Today I watched my three-year-old daughter running to my neighbor’s house, her eyes glowing and feet flying. “Momma, I want to see Mrs. Gerber!” she called back to me.
Mrs. Gerber was busy working in her yard, but, as usual, she wasn’t too busy to stop and talk to my daughter. “Hello,” she said. “How are you today?”
Then she took my daughter by the hand and showed her the flowers. Other times she had let her help rake or simply let her lie in the grass and sing songs to the sky.
Mrs. Gerber is eighty years old. Her husband died some time ago, but her children and grandchildren visit her often. She is busy with church work and her garden, but she is never too busy for my child. Every time I see them together I smile, remembering years ago when I, too, was small and how dear my older friends were to me.
I have particularly fond memories of older friends whom we would now call “senior citizens.” These people added a richness and warmth to my life that I will never forget. I still seek out older people—for the unique perspective of life they offer, for the drama-in-real-life stories, the complete acceptance, and the unique personality traits that so endeared my older friends to me when I was very small.
As I watch my children finding the same enrichment from older people that I did, I wonder if many of us might not know what joy we could gain from the Mrs. Greers and Mr. Derants who have so much to give.
Mrs. Greer was an elderly woman who lived in my neighborhood when I was a child. She lived alone, and I loved to visit her. In the evenings after my parents had finished reading the paper, I would gather it up in a neat bundle and take it over to Mrs. Greer. I suppose she read it after I was gone because while I was there, she was too busy answering my questions.
I remember the small white frame house she lived in, with an old apple tree leaning against the side and flowers in the yard. Mrs. Greer had an old black furnace that used to rumble, hiss, and let out blasts of hot air on cold winter evenings as we sat together on her worn sofa talking about my day or hers. She had an antique china closet full of knickknacks and dolls—each with a story of its own. I asked her to repeat the stories over and over again. She made the best taffy in town, and sometimes when my mother wasn’t home, I would go over to her house to have her wash my skinned knees and kiss my forehead.
Mrs. Greer’s hair was pure white, always done up in a neat bob. Sometimes she would let her hair down to comb it when I was there. It was long enough to fall to her waist, and I would imagine what she had looked like in her youth. Her house was always warm, her apples were free for the taking, and her time was always unhurried enough to include me.
Years later, I returned home from college with my latest news for her. I remember the look of approval in her eyes as I introduced Mrs. Greer to my husband-to-be. When, soon after our marriage, I learned that she had passed away, I regretted not being able to share with her my latest news—that I was expecting a baby. I sat in the church at her funeral, surrounded by her family and many of her elderly friends. As they spoke of her, I felt as if I had come to know her even better than they. They spoke of her past life in beautiful generalities, but I longed to tell them of the times we had shared.
Then I realized that our relationship was separate from all the rest. I, as a child, had known her while she was in her last years. I had been entering life; she had been exiting. My memories of her were the uncluttered adorations of a child, as they will always be. She lives on in my mind today. Each time I see someone who looks like her, I feel an outpouring of love and curiosity to find out what treasures that person has to offer.
Mr. Derant was quite different from Mrs. Greer. He was a hermit who lived alone and preferred to remain that way. The whole neighborhood was afraid of him. The bishop asked me to visit him one day to check on his health. Going to his door that windy, cloudy evening took all the courage I could muster.
When he told me about his life, I began to understand why he acted as he did. He was an orphan, his wife had left him, his business partner had double-crossed him, and he felt that God had denied his pleas. But after I had visited him a few times, he began to change. The dusty letters that had been scattered on his table disappeared. He opened his torn curtains, and sometimes he even said “Good morning!” to the grocer. It was a slow unfolding, but I found out that the heart that had lain inside him protected from view for so many years was filled with wisdom from his years of solitude.
After our family moved away, I missed him more than I did any of my schoolmates. When a letter arrived telling of his death and that no one had found him for several days, my whole soul ached. I remember walking to a grove and sitting near a tree trunk. Bending my knees up as I lowered my head, I wondered if it hurt more to die alone. Then I rolled over in the grass and cried.
I was there for a long time. When I sat up and wiped my nose with my shirt-sleeve, the sun broke through the clouds and leaves and warmed me through. I remembered the time one autumn when Mr. Derant and I were sitting alone in his yard, studying the earth and bugs. The fallen brown leaves lay softly on top of each other, mixing with the earth. At that time, Mr. Derant had said: “They’re not really dead, those leaves. They make the earth rich and let new things live. They will go on living in the new growth that unfolds from this earth next spring.”
How right Mr. Derant was. I knew then that Mr. Derant wouldn’t die in my memory; he would go on living in my heart. And like the leaves, he would lie gently on my mind, making my heart capable of greater love for others and providing the basis for a love springing in me like the seedlings in the springtime. From him, I learned that no matter how protected from view it is, each human heart, as an unopened flower, has a grandeur inside waiting to unfold.
So now as I watch my little children running with feet flying and eyes glowing to visit my elderly neighbor, I think once again of the warmth and depth I, too, found in older people. For the seeker, it is there for the taking. And I continue to seek out the elderly, not for what I can do for them, but for what they can teach me about life.