I play the piano in seven senior facilities now. The most recent added to my roster is a small assisted living center with about 30 residents. Things got off to a rocky start during my first visit. I took my place at the nice little Baldwin spinet in the dining room and launched into “Love Letters in the Sand.” This 1931 song is usually a well-received favorite, but I had played only a few measures when Shirley, who was seated right next to the piano, told me to “shut up” because “that music isn’t any good.”
A staff member immediately swooped in and wheeled her away. As many of you know, I have taken some verbal abuse from listeners in my years as a volunteer pianist. This time, I felt like the staff had my back.
About 10 minutes later, Shirley was returned to her table and given another chance. After all, they had to let her eat lunch. She picked up where she left off, pointing to the big pile of sheet music beside me and calling out, “Hey piano lady, are you ever gonna run outta steam?” That earned Shirley another time out.
When she came back, she tried a different approach to get me to stop playing. “Hey piano lady, are you gonna eat lunch?” Shirley ended up having her meal at a table for two, with an aide, clear across the room.
And I was left to ponder: When did I become a lady?
Once I reached my 20s, I objected to being called a girl. I mentioned this to my dad at one point, and he just couldn’t understand why being referred to as a girl wasn’t a compliment, regardless of age. “It means you look young,” he insisted. I tried to explain why it felt condescending instead; he remained unconvinced.
I haven’t been called a girl since—oh, I don’t know—maybe the mid-90s? I remember being startled several years ago when a young receptionist needed to summon a manager from a back office to help me. I heard her explain on the telephone to her superior, “There’s a lady here to see you …” Where? What lady?
My mother had the habit of referring to every woman who worked a front-desk job as “the girl.” The girl overcharged me for the medication. The girl was able to fit me into the schedule today. It didn’t seem to matter to my mother how old these women were; they were all girls to her. I didn’t comment on this until the day she told me, “After my appointment, one of the girls showed me pictures of her grandchildren.” I had to say it: Girls do not have grandchildren.
Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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