BY KAREN WALKER
Copyright is held by the author.
THE MEETING room was stuffy, her skirt tight, and May had already waited 20 minutes for her turn.
A teenaged girl talked and talked about helping seniors, how she’d become a nurse someday. May tapped her fingers on the table. Next, a woman with a sad slow voice said she wanted to stay active and give back. She was alone now that her husband was gone: the house was so quiet. May tapped and tapped.
Finally, the young Activity Coordinator — Shannon was on her name tag — asked: “Mrs. Hindman, please tell us a little about yourself and why you’re volunteering at Silverwood Retirement Residence.”
May folded her hands in her lap. “There’s a lot to tell.”
And so she told all about recently moving from the city, about her husband Don, his retirement from the law firm and hers from the bank, their wonderful son, the three grandchildren that’d be tall like her, and the lovely new condo. She and Don planned to buy a holiday home in Florida.
The girl and the widow beside her smiled as May finished. “I have so much to offer this sweet little town.”
When Shannon read a list of the volunteer roles available at Silverwood, May pushed back in her chair. She shook her curls. They were chestnut brown without a hint of grey.
“I’m sure someone will take those jobs, but I want to start a knitting group for the seniors. You see,” May sighed, “my dear mother passed a few months ago. She loved the knitting social at the nursing home. It was like family to her.”
“My condolences on your loss,” Shannon said, rolling a pen between her fingers. “But Silverwood already has an active craft circle. Would you like to help with that?”
“Oh. I have my heart set on knitting. It’d be my tribute to my mother.” As if on a drawstring, May’s mouth pulled into a knot of red lipstick. “Perhaps you don’t need me here after all. I thought Silverwood needed volunteers.”
Shannon doodled on a pad, drawing little circles that grew larger and intertwined. Then she agreed to the idea. May beamed.
May’s knitting bee, as she called it, started in a first-floor lounge the following Tuesday afternoon. Curious residents stopped in. Some just watched, others picked up the knitting needles as if they were old friends and set to work. A man sat reminiscing about how cozy knit socks were on long cold walks to school. A woman tsk-tsked that kids these days do nothing with their hands but text. Everyone nodded.
Flitting about, May gave out little hugs of encouragement. One resident, her face in a frown and her hair in a tight bun, waved her off. The woman hovered over May as she sat and began to knit. “Look! You’re dropping stitches!” she boomed. “Don’t you know how to knit?” Throwing down her little scrap of tangled wool, May glared at her. “Oh, dear.” someone said.
At the end of the bee, as May fumed about how rude people can be, Shannon led a woman into the lounge. She was stooped and gaunt. Her droopy white locks and pink housecoat swung as she pushed a walker forward and shuffled to catch up.
“Dorothy, please meet May. She’s a new volunteer with us.”
“Do you knit, dear?” May asked.
“A little, back home.”
“You must join our knitting bee.”
The old woman shrugged. “I’m not much of a joiner.”
“Dorothy moved in yesterday,” Shannon said. “We’re on a tour of the building before tea in the dining room. If you’re done for the day May, come join us.”
Over Earl Grey and sugar cookies, Dorothy talked about farming soybean and hay.
May leaned in, her brown eyes wistful. “My mother loved drives in farm country. But then Don and I became so busy we couldn’t take her. My sister was closer. She never — “
Dorothy wasn’t done. “Grant died two years ago. After my fall last summer, the kids thought I shouldn’t be alone anymore. I don’t want them worrying about me. They’ve got enough. Linda’s in a bad divorce and Eric’s on the farm now, but he’s not sure he can make a go of it.” Dorothy sniffled. “It’s hard being here. I loved my old blue house.”
May always had a tissue. As Dorothy dabbed her eyes, May patted her arm. “You and I are kindred spirits. Do you know why? Because I love blue too!”
On her next visit to Silverwood, May click-clacked in her heels past the lounge where the bee was to be held, down the hall, and into Dorothy’s room. A good volunteer knows where she’s needed, she thought.
May found Dorothy reading in a chair, drapes swirling in a winter wind through the open window behind her. The old woman blinked and bit her lip as May talked about how, since they had bonded over tea, they’d knit together now. Just the two of them.
“I have the perfect project for us!” May tossed Afghan Projects for Beginners onto the bed. On the book’s cover was a smiling lady in a rocker, a fancy throw in a wavy design cascading across her lap. “An afghan to keep you toasty! You must be cold. My mother was always cold.”
“This room is like an oven,” Dorothy said.
“We’ll make it in blue. Our favourite colour, remember? “
They began the afghan. Dorothy knitted slowly and carefully in navy wool. May started a section in icy blue, but mostly she talked. When she’d go quiet, Dorothy’d glance up and watch May unraveling — rolling her eyes and muttering to herself about how hard the pattern was.
“Swear if you want. Won’t bother me. Grant always said I had a salty tongue myself.”
After the blanket was finished, May thought it looked best at the end of Dorothy’s bed. It laid there unused for a week or two. Then the little afghan with crooked stripes, snarls, and big holes in the weave disappeared.
“Where’s our throw?” May eventually asked.
Dorothy nodded to her closet.
“Let’s bring it back out, dear. We want the Activity Coordinator and the other ladies to see what we’ve been doing.”
May pushed clothes aside and elbowed boxes, rummaging through the closet until she found the throw. She shook it with a snap and picked dust from the wool.
“My goodness, your closet is a mess. I’ll tidy it for you. I’m the neat one in my family — the black sheep. I certainly didn’t inherit the clean gene from Mother.”
“I will thank you not to —”
Fussing and fiddling with the afghan, folding it back on the bed so the stripes appeared straighter and the worst knots were hidden, May said: “Thank you is always appreciated.”
On a snowy afternoon, as May told Dorothy about their next project — a scarf and matching toque — the old woman huffed, crossed her arms, and had even less to say than usual.
May knew why. “The weather has put you in a bad mood. Being stuck inside is so depressing. Let’s start little walks around the garden to lift your spirits, but we have to bundle you up.”
“I get out plenty. The kids take me to lunch on Saturdays.”
“The scarf and toque will look lovely, Dorothy. I’ve already bought the wool. It’s bright teal, and will cheer you up.”
The colour didn’t help. Nothing did. Soon, their time together grew shorter and shorter as Dorothy began to say “I don’t want to knit any more today.” earlier and earlier. Sometimes she said her hands hurt, or she was tired. Other times company was coming or there was an afternoon trip with someone down the hall, and the residence bus was leaving soon.
Once, when May insisted they knit awhile longer — “Winter will be over before you’re done that scarf.” — Dorothy stomped into her bathroom and slammed the door.
May drove home brooding. Was it worth getting dressed, cleaning the snow off the car, coming all the way all the across town for this? But then she shook her head. Don’t think like that. Not again, like I did when Mother got so difficult. I should have tried harder.
By the time she pulled into her driveway, May had a plan — a Dorothy plan. Take the knitting home and finish it. Next, find a little something special to smooth things over. And, as hard and sad as it would be, do the responsible thing — have a quiet word with the nursing station that the dear old soul was acting strangely.
Dorothy nearly smiled when, a few days later, May gave her a box wrapped in silver paper and ribbon. Whispering that May shouldn’t have bothered, she dug through the tissue inside until she found her surprise: the teal scarf finished with a long fringe, and the toque with a fuzzy white pompom.
Dorothy scowled, her spiky grey eyebrows knocking together. “I don’t want these.”
“What? I, ah, we worked so hard!”
“The wool is too scratchy. And the colour is awful. Doesn’t go with my red coat.”
Dorothy shoved the box back. “You can wear them.”
“Blue is your favourite colour!”
“It’s not.” Dorothy’s voice smouldered. “I never said that.”
“You did! You did!”
May took a long breath. Screeching wouldn’t help. It never did. In her mother’s last days, it made her sister yell back into the phone “What do you want for coping with her? A medal?” before hanging up on May.
She reached for Dorothy’s hand. “Okay, okay. It’s just that you don’t recall. I understand. Mother didn’t remember either at the end.”
“I’m not your goddamn mother!” Dorothy swatted her away. “She may have been senile, but I’m not. I know you’ve told people I’m losing it. How dare you!”
“You need me!”
A bony finger pointed to the door. “Get out! Don’t come back.”
Nearly as shaky as Dorothy without her walker, May clutched the support bar running along the bright white hallway. She braced against a laundry cart and searched her purse for a tissue. None. Damn. May wiped tears on her coat sleeve.
She stopped at the lounge. On a table was a jigsaw puzzle of playful kittens and puppies tumbling from a basket. May sat and, with her head in her hand, she pushed the last few pieces into place. A corner of a black kitten’s ear gave her some trouble, but slapping it flat, she made it fit. There, shethought as she left the room. I helped someone today.
Shannon was waiting for her in the front foyer. “I need to speak to you.”
On the way to the Activity Coordinator’s office were rows and rows of framed photographs of Silverwood’s Volunteers of the Month, each smiling with a gold plaque and a big bouquet of flowers. Beneath every name was his or her good deed: visiting with a therapy dog, teaching residents how to Skype, playing piano at Sunday afternoon sing-a-longs.
May took a quick look at her reflection in a picture’s glass. Are my eyes red? Any mascara left? She pushed out her chin.
She’ll tell Shannon she won’t quit Silverwood. With her willing hands and kind heart —exactly what the volunteer brochure had said this place needed — she’ll go back to the knitting bee. Won’t Shannon be relieved! And impressed. Perhaps enough, it suddenly occurred to May, to name her the next Volunteer of the Month.