But if you've spent time in nursing homes, you know what I mean. It is the smell of food cooked for someone who cannot cook on their own; the smell of sickness settling into the body, the smell of aging, of being lonely, of forgetting, or remembering. There are two nursing homes I think of in particular: Seaview Retreat in Rowley, MA and Pondsmeade in Shepton Mallet, England.
Every year from first grade through sixth, my elementary school chorus would go to Seaview Retreat/Nursing Home in Rowley, MA to play songs and sing with the elderly. I was afraid of that house. It was big, the doors a dark, forboding oak color, and every wall seemed covered with lacy framed embroidery or dusty pictures of dogs. I could see the industrial-looking kitchen down a hallway to my right as I stepped into the sitting room, and occasionally I'd see people in there, stirring big pots of what must have been soup and puréed vegetables. We would gather in a little knot by a small black piano and squeak our way through, "Mrs Murphy's Chowder" and "Les Manos (I Say Clap-Clap-Clap)" and occasionally the all time favorite, "Inch by Inch (Row by Row)".
The elderly would be sitting there, almost completely silent, occasionally starting awake and wiping a bit of drool off their chins. Or they would move their mouths wistfully, as if they were remembering the times when they sang with gusto. There was one old man in particular I remember. He was in a wheelchair, close to the piano, with oxygen coming into his nose through tubes and such tired, sad eyes that they made me want to cry. His hands were wrinkly like monkey paws, and when I held out my own pudgy child hands to his, I shirked at the coolness of his grasp. His circulation was slower than mine; his limbs colder. He always seemed so sad. I imagine he's died now, and I wish I could go back and hug him with stronger, braver arms: I was afraid of that nursing home for too many years, afraid of the age I'd see there, the gentle but persistent march of illness and dependence and death. I associate the smell of nursing homes with fear.
In Pondsmeade it's a different kind of feeling. My paternal grandmother has lived there for seven years now, and I've been to see her only a few times. England is not the easiest place to visit on your weekend home from college, and when we go, there is only so much we can say to her because Elizabeth Irene has dementia. She does not remember me: she only holds my hand and asks if she can go to bed. When I walk into their plushly-carpeted interior, and sign my name at the vacant registration desk, I can think only of how the nursing home smells like forgetting. There is a picture of my father and his brother by her bed. It's an old black-and-white photo, curled at the edges, and they're clutching a young lamb between their skinny schoolboy legs. That photo reminds me that Elizabeth won't meet my children; won't see me get married; won't be able to tell that I inherited reddish hair from her or that I take after her academically. I can't tell her that her granddaughter loves to read, and still brushes the dust of the old copy of These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder because it's one of our shared favorites. When I leave her room and walk back down the corridor towards the car park, I smell the nursing home smell; smell the sadness that we all feel at the things we cannot tell her.
So this morning, when I realized in the expediting area of Food & Friends on Riggs Road in Washington, DC that it smelled like a nursing home, I realized that every single person who receives the food I package is someone's man by the piano, and someone's Elizabeth: every person is a family member, a friend, a loved one who battles a life-threatening illness, who may die soon, without warning. We think of service learning as teaching us about servanthood and the need to give to others; but today it taught me to package food with more humanity, less iron-clad efficiency. To package with love for the Elizabeths I will never meet; and to love the nursing home smell for the reality, and the humility, it commands we realize.