Silver Bells

Publish Date:

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Category:

News Organization:

The Washington Post

Source URL:

The Ghost of Christmas Past slips in on a gingerbread breeze. The Colonel can't resist an urge to rearrange the stockings over the fireplace again, and Betty Plack wants the holiday table set just so for the guests she expects any minute now -- have you seen them, are they here?

Virginia Moates, elegant in her pearls and knit suit and fresh pink manicure, laughs in delight each time she passes the giant inflatable snowman posed in the hallway. "Is it Christmas yet?" she wants to know.

"Not yet," Nadine Harris tells her. "Soon."

But memories, not clocks or calendars, mark the seasons in the Sunrise Senior Living home on Connecticut Avenue NW, where 20 patients with Alzheimer's disease consider the third floor their neighborhood, and Christmas here does not loom so much as linger.

Nadine, 40, is the Sunrise staff member responsible for decorations, making sure the snowflakes dangling from the ceiling and the ornaments on the tree are monochromatic silver and white, the fairy lights clear and not flashing, creating a tableau tranquil as new-fallen snow. She is the reminiscence coordinator, the one who schedules the day's activities, like field trips to exhibits or a museum, or the group social where everyone chats about holiday traditions.

Today, a visiting facilitator is leading the discussion. Marlene Sandhu has brought a box of holiday props, and 85-year-old Betty Plack, who was a Hagerstown homemaker, gladly ties a holly-sprigged apron around her trim waist.

"My mother always made -- " Betty searches for the word. "Fruitcake?"

The Colonel playfully puts on a red Santa hat, swapping it later for some felt reindeer antlers and then again for a bejeweled Three Kings crown, which eventually ends up atop Virginia's well-coiffed head.

"Queen Virginia," the facilitator prompts, "what would you like to tell us?"

"That you're all a bunch of wonderful people!" comes the reply.

Betty gets up from her chair to curtsy deeply in her Christmas apron. "Well, thank you," she says, planting a kiss on her friend's cheek.

Some clementines are being peeled and passed around, their citrus scent reminding Virginia of the orange and grapefruit trees that grew in her yard when she was a girl in California. Someone begins to sing: "Oh my darlin', oh my darlin', oh my darling Clementine." Everyone joins in, voices thin but sure.

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