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Volunteers on hold: Closed doors and memories of bingo at Brook Manor

Back before COVID closed doors around here, nursing home residents played bingo like they meant it. So what if they used bottle-tops for tokens.

“0-68.”

“N-32.”

Down at what used to be called Brook Manor, a litany of calls would roll over the PA system like a Saturday night auction. I happened to possess one of those gamecards with the extra-large print on a long ago Wednesday. I sat beside 25 residents in the facility’s community room where women players, I noticed, outnumbered the men 7 to 1.

One of the few and the proud making up the lesser part of the ratio was popular Mr. Castilaw, hunkered down low at a table in the far corner. He never missed the weekly — sometimes thrice weekly — bingo games. Claims they had astounding medicinal properties, he did.

“I didn’t know what four nickels could do,” the retired laborer told me, referring to the potential (and assured) winnings offered to players. “Someone can be in their room, not stirring, and the word gets around that we’re about to play bingo — ”

Mr. Castilaw leaned in closer, and I leaned in, too, struggling to hear him.

“Let’s just say I’ve seen it raise the dead,” he finished in a whisper, and we shared a laugh.

(Hey, a little nursing home humor never hurt anybody.)

“I-29. G-27. N-45.”

Ah, N-45 did it. The first bingo of the day.

“Didn’t say it loud enough,” a player piped back, and it was true. The majority of their “bingos” were weak. 

But these wizened ones begged for more even before the announcer could say, “Clear your cards.” I hardly had time to introduce myself to the competition, solemn Mary Louise. Mary Louise had anchored her free space with a piece of red plastic that once belonged to a gallon of milk, and her board was filling fast. 

“O-61.”

Up front a Vietnam vet (his cap told the tale) tried to trade cards with a lady at his table. He also made wise cracks, which were ignored by an announcer who did not appear to be easily amused.

“B-25.”

A little round-faced lady at the center table shouted, “I bingo!” Her next-chair neighbor, wearing a necklace and Nikes, didn’t flinch. I wondered what she thought of her teen volunteer’s fingernails, the psychedelic ones helping her move tokens to the correct spaces.

“G-51.”

About that time, a caregiver in navy scrubs wandered through. He worked the crowd like an incumbent at the county fair, patting and smiling all the while. “You’re out of your chair,” he admonished long-haired Barbara. Barbara sat down, then went on to bingo three times before the hour was up.

“O-73. “G-55.” 

Someone asked, “‘G’ as in ‘girl’?”

The answer was yes, and with that the final bingo was declared. We losers cleared our cards, but it was soon obvious that the coming high-stakes round — something called “blackout” — was the real attraction for this crowd. In blackout the goal is to cover your whole game card with tokens, not just a five-space line, and we were warned that the announcer would say the letter/number combos only once.

“So listen up,” she directed from her spot by the piano. Things got quiet, even back in Mr. Castilaw’s corner.

“N-37. O-70.”

Time passed, and we were getting close. I was getting close. Four spaces left. But suddenly, it wasn’t “bingo” we heard, but “blackout.” The lady to my left with the fuchsia bow in her hair took the prize — a crisp dollar bill.

Moments later wheelchairs and walkers created a traffic jam in the hallway. Not everyone was quick to leave, though. Mr. Castilaw pulled me aside and recounted that last round as if it were an NBA final. Listening to the play-by-play, I discovered he wasn’t particularly impressed by the winner’s one-buck prize.

“Last week,” he said with a frustrated shake of his head, “it was two.”

These days volunteer bingo players are wondering if they’ll ever be allowed back inside local nursing homes. Volunteer fingernail painters are on hold, too, just like piano players, bouquet bringers, church groups and Daughter No. 2’s BSU friends at Co-Lin. No guests allowed.

The local obituaries tell us one thing for sure, though. When volunteers get the green light to return, a host of bingo players sadly won’t be there when they do. 

You can contact Kim Henderson at kimhenderson319@gmail or follow her on Twitter at @kimhenderson319.