When the day shift knew what the night shift did

Since we liquidated our mortal assets and became dependent on the independent living institutions, I find more and more folks my own age are sharing my opinions.

It used to be, "Aw, c'mon, that's a bunch of malarkey!" But now when I opinionate they grab my hand and pump so my eyes boggle, and they say, "How right you are!"

Just now my friend in the next corridor said, "It bothers me that the night shift never knows what the day shift does." I shook his hand violently so his hat fell off, and I said, "I noticed that first thing!" I told him I believed this was a fault in communicating, and would be resolved when the first and second shifts got somebody able to read and write.

As a consequence of this treason I thought about it, and my editor at this address has just received the following from me:

Dorothy Cummings and I were school mates and, along with two dozen others, were the class of 1926 of Freeport High School, Maine.

An only child, Dorothy was her mother's baby doll and her father's joy, and she had every wish without being spoiled. She was always trim and prim. And she was pretty.

Every year in late winter, all her classmates got handwritten invitations and we attended Dorothy's birthday party, which was a humdinger. We all went and had good fun. Her mother and father put themselves out to make each party better than the last, and our parents were careful that we got shined up to be worthy of the honor. My mother made me get a haircut, gave me 35 cents for a new necktie, and wrapped my gift herself.

In the early years, Dorothy's party was held at home. But in 1921, the board of selectmen appointed Mr. Cummings keeper of the town farm, which required his living there, and during high school we observed Dorothy's birthdays at the Poor House.

Let us not quibble today about how they did things then. The small-town almshouse got a bad name when welfare became a new word in political language. While we have no more town farms today, we may be no kinder to our senior citizens than we were the year Dorothy Cummings was 13.

Our town farm, or poor farm, was a considerable property. Ample pasturage was set apart for a small milking herd. The farm also cut about 100 tons of hay and had barns to store it. It also had carts, wagons, sleds, a threshing machine, and a hay baler, and was supposed to make money.

The farm house was living quarters for the keeper and family, with rooms for the "poor in," the old folks who needed care as opposed to the "poor out," who got town aid but didn't need shelter and care.

So in 1921, we went there for Dorothy's birthday party. It was a snappy late winter evening with plenty of snow. We arrived together, bundled, and each had his present for Dorothy. Mine was a violet sachet to sweeten her hanky drawer, and it stunk up my attic bedroom for a week. We thumped the front door and Dorothy opened it, collecting her booty as we filed in.

The kitchen was big enough for square dancing and a circle of chairs awaited us. I counted 33. The big table had party dishes and favors and a full-moon layer cake with 13 candles. Dorothy was beautiful in a new gown and a crown of hothouse roses.

The extra seven chairs were for the poor in, and Mrs. Cummings left the kitchen to bring them. Volunteers had come that afternoon to get them ready. Each of the four ladies had corsages and each of the three gentlemen lapel posies.

Dorothy, with the composure of a monarch, greeted them with dignity and charm, bestowing a birthday kiss and saying, "Oh, don't you look nice tonight!" The old folks each had a gift for Dorothy who said, "Oh, you shouldn't have!"

We did the usual. We played winkum, seven in and seven out, spin the bottle, and musical chairs, and we cut the cake and had cocoa. Mr. Whipple couldn't take his cake until he went to his room to get his teeth, and Mrs. Dunn spilled cocoa on Ned Coffin's new blue suit. I never gave that evening proper thought until I, too, one day, was elderly and remembered. It was the best of all Dorothy's parties.

Later in the evening, Mr. Cummings went to the barn and drove the Percherons up to the door with a hay rack of oat straw on the town two-sled and the team bells a-clack in the sharp winter air. We got into our jackets and helped the oldsters into theirs, then climbed aboard.

A cold half moon was setting over the poor-farm barn. The team headed toward town, and it would be about a mile to the first street lamp. Mrs. Dunlop, 87 and widowed, called out, "All together now! One-and-two-and 'The old gray mare she ain't what she used to be, Ain't what she used to be, Ain't what she used to be....' "

I, and probably my classmates, did not know until then that "The Old Gray Mare" has 25 verses. Mrs. Dunlop knew them all. When we came to a house, we'd see in the windows and folks would jump from easy chairs to see what the commotion was.

Mr. Cummings let us off, house by house. Mine was last. I said goodnight and jumped off. Dorothy and her mother were asleep on the straw. Mr. Cummings and the old-timers were on the verse about "sad iniquity."

At that time the day shift knew very well what the night shift was doing.

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