When I was a little girl every weekend we’d go visit our elderly great-uncle at an assisted living facility. My memories of him are limited, but mostly pleasant. He was a quiet little man, who always let me drink the Carnation Instant Breakfast he had on hand. After I’d have a glass of the chocolate morning-time drink, I’d retire to the porch to shake his bird feeder (until he covered it with molasses to stop me).
As fond as my memories of him are, it was another person I met during these visits that sticks out in my mind. I would often become quickly bored and increasingly mischievous when we’d make the trek to Highland Farms. For a third grader, the old folks home left a lot to be desired. I constantly looked for things to amuse myself with. After an end was put to the bird feeder shaking, I had to find something else to get into. I tried playing with my Uncle’s canes for a while, but it wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. That’s when I wandered into the nursing home section of the facility, and strolled past Hazel Poteat’s room for the first time.
Hazel’s room was the last on the right down a long, stark white hallway. When I meandered by, peeking curiously into all the other rooms, I found they were typical…white linens, cork boards sparsely spackled with pictures, food trays, wheelchairs, old people who smelled a little bit funny. However, when I pranced by Hazel’s room I saw something else…color. There was a sea of red and green covering the alluring room. I was completely enchanted. It wasn’t Christmas, but there was a vividly decorated tree with ornaments from all over the world hanging on its branches. She had beautiful oriental rugs covering the tile floor, and vibrant curtains in the place of plain white blinds. I kept pacing back and forth, trying to go unnoticed while I got look after look. I almost jumped out of my skin when she motioned from underneath her bright satin gown and summoned me in.
She was letting me into her wonder world, and allowed me to not only look at, but to touch all the trinkets I found once inside. I didn’t even hesitate. At eight years old I wanted to be part of her eighty year old world, and all the “doodads” that came with it. All the things in her room were so beautiful, so interesting, so much like Hazel herself. They were aged, interesting, and timeless. Most importantly, they didn’t care where they were. Seeing this kind of room in a nursing home was like seeing a daisy grow up out of concrete. The beauty of Hazel’s room pushed out past the smell of rubbing alcohol, and the squeaking background noise of nurses shoes treading the hallways to reign as the king of her world.
One of the first things I ever noticed about her, besides the room, were her crooked fingers. She suffered from terrible rheumatoid arthritis, which I of course quizzed her about in-depth. She told me all about it as if it were no big deal. She almost wore her bent digits with pride because they meant she had done something in her lifetime. Her hands were gnarled into bent tree branches, but her nails were always painted the shade of pink women at the Baptist church wore on Easter weekend. She didn’t stop decorating her nails because of her hands, just like she didn’t stop decorating her living space because she was in a nursing home. She had a decorated spirit, that Hazel Poteat.
Over the next year or so I visited her frequently. I’d saunter in and wait for her to offer her doll, Betty Belinda to me to play with. I’d hold the shabby old doll while she told me stories of places she’d been and where she got certain what-knots I saw laying around. Eventually my mother discovered my whereabouts, and came by to make sure I wasn’t bugging her. When she realized I wasn’t, I was allowed to stay. I think Hazel and I maybe needed each other during that time period. I had youth and imagination. She had nothing but time and stories. I wanted to know the things she knew, and she needed somebody to tell them to. We were a perfect match.
By the time Spring came back around my Uncle had passed away. When I mourned him, I mourned Hazel too. The home was nearly an hour from where I lived, and though my mother said we would, I knew I wouldn’t be coming back. Even if I could just once, things would be different now. Our time was just over. However, I knew this amazing lady for a brief season of my life, and what a season it was. It taught me so much. By seeing her travels, her family, and her fire on her instead of seeing the wheels of her hospital bed, opened my eyes to a different world. Age meant something…it meant I too would see things one day and have opportunities to collect my own odds and ends. I would grow up and have a life to be proud of just like this soul mate of a woman I stumbled upon.
When I was sixteen I learned of her death through the grapevine. I felt a strange kind of sadness. By then I hadn’t thought about her in quite a while, yet the news of her death seemed so close to me. I immediately wondered what happened to all her stuff, and hoped someone somewhere appreciated it. I thought of how much I appreciated it, and how much like her I wanted to be. It made me want to do something great just to honor the kind of person she was. I hope I do that… I hope I can wear my life the way Hazel Poteat wore hers.