As a baby boomer, Denise and millions of others are becoming senior citizens. She explores what it means to be over 60 today.
The Gift Of Flowers
It was a cold foggy morning as I walked a couple of houses down the road to wait for the high school bus to pick me up. The golden hairy pug dog I referred to as the lion rushed toward me grunting and growling to protect his driveway property. I was properly rebuffed and stayed my distance. I was lonely. I was the invisible girl too shy to speak even if anyone noticed my presence. Shuddering in the chill misty morning, I noticed an elderly man across the street working in his garden patch. Mr. Long was the only one I knew who had flowers growing even in late January. His mums were huge; the size of a child’s head. Looking down, I stomped my feet to keep warm. I looked down a lot. Shy kids do, you know. That’s when I heard the footsteps. Mr. Long was walking toward me. I froze. Maybe if I keep still he will walk by; after all, I am invisible. But he didn’t walk by me. He stepped up to me and lifted a large white mum to eye level and said he had picked this for me. His elderly eye’s sparkled and the smile wiped at least 30 years from his lined face. I mouthed “thank you” and he left me bewildered with a giant mum as the bus pulled up and concealed his retreat.
I Am Worthy
That was the first time a man gave me a flower. I was a short, flat-chested, pimply-faced freshman in high school, so who knows what made him do it. I spent the whole day thinking of the incident, sniffing the mum, which still had a misty waxy smell from the morning fog. The next day the same thing happened, and the next, and the next. I began looking forward to my daily mums and his friendly smile. He made my day. He made me stronger. He made me think maybe there was something worthy about me that I couldn’t see. That’s why it broke my heart when I learned he passed away that summer. No more early morning foggy rendezvous.
At 13 and 14, young people are only beginning to notice anyone or anything beyond their small circle of family and friends. That’s the year I began noticing neighbors and people with their own stories and struggles. The Longs lived there on the street just two houses from us for longer than we had lived there. It was a strange house, placed far from the street with a large front yard and trees placed in a circle around a grassy raised section. The house was shaped oddly and the front seemed to be in the back. The bathroom had two levels and the kitchen and dining room were really one thin long room.
I found all this out when my mother called my sister and I down from a leisurely Spring Saturday of planned nothing. My mother said our neighbor Mrs. Long needed help with her Spring cleaning because she couldn’t climb the ladder to get things down to wash and she volunteered us. I was livid. Wow. Without even asking if I wanted to spend the day with an elderly lady I was committed. I got THE lecture about helping others and selfishness and so was sent over to help Mrs. Long clean. I would never be the same.
Things We Have In Common
She was a very large but sweet elderly lady. Her size made climbing the ladder to get down her precious keepsakes difficult. So I was up on a ladder when I noticed the well placed framed black and white photo of two children in front of a white house I didn’t recognize. Mrs. Long enjoyed the company and talked on and on about the importance of cleanliness and told stories of each of her precious knick-knacks as she washed each lovingly and had us replace them on the shelves. She told of her ongoing battle with weight and how she had a thyroid condition that made it near impossible for her to lose weight even though she tried every diet known to woman. This struck a chord with me because even as a preteen I was struggling with excess weight. I didn’t want to diet but realized that it was going to be something I would fight all my life too.
What Happened To Them
Later as she served us cake and tea, I asked about the photo. I assumed they were her children who were grown and gone raising families of their own by now. She got a misty look and a sad smile as she gazed at the revered photo. “They were my children,” she said. “Where are they,” I wondered. “They died when the house burned down,” she calmly answered. That statement seemed to suck the air from the room. I had never before met anyone who had suffered such a tragedy. Those are things you hear about on TV or read in books. You don’t usually meet someone who had face real loss like that. I finally managed to ask what happened and she told us the story. She pointed out to the mound of a raised grassy section of lawn and said that was where the house was. Her precious boy and girl, age 4 and 5 were napping upstairs when she went next door to borrow a couple of eggs. She wanted to make a birthday cake while they were asleep so it would be ready when they awoke. She swore she was only gone 5 minutes but the house was engulfed in flames by the time she got back. The fire chief told her later it was an electrical short that caused the fire. There was no one at fault.
The Garage Home
She and Mr. Long couldn’t bring themselves to rebuild the house over the ashes of their children and so they moved into the garage in the back. He slowly, over the years, converted the garage to a home. Sure, the rooms were oddly shaped and the floor was in several levels, but they made it cozy enough. I suddenly realized that the sweet man who brought me flowers noticed me out of his own pain and loss. I had a new respect for them both and didn’t mind when I got volunteered to help again and again.
Acts Of Kindness Give Back
This wasn’t the first time that I learned giving kindness to others almost always returns more to me than I ever gave. I dreamed of them again last night. The Longs have long ago gone to Glory, but their memory lives on in me if no one else. I still see those giant mums, larger than a fist, and smell the waxy freshness in my dreams. I can still see his youthful smile and crinkled eyes through the mist of time. The first man to give me a flower. The first man to treat me like someone worth of chivalry and respect. The first man to teach me the importance of small acts of kindness meaning big things in the life of a kid.