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September 25, 2023

Playing Nurse for a Frank Sinatra Fan

By Terry Petersen

One late May morning as I drove to school I realized I'd left my students' corrected exam papers on the dining room table. "Anna, you half-sized half-wit," I growled smacking the steering wheel. "Now you need to turn around and take the chance of being late because you weren't thinking -- again."

The voice had been mine, but the tone belonged to my husband, Lawrence. Something clicked, the kind of oh-yeah understanding I had seen on the faces of freshmen who suddenly figure out what solving for x means. However, this revelation didn't brighten my day. I saw Lawrence for what he was, an angry man with a glass of Scotch in his hand. I had been internalizing Lawrence's criticism; the time had come to leave that atmosphere and heal.

But where could I go?

Perhaps my parents would let me stay for a while. In St. Louis, 350 miles away. Of course Grandma Bocker lived with my mom and dad, and I knew she could be difficult, but if I'd lived with Lawrence for four years, my grandmother should be easy by comparison.

As I recalled, Grandma had never had much to say to me when I was little. She expected children to be proper. "Stand up straight, Anna. You are too short to slouch." Or when I was seventeen, "Maybe you should put a little color into your hair, child. My hair didn't dull that much until I was fifty."

Gee, thanks, I had thought, but wouldn't dare voice a sarcastic response.

Fortunately, my father did hear me when I called to ask if I could come. "Sure," he said. "Actually we could use your help with Grandma. But, I've got to warn you. She's a full-time job. Sorry to hear about your troubles with Lawrence. Although I've got to say I'm not surprised." Dad's voice flattened. His few stretched words exploded in my head.

I had always been close to my family, but Lawrence complained so much about the cost of long-distance calls that I stopped making them. I hadn't visited in three years. Why did I let him stop me? The answer stung. Because he makes a lot more money than you do. I bit my lip.

"It gets ugly around here," Dad said.

"That's okay. I know ugly. See you the day after school ends for the year."

The six-hour drive felt infinite. I thought I was psyched for whatever happened, but as I pulled up to my parents' house in University City, I knew I wasn't prepared. The front yard could have been prairie grass. Branches from the Silver Maple I planted when I was nine-years-old covered the yard. How could this be? Mom loved yard work. Every year she planted different annuals. Her bearded iris looked as dry as wadded purple tissue. There were no annuals.

As I opened the front door I heard a pinched, wavering scream, "You're poisoning me, both of you." Vegetable soup dripped from the wall. A chipped blue plastic bowl lay on the floor surrounded by commercially-squared vegetables and squashed peas in a pool of thin red broth. Grandma glared at me from her wheelchair.

"Okay, now!" Dad demanded as he held Grandma down. Mom forced something into her mouth with a medicine dropper.

Dad wheeled Grandma out of the kitchen as she hollered, "I'll tell Frank Sinatraaa ..."

I dropped my purse in a corner by the refrigerator as Mom handed me a dry rag. Really, Frank Sinatra? For one thing, I'm pretty sure he's dead. I laughed out of sheer embarrassment. "Oh, Mom, I'm so sorry."

She looked at me but said nothing as she cleared the kitchen table.

"So what is going on?" I soaked the soup into the rag.

"Stroke, senile dementia, coronary artery disease. Advanced orneriness." She pointed to the medicine bottles on a tray on the kitchen table. "Digoxin, an antiarrhythmic, and two liquid drugs -- one for pain and one for anxiety. Plus an arsenal for everything from constipation to hypertension.

"She refuses everything but her digoxin. It's the only name she recognizes. When she gets a pain of any kind she thinks we're giving it to her. And of course when she gets agitated like this, there's not much we can do. The liquid antianxiety medicine absorbs quicker, but getting it into her is like wrestling an octopus. We've thought about a nursing home, but just can't seem to do it."

Mom handed me another rag and then loaded the dishes into the dishwasher.

"Frank Sinatra?"

"Sometimes. Other times it's CNN or the Shore Police."

I groaned and asked Mom what I should do with the souped-up rag.

"I'll handle that if you'll see what you can do with Grandma."

The phone rang and I answered it. I should have let it ring. Lawrence wanted to know what I thought I was doing.

"Playing nurse for a Frank Sinatra fan." I hung up on him.

When I went into Grandma's room her anger appeared spent. She sat in her wheelchair and listened to the radio, a program broadcasting old big band tunes. "I know you," she said. "You used to be Anna Bocker."

"Used to be?"

"Before you married the bald moose."

Lawrence was ten years older than I was and Grandma's description fit.

"Well, I'm Anna Bocker again because I left the bald moose in Ohio."

"Good choice," she said.

"That was exactly what I needed to hear." I sat on her bed. "But I really don't want to talk about the bald moose. Why don't you tell me something about your life? What did you do when you were my age?"

Grandma learned forward, eyes slightly damp. "You know, nobody ever asks me that. And I had a great life. Before I married that is. Before Henry, the kids, the laundry.

"Listen. To the radio." She leaned toward the sound as "In the Mood" glided from the speaker and a full orchestra entered from the past.

"I was a dancer, Special Services, during World War II. Met Bob Hope, Tommy Dorsey, and Danny Kaye. I've been all over the globe: England, Germany, France. That was our song, Jack's and mine. He was my dance partner. We fell in love."

I glanced at Grandma atrophied feet curled into pink fabric slippers, and then quickly looked up at her face again.


"Moved like a double-jointed stag, graceful, talented. Did a lot of our choreography. The whole team loved him. He'd never let anyone get discouraged. 'Vivian,' he would tell me. 'You cut that move a little short. Try it again.' But he said it so bright it didn't sound like criticism.

"Jack had red-brown curls, freckles he covered with make-up, but he wouldn't admit it. He thought they made him look like a kid. Heck, we were both young, not more than twenty-four. We were together in December of 1944 when we heard that Glenn Miller's plane had disappeared in a thick fog over the English Channel; he was on his way to the Western Front. Jack and I were in France at the time. Neither one of us said a word. We didn't have to. We just held one another."

Grandma and I talked for hours until Mom came in.

"Time for your medicines, Mom."

"I like my heart pill. I can swallow that," Grandma said. "I want all my heart back. But I'll spit everything else out. Bite you if I have to." She gripped the sides of her wheelchair.

Mom looked at me for help. I felt cornered.

"Does it matter if we wait an hour or so?"

Mom shrugged.

"You know what, Grandma?" I said. I looked at the meds as if I had just now seen them. "All of these drugs are for your heart. Bet you didn't know that. If you let me give them to you I'll stay with you all day. If not I'll turn around and go right back to Ohio." It was a wild shot, but it was the only ploy I had.

She studied me and then agreed. "I won't let you go back to the bald moose. No way. Now, where were we? Oh yes! Once when Jack and I were in London, we were in a dance hall and the air raid sirens started ..."

Mom smiled. Later I heard her cutting the grass. I stayed with Grandma all day, exactly as I had promised. That evening both Mom and Dad came in with Grandma's evening drug supply.

"No, Anna will do it. She won't poison me." She shooed them out.

I couldn't tell from the look on my parents' faces whether they were hurt or relieved.

"Your father is difficult," Grandma said. "So much like your grandfather."

"Dad's doing everything he can to help you. Why do you say that?"

"He tells your mom what to do and how to do it."

"I didn't know Grandpa was controlling."

"After we got married he didn't want me to dance anymore. I didn't think I'd miss it as much as I did. But that's not the worst part."

"So, what's the worst part?"

She locked her eyes into mine for several seconds before she spoke. "I let him, Anna Bocker. That's the worst part. I let him."

"So why didn't you marry Jack?"

She looked down at her pink slippers.

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."

"They didn't have anything for leukemia back in those days. Didn't have a single thing, no matter how well you could dance."

"May I brush your hair if I'm gentle?"

She nodded. I figured that way I could stay with her without asking too much of her grief. She fell asleep as I separated strands with my fingers. She didn't seem to realize I didn't have a brush or comb.

Three days later I told my parents I would look for a job in the St. Louis area -- right after I gave Grandma her morning medicine. I had some leads.

Lawrence called and said that if I wanted a divorce, I'd better not expect a dime from him. I told him he'd better stop calling my parents' home phone because business-hour long distance costs far more than a dime. This time he hung up on me.

"Grandma, I can't spend the whole day with you because I'm looking for a job. I'm going to move here for good."

She grinned. "But you can't go out now. It's raining hard enough to wash you away."

"Don't worry. I haven't melted in years."

"Then I'd better take my heart medicine. I want all my heart back."

"Maybe it doesn't beat as well as it could, but in some ways it works just fine."

"Not really. I think I need another one of those little white pills. Maybe two more."

"No, Grandma. One is enough. More is poison."

"But if I have more heart maybe I can dance again. You know, I didn't care that much before you came. Nobody listened to me. Now maybe I can get me back again."

I couldn't tell whether she looked at or through me. "Grandma, do you hear what I'm saying?"

"Sure, why?" she asked as she played with the folds in her robe.

"Because I'm going to give you your morning medicines now. Remember? The ones that work together to give you as much of your heart as they can? Mom will give you what you need this afternoon, and it will be okay. I promise. Do you hear me? I promise."

"Then, when you come back I can tell you about the trick I played on a five-star general."

"Then you can tell me all about it."

I gathered Grandma's medicines and put them away in the back of one of her dresser drawers. "Later, Grandma, later."

I didn't come back until 5:00 that afternoon. Sobbing, Mom met me at the door. "Several of Grandma's medicine bottles were lying empty on the floor and I didn't notice them until it was too late. I was grateful that she was quiet, so Dad and I did a little yard work before checking on her this morning." Mom pressed her hand against her mouth. A gasp came out anyway.

Mom's guilt couldn't touch mine. I'd been in a hurry. Did I put the caps back on securely enough? I didn't remember.

When the sun reappeared I went outside and gathered Silver Maple branches severed during the storm. On breeze-free days the tree looked like any other maple: distinctive triple-lobed leaves, thick trunk. Now the hidden silver underside of the leaves reflected the sun like liquid crystal. I stopped to feel the still-moist flesh of a cluster of leaves and sat down, too numb to feel my good slacks getting soaked. Then I slowly plucked individual leaves. The wind lifted each one away. Silver and green sides equally exposed, they drifted across the yard and into the street. I wondered if Grandma had all her heart back. I wasn't sure, but I suspected that she could dance.

And that no one would be able to stop her.

Originally appeared in Dreamweaver, 1998.

Article © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-05-26
Image(s) © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
2 Reader Comments
Juliana Lee
12:03:40 AM
That's a wonderful story Terry! It really gives heart to many of the issues faced by the elderly and those caring for them.
Anne Becker
03:30:05 AM
I loved this, Terry. It was very complex emotionally and brought together several themes so beautifully.
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