My father was a young pastor whose salary was sometimes paid in eggs and chickens, and the house was a godsend. My oldest brother was born in Nellie’s living room. Eventually the church grew, and my parents moved into the parsonage built for our expanding family. But moving out of the little cottage adjacent to Nellie’s did not end her role as part of our family.
I came along last, the youngest of five children. Unlike my brother, I was born in the town hospital on a sunny day in May. But Nellie was just as much a part of my life as of that of my older siblings. Because my mother frequently joined my father in ministry visits and calls, I would often be entrusted to Nellie’s care. It was an easy three-block walk from our house.
Those were days before the proliferation of nursing homes and retirement communities. Nellie was able to make ends meet by taking in, and caring for elderly women boarders. There were always about five of them, lined up in their wheelchairs in Nellie’s living room. We always called them “The Grandmas.” I have forgotten their names, but I can never forget the memory of the scene. Our town had a little radio station that played Christian music and Nellie tuned in faithfully. It seemed like whenever I came to visit, Nellie was singing hymns as she combed the long silver hair of one of the grandmas.
This kind attention to the little needs of the old ladies was so typical of Nellie. She and a helper cared for all of the essentials of these women who sat in tall, old-fashioned carved wood wheel chairs. On warm days, she would wheel all of them out on her screened-in porch. They were all so glad to see me when I visited. I would entertain them by rope-jumping and playing where they could watch me.
Nellie had a dark upright piano. On some Sundays, our family would come sing around it to the utter delight of the grandmas. My older siblings were amazing musicians who could play the old ladies’ favorite hymns effortlessly. I was taking piano lessons, but I would never perform when the rest of my family was present. Instead, I loved it when I had the piano all to myself with the grandmas as my captive audience. I felt famous. They praised me out of all proportion to my talent or ability. I wowed them with that tune that could be played by rolling my knuckles over just the black keys. They were greatly impressed when I presented “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul.” They clapped and heaped effusive praise on me. Repetition never tired them. My concerts were the only time Nellie would turn down the radio, an unusual honor. I didn’t notice their crippled bodies and confused minds. I was young, and these ladies were my adoring public.
It is six decades since I was the darling of the grandmas. Now I visit grandmothers who live in a nursing home a mile from my house. Just like in Nellie’s house long ago, simple offerings put smiles on wrinkled faces. My siblings are still better piano players than I am—I enjoyed the privilege accorded to many youngest children by being allowed to quit lessons early. But I learned just enough to offer some basic songs. So when I sit at the piano in the nursing home dining room and play “You are My Sunshine,” a new generation of grandmas applauds enthusiastically and I feel famous once again.