#TellHisStory: False Teeth, Walkers, Wrinkles and Grace

July 3, 2013 | 23 comments


My youngest daughter raced across the polished linoleum of the nursing home’s dining room to get me. We had come to serve dessert to the residents, but this sounded urgent.

“Mommy!” Anna tugged my shirt sleeve. She cupped hands around her mouth to whisper in my ear: “Katherine told me that she wants cake, but her teeth fell out. Can you help me put them back in?”

She pointed to a woman in a wheelchair whose age-spotted arms were crossed over her chest.

“See?” Anna pointed urgently.

Sure enough, Katherine was all gums. She turned our way and smiled a gaping pink smile. A set of false teeth lay on the table.

“Ah, yes. … Well, those aren’t her real teeth, Anna. Those are dentures. Sometimes when people get older, they get a new set of teeth that they can take out whenever they want.”

Relieved, Anna took two pieces of angel food cake. She pulled a chair next to Katherine. Side by side, they chewed (and gummed) their mid-afternoon snack.

This is the sort of thing Anna has come to expect when we step through the glass doors of a nursing home. In this place, we breathe in the smell of age and medicine and antiseptic. But it doesn’t scare her anymore.

As a child, my own mother would take me to nursing homes, too. She’d load up the front seat of our maroon Mercury with songbooks, and we’d visit the aging.  These people had served as our town’s schoolteachers and 4-H leaders and church choir directors.  Before they ended up in nursing homes, they bought our Girl Scout cookies and dropped coins into our UNICEF boxes.

When they eventually died, Mom would walk us down the block to the old Sliefert funeral chapel, where they were laid out in velvet-lined boxes. I peered over the edge of their caskets, and when I thought no one was looking, I would reach a hand in to feel the waxy coldness of death.

That might sound morbid, but it was an important step in my discovery of life and death and faith in God. I saw up close what it meant to be a part of a life cycle spanning the ages.

Today, if we wanted to, we could avoid the pain of aging and death until it was heaved forcefully upon us. We could segregate ourselves by finding neighborhoods and churches that cater only to people our own age. We could even send our children out of the sanctuary so they could attend “kids’ church” with children their own age. And when we turn 65, we could live in communities with people just like us. Those aren’t necessarily bad things, but what might we be missing out on?

Perhaps we would be inadvertently missing out on the mutual benefit of knowing how we fit into a cycle that rings time and space.

As for our family, we want our children to grow up alongside people with wrinkles and gray hair and walkers and false teeth. We attend a church with squirmy babies seated next to wobbly-voiced great-grandmothers.

And when we can, we stop by for short visits at the local nursing home.

After we finished our angel food cake that day, Anna and I walked down the hallway to look for familiar faces.

In the entryway of the TV room sat Ray. His eyes were open, but his chin rested on his chest. Folks said he didn’t seem to respond much in conversation anymore. We tried anyhow.

“Hi, Junger,” I said, calling Ray by his nickname. “We came by to say hello.”

No response.

“We were serving angel food cake today. We have an extra piece if you’d like one.”

Still, no response.

“And Junger?” I tried once more. “I’d like to introduce you to Anna. She’s the great-granddaughter of your old friend Milo Lee. You and Milo sure had a lot of good times fishing and talking about farming, didn’t you?”

And that’s what it took. Junger raised his chin, and those soft eyes focused on a child. He found familiarity in a little girl. It was fuzzy on the edges, but I’m certain he could fit the pieces together.

Anna could sense it, too.

She reached out and touched his veined, gnarled hands. And for three minutes, old Junger didn’t take his eyes off little Anna Lee.

We waved our goodbyes, and left. A few days later, a friend called to give me the news: At age 96, good ol’ Junger – a farmer, cribbage player and fisherman from Iowa – had passed away.


Photo credit: Brian Timothy McCormick on Flickr
From the archive

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by | July 3, 2013 | 23 comments


  1. Lyli @ 3-D Lessons for Life

    Oh, Jennifer, I think it’s wonderful that you take the girls.

    When I was in college, we used to go with a group of girls once a week and sing hymns and choruses a capella to the folks at a local nursing home. We grabbed one of the guys in the ministerial program to go with us and share a short devotional. We were always so blessed each week. You go to serve, but you come out learning so much.

    • dukeslee

      Isn’t that always the way with serving? How, after we leave, we stop for a moment and realize: “Hey, that just blessed my socks off!”

      Thanks for stopping by, sweet lady.

  2. Kris Camealy (@KrisCamealy)

    Jennifer, you are a beautiful soul. Your girls are so blessed to call you Mom. I love your stories, and more, the heart behind them. Thanks for this, my friend.

    • dukeslee

      It really is easier here in small-town America, I suppose, to intermingle across generations. I wonder how much harder it would be if we lived somewhere else? I think I’d have to work harder at it.

  3. Dea

    So beautiful–a little close to my heart since my Grandmother lived in a nursing home until just a few months ago. A strong and independent dairy farmer’s wife, she didn’t like it. I used to sit in the “sweet spot” of five generations but no longer. Always felt like a little girl around my grandmother until I became one. My affinity for her grew in a new direction, as I realized how much she loved me…a grandmother’s love is like no other. Thanks for going with the girls and sharing even though this makes me sad.

    • dukeslee

      Yes … it is sad. I can’t say that I love being there. It’s heart-breaking to see the effects of health and age on some of our friends, and on grandparents and aunts and uncles. But it’s important, I think, for the girls to see and understand. And also to show respect to these fine folks.

      I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother, Dea. So glad you have the memory of a special, loving relationship.

  4. Sheila at Longings Ends

    Lovely words of love and respect for our elders, Jennifer. My mom took me and my sister to regularly visit her grandmother who lived in a nursing home. I remember putting on fashion shows with our cut-out paper dolls on the big old front porch with all the sweet old ladies oohing and aahing and remembering when their children were little. Thanks for the good reminder of how important it is to integrate the generations. Blessings…

    • dukeslee

      Thank you, Sheila! I love that image of you playing with your paper dolls on the front porch. I so appreciate the nursing home where the residents get to sit outside and enjoy the fresh air.

  5. lorisprayercloset

    I love this Jennifer! I have been spending more time in the nursing home since my best friend’s Mom and Dad both went in…just yesterday in fact. You are doing a great work and teaching your daughters such important things about life! bless you…..

  6. Mary Bonner (@TheMaryBonner)

    The legacy you are leaving for your daughters is priceless. I wish I’d been as good a mother to my son. This is truly beautiful, Jennifer.

  7. simplystriving

    Oh mylanta…maybe someday I’ll be able to look your girls in the eye and tell them how obvious it is that God loves them…for He gave them you. {HUGS}

  8. Laura Rath

    What a beautiful and touching story!

  9. Jackie

    Thank you so much for this wonderful piece on the elderly! I used to work in a nursing home and saw how much hearts were blessed by visitors and how some particularly lonely ones never, ever had a visitor. That broke my heart. And now I’m nursing home material myself but am blessed to be able to stay in our home, at least for a while. My husband and I look forward to those who are led to just come by for a minute…and hope they will be as blessed as we will be!

  10. Lisa notes...

    I love that you take your daughter to the nursing home, Jennifer. Too many try to shelter their kids (and themselves? me included?) from the hard things of life, but those are such important things. We took our daughters to nursing homes, funerals, hospital visits, from the time they were little so they would know that life includes many things, and there are ways we can help each other. I’ve never regretted it. May God continue to bless you as you do the same!

  11. Floyd

    And Junger got the gift of a lifetime before he left… as well as your little one, and you… and now me…

  12. Dolly@Soulstops

    Dear Jennifer,
    What a great tradition you are passing on to your girls. I visited an older woman one year, once a week, and read to her…she introduced me to Agatha Christie. What a mutually blessed way to share God’s love and a little cake 🙂

  13. Lisa Buffaloe

    Tears. Sweet tears. Thank you, sweet Jennifer. Thank you for touching us with the touch of love you and your sweet girl shared with others.

  14. Leah Adams

    When I am old(er)….I never want to fall into the trap of segregating myself away from young(er) people. There is so much value in speaking into their lives and them speaking into the lives of us old(er) folks. Beautiful post.

  15. lschontos

    This is so poignant Jennifer. I can remember the times we visited my in-laws at their retirement village. The apartments and small houses were set on beautifully landscaped grounds. The people were all lovely, but they were all about the same age. It seemed so sad – no little ones or teenagers or young or middle-aged people. We need to part of one another’s lives. We need each other to be truly complete.

  16. Jillie

    How wonderful, Jennifer, that you and Anna took the time that day to stop and talk to ‘Junger’. He raised his weary head and looked upon your sweet girl, and for a moment, I’m certain he remembered. You and Anna gave a precious gift that day. A precious gift to Junger. Don’t ever stop taking those beautiful, loving girls of yours to visit the elderly. What you give, and receive, is absolutely priceless….and precious in the eyes of Jesus.
    I loved this story, Jennifer. You brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.

  17. Michelle Eichner

    What a beautiful picture of the older teaching the younger! Precious. Thank you for sharing so beautifully as always! Hugs to you, Michelle

  18. pourcettetemps

    oh my goodness, this line “And for three minutes, old Junger didn’t take his eyes off little Anna Lee.” did me in. Remembrance in the face of a granddaughter that mirrors the face of his old friend. I love this. i think its so important to participate and know so many different people, especially those who are aging…what stories of times they can share, what love so many forget that they still need…and I’m sure that their heart fills with joy to see Anna as i’m sure they don’t get too many younger visitors who have come to be a bit more comfortable in the midst of them.

  19. Nancy Ruegg

    I agree with “lshontos” above: we need each other, because we learn from each other. At a church we used to attend in another community, the choir was comprised of all ages, from middle schoolers to senior citizens. I loved it. We were like a family of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The enthusiasm and energy of the young ones was inspsiring. And hopefully the wisdom and positive examples of the older ones made an impression. Being separated into age groups has its place, but I vote for more “family” time!



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