Sundays With Merle
Years ago, my Aunt Viki and Uncle George owned a small, cheerful retirement home near Tampa, Florida. It was called Park Manor and was made up of mostly middle class old folks who more often than not felt some connection to my family’s Czech heritage.
Viki and George, although only in their early forties at the time, were like Mom and Dad at this place – and they got to know each and every one of the people who chose to make their lovely, little assisted living facility their home.
As you can imagine, there were a lot of unforgettable characters at Park Manor: The octogenarian former beauty queen who slinked around in low-cut party dresses by day and transparent negligees by night. She had a huge crush on my then twenty-two year-old brother and used to invite him to her, ahem, room. Then, there were the warring Czech brides. Fifty years earlier, one had run off with the other one’s husband, and they hadn’t seen each other since. In the kind of twist of fate that proves God really does have a sense of humor, these ladies were made roommates at Park Manor. Ignorant of their past, my aunt figured that since they both spoke Czech, they’d make fast friends. Instead, they had to be placed in opposite wings, or else be found rolling on the floor, pulling each other’s hair out.
But of all the love birds, the wicked witches, the playboys, the card sharks, the war heroes, the comedians, and the master bakers, none was more memorable than Merle.
At one hundred and one years-old, Merle stood slender and erect, with only the help of a hand-carved cane. Short gray hair, equally gray eyes that twinkled like deep water on an overcast day. Neat, comfortable clothes, no make up other than lipstick – “You can’t forget you’re a woman,” she’d say.
Merle had been married twice and widowed twice. Always ready for a laugh at her own expense, she displayed on her night table a come hither picture of herself – taken by her second husband, on her second wedding night. In it, she was seventy-five years of age, and looked pretty darned good in a long, black, silky nightgown with her hair swept up.
She always had a story, and I never heard a single negative word come out of her mouth on any of my visits. And this was a woman who’d lived through World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, Segregation, The Cold War, Vietnam – Jimmy Carter, for goodness sake, she used to say (alhtough always in good humor).
But the most extraordinary thing about Merle was expressed on Sunday afternoons.
Sundays at Park Manor were by far the most popular visiting days, as many families chose to stop in for lunch after church. By mid-afternoon or so, many visitors would start to take their leave. There were dinners to be made, and old folks get tired.
But at Merle’s, the party was just getting started.
Nearly every single Sunday, Merle’s room was so filled with visitors, that many had to linger in the hall and take turns going in. Boisterous laughter, children’s squeals and just about any style of music – Ragtime, Swing, Rock-n-Roll – echoed throughout Merle’s wing. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren from her first marriage were there, but so were her second husband’s children. Although she couldn’t have met them until they were well into middle age themselves, she’d made inroads into their hearts and counted her second husband’s grandchildren as hers, too.
And everyone stayed up to the minute when visiting hours ended.
I guess I paid such close attention to Merle because of the wasted love I’d seen in my own family. I’d watched too many loved ones give away the ties that bind like they were 25 cent raffle tickets. They ran from their mistakes in their young lives, and kept running throughout midlife and even beyond. It seemed to work for them. By and large, they were free to live lives unencumbered by the inconveniences that true emotional responsibility can visit upon a life.
And they remained free of the benefits as well, always appearing vaguely uncomfortable when faced with the gush of a happy child’s love, or a chance view of a tender kiss stolen between a husband and wife at a crowded family gathering.
And sooner or later, they simply ended up.
I remember my aunt telling me that her experience at Park Manor had taught her that most people who ended up alone on Sunday after Sunday had earned it. I found that to be a devastating revelation.
Shortly after Merle finally died, my aunt and uncle got an offer they couldn’t refuse. It was from a large convalescent home chain, and sowed up their own hard-earned retirement. It was tough for them to let go because my aunt and uncle really cared about the people at Park Manor and had looked out for their dignity, their quality of life. On their last day, the place was filled with house-made chocolate pudding and tears.
Later, my aunt admitted to me that she could have never sold the place while Merle was still alive.
That Merle. Considering I only met her a handful of times, she’s had a pretty disproportionate effect on the way I view my life. When I find myself wallowing over my usual litany of complaints – undoubtedly revolving around childcare, work, and a lack of ME time – Merle often pops into my mind.
I’m sure I romanticize her to some extent, and that there are people out there who might tell a whole different story about the way she conducted her life – one that reveals her human foibles. Like if she got piss-drunk before the school play, then heckled the entire 7th Grade cast of “The Importance of Being Earnest”, or called her Aunt June a whore during Thanksgiving dinner, or threatened to leave her husband for their son’s history teacher, perhaps.
But even if all those things were true, I’d still hold her up as a gold standard. The way I want to end up.
Merle’s example has served as a lifelong reminder to me that the benefits of love accrue. Even when we mess up spectacularly, it’s worth going back for more, trying to right what we’ve done wrong. Merle’s life seemed to exemplify that. How could she not have given so much more than she got, seeing the devotion she inspired, long after her family had stopped needing her, after all?
Merle seemed to embrace the sad and wonderful truth about the human family. That the people under your roof are not happier when you’re more fulfilled, when your time is respected. They’re happier when you go out of your way for them. When you drop what you’re doing to have a laugh and a kiss.
The same way I’ll be happier if my children set aside their Sundays for me when I’m in my own version of Park Manor – one that hopefully includes a travel club, Barre classes and rabid boxing fans. Maybe a couple of dance halls and a Tiki bar. A cowboy or two.
Because even if my son and daughters are crazy busy and have cupcakes to make for a bake sale, or a big presentation at work due early that Monday morning, I want them in my room – laughing, talking, listening to music. Fighting to take their turn from the hallway.