Cooking Nights with the Old Folks

I was a very young Mum when I got a job for six weeks working with the night nurse at an old folks home. There were two of us and not very much to do, so the other nurse delightfully,  arrived each night with her blanket and her pillow, set up the drugs trolley, changed any dressings, helped me with anything heavy, collected the laundry, folded it in front of TV, then stretched out full length on one of the couches in the day room,  and went to sleep until the first rounds at 6.00 am.

I did not mind really, I had 32 old ladies and gentlemen all to myself. I had a full house every night. So I would push my evening trolley around, and doled out  cups of hot cocoa from enormous stainless steel jugs and the sleeping pills or a glass of sherry. I turned off lights, said good nights and tweaked blankets as I went around.

None of these people were sick you understand, they were just old.  In my book old is not an illness. Some of them were a little surprised when I made the offer of a sherry or a sedative (never both).  I  always checked and noted the charts as to who was allowed sherry and who was not. Any unused pills were charted as untaken and returned to the bottles. And one or two ladies did look surprised, proceeded to hide their surprise and then said yes please, the sherry dear and don’t be mean with the pouring.

Now a sedative will knock you out for the whole night, and then leaves you groggy for hours upon waking, sometimes you will need toileting and turning in the night if you are sedated and not everyone really needs a sedative.  And these old people had worked hard all their lives, held all manner of jobs, raised children, worked on farms  and survived through wars. They were used to being independent and getting up EARLY. A sedative will stop that. And as my sherries spread in popularity and the snores from the nurse in the front room got deeper, I began to get early morning visitors. Really early morning.

After settling the oldies, I would do the cleaning then between my corridor walks I would work my way through Cooks List. Prepping all the vegetables for lunch the next day, starting the soups for the dinner, baking, peeling apples for apple sauce, defrosting the meat, writing up the order book,  all that kind of thing. It was a large kitchen, warm not cavernous like some of the older ones I had worked in, it felt like a regular kitchen.  It had windows above the counters, two ovens, huge mixers and herbs on the sill, lots of counter space, and a really big walk in chiller.

It started as a bell, at 4 in the morning. Instead of buzzers all the residents had been given little tinkly bells, some were china, some were brass, cows bells, they all had a bell. Buzzers were for emergencies. Could I have a cup of tea sweetheart. And I began to toddle back and forth with trays of tea. Soon as they became more confident, they would appear at the kitchen door and not wanting to bother me, could they make their own cup of tea? Seeing as how I was so busy and sorry dear but you  always make it too weak, though we do appreciate you trying dear. I would hear the ‘we’ then look past the smiling blue blue eyes, it was usually Mrs Lilac (I have changed the names so that no-one gets in trouble) and see two or three other even older sherry ladies lurking out in the corridor.  After a few nights of this I reorganised a space on one of the counters with all the makings for a cup of tea. So they could just pop in and out.

Then they began to loiter, drinking their tea in the kitchen watching me work. Then the tea pots were too big and they were not familiar with these T baggie thingies dear so I began to bring my own silver tea pot from home that was just the right size.  (I am sure you remember the tea pot story ). They loved to hear that story, they got to own the story of the day I melted my  mothers silver tea pot and the ensuing drama. As each new lady joined the circle of night visitors they would tell it all over again. They were thrilled to pour their tea out of my mothers heat dented silver tea pot with its legs melted off and its collapsed lid. Then a tea cosy appeared to cover it. Then a tea caddy with good strong tea leaves in it appeared each night in the tea corner. Then they were bringing their own cups: I hope you don’t mind dear but your cups are just so fat dear. I love a good cup.

I worked five nights a week, for six weeks  and a little routine developed. Once  everyone was settled in for the night (meaning Nursey with the blanket) I would drag a table and chairs out of the gloomy  dining  room and set them up outside the double kitchen doors.  There would be a few  midnight visitors and in the early morning my other ladies would begin to whisper out of their rooms, like tall shadows leaking out of  the darkened corridors, touching their fingers along the walls for comfort. They would sit around their table with another pot of tea, watching for the sunrise through the kitchen windows. They began to raid my cookies as they came out of the oven. Those are for afternoon tea Mrs Lilac. I would say. I know dear, yes I do know. I will let them cool a little.  Her lovely long hands lined with raised veins and bruises and fragile nails,  rings running loose and twinkly around her fingers,  reaching for hot cookies.

Soon it was: I hope you don’t mind Cecilia dear, but we thought maybe we could just whip up a quick batch of cookies ourselves. Would that be alright? I mean yours are good but Miss Jo was a cooking teacher for fifty odd years dear and she does make lovely oatmeal cookies.  So  they are taking turns making cookies and then cakes in the night. Getting up earlier and earlier. Jostling and laughing in the softest voices, their reflections moving about in the dark night windows. Pouring and sifting and stirring.  You go and check if nurse is still asleep dear we are fine. We will have some dishes for you soon.  Oh Cecilia, I might just help you with this stock for the soup dear. Taking the spoon: watch now dear.

Well you all better be back in bed by 6.00 and pretending to be fast asleep. I would say. Oh we will dear, don’t you worry, I just wanted to make that chocolate cake that my old Alfred, god rest his soul, used to be so partial too. And those dear little club sandwiches, we will wrap them in wet towels and they will be perfect for morning tea.  And you know how Myrtle worries in the night about getting the mutton done for the shearers, a little sandwich in the night settles her dear. She is just a wee bit confused sometimes. We will just sneak one out for her with a cup of tea, why don’t you take that down to her dear and oh I might just sneak one for myself. Do you want a club sandwich Dorothy.  It is the bread dear. You have to have the thinnest bread.

You understand now don’t you, it took me a while. It was the kitchen they were visiting, not me. Their own kitchens had been their own kingdoms for all those years. Then they had lost their kitchens. So very gently and very cleverly I was moved aside and they took over mine.

One night, as I sat at the table  in the corridor peeling apples and watching my bright group of old women, their hair in plaits or curlers, their nighties and cardigans and worn dressing gowns in layers, the bows of their aprons tied firmly into the small of their backs. Bony bare ankles peeping out from worn slippers, hands kneading and whisking and slamming the stove door.  Necks stretched to see.  You know you are going to get me into trouble, I said to the ladies showing me how to peel apples. I have children to feed you know. We know dear and I am sure they are such dear wee children too.

I hear a squeak of wheels coming down the dark corridor and there is Old Miss Poppy who usually walks very slowly with a cane, being pushed in a wheelchair by The  Elder Miss Mabel.  In Miss Poppy’s lap she holds a package wrapped in brown paper.  She has The Tongue!  Elder Miss Mabel announced and Old Miss Poppy smiled and bobbed her head as she was blithely wheeled past me and  into my crowded kitchen at some ridiculously early hour of the morning. Tongue? what tongue?I choked. Why dear a cows tongue Mrs Lilac said and smiled. I do miss tongue, called back Miss Poppy.

The next morning, when all the furniture had been put away. The cookies were all in jars, the apple sauce steaming in its crock  and the oatmeal soaking in warm water. The windows were pushed open to invite in the cool early sunshine and all my ladies were safely back in their beds. I told Cook, as she took off her jacket, hung it on a hook and reached for her kitchen shoes, that there was a large cow’s tongue, cooked, peeled and cooling in the walk-in chiller.   I waited apprehensively. She looked at me and smiled as she struggled to tie her apron about her Rubenesque girth.

Oh, Lovely. Holding my eyes for just a shade too long. Then smiled.  Good. She nodded. Well, you know dear, she said. You have a week left of nights, don’t you? You see I am taking a month off  in a fortnight.  Now, Matron is quite impressed with all the cooking, those soups are so good and  your cakes dear. Very good.  Her eyelid fluttered into what looked suspiciously like a wink.   I think Matron is going to ask you to fill in as Cook for the month I am away. I know the residents will be pleased.

But you do go through rather a lot of aprons dear, you need to think of the laundry…


103 Comments on “Cooking Nights with the Old Folks

  1. This is just toooooo sweet! You gave those ladies something very valuable. Little old ladies and sherry, huh? The men at my dad’s veterans home would just come out in droves when it was beer day. t

  2. You made me cry. Why can’t be nursing homes run like that? Where are all those children who are ready to ditch their parents because they are old?
    You gave the ladies more than you will ever know!!!
    Your story reminded me of the Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

    • I loved Water for Elephants, that is one my most favourite Endings. And thank you for reading when I posted I was afraid that it was too long.. c

  3. I am weeping with joy for the dignity you awarded them! Hooray!! 🙂

    • Oh Ted, you know, I didn’t do it on purpose. I just never considered saying no to making their own cup of tea, or helping with the baking. It seemed logical to me. The tongue was a surprise though. c

      • I know. It is because you did it without thinking that makes it special. Nobless oblige is only felt by those who are truely noble to begin with. 🙂

  4. That last line brought a smile to my face. This was such a timely, lovely post to read… just yesterday, the 83 year-old boss’s wife who liked to sneak my husband’s pup in and feed him cookies, died suddenly of a heart attack. I know we all have our time, but it is still so hard to say goodbye. I will be thinking of her shuffling around in her little slippers, looking for my husband’s dog to feed…

    • How sad, and how wonderful that she could die at home. Death is such a benchmark in our lives. I wish you well in the next few weeks. Take care c

    • Oh Viv, what a good idea, especially the young wee thing getting gently shuffled aside. All old folks homes are full of characters like these.. they all have stories.. c

    • This would be far better as a screen play than as a sitcom. I can well imagine an entire gaggle of aged but accomplished actresses leaping at the chance to play roles in this.

  5. This is so touching! I loved reading every word of it. I have no doubt you made those ladies so happy!

    • They made working nights a lot more enjoyable .. and i am sure they had great afternoon sleeps so that they could stay up half the night and cook.. c

  6. So beautiful, and like many others it made me cry. It bought back memories of my darling grandmother who died 2 years ago aged 93 after a marvellous life. My mum taught me Italian cooking but Nanna taight me to bake. She had an ancient Baby Belling electric oven (how I wish we´d kept it!) that always turned out perfect cakes and when she could no longer bake, we talked about baking. I wish, when she went into a home for a week or two a year to give my parents a break (she lived with them from when I was aged 2 until she died…so many years!) had had someone like you looking after her.

    • How amazing having three generations in one house, so natural and so hard too , but the BEST way to pass on all that knowledge. Though I am not sure that i was looking after THEM in the old folks home, I think they were looking after me and training me to do it right.. and when i started working days, it changed but the bond was still there and the kitchen was still theirs, we just had to be sneakier.. c

    • I don’t know why i was never called on it.. looking back i am sure they knew that one or two were popping into the kitchen i am not sure they knew that they had taken it over!

      • When you think about it…why shouldn’t they have been allowed, anyway?! I mean, honestly, it made them happy…it gave them something to do, to look forward to. Did you ever work another night shift again or was that the only stint in night-shift land?!

        • That was my only night shift at that home, but I did go on to be the day cook and they were more careful about the rules but spent a lot of time teaching me how to bake properly. c

      • When you think about it, why shouldn’t they have been allowed? It gave them something to look forward to…to be excited about. Was that the only stint you did in the night-shift? Or were you able to hang out with them later on again?

        • No-one ever actually said to me .. Do Not Allow residents in the Kitchen.. so we just toddled along, I went on to days after that!

  7. Wonderful story…and I also agree, when I’m older, I hope I have someone like you around 🙂

  8. This is so touching! I just love your stories…it’s like reading a short chapter of a really wonderful book each time you post! I stayed in an old folks apartment tower with my grandmother for a month, fresh out of school and looking for my first job in the big city. Those ladies were a trip! Everyone should spend some quality time with “old folks”…much wisdom to be learned.

    • What a fantastic thing.. to stay with your grandmother in amongst other old people.. it is amazing isn’t it.. seems so logical that the young can actually learn stuff from old people, and you must have been a mature girl to be able to see that so young! c

  9. You made those ladies day and I’m sure they made your day. Like I stated before, every-time I read your lovely stories they somehow remind me of my own grandmother. You are such an extraordinary person. Loved this post.. it really touched me

    • Thank you kay, I love it when you pop in, they were bound and determined to teach me how to make a good cup of tea for a start.. c

  10. A wonderful story. It’s amazing what some extra loving care can give. And the enlightened passions of the kitchen can stir. x

    • you are right.. It was all about the passion of cooking and having a kitchen again empowered these old women.. c

  11. Your story made me cry too. When Kane and I visited Boogie at the home, to say goodbye really, I played guitar to him, because conversation was difficult. We were in a common room and several of the residents tottered up to thank me for the music. They were lovely and gentle, just grateful for any simple pleasure. Your writing is amazing.

  12. Mark thank you, though i did not mean to make you cry, weird how crying is so close to laughing. They would have loved that when you played to Boogie, music is so good for the soul.. cool that you did that Mark.. c

  13. This was beyond exquisite, dear Celi. You were in top form–telling the story, but first, in being wise enough to know what was needed and share the magic of kitchen therapy amongst you. What a grand, glorious gift. Thanks for letting us in on it too!

  14. What an absolutely, lovely, precious, sweet story. Thank you for sharing. The detail in your writing and the emotion you have incorporated into this story make this a fine, fine piece of writing.

  15. Just sitting here listening to Bach Cello Suites and trying not to cry. Your story was perfect from start to finish… brought up memories of my own Gran and, of course, that’s why I love to bake.
    Thanks for making my day, it’s always great to stop and remember.

    • I listen to classical when i write too smidgen, you are right about stopping and remembering, especially our old people.. c

      • Dear Celi and Smidgen both! Since you mention it, just thought I’d throw in that tonight is my spouse’s first concert of the season with his University of North Texas Collegium singers–a very good early music ensemble (they’ll share the bill with the Baroque Orchestra), performing Bach, Buxtehude and more–and it’ll be live streamed on the web. I THINK this is the link that’ll get it for you if you happen to be around a computer at the right time (8 pm CST) tonight:

        • Kathryn how fantastic i will find it! awesome! i shall play it while I write.. thank you for letting us know.. c

  16. The laundry! It wasn’t on your list? 🙂
    Nice story C, those oldies were all able to stay busy and keep their respect.
    You are an honorable lady!

  17. A beautiful story. What a wonderful gift you gave these ladies.
    Regards Florence.

  18. I’m way behind with my blog duties (I’m in a land where a DSL is a pipe dream) but I had to tell you. Zia and I read this post. What can I say? You have another fan. And if I’m lucky enough to reach old age with my faculties and health intact, I hope there’s a nurse like you around — so long as there are no bicycles or fireworks around. (I won’t be able to afford a nursing home located on a beach.)

    • I am thrilled that you showed this story to Zia, that is quite an honour for me especially as i have been incorporating some of her recipes, through you, into my own kitchen. Though to get INTO my old folks home I think we should all pass the test of riding a BMX up a beach while holding our sparklers aloft. Don’t worry you won’t have much hair by then anyway! c

  19. oh Celi, may those blessings find you 🙂 I think a wee Port at night might be in order – no sherry for me! Have a lovely weekend 🙂

    • My grandmother had a wee port before retiring every night for as long as I could remember. Sherry gives me a headache so i might join you in the port! c

    • I think most of that Mandy was me being a very young and ignorant nurse and those old ladies pouring through the crack they discovered in the wall.. bless them.. c

  20. A truly beautiful piece of writing. Thank you for your compassion both in the way you treated these women and the way you described them to us. 🙂

    • Thank you jessica, it is always a pleasure for me to write a piece like this because i get to go back and visit them too! c

  21. You make me cry too. Can I tell you the reverse of this story? We took Mum in law on holiday last year and rented a cottage. She like all your ladies doesn’t sleep so long and is always awake at 3 or 4 am. She lives in residential care and has done for several years now. While we were there I set it up so she could make herself a cup of tea in the night if she wanted to. At first she was unsure, but I measured out the water into the kettle that she would need and left everything out. She got back into the swing of it pretty quickly. When she went back to the residential home, this is where it gets so sad, she asked if she could make her own tea and they said No. And we got told off for encouraging her to be independent. Our residential homes are for the most part warehouses, you would have been sacked if you had worked in the one MIL lives in. Health and Safety, Rules and Insurance, the world gone mad and the joy of being in a kitchen, being purposeful and connected out of your reach forever. I could move her to another one, but they are all the same, some more beautifully equipped than others, more modern than others, but none of them allow their residents into the kitchen of the place they are supposed to call Home.

    • That is so sad Joanna. These modern facilities sound so .. um.. safe. My ladies took over my kitchen over thirty years ago now and in New Zealand. And NZ has never been an insurance driven society. I am sure they were not meant to be in the kitchen but no-one actually told me to keep them out. Not that I would have anyway. I was also very young and trained to respect my elders. Plus my own granny was older than most of these women and still running her own home. The really interesting thing was that the children and nieces and nephews of these oldies seemed to be in collusion, as some of those ingredients were not from my kitchen! Your MIL must look forward to having a break with you every now and then. Though I do know that it gets more difficult as time goes on. Maybe we should design our own home, there must be safety features we can put in place that allows a woman to be able to make a sandwich and a cuppa in the night.. c

      • We see a lot of MIL as she is not very far away, we moved her into town to be nearer us and we take the dogs into see her, with their unsanitary little feet and licky chops and they visit with all the ladies and gentlemen there too who make a big fuss of them. She has spent a large part of this year in hospital, so is a bit fragile right now. Your story just reminded me of when we first had to look for a place for her. To be fair there are now different grades of care and some newer places are designed to allow you to have some autonomy, but it sounds as if what your old ladies wanted was you as much as the kitchen. They would hardly have gone in there had you not been there to welcome them 😀

        • I am so pleased that she is closer to you and Excellent that zeb goes in and slobbers over everyone.. TonTon is being trained to visit old people, they love dogs .. I just have to teach him not to offer his paw, unless I say, because the old skin can tear so easily, but I think he will do just nicely.. I teach him each persons name and as he goes to the person whose name i have called out they laugh like drains.. hmm.. .. i have a great fondness for the old folks.. c

  22. You added sparkle, happy anticipation and love into their lives. The elderly have become a forgotten generation. Thank you for making these precious souls even if for those few weeks a remembered generation.

    • Thank you mae, I still have old people that i work with and i make very sure that we can keep them in their own homes as long as we can. .. these old ladies taught me a lot.. c

      • I just had to let you know that we spent the day with my son’s great-grandmother today. The 5-year old and this awesome 86-year old were chatting animatedly about Ninjas! Plus I got to learn firsthand how to make a perfect Persian dish from her. You’re right C, these old folks have so much to teach us! I’m glad I dropped by today and read your beautiful story. Sharon x

  23. Thank you sharon, that connection from really old to really young is quite a special one, bet he loves his great grandma, I think everyone should be involved with at least one old person on a regular basis. Imagine how much better our cooking would be! c

  24. We rarely have nursing homes back in the Philippines and it is usually their children takes care of them. Your job before would be so hard giving aal that love to them but I guess it would be so fulfilling

  25. What a lovely story, Cecilia, and such a wonderful job you had. Fulfilling indeed, as Raymund said. I am so fascinated by elderly people…they have so much knowledge, experience and character. I love it.

    • Thank you caroline. I think we should all have an old person. If you live far away from your own old people just get out there and find another one, I like the cantankerous old codgers the best! or old ladies who cook.. c

  26. You have a wide spread appreciation for the human experience, from the littlies to the old folks.
    There is a sweet loving in your story telling that touches and gathers up the hearts of your readers. I’m glad to be among them.
    Thank you.

  27. You made me cry too… You are like an angel dear Cecilia, how I love you, through all your stories. You did great… I can almost feel their happiness with you. And be sure, I will be always your reader, and I can read you forever, just I pray for myself not to forget this language… Blessing and Happiness, Thank you, with my love, nia

    • Maybe we should start a chain of cool nursing homes Hippy.. everyone will have their own computer and their own mini kitchen! c

  28. You tell the story so beautifully! I could see my granny as one of the night visitors, she too likes very strong tea in dainty tea cups with ginger snap cookies. I’m also saddened by how lonely the old ladies were, like my granny was in her nursing home. I agree, being old is not an illness yet we treat elderly as such. Thank you for the wonderful story.

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  31. Can you actually dole out sherry in a retirement home? I need to move to NZ! It was so poignant when you spoke about them reaching out, not to you, but to the kitchen. There is so much lost at that time of life and it needn’t be, a little dignity, a little sherry and some fun in the kitchen. As you said, age is not an illness. 🙂

  32. I loved this story first time round, and reading it for the second time today, I was able to savour every line because I knew what was to come. I’m mopping my eyes. AGAIN!

    • I can just see your old lady, folding all the dishtowels and peeling the apples.. bustle, bustle, chat chat

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