Lavender Hill, Ch. 1
oh, the compensating smiles
Today is the beginning of the end. Jack gifted me this journal to write it all down, but I worry he’s subtly saying dementia is on the horizon.
We just pulled up. Keep optimistic, but stay vigilant.
Eleanor Jaworski closed her new journal and took a deep breath. Jack pulled up to Lavender Hill, an assisted living facility in the small town of Crochet, California. She felt like it was the first day of school again. Butterflies consumed her stomach, but not the thrilling ones. She was on the verge of sickness and the interior of the rental car was in grave danger.
Jack turned the engine off and looked at his aunt with guilty eyes.
“El, I know this is the last place you wanted to end up. This wasn’t the plan and I’m sorry. The offer still stands for you to come live with me. There’s still time to get out of here right now before anyone sees us.”
She could feel the sincerity in his voice, but she never wanted to be a burden to anyone.
“You’re too sweet, Jack, but no. You have your own life to live, and this is now mine” she said, stroking his face with her gentle hands. “Besides, it’s too late now. The jig is up.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the blinds crack open.
He snickered and leaned in for a bear hug. She smelled of Emeraude perfume, a scent she always wore and a scent he will never forget.
She grumbled. “And so it begins.”
Jack stepped out of the car and walked to the passenger side to open the door for his aunt. He saw the peeking eyes through the window and waved at them. With that, the blinds closed.
As they walked toward the main entrance, even though the sky was drearily overcast, Eleanor noticed the beautiful landscaping around the building. There were white lilies and an assortment of roses along the sidewalk. She thought maybe this won’t be as bad as she’s anticipating.
As they walked in, her eyes were immediately drawn toward a massive painting that hung over a gorgeous brick fireplace in the lobby. She walked toward the seven faces of the stepford-esque family staring at her and assumed it must be of the owners. It looked like there was a grandfather, a grandmother, a father, a mother, two little boys with bowl-cut haircuts, and a dog. All the men were in sharp well-fitted suits and the two women were in red dresses. The poodle sitting between the children had the creepiest face of all. Eleanor’s face cringed looking at the faces.
“So, we have everything set up for Mrs. Jaworski. All of her belongings are already in her room. If there’s anything she doesn’t like or if there’s anything she needs, please, don’t hesitate to let me know.” The concierge shook Jack’s hand and walked over to introduce herself to Eleanor.
“Mrs. Jaworski? My name is Kate. So nice to meet you. Welcome to Lavender Hill. Would you like me to show you around?”
Eleanor nodded. “That would be lovely,” she said and the butterflies started in again.
Jack and Eleanor followed Kate as she began walking toward the living room. There was a huge table full of women playing Bingo in the back right corner, a couple of men sitting on a sectional facing a 50-inch television mounted on the left wall, and a few other bodies sitting at a long table in the center of the room playing board games and doing puzzles.
She felt like fresh meat on the first day of school as everyone stopped what they were doing as they entered. All eyes turned to her. The woman calling Bingo tried to get all the women to focus back on the game with little success. Eleanor could hear the whispers starting.
Kate noticed and tried to avert Eleanor’s attention. “This is our living room and, as you can see, we always have activities going on. Bingo is played every day, otherwise we’d have a riot on our hands.” She laughed at her own joke. “Esther over there is our professional number caller. If she’s out sick or anything, we do have a terrific back-up caller. Today is Wednesday and that means board games and puzzles are out as well. They’re available any day of the week, but on Wednesdays we make a special effort to get more of the residents to participate in activities. The television is on from 5:00am to 10:00pm, unless we have an event, or someone is performing in this room. Any questions, Mrs. Jaworski? Mr. Barnaby?”
“Oh, call me Jack, please.” He put his arm around his aunt. “Do you have any questions, young lady?”
Eleanor hadn’t taken her eyes off the Bingo ladies the entire time Kate was giving her spiel. She figured if this was going to feel like high school then she was going to make it high school. They were still staring at her, so she stared back. This tactic had a small effect as at least half went back to playing. She was sure the ones still staring had missed enough called numbers to lose the current game, so she was satisfied.
Jack nudged her.
She recovered herself. “I’m so sorry. What, dear?”
“Do you have any questions for Kate?”
“Oh, no, no I don’t think so.”
Kate continued. “If you have any later, don’t hesitate to ask. We’re here to make your life as enjoyable as humanly possible,” she said with an ever-growing smile, like she was compensating for the fact that she knew this is the last place any of these people would freely choose and spend the rest of their time and it was not humanly possible to fully please any of them — only try. “Moving on, if we go to the left here, we’ll find the kitchen and the dining room down this way.”
They walked by sleeping bodies in wheelchairs as they headed down the hall and Eleanor cringed.
It was a little after 1:30 in the afternoon and there were several residents still finishing their lunch. There was a young woman bussing the tables and music was playing softly in the background, but all one could hear were the plates clanking together as they were being stacked on the bussing cart and an unruly voice coming from the kitchen across the hallway. The sound of this man’s voice was making Eleanor tense.
Kate knocked on the already open kitchen door. The man’s back was turned. She knocked louder and cried “Dom!”
“What?!” he shouted and turned around to find two new faces staring at him with displeasure.
Kate instantly started talking to try and avoid the rising embarrassment.
“Sorry, Mrs. Jaworski, Jack. This is Dominik, our Head Cook. Dom, this is Eleanor Jaworski and her nephew Jack.”
Kate looked at Eleanor and added, “Mrs. Jaworski, if there is ever anything you crave or want, Dom would be more than happy to make it for you at any time while he’s here, isn’t that right Dom?”
He put a big, cheesy smile on his face. “Of course! Anytime! Do you have any restrictions in your diet Mrs. Jaworski?”
Eleanor just shook her head.
He continued with his disingenuous smile and said “Well, alrighty then. Bash! Get out here and introduce yourself to our newest resident!”
A timid-looking young man came out of the back prep-area from around the corner and walked toward them. He gestured a small wave and introduced himself as Sebastian. Eleanor assumed this was who Dom had been yelling at before they came in. He seemed like sweet boy, too good for this environment. He asked if they had seen the courtyard yet.
“That’s exactly where we were headed next. Thank you, Bash,” Kate gestured for Eleanor and Jack to follow her through the dining room that lead out to the courtyard through two large doors at the opposite end.
They had a quick introduction of the dietary aide, Hedy, who was still bussing tables.
Kate propped one of the doors open and they walked out into the courtyard. It looked like it was going to rain any minute.
“We’ve been trying to get the owners to build a pool and maybe add a hot tub, but they won’t seem to budge. I was thinking if we had all of the residents sign a petition then it might make them feel a bit guilty and re-think it,” Kate snickered.
There was a huge patch of grass in the center of the courtyard, big enough for two pools. There were individual gardens along the building that belonged to the courtyard side residents. Eleanor had not been so fortunate to acquire one of these rooms.
“That would be nice during the hot summer days,” Jack said. “And a hot tub would be tremendous for the muscles, wouldn’t it El?”
“I guess it would be,” she said, nodding in agreement.
Jack could tell that his aunt was starting to get overwhelmed with everything. “Kate, I’m sorry, can you show us her room now?”
“Absolutely. We can finish the tour later,” she said, taking them back inside. “I bet you’re anxious to see your room, Mrs. Jaworski. I hope you like it. It’s at the end of the hallway down here. There’s not much foot traffic this way, so it should be nice and quiet.”
“That’ll be good. She reads and writes all day long,” Jack explained to Kate. He turned to his aunt and added “But El, I don’t want you to be in your room all day. You need to socialize with the other residents, okay? You need to break out of your hermit lifestyle. Please at least go and sit on the couch in the living room occasionally. Watch a little television or just people-watch and eavesdrop on conversations.”
“I’m 37 years your elder, boy. I’ll do as I please,” Eleanor said, only moderately joking. “But I’ll do my best.”
They arrived at Room 88. Kate took out a set of keys and unlocked the door.
Eleanor’s favorite dark gray and burgundy bedspread was on the bed. Her favorite plaid chair was in the corner next to the bed with her favorite afghan on the arm. Her dark-stained oak desk had been placed under the window. There was a television sitting on her redwood trunk that she had had since she was a little girl. All of her clothing was in the closet. Her favorite brand of soap sat by the nozzle of the sink in the attached bathroom. Her toothbrush and particular toothpaste of choice were in a mug sitting on the opposite side.
Even though everything was here, it wasn’t home.
Kate looked at the sadness in Eleanor’s face. “I know it will never feel like your real home, Mrs. Jaworski, but we’re going to try and make you feel as comfortable as possible. Take your time settling in. If you’d like, we can have your meals delivered to your room until you’re ready to sit with everyone in the dining room.”
Eleanor smiled and nodded.
“Well, I’ll leave the two of you alone and let you get acclimated to everything. I’ll be at the front desk if you need me.”
She started to leave the room, but Eleanor touched her arm as she was walking out and said “Thank you, Kate. I appreciate everything.”
“You’re very welcome.” She smiled and continued out the door.
Jack walked over and sat in the chair. Eleanor set her purse down and took a seat on her new bed.
They sighed in unison.
“What do you think?” Jack asked.
“Well…” Eleanor sighed again. “I think it’ll suffice, but I don’t know.”
“What don’t you know?”
He stood up and sat next to her. “I think Uncle Laurie would be proud of you.”
She looked at him with curiosity. “Why do you say that?”
“Because you’re not going to live alone anymore. He’s been gone for five years, and you barely ever left the house. This is a good step.”
She leaned in to give him a hug. “I know you’re right, but I still don’t know.”
“Just give it time. If it never feels right, my offer will always stand.”
“Thank you, sweetheart.”
Jack stood. “I think it’s time for me to go so you can get situated a bit. Now, my flight isn’t until tomorrow morning, so I’ll be back in a couple of hours to have dinner with you. Do you want to eat in here tonight?”
“I think we should, don’t you?” Eleanor was not ready to eat with the Bingo ladies.
“Yes, I agree. I’ll let Kate know on my way out that I’ll be joining you and to have our meals delivered here.”
“Thank you,” she said as she stood up. “I’ll walk you out.”
“Oh, you don’t have to.”
“I know I don’t have to. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. I’m going to walk you out.”
“Stubborn woman,” he said under his breath, but deliberately loud enough for her to hear.
They walked down the hallway and stopped when they reached the living room. The eyes were back on them. Jack could feel his aunt tensing. “Just ignore them. They have nothing better to do than create opinions.” They continued to the lobby.
Jack told Kate it was nice to have finally met her after weeks of only speaking on the phone, and mentioned he’d be back for room-service dinner.
He gave his aunt one last hug and walked toward the rental car. Eleanor watched him get in and drive away from a window in the lobby.
With him out of sight, she didn’t know what to do. This new adventure made her nervous. Kate could see the emotions running through Eleanor’s face and wanted to help.
“So, Mrs. Jaworski, Jack said you write. What kind of things do you write about?” she asked.
Eleanor looked her way and said “Nothing in particular. Whatever keeps my interest.”
“I’d love to read anything you’ve written. I’m an avid reader,” Kate shared with a smile.
Eleanor smiled back.
Kate knew she was getting nowhere, so she tried again. “I love your sweater. Where’d you get it?”
Eleanor looked down and caressed the bottom of her sweater. “Thank you. It belonged to my late husband. I wear one of his sweaters every day.”
“Oh my goodness. That’s the sweetest thing,” Kate said with a gushing smile.
Eleanor didn’t feel ready to make small talk with strangers about Laurence or any subject for that matter. She started feeling exceedingly anxious. “I’m sorry, dear, would you be offended if I go back to my room? I think I’d like to lie down for a bit before dinner.”
“Not at all. It’s been a big day for you. I do hope you enjoy it here. Oh, but before I forget…” Kate walked out from around her desk and gave her a small device. “Here’s your call-button. You should always wear it around your neck. Looks like you get around perfectly well, but it’s just a precaution.” Eleanor put it around her neck and went back to her room.
She stood in the doorway as the door closed behind her. She never expected to end up in a place like this. She never expected her husband to die before she did. He was supposed to deal with that loss. She never expected to be alone. At the age of 84, she never expected she would have to start over.
She walked to the bed, took her journal out of her purse, and sat at her desk under the window.
Jack just left, but he’s coming back for dinner. Concierge Kate is a sweet young lady, but speaks to me as if I were a child. I’m not demented — at least not yet. There’s a family portrait in the lobby that disturbs me in the greatest sense of the word with those beady eyes on all the faces — even the dog’s. The Bingo ladies look like real devils. Yes, I’m judging a book by its cover, but they were doing the same. I’m petty, don’t you know? The cook is a scuzzball. How does he still have a job? The faces in the hallway have no life in them. I hope that’s not what becomes of me; a life of sleeping in the hall for all to see.
Get yourself ready.
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