I watch, as do you, the news each hour, each day, the first responders, especially the nurses, flocks of them in blue and green scrubs, gowned in protective clothing, masked, gloved, sweating through their shifts.

These are our super heroes this Christmas. I had my own back in my childhood: a nurse, then dressed in a starkly different uniform, all white-white stockings, shoes.

In those quiet times, a few days after Christmas, I sat on a bench in the lobby of the old Carrie Elligson Gietner home for the aged, waiting for my mother, a nurse, to finish her shift.


There was a giant Christmas tree in the center of the lobby, a grand, old, very ornate clock near the door, its brass pendulum catching the light.

I could see her coming, as I saw her each day, in her white nurses’ uniform, a costume that had a glow to it and a clean, freshly-laundered smell that came into the room before her wherever she went.

As I sat there, somewhere far down the hall and around many turns, someone was playing a Christmas carol on an old out-of-tune piano.
That Christmas tree. It was really something, that tree, the kind you saw in department stores or in the homes of the very rich. I remember wondering, ‘Who had to decorate it?’

That old home, sitting far from the street on spacious lawns overlooking the Mississippi, was nothing like the nursing homes we see around us today. Within its walls, the very old and sick parents of wealthy children were tucked away from the world, like clothes grown too unfashionable to wear.

My mother was off and on, the head night nurse. She liked those hours best.

How she got there in that white uniform with these skills is another story. I was too young to grasp the dilemma that she and I had found ourselves in. It is a story I no longer care to think about.

I was told she had started as a “practical nurse,” and somehow had gone through nursing training at the old Barnes Hospital, and while I was growing up beside her, she had emerged as this new “woman in white,” a real nurse, and for me, my first super hero.

So this day, this hour, we shared this bench in the hall in front of the biggest Christmas tree I had ever seen, watching her rub lotion into her hands. Hinds Honey and Almond Cream, her favorite.

“It’ll be a while, honey,” she whispered. “She’s gonna pass pretty soon. And I want to hold her hand for a bit. When I get off, we’ll go get supper, OK?”

I didn’t know who she was talking about. She talked about the dead and dying like they were childhood friends.

Death in that home in those quiet post war days had softer features than we’re seeing now. It came on slippered feet, taking the souls away down the polished halls, like soft breezes.

She held their hands and rubbed their foreheads. She was their caregiver, their listener. She was a nurse.

When you live alone, two people forging a new life, especially with someone like her, someone who talked a lot, who shared her memories, you remember.

She had an incredible memory, my mother. And I inherited it, along with her black hair, her green eyes and her footsteps.

But that Christmas was over, and somewhere in the coming holidays, Mom retired, and eventually while I was somewhere far away, always far away, my siblings put her in her own nursing home overlooking her beloved river, only blocks from where we had shared our lives, where
every night she had come home, bringing a chocolate cupcake, one I got almost every night, wrapped in a paper napkin from the home’s kitchen, and she told me whose hand she had held, whose brow she had touched.

This Christmas, as I watch the thousands of nurses and doctors in blue scrubs, some about to die themselves, holding the hands of the millions of the dying, I think of Mom in her starched white dress and cap, bringing my cupcake home.

They’re dressed in blue now and sheets of plastic, smiles and tears hidden by masks and shields. But I know among them, there are mothers waiting for their shifts to end. And some child is waiting for them to come home.

If you have prayers, say one for them.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer. 

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