Their daughter introduced them to us, bringing them to our home for tea: Brian and Clarice, farmers from a neighboring area.
We sat around the dining table in the large old-fashioned kitchen. The house had no dining room and the designated living room had a southern aspect, cold and inhospitable in winter, stuffy and ill ventilated in summer. We seldom used it, spending much of our time in the garden or in the kitchen in the northeasterly corner of the house.
While Brian chatted to us about the farm, recent rains and threatened floods, Clarice’s bright eyes traveled the room, seeking knowledge of her daughter’s new friends. Suddenly interrupting the flow of conversation, she said to me, “You must have been a nurse.” I laughed a disclaimer. “Just an office worker.” Ignoring this she continued, “I was a nurse. My mother taught piano, but I was a nurse. We all attended church, every Sunday, and my mother played the piano at the church. But I was a nurse.”
She returned her attention to me. “You say you weren’t a nurse, but you know how to bandage.” She indicated the feet of the pedestal table at which we sat.
It was an old table, no longer quite level after years of being leant on by growing teenage boys, and the pedestal feet had begun to ‘turn up their toes.’ To stop the table from rocking I had added a rubber door wedge to the end of each foot, bandaging it in place with GAF tape.
I smiled at her. Clarice, I had five sons who all had to be bandaged at one time or another. You learn.”
“Where are they?” She looked around anxiously, clutching her handbag as a drowning man grabs at a branch.
“Grown up, married and gone. Raising a new flock to be bandaged and nursed.”
At the word ‘nursed’ she turned back gratefully. “I was a nurse, you know. My mother taught piano, she was a very good pianist. But I was a nurse.”
Her daughter leaned close, speaking very softly. “My mother has Alzheimer’s.” She sounded close to tears. I nodded, squeezing her hand beneath the table.
“Where did you train, Clarice? What were conditions like at that time?”
She beamed her recognition, answering quite clearly and coherently. For that afternoon her mind was locked in the nineteen-thirty’s when she trained as a nurse, and her mother taught piano. Her husband, her children, the farm, were forgotten. She had been a nurse…
While we talked the men rose silently and walked into the garden. Clarice didn’t notice. She was looking at the past.
I thought of the tricks memory plays: our need of background, of recognition. And I understood more clearly Moses’ exhortation to bind God’s word to our foreheads, and to teach it to our children. What is most important in our youth may be all we have when memory starts to ravel.
Listening to her say again, “I was a nurse, you know…” my heart cried for Clarice, and for her daughter sitting close beside me, aching for her mother to remember that while she may once have been a nurse, now she is a mother.
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