Growing up, we attended a downtown church. Even though there were several suburban Lutheran churches much closer to our home, my parents had gone to this church when they first met, and once they started a family and moved to the suburbs, we continued to drive into the city every Sunday morning.
Like every church in the world, there were older members who could no longer make the trip to Sunday services. The term at the time was “shut-ins,” though I imagine there is some group that today would be offended by such a label.
Every so often, we would be asked to visit a shut-in or two on behalf of the church – usually around the holidays.
Christmas 1974 was one of those times and since it was on our way home, we were asked to visit two residents of The Rochester Friendly Home. Unlike today where there are “senior living” facilities on every corner offering country club amenities, in 1974 The Rochester Friendly Home was an old-school nursing home.
On this particular trip, we were to deliver some kind of holiday basket to each of two residents and the expectation was that we would sit and spend some time chatting with them as well.
In December 1974 I turned six, my older brother Doug was eight and our little sister Sarah was three-and-a-half. For children of any age a trip to a nursing home is, at the very least, undesirable, but to be forced to visit old people to whom you are not even related was tantamount to torture.
These visits followed the same basic process:
- As we left church our parents would inform us of the detour
- All three of us would groan with disapproval
- We would go to the Friendly Home
- At each resident’s room, we would be paraded by the shut-in for our cuteness and then told to quietly wait in the hallway
- We would wait (for what seemed like hours) until my parents had fulfilled their visitation duties
- We would all make the 10-minute drive home
Just to make things more interesting, on this particular visit my father’s mother was with us. You might remember her from the story Let Rest For Several Decades. What you don’t know is that she was rather hard of hearing, so once in the room with the even older shut-in, the screaming was impressive.
So, the six of us piled out of the station wagon and slogged through the snow into the lobby of the Friendly Home. My father checked in at the desk and we boarded the indescribably slow elevator, rising up to the residential floors and into the unmistakable smell of a nursing home.
We delivered the basket and the expected dosage of child cuteness to resident number one. We sat dutifully in the hallway guarding the basket for resident number two, as my parents and grandmother screamed their way through a ten-minute conversation about absolutely nothing.
The adults emerged and we made our way to the room of resident number two, following the very same procedure that left us three children unattended in the hallway just a few minutes later.
My younger sister was an early reader, and looking back this makes complete sense. She has enjoyed a very successful career as both a high school English teacher and freelance Grammar Nazi.
There we were sitting in the hallway of a nursing home with nothing to do, surrounded by blank walls and the smell of – well if you’ve ever been to a nursing home you know what smell I am talking about.
After a few minutes we were no longer content to sit still, and as we roamed back and forth we noticed something on the wall. Both Doug and I knew what all the words meant, but we were pretty sure that while Sarah understood “Pull Down” she had no clue what “Fire Alarm” meant.
I can’t say for sure, but the two older brothers (who certainly knew better) might have pointed out to their little sister that there was something on the wall commanding her to do something.
Given her desire to read things coupled with the intense boredom in which we were mired, it didn’t take long. She walked over, looked at it, read the words and did as she was instructed.
Then all hell broke loose.
Remember what I said about the residents being hard of hearing? Well, they compensate for that when designing fire alarms for nursing homes. The sound was unbelievably loud.
My parents came shooting out into the hallway, where my brother and I immediately pointed at Sarah as the culprit. Meanwhile, all the geriatric residents were poking their heads out of their rooms and yelling at us to get out of the hallway. They had been instructed to “shelter in place” whenever an alarm went off.
My father grabbed my brother and me and we headed down to the front desk. We boarded the aforementioned slowest elevator in the world and painfully endured a protracted descent to the first floor.
Meanwhile, the alarm had automatically dispatched the fire department, which is conveniently located right next door to the friendly home. By the time we reached the lobby, the loop driveway was full of fire engines, and fully suited firemen toting axes and hoses were streaming through the door.
My father silently pointed at a bench and my brother and I had a seat, not saying a word. Dad walked over to the fireman in charge and began to explain the situation.
A few minutes later my mother, grandmother and sister emerged from the elevator. Sarah was hysterical, convinced that the firemen were going to take her to jail. My mother shot Doug and me one of those “you’re in so much trouble” glances, and my grandma couldn’t stop laughing.
In the end, the nursing home wasn’t all that upset since they got to count the whole experience as a fire drill that they had to do every so often anyway. The firemen were gracious and they did not take my sister to jail. I do not recall the punishment dealt to Doug and me, but I am sure it was both fair and appropriate.
Grandma Nazarian enjoyed telling the story, especially to the residents of the nursing homes that she both visited and in which she resided in her later years.
My sister was without a doubt the victim of her mischievous older brothers, but there is a solid takeaway here.
When you are confident you understand one part of something, don’t act until you take the time to understand it all. In general those with whom we interact are not looking to get us in trouble, but the world is a tricky place, be careful.
So, the next time you’re tempted to enthusiastically “Pull Down,” make damn sure you know why you’re doing it. After all, you don’t want the firemen to take you to jail – ain’t nobody got time for that.
Copyright © 2015 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved - Pull Down