Most days of COVID-19 I hang out in my pajamas until late morning. I slurp coffee, and scan the paper, looking for warm-hearted stories about siblings separated at birth, reunited at a smoked mullet festival. Monday mornings, however, I put on my long pants and drive to the Sunshine Senior Center, next to the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club. The official name is the Multi-Service Senior Center, Office on Aging, a moniker short on drama and passion. I go there not to participate in consumer awareness programs, take line dancing lessons or check out the Senior Hall of Fame to see if I have been voted in. I go there because I am a Meals on Wheels volunteer.
Every weekday a squad of volunteers motors forth from the Sunshine Center to deliver free or low-cost meals to home bound seniors. My gig starts at 10:30 AM when I gather up two black insulated bags and a clipboard in the Center’s dining room. Pre-COVID, folks on the margins of society would gather there for a cuppa and a cookie, the gals in their housecoats, dragging wire carts behind them, and the guys in vests with VFW patches and ball caps that read “US Army Ret.” Nowadays, they are exiled to the back door, and come, one by one, to pick up something to eat.
My clipboard contains dog-eared pages of instructions, last read during the Nixon administration; menus for the month; and a list of my calls for the day with names, addresses, and phone numbers. There are notations on the call sheet: “Ring bell and knock loudly, client hard of hearing” or “Disregard pit bull, it is considered friendly.” My hot insulated bag contains two types of meals: “Restaurant” and “Hot Lunch Regular.” Local restaurants are being paid to provide MOW meals during the pandemic, when normal business is slim for them, hence “Restaurant” meals. Be assured we are not talking about lobster on a bed of artisanal pasta, with a side of broccolini. “Hot Lunch Regular” meals are the standard, provided by a commercial kitchen. The “Hot Lunch Regular” comes in a black plastic tray with three segments covered by clear plastic so you can gaze on the goodies. From the September 28 menu entry: 3 oz. Meatballs in Swedish Sauce, ½ cup Rotini Noodles, ½ cup Green Beans. The cold insulated bag contains shrink- wrapped trays with juice, a slice of bread, butter, and a carton of 1% milk. Likely, ninety percent of the world’s population would consider that meal an inconceivable feast.
Each time I slip a “Hot Lunch Regular” into a plastic bag for delivery, I think of Swanson’s TV Dinners. In my childhood, when my parents went to an evening soiree my sisters and I would pull out these delicacies from the freezer, heat them in the oven (folding back one corner of the aluminum as indicated), march them to the den and plop them on a folding tray. We noshed, watching Ozzie and Harriet. My fave was the Swanson’s fried chicken dinner with peas and mashed potatoes. Yum.
There are ten seniors on my route, with varying levels of ability to motate. With most, I knock briskly on the door or ring the bell, then wait patiently for the client to come to the door, unlock it, and take the bag with a grateful “Thank you.” For the least mobile, my protocol is to knock, wait for a response and enter, heading for the kitchen, offering small talk but feeling intrusive, as if I had stepped into her bedroom. I have not yet seen a call sheet notation saying, “Caution, client overdosed on cable news, is licensed to carry.” Since my customers are often hearing deficient, weaponry could create a problem.
Reporter at scene of shooting:
“What happened, Mrs. Winchester?”
“He came right through the door! I never heard a knock, thought he was one of them Antifas. So I pulled out my Glock from under the Afghan and wasted him…. Too bad, though.”
“What’s too bad, Mrs. Winchester?”
“Ruined the Swedish meatballs.”
Ellen is my oldest. On a recent day, she beamed as she pointed to a vase of flowers for her 96th birthday. Next to the flowers was a single potted tomato plant, held tenuously erect by a wire support. She announced that this fall she was going to eat a tomato from the plant.
Carlos is my lone male client. He is a Yankees fan, so I let him know that the Rays beat the Yankees like a rug. When the Rays do beat the Yankees in the playoffs, I am mum. The TV flickers with old black and white westerns and TMC classics.
Pat greets me at the front door in a red flowered housecoat, two dogs barking chaotically behind her. In front of her house, on the walkway, sits a black metal silhouette of a dachshund next to a water bowl for passing dogs.
Helen is from Brooklyn. From her Barcalounger, wrapped in a terrycloth robe, she watches Fox and opines. “New Yorkers are tough. We tell it like it is. That’s why I like Trump. And that Biden! Can’t stand him!” I say nothing.
When I signed up for MOW, my friend John became my wingman. I would make the deliveries and he would drive the getaway car. Our first customer of the day was Glenna. White-haired, stooped and petite, but bright-eyed, she was hard of hearing (an affliction John and I shared with her). Getting her attention required a lot of banging and pressing an ear close to the door to suss out a muttered “I’m coming” or “Leave it on the counter.” After John left town, I kept him updated on our customers. One day Glenna’s name disappeared from the clipboard list. I texted John: “Maybe Glenna came into a fortune and can pop for real restaurant meals!” But we knew the bell had tolled.
I was reading an opinion piece in the Tampa Bay Times when my eye glanced over to the obits, and there, hidden among more grand obituaries, were three small lines: Sanders, Glenna of Blacksburg, VA and St. Petersburg died on August 31, 2020. Full obit at … I immediately texted John and we each read the obituary. My jaw dropped as I read about her background and accomplishments. She was fluent in French, taught in US Army Base Schools in Germany (where I spent my elementary school years), and played the piano and sang, financing her travels in Europe. She got a master’s degree in art education at Virginia Tech, founded an art gallery and supported the Virginia Tech Chamber Music Orchestra where her husband was a public relations director for the university. Like my mother, she drank martinis and was a member of Colonial Dames of America. I had not stopped reading the obit when John texted that Glenna’s then-husband, Howard, had been his customer for many years when John provided printing service for the university.
There are many conversations in our lives that should have been. If only I had knocked, brought in the meal, and said, “Can we chat?”