I worked at the local nursing home as a CNA, taking care of residents who were about my parents age. While I helped the residents I talked to them about their past and enjoyed hearing their stories which were in many ways similar to my parents tales of the past decades. Some of the residents had characteristics that made them stand out. Their mannerisms would be easy to describe, the way they spoke and phrases they used while telling me stories. Since I loved mysteries it occurred to me, in one resident, I’d found a Miss Marple of sorts. She wasn’t the soft spoken, genteel English woman in Agate Christie’s books. Quite the opposite, but I, like the people in my books who had their doubts about being able to get along with Gracie Evans, grew to like her. My Gracie was outspoken to the point of being rude. She was brashly independent. Manners didn’t have a place in her life then and never had before. She had been too busy trying to survive.
It wasn’t long after my Gracie arrived at the nursing home that I realized she put up a good front to back people off. She didn’t have visitors except for nieces and nephews that rarely came, and was a loner that preferred to stay in her room. Living alone the better part of her life without companionship was all she knew, and she’d tried to make us believe that she liked it that way. It occurred to me that the end of her life should be better than the rest of it had been. I wished to see her smile instead of barking at everyone. So I came up with ways over the few years she was with us to make her days easier. I encouraged her to tell me about her life. Upper most was her love of animals. I identified with that as I always have a sheep or goat story to tell. Each spring I bring my babies to the nursing home and visit from room to room. One time I took her picture bottle feeding my lamb. The look on her face was ecstatic as memories came back of calves she’d saved. So I entered the nursing home’s Iowa Heath Care Association’s essay contest with "A Woman For All Seasons" and entered the photo contest with "A Bottle Full Of Memories".
The contests were state wide for every nursing home in the association, and I’ve never considered myself lucky. What I did was give my Gracie something to think about. Every time I worked, she’d ask if I’d heard from the contests. Several months later, the second shift nurse took the call from IHCA. She hunted me up to tell me I’d won the contest. That was vague. I said, "Which one? Essay or photo?" The nurse just looked at me with a silly grin. I asked weakly, "Was it both?" Yes, I had won both. What excitement that created. A reception with the head of the Association present. I insisted for once my Gracie come out of her room since she was really the guest of honor. She did for me what she might not have for anyone else. She came to the reception. I gave her a big bouquet of flowers I’d raised, because I was pretty sure the flower shop variety wouldn’t impress her. She seemed more tickled with the flowers than she did being the center of attention. Pictures were taken by a newspaper and the nursing home to display on the bulletin board. My essay was going to be in local papers. At the end of the reception, she asked me what time it was. When I said after eleven, she yelled that she was missing The Young And The Restless. She had to get to her room. On the way, I asked if she wasn’t at least a little impressed by the newspaper stories. She replied, as if it was no big deal, that she’d been in the newspapers before. To prove it, she made me hunt up a box of mementos in the top of her closet. Sure enough years before a Des Moines Register reporter had interviewed her at her home about her pioneer lifestyle. Okay so she wasn’t impressed, but I was just getting started. I’d picked up on her appreciation of country flowers. Until she passed away, in the seasons I had flowers, I kept a fresh bouquet in her room.
There were so many holidays she must have missed out when she was alone. Perhaps, she considered the holidays just another day and didn’t mind but I minded. One of the relatives brought her candy. She wasn’t used to eating candy so she stored the sacks in her closet. Food couldn’t stay there very long. It was Halloween. Kids in costumes come to the nursing home that evening to trick or treat for the residents in the living room. The nurse gives out the candy. I asked my Gracie if we could use her candy for the kids if they came to her room. At first, she begrudgingly said they could only have one piece each. I set the bowls of candy on her bedside table near her. I must admit I was nervous. She just might give the kids a scary Halloween. She’d expressed once that she didn’t have much use for children. Of course, that feeling came from trying to teach some very unruly boys in a one room school house when she was a young girl. The children came, and I took them to her room. They did the usual trick or treat. She checked out their costumes and said gruffly but softly, "There’s the candy. Take all you want." Hooray! I had given her an evening to remember.
Christmas was next. The employees draw resident names and give them a small gift at breakfast so no one is left out. I wanted my Gracie to have an extra special gift from me. I make last name doilies all the time so I crocheted her a doily with her first name on it and wrapped it so the gift would feel like Christmas. Immediately, she had me hang it on the wall over her bed.
For Easter I gave her a music box that played "You Light Up My Life" with a revolving angel on it. I asked the other aides to wind the box at bed time. She often had trouble going to sleep. Maybe the music would be soothing, and the slowly revolving angel would help her doze off. It did for as long as the box lasted. One night, the spring in the box exploded. The angel literally flew straight up from the box and did a nose dive on the floor. The aide helping her came to tell me. I asked if she was upset. The aide said he had never seen her laugh and this once she laughed so hard she had tears rolling down her cheeks. The angel had a broken wing. The aide repaired it and replaced it on the box. The music was gone for good but she still had her angel and the memory of a sight she found so very funny. From that night came a short story I entered in a contest and was awarded fifth place - "The Angel That Flew".
Her birthday was in March. I doubt anyone had made anything special out of the day ever. So I threw her a birthday she wouldn’t forget. I baked a cake, decorated it and placed it on a small table in her room with paper saucers and plastic forks. I penned a banner on the tablecloth with Happy Birthday on it. Around the nursing home and on her door, I posted flyers that cordially invited everyone to stop by her room, wish her a happy birthday and enjoy her cake. By now it was a treat for her to have the attention and a good snack for break times for us.
I broke the news to her one day that I was going to write a book and use her for my main character if she didn’t mind, but I’d change her name to Gracie Evans. She perked up and had all kinds of questions. Was it going to be paperback? What kind of story was it? When would the book be finished? I didn’t get the book done until after she passed away. I’d have liked her to see the book and hold it, but I tell myself she wouldn’t have been as impressed with the story as she was with the idea that I thought she was good writing material. I just published the sixth book in my Amazing Gracie Mysteries series. When I’m writing a story all I have to do is think about my Gracie and what she would do or say next. Makes writing the books a fun experience for me.
So this post is an introduction to my Miss Marple in Iowa and how I came to know her so well. Before long, I’ll post about how I came up with Gracie’s friend in my stories. She was the total opposite of Gracie in real life just as my fictitious Melinda Applegate is in my books. Next week I’m going to post my Gracie’s essay "A Woman For All Seasons".
Did I treat all the residents I took care of the same way in almost sixteen years I worked at the nursing home? I couldn’t have treated the job as just a job. To enjoy what I did, I put the effort in where it was needed and felt gratified by the way their eyes lit up when they saw me coming. They knew I wouldn’t just help them. I’d listen to their stories when they wanted to reminisce and their complaints. The lucky ones had relatives that came often and saw to their needs. My friendliness and help was all that was required. For others, I became the friend they needed. After two and a half years of retirement, I still visit the residents that know me at least once a month. Now I can take my time and really visit with them. I don’t have to go answer a call light.