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  • Mj Pettengill

A Pure, Unshakeable Reflection

Updated: Feb 24



Thoughts swirled about my head when I drove up the long driveway leading to Mountain View Nursing Home—a present day version of the Carroll County Poor Farm. Although the jail, State Hospital, and other institutions are also spin offs from the poor farm, this was really it, the core of it all. The majority of those buried in the anonymous graves —the focus of my work— were the elderly.



One by one, the patients arrived, some were wheeled in, while others navigated their own walkers or wheelchairs. It was sinking in — between 50 and 146 years ago, it is likely that they would have ended up being nothing but a number in the pauper cemetery.

Scenes from my book flashed across the screen in my head, as I observed the assemblage. The only thing missing was a pile of crushed bone meal in the center of our circle.

While most were bright and hopeful, others had a distant, sad look about them. During most of my presentation, a woman in the background was singing familiar children’s songs, becoming the soundtrack of our gathering.

As Nellie said, “I passed through the long hall where people laughed and cried and spoke words with no meaning.” The truth of aging was before me. All that I wrote about, imagined, and unmistakably inhabited throughout my journey, rose to the surface.



I read excerpts from my novel, trying to concentrate, keenly aware that I was reading about an earlier version of the people in the room. Of all the audiences that I stood before in my long career as a performer and lecturer, this one was a pure, unshakeable reflection of my work.

They were appreciative. Many wanted to purchase a copy of my book. A few of them rifled through their wallets and didn’t have enough money, or they asked if they could purchase a book later. It was a poignant scene that was filled with many more lessons than I had expected.

My heart overflowed at the thought of these gentle folks wanting to read, yet unable to afford, a historical novel about an earlier portrayal of themselves, spanning history in the actual setting of where we stood together in that precise moment in time. Without further thought, I offered to donate complimentary copies of my book. Some insisted on purchasing a book, while others graciously accepted my offer.



The magnitude of compassion that I felt for the residents and gratitude for the staff who provides their care, flooded my senses. I left knowing that as a society, we have made great strides in managing our elders. I was reassured of the significance of our basic names, those given, changed, and sometimes taken from us, and the act of simply being remembered. As a mother, I was reminded of the responsibility and careful consideration that I invested in selecting names for my own children — something to honor, cherish, and hold in respect

As time marches on, much of this cultural narrative remains ageless. There is still so much to learn and consider when it comes to eldercare. It is essential to continue to strive for a satisfactory quality of life for those individuals who cannot afford the best services.

We must continue to find a way sustain their wellness with dignity and give unending support for those who are in the eldercare profession. We’re all in it together.


 Photo Credits: Lewis Hines Collection

wellness with dignity and give unending support for those who are in the eldercare profession. We’re all in it together.




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