Memory is mysterious. The sight of a certain rounded table edge in a restaurant sends me back to when I followed my parents around our town’s nursing home to hand out holy communion on Sunday afternoons.
It was Christmastime and we were in Switzerland, out waking near the old town centre of Baden down by the riverbank. It was a nice day for waling, the sun was out and it was windless, but it still was December, and after a while walking we were thinking mostly about where to get the next warm beverage. Luckily (though I suppose we were in Switzerland), there was an elevator near the river’s edge that brought us up 300 feet to find a cobblestone courtyard and a café-restaurant just across the way.
Front the moment we stepped inside the double glass doors of the café my memory swept me out of charming Europe and back to the plain prairies of Alberta, specifically our town’s nursing home.
The café was full: it was Saturday morning and in that festive spirit of Christmas when families visit old relatives and go out for coffee and donuts together. Or at least that’s what would happen at home, and seemed to be no different here in Baden. To get space enough to sit, the five of us pulled together two small square tables, each with pale laminate surfaces and rounded off edges of faux wood. Their metal bases clanged together as we shuffled them around. One table tipped slightly and we off rolled the salt shaker, which one of those smooth, bullet-proof types, squat and indestructible. It bounced off the green-and-pink-flecked industrial grade carpet, not spilling much salt.
The café was hot (as seniors love it to be) and I took people’s coats to hang them up. To leave them on our chair back was impossible because the perfectly smoothed chair back gave them nothing to grip; they would have simply slid off onto the floor. Noticing this, I had to wonder if it all comes full circle: that furniture goes from baby-proof, to normal, to made even fashionable, before coming back to the same baby-proof rounded edges and dulled corners as if seniors’ tastes merged back with those of two-year-olds.
Finding the coat rack, I slid the already hung coats to once side to make space for ours. The coat hangers were burnished brass and in the classic two-part construction: hooks separate and held fast around the rail; hangers only attachable to one of these fastened hooks. It’s dependency by design and stops seniors from gathering up coat hangers while no one watches and then running home with them to feather their hall closets. I wondered if these people or the seniors at the nursing home ever resented the fact, or noticed the irony.
We ordered five hot chocolates, with crème on top, and the waitress directed us to a counter in an adjacent room if we fancied something to eat. This used the mode, a classic in nursing homes, of putting all their pastries and sandwiches behind glass and with large price tags. This glass-dome method may be meant to preserve the food past natural expiration and make choosing easier on the far-sighted than having a small print menu. Or it may not, I don’t know. But it was the way it was, both here and in that nursing home, and so I remembered it all.
After sipping down my hot chocolate and nibbling through a tiny cucumber sandwich and powdered donut, I got downright sleepy, tired in a way completely disproportionate to the effort I was exerting and despite the sugar quantities I was ingesting. Almost about to nod off, I realized it was a psychological trick of the room: the lighting throughout the café was dimmed and diffused, no light actually hitting me directly but all of it first bounced off the chalk and yellow wallpaper, the same way a plug-in night-light does. To save myself the embarrassment of public dozing which many octogenarians had done as we gave them communion all those years ago, I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air.
Outside it was the cobblestone again, and the jingle of a old European town centre, and a swiftly flowing river below wending its way past old bridges and stone houses, all utterly different than the prairie scenery and full parking lot I might have expected. I silently hoped that someday, someone from this town and from this café would travel to a rural Alberta nursing home and be reminded of this little corner of Baden.