Melva's Expanding Expectations
Maybe the time is right for reevaluating what is important.
It was Melva's big day because it was her granddaughter's wedding, but somehow the dance afterwards boiled down to the fact that she still did her own grocery shopping.
'I saw you come out of the supermarket, pushing a cart full of groceries," Mrs. Barth shouted. Her shrill voice rose above the DJ's spin of "Three Times a Lady" by the Commodores.
Melva wanted to concentrate on the newly-wedded couple's first dance together, but Mrs. Barth, her neighbor from years back at the corner of Cherry Street and Oakwood Avenue, persisted. "You put the groceries in the back seat of the car and then got in and drove away -- all by yourself."
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To show she was listening and understood, Melva nodded, surprised and amused that the incident impressed her so much that she had to describe it to her while the bride and groom were the center of everyone else's attention during the middle of a wedding dance.
"I was so surprised," Mrs. Barth continued. "I didn't know you could drive."
Melva offered another nod. That's all she could do. Yes, she had her hearing aids in her ears, but they were of no use. The music bounced off the beams of the food hall as couples joined the newlyweds on the hardwood floor. All Melva could hear was the noise, even though she was sitting next to Mrs. Barth at a table for six next to the bar.
"Melva still drives – has had an independent living apartment seven years now," Melva's daughter, Jane, sitting on the other side of Mrs. Barth, replied during a bed of relatively soft music from the sound system. "In fact, she drives to church three times a week to work at the food pantry."
"Oh, I didn't know she had a job."
"It's not a job – it's volunteer work," Jane offered tersely, starting to shout above the din.
Melva wanted to add that food programs for those in need were still her passion -- even after retiring as a professor of economics at Kent State and becoming one of Bob Dole's advisors about what would eventually become SNAP. But she decided to skip it because it was too difficult to compete with the DJ and his sound system.
"So, she still drives!" Mrs. Barth exclaimed, glancing back at Melva in disbelief. "I haven't driven since 1998. Amazing ..."
Melva managed a weak smile. Yes, perhaps it was amazing, now that she began to surmise what was probably going through Mrs. Barth's mind. Mrs. Barth's daughter, Sheri, had been her Sunday School teacher back around 1952 -- when Melva was 10 and still trying to walk with a plaster cast on her right leg after a ski accident.
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During church services, Melva depended on Sheri to provide her with the support she needed to walk with the cast. She later found crutches could have provided that support but refused to use them.
So, every Sunday morning, during those awful six weeks in a cast, Melva dreaded joining the Sunday School children because they had to file into the front pews of the sanctuary in front of the congregation. Melva would find herself groping for some support. Tears would start to run down her cheeks, and Sheri would eventually, with reluctance, offer her help.
Wrapping her arm through Melva's, she would walk down the aisle with her. Melva sought the balance she provided but, at the same time, knew she looked childish to others because she needed to walk, like a five-year-old, beside her teacher.
And Melva knew that, as a self-conscious high school student, Sheri dreaded the attention Melva drew to her during those few but telling seconds which punctuated Melva's dependency. Sheri's brown eyes would become cold. She would stop chewing her Double Mint gum, and her lips, generously highlighted with passion pink lipstick, would become rigid.
Melva imagined the fights Sheri perhaps had with her mother at home -- all because of her. After all, what teenager would want to go through this humiliating experience Sunday after Sunday? And what mother wouldn't insist that her daughter make the best of the situation?
Melva could see why Mrs. Barth kept glancing at her periodically as she and Jane chatted during breaks in the music. How could a weak and weepy girl who could not walk unaided down the church aisle (and would not use crutches) drive a car, let alone navigate through life?
Sheri's pout haunted Melva for years, but Melva never saw her again after she graduated from high school. Melva assumed she ended up as a secretary in some office where she still chewed gum and wore passion pink lipstick. Or, maybe she outgrew the gum, kept the lipstick and worked in an Amazon fulfillment center.
The DJ took a quick break, and Melva leaned over to Mrs. Barth, not realizing she didn't have to shout as loud or get as close to her now as she did when the DJ was in full blast.
"Where is Sheri now?" Melva asked cheerfully.
"Oh, she and husband are in Chicago. He's a dentist, and she's a psychotherapist," Mrs. Barth said with pride in her eyes. "They have two children, all grown now."
Melva managed to get out the only word that came to her mind. "Amazing ..."
Looking back at meeting Mrs. Barth again at her granddaughter's wedding dance, Melva is tossing these four questions around in her head about the potential benefits of being part of today's elderhood generation:
Who am I? Maybe it's more important to now become a person of value instead of a person of success.
Where am I headed? That's maybe more important than what I have left behind.
What do I do with my time? Maybe it's more important to intentionally look forward -- in addition to looking back at the past.
What is my focus? Maybe the time is right for gaining new insights and reevaluating what is important.
These four questions are similar to those posed by Richard J. Leider in his book, "The Path of Purposeful Aging."
Melva's takeaway tip from her experience: Decide how to best use each day now that you have reached the relative freedom (time-wise) of elderhood.
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Here’s to elderhood and vulnerability!
Jim Hasse, ABC, GCDF retired, author of “Opening Up” newsletter
“Story-guided Discussion for Finding Peace with Vulnerability”