Peter and Mabel were pretty far gone for residents of the old age home, which, to be more precise, was an “assisted-living” center. As such, it wasn’t in the business of taking the more severe cases of seniors afflicted with dementia, blindness or diseases that might require complicated machinery. When I worked there, the home was filled with senior citizens whose children, more often than not, preferred that their parents enjoy the comforts of daily meals and maid service than experience the perils of independent living. At least that’s the charitable way of describing it.
They must have just slipped in, Peter and Mabel, back when they had their wits together. But now, as I say, they were too far gone to interact with the other residents who — as of yet — had intact memories. Peter and Mabel, while still able-bodied, operated on a fantastic biological memory mechanism that reset every 24 hours, like clockwork. Anything learned the previous day wasn’t just “forgotten” — which implies one can be reminded of it. For all intents and purposes, it had just never happened. At least Peter and Mabel had each other, though. They had been married since 1946, as Peter made sure to tell me every day when he introduced himself. Peter had just come home from the war, and when Mabel caught his eye in Prospect Park, he thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
I look at Mabel, in all her decay of age, and try to imagine it.
I’ll never forget how every Sunday, when we served breaded Pollock, Peter would ask what was for dinner. “Breaded Pollock,” I’d answer. “Poor guy,” Peter would say mournfully, pausing for effect, and then continue “Oh, did you say ‘Pollock?’… I thought you said Polack!,” which, in case you don’t know, is one of those ethnic epithets that has died out with this country’s changing demographics. Mabel would laugh and laugh at her husband’s spontaneous wittiness. And why not? Every Sunday, it was as if she heard the “breaded Polack” joke for the first time.
Ah yes, and I’ll never forget the time that poor Mabel had a breakdown on trivia night. She and her husband were sitting in the back row, as usual, not participating but kind of drifting in and out of awareness, holding hands. About halfway through the competition, the master of ceremonies posed the question, “Who killed JFK?”
Mabel leapt up and cried, “Oh my God, the president’s been shot!”
Nobody could console her for the rest of the evening. And then she went to bed, and the next morning, JFK was alive again, and she was ready to smile pleasantly while she met me for the thousandth time.
And Peter, for the thousandth time, would ask, “Do you want to hear a joke?”
“Sure,” I’d say.
“Why doesn’t Santa Claus have any children?”
“Hm … I don’t know.” (But I did)
“Because he only comes once a year, and when he does, he shoots down the chimney!”
Every day; dirty old man. Did it get tiresome, hearing the same joke every day, the same stories? Sure. Yet I couldn’t help but smile every time I saw Mabel and Peter, though after four years they still didn’t know me from a breaded Polack. I smiled because if Peter remembered anything, it was that Mabel was the most beautiful woman in the world; and if Mabel remembered anything, it was that her husband had a wonderful sense of humor.
They weren’t gone; they weren’t “demented,” or any other label that our society likes to apply to those we neglect, to assuage our consciences. There was something there still in those minds, in those hearts, something you couldn’t reset with each passing day. It was something that challenged time and was more powerful than the news about presidents and assassinations, which could be washed away overnight into the abyss of forgotten trivialities. For trivialities they are, Oswald and Kennedy and facts and figures, trivialities indeed compared to that moment in 1946, in Prospect Park, when Peter came home from the war and thought Mabel was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Jonathan Panter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Storyteller appears alternate Fridays this semester.