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Thanksgiving at Fair Acres

Writer Virginia Stem Owens describes a Thanksgiving dinner she shared with her parents in a nursing home:

… The tables have been rearranged, end-to-end pilgrim-style, for the Thanksgiving feast, and my father and I take our places on both sides of my mother. Across from us sit Norman, the owner of the Christian music boom box, and James, a black man in a Mister Rogers cardigan who moves with glacial stateliness to compensate for his halting, stroke-damaged gait. They maintain their usual distant reserve.

"May we join you?" I ask, making my voice bright with what I hope they will see as holiday cheer. James inclines his head in a courtly manner. Norman says, "Sure," and blinks several times in what appears to be welcome.

"Isn't this nice," I say enthusiastically, gesturing toward the centerpieces—baskets of orange, yellow, and red silk leaves, accented with stalks of dried grass and little plastic ears of corn. James nods; Norman says, "Yes, nice." My father grins encouragingly. …

Meanwhile, an aide is maneuvering the wheelchair of a woman with a rust-colored perm and a silk blouse into position across from my father. Her head shakes like Katharine Hepburn's, and in one hand she clutches a washcloth with which she continually dabs at her mouth. The washcloth, I see, is to mop up saliva pushed toward the front of her mouth by her tongue that squirms compulsively, like some small burrowing animal. …

Over the kitchen clatter, I shout inanities across the table at Norman and James alternately. "Smell that? Mmm, turkey!" "What kind of pie are you going to have? Pumpkin or pecan?" "Want a roll to tide you over?"

Amid great bustle, the food is brought from the kitchen and laid out, buffet-style…I load a plate with turkey, dressing, gravy, sweet potatoes, fruit salad, cranberry sauce—the dishes I know my mother has always liked. After cutting the turkey into bite-sized bits, I name the plate's contents, coaxing her appetite. "Take a bite of the dressing, Mother, you'll like it." She ignores me, making her way slowly but steadily through the turkey.

"Would you like another roll? I'll butter it for you."

She shakes her head and, after finishing the turkey, puts down her fork, leaving the rest of the meal untouched. The noise, I know, distracts her, the sounds a jumble she can't sort into meaning. …

Telling my father to finish at his own pace, I wheel my mother back to her room. We're both relieved by the quiet that settles around us there. I press the call button for the aides to come and lift her into bed, then I sit beside her, holding her hand until she drops into a fitful sleep. …

"How did the nursing home dinner go?" my daughter asked me the following week as we were recovering from the "real" Thanksgiving feast.

"You know that parable in Luke where the master sends his servant out to the highways and hedges to bring in the maimed, the halt, and the blind after the people he'd invited to the banquet don't show up?"

"Mmm … I think so."

"Well, that's how it was. And I got to come too."

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