The air was brisk for this early in the Fall. My family was in New York for a visit from the Midwest. Grateful for some rare time alone, I volunteered to go pick up some milk and dessert with my maternal grandfather, Ozzie. Despite the fact that his jet-black hair had long gone gray, his blue eyes still had their twinkle and he remained strikingly handsome. “I’ll take that!” My grandfather’s voice almost sounded irritated, as I attempted to grab the heavy bag from the store clerk’s hands. “No, that’s okay Grandpa, really.” As we walked outside, a powerful wind blew against us, making the temperature feel even colder. Again I tried to take the bag, but my grandfather refused. “Meg, I said I have it!” I was frustrated. Didn’t he understand that I could carry the bag myself? After all, he was my grandfather! While I loved him unconditionally, in that moment, his actions burned me inside. To think that because of my sole finger on each hand, that even he believed I was incapable of carrying the load to the car. After we returned, I shared my frustration with my brother Peter. My dad overheard, and turned to me. “Meg, Grandpa knows you can handle things and that you are strong. This has nothing to do with the way you were born. How do you think he thinks it makes him look if someone sees him, a grown man, having an eight-year-old carry a heavy grocery bag for him? He has his pride, too.”
As hard as I tried, my dark curly hair would simply not be contained in the white hair net. With my uniform that consisted of a plain white shirt and black pants, along with the net, I knew I looked hideous. However, I never complained. From my training at the retirement home, I knew that the senior citizens at Clarke Lindsay needed everything extremely sanitary for health reasons. Every morning, each resident would select their meal preferences on a paper menu that was delivered to the Café, where I waitressed. Not the first of my friends to work there, I heard the job was not too difficult: Serve meals with a smile. However, I didn’t think in advance about what was really involved. Balancing several plates and glasses in my hands (and arms) all at once while swiftly moving from table to table was no breeze for me. Despite the physical challenge, I was determined to succeed.
My favorite two residents were Mr. Cook and Mr. Birdall, who always sat together. Before I ever had the chance to flash my pearly whites, Mr. Cook would beam at me as I served his meal. Mr. Cook was in his late eighties, and was extremely bow-legged, causing him to walk somewhat imbalanced. Like my father, Clarence Birdall was a Professor at the University of Illinois. He had taught Political Science in my dad’s department, and still maintained an office there. After my first day at work, I went home and asked my father why Mr. Birdall continued to go to the U of I every day. After all, he was already into his nineties. “Meg, the office gives him a sense of purpose. It allows him to maintain his dignity. It’s important.”
The following day, Mr. Cook ordered Jello with whipped cream, a favorite among the residents. (The alternative was prunes with whipped cream—also a favorite). As I attempted to balance Mr. Cook’s dessert as well as his water in my hands, I mistakenly set the plate down too fast. To my utter dismay, the wobbly Jello slid off his plate and directly onto Mr. Cook’s pants. I was completely mortified, begging his forgiveness for being so clumsy. I can still hear his voice. “Heh, heh. Better you than me!” I reported the accident to our supervisor. “Don’t worry about it,” she told me. “By your causing the spill, he gets to preserve his self-esteem.”
We drove up to the senior citizens’ home in my town, my grandfather’s new residence. I looked over at his wrinkled face. He was now ninety-two, and understandably miserable. My grandmother had just passed two months before, after sixty-seven years of marriage to him. “Here, Meg. This door is a bit heavy.” As I walked in with him, despite his age, I held back, allowing him to open the door for me. “Thanks Grandpa.” His face lit up and his bright blue eyes twinkled at me. By August, he would be gone.
Earlier this Spring, I posted a blog titled, “In an Instant”: How anyone might be just one step away from an unexpected event, where they are changed forever. For most however, change occurs slowly over time. It sneaks up on us. Then one day, we find we’re the objects of someone else’s pity. From the moment I worked at Clarke-Lindsay, I generally felt a special connection to the residents. I finally realized why. They experience what I experience….being judged solely on physical appearance. Insults to their egos, even from those who are well-meaning, occur often. And they are usually powerless to change other peoples’ minds. In truth, whether our physical abilities are limited by birth, accident or age, our need to assert and preserve our dignity never diminishes.
It’s worth remembering, since one day, we’re all likely to share in this experience.