Alvina Banks found Raymond in the kitchen cracking eggs into an iron skillet, his hunched frame draped in a red plaid robe. “Hon,” she said, “we’ve already had our morning meal. Look.”
She went to the sink to show him his dirty plate, a heavy, brown stoneware dish that Alvina had bought at a flea market. She served Raymond all his meals on it telling him, “Here’s your plate,” every time so that he would take note. She held it up now, pointing to the remnants of egg yolk still caked in the ridges of the chipped edge.
Raymond stared at the plate for a moment then opened the kitchen cupboard above the stove where the olive oil was kept. Puzzled by the lack of any plates inside, he looked back at the dish in Alvina’s hand. The reality of his bewilderment set in. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes.
“If you’re still hungry I could make you some toast,” Alvina told him. She hated to see her husband cry and had learned to distract Raymond with questions when the sadness came on. “Are you still hungry?”
His forehead furrowed. “I think I am.”
Smoke rose from the iron skillet on the stove; the smell of scorched egg peppered the air. Alvina set the plate back in the sink and, using a dish towel as a hot pad, calmly slid the smoldering pan from the red glowing burner.
“Go sit down on the couch in the living room, Hon.” Not a hint of panic could be heard in Alvina’s voice, though her gaunt fingers trembled when she switched the regulator knob on the stove from high to off. “I’ll bring you some toast.”
Raymond shuffled through the kitchen. Alvina heard the springs squeak when he sank into the old sofa in the parlor. Though his muscles had turned fleshy, Raymond was stout. Alvina fed him five times a day.
“Some forget to eat,” the doctor told Alvina. “Some forget they have eaten.” Raymond was in the second group.
Alvina didn’t mind the constant cooking. She wanted to keep Raymond looking healthy. She was down to one-eighteen, eight pounds under her normal weight. Alvina just couldn’t bring herself to finish a meal.
She dumped the black crusted egg into the garbage and almost dropped the skillet in as well. She felt so weak. She sat down at the kitchen table. Every muscle in her body quaked. Alvina knew it was throttled emotion trying to escape. But she wouldn’t allow it freedom. If she gave in, she would fall apart.
When their daughter Katherine came by later that day, she stood beside Alvina in the solarium. They watched Raymond lead his youngest grandchild, 5 year-old Becky, through the garden. He stopped so she could pick a flower. She held it up to Raymond.
He’s passing on what he knows, Alvina thought, teaching Becky the names of the flowers, when to plant.
It was strange how Raymond remembered everything about gardening. It had been his hobby; carpentry his occupation. Alvina had taken the tools of Raymond’s trade away from him, locked them in the shed. They were too hazardous for him to use. She allowed him to putter in the dirt, though she had dulled the trowel and the tines of the hand rake on his lathe.
“Dad seems to be having a good day,” Katherine said.
“Yes.” Alvina put a hand on her daughter’s back. “A good day.”
She knew Katherine wanted to have hope. A good day was encouraging. It meant the medicine might be working, slowing the progression of the disease. It meant there might be more good days ahead.
“You better get going,” Katherine told Alvina. “I can only stay till two. I have to get the kids from school.”
Alvina had plans to go out to the Jasper Hill Plantation, where she was more than just a volunteer. She had been among the handful of locals who worked to retain the site as a museum and park. Five years earlier the estate had been in ruins. The columned plantation house crumbled under its galleries; the roof leaked onto the hearth stones and warped the hardwood floors. Ten acres were overgrown with kudzu and blackberry vines. The whole estate was up for sale. Rumor had it that a big box store was interested in developing the property.
Alvina campaigned to save the plantation from destruction. She spent hours in libraries and at the state archives finding articles, pictures, obituaries, anything that referenced Jasper Hill. She met with relatives of the original owners, enlisting them in her cause. She wrote to congressman and philanthropists, earnest letters on the importance of preserving the past, honoring history. She was the inaugural secretary for the Jasper Hill Preservation Society.
Between donations and grants, most of which Alvina wrote, the society raised enough funds in two years to purchase the property, restore the grounds, rebuild the house. Raymond had helped. He replanted and pruned the gardens, assisted in the repair and refurbishment of the estate. The board of directors made him a member of the building committee.
Once renovations were completed, Jasper Hill opened to visitors every weekend. They could walk the house and grounds for free, or pay a nominal fee of three dollars to take a detailed tour. Head docent, Alvina was there every Saturday and Sunday from one to four.
At least, she was until Raymond got sick.
He lost interest in the plantation once the restoration was done and the site opened to the public. Raymond no longer attended the monthly meetings of the society. He stopped even escorting Alvina to the donors dinner and annual Jasper Hill Days celebration. She thought he had grown tired of the project but, looking back, Alvina wondered if that had been an indication of the onset of Raymond’s Alzheimer’s.
When they learned what was happening to him – why Raymond so often drifted away, not recalling his new granddaughter’s name, forgetting that he was retired – they took a trip to the Green Rose Home for Seniors. It was Alvina’s idea.
“We need to confront this,” she told him. “We must plan for the future.”
Alvina wanted Raymond to become familiar with Green Rose, give her his consent to move him there when the time came. There was paperwork to fill out, a waiting list to get on.
They visited the Alzheimer’s ward during lunch and watched as the aides fed the patients. Not all of them, of course. Some could feed themselves. Some knew what the utensils were for, remembered how to manipulate them. There were twenty-two patients, the maximum the ward could hold. They occupied round laminate tables, two or four at each. A few sat on the flowered love seats, small plastic tables on wheels pulled up to them. The aromas of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans brought saliva into Alvina’s mouth.
A Hispanic man sat by himself in the center of the bright, white room. He ignored the tray of food in front of him. Instead of eating, he pitched and caught an invisible ball; swung at it with an imaginary bat. He clicked his tongue when he connected, pointing off into the distance like Babe Ruth, shading his eyes with his hand.
One petite old lady sat down beside Alvina at the guests’ table in the back of the room. She patted Alvina’s hand and said, “Hello.”
Alvina smiled. “Hello.”
The old woman had a round, smooth face with pink cheeks, and bright blue eyes. She reminded Alvina of a kewpie doll. She patted Alvina’s hand again, harder. “Hello,” she said, emphatic.
Alvina looked to Raymond seated across the table. He was concentrating on his meatloaf, refusing to engage with his surroundings.
The old lady slapped Alvina’s hand. “Hello,” she shouted.
Alvina pulled away. She didn’t know what to do.
A nurse appeared. “Eleanor.” She spoke kindly, evenly. “What are you doing over here? You sit at Betty’s table. Your tray of food is waiting.”
The nurse helped Eleanor to her feet. “Hello,” Eleanor said to Alvina, in a happy voice.
Raymond dropped his fork on the floor. The clatter echoed off the walls. Face flushed, he pushed back from the table. “Let’s get out of here,” he told Alvina.
After that, Raymond wanted her with him all the time. He was afraid to be alone. He accompanied Alvina to the plantation again. Raymond would sit at the welcome desk, greeting the guests, having them sign the registry. While Alvina conducted tours, he would look at the books Alvina had co-written: Jasper Hill, A History and Famous Residences Of Carnell County. He read the pages over and over.
One day, when Alvina was with a tour group in Jasper Hill’s graveyard, she saw Raymond down in the gully by the replica slave cabin. She excused herself and hurried over. He had found a tape measure somewhere and was stretching the metal strip across the front of the shack, over the empty space of the doorway, along the sills of the shuttered windows. He wrote the calculations on his hand with the black magic marker that was kept at the welcome desk and used for making signs.
Raymond looked up when Alvina approached.
“This house needs painting,” he said, “and we have to fix the front door.” Alvina saw anger in his eyes and knew he was upset over the wretched state of the dwelling. Raymond grabbed Alvina’s arm, making her wince. “What are you thinking?” he demanded. “We can’t live like this.”
That’s when Alvina curtailed her hours as a volunteer. She would only go over to the plantation if she had someone to sit with Raymond at home. Of course there was Katherine, but she had her own family to think about. Alvina couldn’t ask too much of her. They had a son Willie, but he lived two states away and visited less and less after Raymond’s diagnosis. Willie said he wanted to remember his father as he used to be. Alvina couldn’t blame him for that.
Raymond did have a few trusted friends who were willing to watch over him. Two brothers still living. But it was difficult for them to talk to him. Though he knew who they were, Raymond sometimes got the years wrong. He thought they were still young men. His friends soon begged off, made excuses. Raymond’s brothers preferred to come over when Alvina was at home. “It’s too big of a responsibility,” they said.
So Alvina resigned from the Jasper Hill Preservation Society. Everyone on the board hated to see her go, even the ones who thought her pushy and controlling. They knew what she had done for the plantation. They all felt sorry for what she was going through with Raymond.
The board held a special ceremony in commemoration of Alvina’s service. They engraved a plaque with her name. The day of the event, the main parlor of the plantation house was packed. There were free refreshments in the dining room. The president of the society made a hyperbolic speech about Alvina while she stood uncomfortably at his side. He presented her with the plaque, which was to hang in the foyer behind the welcome desk, and a framed certificate of appreciation that she could take home. It read: Presented to Alvina Banks by the Jasper Hill Preservation Society for her selfless sacrifice, dedication, and love of the past.
She stood before the crowd and looked out at Raymond, seated in the front row. He beamed back, applauding with the others. She smiled at him. He looked like himself, like the man she knew, vigorous and alert.
Then, suddenly, his focus shifted to his hands. He stared at them, bemused. Raymond stopped clapping and turned to scan the crowd. Alvina’s smile vanished. She could see Raymond’s agitation rising. He joined again in the clapping, but his confusion showed. Alvina knew he had forgotten where he was, why he was there, what she was doing standing in front of them. The rest of the audience did not see any of this. They thought Alvina was crying over the certificate of appreciation in her hands.
Several weeks had passed and Alvina had yet to clean out her desk in the plantation office. Katherine had come to stay with Raymond so Alvina could do so. On the backseat of her car a box of artifacts rattled, items from Jasper Hill that Alvina had been documenting.
Under the seatbelt, in the pocket of her cardigan, the regulator knobs off the kitchen stove jabbed at Alvina’s thigh.
Photo Source: Explore Natchitoches