First, everyone was needling me to figure out what the jars were for, and now I’m being written up because of them.
I sit in the HR office with the HR lady, the charge nurse, and my boss, Mrs. Stevens, who’s the head of custodial services. Everything is done by committee at the retirement community where I work in the assisted living wing, so it’s going to take a committee to decide to fire me.
Mrs. Stevens has a face like a billboard, advertising disapproval. She is not about to have the reputation of her cleaning staff sullied by the likes of me, a nineteen-year-old straight out of high school. The HR lady is so invisible I can’t even remember her name. The charge nurse looks like a pudding, but she’s the one who gets right to business.
“Melinda, why don’t you explain the incident in your own words,” she begins, pudgy fingers hovering over her tablet, ready to tap out her indictment. Mrs. Stevens just stares at me, indictment mentally already signed, sealed, and delivered.
“OK,” I start. “Umm, Miss. Amber moved into the assisted living wing a couple of months ago and it was my job to clean her apartment once a week. She’s in 2B by the sunroom. She has a really nice collection of art.”
“I thought the issue here was the collection of jars,” the HR lady butts in, her voice like a ghost that got locked in a closet.
“Yeah. I mean, yes. She also had these jars, but not like vintage jars. Just empty food jars on a shelf in her bedroom.”
We are a pretty high-end facility, full of rich old people, so the shelf of empty food jars installed in Miss. Amber’s bedroom was more than unusual.
“They were special to her but were just ordinary food jars, covered with dust.”
Mrs. Stevens sniffs. The idea of dust in her facility will end up being my fault, I can just tell. Wondering about those jars drove us all nuts though. They were clear glass containers with faded labels, the lids dipped in wax to seal them beyond any hope of an inquisitive peek. Was something invisible stored in them? Some mystical fragrance? What were we to make of an elegant old woman in her eighties, upright and polished to a glossy sheen like a lot of rich people, her silver hair nicely coiffed, her attire costly, who always wore a string of pearls but also had a collection of empty food jars?
“The first time I went to clean her apartment,” I continue, “she was very gracious. She didn’t look at me like she thought I was going to take her stuff or break it—” Here I pause, trying not to cry. “I really didn’t mean to—”
“Please just tell us what happened,” the charge nurse cautions, fingers twitching.
“Yes, ma’am. She asked me to be careful with the jars, that I wasn’t to dust them or anything.”
“Really?” Mrs. Stevens challenges, both eyebrows on her billboard lifted in doubt.
“She said they should “stay just as they are.” I make finger quotes.
They share unspoken disapproval with each other while I think about how politely Miss A. had said it, not like some of the residents who issue decrees in crotchety voices that telegraph preemptive displeasure. She was nice, not in a warm and fuzzy way, more in a well-mannered and controlled sort of way. The type of lady to never make a scene. Or have a collection of weird jars.
I wanted to ask about them, but it doesn’t pay to be too nosy. Anyway, I forgot about them the second I spotted the Andrew Wyeth. It was an original, a landscape through a window framed with lace curtains as thin as gossamer that seemed to billow right into the room.
“Mostly we talked about her art collection,” I explain. “She was a gallery owner and had some fantastic pieces.”
“I don’t understand how her art collection ties into the incident under discussion,” the charge nurse inserts.
No, I think to myself, you wouldn’t. When Miss. A. saw me staring at that Wyeth, she asked if I liked it, and when I could only stammer inarticulately about the thready lines of the curtains, she said, “This painting frees me. There is a bleakness to the view, yes, but isn’t that true of life? Yet the wind is blowing fresh and clean. Here in this wing, where I cannot open the windows but a crack, it is my breath of fresh air.”
I was so jealous in that moment, of Wyeth’s talent and of Miss. A owning it. The whole reason I have this job is because I want to go to college to study art, but no way can we afford it. My foster parents work hard, but college is so expensive. I applied to every scholarship I could find, and it was never enough. That’s why I’m working here.
And there I was looking at an original Wyeth with someone talking about it exactly the way I felt, like there was bleakness in my world, but the window was open to a breeze of hope.
The following week I asked about a painting of ballerinas in those the long tutus, not the tutus that make the dancer look like a torso on a plate. I figured it was a Degas. She smiled and said kindly, “Many people think that.” Which was her way of graciously letting me know I wasn’t the only dumbass to make that mistake. “It’s by a German artist, Oppler. They are both impressionists, of course, but see here, the softer colors, almost blurred, like snow falling gently on a still evening. It feels calmer than the Degas, some of which, to me, have a tortured quality. I am made a bit too aware of the suffering of the poor young models….”
And there it was, a tiny crack in the beautiful veneer of grace, poise, and wealth. She seemed to have everything, but something sharp was hiding in there. It made me like her a little.
In the weeks that followed, we discussed her Monet and his use of light. Her face glowed when she talked about it, like the light was reflecting inside her, freeing her from the cage of her body. We analyzed a painter I’d never heard of called Aivazovsky, and she showed me how he captured the wildness of the sea. When she spoke, that same wildness filled her, like she was really a naiad living in disguise among humans.
As far as I was concerned, I had hit paydirt, someone with a curated collection and the expertise to give me a one-on-one tutorial. I forgot about the jars.
One day, she greeted me with a large canvas still wrapped in paper. “I got this out of storage for you. I thought you might like it.” She looked a bit breathless, as if she had just sprinted down from the storage locker with it herself. “Go ahead, unwrap it,” she urged, like I was a kid on Christmas morning. I pulled back the paper carefully, the way my foster mom makes us do with presents so that we can reuse the wrapping paper. Then I leaned it up against the sofa back and stepped away.
It was a gentle family scene. “Mary Cassatt,” I said confidently.
“Well done! Now, tell me how you feel looking at it.”
I studied it, conscious that I was supposed to be cleaning her apartment, but also that she kept it so clean, and had so few knickknacks, that it wouldn’t take me long. Particularly since I didn’t have to dust the jars.
“Safe,” I answered. “The mother and children are close. The greenery behind them provides a sense of being surrounded by life and growth. It’s very comforting.”
“Does it remind you of your own home?”
“It does. When my sister and I would fight, my foster mom would sit us down like that and read to us. I felt warm, secure.”
I caught sight of our faces in the mirror above the sofa, hers lined but controlled and confident, mine smooth but clueless and insecure. Yet as she studied the piece, her face darkened, filling with a sadness so deep it was bottomless. It felt awkward witnessing whatever private pain was drowning there.
Later, as I shoved the vacuum over the pristine white carpet, creating a monochromatic Mondrian, I thought about that sorrow. I remembered the comment she’d made about the tortured ballet dancers of Degas. I paused at the mysterious jars, still wearing their furry top hats of dust, and had a feeling they offered a clue if I could read them the way she’d been showing me to do with the art. The jar on the left was larger than the others, with a blue and gold label that read Best Foods Mayonnaise. In the middle were more jars with brands I didn’t recognize like Clapp’s Baby Food, Frank’s Peanut Butter, Lunch Box Sandwich Spread, and a bunch of pickle jars. Then they got fancy, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, and caviar in a jar shaped like a little dollop of gel.
My insightful reading of this installation revealed only that they were arranged old to new, plain to fancy, size intermixed, all sealed with wax. I couldn’t begin to guess what it meant.
She wasn’t there the following week when I cleaned. So of course, I screwed up.
I picked up one of the jars. I’d gotten Pledge on my gloves and the jar shot through my fingers like they’d been buttered and jetted down to shatter on the vacuum cleaner. I heard myself gasp and then an echo of my gasp came from the door. I spun around to face Miss. A. who stood there, her face whiter than that stupid carpet. She let out a keening wail and the elegant, polished façade shattered as jaggedly as the mayonnaise jar. The life seemed to suck out of her, her face crumpling like a used tissue. As if she’d been punched, her body caved in on itself, and she dropped to the carpet, curling into the corner.
Her thin keening didn’t stop the whole time, high-pitched and weirdly child-like in quality.
It was god-awful. I ran over thinking she’d been cut by flying glass, or at the very least, broken bones falling like that. When I reached out to touch her shoulder, her hands shot up to shield her head and she flinched away as though my fingers burned.
I was freaking out. I needed to get help, but I also didn’t want to get in trouble; I really need this job; it pays better than anything else around. “Miss A, I’ll replace it. I didn’t mean to drop it. Really. I am so so sorry.”
She flinched again, and that’s when I pulled back and really looked, like she’d taught me how to do. I wasn’t witnessing grief over a precious keepsake being broken. The strange, curled posture and plaintive cries of a child coming from this old person was something else entirely. And I’d seen it before. My foster brother Tim had been like that when he’d first come. The least little thing would happen, and he’d curl up, protecting himself, terrified. I knew why.
“Miss A,” I said. “They can’t hurt you here.” I spoke as firmly and authoritatively as I could. I waited and I repeated it. Then I touched her knee very lightly and said it again.
The thin crying began to fade.
“Please let me help you up. It’s not good to be on the floor.”
I got her to the edge of the bed where she sat, her feet dangling a little, her haunted eyes seeking out the shards on the floor. As her breathing began to calm, she seemed to be putting together the pieces of herself. “I expect you’ll want to know why I got so upset over a silly jar.” She swiped her elegant fingers under her eyes.
“Not my business, Miss A. But if you want to tell me, I’ll listen.”
“No need to bring all that up again after all these years.” She tried a little laugh, a brave tremor of sound that just made me sad.
I decided to wait this one out, like I used to do with Tim.
“You’re a foster child, aren’t you?” she asked at last.
“And your foster parents are good people?”
“And your parents?”
“I was only three when they died in an accident. What I remember was loving.”
“That is good, then.”
I waited, listening to the muted drone of a soap opera from next door. If Mr. Preston down the hall was going to have a hissy fit that I was late cleaning his apartment, then too damn bad.
Finally, she straightened, touched the pearls at her throat, and said, “My mother was not good people. She was a bad woman, damaged herself of course. The neighbor found me out in the woods behind our house when he was hunting. I was so badly injured I needed to be hospitalized. I wouldn’t cooperate, wouldn’t let the nurses touch me, had nightmares. Finally, one young nurse brought in that mayonnaise jar. She told me to put all my fear and my hurt into that jar. When I did, she sealed it up, and when I said someone would open it and all the bad would come out, she melted a red crayon over the lid so I could be sure no one opened it. It worked. I calmed down, and when my bones healed, the town came and fostered me out.”
“Nowadays they would say repressing emotions like that is a bad thing,” I said cautiously, my psychological training being restricted to an elective I took in high school.
“Oh yes, they would. But it worked for that little girl. And for the little girl I would remain through a variety of questionable foster homes. And for the young woman who ended up in prison.”
The surprise pretty much fell out of my face. She lifted her shoulders slightly. “I made a poor choice in a husband whose financial shenanigans landed me in the klink, as they say. The prison years are in the pickle jars. Because I was in a pickle.” She actually smiled at that. “When I got out, things improved.”
“I guessed by the caviar jar there at the end.”
“Yes, I did well for myself after a bit of struggle.”
“You did the same thing with the paintings, didn’t you? But you put your good feelings into them.”
“Why yes! I guess I did.” She looked pleased with my observation. “My art collection for what is right and beautiful in the world.” And these,” she indicated the jars, “for what was not, a collection of hurt and pain I’ve been hoarding.” She looked like she was reading them herself for the first time. “Nothing was in the jars. I know that. All that hurt and pain was in me.”
A cart clattered by in the hall while she seemed to gather a lifetime of thoughts together. “I could see right through them,” she mused, “but never really looked at them. Ah well, what would the psychologists tell us to do now?”
“I don’t know. But my boss would tell me to clean this up,” I answered as I rose to carefully pick the sharp fragments out of the carpet.
“I think they’d tell me I shouldn’t have been hanging on to those damn things all this time believing they kept me safe. How ridiculous. What do you say we break them all?” She lifted an elegant eyebrow at me.
“Hang on,” I told her. I pulled some safety goggles and another pair of latex gloves out of my cleaning cart. “Safety first.” After I stacked the dusty jars onto the cart, we wheeled down to the hall, laughing like a couple of little kids sneaking out after curfew. In the recycling room, she hurled those jars into the bin as hard as she could, just smashing them all to hell. And she started shouting with each pitch. Her voice echoed in that small space, magnifying all that hurt and anger into a primal chorus of rage.
“Melinda, please explain how you accompanied one of our residents into the recycling room and encouraged her to shout obscenities we could all hear,” the charge nurse is saying, clearly not for the first time. Mrs. Stevens sniffs again, pinching the billboard of her face.
I bring myself back to the meeting, the one where these three Fates decide mine. “She needed to get rid of those jars.”
“Why did she decide, under your care, to break them?”
“I can’t answer for her. It would be… a breach of confidentiality.” That sounds like language these people would understand. “I didn’t realize she would shout so loud, or could, or that she’d say what she did.” Which had been a string of profanities both shocking and outstandingly funny, but no need to get into that. “She didn’t get hurt,” I say instead. “I made her wear goggles and gloves.”
All three lean towards each other to prepare their judgment, but jump when there’s a tattoo of raps on the door and a familiar voice shouts, “I won’t have you harassing that young lady. She had nothing to do with my actions.”
“I think she wants to speak for herself,” I volunteer.
The door flies open, and Miss. A. is framed in it, looking for all the world like a Marvel superhero in pearls. She gives me a grin. Her face is wild and full of light, and as fresh and hopeful as a cool breeze blowing in the windows.