Crumbs to a Beggar

For nearly a year between college and seminary, I was employed as a live-in companion for a 90-year-old woman.  My job was to cook and serve her meals, see that she took her medication, run errands, and help her with activities of daily living. This was not always easy, for Mrs. L. was in the process of stubbornly living out her days.

Dinner could only be eaten on fine china by candlelight, and only if she were attired in a proper evening gown. Because of a hiatal hernia, she spit up a lot, and her aim was not particularly good, so often she had to go back upstairs to switch gowns in the middle of a meal. All this formality and costume changing caused dinner to go on for an inordinately long time each evening. It would have been much easier on Mrs. L., who was rather feeble, and on me, her caretaker, had she had a simple meal and been done with it, but she was insistent. And her evening meal was merely one example of her stubbornness.

Mrs. L. believed that one must spend at least one hour outdoors each day. In pleasant weather I couldn’t agree more, but Mrs. L. didn’t care about the weather.  She had been outside one hour every day for 90 years.  My objections could not stop her.  When it rained, she donned a raincoat, hat and galoshes, sat in her lawn chair and covered herself with a plastic tablecloth.  When it snowed, she’d send me to shovel a path to her chair and out she’d go, all bundled against the cold.

It has been said that the difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will and the other from a strong won’t.   Mrs. L. was both obstinate and perseverant, and I admired her ability to be both.

Mrs. L. has been gone for many years now. I can’t say I miss her because we were never really friends.  But now and again I remember some bits of wisdom I’d heard her speak to herself; wisdom I received as crumbs to a beggar.  “All sunshine makes the desert,” she’d say as she’d hobble out the door for an hour of sitting in a rain storm. Or “never watch anyone out of sight.”  At 90, it was quite possible that when she said goodbye to someone at the end of a visit, it could be for the last time. So instead of ending a pleasant social call with a sad thought as their car pulled away, she would turn on her heels and head into the house, muttering that phrase under her breath.  “Never watch anyone out of sight.”

There was something else she whispered regularly, too, but I can’t tell you what it was because I never heard it.  All I can tell you is that she’d say it each night on her knees with her head bowed and her hands folded on her bedcovers.  Then she’d climb into bed, calmly close her eyes and go right off to sleep.

I wasn’t there when Mrs. L.’s life finally ended.  I was away at school, getting my life started.  But I will always remember that headstrong old lady whose days were filled with tea parties and visitors, fresh air and faith in God.  A woman who, right to the very end of her life, stubbornly maintained her interest and enthusiasm for living.

Not a bad idea for the rest of us.

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