The Hankins Sisters
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.
How 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.
Dr. Jourdans office, I said, out of breath.
Do yall wash out feet? a woman shouted in a raucous voice.
I 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.
Wash out feet! Do yall wash out feet? she screamed.
I . . . I dont know. I sent up a silent prayer that we did not.
Well she needs her foot washed out! How much do yall charge for that?
If I was unsure if we even did such a thing, how could I know how much it would cost? I dont know, I said.
In 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.
Id 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.
Helma 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.
The 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 of Viola.
Copyright (c) Carolyn Jourdan 2006-2007. All rights reserved.
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