A creative response to a feature newspaper article I wrote.
| “G-70,” the announcer breathed into the microphone and the speakers crackled. “Again, that’s G-seven-zero.”
Sarah Mandis, age 99 that day, sat crumpled in the farthest seat in the right corner of the auditorium near the exit – prime real estate in the bingo community that she laid claim to when the senior center opened 23 years ago. At age 25, I was 40 years younger than any of the salt and pepper heads hunched over bingo cards or of volunteers in red polo shirts trolling the isles.
I had stepped out the exit to interview her daughter, Sarah Summerland, for the background highlights on Mandis, who played softball with her nine siblings as a child, married a teammate who worked in heavy construction, and bore him five children. He died, one of the children died, and all she does is play games and try to escape without her walker – or else maul pedestrians with it in parking lots.
The feature article was about her, so I hoped she could give me more insight. I sat across from her in the smelly yellow lighting and she ignored me while I waited for the game to end. She moved her fuscia dabber over each of the twelve bingo cards in a square before her. I followed it with my eyes, also searching for G-70 to escape boredom. The eleventh board – she missed a G-70, so I waited until she set down the dabber to point at the number. She dabbed G-70. I looked up for the kind-eyed ‘thank you’ of a seventeen-time-grandma, and she ignored me. I stopped paying attention; many elderly people are babied so often that, “I can do it myself” becomes their go-to phrase. The crowd started to murmur and a faint, “Bingo! Bingo!” came from the middle of the room.
I sat up, took a breath, and Sarah Mandis ignored me. “Happy Birthday Mrs. Mandis! How do you feel?” I said. I inhaled. I blinked. I exhaled and cleared my throat. “I only have a few questions.”
Sarah Summerland leaned over and poked her mother. “Ma?” Her voice was stern, “Answer her questions, Ma.”
Mandis crinkled her wrinkled face and forehead. “Eh?”
“Answer her questions!”
The old lady moved only her eyeballs to focus on me. There was anger in her eyes, then a flash of worry and she looked at her daughter in confusion. “Eh?”
I raised my voice significantly, “I’m writing a feature on you for the newspaper, Mrs. Mandis.”
“Answer her questions Ma!”
Sarah Mandis glared at me.
“I only have a couple questions,” I said again. “How do you feel about playing bingo?”
She shook her head. She huffed. “I enjoi-yit” She whined in a way as if I’d asked her the color of a ripe tomato or the shape of the sun. “I just enjoi-yit.”
“Ok, great!” I said. “And how do you feel to be age 99 today?”
She sighed a little and shuffled her bingo cards. Her voice was soft this time, and contemplative. “It’s a more still time, but it suits me well enough.”
I smiled, ‘there’s the grandma I want!’
The speakers crackled and the announcer breathed and the speakers whined and he said, “The next game will now begin…”
‘No!’ I looked at Sarah Mandis in horror; she studied her bingo cards and rearranged her dabber colors and I swear there was a tiny smile near those wrinkled lips at the pure joy of returning to bingo.
“And what has kept you going for so many years?”
She ignored me.
Summerland looked at me and smiled while signing. “I don’t think she has her hearing turned on.” She patted her mother’s hand. “Ma, turn your hearing aid on and talk to this girl – she’s from the senior newspaper.”
Her mother became upset and whined, “I just want to play bingo! Why are all these people talking to me when I’m playing bingo? I’m here to play bingo!”
“Ok – don’t worry!” I talked to both Sarahs at once. “I can come back later.”
Summerland looked relieved. “Really? Good. She doesn’t like to be interrupted during her bingo.”
“Absolutely! I need to talk to the bingo director and take a few pictures.”
She flipped over the bingo program, “There’s three more games and then a ten-minute intermission.”
I picked up my camera, nodded, and stepped over to the wall to find the best angle of this slumped over old woman sitting on a cushioned folding chair at a regular folding table in a room where everything looked yellow and smelly. The story was a special favor for my publisher, so it had to be good. Shiny metallic dabbers belonging to the woman in front of her provided a pretty frame, so I asked the woman to photograph them and dabbed Sarah Mandis with film. She noticed what I was doing, and smiled in her best way for a few frames because of the dabbers. I felt so relieved – she liked my work!
I took 36 pictures without a flash of Sarah Mandis playing bingo – some with her daughter sitting next to her, most without. The bingo director was pleased to speak with me. I called him in advance to ask the best time to arrive between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., and he said, “whatever time you like.” I had liked 12:30, and with one game to go until intermission at two o’clock, I walked out to my car famished for the warm soda that I was all I had brought.
A sign posted on Sarah Mandis’ exit claimed no-reentry for bingo, so I walked around through the building to get back to her. I became bored again watching her dabbing in hopes of creating an ‘N’ shape across a board. I wished silently that I’d picked up a board at the entrance, and right then Sarah Mandis needed to use the restroom and gave her games to her daughter, who had 12 boards also.
“I can do it, if you’d like,” I said, and she handed me the boards. I picked up Sarah Mandis’ fuschia dabber and searched over sixty little boxes in a designated column for “71” before the announcer called “N38” and I searched forty more boxes but I wasn’t fast enough and “063” but the TV read “068” clearly, so which do I mark; both, and how does a 99-year-old keep up with this? Her daughter had said, “the joy is in yelling, Bingo!” and “this is what keeps her going.”
Thankfully, I didn’t win, and neither did Sarah Mandis or Sarah Summerland that game. Mandis sat, slumped, and ignored me.
“So Mrs. Mandis, how do you feel about the Symrna Bay Senior Center as one of the first members to join?”
She pursed her lips and scowled slightly. “I love it. I love it here.”
“Great! And what else do you do besides playing bingo?”
Her forehead crinkled wrinkles. “Wha-at?”
Her daughter leaned over and yelled more loudly than I was comfortable with, “what else do you like to do besides bingo?” Other bingo players from nearby positions were already lingering for interviews.
Mandis continued shaking her head, “I play bingo and I play cards. I just enjoi-yit.” Then she shook her hands across herself. “That’s it – I’m done.”
My mouth gaped a bit as I inhaled and looked down at the four sentences on my notepad. She began organizing her dabbers and cards and carrying bag of other bingo supplies.
“Ok. Thank you very much Mrs. Mandis,” I said aloud to myself and stood.
“Oh don’t mind Sarah,” said a pale brunette to my right. “She’s an ornry old bat.”
I gasped and looked at Sarah Mandis, “heh, heh, heh.”
A hispanic woman smiled at me. “Yeah, but she loves her bingo! We go to all the same bingos every week and she just loves it – you can’t interrupt her while she’s playing though.”
I nodded and interviewed Ellen Rodriquez, then walked over to the pale brunette.
“Oh,” she said softly, and motioned me close for a secret. “Don’t talk to her,” she pointed to Ellen. “She doesn’t know Sarah at all. She’s never even said a word to her and I’d know; we’ve been friends for 23 years, since the center opened.” At home I reread Ellen’s interview and discovered she was right – the woman only eagerly talked about playing with Sarah for four years and her own grandmother who lived to 110 and how much she loves bingo…
“So I heard she doesn’t like to be interrupted during bingo,” I said to gauge the woman’s reaction against the time left in intermission.
“Ohh yes,” she said. “And you can’t ever tell her if she missed a number – she absolutely hates that!”
I nodded slowly in “Ahh,” exhaled through my nose, and continued interviewing Elaine. She reiterated my previous interviews, ‘she loves her bingo!’ Then she pointed to the heavyset woman who’s metallic dabbers I borrowed. “You should talk to her too, SarahLee, she knows her real well.”
Bingo was beginning again! I still needed to interview Katherine, the 92-year-old frail but lively driving buddy of Sarah’s in the brown sweater near the middle isle of tables. I looked wistfully at the brown sweater and the speakers crackled.
I knelt in the same place as when I asked SarahLee for the dabbers and requested a quick interview.
She nodded at the chair across from her, “I’m not like the others – I don’t mind talking while I play bingo.”
I was reluctant, but I sat.
SarahLee owned a restaurant for 45 years, at which Sarah Mandis and her family were frequent eaters. “She hasn’t changed even a bit; she’s a real sweet and good-hearted lady.”
That was the quote I needed – untrue as it seemed to me. I thanked SarahLee and waited on the middle isle for the game to end, then approached Katherine in the cinnamon wool sweater with pink embroidered flowers.
She was easy-going, but old – confused as to why I thought they might drive anywhere other than bingo together. “We care for each other; that’s what’s most important.” Katherine drives her to bingo three times a week because they’re nearly neighbors and attend the same church. She is 93 and grinned grey teeth when she talked about driving. Summerland drives her mother to get a pedicure every four weeks and to the hairstylist every Thursday and usually stops in for bingo at the senior center where her mother has prime real estate.
I drove back to my mother’s house to write a 300-word story for Bay Senior Newspaper about an ornry old bingo player who lives with her daughter. My mother’s a writer, and I’ve found myself enjoying the game show she exercises to in the evenings. I am afraid.