Melissa Musick Nussbaum: Presidents Day in the memory unit, 2016

Weathered U.S. flag

Bigstock/Willrow Hood

The music therapist’s Presidents Day quiz stirs something in the nursing home residents, something they recall, and the answers come pouring forth, like responses to a Bible drill.

I’m sitting with my Aunt Jenne, my mother’s only sister and the last of the six Curry children. She is in a memory unit in Amarillo, Texas, having left her home in Muleshoe to be closer to her daughter. She is delighted to see me. She thinks I am her older sister, and she is full of wonder at how I, a woman well into my 90s (and dead, though it seems rude to mention it), manage to look so good. And all my children still alive.

In Aunt Jenne’s world, they are all still alive.

“Still” is a word she uses often. She sits still, though she doesn’t know it. She still has her husband and her children and her parents, who need her attention and care, as she will tell you. The reality is that her world has stilled, stopped at a time when she was young and strong, as was her husband. Stopped, stilled, before all the losses, the cascade of grief that has swept her out of Muleshoe and into this place, began.

Her husband, Mac, is still with her, “still big and strong,” she says, though I have just missed him. He went to Lubbock on business. Mother Curry is still driving her Buick, still a Methodist, still suffering with her legs and still writing poetry. But she is also out. If I can stay, they will be delighted to see me.

Aunt Jenne asks whether I know how old Mother Curry will be on her next birthday.

I do the math and say, “She’ll be 136 years old.”

She looks at me, smiles sadly -- “never very good with numbers,” her smile seems to say -- and shakes her head. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she tells me.

We go back to wondering at “all these old people” -- “and all in one place.” Some of them, at least, “look familiar.” Trained in courtesy, she smiles at everyone who passes and waves her hand.

She tells me “they have built a new church.” She “never thought that would happen.”

The music therapist walks through the lobby, inviting the residents -- and they are all women -- to join her for “some singing and games.”

“It is Presidents Day,” she announces brightly. The women stare back.

She begins pounding out patriotic tunes on the piano. I sing with her, the two of us warbling “You’re a Grand Old Flag” as my aunt and the others, silent, eat ice cream from paper cups, scooping it out with tremulous wooden spoons.

We make our way through “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and the plucky therapist does her best James-Cagney-as-George-M.-Cohan imitation. I clap to fill the sound of nobody paying attention.

She begins playing the familiar chords of “Hail to the Chief,” while calling out, “When the president walks into the room, they play … what? What do they play?”

A woman bent almost double in her wheelchair looks up, her head held to the side as she peers at us. She raises her hand and calls out in a surprisingly strong voice, “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer.”

I nod and smile at her. Sounds right to me.

The therapist leaves the piano to lead a memory-strengthening exercise. We are going to name the presidents. She uses every trick she knows, beginning with the president from Texas. LBJ is remembered somewhere, but not at Ware Memorial Care Center in Amarillo.

She has better luck when she asks the ladies to name downtown streets -- “Washington, Adams, Polk, Tyler, Jackson, Pierce, Buchanan.” They recall these names, not as presidents, but as the arteries where they shopped and drove and strolled and went to church. These are the roads on which Mac will return from Lubbock, on which Mother Curry will drive home in her Buick. They know these. Still.

There are too many presidents left unnamed, and the therapist is determined. She tells the ladies in a cheerful voice that they are “exercising [their] brains.” She says it with the same determined optimism as the NordicTrack spokespeople on late-night TV who try to sell me rock-hard abs.

There’s one in particular she wants them to get, to say aloud. “Franklin,” she says, giving them the first name and walking from lady to lady. “Franklin?” she asks, looking into their faces and willing a response.

The therapist, still young, still, stands before this semicircle of ancient Baptists and Methodists and Campbellites and calls again, “Franklin.”

Something stirs, something they recall, many of them, most of them, and the answers come pouring forth, almost in unison. Almost like responses to a Bible drill.

“Graham,” they say.

And then they return to their ice cream, severed forever from the body politic but held fast to the body of Christ. Still.