Lisa Criss Griffin: Playing By Memory


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Playing By Memory

By Lisa Criss Griffin

Francie tucked her head down against the bite of the blowing snow as she struggled up the salted walkway of the nursing home. She had promised Poppy she would come play for him today, and she was currently regretting that promise. A sudden, strong gust of frigid wind buffeted her slight figure, knocking her off balance. She did a little dance on an icy patch of the sidewalk to avoid falling. Francie pulled open the heavy door of The Memory Care Center with one hand, hugging her violin case close to her chest with the other.

She stepped inside, tremendously relieved to be out of the cold, stinging wind. Francie stamped off the snow clinging to her waterproof, yet fashionable boots before she opened the inner door leading to the nurses’ station. The ever-present antiseptic smell of disinfectant wafted up her nostrils as she stepped inside the warm building. A nurse looked up from her charting and smiled when she recognized Francie.

“Well good afternoon, Miss Francie. Your Poppy has been talking about you coming to play for us all day! We are sure glad you decided to come…we would have heard about it all night long if the weather had kept you away,” she said with a wink.

“Yes, I can imagine,” Francie giggled.

She rested her free hand on the counter and leaned in towards the nurse.

“How is Poppy today, Marge?”

“He is having one of his better days, so I’m glad you are here. He actually remembered my name today while he fussed about taking his medication.”

“Awwww…I’m sorry he fussed with you, Marge.”

“Honey, it brought a smile to my face to see him feisty! I much prefer feisty to those vacant stares they all get lost in, further on down the road in dementia.”

Marge clicked the computer mouse to close the file and stood up, the stethoscope draped around her neck clinking softly. She made her way around the counter of the nurses’ station, her well-cushioned tennis shoes squeaking softly on the polished tile floor.

“Would you like some coffee before we go see him, Francie?”

“Oh, no thanks. I drank a cup on the way over.”

“Umm hummm, a white chocolate mocha with a shot of espresso?”

“You know me well, Marge!” Francie laughed.

“That I do honey, that I do.”

The two of them walked down the residential hallway towards the large living room. Marge’s shoes continued to squeak softly in protest on the light polished tile. The muted conversation of an aide talking with a resident grew louder, then faded as they passed by the room. Francie smiled at all the colorful spring flowers attached to the small whiteboards located outside each resident’s room down the wing. The Memory Care Center was so good about decorating for every season and holiday imaginable. The practice lifted everyone’s spirits and helped some of the residents remember what time of year it currently was. Francie was also looking forward to spring, which should have been here by now. Unfortunately, Punxsutawney Phil had lied to them again this year…the rotten little rodent.

Residents were scattered throughout the spacious living room. Some of the more alert residents were playing games, reading or watching an Andy Griffith Show rerun on the TV in the corner. Others were either sleeping or tracking the big snowflakes blowing by the floor to ceiling picture windows that made up most of the south wall. Francie liked this room. It was always full of hope and light.

Poppy was sitting in an electric recliner, reading. He could still read adventure stories as long as they moved along at a quick pace. Francie had brought him a Clive Cussler action-adventure novel last week. He was so engrossed in the story that he was unaware of her presence. Francie set her violin case on the floor and removed her heavy coat. She placed her hand gently on his shoulder.

“Hey, Poppy. Are you enjoying your book?”

Poppy looked up from his book in surprise. 

“Well, Francie, I am glad you came! I’ve been looking forward to you playing…the…thing that…sings. Did you bring it with you?”

“Of course I did, Poppy. I know how much you enjoy listening to my violin.”

“Yes. The violin,” Poppy said as if he was placing the word back into his memory.

“What would you like to hear me play for you today, Poppy?”

Poppy’s faded blue eyes brightened. 

“Hymns, little girl…hymns of course. Almost all of us still know the hymns.”

“Okay Poppy. Hymns it is.”

Francie leaned over and kissed Poppy’s cheek. He and Gran had raised her after her parents were killed in a horrific car accident eighteen years ago. She was barely two at the time, so she only had fleeting memories of them. Poppy and Gran loved music and took her to the big symphony concerts in the city regularly. She loved it from the very first time they took her, and she developed an interest in the violin. They found Francie a wonderful local violin teacher who mentored her until she left for college. She had played hymns in church often while she was growing up, so Poppy’s request for hymns would be easy for her to play by ear.

Francie walked over by the upright piano not far from Poppy. She pulled out her instrument, noting that it had gone out of tune from the cold. Violins were sensitive to temperature and humidity changes. She tightened up her bow and put a little rosin on it for good measure.

“Plingggg.”

Francie played an A on the piano to tune-up. Several residents turned towards her in interest as she tuned her violin, playing two strings at a time. She had to smile. They looked as if they were expecting a hoe down of some sort. She hoped Poppy was right about everyone liking hymns. Some of the residents could get out of hand and become combative at times. Poor things…it had to be terrifying to slowly slide away from reality, not being sure what was real, and what wasn’t.

Just then, a scuffle broke out in the hall. A little white-haired lady hobbled backward into the living room waving a tripod cane wildly in the air to keep the staff at bay. Francie froze, surprised and slightly amazed at the little lady’s ability to fend them off. And her language! She was cussing up a storm and accusing them of trying to arrest her for going to a garage sale down the hallway.

“Get back before I whack you with this stick! I mean it!” the little old lady yelled.

Edna took a swing at one of the aides who expertly ducked.

“I ain’t foolin, missy! You ain’t going to arrest me! I know my rights. I’ll go to that garage sale if I want to, and there is nothing you can do about it!”

Edna shook the end of her tripod cane towards her pursuers in warning, her white curls bouncing wildly around her stricken face.

“It is okay, Edna. You are safe here. Nobody is going to hurt you,” Marge said kindly.

“You make them go away!”

“Nobody is going to bother you, Edna.”

“You won’t let them arrest me and take me away?” Edna asked, wanting to believe Marge, but not entirely convinced.

“Of course not, honey child,” Marge cooed comfortingly.

Marge looked over at Francie and gave her an imperceptible nod.

“Would you like to join us for a free concert, honey? George’s granddaughter came to play for us. I know you like music, Miss Edna. Come, sit here by me, and let’s enjoy some music together.”

Edna lowered her cane warily and shot the aides a dirty look as she slowly sat down next to Marge. The aides exhaled in relief and left Edna in Marge’s capable hands. Miss Edna was a real corker right now, and she had kept the staff on their toes over the past few months.

“Play Amazing Grace for me,” Poppy suggested. “It was Gran’s favorite.”

Francie missed Gran. It had been over a year since she unexpectedly passed away in her sleep, but the pain of Gran’s absence was still fairly raw for Francie. Poppy had not taken Gran’s death well, and his dementia quickly became more than Francie could handle on her own.

She was so thankful for The Memory Care Center. It had given her time to put Poppy’s affairs in order, just the way he instructed in writing when he was first diagnosed. Francie made it a point to visit Poppy at least once a week…more if she could. Between working and school, her free time was almost nonexistent.

Francie put her violin on her shoulder and began to play Gran’s favorite version of Amazing Grace. She played the melody and harmonized with herself by playing a lower string at the same time. The result was a hauntingly reverent hymn, the type that grabs people down where they really live, and speaks truth into their very souls.

Francie was on the third verse when Edna rose from her chair. She walked towards the old upright piano beside Francie and slowly slid to the middle of the piano bench. Her gnarled, wrinkled fingers touched the piano keys in a familiar caress, striking a G major chord.

Francie started another verse by jumping up an octave. She wondered if Edna had perfect pitch, since she knew the key Francie was playing in without having to search for it. Edna’s hands danced rhythmically up and down the piano keys, producing one of the most beautiful accompaniments Francie had ever heard. They did one more verse together before stopping.

“What else do you want to play, honey?” Margie asked Edna excitedly.

Francie stepped away from the piano as Edna began to play Clair De Lune by Claude Debussy from memory. It was a gorgeous piano piece, and Edna smiled as her hands recalled the familiar music. By this time, the music had attracted more residents, who gathered around the piano to enjoy the impromptu concert. Edna played the piece expertly, to the complete surprise of the staff. Nobody had told them Edna could play the piano.

Francie shot Poppy a smile as she found an empty chair close to him. Edna played two more beautiful piano solos before she tired and decided to go back to her room. The residents clapped as she stood up, leaning on her cane while she took a small bow. Marge came over and escorted her back to her room, asking a tired, but happy Edna all about her musical background as they slowly strolled down the hallway.

Heavy snow was still swirling beyond the picture windows and now the daylight was fading. Francie put her violin away and picked up her heavy coat.

“Hey, Poppy. Give me a nice hug. I’ve gotta go.”

Poppy reached up and pulled her close.

“Thank you for coming to play for me today, little one,” he whispered. “Come back.”

“I will, Poppy. As soon as I can, Poppy,” she promised.

“I love you, little girl.”

“I love you, Poppy.”

Francie shrugged on her heavy coat, picked up her violin case and made her way back down the residential hallway. She could hear Marge laughing with Edna in one of the rooms. Who knew Edna could play like that? She would have to pump Marge for information on Edna’s musical background the next time she visited. She had heard musicians retained their musical skills long after other parts of themselves disappeared into the dementia. She hoped so. She couldn’t imagine her life without music in it.

Copyright © 2020 Lisa Criss Griffin
All rights reserved

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