My Southern friend Rhonda told me something that her granddaddy used to say. He said, “Always listen to people. You’ll walk away not only knowing your own story, you’ll know theirs too.”
I love this and have tucked it under my cap as a motto to live by. You can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good listener first.
Today, I laced up my walking shoes and headed out the door for a brisk walk. As winter approaches, the temperature has dropped dramatically here in southwest Florida and the humidity evaporated, making it almost chilly at night. Almost. 66 degrees still feels good to me but others are bundling up in sweaters, jackets and leggings. Today it is in the low 70s with a terrific breeze, perfect for walking without coming home drenched in sweat.
I usually walk around a large block of condominiums here but today I varied my routine and decided to head down a neighborhood street instead. Less than a block from home, I waved to a tiny elderly woman who was outside her garage. She waved back and then called out to me, “Are you taller than me?”
“I think so,” I replied.
“Would you help me get up on this ladder and change the bulb in my garage? I just can’t reach it. It keeps flickering and going off and on.”
I walked up to her garage and surveyed with alarm the rickety, rusty old step ladder she had been trying to climb up. The floor of the garage was littered with empty bottles and vases, blankets, a set of rusty drill bits, a fishing tackle box, and piles of junk.
“Oh, jeepers! Let me help you! I’m Sheryl,” I introduced.
“I’m Renée,” she acknowledged with a charming accent. She was a beautiful woman, makeup done to perfection with sculpted cheekbones, deep set brown eyes, her hair swept back in a headband. Aging skin doesn’t bear makeup application very nicely but hers looked flawless. She pronounced her “r’s” in the back of her throat and I tried to guess where she was from. France? Hungary? Belgium?
I climbed up the ladder which she insisted on holding for me in case I fell. Like she would have been able to break my fall if I slipped! She was 89 years old and all of 80 pounds soaking wet. I unscrewed the existing bulb, put in the new one and we flipped the switch. The bulb did the same thing, flickered on and then went off but the other ceiling light fixture burned brightly.
“I think it’s something in the electrical up there,” I said. “It’s not the bulb.”
“Oh. Well, then, I guess we call the electrician. I had a handy man out here the other day. Do you know what he did? He hung two light fixtures on the wall and checked under the sink for leaks, and do you know how much he charged??” She gazed at me with firm eye contact, challenging me to guess. I just stared back at her and planned my reaction. It was going to be either delight or disgust, depending on her answer.
“$60!!” She neither smiled nor frowned, just held my gaze unflinchingly, waiting for my reaction. I stared back at her, waiting to find out if this was good news or bad. At last, she dropped her gaze and exclaimed, “I will NEVER have another handy man come and fix things around my house again! I will fix things myself!”
I put my hands on my hips, assumed the disgusted look and commiserated with her at the shocking price of handymen these days. (I actually thought $60 was pretty cheap. I was glad I hadn’t reacted sooner.)
Her project for the day was emptying the cupboards in her garage, sorting through all the old empty wine and champagne bottles, ratty blankets, rusty tool bits and jars. (“It’s all good stuff. I should have a garage sale. Some collector will want these!”) She asked me to help her slide the heavy cupboards approximately a foot to the right of where they stood. They were balanced precariously on sawhorses with a sheet of plexiglass under half of them and flimsy boards under the other half. I heaved and shoved and finally got them moved over. Not sure what difference it made but she seemed delighted.
And then she started talking—about her life, her husband, her children, her neighbors. She invited me inside. I made plans to go for a walk later and settled in to listen.
She was born in France, hence the charming accent, had come to the United States as an adult, married, and had three daughters who lived in Manhatten, New Jersey and The Hamptons, respectively. She was a widow. Her husband had passed away in 1984 and she never remarried. (“When you’ve had a good life with someone, why would you want to start over with someone else?”) He died at age 54 of liver failure. He had passed up the chance to have a liver transplant because he wanted to die and be buried near his mother in a Chicago cemetery. (?) I can’t even pretend to understand this logic but it made sense to her. After she had shipped his ashes to Chicago to the family cemetery, she was sitting in her house that evening and heard a constant buzzing noise in her living room. The next day, she called the cemetery and ordered them to move him right next to his mother’s grave immediately. They did and that night the buzzing ceased. You can’t make this stuff up.
Her family was Jewish and they escaped WW II. Her mother had a suitcase of money (all in 24 carot gold) and wouldn’t put any of it in the bank. In those days, when they needed money, they would just cut off a segment of their bracelet to use for currency. They stayed in Casablanca for five years. The Germans were going to take over Morocco on the 9th of November, but the war was over on 11th so they were not technically considered holocaust survivors, (even though they were).They went back to France to find everything was gone and on September 6, 1945, she married her husband, John, and moved to the United States. There were only 250 American soldiers there, and she has photographs of this.
Throughout her home hung pictures of her travels through Europe with her husband, paintings and needlework from Germany and France, and a map dotted with little red location pins from all the places they had been. There were quite a few. One small painting done by an amateur friend was of the French oceanside village where she said Brigitte Bardot was discovered digging for clams. I can’t find anything about that in Wikipedia but that’s the story.
Her father was the French ambassador to Hungary during World War II, a man small in stature but large in airs. Whenever he walked into a room, heads turned to look at him. He possessed striking authority and dashing good looks.
As is so often the case with our elderly folk who can no longer see, smell or clean like they used to, Madame Renée’s home, which was probably gorgeous in its glory days, was now cluttered, dingy, dark, smelled sour with stale, unmoving air and was stuffed to the gills with old furniture. The windows were heavily filmed over with dirt, grime and salt residue from years of neglect. I could tell the home had once been beautifully decorated; handmade silk draperies, sofas upholstered in silk, large Karastan carpets everywhere, and a vast, antique French armoire which dominated the living room…one of them. There were several living rooms. Small scale models of the Eiffel Tower were in every room.
She also had a separate living area with its own bathroom and bedroom that she thought could be rented out to someone who might be willing to help her remain in her home. (“You help me. I help you.”) This living area was probably nice once upon a time too but now it was dark, moldy, musty and cluttered. Her daughters all lived far away and were “too busy” to come help her.
Lest we form many opinions about “children who are too busy,” it’s important to also realize that intelligent, capable, fiercely independent, self-sufficient parents seldom lose these characteristics (or at least the mindset) as they grow older and less able. We never stop being parents, never stop being “in charge.” Children often feel helpless to step in and assist because the aging parent can sometimes be difficult if not impossible to deal with. If we were stubborn when we were younger, we are even more stubborn in our old age. If we were dominant and controlling when we were younger, the dominant controlling “spirit” remains and renders our children helpless to step in when they’re needed. The stubbornness is what made us survive, thrive, and raise our families. It’s hard to let go, acknowledge our weakness and become dependent. Nor do we want to move from our home of many years even as our health deteriorates. Our psychological power holds over our children even as our physical power diminishes. The home with its upkeep is overwhelming, but not as overwhelming as the thought of leaving it.
I’m afraid I might be one of those seniors some day. As a single person, I’ve been strongly self-supporting, self-determining, self-sufficient (or at least I thought so) all of my adult life. I don’t see how that could magically change overnight, but I hope it does because one day I will need someone to take care of me, or determine how I will spend my helpless days. Maybe I should put something in writing now so there’s no question when the day finally arrives. At least I’ve gotten rid of most of my junk so my family won’t have to deal with that should I depart suddenly.
Madame Renée does not celebrate Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas, not because she’s Jewish or not religious (her husband was not Jewish), but because bad things happened during each one of these holidays and when they roll around each year, and she remembers. Several years ago, her nephew was killed. He was a member of the Bangor, Maine police force and served as head of a S.W.A.T. for many years. On Good Friday, after a routine training exercise, the men were back at headquarters cleaning their rifles. One went off and shot him in the ribs between his bulletproof vest flaps. Easter offers no celebration for her anymore.
On Thanksgiving in 1984, her gravely-ill husband had taken to his bed. By December 14th, he was gone. So she does not celebrate those holidays either. She just feels sad. My Minnesota next-door neighbor, Audrey always had specific days she remembered and cried over, too. Every year on the anniversary of when her oldest son was killed in a hunting accident, she stayed home and cried off and on all day, playing sad country songs. The next day, she would get up, shower, get dressed, fix her hair and be back to her usual happy self. Some people seem able to choose to remember grief, yet move on. There are others who have a harder time.
I decided I had stayed long enough for a first visit and began to lead the conversation back out to the garage. She mentioned that her potential renter would not be able to cook in the house or do laundry. I asked how she did her own laundry and she pointed to an ancient washing machine out in the garage. She said it sounded like a freight train whenever it ran so she was sure the neighbors knew whenever she washed clothes. Then she hung the wet clothes up on a single clothes line stringing from a corner of the garage, up over the washing machine and a table full of junk to another hook in the wall.
As we walked out into the driveway where an old classic Mercedes was parked, she informed me about the neighbors. The couple across the street were Norwegian, very nice, kept to themselves, but had a key to her place and looked after her home when she was gone. The neighbors to the left were “too nosy.” The husband had come over and—gasp—set himself right down in her husband’s chair! He apparently had looked around at the things in the house a little too much for her liking and she told him to leave. (“Some people have no manners!”)
Next door to the Norwegians was a brand new three million dollar home. She knew her house was valuable and was hoping to get a very good price for it some day. Sadly, I know what will happen to her home if and when she ever sells it. It will get demolished and another three million dollar home will be built on the lot, which is far more valuable than the house these days.
I kissed her lightly on each side of her face, the European way, told her I would pray for a renter for her and put the word out at church in case there was someone who might be interested. I could never live there because of the sour smell, the inability to cook or do laundry, and the fact that all my time would be spent helping her get her projects done, with little time left for my own. I need to work and earn money. We exchanged phone numbers though, so she can call me if she needs me or just to say hello.
It was a day of listening. At evening time, filled with gratitude, I went to the beach to watch the sun set. I’m thankful that I live here. I’m thankful for the good times and the bad. And I’m thankful that I get to meet interesting people like Madame Renée, a woman who has led a rich and full life, albeit mixed with plenty of sorrow. Today I know my story and I know hers too.