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Open Features: Old Age Home

Marianne Hall vividly and memorably writes about her days as a volunteer in an old people's home.

“Sister, Sister!” I gasped, running into the Matron’s office at the Old Age Home. ”Lena has just swallowed a flower.”

Matron Wilhelmina looked up from a report she was busy with.
“She does it all the time,” she said calmly. “We daren’t put flowers on her table.”

I had brought in some flowers – Chinese Lantern, Jasmine, Shrimp Plant, Potato Creeper, Sweet Alyssum, Prunus, Camelia, Honeysuckle, Geranium, Pink Cestrum, Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow, Flowering Quince, Pineapple Guava, Lantana, Namaqualand Daisy and Australian Frangipani. The idea was that everyone should smell and feel and comment on them.

Lena showed great interest in the flowers and started dismembering them. I was talking to one of the other ladies in the group when much to my horror saw a piece of Chinese Lantern flower protruding from her mouth. I called Patricia, the assistant nurse and we both tried to dislodge it from between her clenched teeth. She would not budge and then she swallowed and the flower disappeared!

Marie got very excited when she saw the Yellow Jasmine. “I had a lot of this growing at the entrance of my farm house at our plot in Driefontein, Witbank,” she said.

I was helping at the home on a voluntary basis every Wednesday. I made many friends and, being a good listener, everyone soon confided in me. Unbeknown to them, I used to type up reports of “everything” that everyone said, often in the form of poetry, unless I felt that it was too private to comment on. A sort of “Mata Hari”!

Nellie was without a doubt my favourite. She had many a story to tell.
There’s a joyousness of spirit
in those days so long ago
when parties and picnics
and dances and horserides
kept Nellie and her sisters
perpetually on the go.

Beaus there were a plenty
calling at the house
but the one that caught her fancy
turned out to be a louse.

She waited at the station
watching every train
waited for two hours
disappointed, all in vain.

Today, it’s but a memory
an irritation from the past
the beau that she did marry
was the man her held her fast.

Nellie had to be assisted with bathing. She asked the maid to pick up her new night dress which had fallen on the floor. The maid lost her temper and pushed the facecloth into her face. She was most upset when she told me this. Said she had perpetual heart cramps after this incident.


Nellie is in such a mess
Caused by simply too much stress
Heart protesting – tick, tick, tick.
Shingles blistering – makes her sick.

Washcloth pushed into her face
arms pushed back in cruel embrace
it’s a case of strong against weak
for her the future is but bleak

Hatred is too firmly embedded
feelings are just thinly veiled
violence will come to the surface
when no protection is prevailed.

I had a lot of empathy for Rose. When she was a small child she had fallen on her head and then never really grew up. She had a budgie and was most distressed when it died.

A soul in torment
a cry of despair
a mind seeped in suspicion
for a budgie no longer there

She longs for her mother
her sister, her aunt
she feels she is mad
for contact her, they won’t

She longs for new clothes
new panties, new hose
she roams up the passage
“I hate this place,” she moans

The body of a woman
the mind of a child
were that she were normal
and not drive everyone wild

She longs for attention
but shuns all around her
her budgie’s her best friend
it’s needs love in her stirs

Dear Rose, I feel for you
trapped in your world
could I but release you
to fly like your bird

I finally managed to persuade her to have her lunch in the dining room. I phoned her aunt Edna Rogers who stayed in Alberton and asked if I could bring her for a visit. The day I arrived at the Home to pick her up I went to the Matron.
“Is she ready?”

“She’s busy washing her underwear!” I had to wait over an hour. When she finally arrived she was weeping. She wept all the way to Alberton, wept at her aunt’s place, and then wept all the way back!

Duncan was an enigma. He was blind and partially deaf, and very uncommunicative. One day I brought in a pair of Dutch clogs which my mother had brought out from Holland. I placed the clog in his hand then took the other hand and ran it over the top and bottom of the clog. I told him in a loud voice what they were and that they were usually filled with straw and worn on the farms which due to the wet weather had very muddy and wet conditions. He felt it all over, and then was very adamant that he did not want to buy them!

Another time I had brought in various articles in the bag. Everyone drew out one of these and had to explain what it was and what it was used for. Duncan drew out a spanner. He fingered it all over then tucked it into his pajama pants!

When I read an excerpt from the “Secret Ring” he complained loudly that he could not hear!

After this incident a microphone was installed.

Another sad case was Caterina.

Clawed up hands
knuckles white
despairing eyes
in sockets white

Tormented soul
nerves uptight
body in anguish
no will to fight

What tragedy
wore down the core
of independence
she has no more

Lindy should never have been in the home. Her husband was an alcoholic and perpetually abused her.

“He was a young boy, facing a man’s world,” was her comment. They finally got divorced. Her son, Carl, was a lawyer, and one of her uncles an advocate. Despite numerous attempts by both the home and myself could not get a response.

She is a restless spirit
too young to retire
filled with frustration
much energy on fire

Resigned to the fact
that her son does not act
in response to her pleas
to set her mind at ease

Now she answers the phone
with much aplomb
“Hello, goodbye –
this is the old age home.”

Xmas cards she is sorting
with Alice and others
for uncles and aunts
and sisters and brothers

Lindy is busy
so busy in fact
that she has no time to worry
but only to act

I spent many an hour in the library getting information for projects. Flippie van der Walt, chief librarian, was of great assistance.

Projects and comments were:

Brought in: Doughnut and pastry cutter, apple corer, tea bag holder, can fruit bottle top and tongs.

On seeing the tongs, Josie associated these with those used to extract teeth. She went into a
detailed description, first removing her own dentures, much to the fascination of those around
her, then told of the agony she experienced when all her teeth were extracted!

Knife sharpener, knitting needles, collapsible plastic glass, measuring tape, hammer, pliers,
stapler, paper knife, TV control, envelope, shoe horn, thimble, tin opener, scissors, comb,
screwdriver and spanners.

Esther spoke about the thimble.
“I started to learn dressmaking at the age of fourteen. I had to pay to learn the trade in a
workroom in Port Elizabeth. I started by picking up pins. Then sheen was tuppence a reel.
I learned to oversew and became an improver at three pounds per month. I did tailoring at Eloff
Street and made school uniforms for Roedean school.”

Egg slicer, squeezer, rolling pin, beater, funnel, ice cream scoop, and waffle iron.

Catharine said she used the ice cream scoop to hollow out “waatlemoen” balls.

Brought in some necklaces: beads, pearls, copper, glass, seeds, crystals and egg shells. Most of the ladies opted for pearls. Jessie said that she carried her jewellery around with her in a pink handbag and brought out a pin watch, some brooches and earrings.

Took along a pair of koedoe veldtschoens which were admired by all and sundry. Naas loved the quality. Had taken out two books: “Shoes” by June Swann and “Shoes in Vogue since 1910” by Christine Probert. There was one picture of the King in brown Oxford shoes and the Queen in red courts and the two princesses in brown slingback court shoes. Olga remembered the time when the Royal procession passed through Boksburg!

Scents was a very popular subject. Nellie maintained that she used Chanel No 5 which was available on the black market for R400! Dolly liked Yardley’s English Lavender. Olive found 4711 very refreshing, reminded her of her gran. George said he used shaving cream which had musk in it.

Ani Venter, the social worker and myself showed everyone our wedding dresses. These were greatly admired. “ Everyone” remembered what they had worn on the day of their wedding. “I remember my wedding very clearly. I wore a double beaded Georgette frock of fine net with pearls. I wore white kid shoes and white stockings. I wore a string of pearls. My bouquet was white with green fern,” reminisced Doris with a far away look in her eyes.

“My very first Boyfriend” created quite a lot of interest. Ruth commented: “I don’t want to talk about the men in my life!”

Lavender blue
Dilly Dally
Lavender green
When I am King
Dilly Dally

You shall be my Queen

I had given each one a sprig of lavender and we all sang the refrain. Everyone came up with some idea.

It was used in satchets and put amongst clothing, in flower arrangements, in the bath, sprinkled on handkerchiefs, rubbed direct on the forehead for a headache. “Dot oil of lavender on a baby’s mattress to keep off the mosquitoes,” was Olga’s advice.

The subject that caused the most dissension was “Likes and Dislikes”. Everyone got very uptight when they spoke about this. It was an opportunity to get things out in the open. “I don’t like the noise in the diningroom – all that yelling, shouting and screaming!” commented Jean. “I hate eggs, milk, liver and chicken!” Olga was definitely getting her point across. Annette mentioned the flowers at a funeral. “Give me the flowers while I am still alive!”

We discussed “Travel”. Nellie put it in a nutshell. “If the car moved, I was in!” “My father was very adventurous and took us everywhere. We went to the mission station at Elim. I remember the paraffin stoves. Then pillows and mattresses were stuffed with the dried flowers they called “sewejariges, “ she continued.

“Cats” was another subject everyone had very strong views above. It went from loving, liking, not liking and hating. Some people were allergic to cats.

When it came to “Do you believe in Heaven?” Doris remarked: “At the Gate of Heaven I am going to ask so many questions they will just rush me through!”

A Greek woman by the name of Ionna Vlahopoulos moved in. She was very aggressive.The first time I spoke to her she tried to flatten me out. Went to a Greek friend of mine and asked her to teach me a few Greek words. Took in some Greek cakes and greeted her: “Herete. Ti kanis. Pos ise simera. Ise kala?” Hello, How are you, How are you today, Are you OK? She became very excited, and started gabbling away in Greek. I just nodded a few times. Finally, when she had got it all off her chest, she burst into tears!

Other discussions were on Astrology, Birthstones, Anniversary gifts, “My Mother” and Dreams.

“Die Groot Afrikaanse Familie-naamboek” by C Pama provided a lot of information on the origin of both names and surnames. This was eagerly devoured.

When the discussion was on Birds, Josie made this comment: “At home in Clovelly, England, where I was born and brought up they had a resident cuckoo which had it’s nest under the eaves. Whenever my mother Harriet and my father William had an argument, it would perch on the windowsill and call: “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” My father would be furious.” It’s calling me a cuckoo!” he would shout.

©Marianne Hall 2013

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