As the elevator rattled up, I draped my arms over Noelle’s shoulders and held her close. I wasn’t entirely sure what she and I would find once the doors opened. Around us other parents and children stood quietly waiting to arrive at the second floor of the retirement village.
“All right folks,” Noelle’s piano teacher chirped brightly beside me. “When we get out, follow me.”
We lurched to a stop and the doors slid open. Beyond their narrow frame I saw a room full of elderly people, each one sitting in a wheel chair and facing us. We stepped out of the elevator into a large, warm room, with a line of windows blinking back the night sky. Once out of the elevator, I could see that the group of residents, while facing us, were not actually looking at the stream of children and parents flowing into their living space. They were turned in a wide semi-circle around the TV.
“I know that show!” a little boy grinned up to his dad. He chuckled. I glanced up to see Andy Griffith chatting in black and white with Don Knotts, his sheriff’s hat tipped back from his open and smiling face.
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen,” a petite woman took her place at the front of the room and switched off the show. “We have a group of young people here today to play music for you. The residents sat quietly. One woman curled over completely onto a pillow wedged between her body and the arm of her wheel chair. A stream of drool coursed over her cheek and chin. A few chairs down, I noticed an elderly man smiling and waving to us. I smiled back and then suddenly felt my stomach drop when I noticed a large patch of flesh missing from his bald pate, nothing but an exposed, brown fibrous substance spread beneath.
I turned quickly and swallowed hard.
“Hello everyone,” Noelle’s perky piano teacher took her place at the front of the room next to a glimmering, black baby grand piano. Birds trilled sweetly from a brightly lit cage beside the piano. “These are my students and we’d like to play some Christmas music for you all. I’m going to have each of them introduce themselves and tell you how long they’ve been playing.”
One by one each of Miss Mary’s students took their turn by the piano. The first little guy played a spirited version of “Here Comes Santa Claus.” The next young lady played “Silent Night.” The room filled with the methodical, but well rehearsed sounds of music and I watched as the residents of the retirement village seemed to rouse to life with each note. Where as they had sat silent and blank when we first arrived, bit by bit they began clapping and swaying to the music, even singing along.
Finally, it was Noelle’s turn. She took her place by the piano and Miss Mary wrapped her arms around Noelle’s shoulders just as I had done in the elevator. “Now this is Miss Noelle,” she crooned. “And she is how old?”
Noelle paused for a moment, then spoke up nice and loud. “Six!”
“Oh, six,” I heard a woman marvel from a wheel chair close by.
Miss Mary, nodded and went on, “Noelle has just been playing the piano for two months. She and I are going to play ‘Jingle Bell’ rock for you and Noelle is going to play the bells!”
Miss Mary and Noelle sat on the bench side by side and began to play. Soon the room was clapping and singing, and when it was all over Noelle took her bow and ran back to me. “Mommy,” she whispered up to my face, “I did good!”
Yes, I cried. Not just when Noelle played, but when all the children sat on the smooth black bench. The warmth of the whole evening, of the children spending time with these elderly men and women, the exchange of music and smiles and singing. The whole thing made my heart bloom.
This month I’ve been reading Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. It is my typical choice of reading material — young adult, dystopian fiction. While I’ve had a hard time really connecting emotionally with the characters of the book and their relationships, the plot is still a page turner, and I have found the themes of Westerfeld’s novel compelling: what is the value of being pretty in world defined by diversity and anomaly?
In this story, civilization has surrendered to a higher order wherein everyone gets a surgery by the age of 16 to make them “pretty.” The motivation behind this new structure of society is primarily fairness. This future civilization sees how we destroyed our world based on bias and prejudice around something as arbitrary as skin color. The future generations see how we oppressed and devalued those who are not considered “attractive”, and so in an effort to eliminate inequality, our children’s children’s children have decided to make everyone look the same.
However, a new faction has arisen, of course, a group of rebel civilians who do not want to be made pretty, but who want to remain “ugly”. They want to grow old and live more naturally, not just physically, but also more closely connected to the earth and the environment.
In the book, the lead character, Tally, finds herself among these rebel uglies and struggles to reconcile how they look with what she has been conditioned to believe about human features all her life.
She finds these natural men and women repulsive, especially the old. In one telling scene, she sees an elderly man for the first time and can hardly look at him. It’s as if she is looking at something horrific, and perverse. A reaction we might equate with seeing a mutilated body.
As we stood in the retirement village that evening, I couldn’t help but think of Westerfeld’s novel, and his strikingly poignant observation about how we treat those in our society who are not deemed “attractive.” While I had a hard time relating to Tally’s reactions to the “uglies” in the novel, I suddenly found myself in her that evening as I looked at the withered and shrunken forms around me.
In one instant I wanted to embrace them, to humanize them, to touch them and smile at them. In another instant, I wanted to look away.
Afterward, I wrote Miss Mary and thanked her for arranging the recital. “My mother is a nurse and worked in geriatrics for many years. I have memories of going to the nursing homes with her to help volunteer with the residents.” I wrote. My evening at the retirement village with Noelle brought back a flood of memories.
“Oh I’m so glad you say that!” Miss Mary wrote back. “I’m aware that not everyone is comfortable having their children around elderly people.”
It turns out that Miss Mary is moving her piano lessons to the retirement village. They have a spare room on the second floor, past the living area, past the rows of rooms filled with hospital beds, and monitors, past the nurses station. Each week, Noelle and I will take the elevator up, we’ll walk by the residents sitting in their wheel chairs watching Andy Griffith, or shuffling slowly about. We’ll sit with Miss Mary at the piano at the end of the hall and learn the next set of scales.
“Just so you know, the residents are going to want to come listen to you,” the hostess at the retirement village instructed us after the recital. “They’ll probably wheel down to the room and listen to you while you play.”
“Is that alright?” Miss Mary asked the small group of children and parents huddled around her.
Without missing a beat, Noelle beamed up at Miss Mary. “Yes!”