As Thelma opens the door, she laughs and greets us with“Hi Marrrrtha and Bridget.” I give her a hug.
My grandmother and Thelma’s favorite song is “I was born under a wanderin’ star” from the western “Paint your Wagon.” My sister made both of them a C-D, and Thelma excitedly puts it in the player. Martha and Thelma sit, sway and sing along with the raspy-voiced Lee Marvin.
“Mud can make you prisoner and the plains can bake you dry;Snow can burn your eyes, but only people make you cry; Home is made for coming from, for dreams of going to; Which with any luck will never come true; I was born under a wandrin' star; I was born under a wandrin' star; When I get to heaven, tie me to a tree; For I'll begin to roam and soon you'll know where I will be;I was born under a wandrin' star; A wandrin' wandrin' star”
Thelma and Martha have been wanderin' around together for 34 years. They wandered around Regional Hospital in Jackson, TN for over 60,000 work hours, suffered the death of their husbands together, and talk on the phone almost everyday.
Before my grandmother met Thelma in 1982, she and my grandfather, Earl , wandered from Lexington, TN to Peoria, Ill and then finally settled in Pinson, TN. After my father graduated from high school and married, my grandmother decided to get a job.
Preparing for this blogpost, I called my grandmother and asked “Why did you decide to work at Regional Hospital?” She said “I always wanted to work in a hospital. While at Regional, I got to see X-rays, the morgue, autopsies, and everything that went on in the basement.” (I wonder what went on in the basement…..) I asked, “When did you start?” She immediately answers, “I started on October 20, 1978 and was forced to quit on November 20, 2011 because of health reasons.” Even after 5 years of retirement, she strongly states that she would still like to return to work. For 30 years, she cleaned hospital rooms 40 hours a week and rarely took a vacation. At the end of the conversation, my grandmother adds that “in the last years, the hospital called us “environmental engineers,” but I was a housekeeper, plain and simple.”
After my grandmother and Thelma sing “I was born under a wandering star” twice, we go outside to talk about how they met. Here is what my grandmother says about learning that Thelma would work with her:
Stories bind Thelma and my grandmother together. In one section of the interview, Thelma describes how my grandmother “just had to smoke even though a strong storm was blowin' outside.” “So, she went outside, lit the cigarette, and was blown back into the building. She went back outside and was blown backwards again. She really wanted that cigarette.” My grandmother laughs and says “Yeah, it was good that you never took up smoking.” Thelma answers back “Yeah, I just couldn’t ever inhale. I guess I am just like Bill Clinton.” They both laugh.
Other stories included how my grandmother often used too much cleaner when wiping down chairs and how they both got cleaner burns, how Thelma accidentally got locked in the broom closet on several occasions, and how my grandmother cooked supper for everybody, but Thelma ate most of it. Thelma said “It was so good. I wasn’t about to let anybody have Martha’s cooking.” My grandmother said, "Yeah, sometimes she didn't even leave enough food for me." I would have loved to see their antics over the years.
In the end of the interview, I ask “So, what are ya’ll going to do the next ten years?” and this was part of their answer: (you can hear Rodney, Thelma’s son laughing in the background)
In ten years, my grandmother will probably still be cooking her famous Mississippi Mud Cake and telling Thelma about it over the phone. They will wander through retirement together and then when they get to heaven, they will know where to find each other.
Currently, in the media, stories of division abound whereas spaces of unity remain forgotten, overlooked, or deemed uninteresting. Division exists, but let’s not forget to also look for spaces of unity. The spaces where unlikely friendships form, are nurtured, and where people learn from each other. Spaces of unity give me hope.
Share your stories or images of spaces of unity below.
Enjoy this gallery of images from Tennessee.