Welcome back to guest blogger Esther Miller!

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The picnic invitation for special guests

Several years ago when “nursing homes” had a more diverse population than they do now, many patients were still able to enjoy trips into the community. But there were quite a number of patients at the facility where I consulted who were uncommunicative or incontinent and didn’t seem to benefit from trips outside. Planning appropriate activities for them was a constant struggle for the activity director, so I offered to host a picnic at my house.

We had a large concrete patio with easy wheelchair access. Our cool coastal climate assured that even the midday sun would not be too hot. The food service director approved a typical cookout—hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, the works.

Our garden's bounty

Our patio was at the top of a small hill overlooking our vegetable garden, fruit trees, and chicken yard. The previous spring one of our hens had set on a clutch of eggs and we now had several half-grown chickens. Two varieties of sweet corn were over 6 feet tall, the tomato vines so full of fruit you could see them from the patio, and cucumber vines wandered with wild abandon well beyond the boundaries of the garden. The first peach tree was nearly finished bearing and the second one was full of fruit.

“Connections were made…”

On the appointed day, several staff members accompanied a dozen and a half of the most socially “inappropriate” patients and brought along the meat, buns, condiments, and beverages. As the wheelchairs filled the patio, our guests were greeted by the unmistakable sound of young roosters learning to crow. Indescribable to city folks, the sound is instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up in the country and most of these seniors had. Connections were made in the deepest recesses of auditory memory and smiles began to appear. Several indicated they wanted to go down the hill to see the chicken yard and get a closer look at the garden.

The smell of the grill brought everyone back up the hill and soon the tables were filled with platters of steaming corn on the cob, plates of juicy tomato slices, plenty of leaf lettuce, onions, and jars of homemade pickles. There were cucumbers and onions in sour cream with a little fresh dill and the favorite of my parents’ generation, cucumbers and onions in vinegar with sugar.

By now most everyone was talking. One lady begged to come and help me can peaches the next day. Another told me I really should plant lemon cucumbers because they make the best bread and butter pickles. They fought over the white corn, anything from a mason jar, and cleaned me out of tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers.

“They were all talking…and making sense!”

The contrast was amazing…the staff had never seen white corn and thought there was something wrong with it. They limited themselves to the discount pickle relish from the BigBoxStore. But mostly they were surprised that the seniors were all talking…and making sense!

Dessert was homemade vanilla ice cream. Eyes lit up as my children and I offered freshly sliced peaches to anyone who wanted them. Several times the children got hugs along with teary thank-yous as they moved around the patio.

The unexpected gift

When everyone had been served, I found myself sitting on the brick planter near a gentleman who would probably soon be joining his wife in the facility. He was from a well-known family in the valley, certainly not poor by anyone’s standards. He took my hand and thanked me, saying that no amount of money could have bought such a meal. I started to say something but he continued, “It’s been so long since my wife has been herself. Thank you for giving her back to me for this one afternoon.”

What more could I ask for?

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Today’s guest blogger − and Connection Messenger − is Esther Miller, a Shenandoah Valley neighbor and fellow amateur radio operator (KK6AD). Esther has been a Virginia Master Gardener for over ten years. “I’ve been gardening since I was a kid,” she says, and her love of Nature is evident whenever you’re around her. She has traveled all over the United States and brings a wealth of experience and observance of Nature to her writing.

Born and raised in the midwest, Esther lived in California for over 30 years before moving to the Shenandoah Valley over 10 years ago with her husband, Larry.  ”I was an Occupational Therapist when I wasn’t being a fulltime homemaker and mother, working with children who had learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and autism.”  She has two children and two grandchildren and has been married over 40 years.

Besides gardening, Esther is interested in genealogy and travel in the U.S.

Photo Credit: “Hamburger On A Picnic Table” by MSPhotographic via BigStockPhoto

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