I saw an old friend today. It wasn’t actually her, but when an elderly woman with short, gray hair, prominent ears and a confident gate walked by, a memory was spurred. Her name was Helen. I say “was” because, although I don’t have knowledge that she is gone, she was in her 80’s when we lived across the street from her 10 years ago. She was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s at the time, but still living on her own. She had bright blue eyes, a brilliant smile, she loved her gone-but-not-forgotten husband and she walked every day. We lived in little bungalows that were built during World War II to house the ship builders in the San Francisco Bay. Our homes were sparsely furnished for different reasons. Ours, because it was our first home together. Hers, because, over a life-time, she learned the the importance of simplicity and kept only with the things she love most or were necessary; a Spanish style painting, a picture taken by her photographer husband, key furniture pieces acquired during her life and occasional trinkets from her world-wide travels.
Helen was my first “adoption”. I grew up with love never being limited to birth certificates, genealogy charts or blood lines. We had strong bonds to our immediate family and love flowed easily. Equally, my mother’s college girlfriend was our Aunt, her children were our cousins and I don’t remember a time when we didn’t call our neighbors Aunt Margie and Uncle Frank. We were far away from home with a little daughter and missing our family. Helen became family. It was easy to be with her. She was happy to see us, even if she couldn’t always remember our names. She was there for my second pregnancy, birth of our son and one of the first people to hold him when we came home.
Helen taught me so much about life. She was aware and honest about the limits of her memory. She exercised her mind and body every day with puzzles, talking about anything she could remember and daily walks around the neighborhood. She was cheery about her lapses, made choices and took action instead of letting circumstances dictate what would happen to her future. One day, she decided it was time to stop driving and we watched in awe as she took on the task of learning to ride the bus. She figured out schedules and drop off points and made her Dr. and other appointments based on the bus routes. I knew after that moment, I wanted to be an old lady like Helen. She knew she had to make concessions in her lifestyle, but they were going to be on her terms.
We moved from the neighborhood after a year or so, but stayed in touch. She had family in the area but they didn’t come for every holiday or occasion. We had her to our house for Mother’s day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. They were beautiful times together. She beamed with joy and appreciation for every moment and she filled a place of longing within us for wise eyes, gentle words and soft, old hands that know just when you need a reassuring pat.
When we moved from California to Arkansas, we continued to send holiday cards and “thinking of you” notes and she always wrote back. The time between letters and cards grew longer and, eventually, a time came when there was no reply. I didn’t have any information that anything had happened to her and, although I could have contacted our old neighbors, something in me decided I didn’t want to know. I wanted to remember her in the way we left her… bright eyed, smiling and walking down the road. There is nothing I can do about what may have happened to her, but I like to think that, whatever it was, it was on her terms.
There are so many people that come into our lives. We are born and become part of a world full of influences that shape who we are. It is our job to choose the pieces of who we want to be, put them in our pocket, let it become part of us, and leave the rest. So far, I know I want my mothers wisdom and kindness, my daughter’s sense of self, my girlfriend’s passion for love and life, my grandfather’s acceptance and fairness, my Auntie’s faith, my uncle’s gentleness and strength, my father’s laughing eyes, and to be an old lady just like Helen.
“Many people will walk in and out of your life, but true friends will leave footprints in your heart.” Eleanor Roosevelt