The Return of Suzy Sunshine
My first real job at sixteen was as a laundry aide in a nursing home. I can truly say that job was awful. The smell. The heaping mounds of dirty bed sheets long before adult diapers were widely in use. The only time it was fun was when I took my cart full of clean laundry and delivered fresh bedding to patients’ rooms. Blankets, sheets, pillowcases, towels, facecloths, all sanitized, smelling of bleach and laundry soap, now bright white. The patients were so happy to see me.
Then I moved up in the world—literally from the basement laundry room to the first floor—where I now had a cart full of cleaning supplies. Housekeeping. Certainly better than filthy laundry. I remember the routine. Toilets, sinks, then bathroom floors. Dust furniture, dry mop, then wet mop floors in patient rooms. In and out. I left everything sparkling clean. When I’d first gone to work my father admonished me, “If you get paid for an hour’s work and you only do forty-five minutes of work, you are stealing.” I never stole. I took his work ethics seriously. Fifteen-minute coffee breaks. Half-hour lunch breaks. My sister worked as a kitchen aide (a glorified title for a dishwasher) and if we were on shift at the same time during weekends, we’d sneak away together to the basement TV room for our lunch breaks where we would catch Scooby Doo’s antics on the small screen. We weren’t allowed “Scooby Doo” at home because the show involved the supernatural— (You can guess by now that my father was very strict and this was because he was a Jehovah’s Witness, and he was raising us to be the same).
One elderly woman named Eunice loved me. One day she asked me to brush her hair. I’d finished my cleaning and said I would. Her hair was long, straight strands of gray. I felt her bony shoulders as my left hand rested on her back and I lifted the brush with my right. It took me about fifteen minutes to brush it all. She was so happy. Her hair was now like silk. I helped her put it up in a bun.
“Suzy?” she asked.
“Cindy. Not Suzy,” I reminded her.
“Oh, I think you’re a Suzy because you are like sunshine. See? Suzy Sunshine. I’m going to call you that from now on.”
I wanted to correct her again. Cindy, not Suzy (never mind Cynthia.) And so I became Suzy Sunshine. The moniker quickly spread throughout the nursing home. That was it. I was Suzy Sunshine. I took on this persona in everything I thought and said and did. No sad thoughts. Just sunshine. I adored every patient. Cherished every stolen moment with them when I cleaned their rooms. Took extra time to get them crackers or Jell-O from the nurses’ kitchen if I noticed that they weren’t eating their meals.
And then life happened. Ill-suited marriage at seventeen. A terrible miscarriage at five and a half months gestation. Divorce just shy of ten-year anniversary. Living on wine and Lean Cuisine. Aging, handicapped parents. Suzy Sunshine retreated into a dark corner. I forgot about her.
Fast-forward to the ’90s. A new and happy marriage. Three sons turning into adult men—good men. Parents needing more help than ever. Their situation tenuous. Mother suffering from as-yet undiagnosed seizures along with her Type I diabetes. Father growing weaker from post-polio syndrome.
We (my sister and I) got my mother in touch with the local council on aging who quickly set her up with a home health aide from Catholic Charities. Surprisingly, it was a man that was older than my parents, into his eighties (and who was the minister at the nearby Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church) who came twice a week to bathe my father. The council on aging also set my parents up with Meals on Wheels. Meals on Wheels. A lifesaver for my father who now needed oxygen several times a day. A lifesaver for my mother who smoked cigarettes in the kitchen right beside my father’s oxygen tank.
Meals on Wheels. Sunshine.
Fast-forward to 2016 when I was literally on top of the world—a cruise to Alaska for our twenty-fifth anniversary. We helicoptered onto a glacier. From Skagway, we boarded the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway where I discovered from a sign along the way that a distant Brackett relative of mine had engineered and built a toll road for the gold-rushers. I’d also just celebrated twenty-seven years of sobriety (after realizing at age thirty that alcohol and I didn’t mix). And, we’d just had our marriage blessed in the Catholic Church (into which I’d recently been baptized after being introduced first, to Thomas Merton’s poetry, and then after reading his Seven Storey Mountain). I’d just been awarded a prestigious residency in poetry to begin in two weeks. Top of the world.
In Boston we disembarked from the Norwegian Dawn and were spending a few days with family before we planned to head back to Maine. Then, my whole life crashes. My sister, my only sibling, my other half (who’d been suffering for months from acute neuralgia) has ended her life by suicide because the pain was just unbearable. We go through the motions in shock. We are welcomed into my sister’s family (who are supposed to be shunning me because I am no longer a Jehovah’s Witness). Then they turn their backs again and shun me anew. Grieving turns into deep depression. I decide to attend the residency anyway. Two days in, I pick up a glass of wine. My drinking snowballed from there. I stayed in bed for days, weeks. I just wanted to be with my sister Kathy. Drinking begets depression. Depression begets drinking. A hamster’s wheel that keeps going round and round. I have suicidal thoughts of my own. Just to be with her. I attempt it once, fail. I attempt sobriety again at least a half-dozen times. In 2019, I finally climb out of bed for good and embrace a newly-sober life, grateful that God is still there even when I can’t see His work on my behalf.
Newly grateful for life itself. For staying alive. For even knowing Kathy, being on earth at the same time as Kathy. Active. Back into hiking again. Back into cross-stitching again. Fully back into writing again. But something is missing.
That’s it. Giving back is missing. Bringing sunshine into the lives of elderly people is missing. At my age, now sixty-four, and with work demands, I can’t go back to laundry or housekeeping in a nursing home. Maybe I could go and read to nursing home patients, I think. No, because of COVID. Giving back…and then the thought of Meals on Wheels hits me. I could do that. I could honor my parents by doing that. I could give one day a week.
After spending three weeks (one day a week) helping sort, pack, and bag a total of about 2,000 meals in the local Meals on Wheels office, I am amazed by the amount of work that goes into getting meals to approximately 100 clients in three counties. I’m so glad I got to do that work because I got to see the behind-the-scenes muscle that ultimately pays off in handing actual meals to appreciative seniors. To the clients, the face that hands those meals over is the hero. But the real heroes cook, pack, sort, schedule, and bag those meals. I will be just the smiling face.
And Suzy Sunshine returns as my supervisor introduces me as Cindy. I’d signed up and introduced myself as Cynthia, but as is often the case, Cynthia becomes Cindy without the invitation to shorten those three syllables. I’m not okay with “Cindy” in my work or writing life, nor with people I’ve met after approximately 1995, at which point I threw aside my father’s nickname for me (actually “Cindy Windy,” but that’s for another essay) for the more distinguished “Cynthia.” But at Meals on Wheels, I am okay with it. Because Cindy is Suzy.
Suzy Sunshine who, on her very first route, hands over a bag of five meals to a tall, gray-haired, very grateful man whose blue eyes sparkle in the cold February sunshine (sunshine!) as he grasps the package. I smile to myself. People are much happier to answer the door to something they need and want rather than to the arm-twisting and false hope we offered when knocking on their doors as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Since the nursing home jobs, I have been battered and bruised, and have become more realistic. Not everything is sunshine. But battered, bruised people can recover. And give back. It is only in giving back that our original sunshine returns. I like to think that Eunice is looking down, her silken hair now angel-wings.
Cynthia Brackett-Vincent is the lead editor and publisher at Encircle Publications (fiction and poetry), and published the Aurorean poetry journal (1995–2015). A Pushcart Prize nominee in poetry, her co-edited book, Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, was named “One of 100 Best Books for Writers” by Poets & Writers magazine.
Photo Credit: “Halo” by Becky EnVérité, Flickr.com.