MIDDLEBURY — In the middle of a calm, somewhat institutional hallway in the Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, a door opens into a magical world.
A cloud of Christmas ornaments and pinecones hangs from the ceiling. Along one wall leans a sculpture of a fireplace, made from thin slices of cedar trunks glued together side by side. Fabrics and birch bark add color and texture to every corner.
Somewhere in the decoration is the room’s primary purpose: a washbasin, dryer and set of implements for cutting hair.
This space is Crystal Jackson’s creation.
Residents at the Middlebury nursing home come to “The Shop,” as Jackson calls the room where she works, to have their hair cut, curled and otherwise “dolled up.”
Jackson, 58, lives in Weybridge with her husband, Reid Peck. Her official job at the Middlebury nursing home is that of beautician. However, she also volunteers to help with special events and general sprucing up.
The shop is known for Jackson’s elaborate seasonal decorations, which give the cubicle a wildly creative twist.
Once, Jackson did up the room as a bridal shop, including a mannequin wearing a dress and a veil, plus “tons and tons of tulle.” For Valentine’s Day, she attached women’s dresses to the wall and accessorized them, giving the impression of a party floating in midair.
The original reason for all the glitz was practical.
“I started out decorating because I wanted people to look up,” Jackson explained.
Some Helen Porter residents have Alzheimer’s or dementia. To help customers keep their heads in the right position for a haircut, and to calm them for the duration of the procedure, Jackson had to make the ceiling interesting to look at.
On a recent afternoon, Cindy Brush went with her mother, Catherine Menard, a Helen Porter resident, to The Shop.
As Jackson rinses and washes Menard’s hair, Brush chats with her mother, noting the decorations: “Look at that pinecone. That’s really nice. Isn’t that cute?”
When shampooing is done, Jackson shows a little fatigue for the first time since the start of the haircut. “Thank you for doing that,” she tells Brush. “You should see when I’m doing the whole one-man show.”
Beauty school did not fully prepare Jackson for doing hair in a nursing home. For instance, hairdressers are trained to curl with plastic rollers. However, the number and impatience of Jackson’s customers make plastic rollers impossibly slow. Instead, she developed her own lightning-quick technique with wire curlers.
Although she might not have expected to end up doing hair at a nursing home, Jackson sees Helen Porter as a place that fits her experiences living with people of a wide range of ages.
“I grew up with grandparents living with us,” she says as she plucks curlers from Menard’s hair. “Then an aunt moved in, then another grandmother. So it was kind of a revolving door in our house.”
Jackson has a grown son of her own, Sky. She took the job at Helen Porter more than 20 years ago in part because the flexible hours allowed her to focus on Sky while he was growing up — “to go to all the sports games. You know.”
Her work at Helen Porter has made Jackson more aware of what her own future might hold. She’s thinking of taking memory tests sometime soon, with her son’s well-being in mind.
“I don’t want Sky to have to deal with it any more than I do,” she says; although she seems young for the test, she intends to mitigate any problems as early as possible.
Helen Porter nursing home administrator Neil Gruber stops into the shop to say hello.
“This is (Crystal’s) world,” he says effusively, “and she transports people into it every day. It’s very special.”
Jackson shrugs off the flattering remark.
“I’ll give you a quarter later,” she quips.
Between cutting hair for around 100 people, helping with Helen Porter events and keeping up appearances around the facility, Jackson’s job keeps her busy.
“If I weren’t visiting with you guys, I’d be chasing after someone else,” she tells Brush when Menard’s time under the dryer is up.
Besides being time-consuming, work at Helen Porter can sometimes be difficult to handle psychologically.
“You’re not supposed to get attached,” Jackson says. “But you do get attached, I don’t care what they say.”
But even when relationships change or end — whether through declining health or death — Jackson says she just has to step up.
“You don’t fret about it, you just do it,” Jackson says confidently. “Well, sometimes you fret once the lights are off.”
Moments of doubt are offset by moments of joy. Hairdressers get to eavesdrop on people’s personal lives, an effect Jackson sees amplified in her clientele.
“It’s like being a bartender without the booze,” she observes. “Once they start (talking), they visit and visit and tell things they haven’t told in years.”
From the lush décor to Jackson’s gregarious manner, the experience of the shop is designed to cultivate that kind of comfort.
When asked if she ever repeats decorating themes, Jackson isn’t totally sure.
“I do them and then forget about them,” she says.
For Jackson, and maybe for everyone involved in the life of the Helen Porter nursing home, memory and permanence are often less of a priority than continuing to keep her space and her clients’ looks and spirits lively and new.
One last odd detail catches a recent visitor’s eye: Above the faux fireplace, a Santa Claus with glued-on antlers surveys the scene. Jackson doesn’t try to justify this particular knickknack. She laughs.
“My son says, ‘You know, mom, you’re just creative enough to be dangerous.’”