my mother suddenly became ill with a heart problem,
I was drafted as a temporary replacement for
her in my fathers rural medical practice
near the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee.
I didnt relish the idea of taking any
leave from my glamorous job as a U.S. Senate
lawyer, but it was an emergency and I was assured
it would only be for a couple of days.
could I say no? So I rushed home from Washington
to fill in as his receptionist.
When I unlocked the front door of my fathers
office at 7:30 the first morning, the phone
was already ringing. I hurried inside and stretched
across the reception desk to answer it.
Jourdans office, I said, out of
yall wash out feet? a woman shouted
in a raucous voice.
considered her question. Although I spoke the
local dialect fluently, I had no idea what she
meant. I said, Excuse me? and
quickly moved the earpiece a safe distance away
from my head before she had time to respond.
out feet! Do yall wash out feet?
. . . I dont know. I sent up a
silent prayer that we did not.
she needs her foot washed out! How much do yall
charge for that?
I was unsure if we even did such a thing, how
could I know how much it would cost? I
dont know, I said.
the ensuing silence I managed to add, Id
ask the doctor, but hes not here yet.
Ill find out when he comes in and call
you back and tell you what he says. Okay?
I fumbled through the piles of paper on Mommas
desk until I located a pencil and a blank scrap
of notepaper, jotted down the womans
name and number, and then hung up. I stared
at the phone warily. Working as a temp for Daddy
might be a little harder than Id anticipated.
I hurried around to the other side of the reception
desk in an attempt to put a bit of formica between
myself and the medical world. But before Id
even gotten seated atop the wooden stool that
was the main feature of my new domain, I heard
the front door open and then the unmistakable
sound of elderly ladies, their voices worn out
from too many years of use. One squeaked like
a rusty hinge and the other crackled in an unpredictable
jumble of soft and then suddenly loud sounds,
like a radio with bad reception. The ladies
were advising and encouraging each other in
an effort to negotiate a small step at the front
door. I turned and saw that it was the Hankins
sisters, Herma and Helma, and their friend who
lived with them, Miss Viola Burkhart.
known them all my life. They were in their nineties.
The Hankins sisters had never been married.
Miss Viola was a widow who had come to live
with them after her husband died. She was ninety-eight,
weighed about seventy pounds, and had an advanced
case of what the sisters called old-timers.
Somewhere along the way shed lost the
ability or inclination to speak and now she
wore a perpetual vacant smile.
was ninety-five and also weighed less than a
hundred pounds. She was extremely stooped, bent
almost double from osteoporosis, and her eyesight
wasnt good. Herma was the baby at ninety-one
and probably weighed more than both the other
ladies combined. She was still sturdy but deaf
as a post. So there was one who could hear and
see, but not think or talk; one who could think,
hear, and talk, but not see; and one who could
think, see, and talk, but not hear.
ladies were inseparable. Helma did the cooking
and talking on the phone and Herma did the heavy
work and the driving. Both of them took care
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