Elder Series – Morning Glory

M Dawn Thacker has compiled a series of short stories about elders, their experiences aging, and the challenges they face. M Dawn continues with her series in Morning Glory…


Sometimes life is easier when viewed in black and white with a few shades of gray. Conflict and romance, pain and death are less complicated dosed in two hour segments and projected onto a big screen, acted on stage or behind the nineteen inch glass on a television. Story lines don’t change and words are dependable because they are scripted. No one knew for sure, but it seemed Sophie preferred her life played out like an old movie. Technicolor overwhelmed her.

Sophie was admitted to the nursing facility from her home on First Street. The Social Worker who brought her, described a quiet recluse who ordered her groceries from the only store in town that delivered. Her house was papered in movie posters, stacked with newspapers, magazines, piles of trash, junk mail in boxes, and on tables. A narrow path was cleared from the back door of Sophie’s house to her bedroom, where there was just enough space on the mattress for Sophie’s frail little body to lie. She had a clear view of the television though. It was situated at eye level, placed on a stand within two feet of Sophie when she was in bed. Every time the Case Worker visited, Sophie was holding a wooden cigar box, and she was watching old black and white movies.

When the judge ruled Sophie unable to care for herself safely, the Social Worker visited again.
“Sophie, we feel you’re not safe to stay by yourself anymore. You’re too thin and don’t have anyone to help you around the house.”

Sophie didn’t speak. She didn’t look at the Case Worker. She stared at the movie on her television.

“We think you will be comfortable at The Pines,” the Worker said without explaining who “we” were. “There are people there who’ll cook three meals a day for you and help you. There are nice activities there. They show movies once a week.”

Sophie didn’t question, nor did she balk. She didn’t say anything, just tightened the belt on her pink robe, gathered her cigar box, and followed the Social Worker to the car. Along with a few pieces of Sophie’s furniture, her television, and some clothes, she was packed off to the nursing home, to 402, a semi-private room. Sophie lay, curled on the bed, her back to the door. She held tightly to the cigar box.

Later, as staff members peeked in on her, Sophie looked more at ease, sitting with her back against the headboard, legs straight, eyes closed. As soon as someone knocked on her door to enter though, she drew up into a small tight knot. She sat there, knees drawn up firm against her chest. She opened her eyes, but kept them lowered, watching from under her lashes, as if from a hiding place. Her only other movement was to pick at the sheets with frantic fingers. She didn’t smile. She didn’t speak. She didn’t begin to relax until people left her alone.

“Sophie has a long history of being reclusive,” the Case Worker explained. “For years, she wouldn’t leave her house. The one trusted neighbor, the woman who lived there when Sophie moved in thirty years ago, became ill last month. She was worried about Sophie, and called Adult Protective Services to check on her. That’s when we discovered her living conditions.”

“Does she have family?” the facility Social Worker asked.

“I’m afraid not. The only information the neighbor was able to share with us before she passed away, was that Sophie’s entire family died in a fire when she was a teenager. She was the only one who survived. Sophie never married, didn’t have children. She’s never spoken to me, but she always opened her door.”

Sophie had no outward physical scars. It didn’t look as if she had been burned. Staff attempted clinical assessments, but Sophie didn’t answer questions. She sat curled into herself on the bed, picking anxiously at the covers.

Her court appointed advocate only knew what she had seen– the tiny woman wouldn’t let the cigar box out of her sight, ate from opened tins of tuna fish, drank colas, always wore a fuzzy pink bathrobe, and watched old black and white movies. Posters of movie stars and films decorated the walls in Sophie’s house.

Janice was assigned as Sophie’s caregiver. The nursing assistant had a history of helping new residents transition. She helped newcomers deal with loss. Janice was able to bring someone like Sophie out of a cocoon and help her spread her wings, stretch her legs. The CNA went about her work humming or singing. If residents didn’t speak, Janice included them in a quiet monologue, conversing through their silence. She also knew how to allow silence. She spoke body language. Building relationships and trust, one small act of compassion at a time was Janice’s gift. Her footsteps whispered, and her touch was careful and gentle. Her large, soft body felt good in an embrace and her eyes were warm from looking through kindness. Sophie was wound too tight. Janice knew how to uncoil a spring.

Janice’s demeanor, although effective with most, didn’t seem to move Sophie. Still, Janice kept at it. She called Maintenance to attach the cable to Sophie’s television and turned the channel to the one with old black and white movies. When Sophie thought no one was looking, she stared intently at the screen and sometimes she’d smile. Janice began to watch Sophie as Sophie watched her movies. Matinee refreshments were tuna sandwiches, and colas over ice.

Sophie seemed more at ease watching movies from the Golden Age of film. It was the only time she seemed unaware of her surroundings, her guard lowered. Sometimes she laughed out loud, or cried, her emotions attached to a storyline. One day Sophie was watching Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory. Sophie paid no attention to Janice as she bustled about the room making beds and emptying bath water. The Glamorous women and dashing men on the screen captured the elder’s attention and her whole body leaned into their black and white world. Janice noticed that Sophie moved her lips as she silently recited the lines along with the actors and actresses, living their imaginary lives with them. Janice called Sophie “Morning Glory” after that. The nursing assistant would walk into the room and say, “Mornin’ Mornin’ Glory.”

Sophie didn’t say anything, when Janice called her Mornin’ Glory, but Janice thought she liked it because Sophie almost smiled.

Janice stood in the room or at the door catching glimpses of Sophie unawares. When the old lady smiled, so did Janice and when Sophie cried, her tears triggered Janice’s. It didn’t matter that Janice hadn’t roused the sensation, what mattered was the emotion on Sophie’s face. Somewhere inside that
tiny body were tears and smiles, words and passion. Janice looked for ways to spark delight in Sophie’s world.

The big, black book came from a second hand store. Janice found it one day while she was
shopping for uniforms at Goodwill. She didn’t read much, but the cover of the book pulled her to a shelf at the back of the store. The picture on the front looked like one of Sophie’s movie stars. Janice picked up the book and flipped through it. Page after page displayed black and white photographs of movie stars from the thirties, forties and fifties. Sophie’s movie stars lived in this book. Janice purchased it for $2.99.

“Mornin’ Mornin’ Glory, I found something I thought you might like,” Janice said softly the next day, presenting the book.

Sophie stared ahead, not looking at Janice or the book.

“I’ll just leave it here on the bed for you,” Janice said, turning to go.

In a little while, Janice walked past the room and looked inside. Sophie was sitting up in bed with the book on her lap. She would turn a page and stare at a photograph. She traced the features in the picture with her finger and stroked the hair like it was real. That night, she slept with the cigar box and the book.

Sophie was at the nursing home for six months. She allowed Janice to help her with her care needs. The two of them developed a relationship without words, without eye contact. Janice carried on the one sided conversations, laughing at her own jokes and telling Sophie about one or another classic movie she’d watched at home the night before. Janice never watched old movies before she met Sophie.

When Sophie’s death was eminent, Janice knew. There were signs. Sophie’s appetite waned. She barely touched her food, even the favorite tuna and cola. Her breathing became shallow and her lungs rattled. Sophie’s small body began a tighter curl, fetal-like, as if in anticipation of a new journey.

A few days before Sophie died, Janice was sitting at her bedside. Katharine Hepburn was playing out her scenes in Morning Glory. Hepburn’s character, Eva Lovelace, talked incessantly and was single minded in her quest for stardom, so different from Sophie.

Janice knew it was one of Sophie’s favorite movies. Sophie watched the screen as intently as she always had. She didn’t seem to mind Janice being there, she hadn’t for a long time. Janice’s daily presence was as close to a relationship as Sophie allowed.

During the final scene of the movie, Sophie turned her head, and raised her eyes to meet Janice’s. They were bright and clear. Then, Janice heard the only words Sophie ever said while she was at the nursing home, “…And they’ve got to tell me that I’m much more wonderful than anyone else because, Nellie – Nellie, I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of being just a morning glory. I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid. Why should I be afraid? I’m not afraid.” They were the last lines of the movie and Sophie had said them out loud. Sophie turned her eyes back to the television and watched the credits roll.

“It’s alright Morning Glory,” Janice said, as she reached out and squeezed Sophie’s hand. “You don’t need to be afraid. You are more wonderful than you could ever know, I promise.”

Sophie looked up at Janice one more time, and smiled.

Sophie died two days later. She’d fallen asleep after the movie and hadn’t awakened. She took her last breath with Janice at her bedside. Sophie’s small, frail body finally released its tension.

When Janice packed Sophie’s belongings in the cardboard container, she picked up the cigar box. She’d never seen Sophie open it, carrying it with her always, even to the shower room. Janice lifted the little metal clasp and opened the hinged top. She reached inside and pulled out a folded 8 x 10 black and white photograph of Katharine Hepburn. It wasn’t autographed. Under the picture was a Broadway Playbill. Inside, halfway down the page, underlined, was an actress listed whose name was Sophie Adair. There was also a napkin from one of the nursing home meal trays. In letters written in Sophie’s shaky hand, was Janice’s work schedule.


Morning Glory © 2011 M Dawn Thacker. Read M Dawn’s latest on Now.readthisplease.com and check back for the next story in her Elder Series.


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