The Dining Room

The Dining Room
by Madlynn Haber

It is quiet in the dining room of the nursing home at 5:15. No one speaks. The residents eat carefully and intentionally. This is the dining room for those who are able to feed themselves, and that is what they do. Each one looks straight-ahead, lifting fork, spoon, and cup from the table to their mouth. They are focused on eating, chewing and swallowing. They are focused on drinking, sipping and swallowing. There is no chatter, no conversation, no dawdling. Time is limited and nourishment is necessary. They eat with purpose, not with joy or pleasure, not with humor or social engagement. There is no mistaking this for a middle school cafeteria. There will not be a food fight. 

I sit on the seat of my mother’s walker at the corner of her table and observe. Two aides are outside the dining room door, chatting softly with one another. A momentary break for them between distributing the trays of food and collecting them. The residents eat at their tables on their own. I am the only outsider in the room.

The silence and the dedication to eating I observe holds my attention. I watch each resident in their robot like interactions with their food and wonder how each one arrived here. I consider how each one’s life unfolded for them to be in this nursing home. Would they have imagined this happening to them? Would they have chosen this place?

Are others left to remember those lives? Have the children they once were long been forgotten? Or can they remember themselves?

I am sitting at the corner of the table with a perspective on the human condition. If I were I able to paint, I might reproduce the whole scene. I might create some series of abstractions that begin with the withered, wrinkled, grey-looking person at the table in front of a tray. Maybe it would evolve into showing the various people that the person once was: behind the elder stooped over her plate would be a taller better dressed middle-aged woman and, behind her, a smiling young adult, then a teen, a girl, a toddler. Going back through the years, all the people this person once was live on somewhere in memories and maybe in photographs. I imagine all the lives they have lived are swirling around them as they shuttle forkfuls of food to their mouths. Are others left to remember those lives? Have the children they once were long been forgotten? Or can they remember themselves?

From my perch on the side of the table, I wonder how it comes to this. All those years of growth and enhancement eventually evolve into deterioration and loss. Where did everyone go? Weren’t there husbands, lovers, children and friends, grandchildren and neighbors, coworkers and acquaintances, sisters and cousins? Where are they now? These people are left here in silence and separation, alone. Some are no longer able to speak, no longer able to make sense, to articulate and respond. Do those who can, just think “why even bother?

The awesome silence feels overwhelming. If I were a photographer, I might photograph each one individually. Each in their own portrait with a tray of meat and beans, fruit cocktail, can of tomato juice, and cup of lukewarm coffee. I might fill a gallery with photograph after photograph, each one capturing the light that remains in their eyes, cloudy and worn. I might photograph each one individually and then all of them together from the corners of the room. I smile at the woman next to my mother. She breaks the silence and asks me to please open her juice. §




Madlynn Haber is a retired social worker and writer living in Florence, Massachusetts. She has published work in two anthologies, Letters to Father from Daughters, and Word of Mouth Volume Two.