Adeline ran the kitchen at Wheatland Memorial Hospital and Nursing Home. Even when she wasn’t there, her place seemed understood. Adeline had started working at the hospital in 1975, the year I was born, and by the time I came to work there sixteen years later, she was firmly entrenched in the routine of a hard shift. She arrived to work between 4:30 and 5 a.m. to open the kitchen, warm the ovens, maybe take out meat to thaw for dinner, and get ready the staples of a nursing home breakfast: several dozen hard boiled eggs, a deep stainless steel pan filled with limp, buttered toast, neatly stacked, and a soup cauldron of Cream of Wheat or the more binding Cream of Rice. She’d set out bowls and plates, and set out the bowl covers for residents and hospital patients who ate in their rooms. She worked five or maybe six days a week, always the early shift, and seemed resignedly content in the position she held there. She had the seniority, and besides that the attitude, to “own” the kitchen. Adeline seemed not happy to be there, but pleased with her small amount of power and willing to overlook the fact that she was not officially in charge.
Adeline had the same hairdo as a lot of the female residents—a curly football helmet, slightly mullet-ish. Her dark brown hair stayed tamped down under the hair net for the whole shift, but when it got longer, tufts would tease out underneath the light weave of the net.
Adeline would have been in her mid or late 40s when I worked with her, but she treated me with more respect than she did Cheryl, our boss, who seemed the same approximate age as Adeline. Cheryl was the official head of the dietary department, a licensed dietitian, and had apparently had some psychiatric issues in the past. A hospital rumor accused her of doing time in a mental institution. She worked on weekdays, and only until five, so I’d see her just a couple of times a week. She had a tiny alcove office just off the dining room – her desk was less than three feet from a resident table. Cheryl had a slow way of speaking, and she always, for the entire three years I worked there, called me Tawnya. I corrected her for about a year, but then I figured she wasn’t going to get it, so I let it slide. Cheryl mostly targeted me for chatting when she wanted to gently reprimand me for not properly sweeping and mopping the floors, or leaving too many dishes behind when I left for the evening. I always nodded and politely promised to do a better job, because I knew I was rather sloppy and always hurried.
When Cheryl had to talk to Adeline, I felt embarrassed for both of them. It was a power struggle, I suppose, but Adeline clearly intimidated Cheryl, like she did most everyone at work, within the kitchen and without. Cheryl would come around the corner to the cook’s side of the kitchen, and try to pin Adeline down to chat about the menu or inventory.
“The residents are looking forward to the peach cobbler at afternoon tea,” Cheryl might say, leaning against the counter, smiling encouragement at Adeline, who kept moving, opening and closing the oven doors, stirring a pot and checking a recipe.
“Well. I don’t know why, cause none of ‘em ever eat nuthin,” Adeline would say, huffing.
Usually after that Cheryl would be humiliated, or at least that’s what I imagined, and she’d leave. She never stuck around the kitchen for long. All of their conversations ran about the same: Adeline didn’t allow Cheryl to interrupt her preparations, so Adeline would do her version of bustling, and she would comment at times, but at other times leave our boss hanging, having said something that seemed to require a response, but getting none from Adeline. I found it amusing that Adeline showed such blatant disinterest in being involved with Cheryl in any way, and yet I felt badly for Cheryl, a former and possibly currently unstable person who needed Adeline’s respect. It might have been the only thing keeping her from doing something drastic, I thought, that job and having the respect of her minimal staff.
When Adeline did speak, she had a low voice that was hard to hear from my side of the kitchen, though her voice was surprisingly not gravelly from decades of smoking. A shelving / counter unit separated us while we served so that we only saw each other’s middles, unless we walked around it. I often didn’t hear what she said when she spoke to me, but I seldom asked her to repeat herself, because I sensed that would annoy her, and also I could be pretty sure she was making a crack about someone. I’d laugh. If she had something work-related to tell me, she’d come over to my side and stand beside me. No one wore scrubs at the hospital at that time; our uniform was white pants, even jeans were fine as long as they were white, and any kind of shirt that would behoove your work as a CNA, nurse, doctor, cook, or dishwasher. Adeline’s pants were polyester with an elastic waist, and they ended about three inches above her sockline. She was portly and double-chinned.
I only wore my hair net over my ponytail instead of my whole head like I was supposed to, but Adeline never said anything. Sometimes on the weekends when our boss was not there, I would wear black tank tops with knots on the shoulders, and pants that were not white – inappropriate attire. Some of the nurses would raise their eyebrows at my “uniform,” but Adeline never said anything about it.
Adeline didn’t have a set schedule, I don’t think, but she usually got one weekend day off. On those days, Jan cooked. Jan seemed in many ways a more diminutive version of Adeline. Her hair was short, red, and wiry, and she had a raspier smoker’s voice than Adeline. Jan’s real name was Ardis, which I always found strange and also old-fashioned and sort of cool. Jan didn’t work that often, and she sometimes worked an evening shift, which meant she and Adeline worked together. Somewhat more jovial than Adeline, Jan was more likely to joke with the nursing assistants when they came up to ask for another helping of chocolate pudding for a resident, or while they ordered a tray for themselves. She wouldn’t extend her conversations with the aides, though. It was a quick comment, a wheezing laugh, and then Jan would turn back to her work.
Jan and Adeline seemed great friends, a united front against the world—represented by a caste system in the microcosm of Wheatland Memorial. We in the kitchen were generally considered the lower class. This never bothered me, because I knew we had the better part of the deal—kitchen staff didn’t work overnight, didn’t have to wipe any asses, and didn’t have the high turnover and skeleton staff the nurses and nursing assistants did. Plus, I knew I wasn’t going to work there forever. But Adeline, especially, seemed always on the defense. She seemed like the kind of person who might holler, if she were prone to hollering, “What, you think you’re better than me?” But of course she’d never raise her voice. Her opinions came out in passive-aggressive side comments to Jan and me, and probably Jenny, the classmate who trained me and worked the afternoons and weekends that I did not.
I began working at Wheatland Memorial my sophomore year. We never called it Wheatland Memorial, though. Everyone who worked there always just said we worked at the hospital—with only one medical facility in our tiny Montana town, there was never any confusion. The dietary aide position was rather coveted, as the dearth of jobs in Harlowton left a teenager with few choices other than baby-sitting or ranch work. Washing dishes seemed much preferable to $16 a day for babysitting, and the prospect of paychecks in the hundreds of dollars was exhilarating.
Adeline and I both worked quietly, often not saying more than a mumbled hello to each other in the early mornings; it was a comfortable silence. I also enjoyed working with the evening cooks, who, with the exception of Jan, were younger and talked more, often to themselves—a change of pace, I suppose. Both shy and naturally quiet, I found things to enjoy about the day and the night crews. With Adeline, I could mull, sulk, smolder, all the things I was best at, and then the night crew came in and forced me to be sociable, which kept me from going too deep and sad inside myself.
The three younger women who worked the night shifts engaged me, asking me about school and my mom, who also worked at the hospital, but in the Activities Department. I don’t know if their ages had anything to do with it, but the cooks at night were mainly in their late twenties and thirties, and they were chatty; they told me about their kids and husbands; they chatted with nurse’s assistants as they served lunch and dinner; they often rounded the island between us and stood side by side with me, discussing what we were going to have for dinner and what dessert I needed to tray up. The dinner cooks liked to serve soup. Cheryl made up a menu, presumably after some sort of state or federal guidelines outlining these things, and I quickly learned that the menus could not be relied upon to tell me what breakfast, lunch, or dinner would require of me. The cooks improvised according to what they had left over, what they had too much of in the pantry, and what they felt like cooking. The night cooks liked to serve soup, and I agreed heartily, as the soup bowls and lids were less cumbersome for the dishwashing machine, and I could wash them all in a couple of loads, versus ten or twelve loads for all the dinner plates with their large top and bottom covers. Soup required less work – ladle, ladle, lid, done. With the soup we’d serve bread (my job to tray up) or crackers (my job). Residents sometimes complained about the “soup kitchen.” Even after that, though, the evening cooks liked to serve soup.
Dinner service always provided the most noise and entertainment. Adeline served breakfast alone, and the evening cook arrived in time to help serve lunch. Dinner belonged to the evening cooks—they thought, quite rightfully, that evenings were more fun because of the relaxed atmosphere and lack of administrative staff. But at the end of the night, the evening cooks were getting ready for Adeline when they cleaned the stove and put away the leftovers and when they reminded me to lock the door and change all the trash bins before I left.
At first Adeline made me nervous with her tense, terse nature. Later, after I realized her sour face didn’t usually mean she was angry, she didn’t make me nervous at all, but I still didn’t strike up conversations with her. Most people didn’t. Adeline seemed formidable to me, and I felt embarrassed for the nurse’s aides when they would attempt to bring out her personality or ask her questions. If the nurse’s aide complained about a coworker, Adeline would do one of two things: turn around and walk away, uninterested, or make a general comment intimating that all of the nursing aides were lazy, though even Adeline didn’t use those direct words.
A lot of the nurse’s aides didn’t care for Adeline because she seemed like such a hard-ass, but I could take her with a grain of salt, because I knew she was on my side. I’d arrive to work generally on time, maybe a few minutes late. Most days I set my alarm for 5:42. I got up, got dressed, put my hair in a ponytail, brushed my teeth, and left. In the winter sometimes I’d get up early to start my plugged-in car, but usually I just showed up late because I had to scrape the windshield. Adeline never noticed the clock when I arrived in the kitchen, and I gave her no reason to, because I got right to work, turning on the dishwasher and spraying the piled up dishes with hot water.
Sometimes, though, I would be much later, half an hour or more, and Adeline would have to call me at my mom’s or at my dad’s and wake me up. This happened only when I’d been drinking heavily, and not often. Here, too, Adeline let me slide. Once she had called me to wake me up and I’d said I’d be right in, she didn’t bring it up again. I drank a lot in the years I worked at Wheatland Memorial, nearly every weekend, but I never called in sick; I thought at the time that this meant I had an admirable work ethic, though I cared little about doing my best or about being punctual.
My drinking had gotten a bit out of hand. Just as I started work at the hospital, my first boyfriend, first love and all that, dumped me. Crushed, I tried to drink myself happy. I often arrived to work on my weekend morning shift still smelling like alcohol, dizzy and thick-headed—still drunk. The times when I did still feel drunk were better, because being drunk, it was easier to come down slowly at work, though not that much. Mostly, I just felt giggly before the hangover set in.
I knew almost nothing of Adeline’s personal life, other than she lived right down the road from my mom. She had some children, grown, and maybe a live-in boyfriend during our time as coworkers. Reticence and teenage narcissism held my tongue, and I never asked about Adeline’s child or children, or what she had planned for her vacation. And I always thought Adeline never knew anything about my life outside the hospital, other than my drinking habits, but she undoubtedly talked to my mom sometimes when I wasn’t there, as my mom worked Monday through Friday in the Activities Department at that time. She must have smelled me, alcohol and smoke. She must have seen the dark, angry hickeys I sported.
Saturdays and Sundays were double shifts for me and for Jenny. So one weekend day I’d work from 6-2 and then come back for the evening shift a couple of hours later. The other weekend day, Jenny would do the same. I usually used the break time for a nap, even if I wasn’t hungover.
I found time for naps at work, too. I’d hurry through the breakfast dishes and be done about 9:30 a.m. I didn’t have to start getting ready for lunch until 10:30, so most days I’d go into the break room and collapse my swimming head on my arms. I’d roller coaster in and out of sleep as other employees came in. Sometimes they tried to talk to me, but the staff got used to seeing me there snoozing. Adeline would come in quietly and smoke, and she never tried to talk to me when I was napping. If I went too long, she’d even poke her head back in and tell me when it was time to start dishing out fruit cocktail or cutting squares into the green jello with the tiny, pointed carrots inside.
For the first summer I worked at Wheatland Memorial, this being after my big broken heart, I lived with my dad, and things did not go smoothly for me. During this time, my mom visited me often at work. I’d moved in with my dad out of spite, but after she’d sent my stuff over and said I wasn’t welcome at her house anymore, I got used to being at my dad’s, and I liked it. And I knew his feelings would be hurt if I left. Mom changed her mind, sure enough, and that’s why she’d visit me at work. During the summer, I sometimes got to pick up extra day shifts washing dishes or setting out the salad bar, so I saw my mom often. She’d come to the side door, and if I didn’t see her, Adeline would awkwardly mention that my mom was there. The side door discussion never changed: Mom tried to cajole me into moving back in with her. She sometimes seemed worried, sometimes angry and bitter, sometimes tearful. These visits left me very drowsy and emotional, and humiliated. I often escaped into the bathroom or the storeroom to cry. Adeline never mentioned my red eyes, and she never needed anything from the storeroom when she knew I’d gone there.
Back then I got used to Adeline; I felt like we had something in common—a detached contempt for our jobs and a quiet fortitude. Though Cheryl would bring up issues with my work, mention that I needed to be more conscientious in my duties, Adeline never brought it up. And I didn’t care how many smoke breaks she took with Jan, and if I could when she was smoking, I got the nurse’s aides the extra butter pats or dished up their meals for them so Adeline could take her time. Our appreciation of each other was understated, but not unstated through our actions.
I didn’t understand what Adeline must have seen, the sad girl under the hickey-contused neck and the red eyes, the whiskey sweat and the naps; now, I can see myself the way Adeline must have. The only other adults in my life, my parents, found themselves unable to provide support or understanding because of their own blinding hurts those years, and there was a lot of upheaval in our family life, but the dish pit with its disposal smell and hard water stains, and the serving line with Adeline, those things didn’t change. It was, without me knowing it, reassuring—a pocket of sameness.
I hadn’t yet learned how to dilute my pain by putting it in words, so even my closest friends didn’t know about the exhausting, distracting visits my mom made to the hospital kitchen, and they never saw the immediate aftermath. They saw its sister emotion in my anger, though, which occasionally manifested itself against them, further distancing me from my best and closest friends when I needed love most. I probably cried more in the kitchen, in front of or around Adeline, than I did anywhere else, except alone in my room. Adeline’s kitchen never changed much, and so those weekends at Wheatland Memorial were calming, sick as I often felt. The job provided lazy discipline in a woozy, confusing time, but also, Adeline made it a protected place for me, even as my mom and I made it a battleground.
I feel sure Adeline liked breakfast best, especially when either Jenny or I were working, because she did get to serve by herself. A full-time dietary aide worked the weekday early shifts. Adeline didn’t seem to care much for her, but then it was sort of hard to tell with Adeline. I assumed if she didn’t like the full-time aide, it was because she talked too much for Adeline’s comfort. I also heard from the nurse’s aides that the morning dishwasher complained that I shut off the dishwasher too soon, leaving her a mound of dishes in the morning. Which I did.
Jenny worked more conscientiously than I did, and I’d bet that the full-time dietary aide never had cause to complain about her. When Jenny worked the evening shift, she arrived early, 16:20, according to the time sheet, and she’d stay until 20:20 or later. I arrived at 16:36 and stayed until 19:30 or 19:40. After dinner, the residents eating in the dining area right off the kitchen would finish fairly quickly; the CNAs fed some of them who needed help, and would set the trays on a table outside my dish window while they looked over what had been eaten and marked it down on their sheet. What usually held me up was the downstairs dishes. While I was waiting I would begin to complete my other side work—sweeping, changing the garbage bags, setting the morning trays with silverware and the residents’ dietary cards. As soon as the downstairs cart returned, I washed those dishes as fast as the nursing assistants scraped them. I didn’t wait for dishes from lingering eaters, or residents or hospital patients who ate in their rooms, or for dishes from employee meals. I half-heartedly mopped and left. Jenny, though, took her time cleaning and washing, whether to stretch out her hours or because it really took her that long, I don’t know. But she worked hard and careful.
Jenny was a model employee. With only two of us covering evenings and weekends, we had no one to call in except each other—Jenny lived nearly twenty miles out of town and didn’t have a phone. So we worked sick, and I at least worked hung over. When I did want Jenny to cover a shift, I’d drive out to her house and ask her, ahead of time. Every time, she said yes. Even when she got pregnant our junior year, she picked up shifts for me. She worked all the way up until her premature delivery, and when that happened I worked nine days in a row to cover for her, lamenting more than once that I was “stressed” by the extra shifts. A couple of the night cooks even worked an evening dish shift to make up the difference.
Adeline seemed nonplussed at Jenny’s pregnancy, just as she was nonreactive to my obvious hangovers and late arrivals. Neither pleased nor pissed, we all went about our duties without fanfare. Adeline seemed fond of Jenny and I; I felt this rather than knew or saw it. Perhaps she saw herself in each of us, green small-town girls. One day Adeline would work with me: insecure, silent, emotionally tortured by my divorced parents, seduced by drink and confusing sex for love. The next day she’d work with Jenny: naïve, quiet, blank-faced, open-mouthed, pregnant by a boy from a neighboring town. It’s comforting to think Adeline may have been proud of us for leaving Harlowton to pursue college. She and the other cooks pitched in to buy Jenny and I each a heavy red dictionary to take on our college journeys.
I never saw Adeline outside of that hospital, though it seems impossible given the paucity of choices for food and recreation in our small town. For me, Adeline was more than associated with Wheatland Memorial, my first job. She didn’t just represent an aspect of my job—Adeline became synonymous with that building, that job. As much as I walked into a building of concrete and metal, I walked into Adeline’s kitchen, into Adeline herself, a place not altogether lovely or sunlit, but a haven nonetheless.
Tanya DeBuff Wallette lives in Billings, Montana with her husband and seven children. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers in Spokane. She currently spends most of her time trying to make sure her children grow into awesome humans. She is an awful cook who keeps trying out of necessity, an earnest gardener who can’t seem to grow much of anything, and a reluctant exerciser who refuses to work out unless the iPod is charged so she can listen to a book. She is working on a memoir and blogs irregularly and usually angrily at alalamamas.blogspot.com.