Sunday, February 12, 2017

Remembering and becoming

When I started out in the work world over thirty-five years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet some very special people who became life-long friends. One of them was Edith, who was already in her mid-50s when I met her. She was the head secretary for the department I worked in at the Public Health Research Institute of the City of New York, and we became friends immediately. She was a friendly and outgoing woman who made everyone she met feel welcome and at home. I would say she was one of the most hospitable people I have ever known. She was a born and bred New Yorker who lived in Manhattan most of her life. She married and raised two children in a spacious apartment in the Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village, a large, post-World War II development of residential apartments on the east side of Manhattan. That apartment is where I visited her many times on my annual trips to New York, and it is where she suffered the stroke that eventually took her life at the age of 91. She had many opportunities to leave Manhattan, to move to the suburbs to be with her daughter and her daughter’s husband, but she chose not to. She remained independent until the day she died. I remember my last visit with her a few months before she passed away; she was waiting for me at the door of her apartment as I got off the elevator, and although she was very unsteady on her feet, she insisted on serving coffee and some pastries. And when I left her apartment a few hours later, she held onto my arm as we walked toward the door. Sometimes, before it got too difficult for her to walk, we would leave her apartment and walk to the nearby diner to have lunch--one of her favorite places because it made veggie burgers that were out of this world. And then we would walk slowly home again. It was always a bittersweet moment to say goodbye, much like when I said goodbye to my mother after one of my annual visits, not knowing if I would see them again, but hoping against hope that I would. Edith was a truly generous soul, who helped a lot of newcomers at work, who helped her children and grandchildren, and who took care of her husband who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s until she could no longer manage his care by herself. My memories of her are very pleasant; she and Virginia, another secretary at the institute and one of Edith’s close friends, both taught me how to make an apple-cranberry pie for the first Thanksgiving I ever prepared food for. It was the first such pie I had ever made; we made it at work during our lunch hour one dreary day in November, and I carried it home with me on the subway that evening. Unfortunately, I dropped the pie onto the subway platform and the glass pie plate shattered, and I ended up having to make the pie again when I got home. But at least I had learned how to do it. In return, I taught her how to use the newest word-processing program on her work computer. She was open to most new developments, was interested in the world around her, and very well-read. She loved to go to Shakespeare in the Park and to the opera and ballet. She and Virginia came to the church when I married for the first time (very young); when I later got divorced, she told me that it was no surprise to her, as she had not had a good feeling about my marriage from day one. She was honest that way, and it was good to hear it. If you asked for advice, you got it. I asked for advice when I needed it, because I knew it would be reasonable and smart.

I thought about Edith recently because I realized in one of those moments when certain insights make themselves known, that I have overtaken her role for some of the younger people I know, some of whom are at least twenty-five years younger than I am. The age difference between me and Edith was much larger, over thirty-five years, but it never bothered me. I hardly thought about it. That was the way I was raised. I had older parents and my relationship with the both of them was very good. They were my parents first, and then my friends. I assume that the younger people I know feel the same about me as I did about Edith; the age difference does not matter. Why should it? We are able to discuss books, music, movies and so many other things that interest us. I like a lot of the current music and literature; they like a lot of the music I grew up with, as well they should since it is really amazing music and an amazing era in which to grow up. We need role models to show us how to grow older. I had them, and I hope that I can be one for the younger people with whom I have become friends.

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