Editor's note: Benzie County high school history students wrote essays for the Bruce Catton Historical Awards, honoring the author who won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for "A Stillness at Appomattox." His memoir, "Waiting for the Morning Train," is about growing up in Benzonia. The awards were presented at an April ceremony. This essay won first place.
By Emily Swander
Special to the Record-Eagle
The smell of the old drifted through the halls of the Maples in Frankfort, Michigan. We moved through the halls passing room after room. Glancing into rooms I saw many different things: Some people were watching TV, others eating an afternoon snack.
The chatter of nurses helping the elderly with their daily lives surrounded me. We passed by a window; outside was gloomy, but the trees were beautiful shades of red, brown and yellow. The air outside was thick with October.
I noticed my mom had slowed down. I soon knew why; the room was approaching. My arms were very tired; I had been carrying this huge box for more than 10 minutes; it must have weighed 30 or 40 pounds. On the wall next to the door was a colorful little plaque with the name of the resident residing in this room.
My grandma sat on the bed while my aunt paced the room nervously talking to herself.
My great-grandma sat in her wheelchair in the middle of the room.
She looked so unlike herself. In that instant I barely recognized her. She seemed so different; her usual smirky smile wasn't there. Her hair was always curled and perfected by the Cricket Hair Salon in Beulah. It now was just a fuzzy mess atop her head. Her eyes looked sad; she looked up and saw the box that I had been carrying. I set it down and watched her face light up. Suddenly in that instant she wasn't just an old lady in a nursing home; she was Nana again. She almost seemed the same again.
I wished I had visited more, especially since she lived less than a block away from me on Leelanau Avenue.
I knelt down next to the box and let the biggest, fattest cat I have ever seen out of its carrier. This cat's name is Tucker; he wears a little bell around his neck and has the most glaring eyes a person will ever see. He is a terror to other cats and to some people as well. Nana loved that cat though. When she moved to the Maples we took him in for her.
I carefully picked up the cat and gently placed it on my Nana's lap the best I could. In this moment I felt as though I was in a scene from a movie. She pet the huge cat and held it close to her. Tucker was her baby in a sense. She stared into his olive green eyes muttering, "Tucker boy, oh, Tucker boy." Everyone in the room was trying to hold back tears.
My aunt left the room to find something. I can still picture the room right now, the curtains on the windows, a pasty yellow, and the blankets on her bed. I can remember the TV in the room and the picture my little sister drew for her on the wall.
The room was almost silent. But what I remember most of all was the look on her face as she held her baby close to her. It was almost a magical feeling; it made me feel happy and sad at the same time.
When it came time to leave, I was still trying not to cry. Not even realizing it, until I was told later, Nana had continued to stare at the cat until we left the room. I again carried the heavy box, but this time away from the little room.
We walked back through the halls of the Maples. This time as I passed through the halls of the elderly people, I didn't think of the smell or the sounds of the TVs playing or the IVs or the other machines beeping. I thought of the lives these people lived, the relationships they encountered, the lives they touched, the marriages and kids they had, the jobs they worked their hardest at, and the wars they laid down their lives for.
I left the Maples a changed person. I knew in my heart that I wouldn't be seeing my Nana again. This proved correct a few days later.
This was a really sad memory for me, but it also changed me in a good way. I realized that she and all the other elderly people at the Maples had lived long, full lives. When most people look at an older person, they see the gray hair, the hearing aid or the dementia. I now try to look past this, at the real person.
Experiences like these really make you think. Life is short. People never know when they are seeing someone for the last time. This experience made me choose to live a full life. To live every moment to the fullest extent, whether my life stays in Benzie County or ends up in a far-off country.
I want to live a life my Nana would be proud of.
Emily Swander recently finished 11th grade at Frankfort-Elberta High School.