Palo Alto Weekly 17th Annual Short Story Contest
Young Adult First Place
Eighty-Eight Years, Four Seasons, then
by Wendy Hagenmaier
About Wendy Hagenmaier
Wendy Hagenmaier wanted her story about a woman with Alzheimer's
-- loosely based on her grandmother's experience -- to allow
readers to empathize with people who have the disease.
What she discovered after writing "Eighty-Eight
Years, Four Seasons, then Home," is how much she learned
about herself in the process.
As the Alzheimer's patient in the story begins
losing memories of adulthood, she takes readers with her on
a journey to her childhood. A nurse that is caring for her
experiences the woman's regression as well and struggles to
"Through writing about this nurse, I guess
I actually explored how I felt about dealing with my grandma
and coming to a similar realization of appreciation and respect
for this woman even though the woman isn't normal," Wendy
said. "That helped enable me to learn about myself in
relation to my Grandma."
Now a senior at Castilleja School, she became
interested in writing after her sixth-grade assigned 20th
century poetry. After reading some poems, she thought, "Wow,
there's this whole other world of ideas in writing to explore.
"I was inspired so I just looked at the
world in a different way and tried writing about it then,"
So she wrote a poem based on a picture in her
history textbook of an ancient carving of two Mesopotamians
embracing each other. She recalled "trying to imagine
these figures and how they must have loved each other and
what they would have thought about an archeologist scientifically
interpreting them and their love."
That was in sixth grade. Nowadays, she enjoys
co-editing "Counterpoints," the school paper, and
especially enjoys writing the editorials with her friend,
another editor. Their last article was a "silly and fun"
piece about KQED Radio's 2-minute "Perspectives"
segment, in which ordinary people share their views.
"We love it so much," she said. "The
arguments they're giving are not always totally reasonable
or we don't agree with them but it's so refreshing."
She isn't sure whether she wants to pursue a career in writing
because "it's fun but painful and difficult. Even just
the process of finding the right word can make you so frustrated
and takes so much energy," she said.
-- Julie Patel
The old woman in room 209 is at her window today. Her lotioned
fingers, tender and bloated, woven together like puff pastries,
rest in her crocheted lap, and I wonder what she sees. The peach
flannel robe with appliqued roses enfolds her as if it sought too
hard to make her comfortable, and as she breathes, slowly and heavily,
particles of dust swim in the wedge of fluorescent daylight that
seeps from the bulb on the ceiling. I cannot blame her for seeking
natural light. Her tarnished hair runs from the roots in subdued
streaks -- as if she had just been in the rain -- like it was when
she was in the rain ... how many years ago now? ... a small girl,
thirsty after the day's activity, stretching her cheeks for a few
cool drops. Her mouth is small and crinkled, reddish brown as though
seventy years of lipstick were hesitant to leave. Memories of kissing
times sleep there like leaves in autumn ... waiting. And I wonder,
is this her winter? As she sits there, gazing, my eyes fall to her
feet. I see they're uncovered and begin to worry, but then spots
of color catch my eye. Red. Someone on the morning shift has painted
her toenails flaming red. I'm startled, and as my tray wobbles,
one of the plastic juice cups I have been carrying falls on the
linoleum. She hears this and twists her head, the lines in her neck
forming soft valleys and hills like places I have never seen before,
and I'm forced to look into her eyes. With a delicate smile of forgiveness
she turns back to the window.
Silly me, I was just wondering ... could you tell me how I might
get home? It's drizzling out there, can't you see? Come look. See,
drizzling. I like to catch the drops on my tongue as they fall.
They come glittering down, wayward, sleek, and then icy as the red
flesh greets each one. Icy. My skirt of navy winter wool swirls
around my legs and skates, my raven braids flying. Blades meet the
surface of the frozen pond and cut, slice, slash in solid-liquid
dance. Round and round, and we hold hands sometimes in girlish glee,
the trees, the neighborhood spin, spin, spin. After school, not
too far from Singleton street. That's home, you see. Home. I was
just there, you know, and mother painted my toenails red. She lines
the bottles up in rows on the vanity, a crystal menagerie. The bottle
of Posy Pink sits timidly against the mirror, but Tango Red stands
in front, flashy and insistent and it flows over my toenails like
the suave movements of the Spanish dancer I saw at the county fair
last summer before Auntie Ann whisked me away like she always does.
Summer. and we're off to Sugar Creek. My sisters - Elizabeth (so
sad to leave the piano), and Ruth and Henrietta giggling on the
rumble seat, big brother Louie with crisp, new trousers and a beard
coming on. Games of croquet and afternoons of wiggling sticky toes
on the porch as Little Orphan Annie's radio adventures pipe through
on the breeze melt like the Drumsticks Mr. Martin brings us in the
ice cream truck at three o'clock on Fridays. Cream that oozes between
your knuckles in blissful rivulets. Then crickets in the quiet night,
mournful troubadours of the wilderness, lonely, vacant clicking,
and I miss home. Maybe it's out there, through those trees and to
the left along the wet road. Do you see where I'm pointing? Do you
think so? Perhaps I should ask my friend Esther who just passed
by here a moment ago, carrying a tray. You see. she is fond of make
believing and loves to play the little hostess with her mother's
chinaware. A teacup slipped once, and she stared at me in terror,
trembling and astonished, so I reassured her with a smile because
we're playmates and sit next to each other in the schoolhouse and
have pledged to always share our secrets and our pains. Perhaps
she'll take my hand and walk me home.
The old woman in room 209 is at her window again today. Passing
down the hail this morning, thermometer and vitamin bottle in hand
as usual, I pause before her doorway in anticipation. Will she be
there again, sitting, with the robe taut and constraining around
her middle, gazing into nothingness? Impelled at once by both curiosity
and dread, I draw her chart from the slot outside the door and search
the pages, eager for understanding, for the facts of her case: "Louise
Weiland, 88 ... Advanced dementia ... Alzheimer's diagnosed ...
occasional incontinence ... difficulty verbalizing thoughts ...
problems/complaints: daughter visited one week ago, was upset to
find that her mother had lost wedding ring," one of the doctors
has scribbled. 'But why always at the window?" I inquire of
the chart. It gives no reply but scoffs at my entreaties in its
smug statistics. I step hesitantly into the room, anxious that she
might recall the clumsiness of yesterday -- which I immediately
realize is foolish for I now know she would never remember ... but,
shifting suddenly about in her chair, she looks at me with an air
of startling familiarity. How are you doing today. Louise?"
I offer the prescribed greeting and approach her at the window.
"Just ... fine. You?" The "you" in this question
is ambiguous but she uses it as if she had studied my chart, as
well, as if I were her daughter or her bosom friend. I ask her what
she's studying so thoughtfully outside the window. "There ...
you ... so many things ... to see ..." I sit down beside her,
take her gentle hand in mine, and the two of us wait in a painful
interval for a conclusion that won't surface. "I understand."
I assure her, half to fill the agonizing silence and half because.
I think I might. Just then I notice a groove below the knuckle of
her fourth finger -- a
band, a diamond ring lived here until it wandered away last week
... down a drain, deep in a trash can, out an accidentally-open
window? Pity nauseates me, and I'm shocked by an image of the old
woman at the altar, unable to recall, from the labyrinth of her
ailing mind, the vow, she should repeat but, now, can only feel.
I fumble for an escape. "Can I get you anything, Louise? Are
you comfortable?" "I ... I'd like ... to go home."
She states the request with remarkable facility, her thinning, white
brows twisted in concern, her face full of a tenderness that's piercing.
The old woman's disease has instilled none of its common belligerence
in her. My weak heart responds impulsively, and I cannot meet her
eyes, those delicate blue eyes, clouded now, but still earnest,
true: "Of course, of course. You'll go home -- I promise."
She discerns a vague encouragement in my reply, and as the distress
of the moment yields once more to tranquil reflection, the old woman
in room 209 turns back to her window.
Silly me, I feel a bit muddled. You wouldn't happen to know how
I could get home, would you? The sun is glorious today. Come look.
Doesn't the warmth just spill through your veins like liquid spring
sunshine? Spring. A knock at the door, fling it open, and he stands
there, bumbling, grinning, a glimmer in his eye. A tousled bouquet
of lazy sweet peas betrays itself, peeking out from behind his back,
lavender, teal, salmon, crimson, for me. Fragrant, buzzing. His
model T: he is one of the first of us to have one, and I confess
it thrills me, too -- timid, tentative me. The racing, the bumps,
the life soaring by on the way to school, to the ice cream shop,
to the movie palace. Pulsating. Monarchs' wings beat and the recesses
of my heart blush and swell as he brushes an untamed lock behind
my ear, against my cheek. I adjust his bow-tie before the dance
and then envision what joy it would be to perform this action every
morning. In an apron with white eyelet trim, my hair pinned up,
a fence, a lawn, a house of my own. Home. I was just there, you
know, and mother took my hand to admire the ring. The chill of the
silver band on the finger that was still so warm from his touch
as he slipped the promise around it. I told my mother what he had
assured me: it was just a symbol of the ring to come. Times were
rough for everyone what with the crash and all, but I'd have a real,
sparkling diamond by May and it would come in a lush velvet box,
for sure, he had said. By May. Spring gusts striding along with
a parade, step, step, cymbals, trumpets, step, the town looks on
in revelry. Gown of peach silk with appliqued roses, my orchid wrist
corsage waves to and fro, radiance of youth, graceful, poised, my
day as the May Queen. Down Main Street, past the pond, Sugar Creek,
Singleton Street, here at this window, now. I want to open it, to
soar through the glass and back to Singleton Street, but it sticks,
and I can't. Heat radiates through my black velvet locks, burns
my scalp, the gown sucks me in, and I fumble on in the parade, emptiness
with a quivering smile. Past Singleton Street, Elizabeth (who is
sad to leave the piano), Louie, Ruth and Henrietta, and he, too,
lost in the crowd. Get mother, would you? -- I saw her pass by a
moment ago - and tell her to stop the march, the step, clash, step.
I want to find home.
The old woman in room 209 is at her window once more today. I left
the room yesterday, but she didn't leave me. Passing down the hall
with thermometer and vitamin bottle in hand, I look everywhere I
for the lost ring, and her blue eyes linger and haunt me. I can't
go back there, into that room -- it's too ungrounded, a tangle of
memory and confusion, and the facts of her case are no comfort.
But then I remember I've lied to her, promised her home, tempted
her earnest eyes with a facade of hope. Stepping through the doorway,
I wonder if that facade is what she thinks she sees, so vaguely,
out her window. She doesn't hear my footsteps, so I approach her
and take a seat. "Louise," I greet her, more genuinely
this time, and take her hand. "How are you?" She smiles
at me dreamily, a timid smile. She doesn't know me today. I have
to say...! well, yesterday ..."! stumble, and she gazes at
me in passivity and patience. She knows how it feels to falter over
words, over thoughts like this. "I was wrong yesterday when
I said that you could go home. You have to stay here; we'll watch
out for you" I sit in pain and wait for the tear, for the knitted
brow, and squeeze her hand as if! might be able to keep her in my
world. No reaction, no reply, the truth leaves her unruffled. Just
calm determination. ! watch her turn back to the window.
Silly me. I seem to be a bit confused today. Would you take me
home? The leaves are falling today. Come see. Tangerine, marigold,
vermilion, flashing. Gusty. A storm, cloudy, and I am lying down,
waiting. Hazy, white, then searing, slicing, tearing, red rivers
through the folds. Blurry, then tenderness, now soft life in my
arms, a rosy blanket, rapid breaths. We'll watch out for her. Open
the door and I'll carry her home. Home. Push, now. Out we go. Wisps
of black velvet, newly sprouted hair, blow in the wind. Chilly,
soft puffs of baby's breath. Let's go home now.
The old woman in room 209 is away from the window today. They say
a storm passed by last night, a gale that forced her fragile window
open in one labored heave, one last struggle to remember. It's amazing,
they say. Eighty-eight and agile enough to climb straight through
a first-story window, to hop down, wander. Wander, of course, they
say, like so many of her kind do in their convoluted dreams. The
police are going out first thing to find her, a routine call, they
say. Thermometer and vitamin bottle in hand, I enter her room, glide
to the window, take a seat. Outside, there is peach flannel strewn
across the grass, the robe with appliqued roses discarded, and I
search for her through the window.
Silly me. Where is the street now? The world is fresh today. Come
feel. Fresh. Puffs of steam, stroking, pressing. iron, then crisp
folds. My favorite duty, fold, crease, straighten, in the kitchen.
Blurred, crisp, Formica and hors d'oeuvres through holes in white
eyelet. Oscar Meyer, Rice-A-Roni, little pitter-pattering and tugging
at my skirt. Now gone, an empty house. Home. Empty, through a window,
rigid chair and a fluorescent glow that just preserves. Old woman
The old woman in room 209 is away from the window today. She must
be wandering far, they say, an advanced case.
It's around the corner there, see where I'm pointing? A few paces,
now. Let's count our steps: one, two, six Drumsticks, eighteen orchid
corsages, thirty aprons, eighty-eight... Look, there, at the side
of the road, lazy sweet peas. Rumbling past, a model T - he's there,
No luck in the surrounding area, the police said, no trails. Do
you have any idea where the silly woman would have wandered,"
they ask me, in their dark uniforms, weapons glittering at their
sides, symbols of force. Where the silly woman would have wandered?
They'd bring her back here, I think to myself.
Crickets. Raven braids flying. Spanish dancer, crimson toenails.
It's raining, now. can't you feel? Open wide, now, the drops will
come down, wayward, sleek.
The reply the officers long for is on my lips - but pause. I remember
her blue eyes, delicate, determined, entreating, and I suddenly
think perhaps she hasn't wandered" at all.
Blades meet the surface of the frozen pond and cut, slice, slash
in solid-liquid dance.
Round and round, let's hold hands in girlish glee, the trees, the
neighborhood spin, spin, spin.
Perhaps it's that she simply went home. I shake my head and am
Here, on Singleton Street. It's home, you see.
The old woman in room 209 is at home today.