I recently wrote about my old neighborhood in Tarrytown New York and what it was like to grow up there. I often think about all of the interesting elderly people who lived there, most of whom have passed on. Most of them were first-generation Irish immigrants who were hard-working, faithful to the Church, faithful to their spouses, and charitable to their neighbors. I think of Mary, Betty and Harry, Sally and Frank, Rose and Dan, Mike and Philomena and so many others. They did not have top jobs or degrees from the best schools, but they had empathy, kindness, personal ethics and they cared about other people. None of the latter can really be taught in school nor can one get a degree in any of them, at least not a degree that ensures that the recipient will actually be kind or ethical once he or she goes out into the world after college.
Mike passed away recently at the age of 80 after a long battle with cancer. I have kept in touch with his wife Philomena throughout the last ten years because she is the angel who watched out for my mother in her last years--shopped for her, sometimes cleaned her apartment, or carried heavy groceries up the stairs for her if it got to be too much for her. Since I live abroad, it was a godsend to know that she was there for my mother. And when my mother’s daily life got to be too difficult, she called me to let me know that too and that something had to be done. My mother would never have admitted to her children that she needed help or that she couldn’t manage her daily life anymore, she was far too independent for that. Philomena has taken care of a lot of the older people in my old neighborhood. I know that some of them tipped her or gave her what they could afford, but she did not do what she did for the money because she made very little money doing it. She no longer lives in Tarrytown, but I imagine that her new neighbors have gotten to know her in much the same way as I know her--nice, unassuming, kind, helpful and charitable. Her husband Mike, who was a plumber, was much the same way--helpful, always a cheerful hello and a positive word. Both of them always asked about my life and my family’s life; their interest never once struck me as other than genuine and well-intentioned. It was after my mother’s passing that my relationship with Philomena deepened. If she wrote me a letter telling me that she missed my mother, I could write back and tell her the same. It was the way those letters were worded--the tone of them--that told me how much she missed my mother. And when one of the other older women (Mary) that she also looked after passed on, she told me that she missed her too, and I know it prompted her to want to move to be nearer her own children who lived in another state. So she and Mike moved from Tarrytown to Pennsylvania. She would send me Mass cards on the anniversary of my mother’s death, would go back to visit the old neighborhood and visit my parents’ grave when she was back in Tarrytown. She wrote to tell me of all those things. I have saved all of her letters, they mean that much to me. She gave me the gift of an ear to talk about life and death, grief and sorrow, and memories of our earlier life, and so many other things, and I hope that is what I have given her too. This is what I think the world needs more of--the simple gift of true listening--being there for another person in whatever way one can be there for them--in person, talking on the phone, writing letters. It is really the only real gift we can give and in the end the best gift we can give another person.