Her eyes were the color of the sky

When I was in elementary and middle school, I took singing lessons with Ethel, an older, vivacious woman. Ethel wore long flowing skirts and huge dangling earring the size of bracelets, and bright colored scarves. Once or twice a year her students gathered at a hospital or nursing home to give a recital. Usually a piano was wheeled into the middle of a cafeteria, a microphone was hooked up and the volume turned up high. Each student, beginning with the youngest, was introduced with great fanfare and then Ethel banged out the music on the piano as if she were running a marathon. Even the love songs had a frenetic quality.

My first foray into the world of recitals was at a nursing home. The building was large, spread out, and very institutional. Chemical cleaning sprays mingled with the odor of urine. The lights in the hallway cast a cool, yellow tint that created a glare on the floor and gave everyone’s face a pale, ghostlike aura. Stepping into the building was like stepping into a strange, alien world, where people wore bathrobes in the middle of the day and wandered around like lost souls stranded on a lonely island. I held my breath, trying to keep the odor out and tried not to look at what was around me.

The recital was held in the cafeteria. It reminded me of the lunchroom in my school. The lights were harsh. The walls were naked. Everywhere there were old people or employees wearing white or green uniforms. The residents were guided into the room. Some were wheeled in. Other came on their own, bent over walkers or leaning on canes. People slumped in their chairs. A few residents kept getting up and walking around. Several talked to themselves. A handful were snoring.

There were two aisles through the thicket of bodies.    It was the only space in which to rest one’s eyes among the chaos of walkers, and chairs arranged in jagged lines. When it was my turn to sing, I did as I had been taught. I stood before the microphone and looked into audience.  Ethel bore down on the first cords and I began to sing.   Everyone and everything in the room dissolved.  I was a movie star.

When my performance ended there was loud applause. I bowed. I searched the room to find my mother so that I could sit with her for the rest of the recital. As I was walking down the aisle to the back of the room I passed a woman who was slumped to one side in her wheel chair with her head bent down toward the ground. She was dressed in a pink gingham housedress with a large stain in the front. Her hair was stringy and dirty. There was a distinct smell of urine.  Slowly,  as I came closer, she lifted her head and grabbed my hand. She looked at me.   Her eyes were cloudy, but I could tell, they were the color of the sky.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for coming.”

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