The Summer of My (Dis)content

 Hôpital du Sacré-Cœur de Montréal, 1923. Photo: Stéphane Batigne, 2009

I wring my hands in frustration. They never should’ve sent a 16-year-old girl to do a grown woman’s job. “Please, Mrs. Georgiopoulos”, I address the skin-and-bones woman lying mutely in the confines of her narrow hospital bed, her unswerving gaze fixed upward. Is she deciphering secret sketches by Michelangelo in the stained ceiling tiles?

Her recalcitrant silence echoes off the walls, her old lady smell permeates my nostrils. “Do you want tomato juice or orange?” I persist. The hairy mole on her lip flutters its spidery legs as she draws a slow breath. I stare at this creepy-crawly in disgust, thinking no magical potion of citrus is going to make that go away.

“Please”, my whiny tone cannot hide my growing impatience. “Just tell me! If I go back to the office without your menu sheet filled in, I could get fired.” Was that literally true – Who knew? This was my first ever day at my first ever job, dietitian’s aide at the local hospital. Already I hated the long walk up the steep streets to work, with the summer sun beating down on my head. I resented the white coat I had to actually iron and which hid my new green-checked summer dress. I feared the boss whose stern countenance made me feel like a clumsy six-year-old.

The two other women on the job, who got to wear pink coats, tried to be friendly with me. “So you’re in high school, eh? Do you have a boyfriend? Want a cigarette?” I stammered that I didn’t smoke. They strode off, eager to inhale and gossip together. I looked around the bare walls of the empty staff lounge. Geez, not again, hadn’t I had enough of sitting alone at lunch at school – me, the class egghead?

Candy Stripers in New Jersey

“So, please, Mrs. Georgiopoulos, tell me, tell me…” I was reluctant to just check off a selection on my own; my god, that would be cheating, it would be a lie, a habit in which I was as yet unpracticed. Mrs. G just lay there, unresponsive, caring not a whit about my dilemma. I finally decided to leave the space blank, hoping it wasn’t like missing an answer on a multiple-choice exam. “F” for you, young lady – oh no, an unimaginable outcome.

At the hospital the next day, Mrs. G was no longer on my menu rounds. Oh my goodness, had she tattled on me, turning me in for being rude and insensitive; oh no, was I about to get fired?

I sought out the smokers. “Oh, yeah,” they informed me offhandedly, “Mrs. G died last night. You’ll get used to it, what else do you expect on a terminal cancer ward?” I blanched both at the news of her death, and of the revelation of my menu beat. I felt miserable, for now my resentment transfigured to pity and shame. Poor Mrs. G., dying alone, perhaps focusing on the echoes of her past and the further journey of her soul, all the while being browbeaten by a pimply-faced kid.

Terminal cancer ward – well, that went some ways toward explaining the behavior of that demanding Mrs. Laird, who yelled incessantly at me. “You know all I can eat are stewed tomatoes, where is my food, where is it?” I had tried to find the cafeteria, but I had no magic string to lead me through the labyrinth of hospital corridors. The bitch, for so I had naively labeled her, wouldn’t listen to my excuse. After I had finally found the eatery, the staff had told me “No can do”. Nonetheless, Mrs. L. just had to have her stewed tomatoes, “Right now, do you hear me???”

Yesterday I had been appalled at the idea of misshapen lumps of skinned love apples slumping over in pale sickly broth. Now that image itself paled beside the thoughts running through my head about this woman’s fate. I was too young and inexperienced in this world to understand the fear that must have propelled her, concentrating all her scared, angry energy into screams directed at me.

Maybe word got around about my incompetence — I was soon transferred to a general medical ward. My next character was Mr. Vasilovic, a stocky, middle-aged man with an Eastern European accent. He smiled and generally bore his hospital sentence with stoicism. He didn’t rebel against the prison-like environment, the sterile room, or the dullness of the daily round. All he asked out of life at this moment was a small portion of mustard.

“Please, Miss Marilyn,” he asked so nicely, “just a dab, no one will miss it from the kitchen.” He wanted the mustard, not to distill its seeds and plant them, hoping for enlightenment, but just to zest up his meager sandwich. I might have been able to supplement my income by procuring him the spicy concoction from off-site, but, as with lying, I was still a stranger to that level of perfidy.

Nurses in Toronto Orthopedic Ward 1950s

Mr. V was a gentle and sweet man, and would even wink at me, the first man outside of my family to give me this honour. Our crusader would search in every nook and cranny for mustard. His gown flapped open in the back as he walked the halls of the hospital ward, revealing his hairy bum – first I had ever seen outside my family: yuck. He so disliked the taste of bland, and, against doctors’ orders, he repeatedly refused to drink the milk that danced its merry dairy jig on his meal tray. I learned that he had an ulcer, but this was light years before this condition was understood to be bacteria related. Doctor McCoy on Star Trek used to laugh at 20th century medicine; “Right on, Bones, how right you were…”

After the first grueling month, I decided to quit the job. This was the first of several soul-searching experiences in my life where I sought to balance the consequences of being a “quitter” versus what appeared to be relief on the other side. My parents agreed that I could quit: “Sure, Marilyn, if you’re that unhappy.” Money was tight but the pittance I was bringing home wasn’t worth hearing me fuss and moan about the job. “We told you that you were too young to go to work.”

From left: Marilyn’s two cousins and Marilyn with her pet budgie on the right. About age 13.

The very next day I nervously approached my boss, the dietitian supervisor. “My parents are going on an extended family trip, and I am expected to leave work and go with them”, I pronounced, intending to sound as if I knew what a sacrifice it was for the hospital to lose me. Little did she know that, given our budgetary situation, an extended family trip meant taking the streetcar and two buses to visit relatives who lived on the other side of Montreal.

That fib rolled easily off my tongue. I did learn something at work after all!

Marilyn’s HS Grad Photo

Marilyn Myerson, PhD Philosophy, has learned to take nothing for granted and to have fun. She retired from USF after 38 years of teaching, learning and kicking up her heels in Women’s and Gender Studies. Marilyn was the first outside hire in W(G)S, starting in 1973, when the department was just one year old. She was an administrator at various departmental and dean’s levels, including a stint as W(G)S Chair before her retirement as Emeritus faculty in 2010. She shepherded the Human Sexual Behavior class through its many incarnations, developed the original women’s health classes, and taught feminist research methodology. She is currently in three writing groups, and happily involved with OLLI-USF, taking art and writing classes. She created and teaches OLLI Imaginative Writing classes and facilitates writing groups.

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8 Replies to “The Summer of My (Dis)content”

  1. Brilliant – good grief medicine is so messy.
    Thanks for making me smile – not a normal process first thing in the morning…

  2. You completely revealed the lens of perception that we all once knew — that of our own youth, so earnest. Well done Marilyn — a real treat to read!

  3. What wonderful writing. Very descriptive. Enhanced so much by the pictures. Bringing to mind the uncertainty of those early teenage years.


  5. Well done Marilyn! It really took me down “memory lane” and my early working years. Just so happens that one of my first jobs was in the kitchen of a local large hospital. I’m still thinking and reminiscing about my experiences there, thanks to your interesting and thoughtful piece.

  6. Bravo! Beautifully written descriptions of the characters, made all the more poignant by their dire situation. It reads like a short story giving the reader a vivid portrait of life in a nursing home. Spidery moles, sad stewed tomatoes, milk that dances like a jig and the desperate hunt for mustard captures the imagination. The most prescient query relates to a terminally ill patient whom you imagine was “focusing on the echos of her past and further journey of her soul”.

  7. Marvelously written, movingly and imaginatively told. And the photos are brilliant —the one of the budgie—capturing a moment in time, as your story does—perfect.

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