goodness- it's a regular little society there. I had totally the wrong impression before I started visiting. And I'm going to watch out for those little 90 year old ladies!

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  12. Aww, that's so sweet. It brought tears to my eyes.

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    1. Carol: It so touched me, what he did.

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  13. This one is a sweet one, I loved it.

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  14. It's like you found a pearl inside a big grey oyster. ;)

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  15. This is so sweet to read; it is neat that you took the time to talk to this poet; I'm sure he appreciated the visiting and the attention . I had to laugh about the women and their choice of conversation; too cute!

    betty

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    1. betty: Oh, those ladies! I don't know what was more unexpected- the gift of poetry, or those ladies!

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  16. I love this story, Shelly! You just never know when you'll find a true kindred spirit, often when you least expect. He must have felt such trust and such a connection with you to pass on his last pre nursing home poem to you. It is, indeed, a treasure! And I'm still smiling about those 90 year old women slapping their thighs, laughing and wanting to talk sex! I would never have guessed!

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    1. Dr. Kathy: It just goes to show we humans have more in common than we think. And those two little ladies....I was completely caught off guard!

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    1. esbboston: Especially in a nursing home~

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  18. "You can't retire from a passion." How true!

    I've been thinking about it and I really do not know the slang term the rowdy nursing home resident referred to. Lol. But I'll live not knowing. Something tells me I'm better off, anyway, because I love empanadas and don't want any non-food association with them. ;-)

    You have a gift for story-telling. It's always a treat to stop by and visit you. Enjoy the rest of your week!

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    1. Janette Dolores: It's going to take me a while to fully enjoy an empanada again....and I love that, too, that you can't retire from a passion. Wise words for us all. Thank you, and hope your week is terrific, too!

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  19. I'm glad your last conversation was much more satisfying than the chortling of the old ladies! Some people never grow up!

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    1. Sherry: So true- no matter the age!

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  20. I need to find me some passion...well I have 5 kids..that must mean some kind of passion is going on.wink.wink.!! ha couldn't help myself.

    Poetry is a gift from God.

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    1. Christine: Ha! You definitely have some passion going on! And I totally agree about poetry.

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  21. Hi Shelly. You will know that I love these posts of yours, when you tell stories like this. My oh my, how that gentleman must have enjoyed talking with you about poets and poetry. I did smile about the old ladies and their sex talk! Eeeeek! We must all remember that all those elderly people in Nursing Homes have all had very interesting lives. I really hate it when people just dismiss them as of being of no importance any more. Sending blessings to you.

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    1. thisisme: Oh, they are so interesting! One of these ladies was telling how when she was a little girl, they used to take their clothes down to the river to wash, and then haul water back in buckets to drink. They really are a wealth of treasure!

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    2. We saw people washing their clothes in the river when we were in Mexico. Looks like very hard work. And can't imagine drinking from the same river.

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    3. Nonnie: There are many things I am grateful for in this day and age, especially after hearing some of those stories.

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  22. What a wonderful blessing for the gentleman to find someone like you willing to listen and share the things that he treasured.
    All the familiar smells and sounds that you described in the first paragraph bring to mind the times I have spent visiting nursing homes. (I think it is sometimes a somewhat scary thought to think of the things that might pop out of my mouth someday!)

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    1. Nonnie: I'm still amazed at such a blessing. And I certainly hope I have a much better filter over my mouth in place, although all bets will be off!

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  23. Ah, yes. Nursing homes hold many gifts and many surprises, some unpleasant. I've found it's not unusual for people with dementia to use a lot of profanity or even speak about sex in graphic terms. Their children always say, My mother doesn't even know those words. Oh, yes. She does. But then one comes across a poet, and we know that beauty is not gone from that person's life. Has anyone ever told you your writing is lyrical? Because it is.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Janie: You made my day. Thank you- and I thought of you and your nursing home experiences when I was there this week. What a mission of love it is to work in a nursing home~

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  24. Dear Shelly, such a lovely gift to be given after a conversation that was wholly satisfying. We do come upon beauty unawares. Peace.

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    1. Dee: And it makes me even more determined not to discount people because of their environment. I hate to think how many beautiful souls I've missed out on~

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  25. I agree with you. My aunt lives in a senior facility, and I go to visit her at least once a week. If I'm lucky, they're having some sort of party, and it's fun to get them up to dance or whatever they're doing. So many of them don't get a lot of company, and I enjoy having fun with them. They are such jewels, each one of them. And the things they've seen and done in their long lives...

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    1. karen: They truly are jewels. I wish more people recognized that about them!

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  26. Dearest Shelly;
    Oh, this story reminded me a bit while my father had been care home. Not 'off guard' type experience but learned a lot what aging is about. Yes, what dementia is all about as well.
    "You can't retire from a passion."; what a GREAT phrase from the gentleman and I'm SO surprised that he sensed you as a person who has things in common; even you answered your career. You must have given him a wonderful time for the kind of humdrum life there. I remember been spoken a lot and they love to talk with. Wonderful story of the treasure you were given from a POET ♡♡♡
    Thanks for the word "nonagenarian" (*^_^*)

    Sending you Lots of Love and Hugs from Japan, xoxo Miyako*

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    1. orchid Miyako: I've thought of you, my dear friend, and what a faithful daughter you were and being so good to your dad in the nursing home. And I so enjoyed meeting my new poet friend!

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  27. I love that you took the time to talk to her. It shows your huge heart. "You can't retire from a passion" - what an amazing thing to say, and so true!

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    1. Optimistic: The blessings were mine, for sure!

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  28. Whenever I read your stories from the nursing home, I feel the love and the tenderness you have for others. It really inspires me to be softer and more sensitive to the elderly I encounter here. Suddenly, they are more visible to me. Today I noticed an elderly couple shop together at the grocery store. They way they walked together gave me the feeling that they were still in love and grateful to be sharing life together. I thought about being able to grow old with the person you love most in the world, and what a gift that is. I hope your poet continues to enrich your visits with those discussions. The gift of that poem must have melted your heart! Sending prayers for your sweet mother in law. I think she must be so comforted by your visits.

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    1. Jenny: I love how you saw that couple and thought of them through your love tinted lenses. I know when people look at you and Richard, they are thinking the same thing. Thank you for the prayers for my beautiful mother in law. She is such a gentle, kind soul.

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  29. Awww....such a lovely post. Thanks for sharing.

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